Isaac Jogues: Missionary and Martyr - Martin J. Scott


The Iroquois were not only the most savage, but also the most treacherous of all the Indians of North America. Against their foes they employed every device that cruelty and cunning could invent. And every nation that threatened their ascendency was their foe. It was not plunder or blood that they mainly sought, but power. And they had power. They were dreaded by all their neighbors, who were obliged to submit to them or be exterminated. They became all the more dreadful at this time by the possession of firearms, which they obtained from the Dutch in return for pelts.

The Iroquois were a federation of five nations—the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas. Of these the nearest to the French were the Mohawks, occupying the eastern part of the Mohawk Valley, from Ossernenon to Tionnotoguen, a stretch of some fifteen miles. When not on the war-path affairs were administered by their great councils, presided over by sachems.

Due to their proximity to the Dutch they had acquired the use of strong liquor, which they obtained in trade. Moreover they had been influenced against the French by the Dutch traders, who wished to have a monopoly of the traffic in furs with them. But they also had their own reasons for hating the French, who were allies of the Hurons and Algonquins, with whom the Iroquois were at war. The French, under Champlain had inflicted severe loss and humiliation on them in the early days before they had obtained firearms from the Dutch. The Iroquois never forgot an insult or injury. Consequently they were as bitter against the French as they were against the Hurons and other Indian foes.

At this period the French had two settlements, one at Quebec and the other at Three Rivers. These posts were protected by palisades only, and a few soldiers. Indeed, if the Indians had known the 'weakness of these settlements they would most certainly have attacked and destroyed them. The growing power of the French infuriated the Iroquois, who determined on their utter destruction. Accordingly in groups of twenty, fifty or a hundred, they lay in ambush along the Ottawa and St. Lawrence to intercept convoys of French or Hurons engaged in traffic.

This was the state of affairs at the time that 'Rogues was about to set out on his perilous expedition from the Huron country to Quebec. Now begins one of the most heroic experiences recorded in missionary annals. It may occur to the reader to inquire how the details of these events were obtained, since some of them occurred after the death of Jogues. There were several sources of information. First of all, escaped captives narrated their experiences to the Fathers, who carefully recorded them. Then there were the letters of Jogues himself, which relate graphically the events of his capture and torture. Finally after his escape from his first capture, he conversed with the Fathers, especially Father Buteux, giving them detailed accounts of his harrowing experiences. It is from the Buteux manuscript that many of the intimate details are drawn.

Previous to the awful fate which was awaiting him Jogues seemed to have had a premonition of it. About this time, while at prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, he begged of Our Lord that he might drink deeply of His chalice of suffering. From the tabernacle he seemed to receive a response to his prayer, and to be assured of God's support for the ordeal that was before him.

Shortly after this experience, he was summoned by Father Jerome Lalemant, Superior of the mission, who proposed to him that he accompany a convoy to Quebec to secure supplies for the mission and to deliver some letters to the Fathers there, for transmission to Europe. It was a proposal, not a command. But for Jogues it was a voice from heaven and, fully realizing what it might entail, he gladly offered himself for the dangerous expedition. He knew that the Mohawks were on the war-path, and that the river was infested with savage bands ready to pounce upon their prey. Nevertheless, with dauntless spirit he undertook the perilous commission. What made the danger all the greater was the fact that the year before the French had rejected an offer of peace from the Iroquois, which had angered them beyond measure.

In preparation for his dangerous mission Jogues had made a spiritual retreat of eight days, and had gone to confession. With open eyes he advanced on the path before him, realizing to the full its possibilities of peril. "I was not ordered to undertake this voyage," he said, "it was proposed to me, and I volunteered gladly, because I felt that if one of the missioners was to be captured or killed I could best be spared."

On the morning of June 2, 1642, the convoy took its departure from St. Mary's. It consisted of four canoes, manned by twenty warriors, and carrying besides Father Jogues and Father Raymbault, three Frenchmen, and a cargo of pelts for trading at the French post. After rowing six hundred miles they arrived on the thirty-fifth day at Three Rivers. Their casualties up to this point were the loss of two canoes and the baggage they contained, while shooting the rapids. After a brief stay at Three Rivers they pushed on to their destination, Quebec, which they reached July 12th, without further mishap.

Quebec was a revelation to the Indians. Accustomed to miserable huts or cabins they looked upon the great structures in the French town with wonder. In particular they were impressed by the Ursuline convent and the hospital which were founded and conducted by nuns. The edifying spectacle of these consecrates women gave them a very exalted idea of the Faith which inspired them to make such sacrifices. The Hurons also visited the Mission of Sillery, some two and a half miles from Quebec, established for service to the Algonquins.

After nineteen days of sightseeing and bartering on the part of the Indians, but of careful selection and packing of supplies for the missioners by Jogues, the convoy was ready for its return voyage. It carried goods which were sorely needed by the Fathers in the Indian country—altar supplies, vestments, books, etc. Besides, Jogues was the bearer of very important letters and documents to his brethren. It was only about once a year that opportunity was afforded the missioners of communicating with one another or with friends and relatives in Europe. Altogether, therefore, he was in charge of a very precious shipment.

Accompanying Jogues on the return voyage were Rene Goupil and William Couture, donnes—that is, men dedicated to the service of the missioners for life and without pay. Besides these there was a young Huron woman named Theresa who had attended the school of the Ursulines for two years and had made great progress in learning and piety. It was hoped that her example on her return would be a very good influence among her people. She was so devoted to the nuns that it was with difficulty that she was persuaded to leave them to return home. With her was her uncle, named Joseph, a man of strong faith, and most loyal to the missioners. Altogether this return convoy numbered forty persons. They pushed off from the Quebec landing near the end of July, amidst the hearty God-speeds of the whole populace who came to see them off and pray God's protection on them.

