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The Huron Mission

 Native American Nations | The Jesuits in North America                   


Le Jeune had learned the difficulties of the Algonquin mission. To imagine that he recoiled or faltered would be an injustice to his Order; but on two points he had gained convictions: first, that little progress could be made in converting these wandering hordes till they could be settled in fixed abodes; and, secondly, that their scanty numbers, their geographical position, and their slight influence in the politics of the wilderness offered no flattering promise that their conversion would be fruitful in further triumphs of the Faith. It was to another quarter that the Jesuits looked most earnestly. By the vast lakes of the West dwelt numerous stationary populations, and particularly the Huron, on the lake which bears their name. Here was a hopeful basis of indefinite conquests; for, the Huron won over, the Faith would spread in wider and wider circles, embracing, one by one, the kindred tribes,--the Tobacco Nation, the Neutrals, the Erie, and the Andaste. Nay, in His own time, God might lead into His fold even the potent and ferocious Iroquois.

The way was pathless and long, by rock and torrent and the gloom of savage forests. The goal was more dreary yet. Toil, hardship, famine, filth, sickness, solitude, insult,--all that is most revolting to men nurtured among arts and letters, all that is most terrific to monastic credulity: such were the promise and the reality of the Huron mission. In the eyes of the Jesuits, the Huron country was the innermost stronghold of Satan, his castle and his donjon-keep. ["Une des principales forteresses & comme un donjon des Demons."--Lalemant, Relation des Huron, 1639, 100 (Cramoisy).] All the weapons of his malice were prepared against the bold invader who should assail him in this, the heart of his ancient domain. Far from shrinking, the priest's zeal rose to tenfold ardor. He signed the cross, invoked St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier, or St. Francis Borgia, kissed his reliquary, said nine masses to the Virgin, and stood prompt to battle with all the hosts of Hell.

A life sequestered from social intercourse, and remote from every prize which ambition holds worth the pursuit, or a lonely death, under forms, perhaps, the most appalling,--these were the missionaries' alternatives. Their maligners may taunt them, if they will, with credulity, superstition, or a blind enthusiasm; but slander itself cannot accuse them of hypocrisy or ambition. Doubtless, in their propagandism, they were acting in concurrence with a mundane policy; but, for the present at least, this policy was rational and humane. They were promoting the ends of commerce and national expansion. The foundations of French dominion were to be laid deep in the heart and conscience of the savage. His stubborn neck was to be subdued to the "yoke of the Faith." The power of the priest established, that of the temporal ruler was secure. These sanguinary hordes, weaned from intestine strife, were to unite in a common allegiance to God and the King. Mingled with French traders and French settlers, softened by French manners, guided by French priests, ruled by French officers, their now divided bands would become the constituents of a vast wilderness empire, which in time might span the continent. Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization scorned and neglected him; French civilization embraced and cherished him.

Policy and commerce, then, built their hopes on the priests. These commissioned interpreters of the Divine Will, accredited with letters patent from Heaven, and affiliated to God's anointed on earth, would have pushed to its most unqualified application the Scripture metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep. They would have tamed the wild man of the woods to a condition of obedience, unquestioning, passive, and absolute,--repugnant to manhood, and adverse to the invigorating and expansive spirit of modern civilization. Yet, full of error and full of danger as was their system, they embraced its serene and smiling falsehoods with the sincerity of martyrs and the self-devotion of saints.

We have spoken already of the Huron, of their populous villages on the borders of the great "Fresh Sea," their trade, their rude agriculture, their social life, their wild and incongruous superstitions, and the sorcerers, diviners, and medicine-men who lived on their credulity. [See Introduction.] Iroquois hostility left open but one avenue to their country, the long and circuitous route which, eighteen years before, had been explored by Champlain, ["Pioneers of France," 364.]--up the river Ottawa, across Lake Nipissing, down French River, and along the shores of the great Georgian Bay of Lake Huron,--a route as difficult as it was tedious. Midway, on Allumette Island, in the Ottawa, dwelt the Algonquin tribe visited by Champlain in 1613, and who, amazed at the apparition of the white stranger, thought that he had fallen from the clouds. ["Pioneers of France," 348.] Like other tribes of this region, they were keen traders, and would gladly have secured for themselves the benefits of an intermediate traffic between the Huron and the French, receiving the furs of the former in barter at a low rate, and exchanging them with the latter at their full value. From their position, they could at any time close the passage of the Ottawa; but, as this would have been a perilous exercise of their rights,1 they were forced to act with discretion. An opportunity for the practice of their diplomacy had lately occurred. On or near the Ottawa, at some distance below them, dwelt a small Algonquin tribe, called La Petite Nation. One of this people had lately killed a Frenchman, and the murderer was now in the hands of Champlain, a prisoner at the fort of Quebec. The savage politicians of Allumette Island contrived, as will soon be seen, to turn this incident to profit.

