June 9, 1534: Jacques Cartier Discovers the St. Lawrence River

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A Brief History

On June 9, 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier became the first European (White) man to discover the mighty St. Lawrence River, the gateway into North America for European explorers.


One of the mightiest rivers in the world, the St. Lawrence River can be described as consisting of all the Great Lakes as well as the Niagara River and the portion we traditionally refer to as the St. Lawrence itself.  Draining over 1 million square kilometers of the United States of America and Canada, the St. Lawrence has a discharge even greater than that of the Mississippi River, which has an area drained 3 times the size of the St. Lawrence drainage, an incredible 16,800 cubic meters of water per second average discharge.

The 1959 completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway system of canals and locks has allowed ocean going traffic to travel to and from the Great Lakes ports of Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo and Toronto among others, making the St. Lawrence one of the most important shipping channels in the world. 

Although other European explorers had reached the Gulf of St. Lawrence before Cartier, it was he who first sailed up the river itself.  The name stems from Cartier naming the gulf and river in honor of the Feast Day of St. Laurent (French for Lawrence) on the day he first ventured from the Gulf of St. Lawrence.   In fact, the Gulf of St. Lawrence is the largest estuary in the world.  Of course, Native Americans had populated the banks and drainage area of the St. Lawrence for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, notably the Iroquoian tribes.  At first used largely by Europeans for establishing trading camps and fishing camps, the modern great cities along the St. Lawrence today include Quebec City, Quebec, Montreal, Quebec, and close to the outlet of Lake Ontario, Kingston, Ontario.  (A favorite destination of the author is the town of Gananaque, Ontario, that bills itself “Gateway to the 1000 Islands.”) The Canadian capital, Ottawa, is just up the Ottawa River from the St. Lawrence.  The portion of the St. Lawrence River shared by the United States (New York State) does not have any large cities, with Watertown, New York (population around 27,000) being the American gateway to the St. Lawrence.  (A Fun fact to share with you: Watertown gets a massive annual snowfall of 114 inches!  By comparison, Buffalo, a notoriously snowy city, gets “only” 89.2 inches of snow per year.)

A notable and remarkable feature of the St. Lawrence River are the Thousand Islands, an incredible area on the upper portion of the river that is strewn with literally over 1000 islands (1864 if you want to count them), including islands on the Canadian side and on the American side.  This area is a fantastic fishing, boating and recreational area, with tourist town Gananoque, Ontario as the base.  In fact, favorite of salad and Reuben eaters everywhere, 1000 Island Dressing, was of course invented at the Thousand Islands.  This area was a main smuggling route during Prohibition, as the many islands made intercepting smuggler’s boats extremely difficult.  The boat tour of the islands is rather entertaining (and the author has actually taken it about 4 times over the years.)  On the Canadian side is the 1000 Islands Tower, another great tourist attraction that gives the visitor a breathtaking view of the River and the Islands.

Although the St. Lawrence is renowned for its Muskellunge fishing, other sports species of considerable size and quantity can also be caught there, including large and small mouth bass, Northern Pike, Walleyes, catfish, perch, sunfish and many others.

Although you usually do not find the St. Lawrence River ranked among the most important rivers in the world (various top 10 type lists), I would say the mighty St. Lawrence deserves consideration for inclusion on those lists.  Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think? Should the St. Lawrence be considered one of the most important rivers in the world?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Lackey, Jennifer.  Jacques Cartier: Exploring the St. Lawrence River (In the Footsteps of Explorers).  Crabtree Pub, 2006.

The featured image in this article, a map by Jon Platek of Jacques Cartier’s first voyage to North America in 1534, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube:


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.