Jacques Bruyas
French, 1635 - 1712

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.

Jacques Bruyas - Prologue | The Great Peace | Epilogue | About This Narrative |


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Jacques Bruyas, a Jesuit missionary and student of Iroquois languages, spent 45 years among the Rotinonsionni (Iroquois) and helped negotiate the Great Peace of 1701.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

Jacques Bruyas, the Jesuit missionary who was instrumental in negotiating the Great Peace of 1701, was born in Lyons, France, on July 13, 1635. We know little of his early life, but at the age of 16 he became a novice in the Society of Jesus. Popularly known as the Jesuits, this Catholic order was eminent in 17th-century France. The order was founded by Saint Ignatius Loyola in 1534, and Jesuits had been the French kings' confessors since 1575. During the reign of King Louis XIII (1610-1643), Jesuit numbers increased greatly. There were Jesuit colleges throughout France, with over 13,000 scholars in the colleges of Paris alone. The order was notable both for its rigorous scholarship and its missionary zeal, being dedicated to the propagation of the Catholic faith.

A Jesuit Education

Young Jacques Bruyas had to be very motivated and above reproach in character and family circumstances to be accepted as a Jesuit novice. From its 16th-century beginnings to the present day, the order has followed strict rules laid out by Saint Ignatius. A candidate is examined by four priests who question him about his and his parents' situation and character. "Any notable bodily or mental defect in the candidate, serious indebtedness or other obligation, previous membership in another religious order even for a day, indicating instability of vocation, unqualifies for admission." (1) The novitiate lasts two years, during which the novice studies, performs manual labor, and practices the Jesuit spiritual exercises. These exercises train the novice in rigorous self-scrutiny and mastery of his own will, so that he is capable of submitting his will to God and his Jesuit superiors. "This is what is meant by Jesuit obedience, the characteristic virtue of the order." (2)

After the two-year novitiate, Jacques Bruyas would have made his first vows and become a "formed scholastic," a grade in which aspiring Jesuits remain for between two and 15 years, depending on the progress of their studies and their discipline and virtue. They study classics and mathematics for two years, philosophy for three years, theology for four years, and teach in one of the Society's public colleges for five years. The pinnacle and core of the order are the "professed," priests who make "vows of special obedience to the pope in the matter of missions, undertaking to go wherever they are sent, without even requiring money for the journey." (3) Fifteen years after he became a novice, Father Jacques Bruyas was sent to the Canadian mission in 1666.

Among the Oneidas

Jesuit missionaries had labored among the Wendats (Hurons) and the nations of the Rotinonsionni (Iroquois Confederacy), intensely focused on converting them to Catholicism, for many years before Father Bruyas arrived in Quebec. The Jesuits had had some success in converting the Wendats, and in doing so unwittingly created divisions that weakened their once-powerful confederacy and exposed it to destruction at the hands of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Jesuits were less successful with the Kanienkehaka (Mohawks) and Onondagas, who had expelled the Jesuit missionaries in 1658, when the Fourth Mohawk-Mahican War began. After a French expedition against the Kanienkehaka and Oneidas in 1666 and subsequent peace treaties, the way was again opened for Jesuit missionaries to settle among the Five Nations. Father Bruyas's first assignment was to the Oneidas; he arrived at their principal village, Ganouaroharé or Oneyote (Place of the Erected Stone), (4) in September of 1667.

Father Bruyas established a mission dedicated to Saint Francis Xavier at Oneyote. He found the countryside pleasant, but the people fearsome. He wrote to his superior in January of 1668, after spending five months among the Oneidas: "The nature of the Onneiouts is altogether barbarous—that is to say, cruel, secret, cunning, and inclined to blood and carnage. . . . It is they who have always made war against the Algonquins and the Hurons." (5) Father Bruyas observed that two-thirds of the village was made up of captives adopted from these nations, and the Wendats (Hurons) formed the core of his small congregation. Most of the Oneidas were hostile to him and to his converts—especially when they were drunk on the brandy furnished by Dutch merchants in Albany. (The English had conquered the former New Netherlands four years earlier and renamed it New York, but the population around Albany—formerly Fort Orange—remained predominately Dutch.)

