17th Century Jesuits in New France

French exploration into what would later become New France (and which would eventually become Canada) began in 1534 with Jacques Cartier. In 1540, King Francois I announced his intention to establish a colony in order to exploit the resources of the area, and justified this colony in religious language and with the idea of bringing new souls to their god. As with other European countries, the French did not acknowledge any validity to aboriginal religions, possible land ownership, and ability to govern themselves. Under the Discovery Doctrine-a legal doctrine stating that Christian monarchs had a right, and possibly an obligation, to rule all non-Christian nations-the French assumed that their religion and government was superior to the religions and governments of the Native Americans.

The Company of New France, a joint stock company modeled after the English and Dutch companies trading in the East Indies, was given a royal charter in 1602. This charter included exclusive trading rights from Florida to the Arctic Circle and westward along all rivers flowing into the “Fresh Sea” (the Great Lakes). In exchange for the trade monopoly, the Company promised to settle 4,000 colonists in New France over the next 15 years. The Company was also to see to the conversion of the natives.

One of the first missionary groups to begin working with the Native peoples in New France was the Jesuits. The Jesuits are members of a Catholic male religious order known as the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits, who are sometimes called “God’s Marines,” have a reputation for accepting orders to live and proselytize anywhere in the world, even under extreme conditions.

The Jesuits arrived in New France in 1611 and began to learn the native languages as a way of carrying their message to the people. The Indians found the Jesuits to be different from the other Europeans they had encountered as they did not seem to want land, furs, or women. They only wanted to live in an Indian household so that they could learn the language. Initially the Jesuits, who were often called Blackrobes, were well-liked because of their quiet manners. However, the Indians considered them to be poorly educated and perhaps somewhat retarded as they had little understanding of the spiritual world.

As the Jesuits were learning the Indian languages so that they could begin their spiritual mission, France was making plans to send more colonists and to redeem more souls for the Church.

In 1625, three Jesuit priests and three lay brothers arrived in New France. They were financed by Henri de Lévis, duc de Ventadour. Father Charles Lalemant, former professor of grammar, literature, and mathematics at the Jesuit college in Paris, is placed in charge of the mission. Later historians would call this small group of determined, disciplined, highly trained, and militant members of the Society of Jesus the shock troops for conversion. The French merchant in the colony, however, did not welcome the Jesuits as they feared that converting the Indians would interfere with the fur trade.

Two years later, the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France (Company of the 100 Associates) was organized and sought a royal charter giving it a fifteen-year monopoly on all commerce except for fishing in New France. The charter excluded all religions except for the Catholic Church. The Jesuits were given the position of spiritual advisors to the colonies and the Récollets, who had also had missionaries in the area, were banned. The investors in the company acted more out of religious devotion and patriotism than out of a concern for profits. The investors, as well as the King and his ministers, envisioned the creation of a Catholic French society in which the Native people would be molded by French ideals.

All of the furs were to be sold to the company’s agents and the profits from this enterprise were to be used to sustain the Jesuit missionary efforts. Unlike the Récollets, the Jesuits saw no advantage in assimilating the Indians into French culture. They did not wish to alter Indian culture any more than was necessary for them to convert to Christianity.

In 1631, the Jesuits in New France began publishing an annual report on their missions. These reports can be considered to be “truthful” propaganda which fed French curiosity about the Indians and the New World.

In 1634, the Jesuits increased their missionary planning. According to their revised plan, missions were to be opened among the major native groups beginning with the populous and centrally located Hurons. In addition, Jesuit residences were to be established at Quebec and Trois-Rivières, and natives were to be encouraged to settle near them for instruction in everything from agriculture to Catholicism.

In 1634, the Jesuit missionary Father Julien Perrault described the unique culture of the Mi’kmaq. In his report he told how they live with the seasons, how they dressed and behaved, and what they looked like. Reflecting his Jesuit bias, he reported that

“what they do lack is the knowledge of God and of the services that they ought to render to him.”

