Francis Parkman & the Jesuits of North America - Part 1

Author: John Carrigg


by John Carrigg Professor of History at Franciscan University

"The French dominion is a memory of the past; and when we evoke its departed shades, they rise upon us from their graves in strange romantic guise. Again their ghostly camp-fires seem to burn, and the fitful light is cast about on lord and vassal and black robed priest; mingled with wild forms of savage warriors knit in close fellowship on the same stern errand. A boundless vision grows upon us; an untamed continent; vast wastes of forest verdure; mountains silent in primeval sleep; river, lake and glimmering pool; wilderness oceans mingling with the sky. Such was the domain which France conquered for civilization. Plumed helmets gleamed in the shade of its forest, priestly vestments in the dens and fastnesses of ancient barbarism. men steeped in antique learning, pale with the close breath of the cloister, here spent the noon and evening of their lives, ruled savage hordes with a mild paternal sway, and stood serene before the direst shapes of death. Men of courtly nature, heirs to the polish of a far-reaching ancestry, here, with their dauntless hardihood, put to shame the boldest sons of toil."

In this oft quoted passage from Francis Parkman's Pioneers of New France we see his great flair for dramatic presentation in language that is almost poetic, setting forththe chief elements in the French attempt to conquer and civilize the North American continent; the never ending forest, the missionary priest, the savage warriors and the feudal lord and vassal are all there in unforgettable prose. By all accounts Parkman is the greatest writer of history that we have ever produced. John Fiske ranked him with Herodotus, Thucydides and Gibbon. Early in life he had considered a career as a poet but he was afraid that the muse of poetry would be too harsh; so instead he gave his life to Clio, the muse of history. By the time he was a sophomore at Harvard he had made up his mind to make the struggle between France and England for the control of the continent his life's work, and he ultimately produced seven volumes on the subject. All these works so carefully researched in the archives of France, Canada and the United States, were produced under the most daunting conditions of mental and physical illness, made more horrendous by a state of near blindness, so that oftimes it was impossible for him to read the documents and he had to have them dictated to him by a school girl who barely understood English. He wrote with the aid of a noctograph and then had his notes read and reread to him until he had the contents thoroughly digested and thenhe would dictate to a secretary because reading was impossible.

A good part of his history deals with the Baroque period, assuming if we do that everything in the 17th century is Baroque. It was the period in which France settled the St. Lawrence Valley and penetrated to the heart of the continent by way of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. The French missionary priest figures prominently in the story. The Recollet, the Sulpicians and above all the Jesuits, and particularly the North American martyrs whose record of faith and courage Parkman, the skeptic, moved from relative obscurity to the center stage of world history. It is Parkman and the Jesuits that will be the focus of this paper.


Francis Parkman was born in Boston in 1823, the son of the Reverend Francis Parkman, a Unitarian minister, and Caroline Hall. His grandfather Samual Parkman was a wealthy Federalist merchant from whom Parkman inherited both money and an aristocratic viewpoint. With ample wealth he was able to travel widely in quest of the documents necessary to underpin his history. On his mother's side he was descendent from the Cottons, famous divines in the early history of Massachusetts. A Puritan of Puritans, Parkman moved in the best company, being on familiar terms with such intellectual greats as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Eliot Norton,Louis Agassis and many others, who either graduated from Harvard or taught there or both. As a boy he spent many happy days with his maternal grandparents who lived along a 2000 acre tract of woods, called the Middlesex Fells. Here young Parkman acquired his love of the outdoors; hunting, trapping, fishing, and wandering in the deep sylvan waste that remained as untouched as it was when the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth. The unhappiest part of his young life occurred every Saturday when his father arrived in the family trap to take him back to Boston to spend a Unitarian Sunday. He seems to have developed an anti-clerical bias early in his life for he sulked on coming home and dragged behind his mother and father on returning from Church every Sunday.

At age 13, he was sent to the Academy of Mr. Gideon Thayer where initially he showed a flair for chemistry. He also engaged in dramatics with a company formed by his friends who put on plays in his grandfather's unused coach house. He studied Latin and Greek and read widely in Shakespeare, Milton, Cooper, Scott and Byron - the latter three his favorite authors. He was admitted to Harvard on probation because of weakness in mathematics. His Harvard years were happy and he studied selectively doing well in what he liked, history, literature, and indifferently in other areas. He failed mathematics in his freshman year which was quite a shock and forced him to be more attentive to his scholarly duties. But he graduated with honors in history and was strongly influenced by Jared Sparks, an ex-Unitarian minister turned historian and author. He was active in a series of clubs and had plenty of fun in his four years at Harvard. Initially he thought only of the French and Indian War as the focus of his efforts but this inevitably grew into the larger story. He kept his plans secret from his family and friends, for his father would have been pleased if he went into the ministry or Law or something practical. A letter survives from his sophomore year in which he asked Professor Sparks to recommend a bibliography that would prepare him for a history of the French and Indian war. Since his subject took place in the great forest of America he determined to familiarize himself with the life there. During his summers at Harvard he hiked, canoed, and camped in the wilds of New England along the Magalloway and Connecticut Rivers up to the Canadian border. He followed the trails of Coureur de Bois and missionary priests, sleeping on the ground, pushing his canoe upstream against the rapids, living by his wits and enduring all that his pioneer heroes endured in those "dens of ancient barbarism." He kept journals of all these experiences and they make fascinating reading. Further to prepare himself he worked hard at physical conditioning in the new Harvard gym; took boxing lessons from an ex-pugilist and riding lessons from a circus performer. In his enthusiasms for the Spartan life he sounds very much like Teddy Roosevelt, but unlike