In the July that preceded Le Jeune's wintering with the Montagnais, a Huron Indian, well known to the French, came to Quebec with the tidings, that the annual canoe-fleet of his countrymen was descending the St. Lawrence. On the twenty-eighth, the river was alive with them. A hundred and forty canoes, with six or seven hundred savages, landed at the warehouses beneath the fortified rock of Quebec, and set up their huts and camp-sheds on the strand now covered by the lower town. The greater number brought furs and tobacco for the trade; others came as sight-seers; others to gamble, and others to steal,2 --accomplishments in which the Huron were proficient: their gambling skill being exercised chiefly against each other, and their thieving talents against those of other nations.

The routine of these annual visits was nearly uniform. On the first day, the Indians built their huts; on the second, they held their council with the French officers at the fort; on the third and fourth, they bartered their furs and tobacco for kettles, hatchets, knives, cloth, beads, iron arrow-heads, coats, shirts, and other commodities; on the fifth, they were feasted by the French; and at daybreak of the next morning, they embarked and vanished like a flight of birds.

["Comme une volée d'oiseaux."--Le Jeune, Relation, 1633, 190 (Cramoisy). --The tobacco brought to the French by the Huron may have been raised by the adjacent tribe of the Tionnontates, who cultivated it largely for sale. See Introduction.]

On the second day, then, the long file of chiefs and warriors mounted the pathway to the fort,--tall, well-moulded figures, robed in the skins of the beaver and the bear, each wild visage glowing with paint and glistening with the oil which the Huron extracted from the seeds of the sunflower. The lank black hair of one streamed loose upon his shoulders; that of another was close shaven, except an upright ridge, which, bristling like the crest of a dragoon's helmet, crossed the crown from the forehead to the neck; while that of a third hung, long and flowing from one side, but on the other was cut short. Sixty chiefs and principal men, with a crowd of younger warriors, formed their council-circle in the fort, those of each village grouped together, and all seated on the ground with a gravity of bearing sufficiently curious to those who had seen the same men in the domestic circle of their lodge-fires. Here, too, were the Jesuits, robed in black, anxious and intent; and here was Champlain, who, as he surveyed the throng, recognized among the elder warriors not a few of those who, eighteen years before, had been his companions in arms on his hapless foray against the Iroquois. [See "Pioneers of France," 370.]

Their harangues of compliment being made and answered, and the inevitable presents given and received, Champlain introduced to the silent conclave the three missionaries, Brébeuf, Daniel, and Davost. To their lot had fallen the honors, dangers, and woes of the Huron mission. "These are our fathers," he said. "We love them more than we love ourselves. The whole French nation honors them. They do not go among you for your furs. They have left their friends and their country to show you the way to heaven. If you love the French, as you say you love them, then love and honor these our fathers." [Le Jeune, Relation, 1633, 274 (Cramoisy); Mercure Français, 1634. 845.]

Two chiefs rose to reply, and each lavished all his rhetoric in praises of Champlain and of the French. Brébeuf rose next, and spoke in broken Huron,--the assembly jerking in unison, from the bottom of their throats, repeated ejaculations of applause. Then they surrounded him, and vied with each other for the honor of carrying him in their canoes. In short, the mission was accepted; and the chiefs of the different villages disputed among themselves the privilege of receiving and entertaining the three priests.

On the last of July, the day of the feast of St. Ignatius, Champlain and several masters of trading vessels went to the house of the Jesuits in quest of indulgences; and here they were soon beset by a crowd of curious Indians, who had finished their traffic, and were making a tour of observation. Being excluded from the house, they looked in at the windows of the room which served as a chapel; and Champlain, amused at their exclamations of wonder, gave one of them a piece of citron. The Huron tasted it, and, enraptured, demanded what it was. Champlain replied, laughing, that it was the rind of a French pumpkin. The fame of this delectable production was instantly spread abroad; and, at every window, eager voices and outstretched hands petitioned for a share of the marvelous vegetable. They were at length allowed to enter the chapel, which had lately been decorated with a few hangings, images, and pieces of plate. These unwonted splendors filled them with admiration. They asked if the dove over the altar was the bird that makes the thunder; and, pointing to the images of Loyola and Xavier, inquired if they were okies, or spirits: nor was their perplexity much diminished by Brébeuf's explanation of their true character. Three images of the Virgin next engaged their attention; and, in answer to their questions, they were told that they were the mother of Him who made the world. This greatly amused them, and they demanded if he had three mothers. "Oh!" exclaims the Father Superior, "had we but images of all the holy mysteries of our faith! They are a great assistance, for they speak their own lesson." [Relation, 1633, 38.] The mission was not doomed long to suffer from a dearth of these inestimable auxiliaries.

