Volume > Issue > On the Trail of the Jesuit Martyrs of North America & St. Catherine Tekakwitha

On the Trail of the Jesuit Martyrs of North America & St. Catherine Tekakwitha


By Richard Upsher Smith Jr. | June 2019
Richard Upsher Smith Jr. is retired from teaching classics and honors at Franciscan University of Steubenville. After serving for 19 years in the Anglican ministry, he converted to Catholicism in 2001. He recently published “Jacques Maritain’s ‘Integral Education’: Its Context, Content, and Feasibility Today (Part I)” in The Catholic Social Science Review (vol. 22; 2017), and “Part II” (vol. 23; 2018). The translations in this article from the French are found in Sr. M. Renelle’s rendition of Jesuit Missionaries to North America: Spiritual Writings and Biographical Sketches by François Roustang, S.J. (Ignatius, 2006).

In late August and early September 2018, I drove 2,845 miles from my home in eastern Ohio to many of the sites associated with the eight Jesuit Martyrs of North America and Jesuit convert St. Catherine Tekakwitha.* As well as I could by automobile, I also followed the canoe routes they traveled. As doubt has been cast on the site of the Martyrs’ Shrine at Auriesville, New York, and on St. Catherine’s residence there and at the Caughnawaga Site across the Mohawk River in Fonda, I tried to form my own judgment on the locations of the true sites as well as I could from published archeological reports and my own desultory investigations.

My thoughts along the way, here recounted and elaborated, were not unlike certain of the preludes (los preámbulos) and points (los puntos) of an Ignatian meditation. After the initial prayer, St. Ignatius’s meditations generally start with three preludes and continue with several points. The meditation ends with one or more colloquies (los coloquios), in which the exercitant asks for graces associated with the meditation that will promote his praise of God and salvation. The first prelude generally recalls the story (la historia) being meditated, the second is a taking stock of the place (la composición viendo el lugar) where the story happened, and the third is a request for what the exercitant wants from the meditation. The points of the Ignatian meditation generally require contemplation of the persons (las personas) or application of the five senses of the imagination (los cinco sentidos de la imaginación) to the mystery being meditated.

The investigations reported herein are preludes and points to the composition and revision of hymns and poems I have been writing on the Jesuit martyrs and St. Catherine. Historians and poets have to “get inside” their subjects if they are to understand and represent them well. Such a penetration into the minds and hearts of my subjects through a contemplation of their circumstances is what I have attempted here.


Preliminary Considerations

The Great Lakes are each the size of a sea. Lake Ontario debouches into the St. Lawrence River southwest of the islands that form the present metropolis of Montreal. This great river flows north-northeast to the Atlantic, forming the enormous Gulf of St. Lawrence at its mouth. Important native entrepôts, later exploited by the French, existed at Trois-Rivières and Tadoussac. The Ottawa River, flowing down from the west-northwest through the Canadian Shield, adds itself to the St. Lawrence at Montreal. Between Trois-Rivières and Montreal, the river widens for a stretch to form Lac Saint-Pierre, at the western end of which, at the present Tracy-Sorel, cluster many islands. The Richelieu River, draining Lake Champlain, joins the St. Lawrence at Tracy-Sorel. From the head of Lake Champlain, portages existed to Lake George and the Mohawk River and to the Hudson River.

Both the St. Lawrence and the Hudson were navigable by 17th-century ships along a good portion of their length, and they offered the French and Dutch entrée to the same territories from different directions. Canoes carried Native Americans over distances that seem unimaginable today. Thus, old, far-flung indigenous trade routes began to mesh with the new trans-Atlantic European trade routes on this rich continent.

The northern shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the lower St. Lawrence River were hunted by the nomadic Montagnais, or Innu. Although farmed until about 1580 by Iroquoian tribes, the banks of the upper St. Lawrence were a no-man’s-land in the earlier 17th century, used by various tribes for hunting and trade. Refugees from these St. Lawrence bands joined the Huron. Up the Ottawa, the sedentary Algonquins built their villages, and beyond them, in the increasingly boreal forest, wandered the Nipissing, an Algonquin-speaking people who controlled an important link in the native trading network: the Mattawa River/Trout Lake/Lake Nipissing/French River stretch.

