French Ontario in the 17th and 18th Centuries: Making Contact - Page Banner

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North America had been inhabited for thousands of years when the first Europeans arrived. Contact between the First Nations and the newcomers would have a profound impact on both cultures. The fur trade fuelled trans-atlantic trade, and the Europeans learned techniques that helped them adapt to the new land.

To the first inhabitants, contact brought goods previously unknown, but European diseases and the impact of ever-expanding white settlement dislocated and in some cases dispersed their societies. European attempts at converting First Nations to Christianity also changed their world.

For Europeans and First Nations alike, the mutual encounter meant meeting with the unknown. How they viewed each other greatly influenced their relations.

Champlain, Samuel de. Œuvres de Champlain / 2nd edition. - page 513
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Champlain, Samuel de.
Œuvres de Champlain / 2nd edition. Quebec : G.-É.
Desbarats, 1870. vol. 4, facing page 25.
Archives of Ontario Library, 971.011 CHB

Champlain, Samuel de. Œuvres de Champlain / 2nd edition. - page 569
Click to see a larger image (164K)
Champlain, Samuel de.
Œuvres de Champlain / 2nd edition. Quebec : G.-É. Desbarats, 1870. vol. 4, facing page 81.
Archives of Ontario Library, 971.011 CHB

The Europeans’ perception of First Nations was conditioned by their belief in the superiority of their culture and faith. Often, Aboriginals were depicted as uncivilized “Savages” and their religions as “devil-worshipping.”

More positive views, such as those of the French Jesuit Charlevoix in the early 18th century, sometimes emphasized the “natural” qualities of Aboriginals, in contrast to European “civilization” with its moral failings and quest for money.

“Most of them have a nobleness and an equanimity which we seldom reach despite all the help we can get from philosophy and religion. Always in control of themselves even in the most unexpected situations, one cannot notice the slight alteration of their expression (…) However, what is most surprising for men whose entire appearance is that of barbarians, is to see them treat each other with a kindness and a consideration that one cannot find in the people of the most civilized nations.”

Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix.
Journal d’un voyage fait par l’ordre du roi dans l’Amérique septentrionale.
Paris : P. F. Giffart, 1744, vol. 6, p 8-12,.
Archives of Ontario library, 919 CHB

The Missions - Title Graphic

Converting “pagans” to the Christian faith was, with trade, the most important motive for French expansion in the interior. Missionaries attempted not only to convert the populations they encountered, but also to replace local cultures with French “civilization”.

One of the first historians of New France, Gabriel Sagard, wrote in 1636:

“There are others who travel the whole world (…) carrying the torch of the Gospel, following the commandment that the Saviour gave his Apostles. Go into all the world and preach the Gospel. It is for this last reason that of obedience to what is holy we took the trip to the Hurons and the Canadians (…) to come to the aid of our brothers in Canada, take the torch of the knowledge of the Son of God to them and chase away the darkness of barbarism and faithlessness.”

Sagard, Gabriel. Histoire du Canada et voyages que les frères mineurs
recollects y on faicts pour la conversion des infideles depuis l’an 1615.
Nouvelle édition/Paris: Librairie Tross, 1866. vol. 1, p. 22,
Archives of Ontario Library, 971.01 SAG 1 (translation)

One of the most important missions was to the Huron (Wendat) of the Georgian Bay area, an agricultural nation with strong ties to the French.


Recollets first came to Huronia in 1615, followed by the Jesuits in 1626. By 1648, the Jesuits had 25 missionaries living among the Huron people.

Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, a small settlement built in 1639 in the heart of Huron country, served as a base for the missionaries, and was home to a small group of donnés, hired servants and soldiers.

Sainte-Marie thus became the first French settlement in the interior. It was comprised of a fortified European compound surrounded by a walled village servicing the needs of Huron converts to Christianity.

The photograph to the right shows canoes on the Wye River passing by a modern-day reconstruction of Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons.

Photo: Canoes on the Wye River, passing by Sainte-Marie among-the-Hurons, 1968
Click to see a larger image (104K)
Canoes on the Wye River, passing by
Sainte-Marie among-the-Hurons, 1968
Black and white photograph
Tourism promotion photographs
Reference Code RG 65-35-1, 5-C-1468
Archives of Ontario, I0017253

“This house is not meant to welcome our people only. It is a permanent meeting place for the neighbouring nations, particularly Christians, who come from everywhere with various needs, even to die in peace and in the true spirit of the Faith we had to build a hospital for the sick, a cemetery for the dead, a Church for the devotions of the public, a retreat for pilgrims, as well as a more isolated building where the infidels who pass through are allowed only during the day but may nevertheless receive a few good words for their salvation.”

