The first Europeans to visit the shores of New England were a party of hardy, adventurous Norwegians. According to the Icelandic sagas, in the spring of A. D. 986 Eric the Red emigrated from Iceland to Greenland, and formed a settlement there. In 994 Biarne, the son of Heriulf Bardson, one of the settlers who accompanied Eric, returned to Norway and gave an account of discoveries he had made to the south of Greenland. On his return to Greenland, Leif, the son of Eric, bought Biarne’s ship, and in the year 1000, with a crew of thirty-five men, embarked on a voyage of discovery. After sailing some time to the southwest, they fell in with a country covered with slaty rock and destitute of good qualities, and which, therefore, they called Helluland, or Slateland, corresponding with the present territory of Labrador. They then continued southerly until they found a low, flat coast, with the country immediately back covered with wood, whence they called it Markland, or Woodland, and which is now known as Nova Scotia. From here they sailed south and west until they arrived at a promontory which stretched to the east and north, and sailing round it, turned to the west, and sailing westward passed between an island and the main land and “entered a bay through which flowed a river.” Here they concluded to winter-at the head of Narragansett Bay, in Rhode Island. Having landed, they built a house to winter in, and called the place Leifsbuthir, or Leif’s Booth; but subsequent to this they discovered an abundance of vines, whence they named the country Vinland, or Vineland, which thus became the original name of the territory now included within the limits of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Other discoverers and navigators followed this expedition, attempts at colonization were made, and the country was explored, in some localities, quite a distance back from the coast; but dissensions among themselves and wars with the savages at length put an end to these rude attempts at civilization, and except a few Icelandic sagas, and a runestone found here and there throughout the territory, marking a point of discovery, or perhaps the grave of some unhappy Northman, the history of these explorations is wrapt in oblivion. Even the colonies which had been established in Greenland were at length abandoned, and the site upon which they flourished became, for many years, forgotten. Finally, however, the fifteenth century was ushered in, marking an era of great changes in Europe. It put an end to the darkness of the Middle Ages; it witnessed the revival of learning and science, and the birth of many useful arts, among which not the least was printing. The perfection of the mariner’s compass by Flavio Gioja, the Neapolitan sailor, in the preceding century, having enabled sailors to go out of sight of land with impunity, a thirst for exploring unknown seas was awakened. Long voyages were undertaken and important discoveries made.
It was during this age of mental activity and growing knowledge that this great continent became known to Southern Europe, a discovery accidentally made in a quest of a westerly route to India and China. A little before sunrise on the 3d of August, 1492, the Genoese, Christopher Columbus, set out on a voyage of discovery under the patronage of the Spanish power. A little before midnight, on the 13th of October, he descried a light on the island of San Salvador. From this moment properly dates the complete history of America. From this time forward its progress bears date from a definite period, and is not shrouded in darkness nor the mists of tradition. During the ages which preceded this event no grander country in all respects ever awaited the advance of civilization and enlightenment. With climate and soil diversified between almost the widest extremes; with thousands of miles of ocean shores indented by magnificent harbors to welcome the world’s commerce; with many of the largest rivers of the globe intersecting and draining its territory and forming natural commercial highways; with a system of lakes so grand in proportions as to entitle them to the name of inland seas; with mountains, hills and valleys laden with the richest minerals and almost exhaustless fuel; and with scenery unsurpassed for grandeur, it needed only the coming of the Caucasian to transform a continent of wilderness, inhabited by savages, into the free, enlightened republic which is to-day the wonder and the admiration of the civilized world.
Jacques Cartier was born at St. Malo in 1494, and was commissioned by the same French king, Francis I, and put in command of an expedition to explore the New World. After celebrating impressive religious ceremonies, as was the custom at that period before beginning any important undertaking, on the 20th of April, 1534, Cartier sailed from St. Malo with two vessels and with upwards of two hundred men. He touched first the coast of Newfoundland, and then sailing northward passed through the Strait of Belle Isle, landing on the coast of Labrador, where he took formal possession of the country in the name of his sovereign. Continuing his voyage he followed the coast of Newfoundland, making landings at various points and holding friendly intercourse with the natives; at Gaspe Bay he persuaded a chief to permit his two sons to accompany him on his return to France; here also he planted a cross with the French arms upon it, and thence sailed northeast through the Gulf of St. Lawrence and entered the river of that name north of what is now called Anticosti Island. As he sailed up the broad stream on St. Lawrence day (August 10), he applied to the river the name of the illustrious saint whose memory is perpetuated by that day. Here, unaware that he had discovered the mouth of a noble river, and anxious to avoid the autumnal storms, he turned his prow towards France, and on September 5, 1534, he entered the harbor of St. Malo. The succeeding year, 1535, having, under the command of the king, fitted up a fleet of three vessels and organized a colony, to a large extent composed of the younger members of the French nobility, Cartier again sailed from France, empowered by the authority of the king to occupy and colonize the country he had discovered, and to which he gave the name of New France. Arriving at the mouth of the St. Lawrence in July he sailed up its majestic course to where the St. Charles (to which he gave the name of St. Croix) enters it near the present site of Quebec, and cast anchor on the 14th of September. Here he was entertained by Donnacona, a prominent chieftain, with the utmost hospitality, and through the aid of the two young Indians, who had returned with Cartier, was enabled to indulge in considerable conversation with the royal savage. From this point he made several expeditions, the most important one being up the river to a large Huron Indian town bearing the name of Hochelaga, on the site of the present city of Montreal. To a prominent eminence back of the town Cartier gave the name of Mont Real (Royal Mountain), hence the name of the modern city. This was the most important town of a large Indian population; they possessed the country for a long distance up and down the river from that point, and appeared to be a thrifty, industrious people, living at peace among themselves and with adjoining tribes. Cartier found them kindly disposed toward him, and received numerous substantial evidences of their hospitality and confidence, to the extent of being permitted to take away with him a little Huron girl, a daughter of one of the chiefs, who “lent her to him to take to France.” Though their town was palisaded plainly for the purpose of protection against enemies, he saw before him the open fields covered with ripening corn, attesting alike the industry of the people and the fertility of the soil. His imagination reveled in dreams of conquest and power, as, standing on the lofty hill at the rear of the town, his gaze wandered along the majestic river and the beautiful scenes we have presented, and he listened to the broken story of the Indian king, of the wonders of the strange land to which he had wandered. Over all the delightful scene and his dazzling dreams was thrown the tremulous, softening influence of Indian summer time; the coming winter, with its storms and snows, was an unknown experience to the adventurer.
Returning in October to the point where his vessels were moored, called by the natives Stadacona (now the site of Quebec), Cartier made preparations to spend the winter. The result of this decision brought with it extreme suffering from the rigors of a climate to which the new-comers were wholly unaccustomed, augmented by the affliction of the scurvy, from which disease twenty-five of his men died. The bitter experiences of this winter of 1535-36 on the Isle of Orleans (where they had constructed rude barracks) dimmed the bright hopes of the colonists, and in the spring Cartier, finding one of his vessels unfit for sea, placed his men upon the other two and prepared to return to France. Taking possession of the country with all the formal “pomp and circumstance” of the age, he and his discouraged companions abandoned the idea of colonization, and, on the 9th of May; 1536, sailed for France. The day before his departure Cartier invited Donnacona and eight of his chiefs to partake of a feast on board his ship. The invitation was accepted, and Cartier, imitating the infamy of the Spanish conquerors of the southern part of the continent, treacherously sailed away with them to France as captives, where they all soon died of grief.