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The Huron Church

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How did it fare with the missions in these days of woe and terror? They had thriven beyond hope. The Huron, in their time of trouble, had become tractable. They humbled themselves, and, in their desolation and despair, came for succor to the priests. There was a harvest of converts, not only exceeding in numbers that of all former years, but giving in many cases undeniable proofs of sincerity and fervor. In some towns the Christians outnumbered the heathen, and in nearly all they formed a strong party. The mission of La Conception, or Ossossané, was the most successful. Here there were now a church and one or more resident Jesuits,--as also at St. Joseph, St. Ignace, St. Michel, and St. Jean Baptiste:1 for we have seen that the Huron towns were christened with names of saints. Each church had its bell, which was sometimes hung in a neighboring tree.2 Every morning it rang its summons to mass; and, issuing from their dwellings of bark, the converts gathered within the sacred precinct, where the bare, rude walls, fresh from the axe and saw, contrasted with the sheen of tinsel and gilding, and the hues of gay draperies and gaudy pictures. At evening they met again at prayers; and on Sunday, masses, confession, catechism, sermons, and repeating the rosary consumed the whole day.3

These converts rarely took part in the burning of prisoners. On the contrary, they sometimes set their faces against the practice; and on one occasion, a certain Étienne Totiri, while his heathen countrymen were tormenting a captive Iroquois at St. Ignace, boldly denounced them, and promised them an eternity of flames and demons, unless they desisted. Not content with this, he addressed an exhortation to the sufferer in one of the intervals of his torture. The dying wretch demanded baptism, which Étienne took it upon himself to administer, amid the hootings of the crowd, who, as he ran with a cup of water from a neighboring house, pushed him to and fro to make him spill it, crying out, "Let him alone! Let the devils burn him after we have done!"

[Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1646, 58. The Hurons often resisted the baptism of their prisoners, on the ground that Hell, and not Heaven, was the place to which they would have them go.--See Lalemant, Relation des Hurons, 1642, 60, Ragueneau, Ibid., 1648, 53, and several other passages.]

In regard to these atrocious scenes, which formed the favorite Huron recreation of a summer night, the Jesuits, it must be confessed, did not quite come up to the requirements of modern sensibility. They were offended at them, it is true, and prevented them when they could; but they were wholly given to the saving of souls, and held the body in scorn, as the vile source of incalculable mischief, worthy the worst inflictions that could be put upon it. What were a few hours of suffering to an eternity of bliss or woe? If the victim were heathen, these brief pangs were but the faint prelude of an undying flame; and if a Christian, they were the fiery portal of Heaven. They might, indeed, be a blessing; since, accepted in atonement for sin, they would shorten the torments of Purgatory. Yet, while schooling themselves to despise the body, and all the pain or pleasure that pertained to it, the Fathers were emphatic on one point. It must not be eaten. In the matter of cannibalism, they were loud and vehement in invective.

[The following curious case of conversion at the stake, gravely related by Lalemant, is worth preserving.

"An Iroquois was to be burned at a town some way off. What consolation to set forth, in the hottest summer weather, to deliver this poor victim from the hell prepared for him! The Father approaches him, and instructs him even in the midst of his torments. Forthwith the Faith finds a place in his heart, he recognizes and adores, as the author of his life, Him whose name he had never heard till the hour of his death. He receives the grace of baptism, and breathes nothing but heaven. . . . This newly made, but generous Christian, mounted on the scaffold which is the place of his torture, in the sight of a thousand spectators, who are at once his enemies, his judges, and his executioners, raises his eyes and his voice heavenward, and cries aloud, 'Sun, who art witness of my torments, hear my words! I am about to die; but, after my death, I shall go to dwell in heaven.'"--Relation des Hurons, 1641, 67.

The Sun, it will be remembered, was the god of the heathen Iroquois. The convert appealed to his old deity to rejoice with him in his happy future.]

Undeniably, the Faith was making progress; yet it is not to be supposed that its path was a smooth one. The old opposition and the old calumnies were still alive and active. "It is _la prière_ that kills us. Your books and your strings of beads have bewitched the country. Before you came, we were happy and prosperous. You are magicians. Your charms kill our corn, and bring sickness and the Iroquois. Echon (Brébeuf) is a traitor among us, in league with our enemies." Such discourse was still rife, openly and secretly.

The Huron who embraced the Faith renounced thenceforth, as we have seen, the feasts, dances, and games in which was his delight, since all these savored of diabolism. And if, being in health, he could not enjoy himself, so also, being sick, he could not be cured; for his physician was a sorcerer, whose medicines were charms and incantations. If the convert was a chief, his case was far worse; since, writes Father Lalemant, "to be a chief and a Christian is to combine water and fire; for the business of the chiefs is mainly to do the Devil's bidding, preside over ceremonies of hell, and excite the young Indians to dances, feasts, and shameless indecencies."

[Relation des Hurons, 1642, 89. The indecencies alluded to were chiefly naked dances, of a superstitious character, and the mystical cure called Andacwandet, before mentioned.]

