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1721 Charlevoix

Pierre de Charlevoix. Journal of a Voyage

Charlevoix (1682-1761) was a Jesuit explorer and historian. This voyage, made in a single canoe, was a tour of exploration made at the request of the French government. The apparent series of letters to his patroness, Duchess de Lesdiguirros, was a way of recording the information he compiled. The letters were not sent. The account is important both because of its large contemporary sales, and because of his dispassionate and accurate observation. Charlevoix's account is one of the few which describes interior America at this early date.

Letter XVII

Fort Pontchartrain in the Narrows, June 8, 1721.


I set out on the 27th of last month from the entrance of lake Erie after sealing my last letter, and though it was then late I made three leagues farther that day with the advantage of a favourable wind and the finest weather in the world. The course is by coasting along the north shore amounting to a hundred leagues. The way of turning off towards the south from Niagara is much more agreeable but longer by one half. Lake Erie is a hundred leagues in length from east to west. Its breadth from north to south is thirty leagues, or thereabouts. The name it bears is that of an Indian nation of the Huron language, which was formerly seated on its banks, and who have been entirely destroyed by the Iroquoise. Erie in that language signifies Cat, and in some accounts that nation is called the Cat nation. This name comes probably, from the large quantity of these animals formerly found in this country. They are no larger than ours and their skins are reckoned very valuable. Some modern maps have given lake Erie the name of Conti, but with no better success than the names of Conde, Tracy, and Orleans which have been given to the lakes Huron, Superior and Michigan.

On the 28th I advanced nineteen leagues, and found myself opposite to a river called, La grande Riviere, or the Great River, which runs from the eastward in 42 deg. 15 min. The largest trees however were not as yet covered with leaves. Excepting this circumstance, the country appeared to me extremely beautiful. We made little way the 29th, and none at all the 30th. We embarked again on the morrow before sunrise, and advanced a good way. The 1st of June being the day of Pentecost, after having sailed up a beautiful river for the space of an hour, which has its rise as they say at a great distance, and runs betwixt two fine meadows; we passed over a carrying place of about sixty paces in breadth, in order to avoid turning round a point which is called the long Point; it is a very sandy spot of ground, and naturally bears a great quantity of vines. The following days I saw nothing remarkable, but coasted along a charming country, hid at times by very disagreeable prospects, which however are of no great extent. Wherever I went ashore I was quite enchanted by the beauty and variety of a landscape, which was terminated by the noblest forest in the whole world. Add it this, that every part of it swarms with water fowl; I cannot say whether the woods afford game in equal profusion; but I well know that on the south side there is a prodigious quantity of Buffaloes.

Were we always to sail as I then did, with a serene sky in a most charming climate, and on water as clear as that as that of the purest fountain; were we sure of finding every where secure and agreeable places to pass the night in, where we might enjoy the pleasure of hunting at a small expence, breathe at our ease the purest air, and enjoy the prospect of the finest countries in the universe, we might possibly be tempted to travel to the end of our days. I recalled to memory those ancient Patriarchs who had no fixed place of abode, who lived in tents, who were in the manner the masters of all the countries they passed through, and who enjoyed in peace and tranquillity all their productions, without the plague inevitable in the possession of a real and fixed estate. How many oaks represented to me that of Mamre? how many fountains put in mind of that of Jacob? each day a new situation chosen at pleasure; a neat and commodious house built and furnished with all necessaries in less than a quarter of an hour, and floored with a pavement of flowers, continually springing up on a carpet of the most beautiful green; on all sides simple and natural beauties unadulterated and inimitable by any art. If these pleasures sometimes suffer a little interruption, whether by hard weather or some other unforseen accident, it is only to render them more sensibly felt at a second enjoyment.

Were I inclined to moralize I might add, that these alternatives of pleasure and disappointment, which I have already undergone since my setting out, are very proper to make us sensible that there is no kind of life more capable of placing this maxim constantly before our eyes, that we are no more than pilgrims on the earth, and that we have no right to use but as passengers, the good things of this world; that the real wants of man are very few in number, that little is sufficient to purchase contentment, and that we ought to take in good part those evils and crosses which surprize us, since with the same rapidity they make way for a mixture of better fortune. Lastly, how many things contribute in this way of life to make us sensible of our dependance on the divine providence, which in order to produce this mixture of good and evil, makes not use of the passions of men but of the vicissitudes of seasons, which may entirely be forseen, and the caprice of the elements which we ought to look for: and consequently what a multitude of opportunities of meriting by our confidence in, and resignation to the divine will? It is generally said that long voyages are seldom attended with a large crop of divine grace; nothing however is more proper to produce it than this sort of life.

On the fourth we stopt a good part of the day on a point which runs north and south three leagues, and which is called Pointe Pelee, or Bald Point. It is however well enough wooded on the west side, but that of the east is a sandy track producing nothing but red cedars, of an indifferent growth and in small quantities. The white cedar is of more general use than the red, the wood of which is easily broken, and is only fit for making small pieces of furniture. It is a notion in this country that women with child should not use it in busks. The leaves of this tree yield no odour but the wood does. Quite the reverse happens in the white cedar. There are a great number of bears in this country, and more than four hundred of these animals were killed last winter on Point Pelee alone.

