Little is known about the early days of the French Jesuit missionaries in the New France region. The main reliable source is a 17th century compilation of letters called The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. Some of the revelations are rather surprising. It’s important to recognize that these letters were written with the intent of being published and sold to gain funds for the Jesuit’s missionary work. The letters were written by the missionaries and sent to their superiors in Europe where they were further edited to please readers. This can lead to an exaggeration of details/events in trying to gain or keep their audience (the European donators).
The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents also show a purely European outlook on the Native Americans with which they proselytized. Therefore, it is important to use a critical-eye in discerning the Native voice from a European perspective. A simple example of this is in an excerpt written by Father Paul Le Jeune concerning his time among the Montagnais. He writes of an animal that is not known to anyone born and raised in France:
“The other is a low animal, about the size of a little dog or cat. I mention it here, not on account of its excellence, but to make it a symbol of sin. I have seen three or four of them. It has black fur, quite beautiful and shining; and has upon its back two perfectly white stripes, which join near the neck and tail making an oval which adds greatly to their grace. The tail is bushy and well furnished with hair, like the tail of a fox; it carries it curled back like that of a squirrel. It is more white than black; and at first glance, you would say, especially when it walks that it ought to be called Jupiter’s little dog. But it is so stinking and casts so foul an odor, that it is unworthy of being called the dog of Pluto. No sewer ever smelled so bad. I would not have believed it if I had not smelled it myself. Your heart almost fails you when you approach the animal; two have been killed in our court, and several days afterward there was a dreadful odor throughout our house that we could not endure it. I believe the sin smelled by Sainte Catherine de Sienne must have had the same vile odor” (Le Jeune, p. 70).
Father Le Jeune is describing none other than an Illinois native: the skunk. Although this description is amusing and inconsequential, one can see how Father Le Jeune’s experiences and European viewpoint is established and can be spread to other accounts relating to things that the missionaries are not accustomed to. Regardless, his description of the little animal is overall accurate, but also dramatic and theatrical—and this is a trend in a lot of the accounts given by the missionaries.
The limitations of The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents would then be outlined above: the letters are written and edited for an audience, they can be dramatic, and they are purely from a Catholic European perspective. One can liken this exaggeration to modern day advertisements, “Ancient religious manuscript describes terrifying New World animal that will make your jaw drop.”
However, I would argue that their accounts are accurate to the best of the missionaries’ ability. This I deduce from the reports that are easily verifiable such as the description of a skunk.
Here is Father Le Jeune’s description of a flying squirrel:
“There are three kinds of squirrels, which are not so beautiful as those in France. The others, which our French call Swiss, because they are spotted upon the back, are very beautiful and quite small. The flying squirrels are rather pretty, but their chief merit lies in their flying. Not that they have wings, but they have a certain piece of skin on both sides, which they fold up very neatly against their stomachs when they walk, and spread out when they fly. I do not think they take long flights; I saw one of them flying, and it sustained itself very well in the air” (Le Jeune, p. 70).
This accuracy is a major strength for the compilation of letters. The other major strength would lie in its being the only source for the time and place.
One of the most surprising things that I have found throughout my reading of The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents is how understanding and sympathetic the missionaries can be to the Native Americans with which they write. For example, Father Le Jeune writes of the Montagnais’s treatment of enemy Iroquois prisoners, “In short, they make them suffer all that cruelty that the Devil can suggest. At last, as a final horror, they eat and devour them almost raw” (Le Jeune, p. 21). Yet, he does not label them as evil as Father Le Jeune continues, “Let no one be astonished at these acts of barbarism. Before the faith was received in Germany, Spain, or England, those nations were not more civilized. Mind is not lacking among the Savages of Canada, but education and instruction” (Le Jeune, p. 21).
The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents are a rich source of information—and really the only source for the time and place. The limitations can be easily overlooked with a careful-eye leaving a strong representation of the missionaries in New France as well as the Native Americans detailed in their writings.
Jesuits. (1901). The Jesuit relations and allied documents: Travels and explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791: the original French, Latin, and Italian texts, with English translations and notes. R. G. Thwaites (Ed.). Cleveland, OH: Burrows Bros. Co.