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Trois-Rivières to Trail's End

The fur trade | Departure up the Ottawa | Voyage to Lake Superior |
Mission work | Menard's disappearance | Epilogue

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Menard's canoe voyages

After the return of Fr. Menard from Cayuga, in 1658, to his official Residence in Trois-Rivières, he was made the Superior of that Residence, an honor which was a recognition of his faithfulness and ability but hardly a sufficient consolation for the sorrow which he felt at leaving his Cayuga mission. While at Trois-Rivières "Father Menar," as he is called in Radisson's journal, baptized the daughter of the senior Groseliers, uncle of the famous trader and explorer.

See Radisson's Voyages, I. Pub. Peter Smith, N.Y.

The first wife of Groseliers, the explorer, died and he married the widowed sister of Radisson. These two men, Groseliers and Radisson, friends of Fr. Menard in former years, then became loyal lifelong partners, sharers in business and sharers in many thrilling adventures. It is almost certain that they reached the upper waters of the Mississippi before Marquette and Joliet. For two years Father Menard did not see them. And then on the 19th of August, 1660, there arrived at Montréal 60 five-man canoes with 300 Ottawa tribesmen and Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart Groseliers, with furs valued at 200,000 livres, or $1,000,000.00, which in the purchasing power of money in those days was almost the price of a kingdom. The two years of hard work and most skillful negotiations had on the part of these two citizens of Trois-Rivières, opened up new territory in the far end of Lake Superior.

See Vol. 1, p. 236-237, American Historical Review 1896, Groseliers and Radisson, by H. Colin Campbell. Also Père Menard by H. C. Campbell, also Thwaites Jes. Rels.

Radisson's own words: Radisson's Journal: Prince Society copy, English, is in Carnegie Public Library, Syracuse, N.Y.

Some men, upon seeing this vast fortune in fur, naturally enough wanted to start, not a gold rush but a fur rush to the Upper Great Lakes. But not so with Fr. Menard, for in the reports which these men brought of populous regions, and of many new tribes and of some remnants and refugees of the old Huron mission, his mind envisioned treasure far richer and more lasting than fur. The opportunity appealed also to the Superior of the Jesuit order and the decision for Fr. Menard to go came suddenly. Groseliers and Radisson did not return to the upper Lakes with these Ottawa tribesmen, yet this immense piece of business which they had now brought to a climax afforded transportation for Fr. Menard to go back with the Indians. The Indians were in a hurry to return. In the North country frost sometimes comes in late August. Their minds were set on gathering wild rice and on the fall hunt. They were anxious about the possibilities of long delays from storms on large lakes, so now that they had made their purchases and had seen the marvels of the white man's settlements, they could not wait for a few white men to make comfortable preparations. Moreover, they were a foreign tribe in an enemy's country. No one canoe, or small group of canoes, could be persuaded to take the risk of waiting; for on their way down, they had come through great risks. A band of Iroquois had threatened the destruction of Montréal itself and were diverted from their purpose when a band of young men from Montréal, under Dollard, who had dedicated their lives to death, fought the Iroquois and had done them so great damage that they fled and Montréal was saved, but Dollard and his twenty heroes had fallen. (May 21, 1660) like the heroic Greeks in the days of the Pass of Thermopylae. So fear was hastening the Ottawas' departure.

At two o'clock a. m., August 27, 1660, just a few hours before departure, Menard wrote to his Superior, "I write you the last word and I desire it to be the seal of our friendship into Eternity. In three or four months, you may put me into the memento of the dead, considering the manner of living of these people and my age and weak constitution. Notwithstanding all this, I have felt so powerful an attraction and have seen so little of nature in this undertaking, that I cannot doubt that I would have had eternal remorse, had I missed this opportunity. We were taken a little by surprise, so that we were unable to provide ourselves with clothing and other necessary things, but He who feeds the birds and clothes the lilies of the field will take care of His servants. Should we happen to die of misery, that would be for us a great happiness." (Campbell, p. 7.)