On the fifth towards four o'clock in the afternoon we perceived the land on the south shore, and two little islands which lie very near it. These are called Rattlesnake islands, and we are told they are so infested with these reptiles that the air is infested with them. We entered the Narrows an hour before sunset, and passed the night above a very beautiful island, called L'ifle de Bois Blanc, or White-wood island. From Long-point to the Narrows the course is always west; from the entry of the Narrows to the island of St. Clair, which is five or six leagues, and thence to Lake Huron it bends somewhat towards the east, inclining to the south; thus the whole of the Narrows, which are thirty-two leagues long, lies between 42 degrees 12 or 15 minutes, and 43 degrees and a half north latitude. Above the island of St. Clair, the Narrows widen and form a lake, which has either received its name from the island, or given it its own. It is about six leagues long and as many broad in some places.

It is pretended that this is the finest part of all Canada, and really if we may judge by appearances, nature seems to have refused it nothing that can contribute to make a country delightful; hills, meadows, fields, lofty forests, rivulets, fountains, rivers, and all of them so excellent in their kind, and so happily blended, as to equal the most romantic wishes; the lands however are not all equally proper for every sort of grain, but most are of a wonderful fertility, and I have known some produce good wheat for eighteen years running without any manure, and besides all of them are proper for some particular use. The islands seem placed on purpose for the pleasure of the prospect; the river and lake abound in fish, the air is pure, and the climate temperate and extremely wholesome.

Before you arrive at the fort, which stands on the left, a league below the island of St. Claire, you find on the same side two pretty populous villages very near each other; the first is inhabited by the Tionnontatez a tribe of the Hurons, and the same who after having wandered to and fro for a long time, first settled at the falls of St. Mary, and at Michillimakinac; the second is inhabited by the Poutewatamie Indians. On the right, somewhat higher is a third village of the Outawais, inseparable companions of the Hurons from the time that both of them were driven from their country by the Iroquois; there are no christians at all among these last, and few if any amongst the Poutewatemies; the Hurons are all christians, but have no missionaries; it is said they will admit of none, but this is only true of a few of their principal men who have not much religion, and who do not suffer the others to be heard, who have been a long time desirous of having missionaries sent them.

It is a long time since the importance of the place, still more than the beauty of the country about the Narrows has given ground to wish, that some considerable settlement were made in this place; this has been tolerably well begun some fifteen years since, but certain causes of which I am not well informed, have reduced it almost to nothing; those who are against it alledge first, that it would bring the trade for the northern furs too near the English, who as they are able to afford their commodities to the Indians cheaper than we, would draw all that trade into the province of New York. Secondly, that the lands near the Narrows are not fertile, and that the whole surface to the depth of nine or ten inches consists of sand, below which is hard clay impenetrable to the water; from whence it happens that the plains and interior parts of the woods are always drowned; that every where you see nothing but diminutive ill-grown oaks, and hard walnut-trees, and that the trees having their roots always under water their fruits ripen very late. These reasons have not been unanswered; it is true that in the neighbourhood of fort Pontchartrain the lands have a mixture of sand, and that in the neighbouring forests there are bottoms almost constantly under water; however these very lands have produced wheat eighteen years successively without the least manure, and you have no great way to go to find the finest soil in the world. With respect to woods, without going a great way from the fort, I have seen as I have been walking such as may vie with out noblest forests.

As for what has been said that by making a settlement at the Narrows, we should bring the fur trade too much within reach of the English; there is not a man in Canada who does not agree, that we can never succeed in hindering the Indians from carrying them their commodities, let them be settled where they will, and with all the precautions we can possibly take; except by causing them to find the same advantage in trading with us, as in the province of New York. I have many more things to acquaint your grace of, but these discussions would carry me too far; we shall talk over the matter some day at our leisure.

On the 7th of June, which was the day after my arrival at the fort, Tonti who commands here, assembled the chiefs of the three villages I have just mentioned, in order to communicate to them the orders he had received from the Marquis de Vaudreuil; they heard him calmly and without interruption; when he had done speaking the orator of the Hurons told him in few words, that they were going to consult about what he had proposed to them, and would give him their answer in a short time; it is the custom of the Indians never to give an immediate answer on an affair of any consequence. Two days after they assembled in great numbers at the commandant's, who was desirous that I should be be present at this council, together with the officers of the garrison. Sasteratsi, whom we French call king of the Hurons, and who is in fact hereditary chief of the Tionnontatez, who are the true Hurons was also present on this occasion; but as he is still a minor he came only for form sake; his uncle who governs in his name, and who is called regent, spoke in quality of orator of the nation; now the honour of speaking in the name of the whole is generally given to some Huron when any of them happens to be of the council. The first view of these assemblies gives you no great idea of the body; imagine to yourself madam, half a score savages almost stark naked with their hair disposed in as many different manners as their are different persons in the assembly, and all of them equally ridiculous; some with laced hats, all with pipes in their mouths and with the most unthinking faces. It is besides a rare thing to hear any one utter so much as a single word in a quarter of an hour, or to hear any answer made even in a monosyllable; not the least mark of distinction, nor any respect paid to any person whatsoever. We should however be apt to change our opinion of them upon hearing the results of their deliberations.

