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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
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Father Brébeuf and his Associates in the Huron Mission

By Francis Parkman (1823–1893)

From ‘The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century’

WHERE should the Fathers make their abode? Their first thought had been to establish themselves at a place called by the French Rochelle, the largest and most important town of the Huron confederacy; but Brébeuf now resolved to remain at Ihonatiria. Here he was well known; and here too, he flattered himself, seeds of the Faith had been planted which with good nurture would in time yield fruit.

By the ancient Huron custom, when a man or a family wanted a house, the whole village joined in building one. In the present case, not Ihonatiria only, but the neighboring town of Wenrio also, took part in the work,—though not without the expectation of such gifts as the priests had to bestow. Before October the task was finished. The house was constructed after the Huron model. It was thirty-six feet long and about twenty feet wide, framed with strong sapling poles planted in the earth to form the sides, with the ends bent into an arch for the roof,—the whole lashed firmly together, braced with cross-poles, and closely covered with overlapping sheets of bark. Without, the structure was strictly Indian; but within, the priests, with the aid of their tools, made innovations which were the astonishment of all the country. They divided their dwelling by transverse partitions into three apartments, each with its wooden door,—a wondrous novelty in the eyes of their visitors. The first served as a hall, an ante-room, and a place of storage for corn, beans, and dried fish. The second—the largest of the three—was at once kitchen, workshop, dining-room, drawing-room, school-room, and bed-chamber. The third was the chapel. Here they made their altar, and here were their images, pictures, and sacred vessels. Their fire was on the ground, in the middle of the second apartment, the smoke escaping by a hole in the roof. At the sides were placed two wide platforms, after the Huron fashion, four feet from the earthen floor. On these were chests in which they kept their clothing and vestments, and beneath them they slept, reclining on sheets of bark, and covered with skins and the garments they wore by day. Rude stools, a hand-mill, a large Indian mortar of wood for crushing corn, and a clock, completed the furniture of the room.

There was no lack of visitors, for the house of the blackrobes contained marvels the fame of which was noised abroad to the uttermost confines of the Huron nation. Chief among them was the clock. The guests would sit in expectant silence by the hour, squatted on the ground, waiting to hear it strike. They thought it was alive, and asked what it ate. As the last stroke sounded, one of the Frenchmen would cry “Stop!”—and to the admiration of the company, the obedient clock was silent. The mill was another wonder, and they were never tired of turning it. Besides these, there was a prism and a magnet; also a magnifying glass wherein a flea was transformed to a frightful monster, and a multiplying lens which showed them the same object eleven times repeated. “All this,” says Brébeuf, “serves to gain their affection, and make them more docile in respect to the admirable and incomprehensible mysteries of our Faith; for the opinion they have of our genius and capacity makes them believe whatever we tell them.”

“What does the Captain say?” was the frequent question; for by this title of honor they designated the clock.

“When he strikes twelve times, he says, ‘Hang on the kettle;’ and when he strikes four times, he says, ‘Get up and go home.’”

Both interpretations were well remembered. At noon, visitors were never wanting, to share the fathers’ sagamite; but at the stroke of four, all rose and departed, leaving the missionaries for a time in peace. Now the door was barred; and gathering around the fire, they discussed the prospects of the mission, compared their several experiences, and took counsel for the future. But the standing topic of their evening talk was the Huron language. Concerning this each had some new discovery to relate, some new suggestion to offer; and in the task of analyzing its construction and deducing its hidden laws, these intelligent and highly cultivated minds found a congenial employment.

But while zealously laboring to perfect their knowledge of the language, they spared no pains to turn their present acquirements to account. Was man, woman, or child sick or suffering, they were always at hand with assistance and relief,—adding, as they saw opportunity, explanations of Christian doctrine, pictures of heaven and hell, and exhortations to embrace the Faith. Their friendly offices did not cease here, but included matters widely different. The Hurons lived in constant fear of the Iroquois. At times the whole village population would fly to the woods for concealment, or take refuge in one of the neighboring fortified towns, on the rumor of an approaching war-party. The Jesuits promised them the aid of the four Frenchmen armed with arquebuses, who had come with them from Three Rivers. They advised the Hurons to make their palisade forts, not as hitherto in a circular form, but rectangular, with small flanking towers at the corners for the arquebuse-men. The Indians at once saw the value of the advice, and soon after began to act on it in the case of their great town of Ossossané, or Rochelle.