The Huron, or Wendat Confederacy of Iroquoian-speaking peoples, a farming nation, had established their villages in the forests between the southeastern shores of Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe. The Hurons were the greatest of the trading nations, growing a surplus of corn and trading to the south for tobacco, to the north for beaver pelts and other forest products, and to Trois-Riviéres and Tadoussac for European goods.

South of Huronia dwelt the Iroquoian Pétuns and Neutrals. The Pétuns grew surplus tobacco for trade. The Neutrals’ territory included the Niagara Peninsula. Not far beyond the Niagara River lay the settlements of the westernmost tribe of the Iroquoian Confederacy of the Five Nations, the Seneca. To the east of the Seneca, among the Finger Lakes and along the Mohawk River, lay the territories of the other confederate tribes: the Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk.

The Five Nations were allied with the Dutch. They had trapped the beaver in their own territories almost to extinction by 1640. The Hurons, Algonquins, and Montagnais, old enemies of the Five Nations, were allied with the French. These alliances produced furs, especially beaver, for the Europeans, and for the natives, goods of European manufacture, most perniciously, guns and alcohol.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the European nations that touched the Atlantic Ocean organized themselves into powerful nation-states with strong navies and merchant marines. The economic theory of the period, mercantilism, promoted national self-sufficiency and power through the hoarding of specie and the promotion of manufacturing and consumption at home, partly by the imposition of high tariffs on imported manufactured goods. Colonies were sought as sources of cheap raw materials and as markets for goods fabricated in the mother country. Some degree of European settlement was inevitable in the colonies and, in differing degrees, encouraged by the various governments. Inevitably, too, the religious divisions of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were brought to the New World. Finally, whatever their nation and creed, these men were children of the Renaissance with a keen interest in what we would now call geography, botany, biology, technology, anthropology, and linguistics, as well as other sciences.

The travels of the Jesuit missionaries to New France, and St. Catherine and other Iroquois converts to Montreal, took place during the intermittent Beaver Wars (1628-1701). These wars had an economic motive for the aboriginals: control of the fur trade, which was embittered by traditional animosities between the Five Nations and the Huron network of trading partners. There was also a socio-religious motive among the Iroquoian-speaking peoples: re-quickening of the souls of the dead of the various clans. Slaves captured in battle were necessary to this process. All were tortured abominably to soothe grieving souls. Some were selected for adoption as replacements for the dead; others, the bravest, were killed and eaten to restore the strength of the diminished clan. Given the number of combat deaths and victims of European epidemic diseases, the need for captive-slaves was bottomless. St. Catherine’s mother, an Algonquin, was one such captive of the Mohawk.


The Trade Route from Trois-Rivières to Huronia

Paddling upstream from the entrepôt at Trois-Rivières, their canoes laden with pots, kettles, knives, axes, fish hooks, awls, clay pipes, woolen blankets, linen chemises, and beads, but not with guns (the French refused to supply firearms), the Huron traders, with whom the Jesuits were compelled to travel, hugged the north bank of the St. Lawrence. After about a day’s journey, they arrived at the islands at the head of Lac Saint-Pierre. These long, narrow islands, which hug each other parallel to the north shore of the lake, can be reached today by bridges from the north or by car ferry in a 20-minute voyage from Tracy-Sorel on the south shore. Fear of Mohawk raiders from the south, as well as the promise of easier paddling, would have induced the Hurons to choose one of the narrow channels between the islands, though at the risk of ambush by the enemy. Another day’s labor with the paddle would have brought them out of the lake and near the islands at Montreal.

