Jesuits and the Huron Nation – Part 1

Canadian Frontier

We celebrate National Indigenous History Month in Canada during June:

I thought I would share a few excerpts from a history book I am reading.  It concerns the first interactions of the Jesuits with the Huron Nation in New France during the first half of the 17th century.

Prof. Eccles writes:

“It was in the west in Huronia, a vast area bounded by Georgian Bay, Lakes Huron, Erie, Ontario, and Simcoe that the Jesuits concentrated their major effort to convert the natives to Christianity. The Huron, estimated to number some 30 to 35 thousand, had obtained a more advanced culture than the Algonkin nations.  Living in semi-permanent villages, they depended on agriculture for their main food supplies and traded their surplus of corn with the northern and western tribes for furs.  Between 1634 and 1639, the Jesuits established 3 missions here, the largest of which was called Ste. Marie… As many as 65 French resided there at one time, priests, lay brothers, servants, a surgeon, an apothecary, and a number of artisans…These tiny outposts separated from the settlements on the St. Lawrence by hundreds of miles of wilderness, formed a unique frontier, a frontier of the intellect.  There the products of the highly sophisticated Baroque civilization confronted the Stone Age.

Huronia map



…The Huron had a religion of their own which sufficed for their needs, and which they showed a great reluctance to abandon.  Theirs was a cruel world in which sudden death could come at any time.  In seeking to explain chance events and the phenomena of nature that affected their lives at every turn, they had developed a deep-rooted set of mystic beliefs.  For them, the natural world, inanimate objects as well as animals, were inhabited by spirits; some were benevolent, some malevolent, all had to be placated, appeased or at least acknowledged.  They believed that in their dreams they were in communication with the spirit world; thus, to dream of success in the hunt ensured it; to dream of disaster caused plans to be abandoned.  Some among them were able to induce conditions of hysteria in themselves, and in this way communicate with spirits.  These were the shamans, the wisemen, who healed the sick with simple remedies of magic, and gave advice on what action to take to cope with major problems.  They were the priests of the Huron culture. Others possessed supernatural powers but used them malevolently; these were the sorcerers, and they had to be appeased.

…One great difficulty in any attempt to understand the Huron religious beliefs was that their beliefs were passed from one generation to the next orally.  The Indians had developed a large body of myths and legends to account for the inexplicable in nature, and although some Jesuits sought to understand these beliefs, the language barrier and the desire to impose their own alien beliefs made real understanding virtually impossible.  Yet this primitive religion was intricately interwoven into the whole of Indian life and society.  The early Recollets and then the Jesuits discovered that the Indians appeared to believe in a supreme being and in an after life, hence in the immortality of the soul.  The problem than became whether these beliefs could be accepted in essence and amended in accord with Christian beliefs, or whether they had to be destroyed, eradicated, then replaced by a pure Christian creed.  Initially the Jesuits, appalled at the strange mores and practices of the Huron, sought to eradicate and impose.  As they came to understand these Indians better, they discovered how impossible such a task is so they came to accept much and seek to build on it.

…Fr. Paul Le Jeune writes in Vol. IV of the Jesuit Relations : Our lives depend upon a single thread; and if, wherever we are in the world, we are to expect death every hour and to be prepared for it.  Your cabin is only chaff that might be burned down at any moment, despite all your care to prevent accidents, the malice of the Savages gives special cause for almost perpetual fear; a malcontent may burn you down, or cleave your head open in some lonely spot.  And then you are responsible for the sterility or fecundity of the earth, under penalty of your life; you are the cause of droughts; if you cannot make rain, they speak of nothing less than making away with you.”

Huronia picture

Huron Chief Nicolas Arendanki by Marianne S L’Heureux

Such was the nature of the first interactions between the Jesuit missionaries and the Huron in New France.  Proff. William J. Eccles has done a superb job in capturing this encounter.  William (1917-98) was a professor of history at the University of Toronto who wrote extensively on the French era in Canada.

To be continued.




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