Jean de Brébeuf
French, circa 1593 - circa 1649

Note: All narratives about people are, to the extent possible, based on primary and secondary historical sources. Some narratives necessarily contain invented, yet plausible, scenarios and personal attributes. Please see About This Narrative to learn more about how this person's narrative was created.

Jean de Brébeuf - Prologue | Trading at Quebec | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

1593 – 1633

image name: Brebeuf.jpg

Jean de Brébeuf founded the Jesuit mission to the Wendats (Hurons) and lived among them for 15 years.
Courtesy National Archives of Canada.

Jean de Brébeuf, founder of the Jesuit mission to the Wendat (Huron) confederacy, was born in Normandy, France, on March 25, 1593. At the age of 24, he joined a Jesuit seminary as a novice and began the long process of becoming a Jesuit priest. (For more about that process, see the narrative for Jacques Bruyas.)

The Jesuit order places a high value on both intellectual achievement and obedience to God and one's superiors. Following the usual path, Brébeuf spent several years studying and then teaching in the Jesuit college at Rouen. While teaching, Brébeuf became very ill, which "interfered with his studies... so that he never acquired any extensive theological knowledge," according to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1). He was able to continue preparing for the priesthood, however, which he received in 1622. In 1625, he was chosen for the mission to New France, and set sail for North America with Fathers Massé and Lalemant.

In New France

Brébeuf spent his first winter with the Montagnais Indians near Quebec, traveling with them on their winter hunt through the cold, snowy forests. When summer came, his superior ordered him and Father Anne de Nouë to accompany Father Daillon, a priest of the Récollet order, to the country of the Wendats, whose powerful confederacy had a long-established trading and military alliance with the French.

The alliance dated back to a meeting between Wendat traders and Samuel de Champlain at Montreal in 1611. The Wendats presented Champlain with four strings of wampum (one for each nation in the Wendat confederacy at the time) and 50 beaver pelts (one for each of the Wendat council chiefs). Champlain later (1615) went to Wendake to meet with the council and join the Wendats on a campaign against the Oneida. After reluctantly spending the winter in Wendake, Champlain returned to Quebec with the Wendat chief Atironta. These reciprocal visits sealed the French-Wendat alliance. From then on, Wendat traders traveled to the St. Lawrence every year, their canoes laden with furs to exchange for French trade goods.

Journey to Wendake

Brébeuf and the other two priests were carried in the canoes of returning Wendat traders. The route went north through Algonquin territory, up the Ottawa River and through a series of other rivers and lakes to reach Georgian Bay in Lake Huron—avoiding the lower St. Lawrence where attacks by the enemy Rotinonsionni (Iroquois) threatened. Brébeuf later wrote about the journey, in a caution addressed to would-be missionaries: "You must expect to be, at least, three or four weeks on the way . . . cramped in a bark canoe in an uncomfortable position, not being free to turn yourself to one side or the other; in danger fifty times a day of being upset or of being dashed upon the rocks. During the day, the sun burns you; during the night, you run the risk of being a prey to mosquitoes. You sometimes ascend five or six rapids in a day; and, in the evening, the only refreshment is a little corn crushed between two stones and cooked in fine clear water; the only bed is the earth, sometimes only the rough, uneven rocks, and usually no roof but the stars." (2)

The three missionaries settled among the Attignawantan, the Bear nation of the Wendat confederacy, in the town of Toanché. The Récollet, Father Daillon, endangered himself and the mission enterprise by traveling south to the Atiwendaron people (whom the French called the Neutral) and offering them a trade alliance with the French. Since the Wendat were the middlemen between French trade goods and the Atiwendaron, they were furious at this action. Daillon was lucky to leave Wendake alive, which he did in 1628. Father de Nouë lacked Brébeuf's skills at learning the Wendat language, and returned to Quebec as well, leaving Brébeuf the only missionary in Wendake.