The business in debate on this occasion, related to two points which the governor general had very much at heart; the first was to persuade the three villages settled at the Narrows, to agree that no more brandy should be sold them, which had been expressly prohibited by the council of the marine. The second was to engage all the nations to unite with the French, to destroy the Outagamies, commonly called Foxes, who had been favoured with an indemnity some years before, and who had begun their robberies anew. Monsieur de Tonti first caused to be repeated to them by his interpreters a few words, what he explained more at large in the first assembly, when the Huron orator made answer in the name of the three villages; he made no exordium but came at once to the point, he spoke a great while and with much gravity, pausing at each article to give time to the interpreters to explain in French what he had been saying in his own language.

His mien, the tone of his voice, and the manner of his delivery, though without any gestures or inflections of the body, appeared to me extremely noble and calculated to persuade, and what he said must have been very eloquent, since after being stript of all its ornaments in the mouth of the interpreter, who was only a man of common parts, we were all perfectly charmed with it; and I do assure you, madam, that had he continued to speak for two whole hours I could have heard him with the greatest pleasure. Another proof of the beauty of his discourse came not from the interpreter is, that this man never could have dared to take upon him to tell us from himself all he said to us; I was even somewhat surprized at his boldness in repeating so faithfully as he did certain points which could not fail to be disagreeable to the commandant. When the Huron orator had ended, Onanguice chief and orator of the Poutewatemies spoke in a few words, and after a very ingenious manner, to all that the other had more largely expatiated upon; concluding, to the same purpose, as he had done; the Outawais spoke not at all, but seemed to approve of what had been said by the others.

The result was that the French might use their pleasure with respect to the selling of brandy to the Indians; but they had done well had they never supplied them with any; and it is impossible to imagine any thing stronger than what the Huron orator had said whilst he was laying open the disorders occasioned by this beverage, and the mischiefs it had done to all the Indian nations in general. The most zealous missionary could not have said more; he added however that they were now so much accustomed to it that they could no longer be without it; by which it was easy to guess that should the French refuse them, they would certainly have recourse to the English: that with respect to the war with the Outegamies nothing could be determined, except in a general council of all the nations who acknowledge Ononthio, (so the Indians call the French king) for their father; that no doubt they would all agree in thinking the war necessary, but that they would with great difficulty be brought to place any confidence in the French, who after having once before united them to assist in exterminating the common enemy, had granted them peace without ever consulting with their allies, and without its being possible to find out any reason for such a proceeding.

The day after I visited the two Indian towns near the fort; I began with that of the Hurons where I found all the matrons, and amongst them the grand-mother of Sasteratsi in much affliction for being so long deprived of every spiritual succour; many circumstances which I learned at the same time confirmed me in the opinion I had before sometime adopted, that certain private interests were the sole obstacles to the desires of these good christians; it is to be hoped that the last orders of the council of the marine will remove all those obstacles; Monsieur de Tonti assured me he was going to set about it in an effectual manner.

Those who were my guides in this village assured me, that were it not for the Hurons the other Indians of the Narrows must die of hunger; this is certainly not the fault of the land where they are settled; were they to cultivate it ever so little they would find at least sufficient for their subsistance; fishing alone would supply them with a good part, and this exercise is far from being very laborious, but after having once tasted brandy they think only of amassing of furs to purchase wherewithal to intoxicate themselves. The Hurons who are wiser, more laborious and more accustomed to husbandry, being also endued with a greater share of foresight entertain more solid thoughts, and by means of their industry are in a condition not only to subsist without being beholden to any one, but also to furnish a supply to their neighbours; this however is not done entirely from sentiments of humanity, for we must by no means reckon amongst the number of their good qualities that of disinterestedness.

I was still better received amongst the infidel Poutewatamies than amongst the christian Hurons; these Indians are the finest men in all Canada, and are besides of the sweetest natural temper, and have been always our good friends. Onanguice their chief treated me with a politeness which gave me full as high an opinion of his good sense as the discourse he had made in the council; he is a person of undoubted worth, and entirely in our interest.

As I was returning through a quarter of the Huron village, I perceived a number of these Indians, who seemed much heated at play; I approached them and found that the game they were playing at was what they call the game of the platter; this is the game to which the Indians are addicted above all others, they sometimes lose their rest, and in some degree their very senses at it; they stake all they are worth, and several of them are known to continue at it till they have stript stark themselves naked and lost all their moveables in their cabbins; some have even been known to stake their liberty for a certain time; this circumstance proves beyond all doubt how passionately fond they are of it, there being no people in the universe more jealous of their liberty than our Indians.

The game of the platter or bones, is played between two persons only; each person has six or eight little bones, which I at first took for apricot stones, these being of the same size and shape; but upon viewing them nearer I found they had six unequal faces, the two largest of which are painted, the one black and the other of a straw colour; they fling them up in the air, striking at the same time against the ground or table with a hollow dish, in which they are contained, and which must first be made to spin around; when they have no dish they content themselves with throwing the bones up into the air with the hand; if all of them after falling to the ground present the same colour, the player wins five points, the party is forty, and the points won are discounted in proportion to the gains on his side; five bones of a colour give only one point for the first time, but the second the winner sweeps the board; any lower number goes for nothing.

