“Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold” – Leo Tolstoy
We generally take the self-congratulatory perspective that an insatiable curiosity drives our species to investigate the unknown and explore the margins of the map. The truth is we just like shiny stuff. Turns out there is an evolutionary reason for this and it has to do with the fact that we have this annoying tendency to get thirsty. A bunch of consumer psychology researchers investigating why we seem to be fascinated with glossy coatings, realized that infants have a distinct preference for licking shinier objects. It seems that we are hardwired to associate reflective surfaces with the presence of water, which is a hot commodity when you spend your days roaming the sun-baked veldt chasing mobile meat you can skewer with your pointy stick, as we did for much of human history. Consequently, we’ve spent a lot of time sailing towards imaginary places with the hope of filling our pockets with sparkling loot, or at least some sort of cash crop we could quickly exchange for glittering hard currency. As Turkish playwright Mehmet Murat Ildan observed, “If there was a little shine of gold on the moon, then mankind would have been to the moon even in the 19th century”. So is it any wonder that while the Spanish were plundering Central and South America, shipping home veritable boatloads of treasure, they still pined to discover the fabled Lost City of Gold, otherwise known as El Dorado, and mounted numerous expeditions throughout the 16th Century in hopes of finding “the mother lode”. Silly Spanish. El Dorado has come down to us through history as a metaphor for any elusive place where wealth could be rapidly acquired (from casinos to California Gold Rush towns), obscuring the fact that the Spanish were not alone in their quest for a mythological city where the streets were paved with gold. At about the same time, French explorers in the New World were scouring Canada, looking for the rumored Kingdom of Saguenay, the El Dorado of the North.
We tend to think of the French as exploring Canada with the goal of turning beavers into cool hats, insulting the local artwork, disparaging the native cuisine, finding somebody to surrender to, and making sure everybody spoke proper French. While these may have been motivations, early French expeditions were distinctly interested in finding the location of an Iroquoian legend about a fabulous northern kingdom, populated by white, blond men hoarding vast quantities of gold, silver, and rubies from incredibly productive mining operations, a place the indigenous natives referred to as “Saguenay”. Breton explorer Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), like every other savvy navigator in Europe was looking to find a western passage to Asia. Instead he found Newfoundland, which while charming, had a decidedly non-Asian flair (although Cartier had never been to Asia, so he was initially pretty sure he had been successful). In 1534, after playing tourist in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, meeting the locals (probably the Mikmaq and St. Lawrence Iroquois), and killing a bunch of the now long extinct Great Auks, Cartier stuck a cross in the ground and claimed all of Canada for the King of France. Except he thought he was claiming a piece of Asia. At any rate, just going around claiming things is downright rude, regardless of your actual geographic location. Cartier’s first expedition set out on April 20, 1534, took 20 days to cross the Atlantic, was exploring the Canadian Maritimes by May 10, 1534, claimed the whole kit and caboodle for France and managed to return home by September 1534. Dude was mighty efficient, and even managed to bring back two natives, Taignoagny and Dom Agaya (somewhat forcibly) with which to amaze his financiers. He managed to secure additional funds, and set out on his second voyage to Canada on May 19, 1535, sailing up the St. Lawrence River to the Iroquoian capital of Stadacona where he met Chief Donnacona, pressing onward to the far more impressive city of Hochelaga (now Montreal), which he reached by October 1535. By the time he returned to Stadacona in November, his little exploratory fleet was frozen in at the mouth of the St. Charles River, thus he was forced to spend the winter. And this is when the tantalizing hints at the existence of the Kingdom of Saguenay were first recorded. Vague references were made in the voyage to Hochelaga, and Cartier was regaled with folklore of the fabulous wealth of Saguenay as he wintered in Stadacona.