On the third day, the paddlers would probably have ascended the dangerous rapids of the Rivière-des-Prairies, which flows through the present metropolis, to the Lac des Deux Montagnes, which forms itself at the mouth of the Ottawa River at its confluence with the St. Lawrence. Over the next two weeks or so, the voyagers would ascend the Ottawa to the Mattawa River, making portages around the Long Sault (or Rapids) between the present towns of Carillon and Grenville, Quebec, and around the Chaudière Falls between Ottawa, Ontario, and Gatineau, Quebec. Farther upriver, portages existed around dangerous rapids not too far from the mouth of the Mattawa.

Today, it is possible to travel by car from Montreal around and across Lac des Deux Montagnes and up the Ottawa to Gatineau without losing sight of the river too frequently. A lovely park in Carillon offers a splendid view of the river, the Carillon Canal, and the Carillon Generating Station. Below the station dam, the river is wide and majestic. It is not a mere tributary of the St. Lawrence but a major river in its own right. Above the dam, the Long Sault has been completely submerged, and pleasure craft race insouciantly back and forth. Thus, it is difficult to imagine the exigencies of the rapids and portages. Chaudière, or Kettle Falls, a significant religious and cultural site for the Algonquin even today, has been changed beyond recognition by 19th- and 20th-century industrialization. Again, it is difficult to imagine the beautiful and fearsome eminence of these falls or the hardships of the portage. The rapids upriver have also been submerged by hydroelectric dams.

Below Gatineau-Ottawa, the river valley is broad, flat, and fertile, with the Laurentian Mountains lying picturesquely in the northeastern distance. The sky seems vast. The forest is, technically speaking, eastern forest-boreal transition, as it is around Lake Nipissing. However, it seemed that the farther northwest I drove, the more coniferous the forest became. The transition was slow but perceptible. The terrain became hillier and marked with small, shallow glacial depressions and pools that slowly filled with mist as day turned into dusk and then into night. It seemed like the unkind land of faery to me. The Jesuits might well have been stirred by the same apprehensions.

The rapids on the Mattawa negotiated, and the seven-mile portage between Trout Lake and Lake Nipissing made, the travelers would have put in again at what is now the City of North Bay. Lake Nipissing is 40 miles long, and 16 miles wide at its greatest, though it is relatively shallow. Driving the north shore along Highway 17, there is only one lookout. Don’t miss it! The lake seems vast, like the sky and the forest, and must have added to the Jesuits’ impression of — what? Opportunity mixed with apprehension?

The voyagers next directed their canoes into the French River, which flows 65 miles down into Georgian Bay. By car, the only way to get near the debouchment of Lake Nipissing into the French River is to drive the 15-mile gravel road from east of Monetville to the marina on the Dokis Aboriginal Reserve. The marina sits on Dokis Bay, which gives a restricted view of the river. Four or five miles back along the gravel road is a short access road to the Otter Bay Campsite of the French River Provincial Park, which affords a stunning view of the Little French River with magnificent stone outcroppings on which one can clamber about. One can also camp and fish. Downriver, the driver turns south on Federal Highway 69 and soon crosses a roaring gorge through which the French River runs. Immediately, there is a turn to the right to the provincial park visitor center, museum, and gift shop. The museum is small but excellent, with dust-free, up-to-date exhibits of the geology, flora and fauna, and human cultures and technologies that exist or have existed in the park. A path leads to Récollet Falls, named for the order of friars that sent the first missionaries to this region.

On the entire trip from Montreal, the French River stretch alone remains, except for past logging, much as it was in the 17th century, a place where one can grasp the toilsome and dangerous work of canoe travel as it was for the aboriginals and first French explorers. As St. Jean de Brébeuf wrote, “No matter how easy a trip through the lands of the savages may be, there is always hardship enough to cast into dejection a heart not well under subjection.” Dejection, or what we would call depression, could be fatal among the hard men with whom they traveled, who would have unhesitatingly marooned a useless companion in the waste howling wilderness.

Today, canoeing is encouraged on the French River by park authorities, who supply information on the rapids, falls, and portages. Other types of small craft are permitted too. Ferry rides are available in the summer from North Bay to the French River.

The Huron traders and their Jesuit passengers made the last of the entire journey’s 50 portages on the French River. From its mouth, they had open transit for a hundred miles along the shores of Georgian Bay to Severn Sound and Huronia, where they completed a trip of roughly 750 miles.


