Pre-History to 1599
In the beginning, North America and Canada did not exist… at least in the minds of Europeans. They knew of Cathay and of the rich trade possibilities there, but the ocean to the west was a barrier which seemed too vast to cross. When overland trade routes became blocked and the voyage around Africa was found to be long and dangerous, the European nations began to look westward for a shorter journey. Little did they know that they would discover a whole new world complete with its own unique peoples and riches.
This section deals with the discovery and early explorations of Canada and the attempts by both the English and French to settle in and lay claim to the New World. It deals with the first encounters with the Native People and the fragile relationships which developed between the Natives and Europeans, and even among the Europeans themselves. It deals with the development of the fur trade which would effectively change Canada’s history forever.
Note: Clicking following an event opens a New Window containing more detailed information concerning that event. Related stories are linked in sequence.
In Canada, ‘Indians’ are know as ‘Aboriginal People’, ‘Native People’, or ‘People of the First Nations’.
Current archaeological evidence indicates that Natives first arrived in North America 40,000 years BCE (Before the Common Era) by crossing a land bridge which had formed between Asia and Alaska during the latest Ice Age.
— 9000-8000 BCE – Hurons (originally known as the Wendat) settled into Southern Ontario along the Eramosa River (near Guelph). They were concentrated between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. Most of the land was still covered in glaciers and the Wendat hunted caribou to survive.
— 7000 BCE – The west coast of Canada was being settled and various cultures built themselves around the salmon fishing available there. The Nuu’chah’nulth (Nootka) of Vancouver Island began whaling.
— 6000 BCE – Different cultures were built around the buffalo by the Plains Indians. They hunted buffalo by herding migrating buffalo off cliffs. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, near Lethbridge, Alberta, is the most famous hunting grounds and was in use for 5,000 years.
— 5000 BCE – The oldest ceremonial burial site was discovered at L’Anse Amour on the coast of Labrador containing the remains of a 12-year-old boy. He was lying face-down and a slab of rock was laid across his back. Red ochre had been sprinkled on the back of his head and in a circle around the body. Buried with him were a decorative caribou antler pestle, a bone pendant, bird bones, a harpoon head, a bone whistle, and a walrus tusk. It is unknown what standing the boy had in the community to have been buried in such an elaborate and time-consuming manner.
— 2000 BCE – Inuit arrived by small boats long after the land bridge had disappeared and settled in the Arctic regions.
— 800 BCE – The glaciers had receeded and the weather had warmed. The Hurons had became farmers instead of hunters, cultivating corn which will not grow wild.
— 500 BCE-1000 AD – Natives had settled across most of Canada. Hundreds of tribes had developed, each with its own culture, customs, legends, and character. In the northwest were the Athapaskan, Slavey, Dogrib, Tutchone, Tlinget and Guii’Chen. In the Arctic were the Inuit. Along the Pacific coast were the Haida, Salish, Kwakiutl, Nootka, Nis’ga and Gitskan. In the plains were the Blackfoot, Blood, Sarcee and Peigen. In the northern woodlands were the Cree and Chipwyan. Around the Great Lakes were the Annishnaube, Algonquin, Iroquois and Wendat (Huron). Along the Atlantic coast were the Beothuk, Maliseet, Innu, Abenaki and Micmac. All of them, however diverse, had named the 4 corners of their country: Denendeh, Us-Qui, Nunavut and Kanata.
1000 AD (approx.) – The Vikings
— Vikings landed in the New World and attempted conquest over the Natives in Newfoundland and Labrador. Native raids forced them to abandon their attempts to settle.
— The Church of Rome sent Norwegian Paul Knutsson to reclaim Greenland. Records indicate that Knutsson sailed westward into Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay and then south into James Bay. It is believed that Knutsson travelled inland along the Albany River all the way to Lake Nipigon, north of Lake Superior.
— Micmac legends indicate that a ‘White Man’ (believed to be Norwegian Henry Sinclair) landed in present-day Nova Scotia. Sinclair was told of red-haired, green-eyed men with beards (Lief Ericsson?) who had arrived centuries earlier and taught the Micmac how to fish with nets. Navigation records in Venice, Italy, may substantiate this.
