ON JULY 24th, 1534, CARTIER ENCOUNTERED IROQUOIANS for the first time. At Point Penouille on the Gaspé coast, he met chief Donnaconna and a large group of fishermen. As they did every summer, these Iroquoians from Stadaconné had travelled there to amass a stock of sea mammals and fish. Cartier convinced Donnaconna's two sons, Domagaya and Taignoagny, to go to France with him. He wanted them to act as interpreters. The following year, he took them back as far as the "province of Canada", the Stadaconné region. Dreaming of finding a western passage to Cathay, he travelled upstream to Hochelaga, which he visited on October 3rd. He was astonished by the town's size and complexity.
During his river journeys, he saw many villages and campsites. From Cap Tourmente to the Montreal archipelago, he saw the strong presence of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, more than 10,000 people living by growing corn and fishing, rounded out by hunting.
When it was Champlain's turn to travel up the great river, in 1608, approximately seventy years later, these Iroquoians had all disappeared of the St. Lawrence shores without leaving a trace of their villages.
Archaeology and ethnology have reconstructed parts of their history.
They were part of the larger family of Iroquoians, such as the League of Five Nations, the peoples of Huronia and of the Great Lakes. Vestiges of their villages have been found throughout the Saint Lawrence Valley, from the Thousand Islands to Tadoussac. They occupied the shores of the St. Lawrence for 500 years, from the 1000s to the 1600s. Quebecers have not yet reached such a length of occupancy.
Gardeners, fishers and occasionally hunters, they traded tools and goods with their neighbours in the boreal forests, the ancestors of the Crees, the Algonquins, the Atikamekws and the Innus.
Their villages incorporated longhouses where families lived in matrilineal-linked groups. The women took charge of households, grew corn and made pottery vases. As among all the Iroquoians, women seemed to hold the determining power. The men prepared the fields for farming, hunted, fished and traded.
They practised elaborate funeral rites to ensure the survival of the souls of the dead. Their ceremonial or pleasurable objects, such as pipes, were adorned with a bestiary and symbols evocative of rich belief and values systems. Cartier first described the important role of shamans and the animistic divinities that explained the ordering of the world.
They elaborated a set of practices that governed their relations with the seasons, animals and diseases. Their garments were adapted to the change of seasons. They had highly-organised hunting and fishing techniques. They used potions to ward off scurvy, medicinal teas and many kinds of cataplasms.
This people was well adapted to the St. Lawrence Valley. Their world was shaken by the arrival of the Europeans and the colonial upheaval it would bring about. It is plausible that their disappearance was caused by clashes with neighbours for control over their territory, which had become an essential route for the circulation of goods for trade with the new arrivals.