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Excerpt of Brebeuf's Torture

It is here in the narrative that additional historical information sheds deeper light on what happened to Radisson from New France when he paddled and portaged 800 miles to the Jesuit mission eight years after Brebeuf was martyered. There was a history of European presence helps put Radisson's impact in perspective.

In respect to Brebeuf's story and how it relates to Pierre Radisson, they both traveled the same 800-mile Ottawa Rvier route because the St. Lawrence River route through Lake Ontario was blockaded by the Iroquois - the "pirates of the fur trade." The Ottawa River route brought the Frenchmen through friendly territories until finally reaching Georgian Bay, the home water of the Hurons. The Nipissirinians and Algonquin tribes were friendly allies to the French. Like Radisson and Groseilliers, they paddled and portaged light bark canoes for days from Three Rivers along the St. Lawrence River to where they took the Ottawa River north to where it meets the Mattawa River down to Lake Nipissing and then connecting with the French River to Georgian Bay. The Hurons usually kept food caches (ground corn) hidden alond the route but often they were missed and all had to go hungry. (The corn would be mixed with water to create gruel). Brebeuf relates that there are as many as 35 portages along the rugged terrain due to waterfalls and rapids. Radisson was suffering the hardships of the journey just as Brebeuf, but the difference was that he was not doing it for God; he was doing it for profit and adventure. For Brebeuf, it was for God: "To be sure, I was at time so weary that my body could do no more. But at the same time my soul was filled with great happiness as I realized that I was suffering this for God. No one can know this feeling unless he has experienced it."[1]

Radisson and Brebeuf both traveled with the Hurons but it was Brebuef who wrote down some instructions for future missionaries in 1637. We can only assume these guidelines were shared by all the Frenchmen who traveled at this time along the Ottawa River route:

q      You must love these Hurons, ransomed by the blood of the Son of God, as brothers
q      You must never keep the Indians waiting at the time of embarking
q      Carry a tinder-box or a piece of burning-glass, or both, to make fire for them during the day for smoking, and in the evening when it is necessary to camp; these little services win their hearts
q      Try to eat the food they offer you, and eat all you can, for you may not eat again for hours
q      Eat as soon as day breaks, for Indians, when on the road, eat only at the rising and the setting of the sun
q      Be prompt in embarking and disembarking and do not carry any water or sand into the canoe
q      Be the least troublesome to the Indians
q      Do not ask many questions; silence is golden
q      Bear with their imperfections, and you must try always to be and to appear cheerful
q      Carry with the half-gross of awls, two or three dozen little folding knives (jambettes), a hundred or so fish-hooks, and some plain and fancy beads with which to buy fish or other commodities from the nations you meet, in order to feat your Indian companions, and be sure to tell them from the outset that here is something with which to buy fish
q      Always carry something during the portages
q      Do not be ceremonious with the Indians
q      Do not begin to paddle unless you intend always to paddle
q      The Indians will keep later that opinion of you which theu have formed during the trip
q      Always show any other Indians you meet on the way a cheerful face and show that you readily accept the fatigues of the journey[2]

Theft and abandonment were also common during these trips. Father Davost was stolen from and then forced to leave his equipment behind until he was finally left to his own fate on the island among the Algonquins (Allumette Island). Paul Le Jeune wrote in his Relation of 1632-33, "to steal, and not to be discovered, is a sign of superior intelligence among them... I learn that the Hurons consider a man very clever who can escape the hand of a thief, or who knows who to steal without being caught. But if he is discovered, you may whip him as much as you like and he will say nothing. He suffers his punishment patiently, not as a penalty for his crime, but for his awkwardness in being caught. "[3]

But in general, the Hurons regarded the Frenchmen as intelligent. Timepieces and tools were examples of the innovation of Europeans. The Hurons were a people devoted to interpreting and acting on their dreams. The dream was an oracle to be acted upon at once. To Brebeuf, their dreams were the principal God of the Hurons. But it was their belief in an afterlife that brought them to Christianity. Soon mothers wanted their children baptized and to be given instruction of God's word. But it would take seven years to get his first adult convert. It is recorded that Pierre Tsiouendaentaha, a man of 50, was baptized on June 9, 1637, that caused a stir among the Hurons. It was during this year that the Hurons had grown quite hostile towards the missionaries after stories spread that it were the missionaries who were the ones that had caused the sickness to come. Brebeuf informed Quebec that the situation was bad in a letter signed by five Jesuits, one being Father Paul Ragueneau. In 1640 Brebeuf and Chaumonot were severely beaten by the Huron. After the failed mission to the Neutral Nation in 1641 and breaking his clavicle in his shoulder on the trip back to Huronia, Brebeuf was exhausted and in danger. He had become persona non grata in the Huron villages. His superiors decided to remove him from the area and so began three years in New France as procurator (supplier) of the Huron Mission.

