Francis Parkman & the Jesuits of North America Part 2

Author: John Carrigg




In Pioneers of France in the New World, Parkman stresses the influential role of pious aristocratic ladies at the court of Henry 1V and Louis XIII, particularly Madame de Querchcille, who contributed generously to finance the first Jesuit mission to North America. Fathers Enemond Massie and Pierre Biard sailed for Acadia in 1611 and Parkman introduces the Society of Jesus to his readers for the first time:

Then first did this mighty Proteus, this many sided Society of Jesus, enter upon the rude field of toil and woe, where in after years the devoted zeal of its apostles was to lend dignity to their order and do honor to humanity. Few were the regions of the known world to which the potent brotherhood had not stretched the vast network of its influence. Jesuits had disputed in theology with the bonzes of Japan, and taught astronomy to the Mandarins of China; had wrought prodigies of sudden conversion among the followers of Brahma, preached the papal supremacy to Abyssinian schismatics, carried the cross among the savages of Caffaria, wrought reputed miracles in Brazil and gathered the tribes of Paraguay beneath their paternal sway. And now with the aid of the Virgin and her votary at court, they would build another empire among the tribes of New France. The omens were sinister and the outset was unpropitious. The Society was destined to reap few laurels from the brief apostleship of Biard and Masse. Fr. Masse tried living among the forest Indians with signal ill success. Hard fare, smoke and filth had reduced him to a lamentable plight of body and mind, worn him to a skeleton and sent him back to Port Royal without a single convert.

Father Biard was captured by the English in the abortiveFrench colony off Mount Desert, Maine, and after many adventures he was returned to France where says Parkman he perhaps resumed "the tranquil honors of his chair of Theology at Lyons."

Parkman speculates on one of the might-have-beens of history if the French colony in Maine had succeeded. Seven years after its demise the Mayflower landed the Pilgrims at Plymouth: "What would have been the issue" had New England been preoccupied with a Jesuit colony? "A collision of adverse elements, a conflict of water and fire; the death grapple of the iron Puritans with these indomitable priests."

Although Parkman treats of Jesuits in all seven volumes of his France and England in North America, it is volume II, Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, which attracts most of the attention. This volume describes the activities of the famous North American martyrs, the Jesuit Fathers: Brébeuf, Lalemant, Garnier, Chabanel, Daniel and Jogues, and the two laymen, the donnés of the mission, Goupil and Lalande. It covers the years of 1632 to 1670, a period in which the Jesuits had made great progress in Christianizing the Hurons, but in 1640, the Iroquois launched a series of assaults on the Hurons and destroyed the Jesuit mission villages in the Georgian Bay region of Lake Huron. Parkman relied heavily on the Jesuit Relations letters of the Canadian Jesuits to their superior in France. Unable to travel because of illness, he spent five years in concentrated study in the Boston Athenaeum and Harvard College Library, and he developed a wide correspondence among pioneer historians in Canadian history who helped him gather a large library of pertinent documents. His research was thorough and exacting; his dramatic and vivacious style born of a great gift for writing, and his intimate knowledge of his subject has made his histories live in a manner that no other historian has ever equalled. Thus, he describes the little band of Jesuits at Quebec in 1634:

These men aimed at the conversion of a continent. From their hovel on St. Charles, they surveyed a field of labor whose vastness might tire the wings of thought itself; darkened with omens of peril and woe. They were the advance guard of the great army of Loyola.

Parkman goes on to describe the Canadian winter of 1632-1633, which was unusually severe:

The St. Lawrence and the St. Charles were hard frozen rivers; forests and rocks were mantled alike in dazzling sheets of snow. The humble mission house of Notre Dame des Anges was half buried in the drifts, which, heaped up in front where a path had been dug through them, rose two feet above the low eaves. The priests sitting at night before the blazing logs of their wide throated chimney, heard the trees in the neighboring forest cracking with frost. Le Jeune's ink froze, and his fingers were benumbed, as he toiled at his declensions and conjugations or translated the Pater Noster into blundering Algonquin. The water in the cask beside the fire froze nightly, and the ice was broken every morning with hatchets. The blankets of the two priests were fringed with the icicles of their congealed breath and the frost lay in a thick coating on the lozenge shaped glass of their cells.


Parkman reserves his highest praise for Father Jean de Brebeuf who possessed all the masculine virtues that he admired - courage, intelligence, strength, endurance, and cheerfulness in the face of incredible adversity. If he had lived in the 13th century he would have been a Norman knight doing battle for God and Lord. Instead, he had chosen the life of religion: "Nature had given him all the passions of a vigorous manhood and religion had crushed them, curbed them, or tamed them to do her work - like a dammed up torrent, sluiced and guided to grind and saw and weave for the good of man."

