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Père Marquette and the Indians [at the Mississippi River], oil painting (1869) by Wilhelm Lamprecht (1838–1906), at Marquette University[I]


Several visitors to North America have left precious accounts of their trips as well as fine analysis of the people whose lands they visited.  For instance, in recent years, Alexis de Tocqueville‘s (29 July 1805, Paris – 16 April 1859, Cannes) two-volume Democracy in America (De la démocratie en Amérique), published in 1840 and 1845, has received a great deal of attention.

The Jesuit Relations

Reuben Gold Thwaites: the Editor (portrayed to the right, below)

However, one could and perhaps should include The Jesuit Relations (73 volumes, 1896-1901), among works in which Europeans have described North America. The Jesuit Relations have been edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites, as The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610-1791.  Having had the privilege of reading some volumes of the Relations attentively and browsing through every volume, it is possible for me to say that Mr Thwaites’ edition is not only extremely interesting, but also quite easy to read.  It has been translated into English (a parallel translation) from the French, Italian and Latin.[ii]

Richelieu and New France

Every year the Jesuits working in Canada sent a report (une relation) to their superiors in France. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia,

“[a]s a result of Cardinal Richelieu‘s decision to enlist the Jesuits in colonizing French North America, the early history of settlement was systematically and colourfully documented by priests attempting to convert the Indians and also to attract support at home for their project.”[iii]

Compilation and publication

The Jesuit Relations were compiled by missionaries “in the field,” (The Canadian Encyclopedia), edited by their Quebec superior and sent to the Paris office of the Society of Jesus. They were printed in France by Sébastien Cramoisy. These texts constitute the finest and most complete account of life in Nouvelle-France (New France) beginning in 1632, under Richelieu and Louis XIII, and ending in 1672, twelve years after Louis XIV ascended to the throne (1660). 

Documents were sent after 1672, but not systematically. 

Contents of the Jesuit Relations: a mixture

The Jesuits told everything. Wikipedia lists: “Marriages and Marriage Customs, Courtship, Divorce, Social Status of Women, Songs and Singing, Dances, and Games and Recreation.” The Relations are a mélange (mixture) blending the activities of Amerindians, the progress of missionaries and the daily life of settlers. Moreover, they include accounts of explorers.


Henry P. Bosse

Minneiska, Minn., 1885


Jacques Marquette, S. J. and Louis Jolliet: Explorations down the Mississippi River

Among accounts of explorers, the Jesuit Relations include a relation by Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette (1 June 1637 – 18 May 1675), who was allowed to accompany French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet (21 September 1645 – last seen May 1700). They founded Sault Ste. Marie (now in Ontario, Canada) and later founded St. Ignace, Michigan, in the current United States. They reported the first accurate data on the course of the Mississippi. Two years later, Père Marquette and other missionaries were the first Europeans to spend a winter near Chicago.[iv]



They left from St. Ignace on 18 May 1673 with two canoes and five voyageurs of French-Amerindian ancestry (Métis) and entered the Mississippi on 19 June 1673.  They travelled down the Mississippi, nearly reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Two years later, Père Marquette was exposed to dysentery and died prematurely. As for Jolliet, he was not heard of after May 1700.


the “bon sauvage

The Jesuit Relations are, therefore, eclectic, and they were widely read in the 18th century as “exciting travel literature.” They are the birthplace of the “Bon Sauvage,” who will be used later to provide a silent, yet eloquent, indictment of French society. They constitute invaluable “ethnographic and documentary sources.”[v]

Sources and Resources

The Jesuit Relations.1 (Internet Archive)
The Jesuit Relations.2 (Internet Archive)
[i] Images are from Wikipedia, unless otherwise indicated.
[ii] Lacombe, Michèle. “Jesuit Relations”. The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Toronto: Historica Canada, 2006. Web. 8 Feb 2006.
[iii] Michèle Lacombe, op. cit.
[iv] “Jacques Marquette.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/366090/Jacques-Marquette>
[v] Michèle Lacombe, op. cit.


 Le Révérend Père Jacques Marquette, S. J., by Wilhelm Lamprecht


Paul RobesonThe Old Man River

© Micheline Walker
15 March 2012 (first published)
22 May 2015 (revised)