He who wins the party still continues to play; the loser yields his place to another who is named by the markers on the same side; for they take sides at the beginning of the game, so that a whole village is sometimes concerned in the party and even sometimes one village plays against another; each side chuse their own marker who retires when he pleases, which happens only when things do not go so well on his side. At each throw that is played, especially if it be a decisive one, they make a prodigious shouting; the players seem possessed, and the spectators are scarce more masters of themselves; both make a thousand contorsions, address themselves to the bones, load the genii of the adverse party with imprecations, and the whole village rings with their howling; if all this is ineffectual to retrieve their ill-luck the losers are at liberty to put off the party till to-morrow, at the expence of a very slender repast to the assistants.

They then prepare to return to the combat, each invoking his tutelary genius and throwing in honour of him some tobacco into the fire; they implore of him above all things happy dreams: the moment day appears they fall to play, when if the losers take it into their head that the furniture of their cabbin is the cause of their ill-luck, they begin with changing it intirely; great parties generally last five or six days, and oftentimes the night occasions no interruption; however as all the spectators, as least such as are concerned in the game, are in such an agitation as to be transported out of themselves to such a degree that they quarrel and fight, which never happens to the Hurons except on these occasions, or when they are drunk; we may easily guess whether when the party is ended, both do not stand sufficiently in need of rest.

It happens sometimes that these parties at play are prescribed by some of their physicians, or at the request of some sick person; a dream is often sufficient cause for either; this dream is always understood for a command of some genius, and then they prepare for the party with prodigious care; they assemble several different nights to make an essay, and to see who has the happiest hand at a throw; they consult their genius, they fast, and married persons observe the strictest continence and all to obtain a favourable dream; every morning they relate those they have had, and make a collection of such things of which they happen to have dreamed, and which they imagine able to bring good luck to their side, which they put into little bags and carry about with them. If any one has the reputation of being fortunate, that is according to the notions of these people, of having a more fortunate genius, or one that is more inclined to do good, they never fail to make him approach him who holds the platter; they go sometimes to seek this person at a great distance, and if through old age or some infirmity he is unable to walk they carry him on their shoulders.

They have often pressed the missionaries to be present at these games, from a persuasion that their tutelar genii are more powerful than all others. It happened one day in a Huron village that a sick woman having caused one of their priests to be called, who are also their physicians, this quack prescribed for her the game of the platter, and appointed a village different from his own to play; she immediately sent to ask permission of the chief of this village; this was granted, the party was played and the game being ended, the patient returned the players a great many thanks for the cure, which as she said they had procured for her; so far however from being better she was on the contrary much worse, but they are obliged to seem satisfied even when they have least cause to be so.

The resentment of this woman and of her relations fell upon the missionaries for refusing to be present at the party, notwithstanding all the solicitations that had been made to them for this purpose, and from their chagrin at the little complaisance they shewed on this occasion, they reproached them with saying, that ever since their arrival in the country, the genii of the Indians had had no longer any power; the missionaries took advantage of this confession to shew these infidels the weakness of their divinities, and the superiority of the God of the christians; but as it seldom happens on such occasions that people are disposed to hear reason, these barbarians answered coolly, "You have your gods and we have ours, only it is our misfortune that ours are the least powerful of the two."

The Narrows is one of the countries where a botanist might make the greatest number of discoveries. I have already observed that all Canada produces vast number of simple of sovereign virtue; it is not doubted that the snows contribute much to this, but there is in it besides such a variety of soil, which joined to the mildness of the climate, and the ease with which the sun warms this country which is more open than the rest, gives ground to believe that the plants have more virtue in this than in any other part of it.

One of my guides lately made a trial of the virtue of an herb which is to be met with every where, and the knowledge of which is exceeding necessary to travellers, not for any good qualities it possesses, for I have never as yet heard any attributed to it, but because too much care cannot be taken to avoid it; this is called, L'herbe a la puce, or Flea-wort, but this name is not expressive enough to shew the effects it produces. These are more or less sensible according to the constitution of those it happens to touch; there are even some on whom it does not operate at all; but some persons merely by looking upon it are seized with a violent fever, which lasts more than fifteen days, and is accompanied with a very troublesome scab, attended with a prodigious itching all over the body; it operates on others only when they touch it, and then the patient appears as if entirely covered over with a leprosy: and some have been known to have had their hands quite spoiled with it. No remedy is yet known for it but patience; after some time it goes entirely off.

There grows also at the Narrows citron trees in the open fields, the fruit of which in shape and colour resemble those of Portugal, but they are smaller and of a disagreeable flavour; they are excellent candied. The root of this tree is a mortal and most subtle poison, and at the same time a sovereign antidote against the bite of serpents. It must be bruised and applied instantly on the wound: this remedy is immediate and infallible. On both sides of the Narrows the country is said to preserve all its beauty for ten leagues up the country; after which you meet with a smaller number of fruit trees and fewer meadows. But after travelling five or six leagues farther inclining to lake Erie, towards the south-west, you discover immense meadows extending above a hundred leagues every way, and which feed an immense quantity of those buffaloes, wherof I have more than once made mention.

Letter XVIII

The Narrows, June 14, 1721.


After I had closed my last letter and given it to a person who was going down to Quebec, I made myself ready to pursue my voyage, and accordingly embarked next day; but I have not been able to get over, and through the neglect of those who conducted me, am returned back to fort Pontchartrain, where I very much fear being obliged to remain several days longer. These are disappointments we must lay our account with, in travelling with Canadians who are never in a hurry, and who are very careless in taking their measures. But, as we are to make the most of every thing, I will take the opportunity of this delay, to divert you with beginning some account of the government of the Indians, and their manner of proceeding in the dispatch of public business: by this means, you will more easily understand many things, which I shall have occasion to mention to you in the sequel.

