Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Border Wars

by Elizabeth Eggleston Seelye
Assisted by Edward Eggleston
New York
Dodd, Mead and Company, Publishers, 1879.



THE Hurons belonged to the same great family with the Five Nations. Like these Indians, and unlike the wandering Algonquins of the north, they supported themselves mainly by a rude agriculture and lived in fortified towns. Their home was on the great Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. Their customs were similar to those of the Iroquois. Like all Indians, they were superstitious and filthy. The Hurons were also an especially immoral people. Here it was that the Jesuits did the most of their missionary work. Here they had planted their chief missions, and here they had labored among the savages when they were dying of the pestilence and the small-pox.

The larger Huron towns now bore the names of Christian saints. A sort of headquarters for the work had been planted in a central position and called Sainte Marie. Here the Jesuits had their storehouse, their permanent mission-house, and a showy little church, the wonder and delight of the Indians, with its gaudy paintings and images well calculated to please a savage taste. Sainte Marie was fortified with walls of stone and palisades. Without the walls was a large palisaded pen containing bark buildings which could accommodate many Indians. Here the Jesuits were visited daily by some of their converts, who were fed and treated with the utmost hospitality ; here, also, some thousands of Indians were succored in time of famine.

In spite of labor and charity the Huron was long but a barren field. The Indians were not willing to meet even the slight requirements of the Jesuits to become Christians. They could see no pleasure in going to a white man's heaven where there was no hunting and fishing; in fact, they were seriously afraid of starving here. They thought baptism was a charm, and they turned all too quickly from conversion to medicine-men and sorcerers.

When an Indian was converted he was often encouraged by such cheerful prophecies as these on the part of his ungodly brethren: " You will kill no more game. All your hair will come out before spring." The persistent fathers labored under unnumbered difficulties, discomforts, and perils. More ; than once hatchets were raised over the heads of Jesuits. They were accused of being the cause of the pestilence. Public suspicion at one time rose to such a height that the doom of the missionaries seemed sealed. They took the bold measure of giving a farewell feast after the manner of the Hurons, and the storm gradually blew over. By the year 1648 the mission, with many outlying branches, was well established. The Jesuits had gradually gained in influence, and they had great hopes for their work among the Hurons. There were at this time about eighteen Jesuits, besides laymen and soldiers, attached to the mission of Sainte Marie. Of the priests, fifteen travelled to scattered missions at various Indian towns, reuniting at Sainte Marie several times a year and returning there singly once in a while for meditation and spiritual refreshment.

During all this time a constant petty warfare had been kept up between the Hurons and the Five Nations. Many a time Huron war-parties had gone out never to return. Many a night the torture-fires had burned within Huron towns and a tumult of wild voices announced the slow death of an Iroquois, whose body was perhaps afterwards eaten. The influence of the Jesuits was probably too slight to allow of their interfering in this savage custom, though indeed they cared little for bodily torment if the soul could but be saved by baptism. Then, too, they had every reason to hate and dread the Iroquois, who had never shown the French colony the friendly side which they turned toward the Dutch and the English, and who persecuted their flock without mercy. The Iroquois stood to the Jesuits in the place of Satan himself.

In 1647 the Huron Indians could not summon courage to go down to the settlements on their annual trading visit for fear of the Iroquois, who infested all the water highways. During the following year, however, they made the attempt. They had neared the fort of Three Rivers in safety, and had stopped before entering the place, after the manner of Indians, to decorate and paint themselves in order that they might make a fine appearance, when the dreaded alarm, " The Iroquois, the Iroquois!" came from one of their scouts. Dropping their toilet articles and springing for their weapons, the Hurons rushed to meet the enemy. They were welcomed by a brisk fire, but they fell flat to avoid it, and then jumping to their feet began a fierce fight. They outnumbered the Iroquois, whom they soon routed, killing and capturing many. The Hurons were frantic with delight. After trading with the French they made a triumphal progress to their home, only to find ruin there.

The Huron town of St. Joseph, in spite of the ravages of war and pestilence, contained some two thousand inhabitants and was the chief town of the nation. It lay on the southeastern frontier of the Huron country, and was the great Huron stronghold where numberless prisoners had suffered death.

