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In the Land of the Hurons

Spiritual conversations | Among the Algonquins |
Attack on St. Ignace Mission | Among the Hurons |
Chronology | Trois Rivières

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Menard's canoe voyages

Having arrived in Huronia, the journeying was at an end for the present. Fr. Menard began to inquire of the older missionaries about the mental and spiritual qualities of the Indians. He learned that they had a rich religious nature and that they had by natural intuition, arrived half way at the majestic truth that nothing has existence without a spirit or person giving life or being. The Indians, however, felt that every tree, every hill, every large stone, every lake or river and all living things, had each a separate spirit which never died. In the dim background they felt the existence of one chief spirit. But their sense of contact with the world of spirit carried with it no sense of merit or of reward or punishment in a life to come. Conscience played no part in their contact with Divinity. Fr. Menard and his colleagues led in showing the way to this Supreme Spirit, and today -- almost three centuries later -- the success of the teaching which they began is in evidence by the fact that whether Indians are pagan or Christian, the Great Spirit has come into the first place in their religious thinking.

One evening, while he and his friends talked on these things, their duties having taken them out on the great lake, they looked up and saw "the heavens declare the glory," for through that atmosphere of the land of the clear sky the stars shone with a brilliance which could almost be heard and the Northern lights covered the heavens from the fastnesses of everlasting ice to the star, Vega directly overhead. The lake mirrored the silent majesty of the heavens and the talk of the theologians and searchers after God in regard to Animism and Immanence ceased, and with muffled paddles they proceeded in silence and in awe.

Fr. Brébeuf who had spent part of the year 1640 with Fr. Chaumonot on a missionary trip to the Neutrals in the Niagara region of what is now New York State, had returned to Huronia and then gone to Québec, where he remained until 1644. Part of his delay in Québec was caused by his need of surgical treatment, for while he pleads in his writings for love and sympathy for the Indians yet he was not thoughtful of himself; for having slipped on the ice of Lake Simcoe he broke a shoulder blade but did not report for treatment until two years afterward.

Fr. Menard found that among the Hurons were nearly forty villages and 30,000 inhabitants. This astonishing number of people must have included the many wandering tribes of the Upper Great Lakes who sometimes camped in Huronia during the winter. So much of the year had gone in the mere process of arriving at Huronia that Fr. Menard was disappointed when he was told to wait. The French were there, the Hurons were there in fixed villages surrounding the Fort of Ste. Marie at Midland. But where were the Algonquins? Wait! he was told; they will come. Wait! with life more than half over; wait! with the rich preparation growing over-ripe. Wait! when the Living Influence was urging him and when his eager spirit was in sorrow because the harvest was not being brought in.

But the Algonquins were forest people wandering over ten thousand lakes, having no fixed habitations. When the north wind began to taste of frost and the fall deer and moose hunt was nearly over, little light bark canoes designed for many short carries in the small-lake country, laden with these strange people and their gleanings of the forest began to come to Huronia. They erected shacks which in comparison with the bark houses of the Hurons looked flimsy, but were good enough to last one winter. Since these poor Algonquins could be allies in case of attack by the Iroquois, the rich Hurons allowed them to camp near their principal villages.

With a vivacity and zeal, which was marvelously more than the strength of his body, and hardly stopping to eat, drink or rest, Fr. Menard began visiting and teaching these people. Fr. Claude Pijart was with him. Their mission was called St. Ignace I or Teanhatenaron (Jones p. 404-406). Venison and dried huckleberries with fish on holidays and some corn borrowed from the Hurons made a wholesome, if monotonous, diet.

In the summer of 1641 Frs. Jogues and Raymbault went 350 miles from Huronia in canoes to reach the Ottawas who, attracted by the Lake Superior whitefish, had their summer fishing camp around the falls of St. Mary (Sault Ste. Marie) below the outlet of Lake Superior. On the return late in the fall, Fr. Raymbault, in company with Fr. Menard, set out to reach a band of Nipissings who had not come down to Huronia to camp for the winter. It was a trip of unusual hardship.

