Chasing Down a Myth: An Explorer's Quest to Find the Kingdom of Saguenay

Updated on March 8, 2019
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.

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Sixteenth century French explorers must have thought they were onto something. Legend had it that a kingdom full of blond-haired people with limitless wealth existed along the shores of a river in what is now present-day Quebec, Canada. Most importantly, the native people of the land -- the Iroquoians -- seemingly confirmed the existence of this mysterious – but very rich – kingdom.

They came to the new world, scoured the land, and found nothing to support this tale. Still, the thought of a kingdom in the middle of a vast and mysterious land wasn’t going to die off quickly. For several years after the first rumor of the Kingdom of Saguenay reached the shores of France, the French sailed the Atlantic and ventured into the new world. According to some accounts, this legend was the reason that France colonized Canada.

Some called it the "El Dorado" of North America – a reference to a legendary city of gold that eluded discovery by all those who attempted to find it. In many respects, that may be the best description of this place.

Still, there’s more to this story. Over time, some called it a real place while others believed that it was either a myth or a practical joke. Interestingly, there’s evidence to support each belief. Either way, the Kingdom holds a special place in the colonial history of Canada as well as the rest of North America.

Meeting between Chief Donnacona and Jacques Cartier
Meeting between Chief Donnacona and Jacques Cartier | Source

Jacques Hears a Rumor

To understand the mystery of the kingdom, one must look at the various voyages made by one of France’s great explorers, and the people he contacted along the way. It was with Jacques Cartier – the man who coined the term “Canada” -- that the legend began its grip on the French.

The years between 1534 and 1536 played a crucial role in the history of the so-called kingdom. It was in 1534 when Cartier led an ocean voyage expedition to find a direct route to Asia. He believed he could find it by sailing in a northwesterly direction.

Instead, Cartier’s first expedition found Nova Scotia and the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Along with finding these regions, he made contact with the Iroquoians. It wasn’t cordial; especially after he heard rumors about a grand and wealthy kingdom somewhere deep in the wilderness. The story was so profound that Cartier decided to kidnap two Iroquoians – most likely to prove to the king of France that he reached Asia (which, of course, didn’t happen), and to get more information on the mysterious kingdom.

Some accounts claimed the two Iroquoians he captured were the sons of the tribal chief known as Chief Donnacona. Other accounts merely stated they were two members of that particular tribe (another unverified account claimed that it was the chief and one of his sons). In any case, the men revealed exquisite details about the fabled kingdom along a river. The details were enough to entice Cartier and his financial backers to fund a second voyage.

No accounts exist to confirm that Donnacona was either kidnapped or went willfully. Based on Cartier’s reputation, however, the chief, most likely, became a captive.

Second Voyage

Cartier set off from France in 1535 with the two men, as well as his flotilla. The goal was simple: find the fabled kingdom and claim it for France. Despite Cartier’s penchant for kidnapping indigenous people, the Iroquoians were more than happy to help.

The expedition lasted 14 months. In the process, they gained valuable assistance from none other than Chief Donnacona. The chief led Cartier further down the river and toward a connecting waterway that would eventually become known as Saguenay River in present-day Saguenay Lac-Saint-Jean region. It was here that Donnacona claimed the river in question was on the outskirts of the kingdom.

It’s not certain why Cartier didn’t go further onto the new river and into the supposed kingdom. Most likely, they were running low on supplies and they were in the midst of a severe winter.

The weather hampered the expedition. The St. Lawrence and St. Charles River froze and Cartier’s flotilla had to wait until spring near the Iroquoian capital of Stadacona (now present-day Quebec City) at a place now known as the famed Rock of Quebec before heading home.

The second voyage didn’t fulfill its goal; however, it managed to open more land for France in the new world. In addition, the expedition from the Iroquoian capital led to another village called Hochelaga. This particular village would eventually become the site of present-day Montreal after the French took over the area.

There was another impact; Cartier decided to “invite” Donnacona to France. No accounts exist to confirm that Donnacona was either kidnapped or went willfully. Based on Cartier’s reputation, however, the chief, most likely, became a captive.

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Trouble in France

King Francis I heard the rumors of a mythical kingdom as early as October 1535. Thus, he was more than interested to meet the chief. The chief didn’t disappoint. He elaborated on the Kingdom of Saguenay by telling tales about gold, silver, copper and ruby mines. He added that the blond-haired occupants lived in houses with basements filled with precious golds and furs.

Enthralled, king expressed interest in funding a third voyage. But, a major roadblock prevented an immediate return in 1538. War broke out with the Holy Roman Empire and the country’s treasury went toward the war effort.

On top of that, tragedy struck. Although many reports indicated that Chief Donnacona was treated well, he succumbed to an unknown illness.

Cartier would have to wait years before he could fulfill his quest to find this kingdom.

Third Expedition

By 1541, the war was over, and King Francis renewed the call for a new expedition. Once again, Cartier would lead it; however, his role as overall leader of the expedition was diminished. The search for the Northwest Passage became a footnote; instead, importance was placed on the quest to:

• Find the Kingdom of Saguenay, and

• Establish French settlements in the region.

King Francis designated a chief navigator over Cartier. It was the infamous privateer Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval. Still, Cartier ended up leading much of the expedition. Roberval was to arrive and take over as the first Regent of Canada (officially under the title of Lieutenant General of New France) on a later date. In addition, Cartier founded the first French settlement in Canada for Roberval to govern from.

The third expedition had new obstacles, too. In previous voyages, the Iroquoians were hospitable. For the latest arrival, however, Cartier noticed that they didn’t come out in droves to greet them. Finding this to be a potential problem, he avoided establishing a settlement near the Iroquoian capital.

