The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“We hope for the assistance needed for these undertakings, for which we would gladly shed our blood to the last drop, and spend our lives to the last breath.”

–Father Pierre-Joseph-Marie Chaumonot

“I see very well that he who is in the Sky wishes to bring to a conclusion a very important matter.”

–Kiotseaeton, Iroquois emissary to the French

Summary Overview

The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents were reports from the missionary priests and monastic brothers in New France (now the northeastern United States and Canada) to their leaders in Europe. The Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, was a religious order founded during the internal reformation within the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500s. The founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), was a former soldier who experienced a deep religious conversion while recuperating from wounds suffered in battle. The Jesuits are organized in a very militaristic fashion and place great emphasis on discipline within the order. They have also traditionally stressed quality education, both for their own workers and in conducting schools for others. The complete set of The Jesuit Relations amounts to about seventy-one volumes (the number of volumes varies in different published editions), covering the period from 1610 to 1791.

Defining Moment

The Jesuits were the most prominent of the Roman Catholic missionary orders working among the native peoples in New France. They also carried on significant missionary enterprises in parts of Spanish America, as well as in Europe and Asia. The reports of the Jesuit missionaries working with the native peoples of North America represent some of the first ethnographic studies in which European observers tried to describe the lifestyles, customs, and religious beliefs of the native peoples. Like most European Christians, the Jesuit missionaries believed the native peoples needed to be converted to Christianity, but the Jesuits, more than most groups that worked among the various tribes of North America, tended to recognize that the various American Indian cultures were not alike. Thus, they sought to record the beliefs, customs, and ways of life of the people they encountered, so that they could understand the best ways to reach them with the message of Christianity. Because of the great emphasis Jesuits put on education for their own monks and priests, their missionaries had a greater ability to understand variations in Indian culture than other missionaries usually exhibited.

The excerpts from The Jesuit Relations reprinted here deal with some of the early work of the Jesuits among the Hurons, who lived in the Great Lakes region around Lake Huron, and the Iroquois, whose homelands were centered in what is now western New York. Both of these peoples spoke variations of the Iroquoian language, but trade interests often led to warfare between them. The French missionary efforts to convert the Iroquois resulted in part because of the disastrous impact that Iroquois attacks had on the Huron communities, including the missionaries living among them. After these attacks, the French hoped that if they could convert the Iroquois, the other tribes in the region might be spared this kind of violence.

The Jesuits began their major effort among the Hurons in the mid-1630s. Unfortunately, their arrival coincided with the outbreak of an epidemic among the Hurons, which may have been brought among the people by the missionaries themselves or by traders or other Europeans who had traveled in the region. This and epidemics of influenza, small pox, and other European diseases caused the Hurons to reject the French missionaries. As far as they could tell (and on most occasions they were right), the newcomers were the cause of so much sickness and death. Eventually, however, the fortitude and dedication of the Jesuits, who stayed with the Indians and did what little they could to ease the suffering of the sick, had a positive impact on the Huron people and many were converted.

Author Biography

Father Pierre-Joseph-Marie Chaumonot

The first part of this excerpt, entitled “Of the Fresh Hope of Progress,” was written in 1657 by Father Pierre-Joseph-Marie Chaumonot. He was born March 9, 1611, in the province of Burgundy in France. He entered the Jesuit order in 1632 and served in the Jesuit missions in New France from 1637 until his death in 1693. Chaumonot was especially noted for his expertise in the language of the Huron people; some Hurons said he spoke their language better than they did. He died in Quebec on February 21, 1693, at age eighty-two, having spent fifty-two years working in the Jesuit missions in New France.

