Lost Kingdom of Saguenay: Did 16th Century Canadian Indians hoax Frenchmen with Tales of Gold and Riches?
According to legends, the Kingdom of Saguenay is a lost city supposedly ruled by blonde men rich with gold and jewels. No one knows if native Canadians in 1534 and 1535 hoaxed greedy Frenchmen and later a French king with their tales of gold, ruby and silver mines to the northwest of present-day Montreal. Whether prevarications or lost legends of visiting Vikings, the stories of fantastic riches were part of the reason France claimed Canada for itself.
Jacques Cartier arrived in Newfoundland, thinking it was Asia, in May 1534. He explored the Canadian maritime area, claimed it all for France and captured two natives and took them back with him to France, reports EsoterX. Sponsors financed a second voyage in 1535, and Cartier and crew made their way, via the St. Lawrence River, from the Iroquoian capital of Stadacona to Hochelaga, which is now called Montreal.
EsoterX quotes the Joseph Edward King article “The Glorious Kingdom of Saguenay” in the Canadian Historical Review of December 1950:
The following spring , the captain-pilot embarked once again in quest of treasures, and the two Indians sailed with him. His little flotilla crossed the North Atlantic, and, as it worked westward past Anticosti Island into the St. Lawrence, the homecoming aborigines, claiming to recognize the landmarks, announced that only two days’ journey to the west began the limits of the Kingdom of the Saguenay. In this manner, on Friday, August 13, 1535, the fabulous domain of Saguenay came into the white man’s ken. For a decade this was “to be an ignis fatuus” for French explorers. The Canadian tribe of Indians, kinsmen of the pair who had been to France, made only occasional and fleeting references to Saguenay, and it was not until October that the French learned more about it.
The Saguenay Fjord in Quebec (Photo by Ajor933/Wikimedia Commons)
Cartier returned to Stadacona in October but was iced in and so had to spend the winter with the indigenous people. King wrote that over the course of the winter the Europeans and natives occasionally discussed the Saguenay kingdom. The Indians told Cartier and his French crew that the Sanguenais’ lands had large amounts of gold, copper, rubies and other valuable resources. They said the people were numerous, law-abiding, dressed like the white men and had white skin.
Cartier’s second voyage (Map by John Platek/Wikimedia Commons)
During that harsh winter, many of Cartier’s crew died of scurvy. The natives taught them to boil the bark of a tree to cure it, saving some of the Frenchmen.
Cartier survived and urged Chief Donnacona of the Iroquois to accompany him to France to tell the French king the story of the rich Kingdom of Saguenay. Donnacona went to France and met with Francis I sometime in 1537 or 1538, EsoterX states. Apparently, Francis’ interest was piqued, but war with the Holy Roman Empire drained France’s treasury, delaying Cartier’s return to Canada.
Donnacona, though he was treated well, died in France, which is a footnote in history but which his people probably considered tragic. It is claimed that Cartier had kidnapped Donnacona to take him to France, though we don’t have access to primary sources. EsoterX says Cartier had earlier forced the two natives to return with him to France, so Cartier, if he did kidnap Donnacona, had already established a modus operandi.
Crystalline gold in the Museum of Natural History in London (Aram Dulyan/Wikimedia Commons)
The war in Europe ended, and in 1541 Francis ordered another Cartier expedition to Canada to find the Kingdom of Saguenay. Later Francis appointed another Frenchmen, Jean Francois de la Rocque, as regent of Canada. The regent arrived in 1543 and met with Cartier, who showed him diamonds, gold and pearls purportedly from Sanguenay. Roberval left for the region to the northwest said to be the rich Saguenay kingdom and “found exactly nothing there,” EsoterX says.
Scholars have theorized variously that the Indians were tricking the gold-obsessed French, or the Indians actually believed in the rich kingdom after their ancestors met in previous centuries with Norse explorers or Vikings and passed down stories. Another theory is that there actually was a rich kingdom to the northwest at one time.
Greedy Spanish conquistadors, too, longed for a lost kingdom of gold, El Dorado, which various Spanish expeditions also searched South America for in futility.
Featured image: Postcard of butter sculpture tableau of the meeting of Jacques Cartier and Donnacona (Wikimedia Commons)
By Mark Miller