Few passages of history are more striking than those which record the efforts of the earlier French Jesuits to convert the Indians. Full as they are of dramatic and philosophic interest, bearing strongly on the political destinies of America, and closely involved with the history of its native population, it is wonderful that they have been left so long in obscurity. While the infant colonies of England still clung feebly to the shores of the Atlantic, events deeply ominous to their future were in progress, unknown to them, in the very heart of the continent. It will be seen, in the sequel of this volume, that civil and religious liberty found strange allies in this Western World.
The sources of information concerning the early Jesuits of New France are very copious. During a period of forty years, the Superior of the Mission sent, every summer, long and detailed reports, embodying or accompanied by the reports of his subordinates, to the Provincial of the Order at Paris, where they were annually published, in duodecimo volumes, forming the remarkable series known as the Jesuit Relations. Though the productions of men of scholastic training, they are simple and often crude in style, as might be expected of narratives hastily written in Indian lodges or rude mission-houses in the forest, amid annoyances and interruptions of all kinds. In respect to the value of their contents, they are exceedingly unequal. Modest records of marvellous adventures and sacrifices, and vivid pictures of forest-life, alternate with prolix and monotonous details of the conversion of individual savages, and the praiseworthy deportment of some exemplary neophyte. With regard to the condition and character of the primitive inhabitants of North America, it is impossible to exaggerate their value as an authority. I should add, that the closest examination has left me no doubt that these missionaries wrote in perfect good faith, and that the Relations hold a high place as authentic and trustworthy historical documents. They are very scarce, and no complete collection of them exists in America. The entire series was, however, republished, in 1858, by the Canadian government, in three large octavo volumes.
[ Both editions—the old and the new—are cited in the following pages. Where the reference is to the old edition, it is indicated by the name of the publisher (Cramoisy), appended to the citation, in brackets.
In extracts given in the notes, the antiquated orthography and accentuation are preserved. ]
These form but a part of the surviving writings of the French-American Jesuits. Many additional reports, memoirs, journals, and letters, official and private, have come down to us; some of which have recently been printed, while others remain in manuscript. Nearly every prominent actor in the scenes to be described has left his own record of events in which he bore part, in the shape of reports to his Superiors or letters to his friends. I have studied and compared these authorities, as well as a great mass of collateral evidence, with more than usual care, striving to secure the greatest possible accuracy of statement, and to reproduce an image of the past with photographic clearness and truth.
The introductory chapter of the volume is independent of the rest; but a knowledge of the facts set forth in it is essential to the full understanding of the narrative which follows.
In the collection of material, I have received valuable aid fromMr. J. G. Shea, Rev. Felix Martin, S.J., the Abbés Laverdière andH. R. Casgrain, Dr. J. C. Taché, and the late Jacques Viger, Esq.
I propose to devote the next volume of this series to the discovery and occupation by the French of the Valley of the Mississippi....