The History of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons
Part of the spell of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons lies in the very land upon which it stands.
Located along the shores of Georgian Bay – Samuel de Champlain’s “mer douce” – and surrounded by wooded hillsides, this was the ancestral homeland of the Huron-Wendat nation, a branch of the Haudenosaunee. The Wendat were a matrilineal society of good traders and skillful farmers who called their land Wendake: the land apart.
French Jesuits came to Wendake in the 17th century. As an international order, the Society of Jesus operated like an army dedicated to spreading Catholicism throughout the world. They believed, with their founder Ignatius Loyola, that the first step in saving one’s neighbour was to educate him.
With the exception of one Italian priest, the people who lived at Sainte-Marie were Frenchmen. No women accompanied them. Members of the Huron-Wendat nation were frequent visitors to the mission.
Wendake: The land apart
The Huron-Wendat nation occupied the area north and west of Lake Simcoe and south and east of Georgian Bay. About 70 percent of this area was arable land and was well described by a 17th century Recollet, Brother Gabriel Sagard.
Following the trail of French explorer Samuel de Champlain, French Jesuit priests arrived in Wendake early in the 17th century. An international order, the Jesuits operated like an army, dedicated to spreading Catholicism throughout the world.
The Jesuits established themselves in Wendake. They travelled from village to village, learning the Wendat language and customs, and preaching to the Indigenous people.
Their Superior, Father Jérome Lalemant, dreamed of “building a house apart, remote from the vicinity of the villages, that would serve among other things for the retreat and meditation of our evangelistic labourers.”
The mission is built
Courageous laymen travelled from France to build a mission on the banks of the Isaraqui (Wye) River in 1639. It was named Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. Huron is the French name for Wendat.
Hard work and dedication soon brought Sainte-Marie to virtual self-sufficiency, an impressive achievement for a community 1,200 kilometres from Quebec. It was to last only 10 years.
In the 17th century, much of the land we call Canada was known as New France. The European population numbered in the low hundreds, and most of these people lived along the Saint Lawrence River, their livelihood based on fish, furs and fledgling agriculture.
We know the story of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons from the annual reports written by the Superior at Sainte-Marie. The reports, known as the Jesuit Relations, were sent to France via Quebec.
Sainte-Marie is abandoned
The report written by Father Paul Ragueneau tells us the story of heartbreak and despair that led to the abandonment of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons.
In the spring of 1649, attacks by members of the Haudenosaunee Nation (known to the French as Iroquois) increased and the Huron-Wendat people, greatly impacted by disease, were unable to defend Wendake.
Under growing pressure, Jesuit missionaries, French laymen, and Christian Wendat followers burned the mission and abandoned it.
They fled to St. Joseph Island (now Christian Island), where they endeavoured to establish a new Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. After a terrible winter of starvation and constant attack, the Frenchmen and the Christian Wendat returned to Quebec.
The grave of martyred priests, Brébeuf and Lalemant, located at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, is a sacred place of Christian pilgrimage.
The Jesuit Priests belonged to the Society of Jesus, an order founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1534. This active order was well organised, efficient, and disciplined. Only outstanding men, whose character and particular talents could be well utilised, were admitted to the Society. The process of becoming a Jesuit took between 13 and 15 years. Often called the Soldiers of Christ, the Jesuits were organised along military lines.
A steady number of priests arrived after 1639, since Sainte-Marie would operate as a mission headquarters. As many priests as possible were needed to ensure that newcomers could be properly trained by more experienced priests. Some of the priests found life in New France difficult.
The Society of Jesus also included men who took vows as Lay Brothers. Each of the five Lay Brothers at Sainte-Marie was a skilled craftsman and devoted Catholic.
The Donnés were another group of men at Sainte-Marie. They signed a contract with the Jesuits to help the priests and brothers with their missionary work.
Some of these men had specific skills such as carpentry or smithing, while others were labourers.
Not all the men at Sainte-Marie took vows. The Jesuits hired men to help with building the wilderness mission of Sainte-Marie. They often would take the vows of a Donné after a year or two of working at the mission.
Soldiers sometimes accompanied the flotillas of canoes making the 1,250 kilometre journey from Québec. They spent the winter in Wendake, returning to Quebec the following spring. The Jesuit Fathers worried at first that the soldiers’ conduct might set a bad example for the Wendat, but good behaviour soon set these fears to rest.
The Huron-Wendat nation occupied the area north and west of Lake Simcoe and south and east of Georgian Bay. About 70 percent of this area was arable land.
The area provided excellent fishing and hunting. Georgian Bay and its many rivers allowed the Wendat to control exchange between the fertile south and the Canadian Shield. Within Wendake, about 330 kilometres of trails linked the four tribes of the Wendat Nation and all the villages. Paths criss-crossed throughout Wendake and led to nearby areas of the Petun and Neutral Nations.