At every opportunity, the missionaries gathered together the children of the village at their house. On these occasions, Brébeuf, for greater solemnity, put on a surplice, and the close angular cap worn by Jesuits in their convents. First he chanted the Pater Noster, translated by Father Daniel into Huron rhymes,—the children chanting in their turn. Next he taught them the sign of the cross; made them repeat the Ave, the Credo, and the Commandments; questioned them as to past instructions; gave them briefly a few new ones; and dismissed them with a present of two or three beads, raisins, or prunes. A great emulation was kindled among this small fry of heathendom. The priests, with amusement and delight, saw them gathered in groups about the village, vying with each other in making the sign of the cross, or in repeating the rhymes they had learned.

At times the elders of the people, the repositories of its ancient traditions, were induced to assemble at the house of the Jesuits, who explained to them the principal points of their doctrine, and invited them to a discussion. The auditors proved pliant to a fault, responding “Good,” or “That is true,” to every proposition; but when urged to adopt the faith which so readily met their approval, they had always the same reply: “It is good for the French; but we are another people, with different customs.” On one occasion, Brébeuf appeared before the chiefs and elders at a solemn national council, described heaven and hell with images suited to their comprehension, asked to which they preferred to go after death, and then, in accordance with the invariable Huron custom in affairs of importance, presented a large and valuable belt of wampum, as an invitation to take the path to Paradise.

Notwithstanding all their exhortations, the Jesuits, for the present, baptized but few. Indeed, during the first year or more, they baptized no adults except those apparently at the point of death; for, with excellent reason, they feared backsliding and recantation. They found especial pleasure in the baptism of dying infants, rescuing them from the flames of perdition, and changing them, to borrow Le Jeune’s phrase, “from little Indians into little angels.”

The fathers’ slumbers were brief and broken. Winter was the season of Huron festivity; and as they lay stretched on their hard couch, suffocating with smoke and tormented by an inevitable multitude of fleas, the thumping of the drum resounded all night long from a neighboring house, mingled with the sound of the tortoise-shell rattle, the stamping of moccasined feet, and the cadence of voices keeping time with the dancers. Again, some ambitious villager would give a feast, and invite all the warriors of the neighboring towns; or some grand wager of gambling, with its attendant drumming, singing, and outcries, filled the night with discord.

But these were light annoyances compared with the insane rites to cure the sick, prescribed by the “medicine-men,” or ordained by the eccentric inspiration of dreams. In one case, a young sorcerer, by alternate gorging and fasting,—both in the interest of his profession,—joined with excessive exertion in singing to the spirits, contracted a disorder of the brain, which caused him in midwinter to run naked about the village, howling like a wolf. The whole population bestirred itself to effect a cure. The patient had, or pretended to have, a dream, in which the conditions of his recovery were revealed to him. These were equally ridiculous and difficult; but the elders met in council, and all the villagers lent their aid, till every requisition was fulfilled, and the incongruous mass of gifts which the madman’s dream had demanded were all bestowed upon him. This cure failing, a “medicine-feast” was tried; then several dances in succession. As the patient remained as crazy as before, preparations were begun for a grand dance, more potent than all the rest. Brébeuf says that except the masquerades of the Carnival among Christians, he never saw a folly equal to it. “Some,” he adds, “had sacks over their heads, with two holes for the eyes. Some were as naked as your hand, with horns or feathers on their heads, their bodies painted white, and their faces black as devils. Others were daubed with red, black, and white. In short, every one decked himself as extravagantly as he could, to dance in this ballet, and contribute something towards the health of the sick man.” This remedy also failing, a crowning effort of the medical art was essayed. Brébeuf does not describe it,—for fear, as he says, of being tedious; but for the time, the village was a pandemonium. This, with other ceremonies, was supposed to be ordered by a certain image like a doll, which a sorcerer placed in his tobacco-pouch, whence it uttered its oracles, at the same time moving as if alive. “Truly,” writes Brébeuf, “here is nonsense enough; but I greatly fear there is something more dark and mysterious in it.”

