Jesuit Missions amongst the Huron

Between 1634 and 1655, the Jesuits established a home and a settlement in New France along the Saint Lawrence River. They soon moved deeper into the colony’s territory in order to live with and convert the local Huron population. During this time, however, their missionary efforts were fraught with disappointment and frustration. In other colonies, such as in Latin America, the Jesuit missions had found a more eager and receptive audience to Christianity, the result of a chaotic atmosphere of violence and conquest. But in New France, where French authority and coercive powers did not extend far and where French settlement was sparse, the Jesuits found conversion far more difficult.[1] Nevertheless, the French missionary settlements were integral to maintaining political, economic, and military ties with the Huron and other native peoples in the region. The contact between the two had important consequences in lifestyle, social and cultural attitudes, as well as in spiritual practice. The French Jesuits and Huron found they had to negotiate their religious, social, and cultural differences in order to accommodate one another.

The Huron lived modest lives, but nevertheless, before their encounter "with the French, the Huron knew of no culture that they had reason to believe was materially more successful than their own."[2] The Huron traded with the French and other tribes for food, European tools, and other supplies, which proved to be crucial to their survival. But the Huron mainly practiced a form of sedentary agriculture, which appealed to the French, who believed that cultivating the land and making it productive was a sign of civilization. The Huron women worked primarily with crops, such as maize, which they planted, tended and harvested. Entire villages would relocate once the fertile soil in a certain area was depleted after several seasons of use.[3] Women also gathered plants and berries, cooked, and made clothing and baskets. Women did not participate in the autumn hunts, however.[4] Men cleared the fields, hunted deer, fished, and erected their multi-family longhouses.[5] Men were also responsible for the defense of the village and would fight during wartime. For instance, the Iroquois and the Huron fought many times amongst themselves. Revenge was the major reason Huron went to war, but the decision to resort to violence was made only after lengthy discussion.

The Huron government system was very different from that in Europe. One major difference was that individuals belonged to a matrilineage.[6] Furthermore, Huron peoples would discuss an issue together until a general consensus was reached. Their government was based on clan segments and each segment had two headmen: a civil leader and a war chief.[7] Huron law centered around four major areas: murder, theft, witchcraft (of which both men and women could be accused), and treason. The Huron did not have a religion similar to that of Europeans; rather, "the Huron lived in a world in which everything that existed, including man-made things, possessed souls and were immortal."[8] Dreams and visions were a part of Huron religion, influencing almost all major decisions.[9]

Methods of Conversion

The Jesuit missionaries who came to New France in the seventeenth century aimed to both convert native peoples such as the Huron to Christianity and also to instill European values within them.[10] Jesuit planners believed that by creating European social institutions and patterns, conversion would become easier: linking European lifestyle as the foundation for proper conceptions of Christian spirituality.[11]

Compared to other native populations in the region such as the hunter-gatherer Innu or Mi’kmaq peoples, the Huron already fit in relatively well with the Jesuits’ ideas of stable societies. For instance, the Huron had semi-permanent settlements and actively practiced agriculture—with maize as their major staple crop.[12] Nonetheless, the Jesuits often found it hard to bridge the cultural divide and their religious and social conversion efforts often met with stiff resistance from the Huron.

War and violent conflict between tribes, on the other hand, helped create a far more receptive audience to Christianity and increased the Jesuits' potential for successful conversion.[13] Nevertheless, natives were also converted by other means. Father Paul Le Jeune advocated fear tactics to convert natives to Christianity, such as showing them frightening pictures of Hell or drawing upon the natives’ own fears, such as losing a child, in order to create horrifying mental images and encourage the natives to consider their own mortality and salvation.[14]


Jesuits often used existing native customs and social structures in order to enter and settle in villages and convert the people there. Thus, missionary methods of conversion often juxtaposed aspects of Christian practice with certain elements of Huron culture. For instance, missionaries carefully studied native languages and spoke to the Huron about Christianity on their own terms. They translated hymns, prayers such as the Pater Noster, and other liturgical texts into the Huron language, which they would then recite in front of large groups.[15] De Religione was written entirely in Wendat in the seventeenth century. This book was intended to be a guide to Christianity for the Huron. The lengthy religious tract covered information on Christian religious practice such as baptism, a discussion on different types of souls, Christian conceptions of the afterlife, and even the reasoning behind the Jesuits’ missionary work itself.[16]

