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The Sanctuary

 Native American Nations | The Jesuits in North America                   


All was over with the Huron. The death-knell of their nation had struck. Without a leader, without organization, without union, crazed with fright and paralyzed with misery, they yielded to their doom without a blow. Their only thought was flight. Within two weeks after the disasters of St. Ignace and St. Louis, fifteen Huron towns were abandoned, and the greater number burned, lest they should give shelter to the Iroquois. The last year's harvest had been scanty; the fugitives had no food, and they left behind them the fields in which was their only hope of obtaining it. In bands, large or small, some roamed northward and eastward, through the half-thawed wilderness; some hid themselves on the rocks or islands of Lake Huron; some sought an asylum among the Tobacco Nation; a few joined the Neutrals on the north of Lake Erie. The Huron, as a nation, ceased to exist.

[Chaumonot, who was at Ossossané at the time of the Iroquois invasion, gives a vivid picture of the panic and lamentation which followed the news of the destruction of the Huron warriors at St. Louis, and of the flight of the inhabitants to the country of the Tobacco Nation.--Vie, 62.]

Hitherto Sainte Marie had been covered by large fortified towns which lay between it and the Iroquois; but these were all destroyed, some by the enemy and some by their own people, and the Jesuits were left alone to bear the brunt of the next attack. There was, moreover, no reason for their remaining. Sainte Marie had been built as a basis for the missions; but its occupation was gone: the flock had fled from the shepherds, and its existence had no longer an object. If the priests stayed to be butchered, they would perish, not as martyrs, but as fools. The necessity was as clear as it was bitter. All their toil must come to nought. Sainte Marie must be abandoned. They confess the pang which the resolution cost them; but, pursues the Father Superior, "since the birth of Christianity, the Faith has nowhere been planted except in the midst of sufferings and crosses. Thus this desolation consoles us; and in the midst of persecution, in the extremity of the evils which assail us and the greater evils which threaten us, we are all filled with joy: for our hearts tell us that God has never had a more tender love for us than now." [Ragueneau. Relation des Huron, 1649, 26.]

Several of the priests set out to follow and console the scattered bands of fugitive Huron. One embarked in a canoe, and coasted the dreary shores of Lake Huron northward, among the wild labyrinth of rocks and islets, whither his scared flock had fled for refuge; another betook himself to the forest with a band of half-famished proselytes, and shared their miserable roving through the thickets and among the mountains. Those who remained took counsel together at Sainte Marie. Whither should they go, and where should be the new seat of the mission? They made choice of the Grand Manitoulin Island, called by them Isle Sainte Marie, and by the Huron Ekaentoton. It lay near the northern shores of Lake Huron, and by its position would give a ready access to numberless Algonquin tribes along the borders of all these inland seas. Moreover, it would bring the priests and their flock nearer to the French settlements, by the route of the Ottawa, whenever the Iroquois should cease to infest that river. The fishing, too, was good; and some of the priests, who knew the island well, made a favorable report of the soil. Thither, therefore, they had resolved to transplant the mission, when twelve Huron chiefs arrived, and asked for an interview with the Father Superior and his fellow Jesuits. The conference lasted three hours. The deputies declared that many of the scattered Huron had determined to reunite, and form a settlement on a neighboring island of the lake, called by the Jesuits Isle St. Joseph; that they needed the aid of the Fathers; that without them they were helpless, but with them they could hold their ground and repel the attacks of the Iroquois. They urged their plea in language which Ragueneau describes as pathetic and eloquent; and, to confirm their words, they gave him ten large collars of wampum, saying that these were the voices of their wives and children. They gained their point. The Jesuits abandoned their former plan, and promised to join the Huron on Isle St. Joseph.

They had built a boat, or small vessel, and in this they embarked such of their stores as it would hold. The greater part were placed on a large raft made for the purpose, like one of the rafts of timber which every summer float down the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa. Here was their stock of corn,--in part the produce of their own fields, and in part bought from the Huron in former years of plenty,--pictures, vestments, sacred vessels and images, weapons, ammunition, tools, goods for barter with the Indians, cattle, swine, and poultry. [Some of these were killed for food after reaching the island. In March following, they had ten fowls, a pair of swine, two bulls and two cows, kept for breeding.--Lettre de Ragueneau au Général de la Compagnie de Jésus, St. Joseph, 13 Mars, 1650.] Sainte Marie was stripped of everything that could be moved. Then, lest it should harbor the Iroquois, they set it on fire, and saw consumed in an hour the results of nine or ten years of toil. It was near sunset, on the fourteenth of June.1 The houseless band descended to the mouth of the Wye, went on board their raft, pushed it from the shore, and, with sweeps and oars, urged it on its way all night. The lake was calm and the weather fair; but it crept so slowly over the water that several days elapsed before they reached their destination, about twenty miles distant.

