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ART. I.-Lettres Edifiantes et Curieuses. Tomes vi. vii. viii, et ix. A Paris. Chez J. G. Merigot, le jeune. M. DCC. LXXXI.
IT must be an object of interest, at least to every American, to become acquainted with the customs and manners of the people who once possessed the soil which he now inhabits. The first European settlers do not, however, appear to have had sufficient leisure, opportunity or inclination for the research to enable them to obtain that knowledge, or to leave upon record what they did learn. Engaged in the search after precious metals, the providing for pressing wants, guarding against menacing danger, or repairing the consequences of disaster; they knew little of the language of tribes which they despised for their barbarism, and dreaded for their cruelty, cunning and deceit they appear to have had little of that philosophical curiosity which leads to investigation for mere speculative purposes, and they felt more interested in learning how to improve their fortune, than in discovering whom the savages worshipped, and by what ceremonial. The history of the colonies, as well as that of the states, exhibits to us the continued retreat of the red man from the encroachments of the white, and the latter still occupied, with his own projects, regardless of the domestic or peculiar concerns of the former. This will, probably, satisfy the inquirer who would ask why we possess so few documents, and so little information upon the subject of Indian customs.
However, the work which we now examine is well calculated, to a certain extent, to supply much of what appears wanting upon this head.
This collection of letters is a selection from several which had been received in Europe, during a considerable portion of the VOL. II.—NO. 4, 39
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from missionaries of the Roman Catholic Church, stationed in various regions of th hemispheres. The edition now before us consists of twenty-five volumes, four of which, viz. the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth, contain the documents regarding the American continent and the West Indies. The editor commences his preface to this portion, with a passage which we translate:
"The Memoirs of America present to the reader's curiosity, objects very different from those of the missions of the Levant. The islands of the Archipelago, Constantinople, Syria, the adjacent provinces, the kingdom of Persia and that of Egypt preserve, as yet, traces of their ancient splendour, and in these countries which we may call degraded, still every thing reminds us of the industry, the riches and the magnificence of their former inhabitants. America, on the contrary, scarcely presents to us any thing besides lakes, forests, unreclaimed lands, rivers and savages.
66 Cupidity and a sort of restlessness produced the discovery of this fourth portion of the world. We treat here neither of the voyages nor of the conquests of the first navigators. A sufficient number of other writers have described the hardihood of the enterprises and the too direful success of the modern argonauts. Immense regions discovered, depopulated, devastated; millions of men, free and tranquil in their possessions immolated as victims to the avarice, even to the caprices of their new guests, might indeed excite our interest, but would create in us a more afflicting sympathy."
The writer then vindicates France from such charges, and proceeds to shew how she entered upon her lands by purchase, and cultivated peace with the Indians; that the king of France informed of the superstition, ignorance and barbarism of his new allies, sent missionaries of the Society of Jesuits to the Iroquois, the Hurons, the Illinois, &c. He proceeds
"Those icy regions have been watered by their sweat and soaked with their blood. Several died in torments, the bare recollection of which causes our nature to shudder, and all suffered incredible pain and fatigue.
"Obliged, in some degree, to become savages with those barbarians, thus to bring them to be men, that they might subsequently become Christians, they learned their languages, lived according to their manners, traversed the woods in their society, and became like to them in every thing which was not evil, that they might induce them to hear, to love, to esteem, and to practice that which was good."
The opportunities for observation which these men possessed, were therefore of the very best description; of the ability to turn these opportunities to account few will be disposed to raise a question, and for the fidelity of their relation perhaps as little
doubt can exist as in most cases of good testimony; they may be considered as perfectly disinterested, and the relations were given by persons, who, because of their remote stations, could not have conspired to frame a system of deceit; they were given to affectionate friends and for superiors to whom they were bound by the most solemn and sacred ties, to be plain and candid. If ever documents possessed internal evidence of truth, that evidence is found in these letters, of which the editor says
"They bear, as do all the other letters of this work, a character of simplicity and of truth, which affects and which persuades. There is observable throughout, great care to hazard nothing, to speak only of what is within the writer's knowledge, only of what he has examined with a scrupulous attention, a taste for observation which extends to every thing, a desire to be informed and to communicate knowledge, the result probably of a good education, of a laudable emulation and of a sensitiveness happy and profound, which without permitting the missionary to forget what is required by the most pure and ardent zeal, teaches him to discover the secret of uniting with the love of useful science the most continued, persevering, and painful duties of his ministry."
