If you look through the parish registers of Quebec through the 1600s and early 1700s you will notice a fair number of burial entries with the notation “Tué par les Iroquois”: “killed by the Iroquois”. Several of these unfortunate persons were ancestors of mine, or were relatives and/or neighbors of my ancestors.
The early settlers of Quebec had to endure a great many attacks by “les Iroquois” during the first century of the colony's existence, and their worst fears were not of being killed outright but of being captured and tortured to death (a process which could last several days). No one was safe, although people living in fortified towns had a little more sense of security than the habitants on their farms. Fear of “les Iroquois” was a serious deterrent to immigration and drove many immigrants back to France. In 1665, after years of pleading from the colonists, the king of France dispatched the Carignan-Salières regiment of trained soldiers to make his colony of New France safe for the colonists, rather than lose his colony and leave the New World to the English and other European rivals. This resulted in a truce of sorts, which did not last, and French colonists were still being attacked by “les Iroquois” until well into the 1700s.
When the French colony was founded, Indians were considered by the colonists as being in one of two groups: “Huron” aka friendly Indians, and “Iroquois”, a.k.a. decidedly unfriendly Indians. It took the white inhabitants of Quebec rather a long time to notice that the Indians who were willing to live peacefully with white settlers in their midst belonged to numerous distinct groups, and even longer to notice that the Iroquois were not a single tribe but a confederacy of linguistically-related nations, consisting of what we now call the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and, after 1722, Tuscarora. The word “Iroquois” (like many appellations for Indian tribes) comes from their long-standing enemies, in this case, the Hurons, and is not an honorific. It means “poisonous snakes”. (The name “Sioux” is derived from an Anishinaabe word with the same meaning. In fact, the “official” names of many modern Native American tribes are the names pinned on them by their enemies.)
To simplify the discussion, I’m going to use the term “Iroquois” the way the early French settlers of Quebec did, with the understanding that their primary opponents were the Mohawks. Just to make things complicated, the Huron language is an Iroquoian language, and the Hurons were, like their cousins the Iroquois, a confederacy of nations, and were the same people known to the English and Dutch settlers as Wyandot or Wendot. Also in the mix were the various speakers of Algonquin languages, including the Anishinaabe.
All these indigenous groups had been rivals for centuries before the first Europeans arrived, jostling for control of valuable resources and enhanced status. The arrival of European settlers intensified the rivalry, because the newcomers immediately claimed ownership of the entire continent by right of what they believed to be innate natural superiority, and began pushing the “savages” off their own lands and literally stealing the resources of the natives' livelihoods. In addition, the indigenous peoples of the Americas quickly admired and wanted to possess new European products, specifically, wool and cotton cloth, metal tools and utensils, beads and other ornaments, guns and gunpowder, and, unfortunately, alcohol. The result was the potential for thriving trade and profit, and the very human wish on all sides to control or (better), monopolize the market. It would have been astonishing if there had been no conflicts.
It’s important to note that the Indians were not the only perpetrators of atrocities in those days; European settlers did their share too, casually calling it self-defense against savages. Atrocities occur in every war in recorded history, including the present; there is no such thing as a victimless war. Here in the New World, in the conflicts among various Native American groups, among the Europeans from different countries, and among Native Americans and Europeans, there were victims on all sides, including those not directly participating in the conflicts. In short, they were all human.
Although I have a number of people recorded as victims of the Iroquois in my ancestry, I hold no personal grudge against the modern Iroquois. In fact, I want to make it clear that I am discussing this matter simply because it was an important issue in the lives of my ancestors. I firmly believe and want to stress that NO ONE LIVING IS TO BLAME FOR ANYTHING HIS OR HER ANCESTORS DID. We are only responsible for our own actions—and that’s plenty for most of us.
Turks who were too young to be involved or who were not yet born are not responsible for the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide during World War I, and the same goes for Germans and the Holocaust of World War II. Living descendants of white slaveholders in the US are not to blame for the horrors endured by black slaves before Emancipation. Modern Iroquois are not to blame for the suffering endured by their captives centuries ago, nor are the living Sioux and Chippewa responsible for what their ancestors inflicted on each other during their many conflicts. And descendants of the settlers of Quebec or any other part of the Americas need not feel guilt over what their ancestors did to the indigenous populations.
However, we who are living now all have the obligation to notice and change present-day oppression and suffering caused by past events and attitudes. That’s our burden as human beings: we must learn from past mistakes and do our best to undo the damage of past (and present) generations as much as possible—and, perhaps most important, we must refrain from creating new generations of victims.