Relation de ce qui s’est passé de plus remarquable en la
Mission des Pères de la Compagnie de Jésus, aux Hurons pais de la Nouvelle-France;
Depuis le mois de Juin de l’année 1642, jusqu’au mois de Juin de l’année 1643,
in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents/ Ruben Gold Twaites,
ed. Cleveland: Burrows Brothers Company, vol. 26, p. 200 and 202
Archives of Ontario Library, 271.5 THW. (translation)


Photo: Church, Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons, 1968
Click to see a larger image (98K)
Church, Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons, 1968
Black and white photograph
Tourism promotion photographs
Reference Code RG 65-35-1, 3-E-0268
Archives of Ontario, I0017255

Despite efforts by the Jesuits to integrate Christian faith and native culture, their mission had mixed results, and only a minority – mostly the young and elderly – became Christians.

The Huron were divided between traditionalists hostile to the Jesuits and a minority “Christian party” supported by the French.

Both the Huron nation and the Jesuit mission were destroyed by the Iroquois between 1648 and 1650. A few hundred Huron took permanent refuge near Quebec and smaller groups scattered throughout the Great Lakes area, but most of the population was either killed or assimilated within the Iroquois Confederacy.


The Jesuits abandoned Sainte-Marie, then a second mission (Sainte-Marie II) built on an island in Georgian Bay. Eight Jesuits and donnés, killed between 1642 and 1649, were later canonized by the Catholic Church as the “Canadian Martyrs”.

The church to the right was built in 1926 in Midland, near Sainte-Marie among the Hurons to honour the martyrs.

Other missionary efforts were later undertaken, primarily near the most important trading posts. They met with mixed results and none had the same importance or impact as the Huronia mission.

Photo: The Martyr's Shrine, Midland, 1953
Click to see a larger image (198K)
The Martyr's Shrine, Midland, 1953
Department of Travel and Publicity, Publicity Branch
Transparency
Reference Code: RG 65-35-3, 11764-X2826
Archives of Ontario, I0005552


The Ontario government rebuilt Sainte Marie Among-the-Hurons during the 1960s as an interpretative tourist attraction. The photographs below show the reconstructed site.

Photo: Plan of Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons, 1964
Click to see a larger image (198K)
Plan of Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons, 1964
Black and white photograph
Tourism promotion photographs
Reference Code RG 65-35-1, 7-D-0664
Archives of Ontario, I0017254

Photo: Interior of the residence, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, 1968
Click to see a larger image (105K)
Interior of the residence, Sainte-Marie
among the Hurons, 1968
Black and white photograph
Tourism promotion photographs
Reference Code: RG 65-35-1, 6-L-2568
Archives of Ontario, I0017256

Epidemics - Title Graphic

In addition to trade goods and their religion, Europeans brought diseases with them that were previously unknown to the New World. Previous isolation made First Nations extremely vulnerable to diseases, such as smallpox, to which Europeans were relatively immune.

Lethal epidemics first attacked coastal nations, the first to come into contact with Europeans. From them, the diseases moved to the interior, affecting local populations sometimes even before they came into contact with Europeans themselves.

The first reported epidemics in the Great Lakes area occurred in 1634, followed by four more in thirteen years. Some villages lost up to half of their population, at a time when European trade and missionary efforts were changing their world. A Jesuit missionary described the impact of the epidemics:

“It was so devastating for the Savages we knew that I do not know if any escaped its effects. All these poor people were greatly inconvenienced particularly in the fall, during the fishing season and the harvest. Several villages were buried under the snow and people died in great numbers; there are still some who have not recovered yet.”

Relation of Father Le Jeune, 1635,
in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents/ Ruben Gold Twaites,
ed. Cleveland: Burrows Brothers Company,
vol. 8, p. 88
Archives of Ontario Library, 271.5 THW. (translation)

The epidemics also affected relations between French and the First Nations, the latter blaming the diseases on the Europeans and their religion:

“The Algonquin and the Huron, followed by the Iroquois, enticed by their prisoners, feel great hate and horror towards our doctrine, saying that it causes their death and that it contains spells that cause the destruction of their villages and bring contagious, spreading diseases that are beginning to afflict the Iroquois.”

Relation de ce qui s’est passé en la Nouvelle-France sur le grand fleuve de
Saint-Laurens en l’année 1647,
in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents/ Ruben Gold Twaites,
ed. Cleveland: Burrows Brothers Company, vol. 31, p. 120
Archives of Ontario Library, 271.5 THW. (translation)


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