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The Iroquois Mission

While labouring among the Hurons the Jesuits had their minds on the Iroquois. It was, they thought, within their sphere of duty even to tame these human tigers. They well knew that such an attempt would involve dangers vastly greater than those encountered in Huronia; but the greater the danger and suffering the greater the glory. And yet for a time it seemed impossible to make a beginning of missionary work among the Iroquois. As we have seen, Champlain had made them the uncompromising enemies of the French, and since then all Frenchmen stood in constant peril of their lives from marauding bands in ambush near every settlement and along the highways of travel. Thus nearly twenty years passed after the arrival of the Jesuits in Canada before an opening came for winning a way to the hearts of these ruthless destroyers.

It came at last, fraught with tragedy. From 1636 to 1642 Father Isaac Jogues had been engaged in missionary work in Huronia. He was a man of saintly character, delicate, refined, scholarly; yet he had borne hardships among the Petun enough to break the spirit of any man. He had toiled, too, among the Algonquin tribes, and at one time had preached to a gathering of two thousand at Sault Ste Marie. In 1642 he was chosen to bring much-needed supplies to Huronia--a dangerous task, as in that year large bodies of Iroquois were on the war-path. And in August he was ascending Lake St Peter with thirty-six Huron and three Frenchmen in twelve canoes. His French companions were a laborer and two donnes--Rene Goupil, who, having had some hospital experience, was going to Ste Marie as a surgeon, and Guillaume Couture, a man of devotion, energy, and courage. The canoes bearing the party were threading the clustered islands at the western end of Lake St Peter, and had reached a spot where the thickly wooded shores were almost hidden from view by tall reeds that swayed in the summer wind, when suddenly out of the reeds darted a number of Iroquois warriors in canoes. The surprise was complete; three of the Huron were killed on the spot, and Jogues, Goupil, and Couture, and twenty-two Huron were taken prisoner. The raiders then plundered the canoes and set out southward, up the Richelieu, with their prisoners. At every stopping-place on the way Jogues and the donnes were brutally tortured; finally, in the Mohawk country they were dragged through the three chief towns of the nation, held up to ridicule, beaten with clubs, their fingers broken or lopped off, and their bodies burned with red-hot coals. Couture had slain a Mohawk warrior during the attack on Lake St Peter; but his courageous bearing so impressed the savages that one of them adopted him in place of a dead relative, and he thus escaped death. Goupil, after several months among the Mohawks, was brutally murdered. But Jogues's life was providentially preserved, and during nearly a year, a year of intense suffering, he went among his persecutors glorying in the opportunity of preaching the Gospel under these hard conditions.

At length a fishing and trading party of Mohawks took him to the Dutch settlement at Fort Orange (Albany). Already the Dutch authorities had tried in vain to gain his release. They now took advantage of his presence among them, generously braving the wrath of his tyrant masters, and aided him to escape. He found shelter on a Dutch vessel and finally succeeded in reaching France. The story of his capture had arrived before him, and his brothers in France welcomed him as a saint and martyr, as one miraculously snatched from the jaws of death. But he had no thought of remaining to enjoy the cloistered quiet and peace of a college in France; back to the hardships and dangers of North America his unconquerable spirit demanded that he should go. According to the rules of the Church he could not administer the sacraments with his mutilated hands; but, having obtained a special dispensation from the Pope, he once more fearlessly crossed the ocean, in search of the crown of martyrdom.

The next missionary to reach the Iroquois country was Father Joseph Bressani, an Italian priest who had been attracted to the Canadian mission-field through reading the Relations of the missionaries to Huronia. On April 27, 1644, with six Huron and a French boy twelve years old, he set out from Three Rivers. It was thought that the Iroquois would not yet have reached the St Lawrence at this early time of the year; but this was an error, as the sequel proved. A party of twenty-seven warriors in ambush surprised Bressani and his fellow-travelers, slew several of the Huron, and carried the rest with Bressani and the French boy to the Mohawk towns. Bressani they put to torture even more severe than that which Jogues had endured; not sparing the young lad, who manfully faced his tormentors till death freed him. Bressani escaped death only because an old squaw adopted him; but so mangled were his hands, so burned and broken was his body, that she deemed her slave of little value and sent him with her son to Fort Orange to be sold. The Dutch acted generously; paid a liberal ransom; and gave Bressani passage on a Dutch vessel, which landed him at La Rochelle on November 15, 1644. But, like Jogues, his one thought was to return to New France; and in the following year we find him in Huronia, his mutilated hands, torn and broken by the enemies of the Huron, mute but efficacious witnesses of his courage.