"Father," said Laval, the bishop of New France, "every consideration seems to demand your staying here, but God who is stronger than all, wants you in those parts" -- pointing to the West." "How often," Menard wrote in his house of boughs on the south shore of Lake Superior, "have I revolved these words in my mind 'mid the torrent's roar and in the solitudes of our great forests."

October 29, 1660, Laval wrote as follows to Pope Alexander VII, "This summer a priest of the Society of Jesus left for a mission more than 500 leagues from Québec. That country is inhabited by innumerable nations who have never heard of the faith. Seven Frenchmen have joined this expedition. They to buy castors (beaver skins) and he to conquer souls." (Campbell's Menard, p 7, footnote.) The "we" in Fr. Menard's letter includes Fr. Albanel, but the Indians set Fr. Albanel out of their canoe before leaving the settlements. However. this setback did not deter Fr. Albanel from performing a major piece of exploration on this continent. He completed a trip a few years later, by way of the Saguenay River, to Hudson's Bay. A large lake east of Lake Mistassini as yet almost inaccessible bears his name.

The Ottawa Indians went homeward on the route now familiar to Fr. Menard: up the Ottawa River, through the little lakes beyond Mattawa, in which at the mouth of creeks, floated birch, alder and wild cherry poles, white and eaten clean of all bark by the beavers. At Lake Nipissing, sometimes called the "Lake of the Castors", Fr. Menard came near to the scene of his early hardships and triumphs. He was young then, but now he was old, and yet with a young spirit defying his half sick old body to do its worst. At the mouth of the French River, he looked longingly to the south toward the lost Huronia. He remembered his many days of adventure, in passing that point. It Is God's will that men grow old and maybe it is also God's will that they look lovingly at the days of their youth and long to continue their life of service and high adventure.

Manitoulin Island, 75 miles long, and other islands protect the North Channel across the northern end of Lake Huron. Looking on the north side of this channel Fr. Menard saw the old mission country of St. Esprit and in the distance across cold blue waters, where the waves showed white in the fall sunshine as they struck the rocks and beaches, was the old way to the mission of St. Charles. The long cascade at Sault Ste. Marie made some hard work in ascending to Lake Superior. The Indians were hurrying, afraid of perishing if storm-stayed on some bleak point on the boundless lake. Four men were paddling in the other canoes so Fr. Menard was compelled to paddle all the way in order not to fall behind. The lake became stormy, the Indians were afraid to push the canoe along with too heavy a load, so part of the way they skirted the shore and made Fr. Menard walk along the beaches. Fear made these Indians, who were little familiar with white men, suspicious of what appeared to them to be the strange incantations which Fr. Menard made when he read his breviary. An Indian seized the little book, which to him seemed to be full of the black marks of dreadful sorcery, and threw it away.

"A falling tree," smashed the canoe in which Fr. Menard and his canoe mates were traveling. It seems more likely that a canoe in the hands of skillful paddlers could not be smashed on a fallen tree in the waters of an open lake; but since canoes were usually carried up on shore and placed back in the woods, to be used as a roof at night, a tree fell on it. Fr. Menard and his three companions were left on shore, while the rest of the flotilla, now much scattered, straggled by for days. For six days these four lived on the offal of an abandoned Indian hunting camp. They dug for bones and pounded them with stones until they were fine enough to swallow. Abandoned pieces of skin and clotted dried blood were eagerly eaten. Some of the passing canoemen gave them slices of dried meat. At night dreams of food in the rich market places of France haunted Fr. Menard's mind. Tripe de roche, or tripe of the rocks, a moss which when cooked made a gelatinous mess which the Indians prepared with spiders, ants and all, postponed death by starvation. At last some Indians gave them a ride to the winter rendezvous, 100 leagues from Sault Ste. Marie. This place was probably Keweenaw Bay, where midway in the southern shore of Lake Superior, a long broad peninsula reaches out toward the center of the lake.