In the summer of 1634 Fathers Brebeuf, Davost and Daniel and the Indians set out for the Huron country, a distance of 900 miles from Quebec. The journey took them by canoe up the St. Lawrence River to the site of the future Montreal, then up the Ottawa River to Lake Nipissing and from there down the French River to the Georgian Bay region of Lake Huron.

Their only food was a pittance of Indian corn, crushed between two stones and mixed with water. The toil was extreme. Brebeuf counted thirty-five portages where the canoe was lifted from the water and carried on the shoulders of the voyagers. More than 50 times, besides, they were forced to wade in the raging current, plus pushing up their empty barks, or dragging them with ropes. Brebeuf tried to do his part but the boulders and sharp rocks wounded his naked feet and compelled him to desist. He and his companions bore their share of the baggage across the portages sometimes a distance of several miles. Four trips at the least, were required to convey the whole.

Here Parkman draws on his own intimate experience with the forest:

The way was through the dense forest, encumbered with rocks and logs tangled with roots and underbrush, damp with perpetual shade, and redolent of decayed leaves and moldering wood. Brebeuf, a man of iron frame and a nature unconquerably resolute doubted if his strength would sustain him to the journey's end. He complained he had no moment to read his Breviary, except by moonlight, when stretched out to sleep on a bare rock by some savage cataract of the Ottawa, or in a damp nook of the adjacent forest.

Brebeuf was left by his Indian companions on a lonely inlet of Thunder Bay. He fell on his knees to thank God for bringing him so far in safety and then found his way to the nearest Huron village where he was greeted with shouts of "Echon, Echon has come!" [Echon was the Huron attempt to approximate Jean.] The three Jesuits were soon settled into the Indian life. The Hurons built a bark lodge for them. They worked a year without making a single adult conversion, although baptizing several dying infants. Parkman delivers one of his stingers in quoting Father Garnier, who on writing to his brother, describes the great joy he experiences in baptizing an infant who dies a short time later, as turning a little Indian into an angel. Says Parkman, "This form of benevolence is beyond heretic appreciation."

But the patience, kindness, and intrepidity of the Jesuits gained the confidence and good will of the Huron population:

Their manifest disinterestedness, the blamelessness of their lives, and the tact which, in the utmost fervors of their zeal never failed them, won the hearts of these wayward savages; and chiefs of distant villages came to urge that they would make their abode with them. As yet the results of the mission had been faint and few; but the priests toiled on courageously, high in hope that an abundant harvest of souls would one dayreward their labors.

In 1635-36 more Jesuits joined the mission. "These were no stern exiles," says Parkman "seeking in barbarous shores an asylum for a persecuted faith. Rank, wealth, power and royalty itself smiled on their enterprise and bade them God speed. Yet, withal, a fervor more intense, a self abnegation more complete, a self devotion more constant and enduring will scarcely find its record on the pages of human history." Parkman then takes off on one of his more tooth rattling passages describing Holy Mother Church:

Linked in sordid wedlock to governments and thrones. This mighty Church of Rome in her imposing march along the high road of history, heralded as infallible and divine, astounds the gazing world with prodigies of contradiction...but it was her nobler and purer part that gave life to the early mission of New France. That gloomy wilderness, those hordes of savages had nothing to tempt the ambitious, the proud, the grasping or the indolent. Obscure toil, solitude, privation, hardship and death were to be the missionary's portion. He who set sail for the country of the Hurons left behind him the world and all its prizes. The letters of these priests departing for the scene of their labors breathe a spirit of enthusiastic exaltation which to a colder nature and a colder faith, sometimes seem overstrained but which is in no way disproportionate to the vastness of the effort and the sacrifice demanded of them.

The Jesuit Fathers occasionally baptized infants against their parents' wishes. Parkman accuses them of "that equivocal morality lashed by Pascal, a morality built on the doctrine that all means are permissible for saving souls from perdition and sin itself is no sin when its object is the `Greater glory of God'". Parkman allows that such alleged "`equivocal morality' found far less scope in the rude wilderness of the Hurons than among the interests, ambitions and passions of civilized life."