Birch bark canoes were used to travel long distances. They were about seven metres long and one metre wide, and could carry four or five men and about 91 kilograms of cargo. During the winter, the Wendat used snowshoes (raquettes) toboggans and sleighs.
The Huron-Wendat Nation was an association of Iroquoian speaking groups. They were divided into four main tribes:
- The Bear Tribe (Attignawantan) was the largest of the tribes accounting for almost half the Wendat population. There were thirteen villages of the Bear clan in 1640.
- The Cord Tribe (Attigneenongnahac) lived between the Sturgeon and Coldwater Rivers, in the Mount St. Louis Ridge. They lived in three main villages. Like the Bear, they were one of the oldest tribes.
- The Rock Tribe (Arendarhonon) was located between Coldwater and Orillia. They had four villages, with the main village of Cahiague.
- The Deer Tribe (Tahontaenrat) was the last tribe to enter Wendake. They lived in the area north of Orr Lake.
The People of the Bog (Ataronchrono) were not recognized in the confederacy, but were represented by the people of the Bear Tribe. They are thought to have been made up of clan segments from the Bear Tribe and perhaps some refugees fleeing from the Seneca to the south.
Day-to-day government of the Huron Wendat was based on the clan. The clan consisted of individuals descended from a common female ancestor. Various clan leaders made up the village council. Councils were restricted to the male chiefs, and women had no direct voice in them. Since people usually married outside their clan, most of the villages were united through marriage. This resulted in strong social bonds.
There were eight Huron Wendat Clans, which were functional organisations. They cut across Tribal Boundaries. The clan names were based on animals that are prominent in the Huron Wendat creation myth: Turtle, Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Deer, Hawk, Porcupine and Snake. Most of the eight clans were represented in each village.
A chief of a clan segment initiated tribal councils. Before travelling to the meeting, each clan would choose their position on the matter to be discussed. All clan segment chiefs would attend an annual confederacy council. They would discuss common war and defense plans, and renew and strengthen ties between nations. For several weeks, usually in the spring, there was dancing, feasting and gift giving.
The Huron-Wendat were farmers who grew corn, beans, and squash. Sixty-five percent of their diet consisted of corn. Dried and shelled, the corn was pounded into flour or sometimes ground between stones. Corn soup (sagamité) was enriched with fish, meat and squash. Unleavened corn bread was baked under hot ashes, with dried fruits and deer meat added. Other items on the Huron Wendat menu included beans, wild berries, nuts and maple syrup. Sunflowers were grown for their oil, used in food and as a body rub.
The women of the village planted the three main crops on raised hills. About every two years the soil would become depleted, and new fields would be cultivated. In the fall, corn was harvested and hung from poles in the longhouse to dry. Beans were dried and stored with the corn in bark or wooden containers.
Gathered food also was part of the Huron Wendat diet. Ripe fruits, nuts and berries, bullrush roots and maple sap were all collected and added to the diet. Hemp was used for nets, ropes, and baskets.
Fishing, Hunting and trapping
The men fished using nets and weirs (underwater enclosures). Sometimes, wooden spears with barbed boneheads were used for fishing. They caught whitefish, trout, sturgeon, pike and catfish. Most of the fish was dried and smoked for later consumption. Hunting season was in the spring and fall. The principle game was deer, prized for both its hide and meat.
The Huron-Wendat caught deer by driving them into rivers or enclosures, where they were shot with bow and arrow. The meat was smoked and mostly used as a main dish at feasts and celebrations. Huron Wendat hunters also tracked bear with specially trained dogs. Dogs were the only domesticated animals in Huron Wendat society. At certain times dogs were eaten or sacrificed, especially in the winter, when meat was in short supply.
Hunters killed beaver with snares, arrows and clubs. The beaver was killed for fur as well as meat and it was a dominant part of the 17th century fur trade. The beaver population was likely exhausted in Wendake by the 1630’s.
Each family consisted of a woman, her daughters or sisters, and their husbands and children. In the longhouse, the women had influence on the male leaders. Women were guardians of the family and of village traditions. They also had a long list of duties:
- cooking, sewing and tanning leather
- child care
- cleaning out cooking fires and hearths
- gathering food
- making baskets and pots
- weaving mats and fishing nets
- caring for families and guests.
Farming was the most important of their labours. Using small wooden spades, the women planted and tended the crops, scared off birds and rodents, harvested the crops, and burned the remaining stalks to nourish the soil.
Wendat men aspired to be brave warriors, good hunters and fishermen, and clever traders. They also tried to earn reputations for generosity, good advice and good speech making. The men of each village took care of:
- clearing new fields
- fishing and storing the fish
- making stone and wooden utensils and tools
- repairing the village structures
- making canoes, pipes, snowshoes and sleds
- peace negotiations with the outside world.
Huron Wendat men and women worked hard to acquire goods, and shared with others of the longhouse, village, clan tribe and confederacy. In several early accounts, European visitors made special note of Huron-Wendat generosity to the French and to other First Nations people.