But all these ceremonies were outdone by the grand festival of the Ononhara, or Dream Feast,—esteemed the most powerful remedy in cases of sickness, or when a village was infested with evil spirits. The time and manner of holding it were determined at a solemn council. This scene of madness began at night. Men, women, and children, all pretending to have lost their senses, rushed shrieking and howling from house to house, upsetting everything in their way, throwing fire-brands, beating those they met or drenching them with water, and availing themselves of this time of license to take a safe revenge on any who had ever offended them. This scene of frenzy continued till daybreak. No corner of the village was secure from the maniac crew. In the morning there was a change. They ran from house to house, accosting the inmates by name, and demanding of each the satisfaction of some secret want, revealed to the pretended madman in a dream, but of the nature of which he gave no hint whatever. The person addressed thereupon threw to him at random any article at hand, as a hatchet, a kettle, or a pipe; and the applicant continued his rounds till the desired gift was hit upon, when he gave an outcry of delight, echoed by gratulatory cries from all present. If, after all his efforts, he failed in obtaining the object of his dream, he fell into a deep dejection, convinced that some disaster was in store for him.

The approach of summer brought with it a comparative peace. Many of the villagers dispersed,—some to their fishing, some to expeditions of trade, and some to distant lodges by their detached cornfields. The priests availed themselves of the respite to engage in those exercises of private devotion which the rule of St. Ignatius enjoins. About midsummer, however, their quiet was suddenly broken. The crops were withering under a severe drought, a calamity which the sandy nature of the soil made doubly serious. The sorcerers put forth their utmost power, and from the tops of the houses yelled incessant invocations to the spirits. All was in vain: the pitiless sky was cloudless. There was thunder in the east and thunder in the west; but over Ihonatiria all was serene. A renowned “rain maker,” seeing his reputation tottering under his repeated failures, bethought him of accusing the Jesuits, and gave out that the red color of the cross which stood before their house scared the bird of thunder, and caused him to fly another way. On this a clamor arose. The popular ire turned against the priests, and the obnoxious cross was condemned to be hewn down. Aghast at the threatened sacrilege, they attempted to reason away the storm, assuring the crowd that the lightning was not a bird, but certain hot and fiery exhalations, which, being imprisoned, darted this way and that, trying to escape. As this philosophy failed to convince the hearers, the missionaries changed their line of defense.

“You say that the red color of the cross frightens the bird of thunder. Then paint the cross white, and see if the thunder will come.”

This was accordingly done; but the clouds still kept aloof. The Jesuits followed up their advantage.

“Your spirits cannot help you, and your sorcerers have deceived you with lies. Now ask the aid of Him who made the world, and perhaps he will listen to your prayers.” And they added that if the Indians would renounce their sins and obey the true God, they would make a procession daily to implore his favor towards them.

There was no want of promises. The processions were begun, as were also nine masses to St. Joseph; and as heavy rains occurred soon after, the Indians conceived a high idea of the efficacy of the French “medicine.”

In spite of the hostility of the sorcerers, and the transient commotion raised by the red cross, the Jesuits had gained the confidence and good-will of the Huron population. Their patience, their kindness, their intrepidity, their manifest disinterestedness, the blamelessness of their lives, and the tact which, in the utmost fervors of their zeal, never failed them, had won the hearts of these wayward savages; and chiefs of distant villages came to urge that they would make their abode with them. As yet, the results of the mission had been faint and few; but the priests toiled on courageously, high in hope that an abundant harvest of souls would one day reward their labors.