Consequences of Jesuit Missions with the Huron

The Huron had initially welcomed the French as emissaries and as important links for French goods and supplies as well as allies in their wars against the Iroquois. But in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits were preaching a type of Catholicism that was radicalized by decades of violent conflict in France and they could be intolerant of non-Catholic spirituality.[17] This Catholicism demanded an all-or-nothing commitment from converts, which meant that the Huron were sometimes forced to choose between their Christian faith and their traditional spiritual beliefs, family structures, and community ties.[18]

At first, many Huron were interested in the Jesuits’ stories of the origin of the universe and about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and some were baptized. Others—though curious about the European faith—were prevented from baptism by the Jesuits out of the concern that these Huron were dangerously combining traditional practices with Christian concepts. Finally, a group of traditionalists, preferring Huron methods of conciliation and dialogue, were disquieted by the confrontational nature of Jesuit preaching and conversion methods. They feared the consequence of converts breaking all their ritual, familial, and communal ties, and so, began to actively oppose the missionary program.[19]

Christianity and Huron’s Social Weakening

The factionalism dividing Christian converts and traditionalists seriously weakened the Huron confederacy in the 1640s. Due to Jesuit insistence on emphasizing aka incompatibility of Christianity and traditional spirituality rather than noting convergences, Huron Christians tended to distance themselves from the traditional practices of their people and threatened ties that had once bound communities together.[20] Converts refused to participate in shared feasts, Christian women rejected traditionalist suitors, they carefully observed Catholic fasts, and they also withheld Christian remains from the Feast of the Dead, which was an important ritual of disinterment and collective reburial. The Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf described the spectacle in The Jesuit Relations, explaining that,

Huron Feast of the Dead, where ancestral remains were disinterred and reburied
Engraving of the Huron Feast of the Dead.

Many of them think we have two souls, both of them being divisible and material, and yet both reasonable. One of them separates itself from the body at death yet remains in the cemetery until the Feast of the Dead, after which it either changes into a dove, or according to a common belief, it goes away at once to the village of souls. The other is more attached to the body and, in a sense, provides information to the corpse. It remains in the grave after the feast and never leaves, unless someone bears it again as a child.[21]

The Feast combined notions of Huron spirituality, the life of souls, and a community engaged in life, death, and reproduction. The Christian refusal to participate in key community rituals such as this was a direct threat to traditional spiritual and physical unity.[22]

Religion and Illness

Physical violence, the widespread dispersal of the remaining people, and waves of Old World diseases such as smallpox, influenza, and measles, to which the native populations had no built-up immunity, meant that the Huron population was heavily afflicted.[23] When these epidemics struck, however, many Huron blamed the Jesuits.

Within the religious context, the Jesuits had found themselves in competition with native spiritual leaders, and so often presented themselves as shamans capable of influencing human health through prayer. Aboriginal conceptions of shamanistic power were ambivalent and it was believed that shamans were capable of doing both good and ill. As a result, the Huron easily attributed their boons as well as their problems of disease, illness, and death to the Jesuit presence.[24]

Many Huron were particularly suspicious of the rite of baptism. The Jesuits frequently performed surreptitious baptisms on ailing and dying infants, in the belief that these children would be sent to heaven since they did not have the time to sin.[25] Similarly, deathbed baptisms became common during these times of widespread disease. But the Huron interpreted baptism as a sinister piece of sorcery that marked an individual for death.[26] Resistance to the Jesuit missions grew as the Huron took repeated blows to their population and their political, social, cultural, and religious heritage.

Conceptions of Martyrdom

The Jesuits had initially envisioned a relatively easy and efficient conversion of native people who supposedly lacked religion and would therefore eagerly adopt Catholicism. Yet they found that this was far more easily said than done. Combined with the harsh Canadian environment and the threat of physical violence against the missionaries at the hands of native peoples grew, the Jesuits began interpreting their difficulties of "carrying the cross" from a metaphorical to an increasingly literal level as preparation for their eventual martyrdom. There was a rhetorical shift as the Jesuits recast themselves from triumphant evangelists to living martyrs, who were despised by those they had come to rescue.[27] By the 1640s the Jesuits had come to anticipate violence and believed they were condemned to suffer and die while maintaining hope for their eventual spiritual triumph by linking their deaths to the suffering of Christ. The first Jesuit superior of the New France mission, Father Paul Le Jeune concluded,

Map of New France by Francesco Giuseppe Bressani, 1657.
Map of New France with depiction of the martyrdom of Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant.