The following spring, the captain-pilot embarked once again in quest of treasures, and the two Indians sailed with him. His little flotilla crossed the North Atlantic, and, as it worked westward past Anticosti Island into the St. Lawrence, the homecoming aborigines, claiming to recognize the landmarks, announced that only two days’ journey to the west began the limits of the Kingdom of the Saguenay. In this manner, on Friday, August 13, 1535, the fabulous domain of Saguenay came into the white man’s ken. For a decade this was “to be an ignis fatuus for French explorers”. The Canadian tribe of Indians, kinsmen of the pair who had been to France, made only occasional and fleeting references to Saguenay, and it was not until October that the French learned more about it. Cartier and a few of his companions travelled up the St. Lawrence to Hochelaga, where the characteristics of Saguenay were revealed in a more liberal fashion. Pointing to the gold and silver insignia of the explorers, the Indians–by signs and gestures–made it known that these metals came from the northwest, where bellicose tribes carried on incessant warfare. As if to test his informers, Cartier held a copper object before them, but the natives only pointed south, indicating that no copper was to be found in Saguenay. Leaving Hochelaga, the Frenchmen returned to their anchorage near the Canadian village of Stadacona. During the harsh and tedious winter that followed, the conversation turned occasionally to the mysterious Saguenais? The French were informed that they dwelt in a land wherein lay large supplies of gold and copper? They were a numerous people, they were wealthy and law abiding, and dressed in clothing similar to that worn by the white men. Later this story was enlarged upon by Donnacona, the chief, who told them that there were not only gold, but also rubies and other materials of great value. Not only did the inhabitants dress like Europeans, but their skin was every bit as white (King, 1950, p390-392).
As Cartier made his way down the St. Lawrence to Hochelaga in August 1535, he dutifully recorded the observations of his native guides, pertaining to Saguenay-related landmarks, at this time making no mention of piles of riches, but acknowledging that a “Kingdom of Saguenay” was recognized by the local Iroquois.
The thirteenth day of the said month we departed from the said Bay St. Lawrence, and stood west, and went to fetch a headland toward the south which bears about a quarter southwest of the said St. Lawrence harbor near twenty-five leagues. And by the two savages whom we had taken the first voyage it was told us that this was part of the land to the south, and that this was an island, and that by the south of it was the way to go to Honguedo, where we had taken them the first voyage to Canada; and that at two days’ journey from the said cape and island began the kingdom of Saguenay, on the land toward the north stretching toward the said Canada. Off the said cape about three leagues there is a depth of a hundred fathoms or more, and it is not remembered that so many whales have ever been seen as we saw that day off the said cape (Baxter tans. Cartier Manuscripts, 1906, p134-135).
Throughout the winter of 1535, during the harsh winter in Stadacona (many of Cartier’s men died of scurvy, until the Iroquois taught them how to boil a particular tree bark as a treatment), but this was also when the tantalizing tales of the Kingdom of Saguenay first mentioned in Hochelaga were elaborated upon. Untold wealth and a mysterious race of Caucasians lurking in the far north of Canada, and fortune to rival the mythical Spanish El Dorado were a temptation too hard to resist. Cartier convinced Chief Donnacona to accompany him on his return voyage, intent that the Iroquois leader must relate the story of Saguenay directly to the King of France himself. Sometime between 1537-1538, Chief Donnacona and King Francis I met, and Donnacona described to him the strange Kingdom to the northwest of Iroquois territory. Around this time war had broken out between France and the Holy Roman Empire (and with Spain by extension, since Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was also actually Spanish King Charles I, until he turned it over to his younger brother Ferdinand I). This meant that it was hard for the French to finance any additional large scale expeditions to Canada, but certainly also predisposed them to take an interest in additional sources of funding. Wars are not cheap. And the Spanish seemed to be swimming in their New World gold. By 1538, Francis and Charles had signed a truce, and Frances’ attention turned back to Canada. Cartier’s third voyage to the new world was to be a search for the riches of Saguenay. A certain Portuguese navigator, who had taken up service with King Francis, in a report to the King of Portugal, noted the distinct interest Francis took in Cartier’s search for Saguenay.
‘On two charts belonging to the king, which are well painted and illuminated but not very accurate,’ wrote this man to the King of Portugal, ‘Francis I showed me a river in the land of Cod whither he has sent twice. On this matter he is very intent, and what he wishes to do would make men marvel. Jacques Cartier on his last voyage brought back three Indians, two of whom are dead, but the survivor is chief of three or four towns, according to the king of France; for all I write I heard from his own lips. He told me further that this river which he sent to discover is 800 leagues in length and that up it some distance are two falls. Of the ships he wishes to send thither two will be brigantines which can be taken overland past these falls; for the Indian chief told the king that beyond these falls there is a large city called Saguenay, where there are many gold and silver mines, and abundance of cloves, nutmegs, and pepper. I believe the king of France will decide to send thither a third time, seeing his great desire towards this (Biggar, 1917, p149-150).
