Success Through Failure
A History of New France
The book of Protestant Francis Parkman, The Jesuits in North America, opens with the arrival of French missionaries in Canada in 1632. This study clearly portrays intertribal rivalries and tensions between French and English traders. However, the dramatic pulse of Parkman’s narrative centers on attempts of the Jesuits to befriend, convert, and mediate between the Indian tribes—resulting in great hardship and sometimes martyrdom for the Jesuits. As he describes the various phases of the establishment of North East Canada, mostly the Quebec province, he brings to full light the endless warfare which has always been the lot of the Churchmen and their allies. Some 70 years after the French sailor Cartier had first set foot in that wilderness, the French crown with Governor Champlain had established a stronghold, Fort Saint-Louis, in Quebec City in the early 1600. But the Catholics would have to contend with two powerful opponents who finally thwarted their designs.
The Indian landscape
By the middle of the 17th century, in Canada and the Northern United States, the elements of change were especially active. The Indian population which, in 1535, Cartier found at Montreal and Quebec, had disappeared and another race had succeeded, in language and customs widely different while, in the region now forming the state of New York, a power was rising to a ferocious vitality, which, but for the presence of Europeans, would probably have subjected, absorbed, or exterminated every other Indian community east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio.
The vast expanse from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, and from the Carolinas to the Hudson Bay, was divided between two great families of tribes with a vastly different language. From Virginia to New England all the way to Nova Scotia, the territory was occupied by tribes speaking various Algonquin languages and dialects. They extended also along the shores of the Upper Lakes. Like a great island in the midst of the Algonquin territory lay the country of tribes speaking the generic tongue of the Iroquois. The true Iroquois, or Five Nations, extended through Central New York and spread to lake Erie. The other nation which spoke the language, and yet behaved quite differently, was the Huron nation. Their towns lay near the lake which bears their name.
If we speak of numbers, we must stress that the densest of the Algonquin populations was in New England. They were the most advanced of these savage tribes, belonging to that section of it which tilled the soil, and was thus in some measure spared the extremes of misery and degradation to which the wandering hunter tribes were often reduced. They owed much, also, to the bounty of the sea, and hence they tended towards the coast. Yet, however relatively populous these tribes were, they could hardly have mustered 8,000 fighting men. These in fact were beyond the reach of the Jesuits as the Puritan heresy was the first to reach out to them.
The Jesuits, under the protection of the French governor, were assigned the incongruous portion of the present Eastern part of Canada, with fairly little of civilization awaiting them as these new missionaries set foot in 1632 for the first time in the new world. Ascending the St. Lawrence, seldom was there the sight of a human form to break the loneliness of the expanse until, at Quebec, the roar of Champlain’s cannon from the verge of the cliff announced that the savage prologue of the American drama was drawing to a close, and that the civilization of Europe was advancing on the scene. Ascending farther, short of Three Rivers, an important settlement and trade spot, solitude dominated. Not even Montreal was a place worth a pause, save during a brief space in early summer, when the shore swarmed with savages, who had come to the yearly trade from the great communities of the interior. For the Jesuits who wished to work at converting these hordes of savages, they would have to follow their flock through torrents and thickets for hundreds of miles of most arduous and perilous journeying.
Their presence early in the century proved crucial to the French government in a time when the British were invading Quebec. The conjugated action of the religious with the efforts of Champlain were able to maintain the king’s belief in the survival of the colonization of these desert lands. It was clear that the propagation of the Faith was the main purpose of the French colony, and Louis XV did not think otherwise who wished that Rome had a bastion in North America called New France.
One of the first of these tribes to become open to the Gospel was the Nation of the Porcupine who had heard the Jesuits speak to them of God while trading at Three Rivers. Fr. De Quen, went along with them to their towns in 1646. He saw that converts had planted a Cross on the borders of the savage lake where they dwelt. Another band close by, the Nation of the White Fish, also proved docile. They threw away their “medicines”, burned their magic drums, renounced their medicine-songs, and accepted instead rosaries, crucifixes, and versions of Catholic hymns.
