What I’m learning about 17th century Canada…

The research for my new work-in-progress, The Jigonsaseh, is taking me far back in time. I’m weaving together information from Haudenosaunee oral histories and primary and secondary sources in an attempt to find out more about the peace woman who’s one of the main characters. I have a background in Canadian history and Aboriginal legal history (I have a doctorate and wrote a non-fiction book called Lament for a First Nation) but what I’m learning as I work through this project is far from mainstream.

For example, the Jesuit, Father Brule, who visited the Wendats  and the Neutrals in the early 1600s was described by other Jesuits as living a “scandalous and licentious lifestyle” when it came to Aboriginal women. They don’t give any details. Which makes me wonder what  he was up to.

There was an ossuary uncovered east of Niagara in Neutral territory during an archaeological dig that had the bones of a mixed race child in it. The Jesuits were the only white people who over-wintered with the Neutrals in that time period. Hmmm.

Sadly, the ossuary also had the bones of a child who had been stunted by smallpox. I didn’t realize that that smallpox could affect growth if it was contracted during a child’s growing phase, but apparently it can. What was even sadder was to discover that almost half of the Neutrals were killed off by a form of smallpox carried by Wenros fleeing Seneca attacks who passed through Neutral territory.  I’m not sure where the Wenros picked up the illness, but again, it was probably carried by the Jesuits.

The study of the Niagara excavation is really an interesting find for me. This is the geographic area where The Jigonsaseh would have originally come from before she was taken captive by the Senecas to Ganondagan for her safety in 1652. (That’s where she became The Jigonsaseh to the Haudenosaunee nations; she was the head clan mother, or Mother of Nations.)

Interestingly, there were only the bones of women and children found in this site and no men, which is unusual. Given the quality of the goods buried with them and the reverence with which the bodies were treated, the archaeologist thinks it may have been considered a sacred site at the time. (Gaustayea was a place of sanctuary in Neutral territory. The Jigonsaseh’s longhouse conferred a right of asylum, sort of like a church sometimes does today.)

But there were 103 women and children buried  at the same time, which makes you wonder what happened that resulted in them dying all at once.  There were no cuts on the bones so we can reasonably infer that they weren’t killed in the Iroquois attacks that destroyed the Neutral nation in 1652.  And since they ranged in age from toddlers to around 51, they certainly didn’t die of old age or natural causes. My guess is that these were  women and children who sought refuge in the  Neutral territory and then were taken suddenly by illness.

I also found a reference  in one of the secondary sources to another architectural dig in which the grave of the Jigonsaseh was believed to have been found: the grave site was scattered with freshwater pearls. No primary source was provided unfortunately; I would love to know more about that dig and what was found.

And so I have this incredible woman who’s described in oral histories — the Jigonsaseh was a peace woman whose skills at mediation and conflict resolution  transcended national boundaries — and I’m finding snippets of information in the historical and ethnographic record that support those oral histories. Some historians thought that Gaustayea was mythical; finding  archaeological information that tends to back up its existence is pretty cool.

In my research today for a chapter in which The Jigonsaseh remembers her first encounter with a Jesuit, I found out that when the Jesuits visited the Neutrals, not only were they turned away, but the Wendats offered to give the Neutrals nine iron axes to kill them, even though it was the Wendats who were acting as their guides!

Since the Neutrals had only stone axes at the time , that must have been pretty tempting. But instead, they tossed the Jesuits out, no doubt in part because the Wendats had told them previously that all Europeans had long tails and that white women had one giant breast in the middle of their chests. (Meanwhile, the Jesuits were telling their superiors that pretty much all the First Nations were cannibals, something most historians today debunk.)

Looking at the drawings of the clothing the First Nations wore and the way they decorated themselves compared to how  Europeans dressed and wore their hair (remember, this was at the height of Versailles and Louis XIV), they might as well have come from different planets. Talk about a culture clash! I can just imagine the Jigonsaseh as a little girl, peeking out shyly at these strange visitors with their black robes and wondering how long their tails were.

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2 Responses to What I’m learning about 17th century Canada…

  1. Lawrence Day says:

    “…what I’m learning as I work through this project is far from mainstream.”

    I find it delightful that your era of research should begin to overlap with my own (Jan19 1592-1632). The reason one must abandon the mainstream is well explained by Jeffrey Sawyer in a 1990 book “Printed Poison”, an academic study of censorship and propaganda in France during Louis XIII’s reign. Richelieu’s censorship was strict: capital punishment for printing, disseminating or posting any unapproved book or pamphlet. The propaganda office also churned out lies, including a revised Canadian history, palpably false but the only history available after books by Joseph Le Caron, Pierre Biard, Jean Nicollet etc had been burnt and the library at Chantilly of former Viceroy Montmorency “pruned” after his beheading. The era of the fourth fire was bloody and traumatic so it is understandable that myth was substituted for the true history and the mainstream lost its way. I found this quirk in our “histories” by reading primary sources in chronological order, coming upstream as it were.

    The last trustworthy document may be a thick letter from the first Jesuit Superior at Quebec, Charles L’Allement addressed to his brother in France and published in Paris in 1627. The letter is dated August 1626 and includes in it a commendation for Brule who has taught him a lot of the Wendat language over the winter of 1626, will be accompanying Amantacha back to France, and is expected to return to Canada to accomplish great things. In this letter Father Charles reveals that Amantacha, who is the right age to be Brule’s first offspring, also calls him “Father”. Golly, do you think the boy may have been conceived in sin? Soranhes is his mother’s husband. In any case, Brule remains white-hatted (modern research unearthed his contract to truchement for the King in 1628) until Richelieu’s revised history in which he is demonized, as you quote: “scandalous and licentious lifestyle”. But he is also a convenient scapegoat as Richelieu had blundered away a continent and his investors fortunes to Huguenot privateer Captains Kirke. In reality, rather than greed or treason, all of Brule’s motivation could have been safely returning Amantacha to his mother in Wendake. The boy/Prince was due back in 1627.
    According to some recent research by John Steckley (Ontario History, Autumn 2012) there are 270 Huron names mentioned in the Jesuit Relations and only Amantacha has the letter M used. This mystery would be explained if he were unique in being the first Ontario Metis, later known as the “Bois Brule”. In oral tradition one of Brules daughters became a medicine woman. But Brule was not a Jesuit, he was a truchement mediator ambassador explorer fur merchant etc.


  2. Peggy Blair says:

    Hi, Lawrence – lovely to hear from you! Your comment is so interesting that I’ve reproduced it in its entirety as a guest post with my comment at the bottom explaining what “truchements” were to those who won’t know. It’s such an interesting period isn’t it? The Jesuits have really been treated with kid gloves by historians who took their comments about the Iroquois and other First Nations out of their religious context and pretty much ignored the role they played in the fur trade and in French politics. In my manuscript, the Jesuits consistently lie, exaggerate, deceive and engage in all kinds of underhanded political intrigue … an interpretation I consider to be accurate, based on my research.


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