For a time the hopes of the Jesuits for a mission among the Iroquois were damped by the experiences of Jogues and Bressani. But in 1645 an incident took place that opened the way for an attempt to carry the Gospel to this savage people. A band of Algonquins captured several Mohawks and brought them to Sillery. The captives fully expected to be tortured and burned; but the Jesuits at Quebec and the governor, Montmagny, were desirous of winning the goodwill of the Iroquois. They persuaded the Algonquins to free the prisoners, then treated them kindly, and sent one of them home on the understanding that he would try to make peace between his people and the French and their allies. On the advice of Guillaume Couture, who was still among the Mohawks and was much esteemed and trusted by them, the Mohawks sent ambassadors to Three Rivers to consult with the governor. The result was a temporary peace; the Mohawks agreed to bury the hatchet; and early in the following spring (1646) Montmagny decided to send to them a special messenger who might make the peace permanent and set up among them a mission.

Isaac Jogues, having returned to Canada after his brief rest in France, was now stationed at Ville Marie. His knowledge of the Mohawk language and character made him the most fitting person to send as envoy to the Mohawks, in the twofold capacity of diplomat and missionary. At first, as his sufferings rose before his mind, he shrank from the task, but only for a moment. He would go fearlessly to these people, though they lived in his memory only by the tortures they had inflicted on him. He set out; and on arriving at the Mohawk towns he found the savages friendly. Everywhere the Mohawks bade him welcome. They listened attentively to the message from the governor, and accepted the wampum belts and gifts which he bore. Apparently the Mohawks were eager for the amity of the French. To both Jogues and Couture it seemed that at last the time was ripe for an Iroquois mission--the Mission of the Martyrs. Before saying farewell to the Mohawks Jogues left with his hosts, as a pledge that he would return, a locked box; and by the end of June he was back in Quebec to report the success of his journey. He then prepared to redeem his pledge to the Mohawks. He left Quebec towards the end of August, with a lay brother named Lalande and some Huron. He had forebodings of death, for on the eve of the journey he wrote to a friend in France: Ibo et non redibo, I shall go and shall not return. Arrived at the Richelieu, he was told by some friendly Indians that the attitude of the Mohawks had changed. They were in arms, and were once more breathing vengeance against the French and their allies. At this Jogues's Huron companions deserted him, but he and Lalande pressed on to their destination. The alarm was only too well founded. The Mohawks at once crowded round them, scowling and threatening. They stripped Jogues and his comrade of their clothing, beat them, and repeated the tortures which Jogues had suffered four years before.

The innocent cause of this outbreak of Mohawk fury was the box which Jogues had left behind him. From this box, as the ignorant savages thought, had come the drought and a plague of grasshoppers, which had destroyed the crops, and also the pest which was now raging in the Mohawk towns. Some Huron captives among the Mohawks, no doubt to win favor with their masters, had maligned Jogues, proclaiming him a sorcerer who had previously brought disaster to the Huron, and had now come to destroy the Mohawks. Undoubtedly, they declared, it was from the box that had come all the ills which had befallen them. Jogues protested his innocence; but as well might he have tried to reason with a pack of wolves. They demanded his death, and the inevitable blow soon fell. On the 18th of October, as he sat wounded and bruised and starving in a wigwam, a chief approached and bade him come to a feast. He knew what the invitation meant; it was a feast of death; but he calmly rose, his spirit steeled for the worst. His guide entered a wigwam and ordered him to follow; and, as he bent his head to enter, a savage concealed by the door cleft his skull with a tomahawk. On the following day Lalande shared a similar fate. Their heads were chopped off and placed on the palisades of the town, and their bodies thrown into the Mohawk river. The Mission of the Martyrs was at an end for the time being.