De Brebeuf and his band had much further to travel before reaching the outpost of his savages. When he reached his destination, he saw and heard a people speaking a dialect of the Iroquois tongue. Here all was changed. Populous towns, rude fortifications, and an extensive, though barbarous tillage, indicated a people far in advance of the famished wanderers North of Three Rivers or even of New England. These were the Hurons, of whom the modern Wyandots are a remnant. Their submission to the Gospel obtained by the magnificent work of years of deprivation and prayers of the Jesuits missionaries is well documented in more specific studies.
Another interesting advance of the evangelical message was offered to Fr. Druilletes, who ministered to the Montagnais, established in the northern part of Maine. Reaping the fruit of intensive labor which other Jesuits like Lejeune had sown, his travel companions were all converts who looked on him as a friend and a father. There were prayers, confessions, Masses, and invocations of St. Joseph. They built their bark chapel at every camp, and no festival of the Church passed unobserved. On Good Friday, they laid their best robe of beaver-skin on the snow, placed on it a crucifix, and knelt around it in prayer. What was their prayer? It was a petition for the forgiveness and the conversion of their enemies, the Iroquois. Those who know the intensity and tenacity of an Indian’s hatred will see in this something more than a change from one superstition to another. An idea had been presented to the mind of the savage, as Parkman surmised, to which he had previously been an utter stranger. This is the most remarkable record of success in the whole body of the Jesuit Relations that, in teaching the dogmas and observances of the Roman Church, the missionaries taught also the morals of Christianity.
When we look for the results of these missions, we soon become aware that the influence of the French and the Jesuits extended far beyond the circle of converts. It eventually modified and softened the manners of many unconverted tribes.
In the wars of the next century, we do not often find those examples of diabolic atrocity with which the earlier annals are crowded. True, the savage burned his enemies alive but he rarely ate them, and he did not torment them with the same deliberation and persistence. He was a savage still, but not so often a devil. The merit of such change is attributed primarily to French priests and colonists. In this softening of manners, such as it was, and in the obedient Catholicity of a few hundred tamed savages gathered at stationary missions in various parts of Canada, we find a century later all the results of the heroic toil of the Jesuits. The missions had failed, because the Indians had ceased to exist. Of the great tribes on whom rested the hopes of the early Canadian Fathers, nearly all were virtually extinct. The missionaries built laboriously and well, but they were doomed to build on a failing foundation. Parkman’s strongly suggests that the Indians were destroyed, not by the incoming civilization, but because of their own ferocity and intractable indolence.
New France vs. New England settlements
The few Jesuits who had the opportunity to act as ambassadors to New England colonies were evidently struck with the thrift and vigor of these sturdy young colonies, and the strength of their population. Some of them said that the four united colonies could count forty thousand souls. These numbers may be challenged; but, at all events, the contrast was striking with the attenuated and suffering bands of priests, nuns, and fur-traders on the St. Lawrence.
About twenty-one thousand persons had come from Old to New England, with the resolve of making it their home; and though this immigration had virtually ceased, the natural increase had been great. The need to escape persecution had given the impulse to Puritan colonization; while, on the other hand, none but good Catholics, the favored class of France, were tolerated in Canada. These had no motive for exchanging the comforts of home and the smiles of Fortune for a starving wilderness and the scalping-knives of the Iroquois. The Huguenots would have emigrated in swarms; but they were rigidly forbidden. The appeal to save the souls of the Indians and the fur-trade were the vital forces. Of her feeble population, the best part was bound to perpetual chastity; while the fur-traders and those in their service rarely brought their wives to the wilderness.
But beyond this, the religious ideal of the rival colonies was crucial to tilt the scales. It alone could have produced the contrast in material growth. To the mind of the Puritan, heaven was God’s throne; but no less was the earth His footstool: and each in its degree and its kind had its demands on man. He held it a duty to labor and to multiply; and, building on the Old Testament quite as much as on the New, thought that a reward on earth as well as in heaven awaited those who were faithful to the law. Doubtless, such a belief is widely open to abuse, and it would be folly to pretend that it escaped abuse in New England; but there was in it an element manly, healthful, and invigorating.