Near the entrance of Matchedash Bay lie the three islands now known as Faith, Hope, and Charity. Of these, Charity or Christian Island, called Ahoendoé by the Huron and St. Joseph by the Jesuits, is by far the largest. It is six or eight miles wide; and when the Huron sought refuge here, it was densely covered with the primeval forest. The priests landed with their men, some forty soldiers, laborers, and others, and found about three hundred Huron families bivouacked in the woods. Here were wigwams and sheds of bark, and smoky kettles slung over fires, each on its tripod of poles, while around lay groups of famished wretches, with dark, haggard visages and uncombed hair, in every posture of despondency and woe. They had not been wholly idle; for they had made some rough clearings, and planted a little corn. The arrival of the Jesuits gave them new hope; and, weakened as they were with famine, they set themselves to the task of hewing and burning down the forest, making bark houses, and planting palisades. The priests, on their part, chose a favorable spot, and began to clear the ground and mark out the lines of a fort. Their men--the greater part serving without pay--labored with admirable spirit, and before winter had built a square, bastioned fort of solid masonry, with a deep ditch, and walls about twelve feet high. Within were a small chapel, houses for lodging, and a well, which, with the ruins of the walls, may still be seen on the south-eastern shore of the island, a hundred feet from the water.2 Detached redoubts were also built near at hand, where French musketeers could aid in defending the adjacent Huron village. [Compare Martin, Introduction to Bressani, Relation Abrégée, 38.] Though the island was called St. Joseph, the fort, like that on the Wye, received the name of Sainte Marie. Jesuit devotion scattered these names broadcast over all the field of their labors.

The island, thanks to the vigilance of the French, escaped attack throughout the summer; but Iroquois scalping-parties ranged the neighboring shores, killing stragglers and keeping the Huron in perpetual alarm. As winter drew near, great numbers, who, trembling and by stealth, had gathered a miserable subsistence among the northern forests and islands, rejoined their countrymen at St. Joseph, until six or eight thousand expatriated wretches were gathered here under the protection of the French fort. They were housed in a hundred or more bark dwellings, each containing eight or ten families. [Ragueneau, Relation des Huron, 1650, 3, 4. He reckons eight persons to a family.] Here were widows without children, and children without parents; for famine and the Iroquois had proved more deadly enemies than the pestilence which a few years before had wasted their towns.3 Of this multitude but few had strength enough to labor, scarcely any had made provision for the winter, and numbers were already perishing from want, dragging themselves from house to house, like living skeletons. The priests had spared no effort to meet the demands upon their charity. They sent men during the autumn to buy smoked fish from the Northern Algonquins, and employed Indians to gather acorns in the woods. Of this miserable food they succeeded in collecting five or six hundred bushels. To diminish its bitterness, the Indians boiled it with ashes, or the priests served it out to them pounded, and mixed with corn. [Eight hundred sacks of this mixture were given to the Hurons during the winter.--Bressani, Relation Abrégée, 283.]

As winter advanced, the Huron houses became a frightful spectacle. Their inmates were dying by scores daily. The priests and their men buried the bodies, and the Indians dug them from the earth or the snow and fed on them, sometimes in secret and sometimes openly; although, notwithstanding their superstitious feasts on the bodies of their enemies, their repugnance and horror were extreme at the thought of devouring those of relatives and friends.4 An epidemic presently appeared, to aid the work of famine. Before spring, about half of their number were dead.

Meanwhile, though the cold was intense and the snow several feet deep, yet not an hour was free from the danger of the Iroquois; and, from sunset to daybreak, under the cold moon or in the driving snow-storm, the French sentries walked their rounds along the ramparts.

The priests rose before dawn, and spent the time till sunrise in their private devotions. Then the bell of their chapel rang, and the Indians came in crowds at the call; for misery had softened their hearts, and nearly all on the island were now Christian. There was a mass, followed by a prayer and a few words of exhortation; then the hearers dispersed to make room for others. Thus the little chapel was filled ten or twelve times, until all had had their turn. Meanwhile other priests were hearing confessions and giving advice and encouragement in private, according to the needs of each applicant. This lasted till nine o'clock, when all the Indians returned to their village, and the priests presently followed, to give what assistance they could. Their cassocks were worn out, and they were dressed chiefly in skins. [Lettre de Ragueneau au Général de la Compagnie de Jésus, Isle St. Joseph, 13 Mars, 1650.] They visited the Indian houses, and gave to those whose necessities were most urgent small scraps of hide, severally stamped with a particular mark, and entitling the recipients, on presenting them at the fort, to a few acorns, a small quantity of boiled maize, or a fragment of smoked fish, according to the stamp on the leather ticket of each. Two hours before sunset the bell of the chapel again rang, and the religious exercises of the morning were repeated. [Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1650, 6, 7.]

Thus this miserable winter wore away, till the opening spring brought new fears and new necessities.