Clash of Beliefs

Brébeuf stayed among the Wendats for three years, learning their language and culture. The Wendats called him Echon or Echom, echoing the French pronunciation of his first name, Jean (zhon). He baptized only one person, a baby who seemed about to die (who recovered). In the summer of 1628, he had a confrontation with a shaman named Tehorenhaegnon—Brébeuf calls him an arendiowane or sorcerer, soothsayer—that is revealing of how the Wendats viewed the Jesuit's role and teachings.

Tehorenhaegnon blamed the red-painted cross in front of Brébeuf's cabin for his inability to end a drought, saying "that the thunder[bird] . . . was afraid of the Cross that was in front of the Frenchmen's house, and that that the red color with which it was painted was like a fire burning and flaming, which divided the clouds in two when they passed above it." Brébeuf refused to take down the cross, but offered a test: if the thunderbird was afraid of the cross's red color, paint the cross white and see if it rains. The townspeople tried this, and the rains still did not come. They acknowledged that Tehorenhaegnon was wrong, and asked Brébeuf as the more powerful shaman what they should do now. He held a ceremony of prayers, offerings, and adoration of the cross. Brébeuf writes that "they did so well that on the same day God gave them rain, and in the end a plentiful harvest, as well as a profound admiration for the divine Power." (3) Brébeuf thus presented Christianity in a way that fit with the traditional Wendat belief system—but as a more powerful magic.

Brébeuf was called back to Quebec in 1629, when the English were threatening to take control of the city. The English succeeded, and Brébeuf and the other missionaries were sent back to France. While in France, Brébeuf took additional Jesuit vows that advanced him to the next level in the order. In 1632, France regained control of Quebec—and the Jesuits won control of New France's missions, out-maneuvering the Récollets at the French court. Father Brébeuf returned to New France in 1633, where his superior, Father Paul Le Jeune, charged him with founding a permanent mission in the Wendat country.

Jean de Brébeuf - Prologue | Trading at Quebec | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

Trading at Quebec
1633 – 1635

image name: Quebec_Trade_Brebeuf.jpg

Jean de Brébeuf addressed the Wendat (Huron) in their language at the 1633 council meeting in Quebec that reaffirmed the French-Wendat alliance. At the time of the 1635 council, which confirmed the Jesuits' role as guests of the Wendat, Brébeuf was already living with them in Wendake.
Illustration copyright Pamela Patrick White.

Father Jean de Brébeuf participated in the council meeting held to reestablish the alliance between the Wendat (Huron) and the French in 1633. He had returned to New France shortly before the council—as had Samuel de Champlain—after being forced back to France when the English captured Quebec in 1629. Brébeuf's superiors were anxious to have him return to the Wendat country as soon as possible to establish a permanent mission there. He had acquired knowledge of the Wendat language and lifeways during his previous three years among them (1626-1629).

The English seizure of Quebec interrupted a relationship between the Wendat and the French that had become increasingly important to both sides. The Wendats had been trading and military partners with the French since an earlier council in 1611, and reciprocal visits and a joint military campaign in 1615. The alliance had been reaffirmed every year when the Wendats traveled to Quebec or to Three Rivers to trade—until the English intervened.

Now the Wendats were hoping to renew the alliance. Father Paul Le Jeune, the superior of the Jesuit mission in New France, describes the arrival of the Wendats in his "relation" or report to his superiors in France: "Already a few canoes had arrived on different days, sometimes seven or eight, sometimes ten or twelve at a time; but at last, on the 28th of July, there arrived about one hundred and forty all at once, carrying easily five hundred Hurons—or 700, as some say—with their merchandise." (4)

The 1633 Council

The next day, the council meeting between the Wendats and Champlain was held. In Father Le Jeune's first-hand description:

"There were about sixty men in their assembly, without counting the young men who were scattered here and there. Each one getting the best place he could find, a Captain began his harangue, the substance of which was that the Huron tribe, the tribe of the Bear, and others, had met for the purpose of holding a council with the French. When this speech was finished, all the Savages, as a sign of their approval, drew from the depths of their stomachs this aspiration, ho, ho, ho, raising the last syllable very high. . . ."