I shall, however, be as brief as possible on this head: first, because every thing relating to it is not equally interesting; in the second place, because I would not willingly write you any thing, but what is supported on the credit of good witnesses; and it is no easy matter to find people whose sincerity is beyond all suspicion, at least of exaggerating things; or who cannot be accused of having too slightly believed what has been told them; or lastly, who have judgment sufficient to take things in their true point of view; which requires one to have stay in the country, and to have conversed much with the inhabitants. I shall therefore give you nothing of my own on this article; for which cause, I shall not observe any exact order, in what I shall say; but you will easily collect together, and make a just whole of the passages I shall give you in my letters, in proportion as I shall be informed of them.

It must be agreed, Madam, that the nearer we view our Indians, the more good qualities we discover in them: most of the principles which serve to regulate their conduct, the general maxims by which they govern themselves, and the essential part of their character, discover nothing of the barbarian. Besides those ideas, though wholly indistinct, which they still preserve of a Supreme Being, these vestiges, now almost nearly effaced, of a religious worship, which they seem formerly to have paid this sovereign ruler; and the weak traces which we remark in their most indifferent actions of the ancient belief, and of the primitive religion, might restore them more easily than is imagined to the true path, render their conversion to christianity easier than is commonly found, and which is attended with greater obstacles, even in the most civilized nations. In effect, does not experience teach us, that politeness, knowledge, and the maxims of state, produce in these last an attachment to, and prejudice in favour of their false tenets; that all the zeal and abilities of the evangelical labourers, can with difficulty surmount them; and that grace must of necessity act more powerfully on the minds of enlightened infidels, who are almost always blinded by their presumption, than on those who oppose to it their narrow capacities only.

Most part of the people on this continent have a form of Aristocratical government, the form of which is extremely various: for though each town has a chief of its own, independant of all the rest of the same nation, and whose subjects are dependant on him in very few particulars; there is, notwithstanding, no affair of any consequence resolved upon, but by the advice of the Elders. Towards Acadia the Sagamos were more absolute, and it does not appear that they were under any obligation, as the chiefs are almost every were else, of making largesses to their subjects; on the contrary, they exacted a kind of tribute from them; and disinterestedness was by no means esteemed a royal virtue amongst them. But it seems the dispersion of these Acadian Indians, and perhaps too their commerce with the French, have introduced considerable changes into their ancient form of government; whereof Lescarbot and Champlain are the only authors, who have given us any particular account.

Several nations have each of them three principal families or tribes, which seem to be as old as their first origin. They have all, however, one common stock; and there is one at least that is looked upon as the first, and which has a sort of pre-eminence over the other two, in which those of this tribe are treated as brothers, whereas amongst themselves they treat one another as cousins. These tribes are mixed, without being confounded, each of them having a distinct chief in every village: and in such affairs as concern the whole nation, these chiefs assemble to deliberate upon it. Every tribe bears the name of some animal, the whole nation having also its own, whose name it takes, and whose figure is their bearing or ensigns armorial; and when they sign any treaties, it is always by drawing those figures upon them, except when for particular reasons they cause substitute some other.

Thus, the Huron nation is the nation of the porcupine: its first tribe bears the name of the bear, or of the roe-buck, authors varying on this head; the other two have the wolf and the tortoise for their animals; lastly, every town has its own particular animal, and it is probably this variety which has misled the authors of some accounts. It is also proper to observe, that besides these distinctions of nations, tribes, and towns, by animals, there are also others founded on some custom, or particular event: as for instance, the Tionnontatez Hurons, who are of the first tribe, commonly call themselves the tobacco nation; and we have a treaty in which these Indians, who were then settled at Michillimakinac, have put for their mark the figure of a beaver.

The Iroquois nation has the same animals with the Huron, of which it appears to be a colony, with this difference, that the family of the tortoise is split into two branches, called the great and little tortoise. The chief of each family bears his name, and in all public deeds he is known by no other. The same thing happens with regard to the chief of a nation, as well as of every village: but besides this name, which is only a sort of representative appellation, they have another, which distinguishes them more particularly, and which is properly a mark of dignity: thus, one is called the most noble, another the most ancient, and so forth. Lastly, they have a third which is personal; but I should be apt to believe, that this custom prevails only amongst those nations where the office of chief is hereditary.

These titles are always imposed with great ceremony; the new chief, or, in case he is too young, he who represents him, is to make a feast, bestow presents, pronounce the elogium of their predecessor, and sing his song. There are, however, some personal names in so much veneration, that no one dares to appropriate them to himself; or which are at least a long time before they are renewed; when this is done, it is called raising the person to life who formerly bore it.

In the northern parts, and wherever the Algonquin tongue prevails, the dignity of chief is elective; and the whole ceremony of election and installation consists in some feasts, accompanied with dances and songs: the chief elect likewise never fails to make the panegyrick of his predecessor; and to invoke his genius. Amongst the Hurons, where this dignity is hereditary, the succession is continued through the women, so that at the death of a chief, it is not his own, but his sister's son who succeeds him; or, in default of which, his nearest relation in the female line. When the whole branch happens to be extinct, the noblest matron of the tribe or in the nation chuses the person she approves of most, and declares him chief. The person who is to govern must be come to years of maturity; and when the hereditary chief is not yet arrived at this period, they appoint a regent, who has all the authority, but which he hold in name of the minor. These chiefs generally have no great marks of outward respect paid them, and if they are never disobeyed, it is because they know how to set bounds to their authority. It is true that they request or propose, rather than command; and never exceed the boundaries of that small share of authority with which they are vested. Thus it is properly reason that governs, and the government has so much the more influence, as obedience is founded in liberty; and that they are free from any apprehension of its degenerating into tyranny.

