The Word of God

After a number of abortive attempts, the Jesuit fathers of New France finally succeeded in establishing missions among the Iroquois. They did so in the wake of French raids in 1665 and 1666 designed to eliminate Iroquois interference with the colony’s distant native allies in the fur trade.  As such the Jesuits entered communities on the defensive. Even those members of the Five Nations who had never before encountered the “Black Robes” had heard much about them, for among the large numbers of native peoples absorbed into Iroquois villages were those who had accepted the priests’ Catholic faith or already had rejected it. Some told horrifying tales of the strangely-dressed priests who deployed sorcery, and described how the magic they used, the Catholic sacrament of baptism, killed Indians. Many of them believed, one Jesuit priest learned, that the Black Robes carried disease and suffering everywhere they went. That the members of the Longhouse believed stories such as these is not surprising: the priests did on occasion carry disease into their missions, and because they often baptized Indians only as they fell gravely ill, the Iroquois and other native peoples associated the death of their kinsmen with the actions of the priests.

But the Iroquois could not turn the French away.  It was no longer that simple. Battered in warfare, they needed the trade goods that alliance with the French might bring, and that alliance required of the Five Nations a willingness to permit the Jesuits to begin preaching and building missions in their territory. Certainly the missionaries recognized, as Father Francois le Mercier observed, “that the whole country of the Iroquois was at that time greatly in fear of a renewed French invasion.”

Fear of the French and a desire to acquire their trade goods certainly explains some of the Five Nations’ interest in converting to Catholicism. Father Jean Pierron told the Mohawks, for instance, that unless they converted the French would not trust them. “Be assured,” he said, “that we shall never believe that you wish to live on good terms with us until you serve the same Master that we serve . . . In order to have a firm and unshakable peace of the sort you desire, you must be like me and believe what I believe.” The Mohawks, Pierron reported, soon after “devoted themselves to prayer” and he believed that “one could not ask for a greater inclination for the faith than that which appears in our Indians.” At the point of a gun, some embraced a new faith.

It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the Indians’ interest in Christianity as merely a means to an end.  If some Catholic converts remarked upon the sinister power of the Black Robes and the destruction their arrival wrought, others welcomed the return of the Jesuits into their lives. These adoptees became, in many cases, the most fervent followers and supporters of the priests.  And they could tell stories of the Jesuits’ virtues, of their abilities as healers, of the power of their rituals.

Historians once interpreted Christianity and religious conversion as something done by colonists to the colonized.  Religious conversion, in this sense, became an instrument of cold war in the early American contest of cultures.  It was a non-violent, but no less certain, instrument of conquest. Yet the Jesuits could not have established their missions without the native peoples who listened to and considered their message, weighed that message against what they knew of the world, and concluded that the faith or the rituals of the Black Robes offered more satisfactory solutions to the problems they faced than did their traditional beliefs. Many converts combined elements of old and new, Christianity with traditional religion, in an attempt to make sense of a world that had changed rapidly before their eyes.

After the French raids of 1665, many Iroquois began moving northward to settle in mission communities linked to, but still separate from, the French colonial regime. Mohawks, Oneidas, and their adoptees moved to the village of Kanawake. Some Senecas, Cayugas, and Onondagas, meanwhile, migrated across the Niagara River into the lands that had been occupied by their Huron adoptees.  In time they established themselves in mission villages as the Iroquois du Nord. Most of these missionary efforts took place well to the east of the Seneca homeland, but some efforts were made by Jesuit priests to reach the Senecas in today’s Livingston County. The Chapel St. Jean was opened in 1669 at the Seneca site of Gandachiragou on a trail that follows the Lima Road of today. The village would be destroyed by a French army in the offensive of 1687. 

Further Reading

Blanchard, David. “…To the Other Side of the Sky: Catholicism at Kahnawake, 1667-1700.” Anthropoligica, New Series, 24 (no. 1, 1982), 77-102.

Greer, Allan. Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

________. “Conversion and Identity: Iroquois Christianity in Seventeenth Century New  France,” Conversions: Old Worlds and New, eds. Kenneth Mills and Anthony Grafton, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2003), 175-198

Lozier, Jean-Francois. Flesh Reborn: The Saint Lawrence Valley Mission Settlements through the Seventeenth Century, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018).

Richter, Daniel K. “Iroquois versus Iroquois: Jesuit Missions and Christianity in Village Politics, 1642-1666.”  Ethnohistory, 32 (Winter 1985), 1-16.

Steckley, John. “The Warrior and the Lineage: Jesuit Use of Iroquoian Images to Communicate Christianity.” Ethnohistory, 39 (Autumn 1992), 478-509.

Trigger, Bruce G. The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, 2 vols., (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1976).