Father Hierosme Lallemont

The second extract, “On Iroquois Wars,” was written by Father Hierosme Lallemont. His name is often rendered into English as Jérome Lalemant. He was born in Paris on April 27, 1593, and entered the Jesuit order in 1610. His early years in New France were spent at Sainte-Marie-des-Hurons, which was a settlement among the Hurons where converted Indians could live, gain an education, and have access to the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Lallemont was father superior of the Jesuit mission in New France from 1645 to 1650 and again from 1659 to 1665. During this time, both the Hurons and the missionaries living among them suffered greatly from attacks by tribes that were part of the Iroquois confederacy. This report is from volume 45, chapter 2 of The Jesuit Relations, which covers the years 1659 to 1660. Lallemont died in Quebec on January 26, 1673.

Father Barthélemy Vimont

Father Barthélemy Vimont wrote the last portion of this extract, which is from volume 27, chapter 11, treating the years 1642–45 and entitled “Treaty of Peace between the French, Iroquois, and Other Nations.” Vimont was born in the Normandy region of France on January 17, 1594. He entered the Jesuit order in 1613 and trained in philosophy and theology at various Jesuit schools in France. He taught in several Jesuit schools before coming to New France. Vimont was the third father superior of the Jesuit mission in New France, serving from 1639 to 1645. He left New France in 1659 and died at Vannes in the Brittany region of France on July 13, 1667.

Father Jogues.

(C.C. Langill, New York)
Document Analysis

The early Jesuit missionaries among the Hurons did not encounter great success. Besides the fact that they were bringing new and unfamiliar teachings to the people, their arrival coincided with the outbreak of an epidemic of disease among the Hurons. Scholars estimate the population of the Hurons before European contact at ten thousand to fifteen thousand, but between the mid-1630s and 1640, about half of the population perished from disease. Some natives saw the Jesuits as powerful shamans, whose rituals were perhaps causing these deaths. But over time, the fortitude and dedication of the Jesuits, who stayed among the people, tried to learn their language and their customs, and did what they could to comfort the sick, made a deep impression upon the Huron people, and many were baptized. This is why Father Pierre-Joseph-Marie Chaumonot, the Jesuit missionary writing his report in the late 1650s, describes the native people as being “already disposed toward the faith.” He also notes how the zeal of the missionaries and their willingness to leave their homes and the “comforts of France” impressed the natives.

When individual Indians confessed to having killed missionaries in the past—referring to them as “black gowns” because of the black monastic habits the missionaries wore—they are impressed to see the missionaries react to these reports with little fear. Chaumonot also believes that the work the earlier missionaries have done in learning the language and preparing an Iroquois dictionary should help set the stage for further advances by later missionaries. Throughout this section of the document, Chaumonot sometimes speaks of the Hurons and sometimes of the Iroquois; both groups spoke a variation of the Iroquoian language, but troubles over trade had made the two groups enemies. However, Chaumonot may sometimes be referring to Huron people as Iroquois because the Hurons spoke an Iroquoian language.

Chaumonot points out that, from where their missions are now located, they could easily be extended into the lands of neighboring tribes. He also notes that “a great number of travelers constantly make this place very populous.” Both the Hurons and the Iroquois lived in regions that had long been the crossroads of various woodland trails and water routes, and both had long been involved in wide-ranging trade with other tribes. Thus, these areas were strategic points from which the missionaries might hope to launch further efforts.

Earlier mission work in New France had been carried on by the Récollets, a reformed branch of the Franciscan monastic order. The Récollet missionaries visited among the Indians but refused to stay with them in the villages; many Indians saw this as an arrogant refusal of hospitality, and this hampered the efforts of the missionaries. When the Jesuits came among the Hurons, they determined to conduct themselves differently. Small groups of missionaries lived in various villages among the Hurons. Also, in larger French settlements, the Jesuits conducted schools where the Indians could be catechized in the Roman Catholic faith. Chaumonot reports that few come back from “Kebec” (Quebec) without having the greatest “esteem and affection for our mysteries,” referring to the theology and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. He notes that the native peoples did not report such feelings when they return from the “Dutch settlements,” referring to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, which was established in 1624 and included present-day New York. The Dutch commercial company given control of New Amsterdam showed no great interest in trying to convert the Indians to Christianity, as the French crown did. Chaumonot suggests that Indians could go to the French settlements in their territory to serve a type of “apprenticeship” in the Christian faith. They could learn the catechism (a set of basic teachings to be learned by a potential convert), rituals, and prayers of the Roman Catholic Church and hear sermons in their own language on the feast days of the church. Because the Roman Catholic religion placed great importance upon the believer having access to the sacraments of the church, administered by clergy, it was important that converts be able to attend such formal services on a regular basis.