Considering the glory that redounds to God from the constancy of the martyrs, with whose blood all the rest of the earth has been so lately drenched, it would be a sort of curse if this quarter of the world should not participate in the happiness of having contributed to the splendour of this glory.[28]

Similarly, shortly before his own violent death, the missionary Jean de Brébeuf wrote,

I make a vow to you never to fail, on my side, in the grace of martyrdom, if by your infinite mercy you offer it to me someday, to me, your unworthy servant… my beloved Jesus, I offer to you from to-day… my blood, my body, and my life; so that I might die only for you.[29]

Brébeuf was violently killed at the hands of the Iroquois during a destructive attack on the Christianized Huron mission settlement of St. Louis in 1649. He would be canonized as a saint in the twentieth century. Thus, the contact between the Huron and Jesuits enacted major changes in the spiritual, political, cultural, and religious lives of both natives and Europeans in North America.

Decline of the Huron

In the summer of 1639, a smallpox epidemic struck the natives in the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes regions. The disease reached the Huron tribes through traders returning from Québec and remained in the region throughout the winter. When the epidemic was over, the Huron population had been reduced to roughly 9000 people, one half of what it was before 1634.[30]

The Huron people faced numerous challenges in the 1630s and 1640s. Rampant disease, economic dependency, and Iroquois attacks reduced Huron population and created rifts in the society.[31] These reasons contributing to the Huron decline also prompted many of the natives to convert to Catholicism. In the late 1640s, villages that had been left demoralized and leaderless would convert en masse.[31] The Jesuit success was short-lived, however, for the Iroquois would wipe out the Huron nations in the spring of 1649.

In the 1640s, the Huron managed to maintain the previous amount of furs they traded to the French, even after having their population cut in half. The required change in organization necessary for the upkeep of such trade practices put a strain on the society. Traders were always travelling between Huronia and the St. Lawrence and many were captured or killed by the Iroquois, especially between 1641 and 1644.[32] Moreover, with so many men absent, Huron settlements were more vulnerable to Iroquois attacks.[33]

War with the Iroquois

Native warfare became deadlier in the 17th century due to the use of firearms and increasing pressures stemming from epidemics and European trade.[34] However, the ability to kill more efficiently may not have been the foremost reason why the Iroquois wiped out the Huron. For reasons unclear, the Iroquois shifted their military focus from capturing prisoners to destroying the entire Huron people. Yet, there was some disagreement within the Iroquois, with one faction wanting to bargain for peace with the French, the other faction wanting war. When the warmongering faction won out, fighting between the Iroquois and its Huron enemy increased.[35]

Such a change in overall strategy brought about changes to Iroquois tactics: "The traditional siege of a Huron village aimed at challenging its defenders to come out and fight gave way to surprise attacks at dawn, followed by pillaging, burning, and long trains of captives carrying away booty."[36] Moreover, native attacks in the past had been quick, with the raiding party retreating after it had inflicted the intended damage. In the late 1640s, however, Iroquois tactics changed, as they relentlessly hunted down those who had fled during and after battles.[37]

In 1645, the Huron mission town of St Joseph was attacked.[38] But for the following two years, violence between the Huron and Iroquois was minimal, for there was a peace agreement between the Iroquois and the French and their native allies. The unstable peace came to an end in the summer of 1647 when a diplomatic mission headed by Jesuit Father Isaac Jogues and Jean de Lalande to Mohawk territory (one of the five Iroquois nations) was accused of treachery and evil magic. Jogues and La Lande were stripped and beaten when they arrived and were killed the next day.[39] Some of the Huron who had accompanied Jogues were able to return to Trois-Rivières and informed the French of what had occurred.

Between 1648-1649, Huron settlements with a Jesuit presence, such as the towns of St. Joseph under Father Antoine Daniel, the villages of St. Ignace and St. Louis, as well as the French fort of Ste. Marie, were subject to repeated attacks by the Iroquois.[40] The Iroquois killed indiscriminately, laying a final blow on the already fragile Huron population. Those who were not killed dispersed: women and children were often adopted into new societies and cultures, for example. By the end of 1649, however, the Huron as a recognizable people, with political, cultural, religious, or even a geographical identity ceased to exist. Jesuits were among those captured, tortured, and killed in these attacks; from the missionary perspective, individuals such as Jean de Brébeuf died as martyrs.