In 1637, Pope Urban VIII threatened excommunication for Catholics who deprived native peoples of their property or freedom. All of the European powers, however, simply ignored this edict.

Unable to cure the Huron of smallpox, the shaman Tonneraouanont lost face among his people in 1637. When he broke his leg and died from the resulting infection, the Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf assigned the calamity to evidence of the power of the Catholic God and attempted to assume the role of tribal shaman. While the Huron viewed the Jesuits as powerful shamans, many felt that the Blackrobes were responsible for the deaths. From the Huron viewpoint, the Jesuits engaged in incomprehensible rituals which seemed to be causing death among their people. Many Huron leaders called for the execution of the Jesuits as evil shamans. However, the desire to maintain good trading relations with the French was stronger than the desire to kill the Jesuits.

In 1639, the Jesuits built Sainte-Marie as a special compound and headquarters for their mission work. The Jesuits appeared to maintain a favorable attitude toward Indian religions. They recognized certain concepts that might be comparable between Indian religions and Christianity and used these in converting the Indians.

1638 Map of New France

A 1638 map of New France is shown above.

In 1640, the Jesuit mission at Sainte-Marie was staffed with 30 men, 15 of which were priests. From this headquarters new missionary expeditions were to be sent out.

In 1640, the Jesuits established a mission among the Nipissing. All of the sick children whom they baptized recovered, which seemed to show that the Jesuits had great power and their missionary efforts were relatively successful. Two chiefs-Mangouch and Wikassoumint-also converted.

In 1641, the Jesuit mission to the Mi’kmaq on Cape Breton Island was closed as the native population had dwindled. The Jesuits decided that Cape Breton was not a productive area for teaching and conversion and the missionaries were sent inland.

Montreal was founded in 1642 with great enthusiasm and hope by its devout and zealous backers, les Messiurs et Dames de la Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal pour la conversion de Sauvages de la Nouvelle France. They hoped to create a New Jerusalem, blessed by God, and composed of citizens destined for heaven. The Jesuits labored diligently among the Indians with the intent of incorporating them into this community.

By 1646 there were about 500 practicing Huron Christians. The Jesuits were using a number of different methods to get the Huron to convert. The Jesuits consciously attempted to impress the Hurons with their technological superiority and greater knowledge, including the ability to predict eclipses. There was also a practical side to conversion from the Huron perspective. They had discovered that Christians were treated better than were non-Christians when they traded with the French, and they were also paid higher prices for their furs.

By 1648, Christians had become a majority in the Huron village of Ossossane. While the Christians in this village had been free to behave as they wished when they had been a minority, the Jesuits now directed them to forbid non-Christians the right to practice their traditional religion if they wished to remain in the village.

By 1649, there were 18 Jesuit priests and 30 of their assistants working among the Huron. The Jesuits reported that thousands had been baptized.

In 1665, the Jesuits persuaded a group of Oneida to settle alongside several French families at La Prairie, thus establishing the Indian community of Caughnawaga. Among the Oneida was Catherine Gandeaktena, an Erie woman who had been captured by the Oneida. She had converted to Catholicism and was influential in persuading others to convert.

The Jesuits sent Fathers Jacques Fremin, Jean Pierron, and Jacques Bruyas out to evangelize among the Mohawk and Oneida in 1667. They reported:

“The whole country of the Iroquois was at that time so overcome with fear of a new French army that for several days fourteen warriors had been constantly on the watch…But, by the great good fortune for them and for us, instead of being enemies to them, we were Angels of peace”

In 1667, the Jesuits also traveled to other parts of New France. In Ontario, they established a mission to convert the Ojibwa. Jesuit Father Claude Allouez visited the Nipissing at Lake Nipigon. He found a number of Christian Indian families who had not seen a missionary for nearly 20 years.

In that same year, Father Allouez contacted the Plains Cree in what is now Saskatchewan. He characterized them as being kind, docile, and more nomadic than other tribes. They lived by hunting and gathering wild rice. Two years later, Jesuit Father Dablon tried to convert the Plains Cree. However, as they were nomadic, it made it difficult to convert them.