The eve of departure came. The three priests packed their baggage, and Champlain paid their passage, or, in other words, made presents to the Indians who were to carry them in their canoes. They lodged that night in the storehouse of the fur company, around which the Huron were encamped; and Le Jeune and De Nouë stayed with them to bid them farewell in the morning. At eleven at night, they were roused by a loud voice in the Indian camp, and saw Le Borgne, the one-eyed chief of Allumette Island, walking round among the huts, haranguing as he went. Brébeuf, listening, caught the import of his words. "We have begged the French captain to spare the life of the Algonquin of the Petite Nation whom he keeps in prison; but he will not listen to us. The prisoner will die. Then his people will revenge him. They will try to kill the three black-robes whom you are about to carry to your country. If you do not defend them, the French will be angry, and charge you with their death. But if you do, then the Algonquins will make war on you, and the river will be closed. If the French captain will not let the prisoner go, then leave the three black-robes where they are; for, if you take them with you, they will bring you to trouble."

Such was the substance of Le Borgne's harangue. The anxious priests hastened up to the fort, gained admittance, and roused Champlain from his slumbers. He sent his interpreter with a message to the Huron, that he wished to speak to them before their departure; and, accordingly, in the morning an Indian crier proclaimed through their camp that none should embark till the next day. Champlain convoked the chiefs, and tried persuasion, promises, and threats; but Le Borgne had been busy among them with his intrigues, and now he declared in the council, that, unless the prisoner were released, the missionaries would be murdered on their way, and war would ensue. The politic savage had two objects in view. On the one hand, he wished to interrupt the direct intercourse between the French and the Huron; and, on the other, he thought to gain credit and influence with the nation of the prisoner by effecting his release. His first point was won. Champlain would not give up the murderer, knowing those with whom he was dealing too well to take a course which would have proclaimed the killing of a Frenchman a venial offence. The Huron thereupon refused to carry the missionaries to their country; coupling the refusal with many regrets and many protestations of love, partly, no doubt, sincere,--for the Jesuits had contrived to gain no little favor in their eyes. The council broke up, the Huron embarked, and the priests returned to their convent.

Here, under the guidance of Brébeuf, they employed themselves, amid their other avocations, in studying the Huron tongue. A year passed, and again the Indian traders descended from their villages. In the meanwhile, grievous calamities had befallen the nation. They had suffered deplorable reverses at the hands of the Iroquois; while a pestilence, similar to that which a few years before had swept off the native populations of New England, had begun its ravages among them. They appeared at Three Rivers--this year the place of trade--in small numbers, and in a miserable state of dejection and alarm. Du Plessis Bochart, commander of the French fleet, called them to a council, harangued them, feasted them, and made them presents; but they refused to take the Jesuits. In private, however, some of them were gained over; then again refused; then, at the eleventh hour, a second time consented. On the eve of embarkation, they once more wavered. All was confusion, doubt, and uncertainty, when Brébeuf bethought him of a vow to St. Joseph. The vow was made. At once, he says, the Indians became tractable; the Fathers embarked, and, amid salvos of cannon from the ships, set forth for the wild scene of their apostleship.