Another aspect was that the most significant discovery didn’t come from the voyage, itself. Instead, settlers (convicts and colonists) at the settlement of Charlesbourg-Royal (near present-day Cap-Rouge, Quebec) found “diamonds” and “gold” in an area they were cultivating (When examined in France, the diamond and gold the settler found turned out to be quartz crystals and iron pyrites).

Artist depiction of Charlesbourg-Royal, the first settlement of New France (Quebec)
Artist depiction of Charlesbourg-Royal, the first settlement of New France (Quebec) | Source

Things Get Bad

As thing unfolded at the settlement, Cartier was off on his climatic expedition to Saguenay. In the autumn of 1541, he reached Hochelaga, but was hampered by bad weather and dangerous rapids on the rivers he traversed.

He headed back to Charlesbourg-Royal, but soon regretted it. His observation of the Iroquoians proved to be ominous. Scant accounts from sailors on the journey suggested that the natives turned against the French during the winter of 1541-1542. Several written accounts claimed that 35 settlers were killed.

With supplies and man-power seriously compromised, Cartier came to the realization that the search for the fabled kingdom was over. In June 1542, Cartier began his journey home.

Cartier expected smooth sailing; instead, he ran into another obstacle. Near the Newfoundland coast, Cartier’s crew encountered Roberval’s fleet (who happened to be marooning his cousin, Marguerite de La Rocgue, her lover, and a servant on a remote island – in an event that would later be immortalized in literature).

Upon arrival, Roberval sent a party to search for Saguenay. They’d return some time later to report they didn’t find anything.

Roberval was heading for Charlesbourg-Royal to fulfill his royal appointment as well as to search for Saguenay. Upon meeting Cartier, Roberval pleaded for him to return and help with the search.

Nothing was going to convince Cartier to stay. Thus, under the cover of darkness, the disgruntled explorer set sail for home, never to return.

Upon arrival, Roberval sent a party to search for Saguenay. They’d return some time later to report they didn’t find anything.

Roberval’s reign in New France was short-lived. Hostile natives, diminishing supplies and failed attempts to find the fabled kingdom led to the demise of Charlesbourg-Royal. Eventually, Roberval and the surviving settlers abandoned the colony and returned to France.

Lingering Questions

Failure didn’t dissuade others from trying, considering that more explorers came to France in the years that followed. Despite the same results, they managed to start permanent settlements and helped France establish a foothold in the new world.

Eventually, The Kingdom of Saguenay suffered the same fate as the Northwest Passage and El Dorado; establishing colonies were more important than chasing legends.

Still, the Saguenay episodes has many lingering questions such as:

• Did a settlement with “blond-haired” people exist?

• Were the Iroquoians deliberately telling the French about the kingdom as a way to divert them from their villages?

• Was the whole affair created by misinterpretation/poor translation between the French and the Iroquoians?

Oral Traditions of a Possible Real Place

Incredibly, the first question has some truth to it. The accounts of the “blond men” may pertain to an actual settlement that existed approximately 500 years before Cartier’s arrival.

There are remnants of an ancient settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows on the island of Newfoundland. Evidence suggests that it was a Viking colony. This may explain the existence of a kingdom full of blond-haired people located in a remote part of the country.

Even though the settlement is located far from the proposed site of the Kingdom of Saguenay, it’s possible that oral tradition (oral stories passed down from one generation to the next) may have altered the actual facts – and location – of the place. This is not unusual. Stories or accounts tend to change slightly with every telling. In some cases, the story alters after several generations after it started.

The reconstructed settlement at L'Anse-aux-Meadows  , established by the Vikings in Newfoundland.
The reconstructed settlement at L'Anse-aux-Meadows , established by the Vikings in Newfoundland. | Source

A Ruse

On the other hand, did the native people intentionally tell a distorted story? It’s possible; especially when the person telling the tale uses it to distract, misdirect, or fool the listener.

The Iroquoians had reasons to distrust the mysterious French. As mentioned, Cartier had a reputation of taking native people as hostages. Thus, it’s plausible that Chief Donnacona, his sons and the rest of his people devised a plan to prevent the French from taking their land. And, to do so, they appealled to the French explorers’ greed and set them on a direction away from their villages.

However, written accounts counter the notion that the Iroquoians were wary of the French (at least, in the beginning). Some accounts indicated that they were cheerful to help them, and were willing to join their expedition to show them the way. In fact, during the second expedition, the Iroquoians helped the French survive during a brutal winter. Several members of the expedition died of scurvy. Yet, the Iroquoians gave natural remedies to help the remaining members to fend off the condition and survive the winter.

Still, there are accounts that the relationship between the two people eroded – seemingly with every visit.

In addition, other indigenous tribes in the Americas have tricked European explorers into searching for mythical kingdoms. Spanish explorers in the present-day Southwest United States were guided away – and sometimes to their deaths – to areas far from tribal lands.

Can Misinterpretation be a Factor?

Finally, another factor – but no less plausible – is that Cartier and his crew misinterpreted the Iroquoian language. Again, this would not be unusual for the likes of Cartier. After all, he named the place Canada, which was a mistranslated Iroquoian word.

Saguenay Today

Cartier may not have found the fabled kingdom; however, he opened to door for the colonization of Canada. Eventually, permanent settlements would emerge and become major Canadian cities.

Saguenay, however, hasn’t vanished from collective minds of Canadians. A river and region of Quebec bares its name. Citizen within this area have embraced the namesake as a mode to attract tourists.

The Kingdom of Saguenay with its vast wealth is the stuff of legends; the real Saguenay, on the other hand has reaped the real wealth of the region as a viable financial ,agricultural, and tourist destination.

The Saguenay region of Quebic (including the River)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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    © 2019 Dean Traylor

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