In 1697, the Jesuits established a Huron community near the fall of the Saint Charles River in Quebec. A chapel honoring Our Lady of Lorette was constructed. In the new community, the Huron continued to live in longhouses and agriculture remained in the hands of the women. The men contributed to the defense of New France by continuing to fight against the Iroquois Confederacy.

Spanish Missionary Efforts Among Florida Indians

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photo credit: Aaron Huey

When the Spanish exploration of Florida began with Juan Ponce de Leon (the conqueror of Puerto Rico) in 1513 there were an estimated 200,000 Native Americans living in what would later become the state of Florida. European diseases soon reduced this population. The Spanish expeditions which followed were motivated originally by greed and glory. In 1549, the Spanish launched their missionary efforts to convert the heathen natives.  

The first missionary effort was led by Fray Luis Cancer de Barbastro, a Dominican.  Fray Luis was an unusual missionary in that he felt that his primary hope in converting Indians lay in contacting people who had not been antagonized by the earlier Spanish show of force. He felt that Indians could be converted by kindness and good example instead of force.

With him were two other priests, a lay brother, and an Indian woman named Magdalena who was to serve as their interpreter. It is not certain if Magdalena was a Calusa who had been captured by an earlier Spanish expedition or if she was a Native Cuban who had been captured by the Calusa and learned their language. Trading trips to Cuba by the Calusa had been made regularly by fairly large numbers of Indian traders.

The missionary group landed at Tampa Bay where the Indians quickly captured a sailor, the lay brother, and Magdalena. Determined to rescue the captives, Fray Luis sailed to Charlotte Harbor. The three priests went to an Indian village to obtain information about the captives. While they saw Magdalena, they failed to rescue her, but they did rescue a Spanish sailor who had been captured ten years earlier. The sailor told them that the other captives had been killed.

Fray Luis, however, still wanted to save the souls of the Indians. He again went ashore. As he waded ashore he was greeted by Indians who first snatched his hat from his head, and then hit him on the head with a club. They then killed him.  He thus became a martyr to his cause and a victim of Calusa hostility which had been incited by earlier Spanish expeditions.  

While this ended the initial Spanish missionary attempt, there were some unintended consequences of this contact. The Spanish and Magdalena who were captured by the Calusa brought typhus with them. The mortality rate from this epidemic was about 10%.  

Missionary attempts began again in 1566 when the Spanish governor of Florida requested that the Jesuits establish missions among the Indians. Three Spanish Jesuits-Father Juan Rogel, Father Pedro Martínez, and Brother Francisco Villareal-sailed for Florida, but their ship missed St. Augustine and finally anchored off the Georgia coast near St. Simons Island. Father Martínez and some sailors went ashore to ask directions. While they were ashore, a storm blew their ship away from land, marooning them. After ten days, the Spanish built a small boat and attempted to find St. Augustine. Father Martínez and three sailors were killed by Indians.

While this initial attempt did not bode well for the Jesuits, the following year they managed to establish a mission at the town of Calos, the capital of the Calusa nation.

In 1568, a group of 11 Jesuits led by Father Juan Bautista de Segura arrived in St. Augustine. The Jesuits were seeking to establish missions among the Tequesta and Calusa. They made few converts. In general, the chiefs and native religious leaders were openly hostile toward the Jesuits, viewing them as threats to the power of the native elites. The following year, the Jesuits admitted failure and abandoned their mission at Calos. In 1572, the Spanish Jesuits abandoned all of their missionary efforts in Florida.

In 1573, the Spanish governor of Florida arranged for the Franciscans to establish missions in the territories under his jurisdiction. Under Royal Orders, 18 Franciscans were to be sent to La Florida. By the end of the year, three Franciscans had arrived and were working with the Guale and Orista. The Franciscans baptized the chief and his wife of the main town of Guale. This was a major victory for the Franciscans as the chief was in line to become the head chief over a number of villages.