— Basque whalers began fishing off the coast of Labrador.
1492 – Christopher Columbus – New World
— Christopher Columbus ‘officially’ discovered North America but mistook it for the Orient. Landing in the Carribean, he mistakenly thought he was in the Indies. This began a new era of exploration for Europe.
— Spain gained control of virtually all of North and South America through the Treaty of Tordesillas.
1497 – John Cabot – Claiming Canada
— May 2 – John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto Montecataluna), along with his sons Sebastian and Sancio, set sail from Bristol, England, aboard the ship Matthew. Unlike the Spanish, who were concentrating their conquests in South and Central America, Cabot sailed west.
— June 24, St. John’s Day – Cabot went ashore, probably on Cape Breton Island, and claimed Terre Nova in the name of King Henry VII.
— John Cabot died. Cabot began his second voyage to Terre Nova, but a severe storm damaged one ship which managed to return to England. Four other ships, including Cabot’s, were lost at sea.
1501 – Slavery
— Approximately 50 natives (probably Beothuk) were forcibly kidnapped, probably from the shores of Labrador, and taken to Lisbon by Alberto Cantino. The natives’ upper bodies were superbly built for hard labour and the Portuguese believed they had found a new source of slaves. However, most had died en route and those who survived and landed in Lisbon died soon afterward from various European diseases. Another ship, captained by Gaspar Gorte Real and carrying 50 more ‘slaves’, was lost at sea.
— England recorded its first shipment of fish from the New World.
— Three natives were presented to King Henry VII as slaves.
1504 (circa) – St. John’s Harbour
— A small fish-processing village was set up at present-day St. John’s, Newfoundland. The harbour and the processing plant were used by all the major European countries who fished the Grand Banks. St. John’s Harbour became a focal point for ships leaving and arriving in the New World.
— Portugal began to levy taxes against all the fish caught in the Grand Banks.
1507 – Terra Nova
— A world map, compiled in Rome, shows the eastern coast of Canada including Hudson Bay. Newfoundland is marked as Terra Nova (New World).
— Sebastian Caboto (son of John Cabot) sailed north from Labrador and is believed to have reached Hudson Bay, which he believed to be the Pacific Ocean. Lack of food and a mutinous crew forced his return to England.
— Slave trader Thomas Aubert of Dieppe may have travelled up the St. Lawrence River as far as present-day Quebec.
1518 – Wild Horses of Sable Island
— Baron de Lery, of Portugal, established a colony on the northern tip of Nova Scotia and another on Sable Island, off the southern tip. Horses and cows were taken to both colonies. The colonies failed soon after, but the horses on Sable Island survived and their descendents still live wild there today.
— Portuguese maps indicate the Gulf of St. Lawrence – 4 years before Jacques Cartier would discover it.
1523 – New France & Acadia
— Giovanni da Verrazzano claimed the New World on behalf of King François I of France and named the land ‘Nova Gallia’ (‘New France’). Verrazzano also named Arcadie (Acadia). He also reported several close ‘run-ins’ with the Spanish who were sailing the northern waters.
— Spanish slave trader Estoban Gomez captured a number of Natives from Nova Scotia and Maine.
1534 – Jacques Cartier’s 1st Voyage – Chief Donnacona
— April 20 – Jacques Cartier’s first voyage to the New World in search of a passage to Cathay (the Orient). He discovered and charted the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He met Iroquoian Chief Donnacona and kidnapped his sons in order to take them back to France as proof of the New World.
— The name ‘Canada’ was born. The name (‘Kanata’) was first used in maps and journals by Jacques Cartier.
1535 – Jacques Cartier’s 2nd Voyage – Stadacona & Hochelaga
— May – Jacques Cartier returned to the New World with Dom Agaya and Taignoagny, the sons of Chief Donnacona whom Cartier had kidnapped in 1534. With Dom Agaya and Taignoagny as guides, Cartier sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and discovered the St. Lawrence River, which would ultimately be Cartier’s most significant discovery. He also discovered the Iroquoian villages of Stadacona (present-day Quebec) and Hochelaga (present-day Montreal)
1535-1536 – Jacques Cartier – Winter & Scurvy
— Cartier was stranded in Canada over the winter and discovered a cure for scurvy. In May 1536, Cartier returned to France after having once again kidnapped Dom Agaya and Taignoagny, along with their father, Chief Donnacona.