Ten years were to pass before missionary work was renewed among the Iroquois--ten years of disaster to the Jesuits and to the colony. In these years, as we have already seen, the Huron, Petun, and Neutrals were destroyed or scattered, and the French and Indian settlements along the St Lawrence were continually in danger. There was no safety outside the fortified posts, and agriculture and trade were at a standstill. The year 1653 was particularly disastrous; a horde of Mohawks were abroad, hammering at the palisades of every settlement and spreading terror even in the strongly guarded towns of Ville Marie, Three Rivers, and Quebec. But light broke when all seemed darkest. The western Iroquois--the Oneidas, Onondagas, and Seneca--were at war with the Erie. While thus engaged it seemed to them good policy to make peace with the French, and they dispatched an embassy to Ville Marie to open negotiations. The Mohawks, too, fearing that their western kinsmen might gain some advantage over them, sent messengers to New France. A grand council was held at Quebec. But even while making peace the Iroquois were intent on war. They desired nothing short of the utter extermination of the Huron nation, and viewed with jealousy the Huron settlement under the wing of the French on the island of Orleans. Both Onondagas and Mohawks plotted to destroy this community. The proposed peace was merely a ruse to open a way to attack the Huron in order to kill them or to adopt them into the Five Nations, which, on account of losses in war, needed recruits. The Mohawks requested that the Huron be removed to the Mohawk villages; the Onondagas stipulated for a French colony in their country, in the hope that the Huron would be attracted to such a settlement, and that then both French and Huron would be in their power. The governor of New France, now Jean de Lauzon, a weak old man who thought more of the profits of the fur trade and of land-grants for himself and his family than of the welfare of the colony, knew not how to act. A negative answer he dared not give; and he equally feared the effect of a definite promise. On the one hand was the certainty that war would break out again in all its fury; on the other the equal certainty that the fate which had befallen the Huron in Huronia would almost inevitably overtake the poor remnant of Christian Huron whom it was his duty to protect.

The Jesuits, however, were anxious to labor among the Iroquois, and at their request the governor adopted a temporizing policy. Before giving a final reply it was deemed wise to send an ambassador to the Five Nations to spy out the land and confirm the peace. This dangerous task was assigned to the veteran missionary Father Simon Le Moyne. In the spring of 1654 Le Moyne visited the Onondagas. His diplomacy and eloquence succeeded with them, but the Mohawks still continued their raids on the settlements. Nevertheless in 1655 the Mohawks again sent messengers to Quebec professing friendship. Le Moyne once more took up the task of diplomat and journeyed to the Mohawk country in the hope of making a binding treaty with the fiercest and most inveterate foes of New France. In this same year a large deputation of Onondagas arrived at Quebec. They wished the French to take immediate action and establish a mission and colony in their midst. Once more their sincerity seemed doubtful; and Fathers Chaumonot and Dablon were dispatched to Onondaga to ascertain the temper and disposition of the Indians there. After spending the winter of 1655-56 in the country, where they had conferences in the great council-house of the Five Nations with representatives of all the tribes, the two fathers believed that the time was ripe for a mission. A colony, too, in their judgment, would be advisable; it would serve at once as a centre of civilization for the Iroquois and a barrier against the Dutch and English of New York, who hitherto had monopolized the trade of the Iroquois. In the spring of 1656 Dablon returned to Quebec to advise the governor to accept the terms of the Onondagas, while Chaumonot remained at Onondaga to watch over his new flock both as missionary and as political agent.