[Concerning the retreat of the Hurons to Isle St. Joseph, the principal authorities are the Relations of 1649 and 1650, which are ample in detail, and written with an excellent simplicity and modesty; the Relation Abrégée of Bressani; the reports of the Father Superior to the General of the Jesuits at Rome; the manuscript of 1652, entitled Mémoires touchant la Mort et les Vertus des Pères, etc.; the unpublished letters of Garnier; and a letter of Chaumonot, written on the spot, and preserved in the Relations.]

1 Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1650, 3. In the Relation of the preceding year he gives the fifteenth of May as the date,--evidently an error.

"Nous sortismes de ces terres de Promission qui estoient nostre Paradis, et où la mort nous eust esté mille fois plus douce que ne sera la vie en quelque lieu que nous puissions estre. Mais il faut suiure Dieu, et il faut aimer ses conduites, quelque opposées qu'elles paroissent à nos desirs, à nos plus saintes esperances et aux plus tendres amours de nostre cœur."--Lettre de Ragueneau au P. Provincial à Paris, in Relation des Hurons, 1650, 1.

"Mais il fallut, à tous tant que nous estions, quitter cette ancienne demeure de saincte Marie; ces edifices, qui quoy que pauures, paroissoient des chefs-d'œuure de l'art aux yeux de nos pauures Sauuages; ces terres cultiuées, qui nous promettoient vne riche moisson. Il nous fallut abandonner ce lieu, que ie puis appeller nostre seconde Patrie et nos delices innocentes, puis qu'il auoit esté le berceau de ce Christianisme, qu'il estoit le temple de Dieu et la maison des seruiteurs de Iesus-Christ; et crainte que nos ennemis trop impies, ne profanassent ce lieu de saincteté et n'en prissent leur auantage, nous y mismes le feu nous mesmes, et nous vismes brusler à nos yeux, en moins d'vne heure, nos trauaux de neuf et de dix ans."--Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1650, 2, 3.

2 The measurement between the angles of the two southern bastions is 123 feet, and that of the curtain wall connecting these bastions is 78 feet. Some curious relics have been found in the fort,--among others, a steel mill for making wafers for the Host. It was found in 1848, in a remarkable state of preservation, and is now in an English museum, having been bought on the spot by an amateur. As at Sainte Marie on the Wye, the remains are in perfect conformity with the narratives and letters of the priests.

3 "Ie voudrois pouuoir representer à toutes les personnes affectionnées à nos Hurons, l'état pitoyable auquel ils sont reduits;. . . comment seroit-il possible que ces imitateurs de Iésus Christ ne fussent émeus à pitié à la veuë des centaines et centaines de veuues dont non seulement les enfans, mais quasi les parens ont esté outrageusement ou tuez, ou emmenez captifs, et puis inhumainement bruslez, cuits, déchirez et deuorez des ennemis."--Lettre de Chaumonot à Lalemant, Supérieur à Quebec, Isle de St. Joseph, 1 Juin, 1649.

"Vne mère s'est veuë, n'ayant que ses deux mamelles, mais sans suc et sans laict, qui toutefois estoit l'vnique chose qu'elle eust peu presenter à trois ou quatre enfans qui pleuroient y estans attachez. Elle les voyoit mourir entre ses bras, les vns apres les autres, et n'auoit pas mesme les forces de les pousser dans le tombeau. Elle mouroit sous cette charge, et en mourant elle disoit: Ouy, Mon Dieu, vous estes le maistre de nos vies; nous mourrons puisque vous le voulez; voila qui est bien que nous mourrions Chrestiens. I'estois damnée, et mes enfans auec moy, si nous ne fussions morts miserables; ils ont receu le sainct Baptesme, et ie croy fermement que mourans tous de compagnie, nous ressusciterons tous ensemble."--Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1650, 5.

4 "Ce fut alors que nous fusmes contraints de voir des squeletes mourantes, qui soustenoient vne vie miserable, mangeant iusqu'aux ordures et les rebuts de la nature. Le gland estoit à la pluspart, ce que seroient en France les mets les plus exquis. Les charognes mesme deterrées, les restes des Renards et des Chiens ne faisoient point horreur, et se mangeoient, quoy qu'en cachete: car quoy que les Hurons, auant que la foy leur eust donné plus de lumiere qu'ils n'en auoient dans l'infidelité, ne creussent pas commettre aucun peché de manger leurs ennemis, aussi peu qu'il y en a de les tuer, toutefois ie puis dire auec verité, qu'ils n'ont pas moins d'horreur de manger de leurs compatriotes, qu'on peut auoir en France de manger de la chair humaine. Mais la necessité n'a plus de loy, et des dents fameliques ne discernent plus ce qu'elles mangent. Les mères se sont repeuës de leurs enfans, des freres de leurs freres, et des enfans ne reconnoissoient plus en vn cadaure mort, celuy lequel lors qu'il viuoit, ils appelloient leur Pere."--Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1650, 4. Compare Bressani, Relation Abrégée, 283.

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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America


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