Volume > Issue > The Final Journey of the Jesuit Martyrs of North America & the Birthplace of St. Catherine Tekakwitha

The Final Journey of the Jesuit Martyrs of North America & the Birthplace of St. Catherine Tekakwitha


By Richard Upsher Smith Jr. | July-August 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).

Ed. Note: Part I of this two-part series appeared in our June issue.


Around 1950 hagiography began to demand the application of modern historical methods to the study of the lives of the saints. While in some hands this led to the “demythologizing” of the saints, concern for historical accuracy does not necessarily lead to the falsification of a saint’s miracles or to the diminution of a saint’s sanctity, even if some longstanding interpretations have to be changed. Similarly, other devotional literature should take historical study into account, including poetry, especially if it is about the saints.

The present article, of which this installment is the second and last, is an account of what I learned on a journey last summer about the places, people, and times in and among whom the Jesuit Martyrs of North America and St. Catherine Tekakwitha* did their work and lived their lives. I have sought historical accuracy and, I hope, achieved it.

In the first installment, we examined the geography and history of the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes areas where Native Americans and Europeans came together in the 16th and 17th centuries. Trade emerged as the dynamic of the early intercourse among these peoples, and the Jesuit missionaries followed the trade routes from the St. Lawrence entrepôts to the land of the Huron on Georgian Bay, part of the Great Lakes system. The Jesuits struggled to cope with the Native American way of life, with its primitive living conditions, shamanistic religion, ritual torture and cannibalism, and the natives’ general distrust of Europeans.

In this installment, we will follow certain Jesuit captives on their voyages to Iroquoia and study the archeology and history of the shrines associated with them and St. Catherine. Finally, our various meditations will be drawn together, and we shall reflect on what we have learned.


The “Torture Trail” to the Mohawk Valley

Fr. Francis Xavier Talbot, S.J., called the route from Lac Saint-Pierre to Ossernenon, the Mohawk village where St. Isaac Jogues and his companions were taken after their capture in 1642, the “torture trail.” He traced the route in 1932 and published his findings the next year. He slightly modified his conclusions about the route in his 1935 biography of St. Isaac. I was able to follow some of that route, with the guidance of his publications.

Life in Huronia for the Jesuits was never without anxiety, as the natives’ recurring impression of the Jesuits as malevolent sorcerers sometimes caused outbreaks of violence and threats of death. A drought, for example, might lead to attacks on their persons. Additionally, Iroquois raids became more and more frequent during the years the Huron Mission existed.

Parallel to the north shore of Lac Saint-Pierre is Île aux Vaches, which is separated from the mainland by a narrow, overgrown channel. To the southeast lies Île Dupas, which extends to the northeast beyond its neighbor and for some distance lies opposite the mainland. At the eastern end of Île Dupas comes Nid d’Aigle, which also lies across from the mainland. The channel here is sufficiently broad to afford some room for the maneuver of canoes. Southeast of Île Dupas is Île Saint-Ignace, where the ferry from Tracy-Sorel lands.

Fr. Talbot believes that in August 1642 the Hurons with whom St. Isaac was traveling back to Huronia, where he had been stationed since 1636, were ambushed and captured by Mohawk raiders in the channel between the mainland and Nid d’Aigle. The ambush had two prongs. First, a group of Iroquois opened fire on the canoes from a hidden position in the reeds on the mainland just downstream from the channel that divides Nid d’Aigle from Île Dupas. (The Dutch were supplying the Mohawks with harquebuses.) When the attention of the Hurons was sufficiently engaged, a second band of Mohawks paddled swiftly downstream to attack from their hiding place in the channel just mentioned.

I was able to drive down Île Dupas to where the road stops within two miles of the location marked by Talbot. From what I could see, his reconstruction is plausible. The channel is wide enough to promise safety, and it was as far as possible from the Iroquois side of the lake. Tall reeds still exist on the mainland side. The current appears swifter in the middle of the channel and on the island side, which would have assisted the second band of Iroquois. The Huron had seen strange moccasin tracks early that morning, and so were on the alert, but their plan for passing the islands safely was sound, and they must have felt some confidence mixed with their anxiety. I presume the Jesuits felt the same.