In 1575, the Franciscans decided that it was in their best interest to withdraw from the area because of conflicts with the Spanish colonial government.

In 1584, the Franciscans tried again. A group of Franciscans under the leadership of Father Alonso de Reynoso arrived in St. Augustine to establish missions among the Indians. However, the priest was accused of fraud and denounced for excessive card playing. Thus the Franciscans’ missionary effort ended almost before it had begun.

In 1587, Father Alonso de Reynoso brought nine Franciscan friars to help convert and pacify the Indians. Three years later, Father Alonso de Reynoso brought in another group of 12 Franciscan friars to work among the Indians.

In 1595, a group of 12 Franciscan friars under the leadership of Father Juan de Silva began missionary work among the Indians. This marks the beginning of successful Franciscan missionary efforts among the La Florida Indians. The Franciscans’ missionary efforts were carefully carried out within the context of Spanish colonial enterprise and against a backdrop of native depopulation. As a part of this missionary effort, the Franciscan Francisco Pareja began writing down the language of the Timucua.

In 1608, the Apalachee chiefs asked the Spanish to send them priests. The Apalachee have an estimated population of 50,000 living in 107 towns. At this time, the traditional chiefs were finding it difficult to control their people and felt that affiliation with the Spanish would reinforce their leadership through formal recognition of the leadership, gift giving, and military alliances. The Apalachee had been a Mississippian chiefdom in which the chiefs had considerable power. The native leaders in Spanish Florida were willing to abandon some traditional priestly power when it no longer reinforced their chiefly authority.

A Franciscan priest and an entourage of 150 Potano and Timucua traveled to the Apalachee town of Ivitachuco. The Apalachee cleared a wide road for the travelers and an estimated 36,000 Apalachee, including 70 chiefs, greeted the entourage.

In 1610, the Franciscans extended their missionary work to the interior of the Timucua territory. The Franciscan Francisco Pareja published a book in 1613 in Mexico City which contained sections on religious doctrine in both Spanish and Timucua.

In 1633, the Franciscans established a mission-San Lorenzo de Ivitachuco-among the Apalachee. At this time the native population was relatively large and dense. The Apalachee chiefs appeared to be enthusiastic about the Spanish and the Franciscans. Following the demographic and political collapse brought about by disease, the chiefs were scrambling to retain their authority. They saw the alliance with the Spanish Franciscans as a way to retain power.

In 1680, the Spanish Franciscans abandoned the mission at Santa Catalina which served the Guale. Four years later, the Franciscans re-established a mission among the Guale. The new mission was located on Amelia Island and was called Santa María by the Spanish.

In 1697, the Spanish sent a group of Franciscans to the Calusa. The Calusa were less than enthusiastic about the Franciscans. The friars were ridiculed and insulted. Calusa hecklers mooned the friars and sent them fleeing south down the coast toward Cuba in a small boat.

In 1743, the Jesuits returned to Florida and established a mission, Santa Maria, at the mouth of the Miami River. The mission was intended to serve the 200 people who comprised the remnants of the Calusa, Key, and Boca Raton tribes

In 1763, Florida was transferred from Spain to England, thus ending the Spanish missionary efforts.  

Jesuit Missionaries in Arizona

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photo credit: Aaron Huey

The Spanish missionaries made a four-pronged approach into North America: Florida and the Southeast (beginning in 1549); New Mexico and Texas (beginning in 1581); California (beginning in 1769); and Arizona (beginning in 1687). While there are many histories about the Spanish missions in New Mexico and California, those in Arizona tend to be less well-known. The missionary efforts in Arizona were carried out by the Jesuits (Society of Jesus, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church).

San Xavier 1

The Spanish missionary efforts in Arizona began in 1687 when Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit, established a series of missions among the O’odham peoples in the desert of southern Arizona. These were people who had been farming in this desert environment for at least a thousand years. While Kino was adored and beloved by many, his endeavors were not universally accepted.


In 1691, Father Kino visited the O’odham village of Tumacacori and noted that it contained more than 40 houses which were situated close together. The following year, Father Kino visited the O’odham village which he called San Xavier del Bac near present-day Tucson and noted that more than 800 people were living there.