Having premised these few observations as to the credit of the writers, the first question which presents itself to us is, whether the Aborigines were pure Theists, as has been frequently asserted, or whether their religion like that of the other degraded and barbarous nations known to us, was a blending of polytheism, idolatry and superstition. Upon this subject we meet with the following passage in a letter of Father Gabriel Marest, a Jesuit missionary in Canada, to his superior Father Lamberville, Procurator of the Canadian missions. Father Marest was chaplain to two vessels which sailed on the 10th of August, 1696, from Quebec, under the command of M. D'Iberville, to take possession of stations which the British were forming upon the shore of Hudson's Bay. On the 13th of October, the English surrendered a small fort at the confluence of two rivers, which he calls the Bourbon and the St. Therese, the former of which, the English, he says, called the Pornetton, in the latitude of something more than 57 degrees. Upon the arrival of the expedition in September, Father Marest states that he applied with assiduity to perfect himself in the language of the Indians: In September of the following year the English recaptured the fort, and the writer was taken and sent to Plymouth in England, where he was confined in prison until exchanged. He states that during the year of his residence at the fort, and in its vicinity, upwards of three hundred canoes had arrived for the purposes of traffic from seven or eight of the
neighbouring tribes, the most distant, the most numerous, and the most considerable of which were the Creeks and the Assiniboels, the former of which were sometimes called the Knistinnons-the language of the Creeks he calls the Algonquin, and that of the Assiniboels, the same as that of the Scioux. He then describes their places of residence and alliances; after which, he proceeds to describe their religion, regarding which we give the following passage:—
"As to the religion which they profess, I believe that it is the same as that of the other savages: I do not know, as yet, with precision in what their idolatry consists. I do know that they have a sort of sacrifices; they are great jugglers; they use as the others do, the pipe which they call calumet; they smoke at the sun; they also smoke towards absent persons; they have frequently smoked to our fort and our vessel; yet I cannot tell you for certain what notions of the divinity they might have, not having been able to fathom them. I will only add that they are extremely superstitious, greatly debauched, that they live in simultaneous polygamy, and in a great estrangement from the Christian religion."
Although this extract gives us very little information respecting the facts which we seek, yet it exhibits to us the candour of the writer, and the difficulty of attaining in a short time, accurate notions of a religion to which we are perfect strangers; whilst it is a striking contrast to the presumption of persons, who, with less opportunity, have in similar cases dogmatically pronounced upon what they did not understand.
The fifth letter, in the sixth volume, is one from Father Sebastian Rasles, a Jesuit, to his brother who lived in France, and is dated at Narantsouac, on the 12th of October, 1723. It was written at the request of his brother to give him some notion of the state of the country and its inhabitants. He recites the history of his departure from France, and his travels and residence in America, in such a manner as to exhibit to us his full competency as a witness.
"On the 23d of July, in the year 1689, I embarked at Rochelle, and after a good voyage of three months, arrived at Quebec on the 13th of October; I immediately began to learn the language of the Indians which is very difficult; for it is not enough to study the terms and their signification as well as to lay in a stock of words and phrases; it is besides necessary to know the turn and arrangement which they receive from the natives, which can be attained only by intercourse and habits of intimacy with them.
"I thence went to live in a village in the nation of the Abnakis, which was in a forest, about three leagues from Quebec: this village was inhabited by about two hundred Indians, most of whom were Chris tians," &c.
He next describes their mode of building, dress and occupations; after which, he continues
"It was in the midst of this people, who are considered the least rude of our Indians, that I served my missionary apprenticeship. My principal occupation was to study their language. It is learned with great difficulty, especially when one has no other teachers but Indians."
After a dissertation upon the languages, and giving specimens of the dialects of the Abnakis, the Algonquins, the Hurons, and the Illinois, he states, that after nearly two years residence in this nation, he was ordered to the missions in the country of the Illinois. Previous however to his setting off, he was detained three months in Quebec, studying the Algonquin tongue, and on the 13th of August, probably 1692, he set out from Quebec in a canoe, to go through rivers and lakes, over unreclaimed lands, and in the midst of forests, a journey of eight hundred leagues to the nation of the Illinois. After much suffering near the lake of the Hurons, the company having been scattered by bad weather, he had to send some provisions to his comrades from Missilimakinak, where two missionaries were stationed, one for the Hurons, the other for the Outaouacks-probably Ottowas. Of those he gives the following account:
"They are very superstitious and much attached to the juggling of their charlatans. They claim an origin equally absurd and ridiculous! they pretend to have come from three families, and each family composed of five hundred persons. Some are of the family of Michabou, or "the great Hare." They pretend that this great Hare was a man of prodigious size, that he spread nets in the water to the depth of eighteen arms length, and that his hand was scarcely sunk to the armpit; that one day during the deluge, he sent the castor to discover land; but this animal not having returned, he sent another, which brought back a small quantity of earth covered with froth; that he went to that part of the lake whence the earth was brought, and which formed a small island; that he walked in the water around it, and that this island became extraordinarily large, on which account they attribute to him the creation of the earth: they add, that after having effected this he fled to the sun, which is the usual place of his residence; but before leaving this earth, he directed that upon the death of any one of his descendants their bodies should be burned, and the ashes cast into the air, that they might more easily ascend to the heavens; that if this was neglected, snow would continue to rest upon their lands, their rivers and lakes would remain locked up with ice, and not being able to procure fish, which is their usual diet, they would die in the spring."
Believing, as we do, the Mosaic account of the general deluge, and the origin of all the families of the earth from Noah,