Bruyas called "drunkenness, dreams, and impurity" the three great hindrances that prevent "the Faith from triumphing in this country." By "impurity" he meant the Oneidas' apparent sexual freedom. Although Iroquois cultures recognized and regulated marriage and the nuclear "fireside" family, both men and women could easily initiate divorce, and sex between young unmarried people was accepted. Dreams were an important element of the Oneidas' traditional spiritual life, which Bruyas recognized: "It [the dream] is the divinity of the savages, for which they have no less respect than we have for the most holy things." (6)

In his letter of January 1668, Bruyas lamented his ignorance of the Oneida language: "What can a man do who does not understand their language, and who is not understood when he speaks. As yet, I do nothing but stammer; nevertheless, in four months I have baptized 60 persons, among whom there are only four adults, baptized in periculo mortis; all the rest are little children." (7) He gauged and reported his success in the number of people baptized, which to him meant souls saved.

Father Bruyas was fortunate in meeting a woman who was eager to learn about Christianity from him, and who in turn taught him the Iroquois language. She was Gandeacteua, an Erie woman from the Cat nation whose village had been destroyed by the Kanienkehaka, and who had been brought to Oneyote as a captive. She married Tonsahoten, a Huron Christian who had been adopted by the Iroquois, and, impressed by her husband's faith, sought instruction from the "Black Robe" shortly after his arrival.

Gandeacteua journeyed to Quebec and was baptized there, and she and Tonsahoten decided to stay near Montreal. They urged their family and friends to join them, and thus were among the founders of La Prairie, the community whose Native population would later establish Kahnawake. From his beginning studies with Gandeacteua, Father Bruyas became expert in Iroquoian languages. He wrote the first known Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) grammar, as well as a catechism and prayer book in that language. He is also believed to be the author of a Mohawk dictionary that is preserved in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal of Paris.

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This book, which dates to circa 1700, is generally attributed to Father Jacques Bruyas. It was probably used to teach Kanienkehaka converts in missionary settlements along the St. Lawrence river. The color illustration harks back to European illuminated manuscripts.
Courtesy of Lauinger Library, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Father Bruyas continued in his labors among the Oneida for three years, suffering from the diet (dried frogs, for most of one famine-struck year), tertian fever, fear of being killed by Oniedas who were drunk on Dutch brandy, and the scornful insults the Oneidas rained upon him. He was consoled by his small victories; when he baptized a dying woman, he reported: "It is thus that God softens the bitterness of my solitude, and sweetens all the difficulties that are encountered in the apostolic life. I confess that this single victory over the demon has given me great courage, and a great desire to work better than I have done. I would certainly esteem all my trials in coming from France requited, if I accomplished nothing else in the future. Ah, my dear Father, how consoling is this thought, 'I have contributed to the salvation of a soul!'" (8) Unfortunately for the way his work was perceived among the Oneidas, Father Bruyas strove to baptize people before they died to ensure their salvation. Bruyas recognized that the Oneidas saw the correlation between baptism and death; "the error still prevails, in the minds of many Iroquois, that baptism shortens life; and it is no slight obstacle to their conversion." (9)

Superior of the Iroquois Missions

Father Bruyas was transferred to work among the Kanienkehaka (Mohawks), or the Agniés, as the French called them, a name derived from the Wendat (Huron) term for that nation. (10) Around the same time, in 1670, he was made Superior of the Iroquois missions. Father Bruyas faced similar obstacles in the village of Tionnontoguen, especially drunken violence; he was now even closer to the Dutch merchants who provided brandy to Native men. Bruyas reported a devastating epidemic in the summer of 1673 that reduced the village's population significantly. In the same year, a prominent chief from nearby Caughnawaga, Togouiroui, visited La Prairie (the village near Montreal whose Native population would later found Kahnawake), was impressed with what he saw, and decided to leave the Mohawk Valley for New France, taking with him many of his family and followers. Father Bruyas wrote to Governor Frontenac asking him to make sure that Iroquois Christians en route to New France would be provided for; "that they will benefit in finding . . . the things necessary to relieve their extreme poverty. Those who remain here will not delay to follow them. Especially if they learn of the good reception that will have been given to their compatriots." (11)

