Jesuit Missionaries in New France

Main Mission: Sainte-Marie-aux-Hurons

            The Jesuits were a group of Catholic missionaries who came to New France in order to convert the Native Americans so that they became Christians and followed the European way of life.  The Jesuits came to New France in 1634.  In 1639, they established their main mission, Sainte-Marie-aux-Hurons which was the central base for missionary work.  Sainte-Marie was a fortified town with farms, workshops, a mill, stables, a hospital, and a chapel.  Livestock and supplies were brought to Sainte-Marie by canoe down the St. Lawrence River.  By establishing their own base where missionaries could find shelter and food, Sainte-Marie freed the Jesuits from their dependency on the natives, specifically the Hurons. 

     Saint-Marie also provided the natives with a living example of the European way of life which the Jesuits expected the Hurons to embrace.  The Hurons were attracted by food, shelter, and the blacksmith's services.  The blacksmiths were essential to the Hurons because they could fix iron tools and firearms that needed repair.  Sainte-Marie employed 30 Europeans who converted 50 Hurons in the first year.  But by 1649 disease had weakened the Huron and the Iroquois launched massive assaults against Huron towns.  That year, the Jesuits abandoned Sainte-Marie-aux-Hurons because the Iroquois attacks were too devastating.  They tried to reestablish the mission on Christian Island in Lake Huron but they arrived too late in the season to grow crops and they mission suffered of starvation during the winter of 1649-1650.  Of the 2,700 Huron converts, only three to four hundred survived the winter and by 1685, only 146 were left.  Many of the Hurons were absorbed into the Iroquois confederacy.


Conversion Process and Difficulties

    Initially, the Jesuits tried to make the natives assimilate into European life.  They had the misconception that many of the Native Americans had no religion and would therefore be easily converted.  Soon they realized that this was not true and the natives resisted conversion.  In response to the low number of converts, the Jesuits tried to isolate the native children in seminaries so that they would more easily adapt to the European way of life.  It was believed that if young natives were educated, they would be persuaded to abandon their way of life and embrace the European concepts of Christianity and civilization.  Native children proved much harder to convert than anticipated.  Often times the native children, who refused to abide by French discipline, would run away at their first opportunity. 

    A difficulty that the Jesuits experienced during the conversion process was trying to explain the concepts of Christianity to a people whose language contains no words that easily apply.  The Hurons had difficulty understanding abstract concepts such as the Holy Trinity.  How could one God be composed of three separate beings?  Often times, the Jesuits' teachings were interpreted literally.  One example of a Huron misinterpretation is that since Heaven was somewhere above the Earth, the souls would fall back down. 


The Hurons

    Before the French arrived, the population of the Hurons was estimated to be between 18,000 and 30,000 people living in 25 villages.  The Huron were a trading nation long before the French came to the New World.  They traded their corn for tobacco, dried meat, copper and other goods with the tribes near them.  When the French allied with the Huron, the Huron became a major trading power of furs.  They acted as middlemen; they had already killed most of the fur-bearing animals in their area so they traded with the Algonquins.  In order to protect their position as middlemen, they restricted the French from moving North and West to trade with new nations.

    The Hurons were a sedentary as opposed to a nomadic people; they depended on farms for food rather than hunting and gathering.  They relied on corn, beans, squash, and fish for their food supply.  Because the Huron farmed, they had to remain in one place in order to produce food.  This made it easier for the Jesuits to convert the Huron because they did not constantly move from one place to another.  As Father Charles Garnier wrote in 1636, “It is all of the country where we are, the field where our fathers hope to establish the most beautiful mission because they are a stable nation and not vagabonds like most of the others.” (W.J.Eccles)   

    The Huron had a highly developed society and government.  The French considered them to be of higher intelligence to that of the peasants of France (Trigger, 7). The Huron were not one tribe, they were a confederacy of four main tribes and many clans.  Each clan was led by two types of chiefs, civil chiefs and war chiefs.  The civil chiefs, or garihoua andionxra, overlooked everyday life, settled disputes and organized feasts, dances, and games. The war chiefs, or garihoua doutagueta, were concerned only with warfare. The civil chiefs were hereditarily chosen for positions of power, from a man to one of his siblings’ sons.  The chief had no formal powers and the ideal chief would win his followers with his generosity, persuasiveness and good judgment.  The Huron had no police force, capital punishment, or jails so the chief had to persuade his followers.

This webpage was produced by Kate Anthony, Maggie Dobbs, David Naples, Brian Vazzano, and Ben White for a Gettysburg College history project