We learned last time from W. J. Eccles in the The Canadian Frontier 1534-1760, that the Jesuits established themselves in missions in Huronia during the period 1632-39. Their goal was to convert the Huron Nation, some 30,000 strong, to Christianity.
Prof Eccles continues: “The Indians found little that appealed to them in the Christian way of life. Moreover, the attempts by the Jesuits to make them change many of their established customs did not sit well. The Indians lived without laws and with very few restraints; each man or woman was free to live as he/she thought best, and crimes were punished by the victim or his kin, not by the collectivity. The only restraint on action was the normal desire to be held in esteem by his/her community.
Women were the masters of their own bodies and from puberty until pregnancy they gave themselves to any male that pleased them. To the Jesuits this was a carnal sin. Some others of the French, the men sent by the fur trade companies to establish good trade relations, found the Indian moral standards very acceptable and took full advantage of the Indian girls lack of sexual inhibitions. Thus when the Jesuits tried to persuade the Huron to lead chaste lives, they met a cool reception. If chastity was such a good thing, why did all the French Christians not practice it, they asked. To this the missionaries were hard pressed to find an answer.
The Jesuits found that before they could hope to enjoy and real success, they had to undermine the old beliefs of the Huron, and in so doing, they helped to destroy their culture. One approach was to demonstrate that the Indians reliance on dreams to govern their future actions was inefficacious. Once a few Huron had been converted and openly rejected the belief in dreams, and if they had as much luck in the hunt as the pagans, the latter began to doubt their old beliefs.
If the Huron were occasionally impressed by the efficacy of the Jesuit prayers, they were quick to blame them when something went amiss. And amiss it did. It appears about 15,000 Huron, many of them children, died in the 1630s when a European disease for which they had no resistance, attacked their villages. The missionaries saw this as the work of Satan but were quick to take advantage. Previously, they feared baptizing an Indian unless they were reasonably certain that henceforth, she/he would lead a Christian life. The missionaries were now able to baptize the dying by the hundreds. Because the Jesuits were blamed for the disease, they encountered more resistance than ever but took satisfaction that thousands had gone to heaven that otherwise would have been barred to them.
No sooner had the plague run its course and began to abate, than another, and even worse disaster stuck the Huron. The Iroquois anxious to gain more control of the fur trade, negotiated a commercial alliance and peace treaty with the Huron and French in 1645. However they gained nothing by this accord and soon embarked on a war of extermination against the Huron.
In 1647 their sudden assaults forced the Huron to abandon some of their outlying villages and withdraw to the more populous villages near St. Marie for protection. At or near St. Marie Mission were some 13 Huron villages. During that year, 3,000 persons had been given shelter and food. Converts numbered in the thousands and over 2,000 in all had been baptized; however a large number of the last had been moribund. Attempts were made to renew the peace treaty and to arrange a military alliance with the Andastes, a fierce Iroquois Nation in the Susquehanna Valley (in NY and PA) hostile to the Five Nations Confederacy. The Jesuits remained confident that the Iroquois assaults could be curbed and they started to see some success to their missionary efforts at last.”
(To be concluded next time…)