— Canada’s first tourists arrived in Newfoundland. Thirty gentlemen, under the charge of Richard Hore of London, soon ran out of food and were forced to resort to cannibalism. After a French fishing boat rescued them, the ship was captured and the crew abandoned to an unknown fate. Hore returned to England.
1540 or 1541
— Iroquoian Chief Donnacona died of undisclosed caused and was buried in France.
1541 – Jacques Cartier’s 3rd Voyage – First Settlement in Canada
— Cartier’s third voyage in which he founded Charlesbourg-Royal at the mouth of the Cap Rouge River, the first attempted settlement in Canada.
1542 – Jacques Cartier – Failure, Retirement & Suspension
— Iroquoians, enraged over the death of Chief Donnacona, kept Charlesbourg-Royal under seige throughout the Winter. Cartier abandoned Charlesbourg-Royal and returned to France with ‘gold’.
— The first New France had collapsed completely. French exploration in the New World was abandoned temporarily.
— The Basque founded Tadoussac at the mouth of the Saguenay River. Tadoussac had long been a trading centre, but the Basques ‘winterized’ it and built a trading post and fish processing plant.
— September 1 – Jacques Cartier died in St. Malo. He was 66.
— The first oil spill in Canada occured in the Strait of Belle Isle, Labrador, when a Basque galleon sank with 189,000 litres (50,000 gallons) of oil aboard.
— Samuel de Champlain was born in Brouage, France.
1576 – Martin Frobisher – Northwest Passage
— Martin Frobisher of England made the first of three attempts to find a Northwest Passage over the top of North America. He discovered the Inuit (previously named ‘Eskimos’ by early explorers) who he mistook for Asians.
1577 – Martin Frobisher – Meta Incognita
— Frobisher’s second voyage. The Arctic was claimed for England and named ‘Meta Incognita’ (‘Of Limits Unknown’).
1578 – Martin Frobisher – Gold Fever
— Frobisher’s third voyage. Frobisher was to settle Meta Incognita and begin mining the gold. The first English attempt to settle Canada failed dismally when the ‘gold’ turned out to be iron pyrite.
— Troilus de Mesgouez, Marquis de la Roche, was appointed Viceroy of New France and was given the authority to colonize it. (see 1598)
— Aristocrat Humphrey Gilbert was granted a patent by Queen Elizabeth I to settle the New World. (see 1583)
1582 – Ten Lost Days
— England adopted the Gregorian Calendar. As a result, October 4 was followed by October 15. Ten entire days in 1582 simply did not exist.
1583 – Sir Humphrey Gilbert – First English Settlement
— Humphrey Gilbert settled at St. John’s Harbour, Newfoundland and proclaimed himself Lord Paramount. His self-serving actions lead to the early downfall of the first English settlement Canada. (see 1578)
— Gilbert set sail to the south, but the ship carrying the maps and charts ran aground. Not able to continue, Gilbert turned back but his ship sank during a storm near the Azores. Gilbert was lost. (see also 1578 and 1583)
— Marquis de la Roche de Mesgouez was appointed Lieutenant General of New France by King Henri IV.
— March – De la Roche settled on Sable Island with 60 colonists, mostly prisoners escaping prison terms and death. Only 12 people survived the first winter and the settlement was abandoned the next year. De la Roche forfeited his title.
1599 – Marie de l’Incarnation
— François Grave du Pont (a.k.a. Pontgrave) and Pierre Chauvin de Tonnetuit were appointed Lieutenant General of New France.
— Marie Guyard (Marie de l’Incarnation) was born in Tours, France. Widowed at age 32 with a 13-year-old son, Claude, Marie placed Claude in the care of her sister and took the veil, taking the name Marie de l’Incarnation. (see 1639)