Nay more, each family has a right to chuse a counsellor of its own, and as assistant to the chief, who is to watch for their interest; and without whose consent the chief can undertake nothing. These counsellors are, above all things, to have an eye to the public treasury; and it is properly they who determine the uses it is to be put to. They are invested with this character in a general council, but they do not acquaint their allies with it, as they do at the elections and installations of their chief. Amongst the Huron nations, the women name the counsellors, and often chuse persons of their own sex.

This body of counsellors or assistants is the highest of all; the next is that of the elders, consisting of all those who have come in the years of maturity. I have not been able to find exactly what this age is. The last of all is that of the warriors; this comprehends all who are able to bear arms. This body has often at its head, the chief of the nation or town; but he must first have distinguished himself by some signal action of bravery; if not, he is obliged to serve as a subaltern, that is, as a single centinel; there being no degrees in the militia of the Indians.

In fact, a large body may have several chiefs, this title being given to all who ever commanded; but they are not therefore the less subject to him who leads the party; a kind of general, without character or real authority, who has power neither to reward nor punish, whom his soldiers are at liberty to abandon at pleasure and with impunity, and whose orders notwithstanding are scarce ever disputed: so true it is, that amongst a people who are guided by reason, and inspired with sentiments of honour and love for their country, independance is not destructive of subordination; and, that a free and voluntary obedience is taht on which we can always rely with the greatest certainity. Moreover, the qualities requisite are, that he be fortunate, of undoubted courage, and perfectly disinterested. It is no miracle, that a person possessed of such eminent qualities should be obeyed.

The women have the chief authority amongst all the nations of the Huron language; if we except the Iroquois canton of Onneyouth, in which it is in both sexes alternately. But if this be their lawful constitution, their practice is seldom agreeable to it. In fact, the men never tell the women any thing they would have to be kept secret; and rarely any affair of consequence is communicated to them, though all is done in their name, and the chiefs are no more than their lieutenants. What I have told your grace of the grandmother of the hereditary chief of the Hurons of the Narrows, who could never obtain a missionary for her own town, is a convincing proof that the real authority of the women is very small: I have been however assured, that they always deliberate first on whatever is proposed in council; and that they afterwards give the result of their deliberation to the chiefs, who make the report of it to the general council, composed of the elders; but in all probability this is done only for form's sake, and with the restrictions I have already mentioned. The warriors likewise consult together, on what relates to their particular province, but can conclude nothing of importance which concerns the nation or town; all being subject to the examination and controll of the council of elders, who judge in the last resource.

It must be acknowledged that proceedings are carried on in these assemblies with a wisdom and a coolness, and a knowledge of affairs, and I may add generally with a probity, which would have done honour to the areopagus of Athens, or to the senate of Rome, in the most glorious days of those republics: the reason of this is, that nothing is resolved upon with precipitation; and that those violent passions, which have so much disgraced the politics even of Christians, have never prevailed amongst the Indians over the public good. Interested persons fail not, however, to set many springs in motion, and apply an address in the execution of their designs, we could hardly believe barbarians capable of; they also all of them possess, in the most sovereign degree, the art of concealing their real intentions: but generally speaking, the glory of the nation and motive of honour, are the chief movers in all enterprizes. What can never be excused in them is, that they often make honour consist in satiating a revenge which knows no bounds; a fault which Christianity alone is able to correct, and in which all our politeness and religion are often unsuccessful.

Each tribe has an orator in every town, which orators are the only persons who have a liberty to speak in public councils and general assemblies: they always speak well and to the purpose. Beside this natural eloquence, and which none who are acquainted with them will dispute, they have a perfect knowledge of the interests of their employers, and an address in placing the best side of their own cause in the most advantageous light, which nothing can exceed. On some occasions, the women have an orator, who speaks in their name, or rather acts as their interpreter.

Nations who may be said to possess nothing, neither public nor private, and who have no ambition to extend their territory, should, in appearance, have few affairs to settle with one another. But the mind of man, naturally restless, is incapable of remaining inactive, and is very sagacious in cutting out business for itself. What is certain, is, that our Indians are eternally negociating, and have always some affairs or other on the tapis: such as the concluding or renewing of treaties, offers of service, mutual civilities, making alliances, invitations to become parties in a war, and lastly, compliments of condolence on the death of some chief or considerable person. All this is performed with a dignity, an attention, and, I may add, with a capacity equal to the most important affairs; and theirs are sometimes of greater consequence than they seem to be: for those, who are deputed for this purpose, have commonly secret instructions; so that the outward motive of their deputation is no more than a veil which covers their real designs.

