Obscure toil, solitude, privation, hardship, and death were to be the missionary’s portion.
Previously in The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century.
Our special project presenting the definitive account of France in Canada by Francis Parkman, one of America’s greatest historians.
Mention has been made of those great depositories of human bones found at the present day in the ancient country of the Hurons. [See Introduction.] They have been a theme of abundant speculation;  yet their origin is a subject, not of conjecture, but of historic certainty. The peculiar rites to which they owe their existence were first described at length by Brébeuf, who, in the summer of the year 1636, saw them at the town of Ossossané.
[1 Among those who have wondered and speculated over these remains is Mr. Schoolcraft. A slight acquaintance with the early writers would have solved his doubts.]
For other descriptions of these rites, see Charlevoix, Bressani, Du Creux, and especially Lafitau, in whose work they are illustrated with engravings. In one form or another, they were widely prevalent. Bartram found them among the Floridian tribes. Traces of a similar practice have been observed in recent times among the Dacotahs. Remains of places of sepulture, evidently of kindred origin, have been found in Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, and Ohio. Many have been discovered in several parts of New York, especially near the River Niagara. (See Squier, Aboriginal Monuments of New York.) This was the eastern extremity of the ancient territory of the Neuters. One of these deposits is said to have contained the bones of several thousand individuals. There is a large mound on Tonawanda Island, said by the modern Senecas to be a Neuter burial-place. (See Marshall, Historical Sketches of the Niagara Frontier, 8.) In Canada West, they are found throughout the region once occupied by the Neuters, and are frequent in the Huron district.
Dr. Taché writes to me,
I have inspected sixteen bone-pits,” (in the Huron country,) “the situation of which is indicated on the little pencil map I send you. They contain from six hundred to twelve hundred skeletons each, of both sexes and all ages, all mixed together purposely. With one exception, these pits also contain pipes of stone or clay, small earthen pots, shells, and wampum wrought of these shells, copper ornaments, beads of glass, and other trinkets. Some pits contained articles of copper of aboriginal Mexican fabric.”
This remarkable fact, together with the frequent occurrence in these graves of large conch-shells, of which wampum was made, and which could have been procured only from the Gulf of Mexico, or some part of the southern coast of the United States, proves the extent of the relations of traffic by which certain articles were passed from tribe to tribe over a vast region. The transmission of pipes from the famous Red Pipe-Stone Quarry of the St. Peter’s to tribes more than a thousand miles distant is an analogous modern instance, though much less remarkable.
The Taché Museum, at the Laval University of Quebec, contains a large collection of remains from these graves. In one instance, the human bones are of a size that may be called gigantic.
In nearly every case, the Huron graves contain articles of use or ornament of European workmanship. From this it may be inferred, that the nation itself, or its practice of inhumation, does not date back to a period long before the arrival of the French. Such was the origin of one of those strange sepulchres which are the wonder and perplexity of the modern settler in the abandoned forests of the Hurons.
[2 The Northern Algonquins had also a solemn Feast of the Dead; but it was widely different from that of the Hurons. — See the very curious account of it by Lalemant, Relation des Hurons, 1642, 94, 95.]
The priests were soon to witness another and a more terrible rite, yet one in which they found a consolation, since it signalized the saving of a soul, — the snatching from perdition of one of that dreaded race, into whose very midst they hoped, with devoted daring, to bear hereafter the cross of salvation. A band of Huron warriors had surprised a small party of Iroquois, killed several, and captured the rest. One of the prisoners was led in triumph to a village where the priests then were. He had suffered greatly; his hands, especially, were frightfully lacerated. Now, however, he was received with every mark of kindness. “Take courage,” said a chief, addressing him; “you are among friends.” The best food was prepared for him, and his captors vied with each other in offices of good-will. He had been given, according to Indian custom, to a warrior who had lost a near relative in battle, and the captive was supposed to be adopted in place of the slain. His actual doom was, however, not for a moment in doubt. The Huron received him affectionately, and, having seated him in his lodge, addressed him in a tone of extreme kindness. “My nephew, when I heard that you were coming, I was very glad, thinking that you would remain with me to take the place of him I have lost. But now that I see your condition, and your hands crushed and torn so that you will never use them, I change my mind. Therefore take courage, and prepare to die tonight like a brave man.”