Chaumonot reports that some of the Huron people came to Quebec and other settlements from some distance away—”thirty or forty leagues,” which would be approximately 100 to 140 miles. He admits that they come not only for the spiritual instruction and regeneration they receive, but also to share in their “spiritual and material alms.” Some of the Indians who visited the Jesuits had been enslaved by other tribes. Enslaving enemies captured in warfare was common among many tribes in the Northeast. Chaumonot reports that they keep, “as it were, open house for the Savages,” by providing food and other types of material aid. He notes that the Jesuits brought little in the way of sustenance with them. Moreover, as of the time he writes, the Jesuit order did not have ownership of any land within New France, but they were nevertheless able to provide some material aid to these Indian slaves. He believed that if they could settle in the region of the Soonontouaehronnons (the Senecas), they might be able to influence that tribe and others around them by showing the same generosity in sharing food and material alms.

Farther into the interior, “beyond the Cat Nation” (past the Eries, who lived around the eastern end of Lake Erie), there were other tribes who spoke the Algonquian language. According to the Jesuits, they had “never had any knowledge of the Europeans” and still used the stone tools of their pre-contact economy. Chaumonot hoped that the French crown, or perhaps wealthy patrons of the Jesuit order back in France, would provide the assistance needed to carry their mission on to these people who had not yet been contacted by the French, either through trade or missionary effort.

The second portion of this document is from “On Iroquois Wars,” a part of the reports for 1659 and 1660, which was written by Father Hierosme Lallemont. The excerpt begins with a somewhat philosophical reflection on how nations and rulers rise and fall throughout history, and this applies, Lallemont believes, to the native peoples as much as it does to European kingdoms and monarchs. He uses two Latin quotations, which would have been familiar to his readers because of the widespread use of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church. In referring to how fate or fortune raises one nation up and casts another down, he writes, “Ludum insolentem ludere pertinax,” which translates to “wanton sport it was,” as if the fates were careless of the outcome of such upheavals. His second Latin reference, “si parva licet componere magnis,” is a quotation from the Roman poet Virgil, in his work Georgics. It means “to measure small with great,” perhaps in the sense of great consequences coming out of small things.

The Iroquois people about whom Lallemont writes lived in western New York and, in this era, were composed of five tribes confederated into a political league they called the Haudenosaunee. The five tribes of the Iroquois were the Onondagas, the Oneidas, the Senecas, the Cayugas, and the Mohawks. Haudenosaunee in their own language meant “the people of the Longhouse,” referring to the typical type of dwelling in which they lived. The Iroquois pictured their confederation as a longhouse in which they all lived together. The Mohawks, the easternmost band of the Iroquois, were called “the keepers of the eastern door,” and the westernmost tribe, the Senecas, were called “the keepers of the western door.” Iroquois was a name of reproach given to them by their Algonquian-speaking neighbors and meant “snake.” Lallemont used the French name for the Mohawks, Agnieronnons, and writes that in the past sixty years, the tribe’s power within the confederation had both risen and fallen many times over. The nineteenth-century American historian Frances Parkman, in his study of the Jesuits work among the Indians, refers to legends among the Iroquois of how the Algonquian-speaking tribes had at one time virtually wiped out the Mohawks. Lallemont described the Mohawks as “Insolent in disposition, and truly warlike,” a description which some of their neighboring tribes might well have agreed was correct, since all of the Iroquois tribes had a strong warrior tradition, having great respect for the bravery and skill displayed by expert fighters. Their trade with the Dutch, along with their position as middlemen for trade between the Dutch and tribes farther into the interior, had given the Iroquois considerable economic and diplomatic power, and the firearms they received in trade gave them a significant military advantage.