"Weakened, divided, and demoralized, the Huron nations collapsed as a result of the Iroquois hammer blows of 1649."[31] While the Iroquois had failed to take the French fort, Ste. Marie, they had overall been victorious. Factionalized politically, socially, culturally, and religiously, the Huron took a final blow to their cohesiveness through these violent attacks. Terrified at the prospect of further attacks, the survivors began to flee. By the end of March, fifteen Huron towns had been abandoned.[41] Many Huron were absorbed by the Iroquois, while others were incorporated into neighboring tribes. One party of Huron people had escaped to Île St. Joseph but with their food supplies destroyed, they soon faced starvation; those who left the island in search of game, risked encountering Iroquois raiders who hunted down the hunters "with a ferocity that stunned Jesuit observers."[42] A small group of Catholic Huron followed the Jesuits back to Québec City.[31]

See also


  1. ^ "New Voyages to North-America" Page 17, 1703
  2. ^ Trigger, 32.
  3. ^ Trigger, 36.
  4. ^ Trigger, 38.
  5. ^ Trigger, 43.
  6. ^ Von Gernet, 164.
  7. ^ Trigger, 55.
  8. ^ Trigger, 75.
  9. ^ Von Gernet, 167.
  10. ^ James P. Ronda, "The European Indian: Jesuit Civilization Planning in New France," Church History 41, no. 3 (1972): 385.
  11. ^ Peter A. Goddard, "Converting the 'Sauvage': Jesuit and Montagnais in Seventeenth-Century New France," The Catholic Historical Review 84, no. 2 (1998): 220.
  12. ^ Margaret J. Leahey, "'Comment peut un muet prescher l'evangile?' Jesuit Missionaries and the Native Languages of New France," French Historical Studies, no. 1 (1995): 112.
  13. ^ Daniel K. Richter, "Iroquois versus Iroquois: Jesuit Missions and Christianity in Village Politics, 1642-1686," Ethnohistory 32, no. 1 (1985): 46.
  14. ^ John L. Steckley, "The Warrior and the Lineage: Jesuit Use of Iroquoian Images to Communicate Christianity," Ethnohistory 32, no. 4 (1998): 482-3.
  15. ^ Steckley, 106.
  16. ^ Steckley, 481.
  17. ^ Emma Anderson. "Blood, Fire, and ‘Baptism’: Three Perspectives on the Death of Jean de Brébeuf, Seventeenth-Century Jesuit ‘Martyr.’" Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape. Ed. Joel W. Martin and Mark A. Nicholas. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 128.
  18. ^ Allan Greer. "Introduction: Native North America and the French Jesuits." The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America. Ed. Allan Greer. (Boston and New York: Bedford / St. Martins, 2000), 12.
  19. ^ Anderson, "Blood, Fire, and ‘Baptism,’" 129.
  20. ^ Anderson, 143.
  21. ^ Jean de Brébeuf. "Of the Solemn Feast of the Dead, 1636." The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America. Ed. Allan Greer. (Boston and New York: Bedford / St. Martins, 2000), 64-65.
  22. ^ Anderson, "Blood, Fire, and ‘Baptism.’" 143.
  23. ^ Alfred W. Crosby. "Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America." The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (April 1976), 289-290.
  24. ^ Bruce Trigger. Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s "Heroic Age" Reconsidered. (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985), 246-247.
  25. ^ Greer, "Introduction," 12-13.
  26. ^ Trigger, Natives and Newcomers, 249-250.
  27. ^ Anderson, "Blood, Fire, and ‘Baptism,’" 128-129.
  28. ^ The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. 73 vol. Ed. Reuben G. Thwaites. (Cleveland: Burrows Brothers, 1896-1900), 17:13.
  29. ^ Thwaites, 34:167-169.
  30. ^ Trigger, 588-589.
  31. ^ a b c d Greer, 112.
  32. ^ Trigger, 605
  33. ^ Trigger, 658
  34. ^ Greer, 94
  35. ^ Greer, 111
  36. ^ Trigger, 661
  37. ^ Alan Axelrod. America’s Wars. (New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2002), 33.
  38. ^ Axelrod, 25.
  39. ^ Trigger, 655.
  40. ^ Keith F. Otterbein. Feuding and Warfare, Vol. 1. (Langhorne, Pennsylvania: Gordon and Breach, 1994), 12.
  41. ^ Axelrod, 25
  42. ^ Axelrod, 36

Further reading

  • Axtell, James. The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas. Ed. Allan Greer and Jodi Bilinkoff. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Grant, John Webster. Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter Since 1534. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
  • Greer, Allan. "Colonial Saints: Gender, Race, and Hagiography in New France," William and Mary Quarterly 57, no. 2 (April 2000).
  • Salisbury, Neal. "Religious Encounters in a Colonial Context: New England and New France in the Seventeenth Century," American Indian Quarterly 16 (1992): 501-509.
  • Treat, James. Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada. New York: Routledge, 1996. He died later on.

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