The earliest recorded victims of “les Iroquois” in my own Quebec ancestry were a Huron chief, Arendanki, and his wife, Otrih8andet. Jesuit missionaries had established Mission Ste-Marie at their town at what the French called La Conception, in present-day Ontario, and many in the town, including this couple, had converted to Christianity, taking the names of Nicolas and Jeanne, respectively, at baptism. The couple had an infant daughter, Anenantha, who was duly baptized with the name of Catherine.
On 17 March 1649, having decided to “put an end to the Huron problem” once and for all, the Iroquois attacked the settlement. Nicolas/Arendanki, with the other warriors, held out as long as possible, but they were vastly outnumbered and had little or no chance. I hope Arendanki was killed outright in battle rather than tortured to death, but no one now knows. Many of the young women and children of the town would have been taken captive by the Iroquois and forcibly adopted into that group, a normal practice among Native Americans to replace warriors and family members who had died and to expand their numbers and influence. The rest—including captured white missionaries—were killed, horribly.
But on that terrible day, some women and children escaped the slaughter, and these fled with a surviving French priest to the territory of the Petuns, part of the Huron confederacy. Among those who escaped was Jeanne/Otrih8andet and her infant daughter, Catherine/Anenantha. In June 1650, some 300 of the Christian survivors set out from Petun territory for the Île-Orléans, a bit north of the town of Quebec—a difficult and dangerous month-long journey, and many did not survive it.
But Jeanne and her little daughter Catherine were among those who made it to the Île-Orléans. In 1654 ,Jeanne died, worn out by grief and physical hardship and very likely by one of the diseases for which Native Americans had no immunity. Little Catherine was placed in the Ursuline convent in the town of Quebec, to be educated and, eventually, to become a suitable wife for a male French immigrant.
On 26 September 1662, when she was about 13 years old, Catherine married Jean Durand dit La Fortune, an immigrant from France. The couple settled down to farm at St-Jean on the Île-Orleans, and in due course had 3 children: Marie-Catherine, born in 1666, Ignace born in 1668, and Louis, born in 1670. Marie-Catherine and Louis are both my direct ancestors, along different lines; Ignace married Marie-Catherine Miville, a granddaughter of another direct ancestral couple.
In 1671, Jean died, only about 35 years old, presumably of natural causes. (There is no record of his burial; we only know that he died because Catherine “veuve de Jean Durand” married Jacques Couturier in 1672. Jacques and Catherine had 6 children; after Jacques’ death, she married a third time, to Jean De Lafond in 1697, but (being almost 50 years old at the time) she had no children by him. She died on New Year’s Eve, 1708.
If you poke around the internet for information about her, you will find a great deal of sentimental outpourings about Catherine’s feelings, most of it coming from that fine genealogical source, imagination. Some people persist in calling Catherine a “princess”, unaware of the fact that her father was the chief of his town, not a monarch in the European sense. Do we call the mayor’s daughter a princess? Of course not.
But there is some solid information to be found on the net: I recently discovered that Catherine was not required to abandon completely the culture of her people (as my mother and her siblings were when they were literally dragged into the American Indian boarding school system), because “First Nations girls who attended the Ursuline convent were not subjected to the systematic efforts to eradicate culture and language that became the hallmark of residential schools 200 years later.” (Restoring the balance: First Nations women, community, and culture, edited by Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, Madeleine Dion Stout, and Eric Guimond (University of Manitoba Press: 2009), p. 291).
I believe it is reasonable to state as a fact that Catherine did not feel oppressed in any way by the Ursulines, because she (not her husband) voluntarily brought her first daughter, Marie-Catherine Durand, to be educated in the same convent. The Ursulines “recorded that Marie had been raised according to the customs of her mother’s nation, was dressed in the Huron style, and spoke the language. Madame Durand had remained sufficiently Huron to raise her children in the traditions of her people and also supplemented her family’s income with snowshoes and moccasins. One can speculate that the Ursulines incorporated traditional skills into their curricula or simply didn’t interfere when older girls and women engaged in cultural pursuits, as evidenced in their tolerance of dancing ‘à la mode de leur pays.’” (idem.)
Even so, Catherine must have been a person of remarkable strength of character even at age 5, when she was first placed into the convent boarding school. Her early experiences had not broken her. She learned French, became literate enough to sign a marriage contract, retained her parents’ devotion to Catholicism, and spent her adult life among white French settler, but as a young mother, she was clearly determined to retain her cultural and linguistic heritage and pass it on to her children.
Like all her descendants who know anything about her, I honor her and am glad that she appears to have had a reasonably good life after the horrors of her early years (despite the deaths of her first two husbands). But I especially honor her parents, whose lives were so brutally cut short, and I grieve for them.