Summer had fled in haste before the icy blasts of winter. The fairylike islands of Gcorgian Bay were transformed into snowy mountains, in the center of an inferno of snow and cold. Ice clung to their canoes, ice blocked up the entrances to rivers preventing them from reaching sheltered camping places. Wood, when they could reach the land to get it, was soggy and wet, and instead of warming up the half perishing travelers, used up most of its own heat in thawing and drying out. They just could not make the trip.

Brokenhearted with their helpless defeat, they turned back to Huronia. What they had endured on this trip is indicated by the fact that Fr. Raymbault never recovered. Next spring Fr. Raymbault went with Fr. Jogues (1642) back to Québec, where he died, missing that capture by the Mohawks which Fr. Jogues and his party suffered on their attempted return to Huronia. Despite the fact that Fr. Menard knew that the attempt to reach the Nipissings had cost the health of Fr. Raymbault, the ice was hardly off the lakes in spring when Fr. Menard set out again from the Huron country with Fr. Claude Pijart to go up Georgian Bay and the French River to the land of the Nipissings.

The Mission of St. Ignace I was the occasional, or usual, winter camping place of the Algonquins in Huronia. When they were there Fr. Menard was their pastor; when they scattered in summer he followed them wherever they went. If they did not return to Huronia for the winter, he would travel over the ice, sometimes using snowshoes, to find them in their winter camping places. The name of the summer mission of Fr. Menard was St. Esprit, which was a territory rather than a location. It occupied the eastern shores of Georgian Bay from Lake Nipissing and the French River, southward. Doubtless many of the lakes, bays and rivers now known to summer visitors in this region, were visited for the first time by a white man, when Fr. Menard came with his Indians. A mere legend of the Lake of Bays says that "two missionaries lost their way near Bigwin Island and Fox Point."

From April to September, 1643, Frs. Menard and Claude Pijart, were with the Nipissings in the mission of St. Esprit at a camp about 70 leagues, or 175 miles distant from Huronia, probably on the northeast shore of Lake Nipissing. These Nipissings were an Algonquin people.

Note in author's personal copy: Allouez navigates Lake Superior to Lake Nipigon to minister to converts of the Lake Nipissing Mission, which was Menard's mission in 1642-3. Jes. Rels LI: 257.

During the winter of 1644-45, Fr. Menard was associated with Fr. Charles Garnier, (not Fr. Julian Garnier of the Seneca mission) in the mission of St. Joseph II. His gift for languages began to be noted in that he had acquired the Huron language in addition to the Algonquin. It is possible that in this mission of St. Joseph among the Hurons he was already meeting those Hurons who as captives of the Cayugas twelve years later were members of his congregation at St. Joseph beside Cayuga Lake.

The shift to a different mission this year was due to the fact that many of the fathers in Huronia were sick. Included in the names of the residents of Huronia for this time is Groseliers -- a resident of Trois Rivières, Québec, and a friend of Fr. Menard. Among the Hurons, Groseliers was acquiring that business training and knowledge of the ways of the Indians which later brought him fame and fortune. In connection with Radisson, he became a wealthy fur trader. He promoted the Hudson's Bay Company, an organization which has existed since 1670 down to this day, and by his operations in Lake Superior he was an influence in the last voyage of Fr. Menard.

Part of 1646 was spent by Fr. Menard at St. Ignace I, which had different locations in Huronia from year to year. In 1647 the mission of the Algonquins, north of Lake Huron, called St. Pierre, was added to the mission of St. Esprit east of Lake Huron. The menace of the Iroquois to the Hurons in the outlying villages of Huronia caused some Hurons to move nearer to the central villages. These Hurons joined with the Algonquins in the village the religious name of which was St. Ignace II. Here Fr. Menard's ability in Huron as well as Algonquin brought him into control of this mission. Evidently he was equally able with wandering Indians or in a fixed mission in Huronia. His name appears each year in the report of the mission residence at St. Marie I, from 1641 to 1649.