The Iroquois kept intercepting supplies sent to the mission that Brebeuf ended up returning in 1644 for his third and final stint at the Huron mission. During these golden years for the mission, the number of baptisms had grown into the thousands.[4] The Iroquois however had grown stronger and were now invading Huron lands and trying to capture the supplies going to the French mission. Father Jogues and other Frenchmen were captured on the St. Lawrence River and cruelly treated by the Iroquois until they were rescued by the Dutch in New Holland (upstate New York near Albany) in 1644. Father Bressani was also captured and tortured while on his way to Huronia in 1942. But it was in 1646 that Father Jogues was captured again, tortured and killed. In 1647 the fear of the Iroquois was so great that no one risked the trip to Three Rivers.

Then things took a turn for the worse. Teanaostaiae, a Huron outpost to the south, was attacked and seized by the Iroquois. It was here where Father Antoine Daniel was martyred defending his flock. But it was a key defensive position and with it now gone, their southern flank was exposed to attack. Never had the mission been so successful than now immanent destruction lay just behind the forest to the south. It would happen on March 15, 1649. Some 1200 Iroquois had left their lands the previous fall and had hunted throughout the winter to be ready for an early raid on the Huron in the early spring. As such, the Iroquois were stealthy when they approached from the Huron's weak side and before light had crept in and slaughtered in the dark. Accounts say that 400 Hurons were killed with only 10 Iroquois slain in the sporatic fighting. Brebeuf and Lalemont were not there having just left for St. Louis, the mission to the north. They were captured and taken prisoner the next day while the Iroquois planned to attack the walled compound of Sainte-Marie the next day. A band of brave Hurons fought off the Iroquois vanguard and thus prevented the attack on Sainte-Marie. The warriors were eventually overrun but at a heavy cost to the Iroquois. The enemy fled back to Iroquois land and left the Huron scrambling to Sainte-Marie as the main village. But in two months the missionaries would destroy their beloved Sainte-Marie mission and moved to Christian Island in the Bay. They would leave for Quebec the following year and end the French missionary activities in Huronia. It was only two years later that Peirre Radisson would suffer the same tortures as Brebeuf and Lalemant at the hands of the Iroquois. Eight years later Radisson would paddle past the smoldering remains of the French mission.

The only witness to Radisson's torture was Radisson himself, and disagreement as to its objectivity has been raised by historians. But there is Paul Ragueneau's account that records Brebeuf's torture, the same Father Ragueneau who would hire Radisson to be his interpreter on his mission to the Iroquois in 1657 to 1658. Ragueneau's account gives us some idea of the torture methods and preferences of the Iroquois at the time.


As soon as they were taken captive, they were stripped naked, and some of their nails were torn out; and the welcome which they received upon entering the village of St. Ignace was a hailstorm of blows with sticks upon their shoulders, their loins, their legs, their breasts, their bellies, and their faces - there being no part of their bodies which did not then endure its torment.
Father Jean de Brebeuf, overwhelmed under the burden of these blows, did not on that account lose care for his flock; seeing himself surrounded with Christians whom he had instructed, and who were in captivity with him, he said to them: "My children, let us lift our eyes to heaven at the height of our afflictions; let us remember that God is the witness of our sufferings, and will soon be exceeding great reward. Let us die in this faith; and let us hope from his goodness the fulfillment of his promises. I have more pity for you than for myself; but sustain with courage the few remaining torments. They will end with our lives; the glory which follows them will never have an end."
"Echon," they said to him..."our spirits will be in heaven when our bodies shall be suffering on earth. Pray to God for us, that he may show us mercy; we will invoke him even until death."
Some Huron infidels - former captives of the Iroquois, naturalized among them, and former enemies of the Faith - were irritated by these words, and because our Fathers in their captivity had not their tongues captive. They cut off the hands of one, and pierce the other with sharp awls and iron points; they apply under their armpits and upon their loins hatchets heated red in the fire, and put a necklace of these about their necks in such a way that all the motions of their bodies gave them a new torture...They put about them belts of bark, filled with pitch and resin, to which they set fire, which scorched the whole of their bodies.
...Father Jean de Brebeuf suffered like a rock, insensible to the fires and the flames, without uttering any cry, and keeping a profound silence, which astonished his executioners themselves. No doubt, his heart was then reposing in his God. Then, returning to himself, he preached to those infidels, and still more to many good Christian captives, who had compassion on him.
His tormentors, indignant at his zeal, in order to hinder him from speaking any further of God, slashed his mouth, cut off his nose, and tore off his lips. But his blood spoke much more loudly than his lips had done, and, his heart not yet being torn out, his tongue not fail to render him service until the last sigh, for blessing God for these torments, and for animating the Christians more vigorously than he had ever done.
In derision of holy baptism...those enemies of the faith, conceived the idea of baptizing them with boiling water. They poured it over the Fathers' bodies in great quantities, two or three times, and more, with biting jibes, which accompanied these torments. "We baptize thee," they said, "to the end that thou mayest be blessed in heaven; for without peoper baptism one cannot be saved."...
These were infidel Hurons, former captives of the Iroquois, and, of old, enemies of the faith - who, having previously had sufficient instruction for their salvation, impiously abused it - in reality, for the glory of the Fathers. But it is to be feared that it was also for their own misfortune.
...Their tortures were not of the same duration. Father Jean de Brebeuf was at the height of his torments at about three o'clock on the same day of the capture, the 16th day of March, and rendered up his soul about four o'clock in the afternoon. Father Gabriel Lalemant endured longer, from six o'clock in the evening, until about nine o'clock the next morning, the 17th of March.
Before their death, both their hearts were torn out, by means of an opening above the breast; and their tormentors feasted on them...While still quite full of life, pieces of flesh were removed from their thighs, from the calves of their legs, and from their arms - which these executioners placed on coals to roast, and ate in their sight.
They had slashed the bodies of the Fathers in various parts; and in order to increase the feeling of pain, they had thrust into these wounds red-hot hatchets.
Father Jean de Brebeuf had had the skin that covered his skull torn away. They had cut off his feet and torn the flesh from his thighs, even to the bone, and had split, with the blow of a hatchet, one of his jaws in two...
But let us leave these objects of horror, and these signs of cruelty, since one day all those parts will be endowed with an immortal glory, the greatness of their torments will be the measure of their happiness, and, from now on, they live in the repose of the saints, and will dwell in it forever.[5]