Roosevelt who built himself up by his vigorous regime, Parkman broke down under it. He suffered a complete collapse, nervous and physical, in his senior year and his parents sent him to Europe to rest and recover.


Here he came into contact with Catholicism for the first time as he travelled through Sicily by mule with his enthusiastic guide, Luigi. The rest of his life he would be dealing with the Catholic Church which figures so prominently in the history of early Canada. It was a love-hate relationship; he was strongly attracted and yet repelled by the ancient faith, perhaps more anti-clerical than anti-Catholic. Since he was of a romantic nature and despised the levelling tendencies of 19th century democracy, he was pleased to go back in time, as he put it, travelling through Sicily and observing the ancient ceremonies of the Church. In Catania he was very impressed with the Benedictine Church -

..."the noblest edifice I have seen. This and others not unlike it have impressed me with new ideas of the Catholic religion. Not exactly for I reverenced it before as the religion of generations of brave and great men - but now I honor it for itself. They are mistaken who sneer at its ceremonies as a mere mechanical farce: they have a powerful and salutary effect on the mind. Those who have witnessed the services in the Benedictine church and deny what I say, must either be singularly stupid and insensible by nature or rendered so by prejudice.

In Rome he spent three days in a Passionist monastery observing the routine of a retreat carried on for priests and for laymen who were preparing for a general confession. He described the Passionist Fathers in unflattering terms; "thin scowling faces," they filed off to their rooms "looking like the originals of the black pictures that hang along the whitewashed walls;" "they ate their meals in lugubrious silence." He was impressed however with the retreat director, a Father Lucca, whom he described as a "large and powerful man who lookedsterner, if possible, than his inferiors." Padre Lucca was shocked to learn that Parkman was a Protestant but "then insinuated a hope that I might be reclaimed from my damnable heresy." Parkman seemed to genuinely like Padre Lucca in part because "he was an exception to the rest of the establishment, plump and well fed with a double chin like a bull frog and a most contented and good humored countenance." Efforts by the fathers to convert the young American were in vain and he describes several of these: "a thin hollow eyed father horrified at the enormity of my disbelief" and, dismayed to learn he was a Unitarian, offered him a medal of the Virgin which Parkman agreed to wear -- but refused to utter the "Aves" which the priest said had brought Ratisbone the Jew to the Faith. The medal failed to work a conversion and the next day (Palm Sunday, 1844) Padre Lucca was "unfeignedly sorry to have me go with unimpaired prospects of damnation. He said he still had hopes for me and taking the kindest leave of me gave me a book of Catholic devotions which I shall certainly keep in remembrance of a very excellent man."

He concluded this phase of his Catholic experience with "when I got into the fresh air, I felt rather glad to be free of the gloomy galleries and cells which nevertheless contained so much to be admired."

Then he spent Holy Week in Rome observing the services and describing them in great detail. He had an audience with Pope Gregory XVI, visited churches, convents, cemeteries, catacombs, common sewers, including the Cloaca Maxima and ten thousand works of art. Rome was impressive to this son of far reaching Puritan ancestry: "This I will say of Rome - that a place on every account more interesting - and which has a more vivifying and quickening influence on the faculties - could not be found on the face of the earth - or at least I should not wish to go to it, if it could."

Resisting attraction to Catholicism, he ran into several Jesuit Fathers in Rome and found his Harvard training was no match for their astounding learning. He thought they showed an appalling readiness and rapidity in pouring forth their interminable streams of arguments. His cousin Coolidge Shaw, a convert to Catholicism, was in Rome at the time studying for the priesthood in a Jesuit seminary. He introduced Parkman to a Virginian, St. Ives, who was also a convert. Parkman took an instant dislike to St. Ives. He wrote to his mother to assure her that "the farce of Coolidge Shaw had not been reenacted in my person. It is no fault of the Jesuits, nor his friend St. Ives who by the way is a hypocrite and a liar, whom I am surprised Coolidge could tolerate." His mother was startled at his description of St. Ives whom Coolidge had recommended to his family in the highest terms. She wrote: "Is he deceived or you mistaken?" But she concluded: "At any rate I infer you wont come home a Catholic and that's a comfort." It is clear that Parkman found Catholicism attractive but was digging in to resist being swept along by it. His Unitarian upbringing, his general low opinionof the clerical calling toughened him for this showdown with the Church; and the presence in Rome of Theodore Parker, a left wing Unitarian minister, helped to steady him on the course that eventually made him an agnostic, if he weren't already one. Years later his sister Eliza asked him if his religious view could not be summed up as "agnosticism with reverence." He agreed with that description.