The nation, which has made the first figure in Canada, for two centuries past, is that of the Iroquois: their success in war has given them a superiority over most of the others, which none of them are, any longer, in a condition to dispute with them; and from being pacifick, which they formerly were, they have become very troublesome and pragmatical. But nothing has contributed more to render them formidable, than the advantage of their situation, which they presently discovered; and whereof they have made all possible advantage. As they were situated between us and the English, they soon found that both would be under the necessity of keeping well with them; and, indeed, it has been the chief care of both colonies, since their establishment, to gain them over to their own party, or, at least, to persuade them to stand neuter: and as they were persuaded that if either of these nations should entirely get the ascendant over the other, they must soon be subjected themselves; they have found the secret of ballancing their success; and if we reflect that their whole force united has never exceeded five or six thousand combatants, and that it is a great while since they have diminished more than one half, we must needs allow, they must have used infinite abilities and address.

With respect to particulars and the interior government or police of towns, affairs are reduced to few articles, and are soon concluded. The authority of the chief seldom or never extends to these; and, generally speaking, persons in any degree of credit, are entirely taken up about the public business. A single affair of however little importance, is long under deliberation; every thing being conducted with much coolness and phlegm, and nothing decided till all who are desirous have been acquainted with it. If a present has been given underhand to any of the elders, to make sure of his suffrage, you are sure to obtain it, if the present has been accepted of. It has scarce ever been know, that an Indian has failed in an engagement of this sort; but it is no easy matter to bring them to accept of it, nor does he ever receive with both hands. Young persons enter early into the knowledge of affairs, which naturally renders them grave and ripe, at an age in which we are still children; this interests them, from their tenderest infancy, in the public weal, and inspires them with an emulation which is fomented with great care, and from which there is nothing that might not be hoped for.

The greatest defect in this government is, that they have scarce the shadow of criminal justice among them; though, to say truth, it is far from being attended with the same bad effects it would certainly be amongst us: the great spring of our passions, and the chief source of those disorders which are the most pernicious to civil society, to wit, private interest, having scarce any power over men who never think of hoarding, and give themselves very little concern about to-morrow.

We may also justly reproach them with they way in which they bring up their children: they do not so much as know what it is to correct them. Whilst they are little, they say they have no reason; and it never enters the head of an Indian, to think that the judgment is improved by punishment; when they are come to years of discretion, they pretend to be masters of their own actions, and therefore accountable to none. They carry these maxims to such a height, as to suffer themselves to be maltreated by intoxicated persons, without so much as defending themselves for fear of hurting them. Why should we do them any evil, say they, when you talk to them of the ridiculousness of this behaviour; they know not what they do?

In a word, these Indians are perfectly convinced, that man is born free, and that no power on earth has a right to infringe his liberty, and that nothing can compensate the loss of it: and it has been found a very difficult matter to undeceive even the Christians among them, and to make them understand how, by a natural consequence of the corruption of our nature, which is the effect of sin, an unbridled liberty of doing mischief differs very little from obliging them to commit it, because of the strength of the byass which draws us to it; and that the law which restrains us, causes us to approach nearer to our original state of liberty, whilst it appears to take it from us. Happy for them, experience has not made them feel in many things all the power of this tendency which produces so many crimes elsewhere. Their understandings being narrower than ours, their desires are still more so: reduced to desire what is necessary only, for which providence has sufficiently provided, they have scarce so much as the notion of superfluities.

After all this, toleration and impunity is a very great disorder; as is also that want of subordination in public as well as domestic life, in which every one does what seems good in his own eyes; where father, mother, and children often live, like so many persons who have met by chance, and linked together by no sort of tye; where young persons manage the affairs of the family, without consulting their parents about them any more than if they were mere strangers; where the children are brought up in absolute independance, and where they are accustomed to listen neither to the voice of nature, nor to the most indispensible duties of society.

If in those nations who are governed with more wisdom, and who are restrained by the bridle of a holy religion, we notwithstanding sometimes see such monsters as dishonour humanity, they at least excite the horror of others, and expose themselves to the lash of the law; but what is in this case the crime of an individual, becomes the crime of the nation, which is suffered to go unpunished, as parricide itself is amongst the Indians; and were it still more rare than it is, this impunity, however, is such a stain as nothing can efface, and which favours entirely of the barbarian. There are, however, in all this some exceptions, of which I shall presently speak; but, generally speaking, the genius and character of our Indians is such as I have been describing it.

They are not only persuaded, that a person who is not in possession of his reason is not responsible for his actions, at least, that he deserves no punishment; but they imagine likewise that it is beneath the dignity of a man to defend himself against a woman or a child: provided, however, as I should be apt to imagine, that there is no danger of life being lost, or any risque of being maimed; in which case, their way is, if possible, to save themselves by flight. But, should an Indian kill another in his cabin, being drunk, which they often pretend to be when they harbour any such designs, they content themselves with bewailing the dead: It was a great misfortune, say they, but as for the murderer he knew not what he did.

If the thing was done in cold blood, they suppose without difficulty that the person who committed it, must have had very good reasons before he proceeded to this extremity. If it is clear he had none, it belongs to those of his own cabin, as being the only persons concerned, to punish him; these have power to punish him with death, but this they rarely do, and even then without any form of justice, so that his death does not so much look like legal punishment as the revenge of some individual; and sometimes a chief is glad of this opportunity to get rid of a bad subject. In a word, crimes are punished in such a manner as neither to satisfy justice nor establish the public tranquillity and security.