But sorrow and tragedy were coming to Huronia. At dawn on March 16, 1649, an army of about 1,000 Iroquois -- Senecas from Honeoye Creek and Mud Creek valleys -- Cayugas from Cayuga Lake -- Onondagas from near Syracuse, and warriors from the other Iroquois cantons, stealthily approached St. Ignace II, and carried it by surprise. Most of the defenders were away hunting. Only three Hurons escaped massacre or captivity. The accident of having studied the Algonquin language in the beginning, which now caused Fr. Menard to be absent with roving bands of Algonquins, saved him from a death of horrible torture. It was still early morning when the Iroquois attacked the next village of St. Louis. Frs. Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant were taken. One sympathetic Cayuga offered belts of wampum for their release, but the belts were returned and they were put to death with the utmost torture and horror which the ingenuity of their captors could invent.

In 1649, at the time of this Iroquoian attack upon Huronia, Fr. Menard was head of the mission of St. Charles, which was near the northwesternmost part of Lake Huron with Frs. Simon LeMoyne and Du Peron, as his assistants. Eight months had passed and the fathers at Huronia had not heard from Fr. Menard and his co-laborers. Anxiety for their safety was aroused. Maybe they would never come back, for it became evident, as the months wore on, that the Iroquois were bent on the destruction of the Hurons and that they were not sparing the missionaries. Altogether, five Fathers in Huronia met a martyr's death at their hands before the end of 1650.

The saintliness of these five martyrs has now been recognized by canonization (Sept. 1931). Their names are St. Jean de Brébeuf, St. Gabriel Lalemant, St. Charles Garnier, St., Noel Chabanel, St. Antoine Daniel. War and torture had not checked the zeal of those missionaries who survived, but Algonquins, fearful of the horrors perpetrated by the Iroquois, had ceased to come to winter with the Hurons at the southeast corner of Georgian Bay. It was too near the Iroquois canoe route to Lake Simcoe and down the Humber toward the site of Toronto, and too near to the winter trails which the Iroquois used as war paths to the land of Huronia. The Hurons themselves began to take to the islands in Georgian Bay, but this furnished them with no safety; and being driven off their corn lands they began to starve. When they went back to their old homes the Iroquois captured them and renewed the tortures. Living in Huronia had ceased to be possible.

Note in author's personal copy: The Humber is not navigable for most of its length.

Hurons began to move westward, some of them scattering into various tribes, ultimately becoming amalgamated with Indians as far west as Kansas. In 1649 Fr. Menard knew that the human hope of building Huronia into a Christian nation, as missionaries early in the Christian Era had done to the nations of France, Ireland, England and Germany, had failed. But when man's spirit is fixed on Divinity and Eternity he cannot be defeated, so with endless toil at the paddle, guided by some faithful friends who knew and loved him, and with no fixed place to lay his head, he spent the spring and summer of 1649 following and shepherding the scattered sheep of the old Huron mission wherever he could find them. How many hundreds of miles he traveled over weary wastes of water; how many lakes and rivers and forest camping places he searched out can be judged only by the fact that we know that he would work to the extreme limit of human possibility.

In the fort at Ste. Marie, in Huronia, in the year 1649, the missionaries could be safe from the attacks of the Iroquois. But the Indians came no more. The hundreds of people whose souls the Fathers had brought out of savagery into the light of the knowledge of God, with all the love of parents toward these their foster-children of the spirit, these people would come no more to Huronia. Looking backward, Fr. Menard and each one of these bravest of brave men could see the old home places in France, the high places which they might have occupied as prelates of the church or as outstanding teachers in the great universities, the home which each one of them had left and all the family ties which they had set aside in order to do this great work, and it seemed to them -- looking at the destruction of their work with only human eyes -- that they had failed.

