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The Huron Mission Abandoned

 Native American Nations | The Jesuits in North America                    


As spring approached, the starving multitude on Isle St. Joseph grew reckless with hunger. Along the main shore, in spots where the sun lay warm, the spring fisheries had already begun, and the melting snow was uncovering the acorns in the woods. There was danger everywhere, for bands of Iroquois were again on the track of their prey.1 The miserable Huron, gnawed with inexorable famine, stood in the dilemma of a deadly peril and an assured death. They chose the former; and, early in March, began to leave their island and cross to the main-land, to gather what sustenance they could. The ice was still thick, but the advancing season had softened it; and, as a body of them were crossing, it broke under their feet. Some were drowned; while others dragged themselves out, drenched and pierced with cold, to die miserably on the frozen lake, before they could reach a shelter. Other parties, more fortunate, gained the shore safely, and began their fishing, divided into companies of from eight or ten to a hundred persons. But the Iroquois were in wait for them. A large band of warriors had already made their way, through ice and snow, from their towns in Central New York. They surprised the Huron fishermen, surrounded them, and cut them in pieces without resistance,--tracking out the various parties of their victims, and hunting down fugitives with such persistency and skill, that, of all who had gone over to the main, the Jesuits knew of but one who escaped.2

"My pen," writes Ragueneau, "has no ink black enough to describe the fury of the Iroquois." Still the goadings of famine were relentless and irresistible. "It is said," adds the Father Superior, "that hunger will drive wolves from the forest. So, too, our starving Huron were driven out of a town which had become an abode of horror. It was the end of Lent. Alas, if these poor Christians could have had but acorns and water to keep their fast upon! On Easter Day we caused them to make a general confession. On the following morning they went away, leaving us all their little possessions; and most of them declared publicly that they made us their heirs, knowing well that they were near their end. And, in fact, only a few days passed before we heard of the disaster which we had foreseen. These poor people fell into ambuscades of our Iroquois enemies. Some were killed on the spot; some were dragged into captivity; women and children were burned. A few made their escape, and spread dismay and panic everywhere. A week after, another band was overtaken by the same fate. Go where they would, they met with slaughter on all sides. Famine pursued them, or they encountered an enemy more cruel than cruelty itself; and, to crown their misery, they heard that two great armies of Iroquois were on the way to exterminate them. . . . Despair was universal." [Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1650, 24.]

The Jesuits at St. Joseph knew not what course to take. The doom of their flock seemed inevitable. When dismay and despondency were at their height, two of the principal Huron chiefs came to the fort, and asked an interview with Ragueneau and his companions. They told them that the Indians had held a council the night before, and resolved to abandon the island. Some would disperse in the most remote and inaccessible forests; others would take refuge in a distant spot, apparently the Grand Manitoulin Island; others would try to reach the Andaste; and others would seek safety in adoption and incorporation with the Iroquois themselves.

"Take courage, brother," continued one of the chiefs, addressing Ragueneau. "You can save us, if you will but resolve on a bold step. Choose a place where you can gather us together, and prevent this dispersion of our people. Turn your eyes towards Quebec, and transport thither what is left of this ruined country. Do not wait till war and famine have destroyed us to the last man. We are in your hands. Death has taken from you more than ten thousand of us. If you wait longer, not one will remain alive; and then you will be sorry that you did not save those whom you might have snatched from danger, and who showed you the means of doing so. If you do as we wish, we will form a church under the protection of the fort at Quebec. Our faith will not be extinguished. The examples of the French and the Algonquins will encourage us in our duty, and their charity will relieve some of our misery. At least, we shall sometimes find a morsel of bread for our children, who so long have had nothing but bitter roots and acorns to keep them alive."

[Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1650, 25. It appears from the MS. Journal des Supérieurs des Jésuites, that a plan of bringing the remnant of the Hurons to Quebec was discussed and approved by Lalemant and his associates, in a council held by them at that place in April.]

The Jesuits were deeply moved. They consulted together again and again, and prayed in turn during forty hours without ceasing, that their minds might be enlightened. At length they resolved to grant the petition of the two chiefs, and save the poor remnant of the Huron, by leading them to an asylum where there was at least a hope of safety. Their resolution once taken, they pushed their preparations with all speed, lest the Iroquois might learn their purpose, and lie in wait to cut them off. Canoes were made ready, and on the tenth of June they began the voyage, with all their French followers and about three hundred Huron. The Huron mission was abandoned.