The O’odham are the descendents of the culture which archaeologists have labeled “Hohokam.” In 1694, Father Kino visited the Hohokam ruins at Casa Grande.

While there is sometimes a stereotypical image of the peaceful, but backward, Indians of Southern Arizona welcoming the peaceful Catholic priests and joyously building their churches while being rewarded with gospel lessons, the reality is different. As in other parts of North America, Indian people were often treated as slaves and they objected to this treatment. This was seen in the O’odham rebellion of 1695. At this time, the O’odham broke out of the mission at Tubutama and attempted to free other Indians at other missions. Father Kino arranged for peace talks, but when the O’Odham arrived at El Tupo, the Spanish opened fire and massacred the peace delegation.

General Juan Fernández de la Fuente with a party of 320-352 troops arrived in Quiburi on their way to engage the Jocome, Jano, and Apache in battle. The Sobaipuri informed the Spanish that the Jocome and Jano were planning to ambush them in the Sierra de Chiricahua. Quiburi was the largest Sobaipuri settlement with a population of about 400.

Two years later, the upper San Pedro Sobaípuri accepted gifts of livestock, grain, trinkets, and baptism from the Spanish and thus solidified the alliance between the two peoples. The Sobaípuris notified the Spanish of pending ambushes which had been arranged by their mutual enemies and they accompanied them on campaigns, perhaps only as guides and spies but nonetheless on the side of the Spanish. From the viewpoint of the Sobaípuri, this alliance gave them an advantage over their enemies and for this they were willing to endure baptism.

The Spanish founded the mission of San Xavier del Bac near the present day city of Tucson in 1700. The native population of the Pima Alto (Papago, Pima, Sobaipuri) was estimated at 23,000 at this time. This indicates that there had been a decline of more than half from their pre-contact population of more than 50,000. This was due primarily to exposure to European diseases between 1638 and 1700.

In 1701, Father Kino noted that the Indians had very good cotton fabrics. The Sobaiuri gave him some very good cotton fabrics and blankets.

In 1747, the Spanish missionary Jacobo Sedelmayr observed a large, sophisticated reservoir in Pima territory. He wrote:

“Its banks appear to be walls or breastworks of mortar or stone and mortar, from the hardness and strength of the material. At its four corners are gates which admit rain water.”

He assumed that the people who made the reservoir came from Mexico. Like many other non-Indians, there was an assumption that American Indians were incapable of constructing large projects and so the large features, including ancient ruins, which they encountered were assumed to be Mexican. With regard to the large multi-story buildings at Casa Grande, he wrote:

“It appears to me that Moctezuma resided in Casa Grande; and, in other buildings on both sides of the Gila, his governors lived: for always, in this type of ruin, one building is outstanding, and dominates the others.”

In 1751, Luís Oacpicagigua led an O’odham revolt against the Spanish because of their policy of forced Indian labor. The revolt started in Saric where 18 Spanish were killed, but one priest escaped and spread word of the revolt. Oacpicagigua asked the Sobaipuri and the Apache to join the revolt, but they declined. The O’odham attacked and plundered a number of missions and rancherias, including Caborca, Sonoita, Bac, and Guevavi. The O’odham killed more than 100 Spanish, including 2 priests. The Spanish killed 40 O’odham. Over a period of several months, the Spanish soldiers suppressed the rebellion.

The Spanish captured and executed several of those involved in the rebellion, including a relative of Luís Oacpicagigua. Oacpicagigua was captured, but negotiated his freedom by promising to supervise the rebuilding of the destroyed churches, a promise which he did not keep.

During the rebellion, many O’odham (both Pima and Papago) feared Spanish reprisals and refused to join.

In 1767, the Spanish king Charles II banned all Jesuits from Spanish lands in the Americas because of his distrust of them. The administration of the missions was then transferred to the Franciscans who were seen as more reliable and pliable.

San Xavier 2