Daily Life in Huronia & Iroquoia at the Time of European Contact

Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649) first arrived in Huronia in 1626. He was recalled to Quebec and sent back to France with the other Jesuits and the Récollets in 1629 after the surrender of Quebec to the English. New France was returned to the French in 1632, and Brébeuf returned to Huronia in 1634. There he remained until 1641, when he was ordered back to Quebec, partly because of a painful broken collarbone that would not heal. He returned the last time to Huronia in 1644. In 1649 he was martyred in an Iroquois assault on Huronia, the culmination of a long war that destroyed the Huron Confederacy. Brébeuf’s biography is almost the history of the Jesuit mission to the Hurons.

What did the first missionaries find when they reached Huronia? Brébeuf was a member of what the English would call the gentry, knights of his name having fought at Hastings and Damietta. He grew up on a manor in Normandy and spent his earlier years with the Society of Jesus in schools belonging to the order. Although the physical and spiritual discipline in the Society was exacting and harsh by today’s standards, Brébeuf and his companions still inhabited the modern world of their French compatriots, with its standards of housing, hygiene, cuisine, privacy, and religious practice. It is worth noting that Brébeuf’s Jesuit companion on his first voyage to Huronia, Fr. Anne de Nouë (1587-1646), was a nobleman who, as a boy, had served as a page at the royal court. Years later, Nouë froze to death in the forest near Trois-Rivières. His body was discovered in a posture of prayer.

Deep cultural similarities existed between the Huron and the Five Nations. Bruce G. Trigger, author of the definitive study, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660 (1976), discovered nine common traits: subsistence on agriculture and fishing; a strict division of labor between the sexes; a preference for palisaded villages and multifamily longhouse dwellings; matrilineal membership in clan segments and families; an affinity among clan segments in different tribes of the same nation; leadership of village, tribe, and confederacy drawn from the civil headmen of the clan segments; war waged for prestige, captives, and, to a lesser extent, booty; cosmogonic myths, spirits, games, and medicine; and, lastly, their “psychological finesse and the attention they lavished on social relations generally.” Consequently, the habits of one group can be used with circumspection to illustrate the habits of the other.

The Huronia Museum in Midland, Ontario, has an outdoor replica of a pre-contact Huron village, of the sort the Jesuits would have found throughout Huronia. The village originally contained two longhouses — one burned down, I was told, and has not yet been rebuilt — so it was and is smaller than a real palisaded village would have been. Trigger includes a photograph of a model of a Huron village that contains 11 longhouses side by side, surrounded by an irregular oval palisade. Two longhouses stand within the stockade of the reconstructed Jesuit mission of Sainte-Marie in Midland, a national historical site. Finally, a fully excavated Mohawk village can be visited at the Caughnawaga Site at the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Fonda.

The Caughnawaga Site is a perfect place for imaginative reconstruction, kept in check by archeological fact. The village has not been reconstructed, but archeologists have left color-coded metal stakes in the post molds, so visitors can see clearly where the rectangular double-palisade surrounded the village, where the walls of the 12 longhouses stood with their porches, and the locations of the supports for the sleeping benches and shelves along the walls inside the dwellings. The houses were arranged side by side from east to west in two rows of six, which left a wide central street between the two rows. A watchtower might have stood there, as in the center of the village at the Huronia Museum. A torture platform could also have been constructed there at need. As in Trigger’s photograph, the houses are not all quite the same size or the same distance apart, or even square with one another — at odds with the French love of symmetry. The alleys between the houses vary from roughly six to 12 feet. Another wide street separates the southern row of houses from the palisade, which contains a narrow gate and looks toward the Mohawk River at the bottom of the ridge on which the village stands, though it is not visible today. At the northern end of the village lies a small field inside the palisade. The village at the Huronia Museum contains a number of drying racks, lean-tos for various tasks, and a tobacco plot. A visitors’ hut and a small cabin for a shaman also stood within the palisade. Perhaps this field at Caughnawaga was devoted to such structures and tasks. The houses at the eastern end of the village and on its northern side are separated from the palisade only by a narrow alley.

