The closing quarter of the fifteenth century in Europe has usually been regarded by historians as marking the end of the Middle Ages. The era of feudal chaos had drawn to a close and states were being welded together under the leadership of strong dynasties. With this consolidation came the desire for expansion, for acquiring new lands, and for opening up new channels of influence. Spain, Portugal, and England were first in the field of active exploration, searching for stores of precious metals and for new routes to the coasts of Ormuz and of India. In this quest for a short route to the half-fabulous empires of Asia they had literally stumbled upon a new continent which they had made haste to exploit. France, meanwhile, was dissipating her energies on Spanish and Italian battlefields. It was not until the peace of Cambrai in 1529 ended the struggle with Spain that France gave any attention to the work of gaining some foothold in the New World. By that time Spain had become firmly entrenched in the lands which border the Caribbean Sea; her galleons were already bearing home their rich cargoes of silver bullion. Portugal, England, and even Holland had already turned with zeal to the exploration of new lands in the East and the West: French fishermen, it is true, were lengthening their voyages to the west; every year now the rugged old Norman and Breton seaports were sending their fleets of small vessels to gather the harvests of the sea. But official France took no active interest in the regions toward which they went. Five years after the peace of Cambrai the Breton port of St. Malo became the starting point of the first French voyageur to the St. Lawrence. Francis I had been persuaded to turn his thoughts from gaming and gallantries to the trading prospects of his kingdom, with the result that in 1534 Jacques Cartier was able to set out on his first voyage of discovery. Cartier is described in the records of the time as a corsair - which means that he had made a business of roving the seas to despoil the enemies of France. St. Malo, his birthplace and home, on the coast of Brittany, faces the English Channel somewhat south of Jersey, the nearest of the Channel Islands. The town is set on high ground which projects out into the sea, forming an almost landlocked harbor where ships may ride at ease during the most tumultuous gales. It had long been a notable nursery of hardy fishermen and adventurous navigators, men who had pressed their way to all the coasts of Europe and beyond.

Cartier was one of these hardy sailors. His fathers before him had been mariners, and he had himself learned the way of the great waters while yet a mere youth. Before his expedition of 1534 Jacques Cartier had probably made a voyage to Brazil and had in all probability more than once visited the Newfoundland fishing-banks. Although, when he sailed from St. Malo to become the pathfinder of a new Bourbon imperialism, he was forty-three years of age and in the prime of his days, we know very little of his youth and early manhood. It is enough that he had attained the rank of a master-pilot and that, from his skill in seamanship, he was considered the most dependable man in all the kingdom to serve his august sovereign in this important enterprise.

Cartier shipped his crew at St. Malo, and on the 20th of April, 1534, headed his two small ships across the great Atlantic. His company numbered only threescore souls in all. Favored by steady winds his vessels made good progress, and within three weeks he sighted the shores of Newfoundland where he put into one of the many small harbors to rest and refit his ships. Then, turning northward, the expedition passed through the straits of Belle Isle and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Coasting along the northern shore of the Gulf for a short distance, Cartier headed his ships due southward, keeping close to the western shore of the great island almost its whole length; he then struck across the lower Gulf and, moving northward once more, reached the Baie des Chaleurs on the 6th July. Here the boats were sent ashore and the French were able to do a little trading with the Indians. About a week later, Cartier went northward once more and soon sought shelter from a violent gulf storm by anchoring in Gaspe Bay. On the headland there he planted a great wooden cross with the arms of France, the first symbol of Bourbon dominion in the New Land, and the same symbol that successive explorers, chanting the Vexilla Regis, were in time to set aloft from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico. It was the augury of the white man's coming.

Crossing next to the southerly shore of Anticosti the voyageurs almost circled the island until the constant and adverse winds which Cartier met in the gradually narrowing channel forced him to defer indefinitely his hope of finding a western passage, and he therefore headed his ships back to Belle Isle. It was now mid-August, and the season of autumnal storms was drawing near. Cartier had come to explore, to search for a westward route to the Indies, to look for precious metals, not to establish a colony. He accordingly decided to set sail for home and, with favoring winds, was able to reach St. Malo in the early days of September.