"The same captain, continuing his speech, said that all these people were rejoiced at the return of sieur de Champlain, and that they all came to warm themselves at his fire. The fuel they brought to the fire was two or three more packages of beaver skins, which they gave him as a present. . . . "

"Thereupon sieur de Champlain began to speak, and told them that he had always loved them, that he wished very much to have them as his brothers. . . . He added that our Fathers were going to see them in their country, as a proof of the affection which we bore them. . . . 'These are our Fathers,' said he, 'we love them more than our children or ourselves; they are held in very high esteem in France; it is neither hunger nor want that brings them to this country; they do not come to see you for your property or your furs. . . . they will teach you the way to Heaven. This is what makes them leave their country, their friends, and their comforts, to instruct you, and especially to teach your children a knowledge so great and so necessary.'. . ."

"The conclusion of the council was that Father Brébeuf told them, in their language, that we were going with them to live and to die in their country; that they would be our brothers, that hereafter we would be of their people; . . . and that we would teach them how to be forever happy." (5)

Father Brébeuf did not go to Wendake that year, due to a conflict between Champlain and the Weskarini Algonquins, through whose territory the Wendats had to pass to return home.

Return to Wendake

The following year, in 1634, Fathers Brébeuf, Daniel, and Davost, gave presents to Wendat traders to convince them to carry the priests and four hired men to Wendake. The journey was difficult: few Wendats had come to trade that year; many of them fell ill from a European disease that was epidemic that summer; and the trip had not been officially sanctioned by the chiefs or headmen. The priests had to help paddle the canoes and were forced to abandon many of their possessions due to their weight. Father Daniel was nearly abandoned by the group he was with, and Father Davost was robbed and left with an Algonquin group. The hired men, who unlike the priests were allowed to carry guns, fared better.

Brébeuf was dropped off alone near the site of Toanché, the village where he had lived during his previous sojourn in Wendake. The village had been abandoned after the murder of Etienne Brulé (a French trader who had lived among the Wendats for years), but many of the people Brébeuf knew had moved to the nearby town of Ihonatiria, to which he found his way. He was warmly greeted: "Everyone came out to salute and welcome me, each calling me by name and saying: 'What, Echom, my nephew, my brother, my cousin, hast thou then come again?' . . . I lodged with a man named Aouandoïé, who is . . . one of the richest of the Hurons. I did this on purpose, because another with smaller means might have been inconvenienced with the large number of Frenchmen whom I was expecting, and who had to be provided with food and shelter. . . . this Nation above all others is exceedingly hospitable towards all sorts of persons, even toward Strangers; and you may remain as long as you please, being always well treated according to the fashion of the country."(6)

The rest of the group gradually assembled in Ihonatiria, where Brébeuf decided to base the mission until it was better established. The people of the town felt reassured by the Jesuits' presence that the French would not punish them for Brule's death: "those of our village told me, If thou hadst not returned, the trade with the French was lost for us. . . . but now we shall go to trade without fear." (7) The arrival of the priests fit within a Native tradition of exchanging ambassadors (or hostages) who would live in their ally's country as an indication of trust.

Council at Quebec, 1635

The following year, another council between the Wendat traders and the French was held to confirm the status of the Jesuits' mission. Father Le Jeune gave Champlain suggestions for what he should say to the Wendats. The French raised their demands: not only must the Wendats treat the Jesuits in their country well, but "if they wished to preserve and strengthen their friendship with the French, they must receive our belief and worship the God that we worshiped." The benefits would be many: "God, being all-powerful, will bless and protect them, and make them victorious over their enemies; that the French will go in goodly numbers to their Country; that they will marry their daughters when they become Christians; that they will teach all their people to make hatchets, knives, and other things which are very necessary to them." To hasten the conversion of their people, the Wendats "must next year bring many of their little boys, whom we will lodge comfortably, and will feed, instruct and cherish as if they were our little Brothers." (8)

Champlain gave the Wendats a letter for Father Brébeuf to inform him of the proceedings, and directed the Wendats to hold a council of the full confederacy in Wendake to which they would invite Brébeuf. The traders returned to Wendake with two more priests and a young French boy; Brébeuf had sent Le Jeune a letter indicating who could be trusted to carry the priests, so that they would not suffer the indignities that Brébeuf's group had.