King Francis ordered Jacques Cartier to begin preparation for the third voyage specifically asking him to find and explore the Kingdom of Saguenay, stating “in consideration whereof we have decided to send back the said Cartier to the said countries of Canada and Hochelaga, and as far as the land of Saguenay, should he be able to penetrate there”. This really pissed off Charles V and his Spanish buddies, since they had spent a lot of money discovering the Indies. Francis pretty much sneered at this objection and continued to outfit the expedition, even appointing Jean Francois de La Rocque, Sieur de Roberval as lieutenant-general, and Viceroy of Saguenay – basically setting him in charge of its conquest. A series of letter went back and forth between the Holy Roman Empire and Spain expressing concern over the proximity of Canada to Spanish possessions in the New World. They were particularly worried that it would put the French in a position to prey on their ships in the Caribbean, and cast aspersions at the French motivations, doubting there was anything more useful north of Florida than fish.
I have read two or three times the decision of the Councils of State and of the Indies with reference to the fleet which it is said France is sending to the Indies, and after carefully considering their lordships’ deliberations, see nothing to add to them. I am, however, persuaded that the French are thinking neither of the river Plate nor of the Bahama Channel, where it would be no use for them to found colonies and put themselves in a position to prey upon our ships, since this would be breaking the truce between France and Spain, which all men ought reasonably to hope will still continue a few years. To me it seems that their motive is that they think from what they have learned that these provinces [of Canada, Hochelaga, and Saguenay] are rich in gold and silver, and they hope to do as we have done [in Mexico and Peru], but in my judgment they are making a mistake, for with the exception of the fisheries, this whole coast as far as Florida is utterly unproductive. In consequence they will waste their efforts, or at best return with the loss of most of their people and the greater portion of all they have taken from France (Excerpt from memorandum sent to the Cardinal of Seville, June 10, 1541).
Jacques Cartier set out for a third voyage to Canada with an impressive fleet on May 23, 1541, again reaching Stadacona on August 23 (Chief Donnacona had died in France). On June 6, 1543, Roberval set out for the Kingdom of Saguenay with eight boats and seventy men, after having been shown a small amount of what appeared to be diamonds, gold, and pearls that Cartier intended to take with him back to France. And Roberval found exactly nothing there. The upside for the French was that France had just begun the colonization of Canada, but the mythical Kingdom of Saguenay had vanished into the ether. Little important is heard of either Roberval or Cartier after their return to France, subsequent to this failed attempt to find Saguenay, but for some time after, the French tended to refer to illusory wealth as “Canadian Diamonds”. Later scholars have hypothesized that the Iroquois were simply punking the French explorers once they realized how obsessed at finding piles of gold they were, and still others have suggested that the vague references to the Kingdom of Saguenay in Iroquois folklore (there is no extensive tradition, and most of what we know comes from Cartier) are a memory of Iroquois encounters with much earlier Norse settlements (mention a bunch of blonde guys and everybody thinks Vikings). Or did a fabulously wealthy and ancient empire of strange men exist in the northern climes of Canada, remembered only in Iroquoian oral traditions, only to fade into obscurity long before any European set foot on the shores of the New World? All was not lost for the French, as they had firmly established themselves as a colonial power in North America, but they wouldn’t be filling their treasuries with plundered gold from Quebec, which in turn may have ultimately led to the Canadian outlook on life as expressed by Canadian reform leader Preston Manning: “An optimist in Canada is someone who think things could be worse.” One wonders where the next Kingdom of Saguenay will emerge. I hear there’s gold in the Asteroid Belt and that an earth-sized diamond planet was sighted about 900 light years away. NASA needs to start training some Conquistadors.
Baxter, James Phinney, 1831-1921. A Memoir of Jacques Cartier: Sieur De Limoilou, His Voyages to the St. Lawrence, a Bibliography And a Facsimile of the Manuscript of 1534. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1906.
Biggar, H.P. “Charles V and the Discovery of Canada”. Royal Historical Society (Great Britain). Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Ser. 3:11. London: Printed for The Society, 1917.
King, Joseph Edward. “The Glorious Kingdom of Saguenay”. Canadian Historical Review 31:4 (December), 1950.
Leacock, Stephen, 1869-1944. The Mariner of St. Malo: a Chronicle of the Voyages of Jacques Cartier. Toronto: Brook & company, 1914.