"It was not without tears," writes the Father Superior, "that we left the country of our hopes and our hearts, where our brethren had gloriously shed their blood." [Compare Bressani, Relation Abrégée, 288.] The fleet of canoes held its melancholy way along the shores where two years before had been the seat of one of the chief savage communities of the continent, and where now all was a waste of death and desolation. Then they steered northward, along the eastern coast of the Georgian Bay, with its countless rocky islets; and everywhere they saw the traces of the Iroquois. When they reached Lake Nipissing, they found it deserted,--nothing remaining of the Algonquins who dwelt on its shore, except the ashes of their burnt wigwams. A little farther on, there was a fort built of trees, where the Iroquois who made this desolation had spent the winter; and a league or two below, there was another similar fort. The River Ottawa was a solitude. The Algonquins of Allumette Island and the shores adjacent had all been killed or driven away, never again to return. "When I came up this great river, only thirteen years ago," writes Ragueneau, "I found it bordered with Algonquin tribes, who knew no God, and, in their infidelity, thought themselves gods on earth; for they had all that they desired, abundance of fish and game, and a prosperous trade with allied nations: besides, they were the terror of their enemies. But since they have embraced the Faith and adored the cross of Christ, He has given them a heavy share in this cross, and made them a prey to misery, torture, and a cruel death. In a word, they are a people swept from the face of the earth. Our only consolation is, that, as they died Christians, they have a part in the inheritance of the true children of God, who scourgeth every one whom He receiveth." [Ragueneau, Relation des Huron, 1650, 27. These Algonquins of the Ottawa, though broken and dispersed, were not destroyed, as Ragueneau supposes.]

As the voyagers descended the river, they had a serious alarm. Their scouts came in, and reported that they had found fresh footprints of men in the forest. These proved, however, to be the tracks, not of enemies, but of friends. In the preceding autumn Bressani had gone down to the French settlements with about twenty Huron, and was now returning with them, and twice their number of armed Frenchmen, for the defense of the mission. His scouts had also been alarmed by discovering the footprints of Ragueneau's Indians; and for some time the two parties stood on their guard, each taking the other for an enemy. When at length they discovered their mistake, they met with embraces and rejoicing. Bressani and his Frenchmen had come too late. All was over with the Huron and the Huron mission; and, as it was useless to go farther, they joined Ragueneau's party, and retraced their course for the settlements.

A day or two before, they had had a sharp taste of the mettle of the enemy. Ten Iroquois warriors had spent the winter in a little fort of felled trees on the borders of the Ottawa, hunting for subsistence, and waiting to waylay some passing canoe of Huron, Algonquins, or Frenchmen. Bressani's party outnumbered them six to one; but they resolved that it should not pass without a token of their presence. Late on a dark night, the French and Huron lay encamped in the forest, sleeping about their fires. They had set guards: but these, it seems, were drowsy or negligent; for the ten Iroquois, watching their time, approached with the stealth of lynxes, and glided like shadows into the midst of the camp, where, by the dull glow of the smoldering fires, they could distinguish the recumbent figures of their victims. Suddenly they screeched the war-whoop, and struck like lightning with their hatchets among the sleepers. Seven were killed before the rest could spring to their weapons. Bressani leaped up, and received on the instant three arrow-wounds in the head. The Iroquois were surrounded, and a desperate fight ensued in the dark. Six of them were killed on the spot, and two made prisoners; while the remaining two, breaking through the crowd, bounded out of the camp and escaped in the forest.

The united parties soon after reached Montreal; but the Huron refused to remain in a spot so exposed to the Iroquois. Accordingly, they all descended the St. Lawrence, and at length, on the twenty-eighth of July, reached Quebec. Here the Ursulines, the hospital nuns, and the inhabitants taxed their resources to the utmost to provide food and shelter for the exiled Hurons. Their good will exceeded their power; for food was scarce at Quebec, and the Jesuits themselves had to bear the chief burden of keeping the sufferers alive. [Compare Juchereau, Histoire de l'Hôtel-Dieu, 79, 80.]

But, if famine was an evil, the Iroquois were a far greater one; for, while the western nations of their confederacy were engrossed with the destruction of the Huron, the Mohawks kept up incessant attacks on the Algonquins and the French. A party of Christian Indians, chiefly from Sillery, planned a stroke of retaliation, and set out for the Mohawk country, marching cautiously and sending forward scouts to scour the forest. One of these, a Huron, suddenly fell in with a large Iroquois war party, and, seeing that he could not escape, formed on the instant a villainous plan to save himself. He ran towards the enemy, crying out, that he had long been looking for them and was delighted to see them; that his nation, the Hurons, had come to an end; and that henceforth his country was the country of the Iroquois, where so many of his kinsmen and friends had been adopted. He had come, he declared, with no other thought than that of joining them, and turning Iroquois, as they had done. The Iroquois demanded if he had come alone. He answered, "No," and said, that, in order to accomplish his purpose, he had joined an Algonquin war-party who were in the woods not far off. The Iroquois, in great delight, demanded to be shown where they were. This Judas, as the Jesuits call him, at once complied; and the Algonquins were surprised by a sudden onset, and routed with severe loss. The treacherous Huron was well treated by the Iroquois, who adopted him into their nation. Not long after, he came to Canada, and, with a view, as it was thought, to some further treachery, rejoined the French. A sharp cross-questioning put him to confusion, and he presently confessed his guilt. He was sentenced to death; and the sentence was executed by one of his own countrymen, who split his head with a hatchet. [Ragueneau, Relation, 1650, 30.]