The Indians who showed superstition by refusing to take copper which they found in the bed of the lake, for fear of the wrath of an evil spirit, and who had rarely seen white men, were afraid of this very strange man in the black robe. He wasn't like other white men; he did not want their furs; he spent long hours muttering to the morning stars, or to the moon at night. They would be cautious. They would not hurt him, for he might be much worse dead than alive; but they were going to be careful not to let him into their cabins, which were poor enough for shelter as they were. So Fr. Menard and his companions had to devise a shelter of spruce and cedar boughs, which was good until the wind blew or until the rain or melted snow leaked through the roof. In his letter to Fr. Jérôme Lalemant, from Keweenaw Bay, dated June, 1661, (Jes. Rels. XLVI, 11-13) he notes that the winter was mild -- "the savages are living on moose meat -- the supply of fish has failed."

Mastering almost overwhelming difficulties he converted 50 adult Indians. At this time, (1661) this was Christianity's farthest west in the northern portion of this continent. He was the first to preach the Gospel in the Southern Lake Superior region. His letter continues, "But I must push on to the last post, the Bay of St. Esprit, (Chequamegon Bay), 100 leagues from here."

It is to be noticed that the refugee Indians from the old Huron mission carried the religious names of their missions with them so, that names which first were given to places in Huronia, became scattered widely over a large portion of this continent. News had reached Fr. Menard when he had come to the Bay of St. Esprit, of some of the Tobacco Hurons who, fleeing from the terror of the Iroquois, had taken refuge in the forests of Wisconsin. He must go and see them. Some of the young Frenchmen made the round trip and came back and reported to Fr. Menard, that these distant people were starving and urged him not to attempt the trip -- it was too hard.

But he must go. His friends attempted to dissuade him. At last one young man, who could not speak Huron, was persuaded to accompany Fr. Menard, who could (Thwaites says Jean Guérin. Campbell says, not Jean Guérin, because Guérin was a veteran of the Huron mission and knew the Huron language). With one canoe they started at Chequamegon Bay which is connected by a canoe route with a large area of small lake country in northern Wisconsin, part of which drains into the Chippewa River. The route was down the Chippewa and up a tributary to the headwaters of the Black River. Refugees from the old Huron country had found in this new land among the Ottawas, in a white birch and beaver country, a maze of lakes and rivers, which as yet the Iroquois had not explored and which formed, for these Hurons, a safe dodging place from the guns and tomahawks of their old relentless enemies.

[On Menard's route, see letter from Annie A. Nunns of the Reynolds Library, Madison, Wisconsin -- editor.]

The old urge of finding "something lost beyond the mountains," was still stirring in the heart of the veteran missionary. Were these two, Fr. Menard and his inexperienced young man who was so eager to help, followed by an Indian with a deadly purpose? The evidence leaves a mystery to be unraveled. Could some old sorcerer of the Indians have been jealous of Fr. Menard's wonderful power? He was a brilliant and fascinating speaker. Among the French he could move people to tears; among the Indians he was followed from cabin to cabin and from village to village.

Well might some old Indian ask what was the secret of his power -- maybe it was his black robe or some magic fetish, carried in his pack, which gave him this surpassing mysterious power, which possibly set the old sorcerer aside and into the background. Imagine that some Indian, then, filled with jealous and evil intent, saw these two travelers set forth on the dangerous enterprise of going alone through the wilderness.

He saw Fr. Menard with his magic black robe and his pack of powerful sorcery and trailed them into the forest, watching for a time when he could attack Fr. Menard unobserved. Camping at night by a little stream, where the waters caused round stones to mill about in a hollow in the rock in the bed of the stream, Fr. Menard for the last time heard the intonations of a crowd far away in an old cathedral as he had heard them often in his boyhood days in France. In earlier days such voices had roused him to get up and see who was there, but forests and streams were old to him now, so he fell asleep dreaming that he was in a cathedral not far from his boyhood home. Next morning the packing up after an overnight camp was finished. The canoe was loaded and the journey was begun. A portage was reached.