Lallemont notes, “We cannot go back very far in our researches in their past history, as they have no libraries other than the memory of their old men.” This is a significant observation and applies to all peoples in preliterate societies. Groups who had no written language depended on oral tradition to pass on to the next generation everything from religion to the customs and skills of everyday life. This oral tradition was highly effective and could pass along complex narratives with little change over time. But when many of the elders of a tribe died in a short period of time, through warfare or disease, much of this cultural memory was lost. Over time, embracing the trade goods brought by the Europeans also caused a loss of cultural memory; when most of the people adopted the use of European tools or other implements, the memory of how they lived without these goods was also lost over time. The Indians became dependent upon trade goods that they could no longer live without.

Lallemont notes that “some thirty years ago” the Dutch had taken possession of the lands where the Iroquois lived. As noted previously, the Dutch established a trading colony at New Amsterdam in 1624. While the Iroquois were happy to trade with them and used their position to expand their economic power over other tribes, they were never truly subjugated under Dutch rule. Even when the English took control of what became New York, they realized they had to deal with the powerful Iroquois confederacy through real negotiations, while the confederacy more or less dictated terms to less powerful tribes. Lallemont believed the power the Iroquois had achieved had given them lofty ambitions and notions of grandeur.

The third portion of this excerpt from The Jesuit Relations deals with the making of a treaty between the Iroquois on the one hand and the French, the Hurons, and their allies on the other. Warfare between the Iroquois and Hurons had been frequent, often involving attempts to disrupt the fur trade of the enemy tribe. In July 1645, an Iroquois delegation came to the French settlement at Trois-Rivières (“Three Rivers”) in Quebec. Perhaps as a show of good faith, they brought back two men who had been taken prisoner by the Iroquois: Guillaume Cousture and Father Isaac Jogues. The prisoners were welcomed back exultantly by the French and their Huron allies.

Of the three Iroquois who had come to negotiate, Vimont says that Kiotseaeton was the most important. He tells the French that his own people warned him he might well lose his life by going to meet with the French, but he has come without fear, “for the good of peace,” and “to make known to you the thoughts of my people.” The boat (“shallop”) that had brought the Iroquois delegation fired a ceremonial shot from its swivel gun, and the French fort replied with a ceremonial cannon shot. The Iroquois representatives were taken to the residence of the sieur de Chanflour, the commandant of the French outpost. Kiotseaeton says that “he who is in the Sky,” a reference to a divine being, has indicated that peace should be made between these warring parties.

The formality of the ceremonies with which these delegates are received and the eloquent oratory of Kiotseaeton are illustrations of significant themes in the history of the Iroquois. The Iroquois Confederation exercised considerable diplomatic and economic influence over smaller, weaker tribes in the Northeast, and this kind of diplomacy would have been common among them. The return of prisoners captured in previous fighting often accompanied such negotiations. Many European observers noted that Indians from a variety of tribes were also very powerful orators, and Kiotseaeton’s speech is an example of this. Lallemont notes that the day these delegates from the Iroquois arrived, a canoe was sent to the governor to inform him of these developments. The governor of Quebec at this time was Charles Huault de Montmagny. The portion excerpted here covers only the beginning of the talks over this treaty; a treaty was finally agreed upon, but there were several weeks of talks and various delegations from other tribes in the area were involved in the negotiations.

The reader must keep in mind that in all of these documents the French Jesuits are picturing their own work in the best possible light, even though they do acknowledge problems and setbacks. In contrast, native peoples, even those who converted to Christianity and looked upon the Jesuits positively, might well have told different stories of these encounters. Indian converts to Christianity no doubt encountered other Europeans, such as traders and military personnel, who were nominally Roman Catholic but did not share the motives and goals of the Jesuit missionaries.