An expedition, the entire expense of which fell on the Jesuits, was at once fitted out. The town major of Quebec, Zachary du Puys, took military command of the party, which consisted of ten soldiers, thirty or forty white laborers, four Jesuit fathers--Menard, Le Mercier, Dablon, and Fremin--two lay brothers, and a number of Hurons, Senecas, and Onondagas. On the 17th of May the colonists left Quebec in two large boats and twelve canoes. They began their journey with forebodings as to their fate, for the Mohawks were once more haunting the St Lawrence. Scarcely had Du Puys and his men passed out of sight of Quebec when they were attacked. The Mohawks, however, pretended that they had supposed the party to be Huron, expressed regret for the attack, and allowed the expedition to proceed. At Montreal the boats were discarded in favor of canoes for the difficult navigation of the upper St Lawrence. Save for Le Moyne, Chaumonot, and Dablon, these colonists were the first whites to ascend the St Lawrence between Montreal and Lake Ontario; the first to toil up against the current of those swift waters and to portage past the turbulent rapids; the first to view the varied beauty of the lordly river, its broad stretches of sparkling blue waters, its fairyland mazes of islands, and its great forests rising everywhere from the shore to the horizon. At length they reached Lake Ontario and skirted its southern shore until they entered the Oswego river. Ascending this river they were met by Chaumonot and an Onondaga delegation. On Lake Onondaga the canoes formed four abreast behind the canoe of the leader, from which streamed a white silk flag with the name Jesus woven on it in letters of gold. Then, with measured stroke of paddle and song of praise, the flotilla swept ashore to the site which Chaumonot had chosen for the headquarters of the colony. Here, from the crest of a low hill, commanding a beautiful view of one of the most picturesque of inland lakes, they cleared the trees and erected a commodious and substantial house, with smaller buildings about it, all enclosed in the usual palisade.

The Jesuits announced that they had come not as traders but as 'messengers of God,' seeking no profit; and they began work under most favorable conditions. Owing to Chaumonot's exertions the Onondagas seemed genuinely friendly. The fathers, too, found in every village many adopted Huron, from their old missions in Huronia, who still professed Christianity. Indeed, one whole village was composed largely of Huron and Petun. The mission was not confined to the Onondagas; the Cayuga, Seneca, and Oneidas were included; and the new field seemed rich in promise.

But it soon became evident that the fickle Iroquois were not to be trusted. The Mohawks continued their raids on the Huron at Quebec and carried off captives from under the very walls of Fort St Louis. Learning of this, the Onondagas sent an expedition to Quebec to demand that some Huron should be given to them also, and the weak administrator of the colony, Charles de Lauzon-Charny, being too cowardly to resist, complied with this demand. On the way back to Onondaga the Indians slew some of the captives. On arriving at home they tortured and burned others, among them women and helpless children. The colonists at Onondaga frequently witnessed such scenes, but they were powerless to interfere. Presently they learned that it was with evil intentions that they had been invited to Onondaga. A statement made to one of the missionaries by a dying convert served only to confirm the rumor already current, namely, that the death of the colonists had been decreed from the first, and that the Jesuits were to meet the fate which had befallen Jogues and their brothers in Huronia.

Prompt action was necessary. Orders were sent to the missionaries in the outlying points to return to headquarters, and towards the end of March the colonists, fifty-three in all, were behind the palisades of their houses on Lake Onondaga. But they had slight chance of escape, for they had not canoes enough to carry more than half the party. Moreover, they were closely watched: Onondaga warriors had pitched their wigwams about the palisades and several had stationed themselves immediately in front of the gate. The greatest need of the French, however, being adequate means of transportation, they addressed themselves to this problem. In the principal dwelling was a large garret, and here they built two strong boats, each capable of bearing fifteen men. But the difficulty still remained of getting these boats to the lake without the knowledge of the savages.

Among the colonists was a young man, Pierre Esprit Radisson, who three years before had been a prisoner among the Iroquois and who was afterwards to figure prominently in the history of the Canadian wilderness. He was unscrupulous but resourceful; and on this occasion his talents came into good use. He knew the Indians well and he knew that they could not resist a feast, especially a feast of a semi-religious character. He persuaded a young man of the mission to feign illness and to invite the Onondagas to aid in his cure by attending a festin a manger tout--a feast where everything must be eaten. To sanction this no doubt went much against the grain of the Jesuits, who had been upbraiding the Indians for their superstition and gluttony; but in this case the end seemed assuredly to justify the means. The Onondagas attended the banquet. In huge iron pots slung over fires outside the gate of the palisades the French boiled an immense quantity of venison, game, fish, and corn. They had brought with them to the colony a number of hogs, and these they slew to add to the feast. The Indians squatted about the kettles, from which the soldiers, employees, and fathers ladled the food; as fast as a warrior's dish was emptied it was refilled; and when a reveler signified that he had eaten enough, the pretended invalid cried out: 'Would you have me die?' and once more the gorged Onondaga fell to. To add to the entertainment, some of the Frenchmen, who had brought violins to the wilderness, fiddled with might and main. At length the gluttony began to take the desired effect: one after another the Onondagas dropped to sleep to the soothing music of the violins. Then, when brute slumber had sealed the eyes of all, the colonists roused themselves for flight. Some one, probably Radisson, suggested that they were fifty-three wide-awake Frenchmen to one hundred sleeping savages, and that it would be easy to brain their enemies as they slept; but the Jesuits would not sanction such a course. The Frenchmen threw open the gate, and carried the boats from the garret to the lakeside. They put up effigies of soldiers at conspicuous points within the enclosure, barred and locked the gate, and launched the vessels. They had swept across the lake and were well down the Oswego before day had dawned and the Indians had awakened from their heavy slumber.

