In 1608, the French explorer and trader Samuel de Champlain returned to Canada believing that the only way to make the fur trade profitable was by developing alliances with aboriginal hunters. The Huron (or Wendat) were the obvious choice, as they already acted as go-betweens in the exchange of corn, tobacco and hemp from the aboriginal bands to the south and west of their territory, for the pelts collected to the north. In 1611, having participated in Huron attacks on the Iroquois, Champlain cemented the alliance by a formal exchange of presents. Yet his decision to champion one tribe against another – and particularly his gifts of firearms to his allies – disrupted the balance of power among the aboriginal societies of the St Lawrence and Great Lakes area and set the stage for the destruction of Sainte-Marie almost forty years later.
Meanwhile, the Jesuits, who established their centre of operations at Sainte-Marie in 1639, had converted a substantial minority of the Huron community to Christianity, thereby undermining traditional social patterns and obligations. The Hurons had also been enfeebled by the arrival of three European sicknesses – measles, smallpox and influenza. Then, in 1648, the Dutch on the Hudson River began to sell firearms to the Iroquois, who launched a full-scale invasion of Huronia in March 1649, slaughtering their enemies as they moved in on Sainte-Marie. Fearing for their lives, the Jesuits of Sainte-Marie burnt their settlement and fled. Eight thousand Hurons went with them; most starved to death on Christian Island, in Georgian Bay, but a few made it to Québec. During the campaign two Jesuit priests, fathers Brébeuf and Lalemant, were captured at the outpost of Saint-Louis, near present-day Victoria Harbour, where they were bound to the stake and tortured, as per standard Iroquois practice. The image of Catholic bravery and Indian cruelty lingered in the minds of French-Canadians long after the sufferings of the Hurons had been forgotten.
The mission site
A visit to Sainte-Marie begins in the visitor centre with an audiovisual show that provides some background information before the screen lifts dramatically to reveal the handsomely restored mission site. There are 31 wooden buildings here, divided into two main sections: the Jesuit area with its watchtowers, chapel, forge, living quarters, well-stocked garden and farm buildings, stocked with pigs, cows and hens; and the aboriginal area, including a hospital and a pair of bark-covered long houses – one for Christian converts, the other for “heathens”. Costumed guides act out the parts of Hurons and Europeans with great gusto, answering questions and demonstrating crafts and skills, though they show a certain reluctance to eat what was once the staple food of the region, sagamite, a porridge of cornmeal seasoned with rotten fish. The grave in the simple wooden church of St Joseph between the Christian and aboriginal areas is the place where the (remaining) flesh of Brébeuf and Lalemant was interred after the Jesuits had removed many of the bones for future use as reliquaries.
A path leads from the mission site back to the visitor centre, where the excellent museum traces the story of the early exploration of Canada with maps and displays on such subjects as fishing and the fur trade, seen in the context of contemporary European history. This leads into a section on the history of the missionaries in New France, with particular reference to Sainte-Marie. Information on the archeology of the site follows: the mission’s whereabouts were always known even though Victorian settlers helped themselves to every chunk of stone – from what was known locally as “the old Catholic fort” – because the Jesuits had deposited the necessary documentation in Rome. Excavations began on the site in the 1940s and work is still in progress.