But this lasted only while Fort Ste. Marie was being destroyed in order that it might not become a stronghold of the enemy. (May 15, 1649.) They knew history and they knew that the Spirit to which they had given their utmost loyalty had never and could never be permanently defeated. Sadly, however, they returned to the settlements on the St. Lawrence; very likely on the return journey they sought out the remote and secret places back from the great Ottawa River for overnight camps, fearing that the fate which had overtaken five of their brothers in Huronia might come upon them and prevent them from completing the work which they had begun.


1641 -- August 14, arrived in Huronia from Québec. Mileage 590.

1641 -- To late fall in Huronia with Algonquins

1641 -- At beginning of winter, futile attempt to reach the Nipissings with Raymbault. Mileage about 100.

1641-1642 -- Winter probably spent with Algonquins at Huronia.

1642 -- Early spring with Fr. Claude Pijart via Georgian Bay to a mission on north shore of Lake Nipissing. 70 leagues and round trip 250 miles.

1643 -- April to September, again with Fr. Claude Pijart in the Nipissing mission. Mileage 250.

1644 -- In charge of the mission of St. Esprit, which was located anywhere on the 30,000 islands or on the mainland east of Georgian Bay, in whatever place the roving parishioners wished to set up a camp. Mileage 500.

1644-45 Winter at Huronia, in charge of the mission of St. Joseph II. The congregation was of both Hurons and Algonquins.

1645 -- Probably continued with the mission of St. Joseph II.

1646 -- In charge of St. Ignace I in Huronia.

Note in author's personal copy, which may refer to this location: Township of Redoute, Simcoe County, Ontario; see map in back of Jones' Huronia.

1647 -- In charge of the mission of St. Pierre. An area of 10,000 square miles north of Lake Huron, in which Fr. Menard must find his parishioners, wherever they were. Mileage, 1,000.

1648 -- Fr. Menard, who could speak both Huron and Algonquin, was put in charge of the newly organized St. Ignace II

1648 -- Voyage to the mission of St. Charles, probably at the extreme northwest of Lake Huron. Mileage 500.

1649 -- Fr. Menard absent from his mission of St. Ignace I. Probably in charge of the mission of St. Charles. St. Ignace II destroyed by Cayuga, Seneca and other Iroquois Indians.

l649 -- Partly spent by Fr. Menard in following up the scattered Huron Christians who had fled from the Iroquois. Mileage 1,000. Huronia abandoned and Fr. Menard returned to Trois Rivières.

Adding about 40% to the sum of the canoe trips in the above chronology, to allow for shorter journeys between nearby villages, the total will run well over 6,000 miles. Considering the average day's travel, at 25 miles, a total of 240 days spent in canoes and 240 nights spent in different overnight camps, makes a total of camping and canoeing experience which would give his name a place of honor wherever campers and canoeists are assembled. And yet this amount of travel was only the preliminary to his greater work of religious instruction. He was happy when he could burn himself up in the work he loved, and again this happiness was a restoring fountain of strength, because be felt that he was reaching closer to his ideal of sacrifice and service. He was finding that communion with Divinity which he sought with pathos and with longing and he was imparting that communion with God to other men. Having thus found life's chief happiness, nothing else mattered.

Fr. Menard returned to the prosaic regularity of the Residence at Trois Rivières. In passing Montréal Island he saw the beginnings of the settlement there. In the residence at Trois Rivières it seemed stuffy, sleeping in a civilized bed. Some times as he stood where he could look up the river, or as he remembered in his prayers his Indian friends beside the great fresh water seas of the West, a sigh -- something like a sob -- came from his heart. The Iroquois had struck terribly and had filled all New France with terror, but the Living Influence, the Unconquerable Spirit, was prompting Fr. Menard and his co-laborers to go back and turn the other cheek; and the great Iroquois mission was yet to come, like dawn, after a night of sorrow. During these years he must have journeyed down to Québec, where his great eloquence made him a favorite preacher. In the letters of Marie de l'Incarnation, who founded the Ursuline Convent in Québec, Fr. Menard is mentioned. But one of the aims of a good Jesuit was to suppress personal vanity and boastfulness, so the years in this period of his second residence in Trois Rivières are almost silent as far as records go. But he had continued to gain the esteem of his Order and to be pleasing and agreeable to the members of the household; for after his return from the Cayuga mission he was elevated to the position of Superior of the house.

