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Jesuit Relations

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Jesuit Relations

The Jesuit Relations, also known as Relations des Jésuites de la Nouvelle-France, are early ethnographic documents that chronicle Jesuit missions in New France. Covering a period of 200 years and beginning in 1611, the works were written annually and appeared in print beginning in 1632.

Originally written in French, Latin, and Italian, The Jesuit Relations were reports from Jesuit missionaries in the field that were sent to their superiors to update them as to the missionaries’ progress in the conversion of various Native American tribes. Constructed as narratives, the original reports of the Jesuit missionaries were subsequently transcribed and altered several times before their publication, first by the Jesuit overseer in New France and then by the Jesuit governing body in France. The Relations gradually became more focused on the general public as its readers, in terms of a marketing tool to procure new settlers for the colonies, while simultaneously trying to gain the capital to continue the missions in New France.

The later use of The Jesuit Relations by the Jesuit order for monetary gain highlights the possibility of textual incongruity or fictionalized accounts. Daniel K. Richter states that the fact “[t]hat printed reports were designed to raise money for the mission suggests a need for caution.” [1] When examined with care, The Jesuit Relations still function as an important resource in the study of the relationship of cultural exchange that occurred between the settlers of New France and Native Americans.

Compilation and modern publication

Although written for two hundred years beginning in the early 17th century, no single unified edition existed until 1902. Reuben Gold Thwaites, secretary of the Wisconsin Historical Society, led the project to translate into English, unify, and cross-reference the numerous original Relations. Compiled into 73 volumes, including two volumes of indices, the Relations effectively comprise a large body of ethnographic material. The indices are comprehensive in scope and include titles such as: Marriage and Marriage Customs, Courtship, Divorce, Social Status of Women, Songs and Singing, Dances, and Games and Recreation. Much can be learned through the examination and study of the ethnographic material compiled by the Jesuit missionaries in New France. The depth of the cross-referencing allows for several hundred years of Native American/European interaction to be easily accessed.[2]

Historical documentation or personal narrative?

Jesuit Relations were publicized as field letters from the missionary priests, unadulterated reports of eyewitness and testimony. Allan Greer cites several disconnects with this assumption. Firstly, he notes of the geographical procession in which these letters were routed and rerouted for editing, “It began with detailed letters from priests in the field, the most important usually being the one brought down by the summer canoe brigade from the Huron Country. The superior at Quebec would compile and edit these letters, paraphrasing some parts, copying others verbatim, and forwarding the whole package to France."[3] The documents had to be approved by the Jesuit Society in France before publication, which likely may have altered some of the contents by editing. Likewise, John Pollack notes the account of Father Isaac Jogues in 1641 “is not an eyewitness testimony” but, rather, a second-hand relation by his superior, “drawn from Jogues’ letters.”[4] Pollack notes further that the Relations “were edited by Jesuit missions in Paris before publication." [4]

Because of the wide distribution of the letters after publication, scholars ask the question: who decided the relevance of information contained in these field letters? Although the Jesuits tried to avoid disclosing any compromise in their principles, “it is possible to detect evidence of soul searching and shifting points of view”[5] relative to their success at the conversion of Native peoples. After extensive cultural immersion, the missionaries may have moved from tolerating native belief systems to assuming native idiosyncrasies. Jesuit officials in France would be liable to omit any threat to their philosophies in the final product. The issue is less the basic accuracy of the Jesuit Relations but the “manipulative literary devices”[6] employed by the editors. Greer notes that European writings were popularly documented in one of two forms, as travel narratives or as encyclopedic catalogs. Greer notes that the Jesuits obscured the boundaries between these two genres in an attempt to raise funds to continue Jesuit missions in New France: “One of the peculiarities of the Jesuit Relations is that they combine both types of writing: Jacques Marquette’s personal narrative of his trip down the Mississippi, for example, shares space with Jean de Brébeuf’s systematic description of Huron society.”[3]



  • Relations des jésuites: contenant ce qui s’est passé de plus remarquables dans les missions des pères de la Compagnie de Jésus dans la Nouvelle-France. Quebec: A. Côté, 1858.
  • Deslandres, Dominique. 'Exemplo aeque et verbo: The French Jesuits' Missionary World.' In The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences and the Arts, 1540-1773. Ed. John W. O'Malley and others. Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 2000.
  • Donnely, Joseph P. Thwaites' Jesuit Relations: Errata and Addenda. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1967.
  • Greer, Allan. The Jesuit Relations. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.
  • McCoy, James C. Jesuit relations of Canada, 1632-1673: a bibliography. Paris: A. Rau, 1937.
  • Pollack, John. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Houghton Mifflin. Boston, United States. 2009. 243.
  • Richter, Daniel. K. "Iroquois versus Iroquois: Jesuit Missions and Christianity in Village Politics," 1642-1686. Ethnohistory. 32.1 (1985) 1-16.
  • Creighton University version

Further reading

  • Deslandres, Dominique, Croire et Faire Croire: Les Missions Francaises au XVIIe siecle (1600-1650). Paris: Fayard, 2003.
  • Moore, James T., Indian and Jesuit: A Seventeenth-century Encounter. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1982.
  • Morrison, Kenneth, The Solidarity of Kin: Ethnohistory, Religious Studies, and the Algonkian-French Encounter. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

External links

  • in English, Creighton University
  • Library and Archives Canada
  • ", Library and Archives Canada
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