August 23 – Anniversary of Cartier Founding a Town

Posted on August 23, 2014

A lot of early European explorations of the so-called New World were focused on finding a passage to the “East Indies” – a place with silks and spices to sell – or on finding gold and other treasures.

Of course, soon Europeans focused on creating settlements – new towns that would grow to become new cities and countries – in the New World.

That certainly could be a tricky proposition. After all, there were already people living in the New World. These Native Americans had more know-how about the land and the resourcefulness and, in many cases, weapons to defend their rights to that land.

Perhaps that is why Jacques Cartier, a French explorer tasked to found a permanent settlement in the New World, in what is now Canada, chose not to settle too close to Iroquois Indians.

What is recorded about Cartier's encounter with the Iroquois is that he became worried about their “show of joy.” Also, there were an awful lot of Iroquois. Cartier decided to sail upriver to found a town in an emptier spot.

And so it was that, on this date in 1541, the fortified settlement called Charlesbourg-Royal was created. The colonists and cattle aboard Cartier's ship landed after three months at sea, and they began to farm.

Cartier continued to explore, to fulfill another of his assigned tasks, to find the rich kingdom called “Saguenay.” The Kingdom of Saguenay was, according to the Iroquois, a kingdom of blond men, of gold, of furs, of treasure galore. Cartier (and later other French explorers) searched and searched for this kingdom, but they never found it; scholars are not sure if the place was just a legend that the French mistakenly took literally, or if the Iroquois were deliberately lying in order to trick the French.

However, some of Cartier's men were delighted to find diamonds and gold, and soon the ship was full of the precious substances!

When Cartier gave up the search for the Kingdom of Saguenay, he learned that the settlement he had helped to start had fallen on hard times: the Iroquois had attacked and killed about 35 French settlers, and the rest of the settlers sounded pretty miserable. Cartier knew he didn't have enough men to protect the base, so he set sale for France.

Remember, he was convinced that his ship was laden with precious diamonds and gold.

It turned out that, not only had Cartier failed to find the treasure-filled kingdom, but he had also badly misjudged the minerals his men had collected. Instead of being diamonds, the crystals were merely common quartz. Instead of being gold, the sparkling mineral was iron pyrite (also called “fool's gold,” because...yeah). For centuries later the French expression “faux comme les diamants du Canada” referred to this disappointment: “as false as Canadian diamonds.”

This photo shows the difference between pyrite (L) and gold (R).

This diagram shows one difference between
diamonds and quartz; light bent within a
quartz crystal often has rainbow colors.

(Thank goodness for the fine jewelry company of Cartier, the common expression didn't mention Cartier's name in connection with the fake diamonds!)

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