Arriving at Three Rivers they made a short stay, during which they celebrated the Feast of St. Ignatius, and all received Holy Communion. The Governor fearing for the safety of the convoy, as the Iroquois had lately been active along the river, offered them a military escort, which the Indians declined, considering it a reflection on their bravery. Just before starting, however, the Hurons held a meeting which they dignified by the name of council, for the purpose of fortifying one another against possible danger. One of the leaders arose and said: "Is there any one of us who would renounce the Faith even if he were to be tortured and burned by our enemies? We are Christians, and do not look for our heaven here but hereafter!" This declaration was applauded and confirmed by all the braves present.

It was on the 1st of August, 1642, that the party of forty, in twelve canoes, embarked on the last stage of the voyage. On the first day they made thirty miles. The day following, August 3d, as some of the Indians were walking along the shore towing a canoe, they noticed footprints on the beach. The party halted, examined the impressions, but refused to be alarmed or to take extra precautions, thinking that the footprints were those of friendly Algonquins, or that if they were of the Iroquois they indicated too few of the enemy for alarm. Suddenly from the near-by woods and bushes was heard the Iroquois war-whoop, and before the astonished Hurons were aware of their danger seventy Mohawk savages were down upon them with gun, knife and tomahawk. The canoes were riddled with bullets, and the party, thrown into disorder and panic, scattered here and there in the woods.

While the bullets were whizzing around him Jogues approached the steersman of his canoe, Bernard, who was not yet baptized, and while all around was confusion and alarm, calmly administered the holy rite of salvation, which was the last priestly act he performed before capture. Bernard afterwards escaped from the Iroquois and always remained a faithful Christian. In relating the event to one of the Fathers in after years, he said: "I thank God that I entered the Church by such a way, and I shall never forget that beautiful day. The self-devotion of my Father was enough to confirm me in my faith. Who could, then, withstand belief? Indeed, these men who come to teach us must be very certain of the truth they preach, and look to God alone for the only reward they seek, for Ondessonk (Jogues' Huron name) forgot himself altogether in the moment of the greatest danger, to think only of me. Instead of seeking safety for himself, he baptized me; he loved me more than himself. Death here below had no terrors for him, but he was alarmed for my eternal death."

After their first disorder some of the Hurons formed for defense. A band of twelve fought valiantly against great odds, and were holding their own when suddenly, from the opposite side of the river, there appeared from ambush forty Mohawks. At sight of this unexpected assault the Hurons sought safety in flight, but not all of them were able to escape, as the enemy surrounded them from every quarter. The few thus trapped fought on, refusing to surrender, knowing that the torture that awaited them was worse than death. At the head of this brave remnant was Rene Goupil, one of the donnes, who was afterwards martyred by the Mohawks. Oppressed by numbers, and unable longer to resist, Goupil and several Hurons, who stood by him to the last, were taken prisoners.

Jogues meanwhile had gained the shore and concealed himself behind some bushes. The Iroquois passed and repassed him without discovering him, and had he chosen to remain hidden he would certainly have escaped capture. However on seeing the utter rout of the Hurons, and the capture of some of them, including Goupil, he arose from his place of concealment and shouted to the Iroquois: "Know that I am their fellow-traveler, and it is proper that I should share their captivity. You can take hold of me; with all my heart I wish to partake of their destiny."

The Mohawks could hardly believe their ears. They thought that this was a ruse for their destruction, and feared an ambush. Thus it was that for a brief space the spectacle was presented of a helpless man inspiring fear and alarm in his conquerors. However, after some little time, seeing that Jogues was alone and unarmed, one of the braves advanced towards him, and in the words of the Father: "He took me by the arms, and placed me with those whom the world calls unfortunate. I embraced Rene most affectionately, and said to him, 'Oh my brother, God's intention in our regard is mysterious; but Ile is the Lord: 'let Him do what is good in His sight.' 'As it hath pleased the Lord, so it is done; blessed be the name of the Lord forever.'"

Goupil fell on his knees before the priest, made his confession, and also offered up his life as a sacrifice to God. Not knowing the moment that they might be killed or separated, Jogues gave absolution to the Christians of the party, and final instruction to those of the captives not yet baptized, and promptly administered the sacred rite to them. Even before he had finished this holy duty, other captives were led in by the triumphant Iroquois, to be consoled in their sad state by the sight of their Father, who gave them every possible solace of religion and human sympathy. So fortified they awaited their fate.

The convoy of goods was lost to the Mission. Everything of value to the Indians was taken by them. They turned sacred vestments and ornaments into most grotesque uses. But the letters—the precious letters—and documents and books, these were of no use to savages, and were treated accordingly. The loss of a year's supplies and of mission necessaries, was a terrible blow to the Fathers at St. Mary's. But they rose above this calamity, as we may see from the words of one of them who wrote: "But God gives us comfort, for it aids our spiritual progress, which is the only allurement to bring us here. Faith makes notable progress among our Hurons. Had this fleet of Huron Christians and catechumens arrived safely, as we expected, the conversion of the country seemed almost certain. It is one of the secrets to be revealed only in eternity. But would you believe that we never roused better courage, both for temporals and spirituals, than since the capture of Father Jogues and our Hurons? I see these tribes more disposed than ever for a complete conversion."