Smallpox broke out in the mission villages. The Jesuit fathers never flagged in their zeal to bring the Christian message to the sick and dying and comforting their physical needs with a little senna or a spoonful of sugar water. The Indians were slow to accept the French paradise: "I wish to go where my relations and ancestors have gone" was a common reply. "Heaven is a good place for Frenchmen" said another "but I wish to be among Indians, for the French will give me nothing to eat when I get there." "Do they hunt in heaven, or make war, or go to feasts?" asked an anxious inquirer. "Oh, no" replied the father. "Then I will not go. It is no good to be lazy." Yet the Jesuits refused to water down thefaith to win converts. In one of the towns the Indians had tried all possible means to get rid of the sickness; feasts, dances and preposterous ceremonies by their medicine men had failed. In desperation they asked Fr. Brebeuf what they would have to do to get his God on their side. Brebeuf's answer, says Parkman, was uncompromising:

Believe in Him, keep His commandments, abjure your faith in dreams, take but one wife and be true to her, give up your superstitious feasts, renounce your assemblies of debauchery, eat no human flesh, never give feasts to demons, and make a vow that if God will deliver you from this pest you will build a chapel to offer Him thanksgiving and praise.

The terms were too hard. They agreed to put up a chapel, "but Brebeuf would bate them nothing and the council broke up in despair."

Throughout the 1640s the Iroquois waged unrelenting war against their Huron enemies. The climax came in 1649 when a large Iroquois war party overran the Jesuit mission villages along Georgian Bay. Fathers Brebeuf and Lalement were captured, tortured terribly, scorched from head to foot, doused in scalding water and finally put to death. Brebeuf did not flinch under the torture. As Parkman puts it:

The indomitable priest stood like a rock and they tried other means to overcome him. Finally a chief tore out his heart and his warriors closed in to drink the blood of so valiant a man: Thus died Jean de Brebeuf, founder of the Huron mission, its truest hero and its greatest martyr. Scion of a Norman family in whose veins flowed the blood of the English Earls of Arundel but never did the mailed barons of his line face so appalling a fate with such prodigious a constancy. To the last he refused to flinch, and his death was the astonishment of his murderers. In him an enthusiastic devotion was grafted on an heroic nature. His bodily endowments were as remarkable as the temper of his mind. His manly proportions, his strength, and his endurance, which incessant fasts and penances could not undermine, had always won for him the respect of the Indians, no less than a courage unconscious of fear, and yet redeemed from rashness by a cool and vigorous judgment; for, extravagant as were the chimeras which fed the fires of his zeal, they were consistent with the soberest good sense on matters of practical bearing.

Father Lalement, constitutionally weak almost to emaciation, was unequal to a display of fortitude like that of his colleague. His robust companion had lived less than four hours, under the torture while he survived it for nearly seventeen.

Garnier, Chabanel, and Daniel suffered more merciful deaths, falling to the tomahawk or the musket.


The story of Father Isaac Jogues is incredibly dramatic. Tortured terribly by the Iroquois, then made a slave of the tribe he, with the help of the Calvinst Dutch at Ft. Orange, escaped his captors and returned to France. He begged to be returned to the Canadian missions and his wish was granted. Two years later in 1646 he was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Iroquois and he and his donné companion Jean LaLande were murdered by them. Of him Parkman writes: "He was the purest example of Roman Catholic virtue this Western Continent has seen. With all his gentleness, he had a certain warmth or vivacity of temperament; and we have seen how, during this first captivity, while humbly submitting to every caprice of his tyrants and appearing to rejoice in abasement, a derisive word against his faith would change the lamb into the lion, and the lips that seemed so tame would speak in sharp, bold tones of menace and reproof..."

The destruction of the Huron villages left the Huron nation decimated and the beaten refugees from that disaster fled back to Montreal and Quebec where they intermingled among other tribes and ceased to exist as a nation. The Jesuit dream of peaceful Indian communities ruled by the gentle Fathers was destroyed by Iroquois guns and tomahawks. Parkman never doubted that English liberty would prevail over French absolutism but if the Jesuits had been successful it would have made the task so much more difficult for "prosperous Indian communities would be established along the Great Lakes and into the Mississippi Valley. The swift decline of the Indian population would have been arrested, habits of agriculture would have been developed and their instincts of mutual slaughter repressed..."

"Liberty", says Parkman "may thank the Iroquois, that by their insensate fury the plans of her adversary were brought to nought. The Jesuit Fathers saw their hopes struck down; and their faith, though not shaken, was sorely tried." Parkman concludes with a generous gesture to the defeated with his little zinger thrown in: "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."