Essential Themes

Major themes evident in The Jesuit Relations are cultural encounters and intercultural relationships. Although the Jesuits, as European Christians, clearly exhibited the ethnocentrism that was prevalent among most Europeans of that era, they were also interested in learning about the culture of the native peoples they encountered. In part, they took this approach because understanding their audience might have enabled the missionaries to become more effective in communicating the Christian message they wished to impart. For the same reason, they took pains to learn the languages of the various tribes as well. One sees a variety of responses among the Indian people, ranging from violent encounters to indifference to embracing the faith presented to them by the missionaries. Some scholars have noted that tribes that had little real interest in the message of French missionaries often accepted their work among them because they believed the French traders might not deal with them if they were not hospitable to the missionaries. Thus, accepting the missionaries may have been the price of maintaining trade ties with the French. Eventually, however, a significant number of the Hurons were converted, and the missionaries believed that many of the converts were very active and devout members of the Roman Catholic Church.

The interrelationship between the various native tribes, and how their relationships with the European colonizers affected intertribal relations, is also a major theme represented here. The Hurons built a strong economic connection with the French, based on trade that both the French and the tribes felt was mutually beneficial. The fur trade caused tribes that had hunted only for their own local needs to take more furs and hunt on larger tracts of land. This often led to trouble between neighboring tribes. The Iroquois had strong trading relationships with the Dutch traders in New Amsterdam and attempted to disrupt the Huron trade with the French. Flotillas sent down the St. Lawrence River by the Hurons to reach the French traders at Montreal and Quebec were preyed upon by Iroquois raiders. The fact that the Dutch had provided firearms to the Iroquois gave them a distinct advantage in some of the early fighting. Both the Hurons and the French missionaries among them suffered greatly from attacks by the Iroquois. In response to this, the Jesuit missionaries decided to launch a mission to the Iroquois, hoping that if they converted the Iroquois, the attacks on the Hurons might cease.

The last excerpt from The Jesuit Relations discusses an attempt to make peace between the French, their Indian allies such as the Hurons, and the Iroquois. An Iroquois man comes to visit among the French, although some told him he would be going to his death to make such a journey. While the excerpt does not describe the outcome of these negotiations, one can see here the type of diplomatic maneuvering and oratory for which the Iroquois became well known. Besides being a militarily powerful confederation of tribes, the Iroquois also exercised considerable economic and diplomatic influence over Indians throughout the Northeast.

  • Bowden, Henry Warner. American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981. Print.
  • Campeau, Lucien. “Roman Catholic Missions in New France.” Handbook of North American Indians. Ed. William Sturtevant and Wilcomb E. Washburn. Vol. 4. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1988. 464–71. Print.
  • Kennedy, J. H. Jesuit and Savage in New France. New Haven: Yale UP, 1950. Print.
  • Parkman, Francis. The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century. 1867. Charleston: Bibliobazaar, 2011. Print.
  • Taylor-True, Victoria. “Tribal Names.” Erie Moundbuilders. Erie Indian Moundbuilders Tribal Nation, 2006. Web. 17 May 2012.
  • Trigger, Bruce G. Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s “Heroic Age” Reconsidered. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1985. Print.
  • Waldman, Carl. Atlas of the North American Indian. 3rd ed. New York: Facts on File, 2009. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Altherr, Thomas L. “‘Flesh is the Paradise of a Man of Flesh’: Cultural Conflict over Indian Hunting Beliefs and Rituals in New France as Recorded in The Jesuit Relations.” Canadian Historical Review 64.2 (1983): 267. Print.
  • Clements, William M. “The Jesuit Foundations of Native North American Literary Studies.” American Indian Quarterly 18.1 (1994): 43. Print.
  • Eccles, W. J. France in America. Rev. ed. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1990. Print.
  • Salisbury, Neal. “Religious Encounters in a Colonial Context: New England and New France in the Seventeenth Century.” American Indian Quarterly 16.4 (1992): 501. Print.
  • Steckley, John L. De Religione: Telling the Seventeenth-Century Jesuit Story in Huron to the Iroquois. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2004. Print.
  • Trigger, Bruce G. The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660. 1976. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2000. Print.

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