They reckoned the distance at nine hundred miles; but distance was the least repellent feature of this most arduous journey. Barefoot, lest their shoes should injure the frail vessel, each crouched in his canoe, toiling with unpractised hands to propel it. Before him, week after week, he saw the same lank, unkempt hair, the same tawny shoulders, and long, naked arms ceaselessly plying the paddle. The canoes were soon separated; and, for more than a month, the Frenchmen rarely or never met. Brébeuf spoke a little Huron, and could converse with his escort; but Daniel and Davost were doomed to a silence unbroken save by the occasional unintelligible complaints and menaces of the Indians, of whom many were sick with the epidemic, and all were terrified, desponding, and sullen. Their only food was a pittance of Indian corn, crushed between two stones and mixed with water. The toil was extreme. Brébeuf counted thirty-five portages, where the canoes were lifted from the water, and carried on the shoulders of the voyagers around rapids or cataracts. More than fifty times, besides, they were forced to wade in the raging current, pushing up their empty barks, or dragging them with ropes. Brébeuf tried to do his part; but the boulders and sharp rocks wounded his naked feet, and compelled him to desist. He and his companions bore their share of the baggage across the portages, sometimes a distance of several miles. Four trips, at the least, were required to convey the whole. The way was through the dense forest, incumbered with rocks and logs, tangled with roots and underbrush, damp with perpetual shade, and redolent of decayed leaves and mouldering wood.3 The Indians themselves were often spent with fatigue. Brébeuf, a man of iron frame and a nature unconquerably resolute, doubted if his strength would sustain him to the journey's end. He complains that he had no moment to read his breviary, except by the moonlight or the fire, when stretched out to sleep on a bare rock by some savage cataract of the Ottawa, or in a damp nook of the adjacent forest.

All the Jesuits, as well as several of their countrymen who accompanied them, suffered more or less at the hands of their ill-humored conductors.4 Davost's Indian robbed him of a part of his baggage, threw a part into the river, including most of the books and writing-materials of the three priests, and then left him behind, among the Algonquins of Allumette Island. He found means to continue the journey, and at length reached the Huron towns in a lamentable state of bodily prostration. Daniel, too, was deserted, but fortunately found another party who received him into their canoe. A young Frenchman, named Martin, was abandoned among the Nipissings; another, named Baron, on reaching the Huron country, was robbed by his conductors of all he had, except the weapons in his hands. Of these he made good use, compelling the robbers to restore a part of their plunder.

Descending French River, and following the lonely shores of the great Georgian Bay, the canoe which carried Brébeuf at length neared its destination, thirty days after leaving Three Rivers. Before him, stretched in savage slumber, lay the forest shore of the Huron. Did his spirit sink as he approached his dreary home, oppressed with a dark foreboding of what the future should bring forth? There is some reason to think so. Yet it was but the shadow of a moment; for his masculine heart had lost the sense of fear, and his intrepid nature was fired with a zeal before which doubts and uncertainties fled like the mists of the morning. Not the grim enthusiasm of negation, tearing up the weeds of rooted falsehood, or with bold hand felling to the earth the baneful growth of overshadowing abuses: his was the ancient faith uncurtailed, redeemed from the decay of centuries, kindled with a new life, and stimulated to a preternatural growth and fruitfulness.

Brébeuf and his Huron companions having landed, the Indians, throwing the missionary's baggage on the ground, left him to his own resources; and, without heeding his remonstrances, set forth for their respective villages, some twenty miles distant. Thus abandoned, the priest kneeled, not to implore succor in his perplexity, but to offer thanks to the Providence which had shielded him thus far. Then, rising, he pondered as to what course he should take. He knew the spot well. It was on the borders of the small inlet called Thunder Bay. In the neighboring Huron town of Toanché he had lived three years, preaching and baptizing;5 but Toanché had now ceased to exist. Here, Étienne Brulé, Champlain's adventurous interpreter, had recently been murdered by the inhabitants, who, in excitement and alarm, dreading the consequences of their deed, had deserted the spot, and built, at the distance of a few miles, a new town, called Ihonatiria. [Concerning Brulé, see "Pioneers of France," 377-380.] Brébeuf hid his baggage in the woods, including the vessels for the Mass, more precious than all the rest, and began his search for this new abode. He passed the burnt remains of Toanché, saw the charred poles that had formed the frame of his little chapel of bark, and found, as he thought, the spot where Brulé had fallen.6 Evening was near, when, after following, bewildered and anxious, a gloomy forest path, he issued upon a wild clearing, and saw before him the bark roofs of Ihonatiria.

A crowd ran out to meet him. "Echom has come again! Echom has come again!" they cried, recognizing in the distance the stately figure, robed in black, that advanced from the border of the forest. They led him to the town, and the whole population swarmed about him. After a short rest, he set out with a number of young Indians in quest of his baggage, returning with it at one o'clock in the morning. There was a certain Awandoay in the village, noted as one of the richest and most hospitable of the Huron,--a distinction not easily won where hospitality was universal. His house was large, and amply stored with beans and corn; and though his prosperity had excited the jealousy of the villagers, he had recovered their good-will by his generosity. With him Brébeuf made his abode, anxiously waiting, week after week, the arrival of his companions. One by one, they appeared: Daniel, weary and worn; Davost, half dead with famine and fatigue; and their French attendants, each with his tale of hardship and indignity. At length, all were assembled under the roof of the hospitable Indian, and once more the Huron mission was begun.