The Jesuit Father Daniel had labored here four years. His task had been a difficult but a successful one. In the midsummer of 1648 he had just returned with fresh courage to his labors after a short retreat at Sainte Marie. The warriors were nearly all absent from the town, some trading, some hunting, and some on the war-path against the Iroquois. The father had been holding mass in the early morning in his little church, which was crowded to the doorway. Suddenly cries of terror startled the little congregation from its prayers. The Iroquois were rushing from the forest and across the corn-fields to the unguarded opening in the palisade of the town. Within all was in a panic. Daniel ran from the church to the palisades, hurried forward those who could fight to the point of danger, inspiring courage in them, and promising them paradise if they defended their homes and religion. Then he ran from house to house calling on the heathen to repent.

The helpless creatures thronged around him, begging to be saved. He dipped his handkerchief in a bowl of water and, sprinkling it on the crowd, baptized them. They followed him to the church, where he found old men, women, and children.

" Brothers, to-day we shall be in heaven !" cried the brave priest again and again, as he baptized the crowd.

The town could not long be defended. The palisades were forced, and, with whoops and yells like demons, they were within the town.

" Fly! fly !" cried Father Daniel, pushing the thronging Indians away from him. " I will stay here. We shall meet again in heaven." Many succeeded in escaping through the opening in the palisades opposite to that which the Iroquois had forced. Daniel, too, might have fled, but he stood by his duty, awaiting martyrdom ; for there might still be more dying souls to rescue from perdition. A moment more and he saw the Iroquois coming. He stepped forth from the church in his priestly robes and stood facing the enemy. They stopped in astonishment. Then a shower of arrows fell upon him and wounded him in many places, followed quickly by a bullet through his heart. Daniel fell dead, and the Iroquois rushed upon the lifeless body to mutilate it and bathe their faces in the Jesuit's blood to make them brave.

Another palisaded town near St. Joseph was also laid in ashes, and the Iroquois turned home with some seven hundred prisoners, many of whom they killed on the road.

A severe blow had been struck at the Hurons; a wide breach was made in the Huron country. The Iroquois were quick to follow it up. A large band of warriors set out in the fall for the unfortunate nation, but spent the winter in the forests. Meantime the Jesuits did their utmost to induce the Hurons to guard themselves and take every precaution against the enemy. But it was of no use ; the Indians were overwhelmed with dread of their enemy, but, according to the customs of their forefathers, they slept unguarded ; bands of warriors went forth to fight or hunt at their own pleasure, and some were appointed to defend the palisades.

In the month of March a thousand Mohawk and Seneca Indians were within the very country of the Hurons unsuspected, having entered over the ruins of St. Joseph. In the nighttime they crept to the walls of St. Ignace, which were totally unguarded. Before daylight the Iroquois warwhoop woke the sleeping inmates to death or slavery. The work was done in a few minutes; there was no exit from this town, and but three out of four hundred escaped. The Iroquois now hurried to the neighboring town of St. Louis. Here three Indians who had escaped from St. Ignace had spread the tidings. The inmates fled through the forest, with the exception of some eighty warriors, the Jesuit missionaries Brebeuf and Lalemant, who refused to leave the post of danger, and those who were too old or sick to make their escape.

The warriors sang their war-songs and prepared to defend the palisades to the last. The panic-stricken inhabitants had scarcely fled from the town when the thousand Iroquois were at the palisades. The defenders fought like tigers with arrows, stones, and guns, with which they were not so well supplied as the warriors of the Five Nations. When breaches were made in the palisades, a deadly battle ensued with knife and tomahawk. In the thickest of the fight were the two Jesuits, the iron-framed Brebeuf and the delicate Lalemant, one baptizing and the other giving absolution.

At last the fight was over. Only some few wounded warriors and two priests remained as prisoners. The houses, with what helpless inmates had been left there, were in a blaze. The army retreated to St. Ignace, where the priests, who had so bravely encouraged their flock, were an especial object for savage blows. The Iroquois now divided themselves into bands and destroyed the smaller villages.

The two Jesuits were doomed to die by the most excruciating tortures that Indians could devise: slow fire, scalding water, the knife, red-hot irons, all these were applied to the indomitable Brebeuf to make him utter one groan, but it was of no use. The grand martyr, defiant, unflinching, among his fiendish torturers, was a wonder even in the eyes of savage courage. When he was dead, the Indians drank his blood, and their chief ate his heart, that they might gain some of his courage. The delicate and nervous Lalemant must go perhaps even a harder road to paradise. For long hours his tortures endured, while he had not the strong frame to withstand them without a sign of his torment. The "noble Indians" of poetry and romance fade from our sight when we read these accounts. The Indians had their own savage virtues doubtless, but they had also very savage faults.

