Early Montreal History Series: I – Jacques Cartier & Montreal’s name

When I first went to my local library, I was surprised to find so little information on this neighbourhood.  Out of all my library computer searches, and no matter how I worded it (Centre-Sud, Sainte-Marie, St-Eusèbe, etc.), only one non-fiction historical neighbourhood book came up and that was a pamphlet of a dozen pages or so that discussed the area and how it was impacted by the building of the Jacques-Cartier bridge.  I did find, however, one book on the urban and architectural development of Montreal (Montréal en Évolution) which did have one or two mentions of Sainte-Marie.  I am sure there are many books on the history of Montreal but this one stuck out of the crowd as there are some learnings on how Montreal was formed, including its neighbourhoods.


As I mentioned in a past blog, I have heard through word of mouth that Montreal was once called Ville-Marie (the current name of my borough) and that Native Canadians called the village on this island Hochelaga (the current name of the area adjacent to where I live).  However, what had a strong impact on the creation of Montreal neighbourhoods were the parishes themselves .  Communities were built around them as they are today but in earlier times, the Catholic church had a much stronger influence on the neighbourhood itself (this subject will be discussed in a later blog as part of this Early Montreal History series).  It was time for me to dig a little deeper and this book offered a wealth of information and a glimpse at the roots that made Montreal what it is today.  Anyhow, I realized it was time to study the bigger picture and the history of Montreal itself to see how our villages were developed.


“Modern towns which have arisen little by little can only be understood by the study of their history…”  Steen Eiler Rasmussen (as printed in Montréal en Évolution)


Jacques Cartier and the roots of Montreal’s name

Nearly 400 years before they would build a bridge that would be named after him, Jacques Cartier was the first French explorer to come to North America in search for the passage to the East.  His voyages took him to Hochelaga on the current island of Montreal.  It was Jacques Cartier himself that was the first to name the mountain (or “hill” if you are from the Rockies) on this island “Mont Royal” (Mount Royal) and it is from there that it is highly guessed that the name Montroyal/Montréal came from.  Quebecers are known to speak quickly so one could assume this would be a natural progression.  Heck, I say Quebecers but even in English we pronounce it Mun-tree-all and not Mont-re-al and go down the river, and down Lake Ontario, you will find English Canadians who proclaim they live in the city of Torrono.  At least when it comes to a name which is one of the focus of this blog, we learn here the origin of the names Hochelaga and Montreal

Jacques Cartier meets Native Canadians (unknown painter and location)

So why was Montreal chosen by Jacques Cartier as his stop?  Nature, in this case, would decide the faith of this island as the Lachine rapids made it impossible, at that point, to go explore any further.  We learn in time that this has a direct impact on the location of Ville-Marie where Old Montreal is now located (and unbeknownst to Cartier and other early explorers who were searching for Asia), explorers quickly see how the island is a central point to numerous river routes and great lakes.


Jean-Claude Marsan writes in Montréal en Évolution:

 « Ils est intéressant de constater que ce saut (les actuels rapides de Lachine), qui lui (Jacques Cartier) enlevait tout espoir d’atteindre (son rêve de) l’Asie, devait par la suite contribuer a la prospérité de Montréal) » 



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