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Article Published Nov 5, 1999

Did You Know That Florida Was Once Part Of Canada?
By Xenia Stanford

I like to shock people with this revelation. Perhaps I have said it too many times for it to be still a surprise. However, the misunderstanding of the old boundaries has caused much puzzlement to genealogists looking for their ancestors in North America. "Why, how and when did they move and become American or Canadian?" many ask without realizing that in some cases the ancestors became another nationality by the relocation of borders and not by their own movement.

The topic of the changing political geography and its impact on records has been a popular request from readers of this column and from the audience of my recent talks on North American French genealogy in Milton, Ontario at the Global Genealogy Fair and at the Alberta Family Histories Society's Wild Rose Seminar in Calgary, Alberta. Therefore, this and the next few columns will be devoted to the changing boundaries of North America and how it affected our French ancestors.


Since Marco Polo's travels to the Far East in the 13th century, many explorers sought an ocean shortcut to the treasure troves of the Orient. Although the Italians, British, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Dutch all competed to find the fastest route to reach the East, in the early days all but the Portuguese employed the more experienced Italian seamen.

One of these Italians was Columbus, born in Genoa. Believing the most expedient route could be found by sailing west, he proposed this to the King of Portugal. He was turned down because the Portuguese had already discovered an ocean route around Africa. Sticking to his theory Columbus moved to Spain. There he received support and funding from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. Though credited with "discovering America" the only lands he truly toured were the islands of the West Indies. Exploring Puerto Rico is the closest he came to discovering the Americas. Although he believed he had found the Asian continent, the land on which he planted the Spanish flag at the time he made this statement was Cuba.

Another Italian Amerigo Vespucci (Americus Vespucius in Latin) also sailing under the Spanish flag said he made a voyage in 1497-1498 during which he was the first to find the North American continent. This has recently been disputed because there is no evidence he made any such voyage and he first made this claim in 1502, some five years after John Cabot had returned from the Canadian and New England coastline.

However, Vespucci's maps do show he explored the northern part of South America in 1499 and German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, who translated Vespucci's maps and logs, in 1507 named the southern continent America after this explorer. The name also spread to include the North and Central America after Waldseemüller published his map of 1516. Certainly Vespucci was the first to announce these lands were a separate continent or landmass distinct from Asia. At this time however, maps show it as one long thin entity from Greenland to the then known regions of South America.


John Cabot, also an Italian, studied Columbus's maps and proposed to the British monarch that he could find a faster route to Cathay by sailing more directly west past Greenland. Leaving England in May 1497, he landed June 24 on a piece of land now believed to have been Cape Breton. Subsequently he explored and mapped Labrador, Newfoundland and an area down the coast of New England.

Although there is no evidence anyone discovered this "Terra Nova" or Newfoundland before him, generally Cabot is given credit for "rediscovery". Genealogists would not take so little evidence as Vespucci's unproven claims. However, history credits the discovery to Columbus and Vespucci. Otherwise perhaps the continents would be known today as Cabotia or John's Lands rather than the Americas.


Others continued to sail during this period laying claim to various territories in the names of the kings of England, Spain and Portugal. The first known explorer on behalf of the French was Giovanni de Verrazano, another Italian sailor. He gained fame as a pirate in the French navy by exploiting the ships of Spain and returning to France with their treasures. King Francis I commissioned him to use these talents in finding new land for France and to beat the rest in discovering the best route to China.

Verrazano made two voyages. On the first in 1524 he explored from about North Carolina to the coast of Nova Scotia and was the first known European to enter the New York Harbour. On the second voyage he explored down the coast to South America and was killed in Brazil. Of course he claimed all this land for France at the same time his countrymen were planting the flags of their employers over the rest of the Americas. Often the same lands were claimed at the same time by different explorers on behalf of various crowns of Europe.

King Francis was not going to lose out in this race to plant flags all over these new lands and thus turned to a native born Frenchman, Jacques Cartier, to lead the next expedition on behalf of France. Cartier left St. Malo in April 1534 and within 20 days sighted Newfoundland. He is the first known European to penetrate inland beyond the coastline. He traveled the Strait of Belle Isle between Newfoundland, rounded the Gulf of St. Lawrence and mapped Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and the Gaspé Peninsula on his first voyage.