Jean de Brébeuf - Prologue | Trading at Quebec | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

1635 – 1649

Father Brébeuf and his fellow priests tried hard to convert the people in Ihonatiria. For a time, they focused on converting children and young people; their success varied, but elders dominated the people's communal spiritual life, so conversion of the young did not spread Christian beliefs effectively. The older men listened to what the Jesuits said, and expressed approval of it, but would not change their ways. "The evil is," writes Brébeuf, "they are so attached to their old customs that, knowing the beauty of truth, they are content to approve it without embracing it. Their usual reply is, oniondechouten, 'Such is the custom of our country.' " Brébeuf didn't understand that the Wendat (Huron) men were being polite in approving of what he said, but that to abandon traditional rituals would shake the foundation of the society. Some of the Wendats did understand that: "Some say to us: 'Do you think you are going to succeed in overturning the Country?' " (9)

The conversion effort was hampered by the smallpox and other epidemics that swept Wendake in 1634, 1636, and 1639. These epidemics reduced the population from Brébeuf's estimate of 30,000 to around 12,000. The Wendats saw that the French did not get sick during these waves of illness, so they suspected that the Jesuits were sorcerers trying to eliminate their people.

The Jesuits tried to baptize babies and others who were dying—in order to save the Wendats' souls from eternal damnation, according to Christian beliefs—which led some Wendats to believe that the ritual actually hastened death. If the baptized person didn't die, some Wendats saw Christianity as a healing society like others in their tradition. Once a beloved child or elder was baptized, others in the family converted because they didn't want to be separated after death from their loved ones, who had gone to heaven rather than to the traditional village of the dead.

At the height of the second epidemic in 1636-7, some Wendats threatened the missionaries and plotted to murder Brébeuf. Brébeuf was living at Ossossané, where he had founded a second mission, and that town was deeply divided into Christian and traditional factions. Knowing his peril, Brébeuf gave a traditional death feast at which he delivered a sermon, as a person facing death was expected to address his guests. Those threatening him backed down, perhaps because of his proper traditional Wendat behavior in holding the feast, and the eloquence of his sermon. Traders returning from Quebec, where they were treated well by the head of the French trading company and reminded of French support for the Jesuits, also helped defuse the situation.

Brébeuf established a third mission at Teanaustayé, among the Attigneenongnahac (Cord nation) Wendats. When the third major epidemic struck in 1639-40, the Wendats again rose up against the Jesuits. Brébeuf, as leader of the Jesuits, was considered the most dangerous sorcerer and was threatened. Finally, some of the townspeople rioted, attacking and beating Brébeuf, Father Chaumonot, and their lay helper. They were banished from Teanaustayé and other towns and had to retreat to the new mission center of Sainte-Marie. Only the Wendats' fear of French retaliation and the value of the alliance saved the Jesuits from being killed.

Brébeuf and Chaumonot were sent on a new mission to the Atiwendaron (the Neutrals), which was unsuccessful and served further to enrage the Wendats, who suspected the Jesuits of conspiring with their enemies, the Seneca. Brébeuf was then sent back to Quebec in 1642, probably for his protection. He was made procurator for the mission, which involved sending supply convoys to Wendake—several of which were intercepted and seized by the Rotinonsionni (Iroquois).

Brébeuf returned to Wendake in 1644. Wendat society was in turmoil: the country was divided into groups of traditionalists and Christians; the time-honored rituals that held the society together were neglected or discredited; the population was further reduced, so crops were not being adequately tended and hunting expeditions were diminished. And in 1642, the Kanienkehaka and the Seneca started attacking the weakened Wendats as they attempted to travel their trade routes.