Imagine his early morning spiritual exercises drawing to a close when the business of the little town began with a familiar sound, clink-clank-clink, a regular resounding ring,-- not the ring of a chapel bell, but the ring of a blacksmith's anvil -- not fashioning horseshoes, because rivers and lakes were the only roads to go on. Cling-clank, and the hiss of hot metal in water for tempering and another trade axe or tomahawk was made. The blacksmith was coining axes, the money of the wilderness, axes for exchange for more fur, axes to hew out larger timbers for larger canoes for longer trips and more exploration, axes to blaze trails across the unknown land to the supposedly nearby China Sea, where Fr. Menard hoped that some day his labors would join with the labors of his missionary hero, St. Francis Xavier; for no one had even suspected the stupendous width of this continent; and was not Lachine, near Montréal, the gateway to China? Cling-clang-cling! Who was working faster? Who by trade or by war would win the continent, the blacksmith in Trois Rivières or the blacksmith in Fort Orange (Albany)? Axes destined for a century to make both France and England in America bear a share of bloodshed and tragedy; axes to be buried in many an Indian warrior's grave, to help him hew his path to the happy hunting ground; axes for paperweights, when now this story is being written. Cling-clang, the blacksmith is an early riser -- Fr. Menard's spiritual exercises are over and it is time for Fr. Menard and his brothers in the Order to offer Mass and then to go to breakfast at the long table in the dining room.

Among the new emigrants from France in 1651 came the Radissons, who became residents of Trois Rivières and friends of Fr. Menard. Occasionally canoes would stop at Trois Rivières from the upper lakes and wandering children of the northern forests would come in for their pastor's blessing. How, then, would Fr. Menard's face light up with pleasure, and how he would forget for the moment that his heart was aching to be back with the people and the work that he loved. Their conversation would bring back memories of faces he had seen by many a campfire light; memories of friends, some not living but present in the spirit and bound to him forever by the fascination of a mysterious land and by the unbreakable tie of having risked life together in extreme hardship. Versatile in languages and trusted by the Indians, he would be called in to interpret for others less gifted. Preparations, however, for the mission at Cayuga Lake were indirectly being made in 1654, when Fr. Simon LeMoyne made his first journey into the land of the Iroquois, near Onondaga Lake, and again when Fr. LeMoyne went with Fr. Chaumonot in 1655. Iroquois raids continued to take place on lonely French settlements, yet many Indians showed friendliness to Fr. LeMoyne and, as the Erie War approached, which called for the Iroquois warriors to go west of the Genesee River and leave their villages unprotected, the movement among the "upper Iroquois" (upriver beyond the Mohawks) for a French colony amongst them took shape.

Note in author's personal copy: "Dablon, not Le Moyne." I am not sure if ths applies to all the references to Le Moyne here -- editor.

Fr. Menard was soon to be called from the Jesuit residence at Trois Rivières and as a member of the new colony he was to participate in that major piece of work, the revealing of what is now Central New York to the world of reading Europeans. This also was to bring into contrast two experiments -- one, the experiment of the Iroquois in making a world of peace by war and bloodshed, and the experiment of the missionaries in making peace with the Iroquois by persuasion and religious influence. The experiment of the Iroquois came to an end, but the experiment of religious influence needs to be tried out more fully.

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Contents © 1934, Alexander M. Stewart; new material © 1997 John S. Allen

Last revised 21 August 1999