The Jesuit Relations

Cover of the Jesuit Relations for 1662–1663

The Jesuit Relations, also known as Relations des Jésuites de la Nouvelle-France, are chronicles of the Jesuit missions in New France. The works were written annually and printed beginning in 1632 and ending in 1673. Written as reports for their Order and for helping raise funds for the mission, the Relations were so thorough in descriptions of First Nations and their cultures that these reports are considered among the first ethnographic documents.

Originally written in French, Latin, and Italian, The Jesuit Relations were reports from Jesuit missionaries in the field to their superiors to update them as to the missionaries' progress in the conversion of various Native American tribes. Constructed as narratives, the original reports of the Jesuit missionaries were subsequently transcribed and altered several times before their publication, first by the Jesuit overseer in New France and then by the Jesuit governing body in France. The Jesuits began to shape The Relations for the general public, in order to attract new settlers to the colony and to raise enough capital to continue the missions in New France.


Jesuit missionaries had to write annual reports to their superior in Québec or Montréal, as an account of their activities. Annually, between 1632 and 1673, the superior compiled a narrative or "Relation" of the most important events which had occurred in the several missionary districts under his charge, sometimes using the exact words of the missionaries and sometimes summarizing the individual journals in a general account, based in part also upon the oral reports of visiting fathers. This annual "Relation" was forwarded to the provincial of the Order in France. After he reviewed and edited it, he published the account in a series of duodecimo volumes, known collectively as The Jesuit Relations.[1] At times the Jesuit Relations read like travel narratives, describing geographical features and observations about the local peoples, flora, and fauna.

According to Thomas Campbell, missionary Charles Lallemont wrote a letter to his brother, dated 1 August 1626, which marks the beginning of the fathers' accounts and the series Relations des Jésuites de la Nouvelle-France about the missionary work in New France.[2] The Relations were published in Paris annually until 1673. It is believed that Louis de Buade de Frontenac, who disliked the Jesuit order, strongly influenced ending this publication.[3]


As the Jesuit order used The Jesuit Relations to help raise money for the missions, scholars have scrutinized the reports for the possibility of textual incongruity or fictionalized accounts. Certainly the Jesuits may have worked to convey optimism about their progress in converting the Native Americans, as it was very slow. Daniel K. Richter says that the fact "[t]hat printed reports were designed to raise money for the mission suggests a need for caution."[4] When examined with care, The Jesuit Relations still function as an important resource in the study of the relationship of cultural exchange that occurred between the settlers of New France and Native Americans.

Jesuit Relations were publicized as field letters from the missionary priests, reports of eyewitness, and testimony. Allan Greer notes that the process of passage up the hierarchy meant that accounts would be summarized and shaped according to each man's view. He notes that the editing journey "began with detailed letters from priests in the field, the most important usually being the one brought down by the summer canoe brigade from the Huron Country. The superior at Quebec would compile and edit these letters, paraphrasing some parts, copying others verbatim, and forwarding the whole package to France."[5] The Jesuit Society in France approved any documents that they published and they likely altered some material before printing. Likewise, John Pollack notes the account of Father Isaac Jogues in 1641 "is not an eyewitness testimony" but, rather, a second-hand relation by his superior, "drawn from Jogues' letters."[6] Pollack notes further that the Relations "were edited by Jesuit missions in Paris before publication."[6]

Because of the wide distribution of the letters after publication, scholars ask the question: who decided the relevance of information contained in these field letters? Although the Jesuits tried to avoid disclosing any compromise in their principles, "it is possible to detect evidence of soul searching and shifting points of view"[7] relative to their success at converting Native peoples. After extensive cultural immersion, the missionaries may have moved from tolerating native belief systems to assuming native idiosyncrasies. Jesuit officials in France would be liable to omit any threat to their philosophies in the final document. The issue concerns less the basic accuracy of the Jesuit Relations than the "manipulative literary devices"[8] employed by the editors. Greer notes that European writings were popularly documented in one of two forms, as travel narratives or as encyclopedic catalogs. He notes that the Jesuits obscured the boundaries between these two genres in an attempt to raise funds to continue Jesuit missions in New France: "One of the peculiarities of the Jesuit Relations is that they combine both types of writing: Jacques Marquette's personal narrative of his trip down the Mississippi, for example, shares space with Jean de Brébeuf's systematic description of Huron society."[5]

Compilation and modern publication

What are generally known as the Relations proper, addressed to the superior and published in Paris under direction of the provincial, commence with Le Jeune's Brieve Relations du Voyage de la Noevelle-France (1632). Thereafter a duodecimo volume, neatly printed and bound in vellum, was issued annually from the press of Sebastien Cramoisy in Paris until 1673, when the series was discontinued.[1] Several similar texts that were published prior to 1632 are sometimes considered part of the corpus.

No single unified edition existed until Reuben Gold Thwaites, secretary of the Wisconsin Historical Society, led the project to translate into English, unify, and cross-reference the numerous original Relations. Between 1896 and 1901 Thwaites and his associates compiled 73 volumes, including two volumes of indices. The Relations effectively comprise a large body of ethnographic material. He included many other papers, rare manuscripts, and letters from the archives of the Society of Jesus, spanning a period from the founding of the order to 1791.[9]

The indices are comprehensive in scope and include titles such as: Marriage and Marriage Customs, Courtship, Divorce, Social Status of Women, Songs and Singing, Dances, and Games and Recreation. Much can be learned through the examination and study of the ethnographic material compiled by the Jesuit missionaries in New France. The depth of the cross-referencing allows for several hundred years of Native American/European interaction to be easily accessed.[10]

While Thwaites is the first and arguably the best known of modern editions, others followed. Lucien Campeau SJ (1967–2003) discussed the texts which he included as well as the historical events they refer to; his work is considered to give the most detailed and exhaustive general overviews available.[11]

Representation in other media

  • The Canadian drama film Mission of Fear (1965) is based substantially on The Jesuit Relations.

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