1 Nevertheless, the Huron always passed this way as a matter of favor, and gave yearly presents to the Algonquins of the island, in acknowledgment of the privilege--Le Jeune, Relation, 1636, 70.--By the unwritten laws of the Huron and Algonquins, every tribe had the right, even in full peace, of prohibiting the passage of every other tribe across its territory. In ordinary cases, such prohibitions were quietly submitted to.

"Ces Insulaires voudraient bien que les Huron ne vinssent point aux François & que les François n'allassent point aux Huron, afin d'emporter eux seuls tout le trafic," etc.--Relation, 1633, 205 (Cramoisy),--"desirans eux-mesmes aller recueiller les marchandises des peuples circonvoisins pour les apporter aux François." This "Nation de l'Isle" has been erroneously located at Montreal. Its true position is indicated on the map of Du Creux, and on an ancient MS. map in the Dépôt des Cartes, of which a fac-simile is before me. See also "Pioneers of France," 347.

2 "Quelques vns d'entre eux ne viennent à la traite auec les François que pour iouër, d'autres pour voir, quelques vns pour dérober, et les plus sages et les plus riches pour trafiquer."--Le Jeune, Relation, 1633, 34.

3 "Adioustez à ces difficultez, qu'il faut coucher sur la terre nue, ou sur quelque dure roche, faute de trouuer dix ou douze pieds de terre en quarré pour placer vne chetiue cabane; qu'il faut sentir incessamment la puanteur des Sauuages recreus, marcher dans les eaux, dans les fanges, dans l'obscurité et l'embarras des forest, où les piqueures d'vne multitude infinie de mousquilles et cousins vous importunent fort."--Brébeuf, Relation des Huron, 1635, 25, 26.

4 "En ce voyage, il nous a fallu tous commencer par ces experiences a porter la Croix que Nostre Seigneur nous presente pour son honneur, et pour le salut de ces pauures Barbares. Certes ie me suis trouué quelquesfois si las, que le corps n'en pouuoit plus. Mais d'ailleurs mon âme ressentoit de tres-grands contentemens, considerant que ie souffrois pour Dieu: nul ne le sçait, s'il ne l'experimente. Tous n'en ont pas esté quittes à si bon marché."--Brébeuf, Relation des Huron, 1635, 26.

Three years afterwards, a paper was printed by the Jesuits of Paris, called Instruction pour les Pères de nostre Compagnie qui seront enuoiez aux Huron, and containing directions for their conduct on this route by the Ottawa. It is highly characteristic, both of the missionaries and of the Indians. Some of the points are, in substance, as follows.--You should love the Indians like brothers, with whom you are to spend the rest of your life.--Never make them wait for you in embarking.--Take a flint and steel to light their pipes and kindle their fire at night; for these little services win their hearts.--Try to eat their sagamite as they cook it, bad and dirty as it is.--Fasten up the skirts of your cassock, that you may not carry water or sand into the canoe.--Wear no shoes or stockings in the canoe; but you may put them on in crossing the portages.--Do not make yourself troublesome, even to a single Indian.--Do not ask them too many questions.--Bear their faults in silence, and appear always cheerful.--Buy fish for them from the tribes you will pass; and for this purpose take with you some awls, beads, knives, and fish-hooks.--Be not ceremonious with the Indians; take at once what they offer you: ceremony offends them.--Be very careful, when in the canoe, that the brim of your hat does not annoy them. Perhaps it would be better to wear your night-cap. There is no such thing as impropriety among Indians.--Remember that it is Christ and his cross that you are seeking; and if you aim at anything else, you will get nothing but affliction for body and mind.

5 From 1626 to 1629. There is no record of the events of this first mission, which was ended with the English occupation of Quebec. Brébeuf had previously spent the winter of 1625-26 among the Algonquins, like Le Jeune in 1633-34.--Lettre du P. Charles Lalemant au T. R. P. Mutio Vitelleschi, 1 Aug., 1626, in Carayon.

6 "Ie vis pareillement l'endroit où le pauure Estienne Brulé auoit esté barbarement et traîtreusement assommé; ce qui me fit penser que quelque iour on nous pourroit bien traitter de la sorte, et desirer au moins que ce fust en pourchassant la gloire de N. Seigneur."--Brébeuf, Relation des Huron, 1635, 28, 29.--The missionary's prognostics were but too well founded.

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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America


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