The Jesuits had come to believe that conversion and adherence to their new faith would be much easier if Native peoples lived closer to the French, separate from their traditional homelands. This belief was reinforced in the Jesuits' minds when they considered the example of the Wendats at Lorette, who had been driven from their homeland by the Iroquois and seemed to have become devoutly Christian. The Kanienkehaka at Tionnontoguen, alarmed at the exodus of Togouiroui and so many others, protested to Father Bruyas that the Black Robes "seemed intent upon making a desert of their country and completely ruining their villages." Bruyas showed his talent for Iroquois-style diplomacy by presenting a wampum belt to solemnize his response that neither he nor his comrade Father Boniface had influenced Togouiroui to leave. As described by the writer of that year's report to the Jesuit superiors, Bruyas said "that he felt compassion for them [the villagers who remained] on seeing them thus abandoned by their people . . . but that the example and voice of their bravest warrior had exerted such an influence upon them [those who left for New France] that they thought that they should not remain any longer in their country while he was absent from it. The Father told them that, moreover, the change would not ruin their villages, as they thought; but on the contrary these would increase and become more flourishing than before, under the protection of Monsieur our governor." (12)

The story of Togouiroui illustrates the importance of kinship bonds in the conversion of the Iroquois. Father Bruyas saw a surge in applicants for baptism after converting an influential Kanienkehaka medicine man, Assendasé. "After I had baptized him, he desired that all his family should receive baptism, as he had done." (13) Bruyas became so busy that he needed assistance, and the following summer three Christian Iroquois came to help him. About one of them, Kinnouskouen, Bruyas wrote: "One man such as he would do more good than ten missionaries such as I." (14) Conversions of influential people also strengthened the political bonds between the Rotinonsionni and the French.

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Early 18th-century crucifix from the mission church at Kahnawake.
Courtesy Kanienkehaka Onkwawén:na Raotitiohkwa Cultural Center.

In 1679, Father Bruyas was assigned to the Jesuit mission of Sault-Saint-Louis at Kahnawake, the village of Christian Natives that his convert Catherine Gandeacteua had been instrumental in founding. He continued his dedication to the converts; as Father Chauchetière reported in 1681, he was "a father to them for both their bodies and their souls." By 1687, however, his efforts and those of his brethren to convert the Five Nations seemed to end in defeat as the Jesuits were forced to leave Iroquoia. The Jesuits' most committed converts had moved to the Saint Lawrence valley; other Christian leaders, like Assendasé, had died. New alliances with the English (the Covenant Chain) and military successes against other Native nations lessened interest in the French and their religion.

Bruyas's role as a diplomat and interpreter between French authorities and the Iroquois continued to grow. In April of 1691, he wrote to Governor Frontenac, reporting that a party of Kanienkehaka had sent three chiefs to Kahnawake (the Sault) to sue for peace. Bruyas described the negotiations between the two groups, explaining the meaning of the wampum belts they exchanged. "By the first collar [wampum belt] they thanked them for having sent back the prisoners whom they had taken, and for having spared those whom they could have taken had they wished. . . . Such, Monseigneur, is a summary of what was said on both sides. If I may be permitted to express my opinion upon what I have seen and heard, I think that they speak sincerely; and that matters tend to a firm peace with that nation, and through them with the others." (15)

Bruyas's courage, leadership and devotion were recognized when he was appointed Superior General of the Canadian missions in 1693, a post he held until 1698. Governor Callière drew on his diplomatic skills in the negotiations leading up to the Great Peace of 1701.

Jacques Bruyas - Prologue | The Great Peace | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

The Great Peace
August 4, 1701

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Father Jacques Bruyas stood by Governor Callière, listening intently to the Iroquois speeches and translating them for the governor.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

After more than a year of traveling to Iroquoia and back to help prepare the ground for the Great Peace, Father Jacques Bruyas took great satisfaction in the magnificent ceremony that sealed the treaty. He stood by Governor Callière, listening intently to the speeches of the Iroquois and translating them for the governor. He had just finished translating Governor Callière's words into their languages, so that the delegation of 200 Iroquois who had accompanied him back from Onondaga would understand Onontio's words: "I am tying my words to the necklaces that I will be handing to each of your nations so that your elders effect these upon your youth. I invite you all to smoke this peace calumet, which I will do first, and to eat this meat and this broth which I am having prepared for you." (16) With his formal pronouncement, confirming his words with wampum (necklaces) and smoking and feasting, the governor was following the diplomatic protocol of the Iroquois Confederacy and other Native nations.