On the other hand, those who shaped the character and the destiny of New France had always on their lips the nothingness and the vanity of life. For them, time was nothing but a preparation for eternity, and the highest virtue consisted in a renunciation of all the cares, toils, and interests of earth. It is the monastic idea carried into the wide field of active life. And it is akin to the error of those who, trying to imitate the angelic life, suffer the neglected body to dwindle and pine, but this is not the way to fight a war on both front, military as well as religious.
We mentioned the first enemy of New France in the name of the Puritan English colonies. The other enemy was the ferocious people of the Iroquois. They consisted in a confederacy of five nations, bound together as by clans; their government was an oligarchy in form and a democracy in spirit; their minds, thoroughly savage, yet marked here and there with traits of a vigorous development. The war which they had long-waged with the Huron was carried on by the Seneca and the other Western nations of their league; while the conduct of hostilities against the French and their Indian allies in Lower Canada was left to the Mohawks. Had they joined to their ferocious courage the discipline and the military knowledge that belong to civilization, they could easily have blotted out New France from the map, and made the banks of the St. Lawrence once more a solitude; but, though the most formidable of savages, they were savages only. When they had been given muskets by the Dutch, they were no more afraid of Champlain’s cannons and were ready for the battle to the death.
The cause of the failure of the Jesuits is obvious. The guns and tomahawks of the Iroquois were the ruin of their hopes. Could they have curbed or converted those ferocious bands, it is little less than certain that their dream would have become a reality. Savages tamed, yet not civilized, would have been distributed in communities through the valleys of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, ruled by priests in the interest of Catholicity and of France. Their habits of agriculture would have been developed, and their instincts of mutual slaughter repressed. The swift decline of the Indian population would have been arrested; and it would have been made, through the fur-trade, a source of prosperity to New France. Unmolested by Indian enemies, and fed by a rich commerce, she would have put forth vigorous growth. True to her far-reaching and adventurous genius, she would have occupied the West with traders, settlers, and garrisons, and cut up the virgin wilderness into fiefs, while as yet the colonies of England were but a weak and broken line along the shore of the Atlantic. And, when the great conflict came, England and Protestantism would have been confronted, not by a feeble and depleted antagonist, but by an athletic champion of the principles of Richelieu and of Loyola.
The Jesuits saw their hopes struck down; and their faith, though not shaken, was sorely tried. The Providence of God seemed in their eyes dark and inexplicable. Meanwhile let those who have prevailed yield due honor to the defeated. Their virtues shine amidst the rubbish of error, like diamonds and gold in the gravel of the torrent. Here is how French author Goyau on the Origines religieuses du Canada, saw the work of Catholic France in North America:
“It is through the gate of the St. Lawrence that the Roman Church penetrated for the first time into North America, and it is under the French flag that she took root. England or Holland, spreading their colonies over the Atlantic shores, brought along varieties of Protestantism. Maryland, a colony created by Catholics who had right away proclaimed the liberty of the true Faith, was closed to the Roman Church for years after it fell to the Puritans. New France alone was a dique against the heresy. First explorers, first apostles Franciscans or Jesuits, first Ursulines, had wished to establish both France and Rome. France, one day, would be chased away, but the tie with Rome would maintain the memory of the motherland.”
And for over 150 years, the Christian and French civilization modeled the Canadian souls so powerfully that, despite all efforts of England to impose its language and religion, it survived the ordeal. And although the king of France was the loser and the king of England the winner, the solidarity between France and Catholicism proved stronger in Canada than this other solidarity which united the interests of Protestants with those of England. It was because the colony was firstly Catholic and secondly French that, after the defeat, Catholicism still maintained its powerful roots, even though the French crown was out the picture. The Cross was to endure over the broken sword.