In 1647, the Rotinonsionni began mounting large-scale attacks on Wendake itself. In 1649, they attacked Teanaustayé and another town, taking 700 prisoners. Father Daniel was killed at the door of the church, where he went to face the attacking army. In 1649, an army of 1,000 Rotinonsionni advanced further into the heart of Wendake, attacking Taenhatentaron and then St. Louis. Forewarned by refugees from Taenhatentaron, many women and children at St. Louis managed to flee to the Jesuit stronghold of Sainte-Marie, but Fathers Brebeuf and Lalement stayed with the warriors who attempted to defend the town. They were taken prisoner along with a number of Wendat fighters.

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Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalement were tortured to death by the Rotinonsionni (Iroquois) in the invasion that destroyed the Wendat homeland. The torments pictured were commonly used with all captives marked for death, with the exception of the boiling water, which was uniquely employed for the Jesuits in mockery of baptism.
Courtesy National Archives of Canada.

The prisoners were taken back to Taenhatentaron and tortured according to the Iroquoian tradition. Among the torturers were Wendats who had previously been taken captive by the Rotinonsionni and adopted, and who blamed the Jesuits for the destruction of their homelands. One of them heard Brébeuf encouraging his fellow Christian prisoners to die well so they could be with him in paradise. The man, "whom Father de Brebœuf had formerly instructed and baptized, hearing him speak Paradise and Holy Baptism, was irritated, and said to him, 'Echon, . . . thou sayest that Baptism and the sufferings of this life lead straight to Paradise; thou wilt go soon, for I am going to baptize thee, and to make thee suffer well, in order to go the sooner to thy Paradise.' The barbarian, having said that, took a kettle full of boiling water, which he poured over his body three different times, in derision of Holy baptism. And, each time that he baptized him in this manner, the barbarian said to him, with bitter sarcasm, 'Go to Heaven, for thou art well baptized.' "

Brébeuf remained stoic and did not cry out under torture, which made the Rotinonsionni intensify their efforts. "During all these torments, Father de Brebœuf endured like a rock, insensible to fire and flames, which astonished all the bloodthirsty wretches who tormented him. His zeal was so great that he preached continually to these infidels, to try to convert them. His executioners were enraged against him for constantly speaking to them of God and of their conversion. To prevent him from speaking more, they cut off his tongue. . . ." As a result of the intense attacks on his body, he died relatively quickly, that afternoon—unlike Lalement, who survived until the following morning. In the end, his tormenters admired Brébeuf's courage, and they ate his heart and drank his blood, "saying that Father de Breboeuf had been very courageous to endure so much pain as they had given him, and that, by drinking his blood, they would become courageous like him." (10)

Within two years, the once-powerful Wendat confederacy was completely destroyed and the Wendats dispersed. Three hundred of them went to Quebec with the remaining Jesuits; others went west, to become known as the Wyandots; many others were assimilated into the Iroquois nations that had captured them.

The mission that Jean de Brébeuf had founded essentially died with him. Brébeuf was an acute observer of Wendat culture, and his Jesuit Relations reports provide much of what we know about the Wendats during the early years of European contact. He learned their language and compiled a Wendat dictionary and grammar. However, he could not see that what he was asking of them—conversion to Christianity and rejection of their traditional beliefs—would break the cohesion of their society and lead to their destruction.

Jean de Brébeuf - Prologue | Trading at Quebec | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

About This Narrative

This narrative is factual, based primarily on Bruce Trigger's two-volume history of the Wendat, The Children of Aataentsic; the Dictionary of Canadian Biography On-Line; and The Jesuit Relations, contemporary reports by Jesuit missionaries to their superiors in France. This narrative was written by Freda Brackley.

See Further Reading for a list of sources used in creating this narrative. For a discussion of issues related to telling people's stories on the site, see: Bringing History to Life: The People in The Many Stories of 1704.

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