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[Detail] Vue de Quebec, capitale du Canada. 1755.

American Indian Cultures and Missionary Activity

French explorers, missionaries, and soldiers amassed a great deal of information about the Indians with whom they came into contact. Understanding the Indians helped the French live among the Indians more easily and provided them with critical information about how to survive in the territories they were exploring. In their willingness to learn about the Indians and to use that understanding as the basis for their relationship with Indians, the French differed from the English and, later, the Americans. A French-Ojibwa historian named William Warren, quoted in the  Themes section Knowledge of the Indians, said "...the Ojibwas learned to love the French people, for the Frenchmen, possessing a character of great plasticity, easily assimilated themselves to the customs and mode of life of their red brethren."

cover of Le Grand Voyage du Pays

Le Grand Voyage du Pays. What can you infer about the contents of the book by examining the cover?

Understanding the Indians also helped those among the French who wanted to change the Indians, including missionaries, who hoped to convert the Indians to Christianity. Many of the missionaries who worked among the Indians wrote extensively about their culture and religion.

A number of the works with detailed observations of Indians are available in French only. Three examples are the two-volume "Moeurs des Sauvages Ameriquains" by Joseph-Francois Lafitau; "Le Grand Voyage du Pays"  by Gabriel Sagard; and  "Nouvelle relation de la Gaspesie."  by Chrestien Le Clercq.

A 1903 translation of Father Claudius Dablon’s narrative about Father James Marquette is provided in "Relation of the Voyages, Discoveries, and Death, of Father James Marquette." Section VI provides a detailed description of the Illinois Indians, including this description of their diet:

They live by game, which is abundant in this country, and on Indian corn, of which they always gather a good crop, so that they have never suffered from famine. They also sow beans and melons, which are excellent, especially those with a red seed. Their squashes are not of the best; they dry them in the sun, to eat in the winter and spring.

From "Relation of the Voyages, Discoveries, and Death of Father James Marquette", page 26.

Read Section VI of Dablon’s account and answer the following questions:

  • How had the Illinois been affected by indirect contact with the French?
  • What was the calumet? How was it used by the Illinois? Why do you think it was held in such high esteem?
  • Compare the 1903 description with an 1852 version. How are the two sources different? Who provided the additional information in the 1852 version? How can you assess the accuracy of that information, compared to the earlier edition?

The France in America collection includes several English-language secondary sources—histories or biographies—drawing on the early primary sources about Indian cultures. One such source was "The Life of Father Isaac Jogues," translated from the French, which examines the life and work of a Jesuit missionary slain by the Mohawks in 1646. Shortly after Father Jogues arrived at the Huron mission, he fell ill; after he recovered, the same disease swept through the Huron population. Some historians estimate that between 1634 and 1640 as many as 60 percent of the Huron were killed by European diseases to which they had no immunity, diseases such as measles, smallpox, and influenza. Father Jogues’ biographer described the Indian medical practices as follows:

The medicine-men . . . had recourse to numberless acts of superstition, which they palmed off as efficacious remedies. Now they would blow on the sick with all their might to drive off the evil spirits; then they would throw into the fire small pieces of tobacco as a sacrifice to the spirits, who were adjured to protect the cabin. They could be seen searching everywhere for the spell which they supposed to be source of the evil; and when recovery seemed certain, they had tact enough to pretend they had just found it. They almost always had recourse to dances, which Indians like, and which enter largely into their superstition.

From "The Life of Father Isaac Jogues," page 48 

Read more of Chapters II through V of "The Life of Father Isaac Jogues" and consider the following questions:

  • Why, according to the author, did the missionaries find learning the Huron language difficult?
  • Why did the Indians refuse to allow the missionaries into their towns when illness struck? Do you think this refusal was justified? Why or why not?
  • Describe the means of travel used by the Indians and missionaries. How was knowledge gained from the Indians important to the missionaries?
  • Create a web of information about the Iroquois presented in Chapter V. Why were the Iroquois so feared? What factors may have contributed to their being "successful in all their undertakings"? 
  • What author bias can you detect in this biography of Father Jogues? How does this bias affect your reading of the work?

Consider what you have read about the work of the Jesuit missionaries.

  • How did the Indians respond to the missionary activities of the Jesuits?
  • What role did the missionaries play in the pacification of Indian nations?
  • How did missionary activity in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys open the way for colonial settlement?

A history published in 1858, Edward D. Neill’s "The History of Minnesota; From the Earliest French Explorations to the Present Time," draws upon the writings of explorers and missionaries. Edward Neill was thoroughly American. An ordained minister, educator, and historian, he worked as an assistant to Presidents Lincoln and Johnson, served as Minnesota’s first superintendent of schools, and then as the first president of Macalester College.

  • In what ways does Neill’s description of the Indians who lived in what is now Minnesota reflect his experience as a white American?
  • How would you assess his description of Indian life compared to those of the French missionaries?