Leaving Rome he journeyed through northern Italy. In Milan he was offended by a funeral he attended where the conduct of the priests, he thought, irreverent and casual. This prompted him to write in his journal: "I used to like priests and take my hat off and make a low bow, half in sport and half in earnest, whenever I met them but I have got to despise the fellows. Yet I have met admirable men among them; and have always been treated by them all with the utmost civility and attention."

He returned to America in time to graduate with his class at Harvard. He then entered the Harvard Law School and completed his law courses in two years. This was to please his father but he never practiced law. He spent the summer of 1845 visiting the old forts and trading posts of the Great Lakes and the Allegheny frontier.


In 1846 he travelled the Oregon and Santa Fe trails and sojourned among the Olgalla Sioux. This experience gave him considerable exposure to rugged frontier types and the Plains Indians living at that time in a primitive state. But the rough life further injured his health and his eye problems date from this time. Despite the handicap of ill health and near blindness he wrote his first volume, The Oregon Trail, the most widely read of all his works. He wrote it by dictation which he said was as "easy as lying"... For the rest of his life he would be plagued by this baffling combination of physical and mental illness (the enemy as he called it) plus near blindness that made concentration at times impossible; and yet so determined was he, so strong-willed that he persisted and overcame it and produced the seven volumes of France and England In America (in addition to The Conspiracy of Pontiac, and a novel, Vassal Morton, and innumerable articles for North America Review, Harpers, The Nation and other scholarly Journals plus maintaining a vast correspondence with scholars home and abroad and friends and family. His scholarship was thorough and meticulous, and with minor corrections his history stands unchallenged as the definitive work on France in America although marred obviously by his hostility to Catholicism. The rationalist and skeptic in Parkman could not accept the Catholic world view peopled by angels and saints in heaven, with the Blessed Mother at the apex interceding at the throne of her divine Son. At times he mocked it, often treated it ironically and occasionally with unfeigned hostility. Hisfavorite word for the missionary priest was Zealot, which somehow diminishes him. We admire heroes, we are turned off by zealots. Still Parkman had to pay high tribute to the courage and self sacrificing spirit of the early Jesuit priests who carried the faith to the distant villages of the Algonquin, Hurons, and even the Iroquois. Rarely however is his praise unstinting. One almost has the feeling that he is aware that his audience is dominantly American Protestant and he is with them in their antipathy for things Catholic... Thus he describes the Jesuit fathers tending the sick in the Huron villages stricken by an epidemic of smallpox:

But when we see them, in the gloomy February of 1637 and the gloomier months that followed toiling on foot from one infected town to another, wading through the sodden snow, under bare and dripping forests, drenched with incessant rains, till they descried at length through the storms the clustered dwellings of some barbarous hamlet. When we see them entering one after another these wretched abodes of misery and darkness, and all for one sole end, the baptism of the sick and dying, we may smile at the futility of the object, but we must needs admire the self sacrificing zeal with which it was pursued.

Great praise but for that "We may smile at the futility of the object;" so often the stinger at least for a Catholic readership who did not think it was futile at all. Yet when writing to John Gilmary Shea, the great Catholic historian of the Church in America, he reports his indebtedness to Shea for his history of the Catholic Missions:

The Missions [Parkman writes] are a branch of the subject which I regard with very great interest. The more I examine them, the more I am impressed with the purity of motive, the devoted self sacrifice and the heroism of the early missionaries, some of whom seem to me to fall no whit below the martyrs of the primitive church, and although not writing from the same point of view, my testimony to their virtues will often be no less emphatic than your own.

Here no stinger but undiluted praise for the Jesuit fathers. Parkman, of course, was aware that his Jesuits in North America would not please Catholics. He explained to Abbe Casgrain that he was writing from a heretic point of view and to John Gilmary Shea that he "could not hope that the Jesuits would meet the approval of my Catholic friends. I have written from my point of view and could not honestly do otherwise." At least one Parkman scholar, Howard Doughty suggests that Parkman's Jesuits in North America, lifted from obscurity the heroic work of these missionaries and moved it to the world stage which paved the way for their canonization as the American martyrs in the 20th century. If true, Parkman would have been amused to think that he played a role in something as utterly Catholic as the canonization of a Saint.

Taken from the Winter 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy, Editor