Now Chief Hassaki of the Kiskakon Ottawa nation was speaking, in an Algonkian language Father Bruyas did not know well. Father Bigot would translate this speech for the governor. The representatives of the Rotinonsionni, the Iroquois Confederacy, would speak next, and he would translate their words.

It had been a long road to this splendid moment. The previous summer, Father Bruyas had journeyed back to Iroquoia, where he had spent many years bringing the word of God to the Oneida and the Kanienkehaka (Mohawks), with a delegation to the Confederacy Council at Onondaga. In the party were the Seneca Aouenano and the Onondaga Aradgi, as well as Paul Le Moyne de Maricourt, an officer who had been adopted by the Onondagas, and Chabert de Joncaire, who was an adopted son of the Senecas. Aouenano and Aradgi had come to Montreal with a Seneca/Onondaga delegation to negotiate with Callière, and Callière had sent Father Bruyas and the others with them as his ambassadors to negotiate with the full Confederacy.

The three Frenchmen were welcomed enthusiastically by the Council, who took their presence as a sign of Callière's sincerity in seeking peace. Father Bruyas presented Callière's wampum belts and proposals to the Council: that the Five Nations would cease hostilities against New France's Native allies, return French and Native captives to their own people, and allow the Jesuits to reopen their missions in Iroquoia.

The meeting was difficult; there were supporters of the English there, and the English sent a Dutch interpreter to try to halt the meeting. This young man was clearly not seasoned in the ways of the proud Rotinonsionni, for he ordered them in the name of the English Governor Bellomont not to talk with the French, and to come to Albany in ten or twelve days. Father Bruyas knew this was offensive to the Council chiefs, and said "What, are you become Corlaer's dogs or his prisoners, that he sends you such strict orders not to speak with us?" (17) The Council sent the English representative back to Albany with a rebuke. They agreed to send delegates from each nation to Montreal, but also to treat with the English at Albany.

Father Bruyas did not win concession from the Council for Jesuit missionaries to return to Iroquoia, but the negotiations were a success on the whole. In September, 19 chiefs and 13 French captives returned to Montreal with the French ambassadors. Governor Callière concluded a temporary peace with them only; the Oneidas and Kanienkehaka were not represented directly, and all of the captives had not been returned.

Bruyas and a company of ambassadors returned to Onondaga in June of 1701 for final negotiations leading up to the Great Peace ceremony in Montreal. Their success led to this great day.

It was now time for the Iroquois to speak, and for Father Bruyas to translate their words to Governor Callière and the other assembled French dignitaries: "Here we are assembled our father, as you wished it so. Last year you planted a peace tree and you gave it roots and leaves so that we may find refuge. We now hope that everyone hears what you are saying, that no one will touch this tree, for us we assure you, through these four necklaces, that we will follow all that you have arranged. We present to you these two prisoners and we will hand you the others that we have in our possession. We also hope that as the doors are now open to peace that the rest of our people will be returned to us." (18)

Jacques Bruyas - Prologue | The Great Peace | Epilogue | About This Narrative |


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17th-century ostensor from Kahnawake. An ostensor is used during the Catholic Mass to display the Host (a wafer that is considered transformed into the body of Jesus Christ during the Mass).
Courtesy of the Kanienkehaka Onkwawén:na Raotitiohkwa Cultural Center.

Although the Great Peace of 1701 included agreement to the provision that Father Jacques Bruyas cared most about—the return of Jesuit missionaries to the Rotinonsionni homelands—the Jesuits were again driven out by 1708. Father Bruyas dedicated himself to the mission at Kahnawake, and was its head when the English captives from Deerfield arrived in 1704. He would have been among the priests who worked to convert young Eunice Williams and the other Deerfield captives brought to Kahnawake. He died at Kahnawake in 1712.

Jacques Bruyas - Prologue | The Great Peace | Epilogue | About This Narrative |

About This Narrative

This narrative is factual, based largely on the primary source The Jesuit Relations. These documents are contemporary reports by Jesuit missionaries to their superiors, and a fascinating source of first-hand accounts of life among the Native people of northeastern North America during the early periods of contact with Europeans. They are indexed and on-line at http://puffin.creighton.edu/jesuit/relations. Other important sources include the Catholic Encyclopedia and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, both on-line, and books about the Great Peace listed in Further Reading. 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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