1634 was a pivotal year for the indigenous peoples of North America. It was in that year that the French Jesuit missionaries, in spite of their highest motives, set in motion a series of events that led ultimately to the destruction of those whom they came to both civilize and save for the greater glory of God. The result of these events, one hundred and fifty bloody years later, was an unstoppable European settlement on lands where disease and internecine warfare had so thinned the native population that resistance, no matter how resolute, had become futile. The Jesuits, with their holy motives, and the French and Dutch, with their more worldly ones, exacerbated the preexisting tensions and upset the tenuous balance of power that had existed for generations between the two great powers in the northeastern part of the North American continent, the Huron and Iroquois Confederations.
A small group of Jesuit priests, led by the indomitable Father Jean de Brébeuf, set forth in July, 1634 from the French trading post of Three Rivers on the Saint Lawrence River. The French had finally succeeded in cajoling a group of Huron traders to allow the missionaries to return with them to their own country, Huronia, on the southern shore of Georgian Bay.
The Jesuits were bursting with missionary zeal and optimism. They had a vision and it was a grand one. They intended to build a Catholic empire in the wilderness. The Huron, converted, civilized, and, so they hoped, loyal to the French crown, were to be the cornerstone of that empire. Francis Parkman, in his prodigious work, France and England in North America, used these words to describe the Jesuit dream:
A life sequestered from social intercourse, and remote from every prize which ambition holds worth the pursuit, or a lonely death, under forms, perhaps the most appalling—these were the missionaries' alternatives. Their maligners may taunt them, if they will, with credulity, superstition, or a blind enthusiasm; but slander itself cannot accuse them of hypocrisy or ambition. Doubtless, in their propagandizing they were acting in concurrence with a mundane policy; but, for the present at least, this policy was traditional and humane. They were promoting the ends of commerce and national expansion. The foundations of French dominion were to be laid deep in the heart and conscience of the savage. His stubborn neck was to be subdued to the “yoke of the Faith.” The power of the priest established, that of the temporal ruler was secure. Those sanguinary hordes, weaned from intestine strife, were to unite in common allegiance to God and the King. Mingled with French traders and French settlers, softened by French manners, guided by French priests, ruled by French officers, their now divided bands would become the constituents of a vast wilderness empire, which in time might span the continent. Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization scorned and neglected him; French civilization embraced and cherished him.
The Jesuits hoped to succeed where their predecessors, the Franciscan Recollets, had failed. The Recollet Fathers had labored in vain for years to bring Christianity to the semi-nomadic Algonquin bands that roamed the northern forests. These hunter-gatherers, however, preoccupied as they were with the daily struggle for survival, had little time for or interest in the missionaries' message. The Jesuits, accepting this reality, and also building on the successful experience of their Spanish brethren among the Guarani in South America, selected an entirely different and geographically quite distant population for their conversion efforts. They chose the Huron, the sedentary “farmers of the North,” who in 1634 represented what was probably the most advanced and most concentrated indigenous population in North America. The Jesuits were not going to replicate the experience of the Recollets chasing their flock through the snowy forests of the north, only to find their prospective converts breaking into ever smaller groups as they pursued game, fish, and fur.
The Huron were not like that at all. They lived in a small number of semi-permanent villages in a relatively compact area. From that base the Jesuits hoped to reach out to the surrounding tribes, both settled corn-planters and nomadic hunter-gatherers. It was a grand plan, and not without its merits, but the Jesuits, themselves ignorant of the ways of the Huron and impatient for results, destroyed what they came to save. Intelligent and well-meaning, they often recognized their mistakes—but not until it was too late and the damage was done. The Jesuit message effectively divided the Huron into two opposing camps, both of which were weakened by disease. In addition, their fellow Frenchmen in Quebec and the Dutch in New Amsterdam gave the Iroquois, traditional enemies of the Huron, reason and means to destroy their hereditary enemies.