[3 This pretended kindness in the treatment of a prisoner destined to the torture was not exceptional. The Hurons sometimes even supplied their intended victim with a temporary wife.]
The prisoner coolly asked what should be the manner of his death.
“By fire,” was the reply.
“It is well,” returned the Iroquois.
Meanwhile, the sister of the slain Huron, in whose place the prisoner was to have been adopted, brought him a dish of food, and, her eyes flowing with tears, placed it before him with an air of the utmost tenderness; while, at the same time, the warrior brought him a pipe, wiped the sweat from his brow, and fanned him with a fan of feathers.
About noon he gave his farewell feast, after the custom of those who knew themselves to be at the point of death. All were welcome to this strange banquet; and when the company were gathered, the host addressed them in a loud, firm voice: “My brothers, I am about to die. Do your worst to me. I do not fear torture or death.” Some of those present seemed to have visitings of real compassion; and a woman asked the priests if it would be wrong to kill him, and thus save him from the fire.
The Jesuits had from the first lost no opportunity of accosting him; while he, grateful for a genuine kindness amid the cruel hypocrisy that surrounded him, gave them an attentive ear, till at length, satisfied with his answers, they baptized him. His eternal bliss secure, all else was as nothing; and they awaited the issue with some degree of composure.
A crowd had gathered from all the surrounding towns, and after nightfall the presiding chief harangued them, exhorting them to act their parts well in the approaching sacrifice, since they would be looked upon by the Sun and the God of War. It is needless to dwell on the scene that ensued. It took place in the lodge of the great war chief, Atsan. Eleven fires blazed on the ground, along the middle of this capacious dwelling. The platforms on each side were closely packed with spectators; and, betwixt these and the fires, the younger warriors stood in lines, each bearing lighted pine-knots or rolls of birch-bark. The heat, the smoke, the glare of flames, the wild yells, contorted visages, and furious gestures of these human devils, as their victim, goaded by their torches, bounded through the fires again and again, from end to end of the house, transfixed the priests with horror. But when, as day dawned, the last spark of life had fled, they consoled themselves with the faith that the tortured wretch had found his rest at last in Paradise.
[2 Areskoui (see Introduction). He was often regarded as identical with the Sun. The semi-sacrificial character of the torture in this case is also shown by the injunction, “que pour ceste nuict on n’allast point folastrer dans les bois.” — Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1637, 114.]
[Le Mercier’s long and minute account of the torture of this prisoner is too revolting to be dwelt upon. One of the most atrocious features of the scene was the alternation of raillery and ironical compliment which attended it throughout, as well as the pains taken to preserve life and consciousness in the victim as long as possible. Portions of his flesh were afterwards devoured.]
Meanwhile from Old France to New came succors and reinforcements to the missions of the forest. More Jesuits crossed the sea to urge on the work of conversion. These were no stern exiles, seeking on barbarous shores an asylum for a persecuted faith. Rank, wealth, power, and royalty itself, smiled on their enterprise, and bade them God-speed. Yet, withal, a fervor more intense, a self-abnegation more complete, a self-devotion more constant and enduring, will scarcely find its record on the page of human history.