It is not surprising, then, that proselytes were difficult to make, or that, being made, they often relapsed. The Jesuits complain that they had no means of controlling their converts, and coercing backsliders to stand fast; and they add, that the Iroquois, by destroying the fur-trade, had broken the principal bond between the Hurons and the French, and greatly weakened the influence of the mission. [Lettre du P. Hierosme Lalemant, appended to the Relation of 1645.]

Among the slanders devised by the heathen party against the teachers of the obnoxious doctrine was one which found wide credence, even among the converts, and produced a great effect. They gave out that a baptized Huron girl, who had lately died, and was buried in the cemetery at Sainte Marie, had returned to life, and given a deplorable account of the heaven of the French. No sooner had she entered,--such was the story,--than they seized her, chained her to a stake, and tormented her all day with inconceivable cruelty. They did the same to all the other converted Hurons; for this was the recreation of the French, and especially of the Jesuits, in their celestial abode. They baptized Indians with no other object than that they might have them to torment in heaven; to which end they were willing to meet hardships and dangers in this life, just as a war-party invades the enemy's country at great risk that it may bring home prisoners to burn. After her painful experience, an unknown friend secretly showed the girl a path down to the earth; and she hastened thither to warn her countrymen against the wiles of the missionaries. [Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1646, 65.]

In the spring of 1648 the excitement of the heathen party reached a crisis. A young Frenchman, named Jacques Douart, in the service of the mission, going out at evening a short distance from the Jesuit house of Sainte Marie, was tomahawked by unknown Indians,4 who proved to be two brothers, instigated by the heathen chiefs. A great commotion followed, and for a few days it seemed that the adverse parties would fall to blows, at a time when the common enemy threatened to destroy them both. But sager counsels prevailed. In view of the manifest strength of the Christians, the pagans lowered their tone; and it soon became apparent that it was the part of the Jesuits to insist boldly on satisfaction for the outrage. They made no demand that the murderers should be punished or surrendered, but, with their usual good sense in such matters, conformed to Indian usage, and required that the nation at large should make atonement for the crime by presents.5 The number of these, their value, and the mode of delivering them were all fixed by ancient custom; and some of the converts, acting as counsel, advised the Fathers of every step it behooved them to take in a case of such importance. As this is the best illustration of Huron justice on record, it may be well to observe the method of procedure,--recollecting that the public, and not the criminal, was to pay the forfeit of the crime.

First of all, the Huron chiefs summoned the Jesuits to meet them at a grand council of the nation, when an old orator, chosen by the rest, rose and addressed Ragueneau, as chief of the French, in the following harangue. Ragueneau, who reports it, declares that he has added nothing to it, and the translation is as literal as possible.

"My Brother," began the speaker, "behold all the tribes of our league assembled!"--and he named them one by one. "We are but a handful; you are the prop and stay of this nation. A thunderbolt has fallen from the sky, and rent a chasm in the earth. We shall fall into it, if you do not support us. Take pity on us. We are here, not so much to speak as to weep over our loss and yours. Our country is but a skeleton, without flesh, veins, sinews, or arteries; and its bones hang together by a thread. This thread is broken by the blow that has fallen on the head of your nephew,6 for whom we weep. It was a demon of Hell who placed the hatchet in the murderer's hand. Was it you, Sun, whose beams shine on us, who led him to do this deed? Why did you not darken your light, that he might be stricken with horror at his crime? Were you his accomplice? No; for he walked in darkness, and did not see where he struck. He thought, this wretched murderer, that he aimed at the head of a young Frenchman; but the blow fell upon his country, and gave it a death-wound. The earth opens to receive the blood of the innocent victim, and we shall be swallowed up in the chasm; for we are all guilty. The Iroquois rejoice at his death, and celebrate it as a triumph; for they see that our weapons are turned against each other, and know well that our nation is near its end.

"Brother, take pity on this nation. You alone can restore it to life. It is for you to gather up all these scattered bones, and close this chasm that opens to ingulf us. Take pity on your country. I call it yours, for you are the master of it; and we came here like criminals to receive your sentence, if you will not show us mercy. Pity those who condemn themselves and come to ask forgiveness. It is you who have given strength to the nation by dwelling with it; and if you leave us, we shall be like a wisp of straw torn from the ground to be the sport of the wind. This country is an island drifting on the waves, for the first storm to overwhelm and sink. Make it fast again to its foundation, and posterity will never forget to praise you. When we first heard of this murder, we could do nothing but weep; and we are ready to receive your orders and comply with your demands. Speak, then, and ask what satisfaction you will, for our lives and our possessions are yours; and even if we rob our children to satisfy you, we will tell them that it is not of you that they have to complain, but of him whose crime has made us all guilty. Our anger is against him; but for you we feel nothing but love. He destroyed our lives; and you will restore them, if you will but speak and tell us what you will have us do."

