Jacques Cartier was born in 1491 in Saint-Malo, the port on the north-west coast of Brittany. Cartier, who was a respectable mariner, improved his social status in 1520 by marrying Mary Catherine des Granches, member of a leading family. His good name in Saint-Malo is recognized by its frequent appearance in baptismal registers as godfather or witness.
In 1534, two years after the Duchy of Brittany was formally united with France in the Edict of Union, Cartier was introduced to King Francis I by Jean Le Veneur, bishop of Saint-Malo and abbot of Mont Saint-Michel, at the Manoir de Brion. The king had previously invited (although not formally commissioned) the Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano to explore the eastern coast of North America on behalf of France in 1524. Le Veneur cited voyages to Newfoundland and Brazil as proof of Cartier's ability to "lead ships to the discovery of new lands in the New World".
On April 20, 1534, Cartier set sail under a commission from the king, hoping to discover a western passage to the wealthy markets of Asia. In the words of the commission, he was to "discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found".
It took him twenty days to sail across the ocean. Starting on May 10 of that year, he explored parts of Newfoundland, areas that now comprise the Canadian Atlantic provinces and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. During one stop at Îles aux Oiseaux (Islands of the Birds, now the Rochers-aux-Oiseaux federal bird sanctuary, northeast of Brion Island in the Magdalen Islands), his crew slaughtered around 1000 birds, most of them great auks (now extinct). Cartier's first two encounters with aboriginal peoples in Canada on the north side of Chaleur Bay, most likely the Mi'kmaq, were brief; some trading occurred.
His third encounter took place on the shores of Gaspé Bay with a party of St. Lawrence Iroquoians, where on July 24, he planted a cross to claim the land for France. The 10-meter cross bearing the words "Long Live the King of France" took possession of the territory in the name of the king. The change in mood was a clear indication that the Iroquoians understood Cartier's actions. Here he kidnapped the two sons of their captain. Cartier wrote that they later told him this region where they were captured (Gaspé) was called by them Honguedo. The natives' captain at last agreed that they could be taken, under the condition that they return with European goods to trade.