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The Jesuit Relations and the History of New France

Context of Publication

The beginnings of New France were closely linked to the fur trade, which developed rapidly at the end of the 16th century and led the French to establish a number of trading posts in Acadia and the St. Lawrence Valley in the early 1600s. Missionaries soon followed in the footsteps of the fur traders, setting up missions among the Indigenous populations who came to trade furs. Early conversion efforts were concentrated around the trading posts, but very soon, following the example of the fur traders, the missionaries penetrated the continent's interior to the Great Lakes region. The first half of the 17th century was undoubtedly the height of greatest missionary activity in New France. It was a period of rapid, mass conversions, and a time of ambitious plans to "civilize" and Francicize the Native peoples.

The Jesuits were at the heart of this missionary work. They belonged to a religious order that was still young but growing quickly. Founded in 1540 by Ignatius Loyola, the Company of Jesus had seen rapid growth in the second half of the 16th century and the early part of the 17th. When the founder died in 1566, the Company already had some 1000 members and administered about 100 establishments, mainly in Europe, but also in Asia, Africa and America. In 1615, the order's numbers reached 13 000 and the number of its establishments (residences, noviciates, colleges, etc.) had grown to approximately 500. Seen at this time as the shock troops of Catholicism, the Jesuits in Europe took an active part in missionizing to peasants and Protestants. Beyond the European continent, they also distinguished themselves as one of the most active missionary orders in areas of the world being opened up by European colonization.

The Jesuits were to be the first French missionaries to found a mission in New France. The experiment started in 1611, in Acadia, but lasted only a short time; an attack by the English put an end to the venture in 1613. The Jesuits returned to New France in 1625, this time heading for Québec, where Champlain had set up a small trading post some years earlier. The Récollets, a branch of the Franciscans, had been there since 1615, but had as yet achieved very little. Following a period of English rule from 1629 to 1632, the Jesuits returned in force to the Laurentian colony. For 25 years they would have a monopoly on missionary activities, since the French authorities refused to allow the Récollets to return to the St. Lawrence Valley.

The Jesuits were especially interested in the Huron, who were the principal intermediaries for the French in the fur trade. A people settled in densely populated villages, the Huron appeared to the missionaries to be better candidates for Christianization than the nomadic Native peoples in New France. In the hope of laying the foundations of a new Christian church, the Jesuits sent most of their numbers to live among the Huron. However, the destruction of Huronia by the Iroquois in 1650 put an end to this missionary dream.

Evangelization, complicated for some years by the Iroquois wars, began again in the continental interior in the 1660s, but "the age of mysticism" was over, and slowly, in the last years of the 17th century, missionary zeal waned. The Jesuits remained in most of the strategic locations in the interior, but hopes of rapid conversions gave way to a more realistic attitude and even a certain amount of disillusionment.