Ragueneau, who remarks that this harangue is a proof that eloquence is the gift of Nature rather than of Art, made a reply, which he has not recorded, and then gave the speaker a bundle of small sticks, indicating the number of presents which he required in satisfaction for the murder. These sticks were distributed among the various tribes in the council, in order that each might contribute its share towards the indemnity. The council dissolved, and the chiefs went home, each with his allotment of sticks, to collect in his village a corresponding number of presents. There was no constraint; those gave who chose to do so; but, as all were ambitious to show their public spirit, the contributions were ample. No one thought of molesting the murderers. Their punishment was their shame at the sacrifices which the public were making in their behalf.

The presents being ready, a day was set for the ceremony of their delivery; and crowds gathered from all parts to witness it. The assembly was convened in the open air, in a field beside the mission-house of Sainte Marie; and, in the midst, the chiefs held solemn council. Towards evening, they deputed four of their number, two Christians and two heathen, to carry their address to the Father Superior. They came, loaded with presents; but these were merely preliminary. One was to open the door, another for leave to enter; and as Sainte Marie was a large house, with several interior doors, at each one of which it behooved them to repeat this formality, their stock of gifts became seriously reduced before they reached the room where Father Ragueneau awaited them. On arriving, they made him a speech, every clause of which was confirmed by a present. The first was to wipe away his tears; the second, to restore his voice, which his grief was supposed to have impaired; the third, to calm the agitation of his mind; and the fourth, to allay the just anger of his heart.7 These gifts consisted of wampum and the large shells of which it was made, together with other articles, worthless in any eyes but those of an Indian. Nine additional presents followed: four for the four posts of the sepulchre or scaffold of the murdered man; four for the cross-pieces which connected the posts; and one for a pillow to support his head. Then came eight more, corresponding to the eight largest bones of the victim's body, and also to the eight clans of the Hurons.8 Ragueneau, as required by established custom, now made them a present in his turn. It consisted of three thousand beads of wampum, and was designed to soften the earth, in order that they might not be hurt, when falling upon it, overpowered by his reproaches for the enormity of their crime. This closed the interview, and the deputation withdrew.

The grand ceremony took place on the next day. A kind of arena had been prepared, and here were hung the fifty presents in which the atonement essentially consisted,--the rest, amounting to as many more, being only accessory.9 The Jesuits had the right of examining them all, rejecting any that did not satisfy them, and demanding others in place of them. The naked crowd sat silent and attentive, while the orator in the midst delivered the fifty presents in a series of harangues, which the tired listener has not thought it necessary to preserve. Then came the minor gifts, each with its signification explained in turn by the speaker. First, as a sepulchre had been provided the day before for the dead man, it was now necessary to clothe and equip him for his journey to the next world; and to this end three presents were made. They represented a hat, a coat, a shirt, breeches, stockings, shoes, a gun, powder, and bullets; but they were in fact something quite different, as wampum, beaver-skins, and the like. Next came several gifts to close up the wounds of the slain. Then followed three more. The first closed the chasm in the earth, which had burst through horror of the crime. The next trod the ground firm, that it might not open again; and here the whole assembly rose and danced, as custom required. The last placed a large stone over the closed gulf; to make it doubly secure.

Now came another series of presents, seven in number,--to restore the voices of all the missionaries,--to invite the men in their service to forget the murder,--to appease the Governor when he should hear of it,--to light the fire at Sainte Marie,--to open the gate,--to launch the ferry boat in which the Huron visitors crossed the river,--and to give back the paddle to the boy who had charge of the boat. The Fathers, it seems, had the right of exacting two more presents, to rebuild their house and church,--supposed to have been shaken to the earth by the late calamity; but they forbore to urge the claim. Last of all were three gifts to confirm all the rest, and to entreat the Jesuits to cherish an undying love for the Huron.

The priests on their part gave presents, as tokens of good-will; and with that the assembly dispersed. The mission had gained a triumph, and its influence was greatly strengthened. The future would have been full of hope, but for the portentous cloud of war that rose, black and wrathful, from where lay the dens of the Iroquois.


1 Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1646, 56.

2 A fragment of one of these bells, found on the site of a Huron town, is preserved in the museum of Huron relics at the Laval University, Quebec. The bell was not large, but was of very elaborate workmanship. Before 1644 the Jesuits had used old copper kettles as a substitute.--Lettre de Lalemant, 31 March, 1644.

3 Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1646, 56.

4 Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1648, 77. Compare Lettre du P. Jean de Brébeuf au T. R. P. Vincent Carafa, Général de la Compagnie de Jésus, Sainte Marie, 2 Juin, 1648, in Carayon.

5 See Introduction

6 The usual Indian figure in such cases, and not meant to express an actual relationship;--"Uncle" for a superior, "Brother" for an equal, "Nephew" for an inferior.

7 Ragueneau himself describes the scene. Relation des Hurons, 1648, 80.]

8 Ragueneau says, "les huit nations"; but, as the Hurons consisted of only four, or at most five, nations, he probably means the clans. For the nature of these divisions, see Introduction.]

9 The number was unusually large,--partly because the affair was thought very important, and partly because the murdered man belonged to another nation. See Introduction.]


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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America

 

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