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The Jesuit Relations and the History of New France

The importance of the Jesuit Relations in recreating the history of New France has long been recognized. Beginning where Champlain's writings leave off, these missionary texts are one of the major sources of information about the early years of French colonization in North America. In fact, without the Relations, large chapters of France's colonial history in North America would remain in obscurity. The recent enthusiasm with regards to Native history has attracted even more attention to these texts, which contain a wealth of information about Aboriginal societies encountered by the French, and about the consequences (economic, cultural, demographic, religious, etc.) of these encounters.

Most of the Relations written by the Jesuits in New France were published in Paris by Sébastien Cramoisy* . The series was officially launched in 1632 by Jesuit priest Paul Le Jeune. The Superior of the missions in New France, Le Jeune had accompanied the French who came to take back Québec, which had been captured by the English three years earlier. Publication of these annual accounts continued for forty years, a period when the Jesuits were the leading players of the missionary activity in New France.

Between 1896 and 1901, historian Reuben Gold Thwaites (1853-1913) undertook the monumental task of providing the English translation of the Jesuit Relations. Thwaites endeavoured to provide more than just the Relations texts. He included many other papers, rare manuscipts and letters from the archives of the Society of Jesus spanning a period from the founding of the order to the death of Father Well, "[t]he Last Jesuit of Montreal" [Trad.], in 1791. One of the editors of the 18 000-page translation commented that "[a]t times one seems to be reading works of the imagination rendered with great literary skill, instead of official reports for the edification of the pious subjects across the sea. For the historian who likes to re-create the past through the delicate medium of the novel, here are fresh possibilities. May this route remain barred to those who have neither the grace nor the genius to use it skillfully!" [Trad.]

* A single Relation, that of 1637, was published in Rouen by Jean Le Boullenger.