Marriages and children
Huron-Wendat marriages were monogamous and could be terminated by either partner. This was rare if children were involved. When a woman became pregnant, it was normal for each man she had lived with to claim the child as his. The choice was up to the mother. Pregnant women faced some restrictions. They were never to be within sight of game, for fear the animal would get away. They were never to set foot in the house of a sick person, because it was believed that the sickness would get worse.
Newborn babies were named after they had their ears pierced. Wrapped in furs, the babies were carried in cradleboards filled with soft, warm down from bullrushes. A child was breast-fed up to the age of two or three years. Older babies were also fed soups and chewed meats. Children were well-liked and well taken care of by everyone.
With their great sense of dignity, the Huron Wendat felt it was wrong to coerce or publicly humiliate anyone, especially a child. Physical punishment was never used as discipline.
There was little formal training for children, but they learned skills from their games. Girls helped their mothers with their work. Boys were expected to be hardy, brave and self-reliant. From an early age, boys would cut and burn themselves, to prepare for future tests of their courage and manhood.
Where villages were built
Villages were built near a good water supply and near arable soil. The Wendat chose their building sites carefully. An ideal site would have been located:
- beside a bluff
- close to a spring
- overlooking a navigable waterway
- near a large area suitable for farming
- near a wood supply for fires and building material
Large villages were fenced with rows of upright poles. Rows of poles were reinforced by inserting saplings to form a basket weave. Narrow gates, watchtowers and galleries provided defence.
Families lived in longhouses, windowless structures between 25 and 30 metres long and six to nine metres wide and high. Longhouses were made of poles bent over to form an arbour, which was then covered with bark and saplings. There were low doors at each end, and usually a porch where food and wood were stored. Holes in the roof let smoke out and light in. Fireplaces, usually about 6 metres apart, served two families. Smoke often caused eye disease among the old. Estimating six members per family, the average longhouse would house 36-40 people.
A platform ran along each side of the longhouse. In the winter, the people slept on the floor near the fires, and the shelves served as storage. In the summer the people slept outdoors, or on the shelves, which were as wide as bunks. Longhouse furnishings were simple: reed, bark or husk or animal skin mats, pottery, baskets, and huge containers of stored corn.
A longhouse lasted about eight to ten years. A village usually moved every 20 – 40 years. The move was made with help from nearby villages.
Wendat clothing was made from deer and beaver hides. Men wore loincloths and moccasins. In winter, they added leggings and sleeves and a cloak made of fur. Women dressed the same way, substituting a skirt for the loincloth. The Wendat wore body paint and beads, and red was a favourite colour. They also used porcupine quills and feathers for decoration. Women wore ornamental bone combs in their hair. Wampum made of shells, bones and glass beads was another popular decoration.
Men wore fire pouches on their backs in which they carried tobacco pipes, charms and other personal belongings. Pipes were highly prized, and the Huron Wendat never spoke of business or came to a meeting without first smoking a pipe.
Feasts were part of Wendat spirituality, with Singing Feasts the largest and most popular. A man would hold a Singing Feast if he wished to gain status. Thanksgiving Feasts were held to celebrate good fortune.
Societies who dealt with both physical and mental disorders carried out curing feasts. Each society had a unique mask or symbol. A dying person gave farewell feasts when death was imminent.
Feasts were announced by the crier, and the more elderly the crier the more important the event. Dances and special rites accompanied all feasts. In addition, feasts included contests and games.
The Huron Wendat recognized three types of illness:
- Natural causes, cured by herbs, drugs, poultices or sweating
- Un-natural social behaviour thought to be witchcraft, dealt with by a Shaman
- Psycho-illness that manifested itself in dreams. The Huron Wendat considered dreams to be the language of the soul. If dreamed desires remained unfulfilled, harm or even death could befall a person. Dreams and desires had to be interpreted by a Shaman.
There were four kinds of Shaman:
- Those in control of wind, rain and weather
- Those able to predict the future
- Those able to find lost objects
- Those able to heal the sick
Men usually took the position of healer, while women dealt with witchcraft. The Shaman used visions and dreams to tell which actions to take. To achieve these visions, the Shaman would fast and remain celibate until an answer was received.
The Shaman worked with drugs and herbal remedies and mask or shell rattles. Shaman (men and women) were highly paid and highly respected.
The indoor interpretative Sainte-Marie Museum provides an historical overview that helps to connect the story of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons to 17th century mainstream life. It also serves as a fascinating and informative conclusion to your visit.
The museum explains the motives and transportation of early explorers, the society and culture they left behind in Europe, their experiences in New France, and how they learned to adapt to a new way of life.
Through the senses of sight, sound, touch, and even smell, the Sainte-Marie Museum illustrates the events of that era through more than 750 artifacts which have been purchased, donated, or loaned.