The chief feature of each house was the 12-foot-wide central corridor running the length of the house. As I can attest from my visit to the Huronia Museum and to Sainte-Marie, even on sunny days the bunks, shelves, and rafters would have been obscured by the gloom, and the eye drawn immediately to the fires flickering in the corridor, if it not blinded by the sunshine blazing in the lean-to porch at the other end of the house. The lungs would also have been immediately choked by the wood smoke that was inadequately vented by square holes in the roof. Fortunately, the tourist is only attacked by companies of flying pests in the longhouse, and not by the regiments of fleas, ticks, and lice that also inhabited these dwellings.

One wonders how the human inhabitants of these houses and their dogs would have arranged themselves. Naturally, they spent their days outdoors, weather permitting, and the men were often away all summer, fishing, hunting, trading, and making war. But when in the longhouse, where did they sit? How did they walk round? What did they do? With several fires burning in the central corridor, the space for working, eating, talking, and recreation was limited. Some of the men must have sat or lain on the bunks along the walls, dozing, talking, or working on small projects. Older children sometimes would have climbed up on the storage shelves above to play, exchange secrets, or observe the activity below. Women, children, and others of the menfolk would have sat on the dirt floor of the central corridor to work, exchange news, tell stories, and play games. While narrow aisles could have been left along the edges of the corridor, with people sitting only between the fires, it seems that people gathered all around each fire, leaving those passing through to step over limbs and laps — as at a party in a college dormitory today. The occasional captives would have been pegged to the floor at night between the fires, the coals of which would have been handy to the children for tormenting them.

People would have enjoyed eating together, one surmises, though it does not appear that there were regular meal times. The women sod a pottage of cornmeal and water in the morning, and left it on the fire all day for anyone who felt hungry. If available, fish (the whole creature from head to tail, bones and guts included), squash, beans, and berries from the forest were added. The French complained that the pots and utensils were never clean. Corn, squash, and beans were grown around the village by the women and children in fields cleared by the men. Mounds were grubbed up, and these vegetables, the famous Three Sisters, were planted together in each mound. As I was told at the Huronia Museum, the squash, with spiny vines like today’s acorn squash, overspread the ground and kept weeds down and small rodents away. The village dogs chased and killed the larger vermin. The corn stalks supported the beans. Ten or 15 years after the establishment of a village, the nutrients in the fields would be depleted and the forests cut down so far from the village that it would be difficult for the women to carry firewood home. Moreover, the posts that supported all the structures of the village would have begun to rot in their holes. Thus, it became necessary for a new village to be erected on another site, and for new fields to be cleared.

Both the Huron and the Iroquois believed that every being in the world possessed a soul. In some, the soul was an Oki, or daimon, which had to be feared and appeased. The striking masks, seen in ceremonies even today, each represented an Oki. Such masks, fearsome enough even to a modern Catholic, hang from poles outside the longhouse at the Huronia Museum and stand outside the shaman’s cabin. These must have disturbed and irritated the Jesuits. Dreams were taken as divine insights into physical and psychological disorders, and were understood as commands, such that the circumstances of the dream had to be repeated in waking life. Even sexual dreams had to be repeated, which shocked the Jesuits.

We know how the Jesuits regarded these living conditions. St. Noël Chabanel (1613-1649) felt such disgust at Huron practices that he bound himself by a vow of stability not to leave Huronia. His superior, Fr. Paul Raguenau (1608-1680), wrote that Chabanel was “so opposed to the customs and manners of the savages that he could find very little in common with them.” He elaborated:

He could not accustom himself to the food of the country; the daily life in the missions did such violence to his entire nature that he suffered extraordinary hardships without any consolation…. Always to sleep on the bare ground, to live from morning to night in a little hell of smoke, to wake up in the morning covered with the snow that drifted in on all sides of the cabins of the savages, to find yourself, despite all efforts to the contrary, providing hospitality to all types of vermin — that is only the beginning of the list. Each sense had its own special tortures: never anything but water to quench your thirst; the best food only a paste made with Indian cornmeal boiled in water; incessant work on an almost empty stomach; never one moment in the day to retire to a spot that is not public…not even a tiny hole in which to enjoy a little privacy, not even for study; no other light than that from a smoky fire — and that fire surrounded by ten or fifteen persons, including children of all ages, who scream, weep, and wrangle, persons who are busy about their cooking, their meals, their work.