As Parkman continues his France and England and takes the story into the latter half of the 17th century he strains to see a difference in the Jesuits of that age compared to those of the Heroic Age. "The Canadian Jesuit is less and less an apostle and more an explorer, a man of science and a politician," he says, "the missionary still sends out stories of conversions, baptisms and the exemplary conduct of neophytes" which Parkman finds "intolerably tedious" but they also report mundane things like observations on winds, currents and tides in the Great Lakes, accounts of copper mines and speculation on geography like the direction and terminus of that great mysterious river that the Indians have reported to them. Still these latter day Jesuits founded mission villages at Sault St. Marie, Michilmachinac, Green Bay and LaPointe, on Lake Superior. He tells the story of Father Louis André who was cut from the old cloth: In the winter of 1670 he stayed with the Ottawas and the Nipissings: "The staple of his diet was acorns and tripe de roche, a species of lichen, which, being boiled, resolved itself into a black glue, nauseous, but not void of nourishment. At times he was reduced to moss, the bark of trees, or moccasins and old moose skins cut into strips and boiled. His hosts treated him very ill, and the worst of their fare was always his portion. When spring came to his relief, he returned to his post of St. Simon, with impaired digestion and unabated zeal."

Father Marquette, one of the latter day Jesuits, certainly fills the heroic mold. Parkman relates his epic voyage with his companion Joliet from Green Bay down the Mississippi to the river Arkansas and back, without a bit of editorializing.

He is high on La Salle and Frontenac and presents the Jesuits as enemies of these two heroes but sees their opposition based on resistance to the growing civil power over the spiritual. The Jesuits were still hoping to build in the Mississippi Valley peaceful Indian communities and feared that French penetration into this area would bring with it the corrupting influences that would destroy the Indian. He clearly doesn't like Bishop Laval, who is backed by the Jesuits against the civil power, but the Jesuits fade into the background as his history progresses. Over the years he developed a warm and close relationship with the great Canadian historian, Abbe Casgrain. Casgrain supported Laval University's plan to give Parkman in 1879 an honorary degree which occasioned bitter opposition from some quarters in Canada, so much so that the Rector of the University had to withdraw the offer.


As a good priest, Casgrain must have shuddered under the impact of some of Parkman's more anti-Catholic shafts. In a sketch of Parkman's life he said, "The work of Parkman is the negation of all religious belief, Protestant as well as Catholic. He is purely a rationalist, who admits of no other principle than the vague theorycalled Modern Civilization. One glimpses a righteous soul, born for the truth, but lost without compass in an ocean without shores. Hence these aspirations toward the truth, these brilliant avowals, this homage to the truth, followed, alas, by strange declines, by outbursts of astonishing fanaticism.

"In short, the writings of Mr. Parkman, in which good and evil are mingled, are the image of human nature. The sky is not without clouds, the light not without shadows, but nevertheless it is day. One recognizes throughout the elevated mind, the honest heart, which, throughout all his gropings, admires the beautiful, searches for the truth, and loves the good. He has gone to the very sources of our history; he has studied them with a care, a love worthy of all praise; he has then told the story, just as he has found it, and said: `Accept or reject my conclusions; but here are the facts.'"

"We can scarcely hope more of an impartial enemy."

He concludes that, despite the objections Catholics must make to Parkman's book, Canadians owed him a great debt, for no other writer has done so much to make their country's history known and admired abroad. And to admire the history is to admire the religion that shaped it. Finally Casgrain suggests that Parkman unwittingly served the design of Providence; for his books helped to break down the barriers which divided the races of the New World, who were destined to unite in a civilization which would rule the Globe. And then he paid a fine tribute to his friend:

When you have come to the end of your career, you can lay down on your books your head whitened by toil, and give this testimony: I have used my life to the good of my fellows, with a right and pure purpose; I can lay myself down to sleep with the hope that this will be held to my credit. (Mason Wade, P. Heroic Historian, pp. 405-407).

In 1923 the Centenary of Parkman's birth was held in Montreal. The passions evoked by his rationalist treatment of a great Catholic epoch had died down and his name and works were lauded to the skies. Mr. Egidius Fauteux, a Canadian archivist, in his address described Parkman's works as possessing the freshness of youth but at the same time never neglecting the first obligation of the historian - exactitude. To the dryness of fact he superimposed the magic style. Finally his works possess the gift of vitality. Commenting on these remarks of Fauteux, Samuel Eliot Morison, a great historian and a Parkman devotee, says: "Parkman's work is forever young with the `immortal youth of art.' His men and women are alive, they feel, think, and act within the framework of a living nature. In Parkman's prose the forests ever murmur, the rapids perpetually foam and roar; the people have parts and passions. Like that `sylvan historian' of Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn, he caught the spirit of an age and fixed it for all time, `forever panting and forever young.'"

Taken from the Spring 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