With St. Isaac were St. René Goupil (1608-1642), a surgeon and donné (a layman under contract to the Jesuits), and another donné, Guillaume Couture (ca. 1617-1701). Most of the Hurons were Christians or catechumens, including the famous warrior and military headman Eustache Ahatsistari (d. 1642). The Mohawk raid had all three features of Iroquoian warfare: prestige, prisoners, and booty. The raiders were fortunate to capture a year’s worth of supplies; they also captured a large number of prisoners for torture and execution or slavery; and surely some of them earned honor among their fellow tribesmen.

The Iroquois practice was to torture their prisoners to soothe grieving souls. The torture of the Jesuits and Hurons began as soon as the fighting stopped but was quickly suspended so the party could escape across the lake and up the Richelieu River. The captives, having been beaten with war clubs and harquebus stocks, kicked and jumped on up and down, and cut with knives, as well as having had their fingernails torn out and their forefingers gnawed to a splintery pulp by Mohawk teeth, were stowed in the canoes with the cargo among the victorious warriors.

The Richelieu runs 77 miles north from Lake Champlain to Lac Saint-Pierre. Its height above sea level falls significantly at the rapids at Chambly and the town of Saint-Ours, rapids now bypassed by canals. The river widens above Chambly, but it never becomes very deep. At its head, it forms a large, beautiful bay where the northern islands of Lake Champlain cluster. The land through which the river passes is flat and fertile, dominated for a stretch by the mysterious, 1,358-foot outcropping of Mont Saint-Hilaire to the east. Otherwise, the sky is vast.

At the head of the river, however, off to the southwest and the southeast, the Adirondacks and Green Mountains heave into view. As the Mohawks and their prisoners paddled south, the mountains closed in on them, hiding the distant horizon. This restriction of their view by the encroaching heights of darkly forested rock would have made the weight of the prisoners’ capture, torture, and slave labor at the paddles that much heavier. Even today, at least when the sky is overcast, the mountains appear to menace with preternatural violence.

Eight days into the voyage, the flotilla reached a round, tree-covered island, about an acre in area, in a small bay about three miles south of present-day Westport, New York. Following State Route 22 south from Westport, a driver turns left at Dudley Road and drives to Camp Dudley, a summer camp. The camp beach is on the small bay that contains Jogues Island, more usually called Albany or Cole Island. Short of swimming, you can reach the island by either hiring a boat in Westport or gaining permission from the camp to put in a canoe or kayak at the beach. It would be a real act of devotion to do so, as on this island St. Isaac’s captors met an outward-bound war party 200 strong, and the captives were put to extensive torture, including running a gauntlet of 200 or more warriors. The torture was only terminated to save the captives from dying. This island really should be a pilgrimage destination. It belongs to the State of New York.

Over the following two days, the homeward-bound warriors met two more war parties, but only minor torture was permitted, as the prisoners had already been so badly used.


In Search of a Destination

Two routes to Ossernenon existed. One, after a portage to the present town of Ticonderoga, led up Lake George by canoe, and then by foot up the Sacandaga River Valley, now submerged by Sacandaga Lake, to Mohawk territory near Cayadutta Creek, which empties into the Mohawk River at Fonda, New York. The other led from the head of Lake Champlain at Smith Bay overland to the confluence of the Sacandaga River and the Hudson River, and thence by the same path as the first route. In 1933 Fr. Talbot preferred the first route in his historical reconstruction, in 1935 the second, but he gave no reason for his change of mind. It seems to me that the first route would have demanded less marching and thus less carrying of equipment and booty.

The first route is marked today by a large historical plaque across the street from the Ticonderoga Heritage Museum and Visitors Center, which has excellent exhibits on the industrial history of the town and was itself once part of a mill. The museum stands at the Lower Falls of La Chute River, where the almost two-mile portage to Lake George began. You walk up the hill from the falls past the Community Building and then deviate briefly from the route onto Champlain Avenue before picking up the street now called Portage. At its intersection with Water Street, Portage reaches Lake George. The Mohawks might have turned toward the lake earlier, perhaps near the intersection with Alexandria Avenue, which crosses the head of La Chute above the Upper Falls, which cascade spectacularly through the ruins of an old mill.

