InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

The Jesuit Relations
The Jesuit Relations, a series of reports from Jesuit missions in New France, were published annually in Paris between 1632 and 1673. The Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic male order founded in 1540 by Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556) and whose members were known as Jesuits, viewed the preparation of such reports as part of their worldwide missionary program. But the Relations do more than narrate the Jesuits’ spiritual progress: they also present detailed views of the state of the French colony, accounts of expeditions to the interior of North America, and descriptions of the diverse Native American cultures of eastern Canada and the Great Lakes. The Relations were published by the French royal printer and seem to have reached a large audience. The excerpt in the book, for instance, includes testimony from Anne of Austria, the French queen, that she finds the story of Isaac Jogues’s sufferings more powerful than any romance.

In 1632, the year of the first Relation, the French began to rebuild settlements along the St. Lawrence River and to re-establish trade alliances with Montagnais, Huron, and Algonkian peoples, all of which had been disrupted by an English attack in 1629. In order to obtain greater control over the religiously divided colony and to compete with English settlements to the south, Cardinal Richelieu, the powerful chief minister of King Louis XIII, formed the Company of New France to manage the colony’s affairs. The company excluded from Canada both the Huguenots, French Protestants who had controlled the New France trade, and the Franciscan Récollets, rivals of the Jesuits. Richelieu granted the Jesuits a monopoly on missionary work and allowed them to operate as negotiators in the fur trade. By 1640, although the French population in Canada remained under four hundred, the Jesuits had amassed large landholdings and had sponsored the construction in Quebec of a college to educate the sons of French settlers, a hospital, and a convent for Ursuline nuns.

During this decade, the focus of the Jesuit missionary effort was Huronia, a region lying to the east of Lake Huron. The Hurons were sedentary agriculturists who also served as intermediaries in the fur trade, delivering high-quality furs from the north to French ships. The Jesuits had built five chapels in the Huron country by the late 1630s and were anticipating great spiritual success. Explanations for the relatively high number of Huron converts to Catholicism vary. Some scholars argue that the Jesuits’ importance in the economy of Huronia compelled the Hurons to follow their spiritual direction; others suggest that Hurons may have turned to the Jesuits’ religion when they began to suffer the effects of epidemic diseases.

However, in the early 1640s tensions between the French and their major enemy, the five Iroquois tribes, rose dramatically. The Five Nations were enduring population losses from disease and the economic challenge posed by French, Dutch, and English fur-trading companies, who sought alliances with rival Native American groups. In 1642, the Iroquois began a series of attacks upon the Hurons, themselves an Iroquoian-speaking people but long the enemies of the Five Nations. These attacks, known as “mourning-wars,” were intended not simply to spread death or destruction but to capture enemies. Following an often-grueling initiation period, these captives were either adopted into the clan or executed. By the 1650s, the Iroquois had forced the Jesuits to abandon their missions in Huronia and sparked a massive migration of Indian refugee populations to the west.

Father Isaac Jogues’s narrative, the centerpiece of the Relation for the year 1647, provides one view of the devastating French-Iroquois wars. Jogues’s first encounter with the Mohawks, one of the five Iroquois tribes, came in 1642, when he was captured along with several Frenchmen and Huron converts while traveling from the Huron country to Quebec. The Mohawks kept Jogues and the other captives, resisting ransom overtures, until Jogues managed to evade his captors and escape to the Dutch. Despite the tortures he endured, Jogues’s captivity was not entirely a nightmarish experience. Indeed, his ability to withstand punishment enhanced his reputation among the Mohawks. Jogues was adopted into the Wolf clan and visited Mohawk territory in 1646 to initiate a Jesuit mission in Iroquoia. The mission was short-lived: shortly after he returned to the Mohawks in 1647, Jogues was put to death, perhaps by Bear clan members angry over an outbreak of sickness that they blamed on the Jesuit.

The following account should not be read as eyewitness testimony. Father Jerome Lalemant, the superior of the Jesuit missions in Canada, drew from Jogues’s letters and those of other Jesuits when preparing this Relation; the text was further edited by Jesuits in Paris before its publication. In its published form, the narrative effectively conveys the devotion of both Jogues and the Huron converts to their faith, while providing only limited insight into Mohawk views of the same events. Jogues’s story circulated widely, and readers may wish to consider why it became so popular in seventeenth-century France. This narrative should also be compared with other colonial “captivity narratives” like that of Mary Rowlandson or John Williams. Unlike those two captives, Jogues actually seeks to return to his captors. What tone does Jogues adopt to describe the sufferings he endures? What might captivity itself have meant for a missionary and a group of converts prepared and even eager to die for their faith?

John Pollack
University of Pennsylvania

In the Heath Anthology
How Father Jogues was Taken by the Iroquois, and What He Suffered On his First Entrance into their Country (c.1647)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this topic.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this topic.


References to Beavers in the Jesuit Relations
An interesting and odd compilation of all beaver references (mostly about hunting them) in The Relations.

The Jesuit Relations
An introduction to the documents and an excerpt of 16 scanned pages.

The Jesuit Relations (1632-1673)
Scans and an introduction to these documents spanning forty years of history.

The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610 to 1791
A fully searchable, almost complete text of The Relations.

Secondary Sources

James Axtell, "Agents of Change: Jesuits in the Post-Columbian World," in Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America, 1992

Dennis Delage, Bitter Feast: Amerindians and Europeans in Northeastern North America, 1600-64, 1993

W.J. Eccles, The French in North America, 1500-1783, 1998

Cornelius J. Jaenen, Friend and Foe: Aspects of French-Amerindian Cultural Contact in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 1976

Daniel Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization, 1992

Bruce G. Trigger, Natives and Newcomers: Canada's "Heroic Age" Reconsidered, 1985