The North American Martyrs

The following is an excerpt from our recently published high school e-book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America. 

Like other Jesuit missionaries who would come after him, Père Jean de Brébeuf not only worked among the Indians but shared their way of life, including living in a wigwam both in summer and in the dead of winter. When spring succeeded one harsh winter, he and another Jesuit, Père de Noue, traveled by canoe with a band of Huron Indians to the Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, where for two years Père Brébeuf labored among the Huron, but met with no success. In 1629, when Québec surrendered to the English, Brébeuf had to return to France.


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Jean de Brébeuf
At home in France, amid all the comforts of civilization, Père Brébeuf did not forget Canada. He returned in 1633 and set out again for the Lake Huron country. After a journey of 30 days through dense forest, beset by Indian enemies, Brébeuf and another Jesuit, Père Antoine Daniel, reached Lake Huron. There Brébeuf labored for 16 years, deprived of the French society and civilization he had always known. Then, in 1647, his Jesuit superiors transferred him to another mission near Québec.

That same year, 1647, war broke out between the Iroquois and the Huron, and two missionaries, trying to reach the Huron country, were captured. One of the missionaries, the Jesuit Isaac Jogues, had penetrated as far as Sault Ste. Marie, the outlet to Lake Superior (the northernmost of the Great Lakes). He had hoped to work among the Indians of the region and to carry the Gospel to the Sioux who lived at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Instead, another task, and a greater glory, awaited him.

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Isacc Jogues
On August 3, 1642, the Mohawk, a tribe of the Iroquois nation, captured Père Jogues at Tres-Rívìeres on the St. Lawrence and took him a captive to their village on the Mohawk River, about 40 miles north of Fort Orange (later named Albany, New York). For a year and one month he remained in the Mohawk village, where he was treated as a slave and suffered terrible tortures, including having several of his fingers burned or chewed off. It was the Dutch Protestants from Fort Orange who finally freed Jogues. They carried him by ship down the Hudson River to New Amsterdam. From there he took ship for France.

But Père Jogues was not one to flee danger. Instead of remaining in France, he returned, in 1644, to Canada and asked to be sent as a missionary to his former captors, the Mohawk. This was not a particularly good time for a French missionary to enter Mohawk lands. Sickness had broken out among the Iroquois, and blight had struck their crops. The Indians blamed their troubles on Jogues, whom they called a sorcerer. Although knowing full well the danger that awaited him among the Mohawks, Jogues did not turn back. Abandoned by the Huron men that had accompanied him and with only one companion, Jogues met the Iroquois. They captured him, stripped him naked, and slashed him with their knives. Finally, on October 18, 1646, the Indians felled the priest with a tomahawk stroke and cut off his head. They fixed the head on a pole and threw his body into the Mohawk River.

Père Brébeuf, meanwhile, had been working among the Huron. Though in 1642 the Iroquois made peace with the French, their war with the Huron continued. The Iroquois attacked not only Huron settlements but burned the Huron missions and slaughtered the missionaries. On March 16, 1649, they captured Jean de Brébeuf.

Père Brébeuf did not utter a groan during the tortures that followed. After beating him with clubs, the Indians tied him to posts. Kindling a fire at the missionary’s feet, they slashed his body with their knives and, in mockery of baptism, poured scalding hot water over his head. Around his neck they tied a collar of red-hot tomahawk heads and thrust a hot iron rod down his throat. When Jean de Brébeuf at length expired, the Indians cut out his heart and ate it, for they wanted to partake of his courage.

Brébeuf and Jogues were not the only martyrs of this period. Among those killed by the Iroquois were Père Jean Lalende, in what is now New York, in 1646; Père Antoine Daniel in Canada, in 1648; and Brébeuf’s companion, Père Gabriel Lalement in Canada, in 1649. With Brébeuf and Jogues, the Church honors these men as saints, under the title, the North American Martyrs.

Additional Resources:
St. Isaac and the Indians by Milton Lomask
Saints of the American Wilderness by John A. O’Brien 
Saint Among the Hurons: The Life of Jean de Brebeuf by Francis, Talbot, S.J.
The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century by Francis Parkman
 Jean de Brebeuf by Joseph P. Donnelly (out-of-print, check library)