Where, then, was the captors’ destination, the village of Ossernenon, located? The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs was established at Auriesville, New York, in 1884 by Fr. Joseph Loyzance, S.J., and quickly became a major pilgrimage site. Fr. Loyzance accepted the conclusion of Gen. J.S. Clarke that this was the location of Ossernenon, where St. René was martyred in 1642 and where St. Isaac and St. Jean de Lalande were martyred in 1646. Gen. Clarke also reckoned this to be where St. Catherine was born in 1656. However, no artifacts have been found at the shrine by archeologists that date earlier than the first quarter of the 18th century. Moreover, archeological excavation of the Bauder Site, about nine miles upriver from Auriesville in Root Township, has uncovered a village that appears to have been occupied from 1635 to 1646. Its site “on a spur of land overlooking Yatesville Creek,” in the words of Dean R. Snow (Mohawk Valley Archeology, 1995), and Yatesville Creek itself, which is of a volume to flow much more violently than the gully near the supposed site at Auriesville (as well as the site’s greater distance from the Mohawk River, which was a common feature of Mohawk villages of the period), indicate that this was most likely the site of Ossernenon.

I was not able reliably to find the site using Snow’s sparse indications of its location. However, when I showed Snow’s text to a local farmer, he told me the old Klim farm, where the Bauder Site is located, now owned by an Amish family named Frey, is at the intersection of Currytown Road and Anderson Road, 50 yards north of a bridge across Yatesville Creek. I spoke to Mr. Frey, who was very obliging, but he knew nothing of the Bauder Site. My guess is that it lies on the forested spur of land that rises sharply at the eastern end of Mr. Frey’s bottomland between Anderson Road and Yatesville Creek.

St. Catherine’s birthplace is a few miles to the northeast, suggest the archeologists, at the Printup Site in Glen Township. The people of Ossernenon built a new village there in 1646 and abandoned it about 1659. Then they built another village at the Freeman Site back in Root Township but renamed it Kaghnuwage. I did not look for the Printup Site, but I did visit the Freeman Site. To get there, you turn southeast off State Highway 5S on Dillenbeck Road in the hamlet of Randall. About a mile down the road, on the first ridge, you turn left on Argersinger Road and drive past a hayfield. I am almost certain, relying on indications provided by Snow, that the Freeman Site lies under the modern house at the end of the field, just before the road drops down off the ridge. The land in the area is under cultivation, and you get a fine impression of the desirability of the site for a Mohawk village: well back from the river, on high ground with steep slopes, and with arable land and a water source.

After its destruction in a French raid in 1666, the villagers built a new village north of the river in Mohawk Township at what archeologists call the Fox Farm Site. It seems likely that this village was built on the bluff up Reservoir Road in that township. At the intersection of Reservoir Road and State Route 5 stands a historical marker that calls the town Can-a-gor-ha and claims the village existed from 1666 to 1693. In fact, it was abandoned about 1679, when the hostility of the pagan Mohawks forced the Jesuits, who had had free access to Iroquoia since 1666, to flee with their converts to Montreal. St. Catherine became part of this exodus, fleeing this second Kaghnuwage for Montreal in 1676. About 1679 the remaining villagers resettled at what archeologists call the Veeder Site, commonly known as Caughnawaga, which is owned by the Saint Kateri National Shrine and Historical Site. This village was destroyed in the French raid of 1693. Some of these survivors then rebuilt at Auriesville, according to Snow.


A Consideration of Shrines & Reliquaries

The archeological findings seem irrefutable to me, at least to the extent that any scientific conclusions can be. All such results are, naturally, open to revision or even rejection if the data change. Thus, both the Martyrs Shrine at Auriesville and the St. Kateri Shrine in Fonda, with its St. Kateri Spring, are not historical sites but simply devotional sites. Does this diminish or extinguish their cult significance? I think not. First, they have been hallowed by the devotions of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. All those rosaries and Masses have sanctified these shrines beyond the ordinary level. Second, I think it appropriate to compare the Auriesville Shrine to the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland. The latter does not stand on ground that has any historical connection to the martyrs themselves, except that some of them must have used the eminence on which it stands for a lookout. Something similar might be said of the Auriesville property. No, what connects the Midland shrine historically to the martyrs are its first-class relics, whereas all the first-class relics of the Auriesville martyrs have been lost.