Traveling inward along the St. Lawrence, Cartier found the lands belonging to the Iroquois Chief Donnacona with its centre at Stadacona, now Quebec City. Cartier progressed further inland to the native village of Hochelaga (where Montreal now sits). Climbing the hill, which he named Mont Réal (Mount Royal), he could see the Ottawa River and Lachine Rapids. He returned to Stadacona to winter among the Chief and his tribe hearing of other places as far inland as Ottawa. In the spring he left for France after persuading a couple of the Chief's sons to voyage with him.

Cartier returned, as promised, the following year to return the young braves to their homeland. As the ships approached the land they recognized as belonging to their father, the sons became excited at nearing "kanata" (by which they probably meant "home" or "our land" or as some historians interpret it "village" or "settlement"). They directed Cartier back to their village along the "road to Canada". From that time on Cartier referred to the village as Canada and the surrounding lands belonging to Donnacona as the Province of Canada.

Cartier also called the river leading to Donnacona's village and lands "la rivière de Canada". This name continued to be used until at least 1604, as that is how Champlain first refers to it. Cartier had named a bay north of Ile d'Anticosti "St-Laurent" and in 1613 Champlain used this term to apply to the river as well.

Cartier completed his description and drawing of the lands he discovered in 1545. The first map produced thereafter was the Harleian in about 1547. This is the first world map to show Cartier's discoveries. The area north of the St. Lawrence is shown as Canada Pro, short for Canada Provence (Province). By the time of Zaltery's map of 1566 the continent was shown as three prime areas or provinces: Nova Franza was given to the area more inward west and north of the Appalachians; Canada Pro applied to all the area east of the mountains; and the south part of the continent along the west coast was labelled Ovivira Pro.


I have enjoyed many lively debates via email and on discussion groups over when the name Canada originated and to what lands it applied. Some only recognize it as the name after Confederation in 1867 though most realize it was used after the British conquest of 1759. However, maps show the name as extant from the time of Cartier, though the area over which it applied did diminish over time.

Most disagreed with me that the area known later as Acadia was included under the name Canada before the Atlantic Provinces joined Confederation. However the evidence is clearly there on the map by Zaltery. Canada Pro is in larger and bolder font as the broader name for the area east of the mountains all the way from the Labrador coast to down into Golfo Mexicano including the area shown as Larcadia. (L'Arcadia was named after an idyllic mythical land of plenty.)


If we view Zaltery's map, we see along the coast of what he labelled Canada Pro an area called La Florida above Golfo Mexicano. In 1562 another French corsair (pirate) Jean Ribault convinced French Catherine de Medici, regent for her son Charles IX, that Florida would make an excellent base from which he could rob the Spanish galleons and establish a colony for France. Ribault staked a claim at Charlesfort and left two-dozen volunteers to lay the groundwork while he returned to France to recruit settlers.

Upon his return to France, Ribault found the enmity between the Huguenots and the Catholics had erupted into full-fledged civil war. This delayed his plan for a speedy return. Meanwhile those left at Charlesfort ran out of food and resorted to eating anything and everything they could, including one of their own men, before being rescued by a British ship.

When two years later settlers were finally able to leave France during a lull in the battle, three shiploads of Huguenots led by René de Laudonnière escaped to establish a French colony near present day Jacksonville, which they called Fort Caroline. These 150 soldiers, assorted artisans and four women didn't care that the Spanish considered this land the territory of the King of Spain. It signified peace and freedom to them. The life of the colony, which turned out not to be very tranquil, was depicted in the drawings and narratives of one of the settlers, the artist Jacques le Moyne.

Most of the babies born to the colonists in the following months were the offspring of the young native women of the Timucua Indians whose Chief Saturiba helped the settlers build their fort. The descendants of these children are the legacy left by the Huguenots who later fled or were killed by the Spanish who came to reclaim their lands fifteen months after Fort Caroline was founded.

The battle between the French and the Spanish apparently lasted one hour. The Spaniards spared only the Catholics and a few skilled workers. Also the fifers and drummers were allowed to live because the leader Menéndez liked music. The rest were massacred as they surrendered.

In 1568 the French mounted a surprise raid on the Spanish town now called San Mateo and in revenge killed all 380 Spaniards they found. After that, however, the French had no desire to stay and left the British and Spanish to the territorial battles over Florida. On the Mercator Map of 1569 La Florida appears in the same size of font as Canada. Now Canada appears to only apply to the region around current day Quebec City, the former site of Stadacona, the lands of Chief Donnacona.

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