When the Onondagas recovered consciousness they were surprised at the deathlike stillness. They peered through the palisades; and, seeing the effigies of the soldiers, believed that their intended victims were within. But no sounds except the clucking and crowing of some fowls fell on their ears. They became suspicious and hammered at the gate; and, when there was no answer, broke it down in fury, only to find the place deserted. An examination of the shore showed that heavy boats had been launched a few hours before. Believing that the powerful God of the white man was in league with the colonists, and had supplied them with these boats, the savages made no attempt to follow the fugitives, who, after sustaining the loss of three men in the rapids of the St Lawrence, reached Quebec on the 23rd of April.

For another decade no further effort was to be made to civilize and Christianize the Iroquois. During this period, however, a radical and much-needed change took place in the government of New France. Hitherto chartered companies had been in control, and their aim had been trade, not colonization. Until 1663 Canada remained a trading station and a mission rather than a true colony. But in this year the king, Louis XIV, cancelled the charter of the Hundred Associates, proclaimed the colony under royal government, and sent out strong men from the motherland to govern the country.

It was not long before the Iroquois began to feel the resistance of new forces in the settlements along the St Lawrence; and in 1665, when a strong regiment of veterans, the Carignan-Salieres, under the Marquis de Tracy, landed in New France, the Iroquois who had been smiting the settlements slunk away to their fortified towns. In January 1666 Courcelle, the governor, invaded the Mohawk country; and though his expedition was a failure, it served as a warning to the Five Nations. In May Seneca and Mohawks came to Quebec to treat for peace. They assumed their ancient haughty air; but Tracy was in no mood for this. He sentenced to death a Mohawk who had the boldness to boast of having tomahawked a Frenchman, and dismissed the ambassadors with angry words. The Indians, discomfited, returned to their strongholds. At their heels followed Tracy and Courcelle with thirteen hundred men. At the approach of this army the Mohawks deserted their villages and escaped death. But the French set fire to the villages and desolated the Mohawk country.

In the spring of 1667 the Mohawks came to Quebec humbly begging that missionaries, blacksmiths, and surgeons should be sent to live among them. The other tribes of the Five Nations followed their example. Once more the Jesuits went to the Iroquois and established missions among the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, and Seneca. For twenty years the devoted fathers labored in this hard field. During the administrations of the governors Courcelle and Frontenac the Iroquois remained peaceable, but they became restless after the removal of Frontenac in 1682. The succeeding governors, La Barre and Denonville, proved weak rulers, and the Mohawks began once more to send war-parties against the settlements. At length, in 1687, open war broke out. The missionaries, however, had been withdrawn from the Iroquois country, just in time to escape the fury of the savages.

Not in vain did the Jesuits labor among the Five Nations. They made numerous converts, and persuaded many of them to move to Canada. Communities of Christian Iroquois and Huron who had been adopted by the Five Nations settled near the Bay of Quinte, at La Montagne on the island of Montreal, and at Caughnawaga by the rapids of Lachine. The large settlements of 'praying Indians' still living at Caughnawaga and at St Regis, near Cornwall, are descendants of these Indians.


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Chronicles of Canada, The Jesuit Missions, A Chronicle of the Cross in the Wilderness, 1915

 

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