This might seem an extreme reaction to Huron ways, but Fr. Ragueneau’s words suggest that any ordinary Frenchman would have felt the same way. The difference seems to be, and this is suggested by portions of Ragueneau’s account, that God imposed on Chabanel a long desolation in the face of these sensuous and spiritual deprivations. That was his particular road to sanctity. Others had to bear the same deprivations but found consolation in doing so.

Most of the French in Huronia seem to have become inured to Huron practices, except that their horror persisted at torture and ritual cannibalism, shamanism and dream fulfilment, and sexual permissiveness among the young. While Brébeuf was superior (1634-1638), he established a policy of living among the Huron as the Huron lived, although a separate longhouse was built for the missionaries at each primary village among the different tribes. When Fr. Jérôme Lalemant (1595-1673) replaced Brébeuf as superior, he had a mission headquarters built, Sainte-Marie-au-pays-des-Hurons, which has been reconstructed in Midland. From this French village, teams were sent out to targeted Huron, Pétun, and Neutral villages to convert the pagan natives and support the Christian natives. A visit to the reconstructed village — with its framed “auditory” chapel, cells for the priests, dormitories for the donnés (laymen under contract to the Jesuits) and military barracks; its pigs, cows, and chickens; its vegetable patch and herb garden; its collegiate refectory, apothecary shop and hospital, and workshops for carpenter, blacksmith, tailor, and cobbler — demonstrates that the French preferred their own hierarchical, ordered, but diversified, more complex way of life.

It is clear that the Jesuits and their donnés required not just strong stomachs and great courage, but even more, great love: love of Jesus and His mother, love of St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier, love of saving souls, love of suffering and martyrdom, love of the Huron and other natives. Otherwise, they would all have been thoroughly broken, failures as missionaries and as men. Yet, besides Brébeuf, seven of them became martyrs: St. René Goupil (1608-1642), St. Isaac Jogues (1607-1646), St. Jean de Lalande (d. 1646), St. Antoine Daniel (1601-1648), St. Noël, St. Charles Garnier (1606-1649), and St. Gabriel Lalemant (1610-1649).

To be fair to both the Huron and the French, it must be said that the Huron possessed many virtues, and the Jesuits were capable of perceiving them. For example, Fr. Paul Le Jeune (1592-1664) wrote, “When we see these savages, well formed, strong, of good mien, endowed with natural good sense; when we realize that only a drop of water is needed to make them children of God and that Jesus Christ has shed all of his Blood for them, we feel an incredible ardor to attract them to God and to the Church.” In fact, converts such as the catechist, apostle, and martyr Joseph Chiwatenhwa (d. 1640) proved to be exceptional Christians.


* Though she is commonly referred to as Kateri Tekakwitha, the name “Kateri” was invented by a 19th-century Anglo biographer. Tekakwitha was baptized “Catherine” and accepted this non-Iroquois name as a sign of her new life in Christ.


Ed. Note: The second of this two-part series will appear in our July-August issue.


©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

Enjoyed reading this?



You May Also Enjoy

When the Secular Saints Go Marxing In

Some call on "the American way of life" as a bulwark. But the American way of life is whatever the latest and strongest revolutionary says it is.

How the West Was Lost

How did Catholics by the millions enlist to serve their nation a few generations ago, and yet today there are hardly enough to serve at the altar?

Bruce Springsteen: American Working-Class Hero

Springsteen describes a difficult, often lonely America, yet he is an idealist speaking of plain virtues — strength of will, hard work, generosity.