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The Noble Savage

This post’s main feature could be the above depiction, by Wilhelm Lamprecht (1838-1906), of Father Jacques Marquette or Père Marquette, S.J., pointing to the Mississippi River, surrounded by Métis or Amerindians. I have used this painting in one of two posts on The Jesuit Relations, a yearly account by Jesuit missionaries of events in New France. In these posts, I indicated that Jesuit Relations were the birthplace of the Noble Savage.

In the Jesuit Relations and in the accounts of other missionaries, the Amerindian is often described as morally superior to Europeans and, especially, to the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) inhabiting New France: Canada and Acadie. Therefore, before we discuss the nineteenth-century sentimentalist portrait of the Noble Savage or bon Sauvage, we should remember the missionaries to New France: the Récollets, and the Jesuits

The Récollets or Recollects

The Récollets were the first missionaries to travel to New France. Brother Gabriel Sagard (fl. 1614–1636) arrived in New France on 28 June 1623 and was sent to accompany Father Viel. They travelled to Lake Huron to join Récollets, who had come to New France in 1615. Sagard wrote Le grand voyage au pays des Hurons (Paris, 1632), an Histoire du Canada (1636), in which Le grand voyage is retold, and a Dictionary of the Huron Language.

An English translation of Le grand voyage by historian George M. Wrong was published by the Champlain Society in 1939 as Sagard’s Long journey to the country of the Hurons. It can be read online at the Champlain Society website [click on Long journey… ]. In 2009, John Steckley edited and published an authoritative edition of [Sagard’s] Dictionary of the Huron language.  (Gabriel Sagard, Wikipedia)


Teyoninhokarawen (John Norton)

John Norton (Teyoninhokarawen) (b.c. 1760s Scotland (?)- d.after 1826, likely born and educated in Scotland, had a Scottish mother and a father who was born Cherokee in Tennessee but raised from boyhood with the English.

John Norton was adopted as Mohawk. He distinguished himself as the leader of Iroquois warriors who fought on behalf of Great Britain against the United States in the War of 1812. Commissioned as a major, he was the military leader of warriors from the Six Nations of the Grand River who fought against American invaders at Queenston Heights, Stoney Creek, and Chippawa.

We know that “savages” were not always “noble savages.” The Iroquois tribes (SENECACAYUGAONEIDAONONDAGA and MOHAWK) were enemies of French-speaking settlers. I should note, therefore, that the five Amerindians who took Jolliet and Marquette down the Mississippi were bons sauvages. In fact, they were French Amerindians, or Métis.

So it would appear that métissage occurred from the earliest days of New France and that it may have occurred because Amerindians were bons sauvages. They were the voyageurs guides. How would the voyageurs have succeeded in their mission had the Amerindians not been “Noble Savages” who actually prepared their food: sagamité? Such were the Amerindians Jacques Marquette and Gabriel Sagard attempted to convert to Roman Catholicism.

Métissage itself provides proof of affinities not only between Canadiens and Amerindians, but also between British settlers and Amerindians.  Although métissage was less frequent between the British and Amerindians, it happened. John Norton, a Métis born in Scotland to an Amerindian father, a Cherokee, and a Scottish mother, became a Mohawk Chief.


In the accounts of missionaries, the Amerindian is not always a bon sauvage.  On the contrary.  Amerindians tortured and killed several missionaries, but they were sometimes confused about their role. Converting Amerindians could become a moral dilemma.  Why convert a people whose behaviour was different, but morally acceptable?  The ambivalence of missionaries towards Amerindians and that of Amerindians towards the missionaries is central to Black Robea film mentioned below.

I admire the many “Black Robes” who learned Amerindian languages or otherwise expressed true devotion towards members of their little flock. I also admire such men as François de Laval (30 April 1623 – 6 May 1708), the first Roman Catholic bishop of Quebec and a member of the distinguished Montmorency family, who threatened to excommunicate and probably did excommunicate French fur traders who gave alcohol to Amerindians in exchange for precious pelts.

One may read The Jesuit Relations Online (just click on the title).



Black Robe, a novel and a film, was discussed by one of my WordPress colleagues. But I cannot find the relevant blog. Black Robe is a 1991 film directed by Australian Bruce Beresford. The screenplay was written by Irish-Canadian author Brian Moore, who adapted it from his novel of the same name. The film stars Lothaire Bluteau and can be watched online.  It was produced by an Australian and Canadian team and filmed in Quebec. I used to show it to my students. Below is part of the film. It is not the video I used previously. It featured French composer Georges Delerue (12 March 1925 – 20 March 1992), and it was exquisite, but it was removed.

© Micheline Walker
17 November 2012