The voice of the generous, overconfident young man can almost be heard saying "Take your time Father, I'll hurry the canoe across the portage and then I will come and help you with your pack." He then tied the pair of paddles lengthwise with the canoe, on the middle thwarts, lifted the canoe and whirled it upside down, so that it came down with the paddles resting on his shoulders and with his head between the paddles, in the center of the canoe, facing forward. Except for what he could perceive from the trail ahead of him, he was cut off from sight and sound and was thoughtless of how the wilderness can swallow up one of two lone travelers who get separated, and heedless of what became of his companion.

The slightly worn path was much longer than he expected. A moose which can tramp a big soft old log flat, makes a much more distinct and more misleading path. The young man having set the canoe down, after a carry longer than he had counted on, hurried back on the trail. When he came to the point where he thought he should meet Fr. Menard, he called, but there was no answer. He went all the way back on the trail and fired his gun, but no Fr. Menard. Calling, looking here and there, brought no clue. Then he went to his canoe, and pushed on to the Indian village for which they had set out. Pine treesHere, unacquainted with the Huron language, he made signs to the Indians. But the Indians who came back and followed him to search, did not find Fr. Menard. When Jean Guérin and members of the party at Chequamegon Bay come to help, an Indian was found with Fr. Menard's pack and some say, his black robe was found in an Indian cabin. But no words of explanation of just what happened to Fr. Menard were forthcoming from the Indian. What happened? Fr. Menard had crossed his last portage near a rapids on the Black River in Wisconsin. (Aug. 8 or 9, 1661.) He had labored not for time but for eternity.

A member of the Jesuit Order in Québec wrote "Whatever may have been the nature of his death, we doubt not that it was God's will to use it as the means of crowning a life of 57 years, the greater part of which was spent in the Huron, Algonquin and Iroquois missions. He was full of a fiery zeal; he had great tenderness for the poor savages, and yet few missionaries have been able to master them better by love and to bring them under authority. He was tireless in his work, but accompanied by a weak and delicate constitution. His spirit made him seem to possess a body of bronze. He was melancholy only when he could not work for the salvation of souls. An unutterable joy filled him when he was among his savage neophytes.

Two converts of Fr. Menard found by Fr. Allouez: see Louise P. Kellogg, Early Narratives of the Northwest, p. 106, paragraph 2 -- Reynolds library. See also Allouez in Jes. Rels.

Death of Menard and return to Quebec of the expeditions to the Outawaks reported 1663 Jes. Rels. XLVII p. 307.

In the enjoyment of his work he would forget to take either rest or food, which was a quality seen in him as unusually characteristic. The soul of his soul was the love of God. Without trembling he has seen an Iroquois fall upon him, knife in hand to cut his throat, when he was laboring for the conversion of the man. He had hope of converting the entire Iroquois canton among the Cayugas, when he was called away. He had the consolation of dying in the quest for new sheep, having traveled 500 leagues of rapids and precipices in that work and being one of all our missionaries to reach the people furthest to the West." For the complete letter of the Superior in Québec, see the below reference connected with this paraphrase. This letter contains the quaint suggestion that Fr. Menard having reached so far West, had died near the China Sea, where his hero, St. Francis Xavier, had labored so successfully in a former century.

Fr. Menard had assisted in opening up vast stretches of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes region. There were yet many years to elapse before the full breadth of this continent had dawned on the minds of the European men. But let us hope that not many more years need elapse before the sterling spiritual qualities of pioneer missionaries are recognized by all men on this continent and elsewhere. His work lives.

Today a Caughnawaga, a suburb of Montréal, there are 2,200 Christian Indians, descendants of converts of the 17th century missions. In their church, most of the service, including a large portion of the Mass, is in the Mohawk language, translated in 1678 by Fr. Frémin. Their pastor is a Jesuit whose name is Father Menard.

Signature of Menard (2 KB GIF)

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

Last revised 21 August 1999