St. René’s body, despite St. Isaac’s heroic efforts to preserve it, was hidden in the woods by Ossernenon lads, where it stayed the winter of 1642-1643. Most of his bones were carried off by dogs, birds, and other animals, so that the following spring St. Isaac was able to locate only a few of them. These he concealed in a hollow tree, but they were never recovered afterwards. In 1646 St. Isaac and St. Jean de Lalande were beheaded as sorcerers who had bewitched the year’s crops, their bodies cast into the Mohawk, and their heads displayed on poles at the Ossernenon gate. None of their bones has been recovered. Thus, that whole stretch of the south bank of the Mohawk, and the Mohawk itself, is one giant reliquary, more beautiful, because fashioned by God, than any container made by human hands, even the superb examples in Midland. Consequently, it is right and just that the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs stand there, not housing the relics but in the reliquary itself, for those who come to offer their devotions to these martyrs.

The Saint Kateri National Shrine and Historical Site has its own historical connections to St. Catherine. The excavated village of Caughnawaga is the great-grandchild of the village where she was born, the grandchild of the village where she spent part of her childhood, and the child of the village where she lived out her teens and was baptized. Moreover, the village was built by her relatives who had remained pagans. Thus, the village itself must differ little from the villages the saint knew, and, hallowed by thousands of pilgrims and the blessing of the Church, it seems an appropriate locus for devotions to the Lily of the Mohawks and for her miracles. That the water from St. Kateri’s Spring can heal is no more questionable than that the St. Joseph’s Oil sold today at the Oratoire Saint-Joseph in Montreal can do the same because of its connection with St. André Bessette.


A Review

What have we learned in our meditations on the story, places, and persons of, and by the application of our five spiritual senses to, the Jesuit Martyrs and St. Catherine?

First, unstated but essential to the meditations, has been a rejection of the Romantic view of nature and natural man. The Native Americans were not unspoiled, as Rousseau fancied not a century later, but were as corrupt in their primitiveness as Rousseau saw the French were in their sophistication. Mountains are not necessarily majestic and inspiring, as the Hudson Valley School of painters has taught us to view them. Mountains can seem indifferent heaps of unintelligible matter. The wilderness is not necessarily free and rejuvenating, as Thoreau found it. It can be inimical, even demonic.

Second, the culture of the Iroquoian peoples was not a utopia, but neither was it a Hobbesian chaos. They had developed an agriculture that not only fed them but produced surpluses. Trade was widespread. There was slow technological progress among them. Out of their ancient matrilineal kin groups they had created egalitarian polities that transcended not only the clan and village but also the tribe. Out of the practice of loving relationships in family and clan life they had woven sophisticated social relations, so that the various elements in their polity might function smoothly. One thinks of Socrates’s first city in the Republic.

As regards their material culture, they were eager to incorporate European artifacts into their traditional ways. Their religion was ready too, as some natives realized, for the incorporation of a new Lord. For example, Eustache Ahatsistari, even before the Jesuits came, was convinced that a greater Spirit than his religion taught was giving him success in battle beyond his strength or merit. St. Catherine, even before her baptism, viewed with hatred and disgust those inhuman practices of her people that also alarmed the Jesuits.

Third, the aboriginal peoples were inured to a level of dirt and discomfort, nourished on such an unvarying and tasteless diet, and so hardened physically and morally by constant danger that the French had to fight against spiritual rebellion in their own souls to live with them in their longhouses and travel with them on their journeys. This should not be underestimated in judging the heroism of these men. How easy it would have been for a man who had grown up on a Norman manor, much less for one raised at the court of Louis XIII, to despise and reject them!

Fourth, the Jesuits’ love, both practical and mystical, learned in the Ignatian Exercises, has emerged into view. Only this greatest virtue, and the mystical visions granted them in the Exercises and other prayers, could have carried them along the canoe routes we have followed; kept them from prideful and crippling depression and disgust at their living conditions; supplied the lighthearted courage with which they strode past shamans’ cabins and into smoky, teeming, and unfriendly longhouses to preach the Gospel; inflamed their sense of devotion in bark chapels that lacked every sensuous help to worship and possessed most of the impediments; enabled them to accept the natives as full human beings just like themselves, for whom God had taken flesh and died, that they might be redeemed; and, finally, allowed them to love and long for martyrdom for the salvation of souls, their own and the aboriginals’.


* 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.



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