Holy Mother Church, linked in sordid wedlock to governments and thrones, numbered among her servants a host of the worldly and the proud, whose service of God was but the service of themselves, — and many, too, who, in the sophistry of the human heart, thought themselves true soldiers of Heaven, while earthly pride, interest, and passion were the life-springs of their zeal. This mighty Church of Rome, in her imposing march along the high road of history, heralded as infallible and divine, astounds the gazing world with prodigies of contradiction: now the protector of the oppressed, now the right arm of tyrants; now breathing charity and love, now dark with the passions of Hell; now beaming with celestial truth, now masked in hypocrisy and lies; now a virgin, now a harlot; an imperial queen, and a tinselled actress. Clearly, she is of earth, not of heaven; and her transcendently dramatic life is a type of the good and ill, the baseness and nobleness, the foulness and purity, the love and hate, the pride, passion, truth, falsehood, fierceness, and tenderness, that battle in the restless heart of man.
It was her nobler and purer part that gave life to the early missions of New France. That gloomy wilderness, those hordes of savages, had nothing to tempt the ambitious, the proud, the grasping, or the indolent. Obscure toil, solitude, privation, hardship, and death were to be the missionary’s portion. He who set sail for the country of the Hurons left behind him the world and all its prizes. True, he acted under orders, — obedient, like a soldier, to the word of command: but the astute Society of Jesus knew its members, weighed each in the balance, gave each his fitting task; and when the word was passed to embark for New France, it was but the response to a secret longing of the fervent heart. The letters of these priests, departing for the scene of their labors, breathe a spirit of enthusiastic exaltation, which, to a colder nature and a colder faith, may sometimes seem overstrained, but which is in no way disproportionate to the vastness of the effort and the sacrifice demanded of them.
[The following are passages from letters of missionaries at this time. See “Divers Sentimens,” appended to the Relation of 1635.
“On dit que les premiers qui fondent les Eglises d’ordinaire sont saincts: cette pensée m’attendrit si fort le cœur, que quoy que ie me voye icy fort inutile dans ceste fortunée Nouuelle France, si faut-il que i’auoüe que ie ne me sçaurois defendre d’vne pensée qui me presse le cœur: Cupio impendi, et superimpendi pro vobis, Pauure Nouuelle France, ie desire me sacrifier pour ton bien, et quand il me deuroit couster mille vies, moyennant que ie puisse aider ŕ sauuer vne seule âme, ie seray trop heureux, et ma vie tres bien employée.”
“Ma consolation parmy les Hurons, c’est que tous les iours ie me confesse, et puis ie dis la Messe, comme si ie deuois prendre le Viatique et mourir ce iour lŕ, et ie ne crois pas qu’on puisse mieux viure, ny auec plus de satisfaction et de courage, et mesme de merites, que viure en un lieu, oů on pense pouuoir mourir tous les iours, et auoir la deuise de S. Paul, Quotidie morior, fratres, etc. mes freres, ie fais estat de mourir tous les iours.”
“Qui ne void la Nouuelle France que par les yeux de chair et de nature, il n’y void que des bois et des croix; mais qui les considere auec les yeux de la grace et d’vne bonne vocation, il n’y void que Dieu, les vertus et les graces, et on y trouue tant et de si solides consolations, que si ie pouuois acheter la Nouuelle France, en donnant tout le Paradis Terrestre, certainement ie l’acheterois. Mon Dieu, qu’il fait bon estre au lieu oů Dieu nous a mis de sa grace! veritablement i’ay trouué icy ce que i’auois esperé, vn cur selon le cur de Dieu, qui ne cherche que Dieu.”]
– The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, Chapter 1 by Francis Parkman
The below is from Francis Parkman’s Introduction.
If, at times, it may seem that range has been allowed to fancy, it is so in appearance only; since the minutest details of narrative or description rest on authentic documents or on personal observation.
Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them, he must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.
With respect to that special research which, if inadequate, is still in the most emphatic sense indispensable, it has been the writer’s aim to exhaust the existing material of every subject treated. While it would be folly to claim success in such an attempt, he has reason to hope that, so far at least as relates to the present volume, nothing of much importance has escaped him. With respect to the general preparation just alluded to, he has long been too fond of his theme to neglect any means within his reach of making his conception of it distinct and true.