This was the end of the man who had converted 7000 Hurons through baptism. He was 56 years old when his matyrdom took place.

The Second Vatican Council tells us "by martyrdom a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master, who freely accepted death on behalf of the world's salvation; he perfects that image even to the shedding of blood."[6] In his death Brebeuf became a martyr but the affects of the wars with the Iroquois and disease has changed the population from 30,000 to 12,000. By the time of the final collapse of Huronia, only 1000 Hurons were left.

The Hurons featured prominently in Radisson's and Brebeuf's lives. A great trading nation situated strategically along the water routes, they were shrewd traders. They traded corn, flour and tobacco for European trade goods such as pots, knives and fish-hooks and were able to acquire large quantities of what the French wanted the most: furs. Every June or July they paddled in their canoes to Three Rivers to trade with the French.

The Dutch, who had their power base in the New World beside the land of the Five Nations, supplied and abetted the Iroquois in their attacks against the French and the Hurons. It was said that the Iroquois had ten times more muskets than the Hurons. And with only 100 soldiers in New France, the Iroquois were successful in their attacks. It was all about the fur trade and meeting the demands for the markets in Europe. This source of the fervor had its ripple effects deep into the interior of the New World through these water routes that went farther past the first European mission so far west in the Great Lakes water system. The mission was started in 1615 and ended with the Iroquois invasions in 1650. Quebec had been founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, so in French Canada at the time Huronia was by far the farthest west European settlement in North America. The first Europeans to Huronia were Father LeCaron and Samuel Champlain on August 4th. Ettiene Brule was there at the first mass on the shores of Georgian Bay. They stayed the winter and left the following May and there was no more missionary work done until 1623 when Father LeCaron returned with two other Rocellets, Father Nicholas Viel and Brother Gabriel Sagard and some Frenchmen. LeCaron and Sagard returned to Quebec the next summer but Viel stayed, only to be drowned just north of Montreal Island in 1625. And it was 1626 when through the intervention of Champlain, he was taken with returning Hurons to Georgian Bay to begin the mission in earnest. Besides Brebeuf, there were Father Joseph de la Roche Daillon and Father Anne de Noue, who was a Jesuit. Noue was unable to grasp the language and returned to New France only to freeze to death in 1646 on the St. Lawrence near Sobel. De la Roche Daillon returned in 1628 in poor health. And it was only due to the captitulation of Quebec to the Kirke Brothers that Brebeuf left in 1629. Again missionary work in Huronia stopped but some Frenchmen continued on there. The names of these valiant Frenchmen have been lost to history.

The adventuresome and unruly coureur-de-bois Etiene Brule was murdered near Toanche in June 1633. On Christmas Day in 1635 Samuel de Champlain, champion of the Huron mission and friend of the missionaries, died. The prevailing perspective of life west of Quebec could be summed up by Champlain himself: "Out there, in this great land, in every direction, roam savage tribes living like beasts."[7]

The Huron decimation occurred in the 1640s and 1650s at the hands of the Dutch-supplied Iroquois, on a mission to expand their power and take hold of more of the fur trade. The tipping of the old balance of power was due to increased European influence in the region, especially the Dutch trading muskets for furs in the southeast.

[1] Jesuit Relations, The Huron Relation of 1635, Jean de Brebeuf

[2] Ibid., p. 13-14

[3] Ibid., p. 17

[4] It was recorded in Relations that the Huron nation at this time populated about 30,000 people.

[5] Cf. Thwaites ed., vol. 34, with slight modifications

[6] Martyrs of New France, edited Angus J. Macdougall, Martyr's Shrine Publication, 1972.

[7] Tender was the Strength; Brebeuf of Huronia, Dorothy B. Norman, Friends of Good Books, Cambridge, 1983 



Note on the Excerpt 
This excerpt was taken from Chapter Nineteen, Radisson: Unssung Hero of the New World. The torture account is from Jesuit Relations, from Paul Rageneau, who was there to give an eye-witness account     


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