In the course of the summer, the French at Three Rivers became aware that a band of Iroquois was prowling in the neighborhood, and sixty men went out to meet them. Far from retreating, the Iroquois, who were about twenty-five in number, got out of their canoes, and took post, waist-deep in mud and water, among the tall rushes at the margin of the river. Here they fought stubbornly, and kept all the Frenchmen at bay. At length, finding themselves hard pressed, they entered their canoes again, and paddled off. The French rowed after them, and soon became separated in the chase; whereupon the Iroquois turned, and made desperate fight with the foremost, retreating again as soon as the others came up. This they repeated several times, and then made their escape, after killing a number of the best French soldiers. Their leader in this affair was a famous half-breed, known as the Flemish Bastard, who is styled by Ragueneau "an abomination of sin, and a monster produced between a heretic Dutch father and a pagan mother."

In the forests far north of Three Rivers dwelt the tribe called the Atticamegue, or Nation of the White Fish. From their remote position, and the difficult nature of the intervening country, they thought themselves safe; but a band of Iroquois, marching on snow-shoes a distance of twenty days' journey northward from the St. Lawrence, fell upon one of their camps in the winter, and made a general butchery of the inmates. The tribe, however, still held its ground for a time, and, being all good Catholics, gave their missionary, Father Buteux, an urgent invitation to visit them in their own country. Buteux, who had long been stationed at Three Rivers, was in ill health, and for years had rarely been free from some form of bodily suffering. Nevertheless, he acceded to their request, and, before the opening of spring, made a remarkable journey on snow-shoes into the depths of this frozen wilderness. [Iournal du Pere Iacques Buteux du Voyage qu'il a fait pour la Mission des Attikamegues. See Relation, 1651, 15.] In the year following, he repeated the undertaking. With him were a large party of Atticamegue, and several Frenchmen. Game was exceedingly scarce, and they were forced by hunger to separate, a Huron convert and a Frenchman named Fontarabie remaining with the missionary. The snows had melted, and all the streams were swollen. The three travelers, in a small birch canoe, pushed their way up a turbulent river, where falls and rapids were so numerous, that many times daily they were forced to carry their bark vessel and their baggage through forests and thickets and over rocks and precipices. On the tenth of May, they made two such portages, and soon after, reaching a third fall, again lifted their canoe from the water. They toiled through the naked forest, among the wet, black trees, over tangled roots, green, spongy mosses, moldering leaves, and rotten, prostrate trunks, while the cataract foamed amidst the rocks hard by. The Indian led the way with the canoe on his head, while Buteux and the other Frenchman followed with the baggage. Suddenly they were set upon by a troop of Iroquois, who had crouched behind thickets, rocks, and fallen trees, to waylay them. The Huron was captured before he had time to fly. Buteux and the Frenchman tried to escape, but were instantly shot down, the Jesuit receiving two balls in the breast. The Iroquois rushed upon them, mangled their bodies with tomahawks and swords, stripped them, and then flung them into the torrent. [Ragueneau, Relation, 1652, 2, 3.]

1 "Mais le Printemps estant venu, les Iroquois nous furent encore plus cruels; et ce sont eux qui vrayement ont ruiné toutes nos esperances, et qui ont fait vn lieu d'horreur, vne terre de sang et de carnage, vn theatre de cruauté et vn sepulchre de carcasses décharnées par les langueurs d'vne longue famine, d'vn païs de benediction, d'vne terre de Sainteté et d'vn lieu qui n'auoit plus rien de barbare, depuis que le sang respandu pour son amour auoit rendu tout son peuple Chrestien."--Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1650, 23.

2 "Le iour de l'Annonciation, vingt-cinquiesme de Mars, vne armée d'Iroquois ayans marché prez de deux cents lieuës de païs, à trauers les glaces et les neiges, trauersans les montagnes et les forests pleines d'horreur, surprirent au commencement de la nuit le camp de nos Chrestiens, et en firent vne cruelle boucherie. Il sembloit que le Ciel conduisit toutes leurs demarches et qu'ils eurent vn Ange pour guide: car ils diuiserent leurs troupes auec tant de bon-heur, qu'ils trouuerent en moins de deux iours, toutes les bandes de nos Chrestiens qui estoient dispersées ça et là, esloignées les vnes des autres de six, sept et huit lieuës, cent personnes en vn lieu, en vn autre cinquante; et mesme il y auoit quelques familles solitaires, qui s'estoient escartées en des lieux moins connus et hors de tout chemin. Chose estrange! de tout ce monde dissipé, vn seul homme s'eschappa, qui vint nous en apporter les nouuelles."--Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1650, 23, 24.

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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America


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