The inmates of Sainte Marie had seen in the distance the rising smoke of St. Louis. They fully expected their turn to come next. The walls were . guarded night and day, and the Jesuits made vows and prayers without number. The Iroquois really intended to strike this stronghold of the fathers. Meantime some three hundred warrior-converts of the Hurons had come to the assistance of the Jesuits. They laid an ambuscade on the route to Sainte Marie. An advance-party of the Iroquois, setting out for this place, fell upon one small band of the Hurons, routed them, and chased them under the very walls of Sainte Marie. The remainder of the Hurons came to the rescue, routed the Iroquois in turn, and pursued them inside the broken walls o f St. Louis. Here they killed those who did not escape by a precipitate flight. The Hurons were again in possession of the charred remains of St. Louis. They were soon attacked by the whole Iroquois force. Their guns were scarce, and their main fighting was with knife and tomahawk. Again and again they sallied. It was a most ferocious battle : Hurons goaded to fury and at bay; Iroquois inspired with the ferocious courage which laid waste so many Indian nations. But twenty exhausted prisoners remained to the victorious Iroquois.

The Iroquois did not wait to carry their work any farther. They had met several severe rebuffs, much loss of men, and had tested the mettle of the Jesuits. With Indian fickleness they now turned homeward, but first they tied those prisoners whom they had determined to kill within the house of St. Ignace, and, setting- fire to the whole, they left them to burn.

Many of the fugitive Hurons had fled to a neighboring tribe of Indians, known as the Tobacco Nation. The Jesuits had two missions among these Indians, St. Jean and St. Matthias. The former was a large town for an Indian town, and its population was greatly augmented by the Hurons who had taken refuge there. But the Iroquois hunted their prey wherever they could find it, and their taste for conquest was unbounded.

Late in the fall of 1649 the inhabitants of St. Jean were warned that a large war-party of the enemy was hovering near. Instantly all was preparation within the town. Warriors painted and decked themselves, sang their war-songs, and danced their war-dance. They waited for two days and the enemy did not appear. They fancied they had frightened them away, and they probably fancied right; for Indians will wait a long time before they brave an enemy who expects them. The impatient warriors had now whetted their appetite for war, and they started out to meet the enemy, leaving St. Jean defenceless.

One December day, as the Jesuit Gamier was going around the town visiting the sick, the Iroquois war-whoop resounded from the neighboring woods. The town was instantly in a wild panic. The priest ran to the little church. Here some of his converts had run for safety. He gave them his benediction and told them to fly. He ran back to the houses, in and out of which he moved, baptizing and giving absolution.

As he was thus busied, he was met by an Iroquois; for the enemy were now within the town, doing their terrible work. The Indian put three shots through the Jesuit's body and hastened on. Near the dying priest lay a wounded Huron, not yet dead. Gamier got upon his knees and crept toward the man in order to give him absolution. He fell down again, but presently rose up and moved again toward the Huron. At this moment the Iroquois saw him, and he was struck dead with an Indian hatchet.

The town was now blazing. The Iroquois hastened their deadly work, dreading the return of the warriors to their home. The following morning brought these rash Indians back to find St. Jean out a mass of ashes and charred bodies. Silently the desolate warriors sat down among the ruins and bowed their heads. Squaws might cry ; thus an Indian brave mourned.

The ruin of the Huron nation was complete. Hundreds of Indians were homeless in a country much too thickly populated to support the inhabitants by hunting alone, and hundreds died of famine. Attacked successively by pestilence, the Iroquois, and famine, the Hurons as a nation were wiped from the face of the earth. Sainte Marie was abandoned, and the Jesuits moved the little remnant of the people to an island in Lake Huron.

But the Hurons dared not hunt for fear of the Iroquois. Their main sustenance was a scanty store of pounded acorns. The Jesuits spent the winter administering to famished and fever-stricken Indians, who died by the hundreds. When spring came on the Hurons grew reckless and sallied forth upon the mainland in hunting-parties, only to be cut off by their relentless persecutors. Those that were left subsequently moved to the Island of Orleans, below Quebec; but even here they were destined to be carried off piecemeal. Another remnant of the Hurons wandered west until they were driven back by the fierce Sioux. They were the ancestors of the Wyandots of more recent history.

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