A murder, in which several cabins should be affected, would notwithstanding always have troublesome consequences, and would often be sufficient to set a whole town, and even a whole nation in a combustion: for which reason, in such accidents the council of the elders leave nothing undone in order to accommodate matters timeously; and in case of success it is commonly the publick who makes the presents, and takes all the necessary steps with the offended family. The prompt punishment of the criminal would at once put an end to the affair, and the relations of the deceased are at liberty to do their pleasure on him, if they can get him in their hands; but his own cabbin think it consistent with their honour to sacrifice him, and often the village do not think proper to compel them to it.

I have read in a letter of Father Brebeuf, who lived a long time with the Hurons, that these Indians were wont to punish murderers in this manner. They extended the dead body on poles fixed to the roof of a cabbin, and the murderer was obliged to sit several days successively directly under it, and to receive all that fell from the carcass, not only on himself but also on his provisions, which were placed near him, except by means of some considerable present made to the cabbin of the defunct, he obtained the privilege of saving his diet from the pollution of this poison; but the Missionary does not tell us whether this was done by publick authority, or was only by way of reprisal, which those it concerned made use of after getting the assassin in their power.

Be this as it will, the way most in use amongst all the Indians to indemnify the relations of a man who has been murdered, is to replace him by means of a prisoner of war: in this case the captive is almost always adopted, enters into possession of all the rights of the deceased, and soon causes the person whose place he fills to be forgotten. There are, however, certain odious crimes which are punished with death on the spot, at last among some nations; such as wichcraft.

Whoever is suspected of this crime can never be safe any where; they even cause him undergo, when they can lay hold of him, a kind of rack, in order to oblige him to name his accomplices, after which he is condemned to the same punishment with the prisoners of war; but they first ask the consent of his family, which they dare not refuse. Those who are least criminal are knocked in the head, before they are burned: those who dishonour their families, are treated much in the same manner, and it is generally their own family that does justice upon them.

Amongst the Hurons, who are very given to thieving, and who perform it with a dexterity which would do honour to our most expert pick-pockets, it was lawful, on discovery of the thief, not only to take from him what he had stolen, but also to carry off every thing in his cabbin, and to strip himself, his wife, and children stark naked without their daring to make the least resistence. And further in order to shun all such contestation which might arise on this head, certain points were agreed upon from which they never deviated. For example, every thing found, were it but a moment after it was lost, belonged to the finder, proved the former proprietor had not before reclaimed it; but on discovery of the least dishonesty on the part of the former, they obliged him to make restitution, which occasioned sometimes dissentions, which were with difficulty put an end to: the following is an instance of this sort singular enough.

A good old woman had all her worldly goods, but one collar of Wampum, worth about ten crowns of our money, and which she carried about her every where in a little bag. One day as she was at work in the fields, she chanced to hang her bag on a tree; another woman who perceived it and had a great desire to filch her collar from her, thought the present a favourable occasion for seizing it without being liable to be accused of theft: she therefore kept her eye continually upon it; and, in about the space of an hour or two, the old woman having gone into the next field, she flies to the tree, seizes the bag, and falls a crying how lucky she had been to find so valuable a prize. The old woman turns immediately about and says the bag belonged to her, and that it was she who had hung it on the tree, that she had neither lost it nor forgot it, and that she intended to take it down, when her work should be over; her adversary made answer, that we are not to judge the intentions, and that having quitted the field without taking down her bag, she was deemed in law to have forgot it.

After many contestations between these two women, who never spoke so much as one disobliging word the whole time; the affair was brought before an arbiter who was the chief of the village: "according to the rigor," says he, "the bag is the property of the finder; but the circumstances of the thing are such, that if this woman would not be taxed with avarice, she ought to restore it to the claimant, and be satisfied with some little present, which the other cannot in reason refuse her." Both parties acquiesced in this judgment; and it is proper to observe that the fear of being accused of avarice had full as much power on the minds of the Indians, as the fear of punishment could have had; and that these people are generally governed by the principles of honour more than by any other motive whatever.

What I am now going to add, will give your Grace a new proof of this. I said a little above, that in order to prevent the consequences of murder, the public takes upon itself the charge of making the proper submissions for the guilty, and indemnifying the interested. Would you believe that this very circumstance has more power in preventing these disorders than the most severe laws? Nothing is, however, more true: for as these satisfactions cost much to men whose haughtiness is beyond all expression, the criminal is the more sensible of the mortification which he sees the publick suffers on his account, than he could possibly be of his own; and their zeal for the honour off their nation, is a much more powerful curb on these barbarians than the fear of death, or any other punishment whatsoever.

Besides, it is certain that impunity has not always prevailed amongst them to the degree it has done lately; and our first missionaries found some traces of the ancient severity, with which they knew how to restrains crime still remaining. Theft in particular has always been looked upon as a stain which dishonoured a family; and every individual had a right to wash off the scandal of it in the blood of the criminal. Father Brebeuf perceived one day a young Huron who was dispatching a girl; he ran up to him in order to hinder him, and asked him what it was that could provoke him to this violence. "It is my sister," answered the Indian, "she is a thief, and I am going to expiate by her death, the dishonour she has brought upon me and all our family." My letter is just called for. I conclude with assuring you, that

I am, &c.


See Also:

Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Dictionary of American Biography

Healy, George R. The French Jesuits and the idea of the noble savage. William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Series 1958 15 (2): 143-167.