The History of Genesee County, MI
Chapter I
The Missionary Spirit

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Clayton



It is a noteworthy fact that in the history of the advance of civilization towards the Great Lakes, the spirit of the missionary went before the spirit of the colonizer. That spirit was introduced into these wilds when, in 1615, Champlain arrived at Quebec with four members of the Franciscan order--Denis Jamet, Jean Dolbeau, Joseph le Caron and Pacifique du Plessis. These men were the first pioneers in that great and noble undertaking, so laboriously and persistently carried on, of bringing to the savage peoples of New France the light of the Gospel.

The Franciscan order was founded in the thirteenth century by St. Francis, of Assisi. The four members who came with Champlain belonged to the recollects, a reformed branch of the Franciscans. In 1618 Pope Paul IV gave into the hands of the Recollects entire charge of the mission work in New France. Many of these noble sons lived and died in Christian service among the native red men. Their headquarters were at Quebec, where a convent was built. Of the first four, Joseph le Caron was appointed to labor among the Hurons along the upper Ottawa river. At Montreal he studied the Indian languages and by the time Champlain was ready to make his expedition to the Hurons, Le Caron was ready to go with him. This was typical of these early exploring and trading expeditions. Explorer, trader, soldier, and priest went hand in hand. Wherever waved the golden lilies of France, there the Cross was planted. The rude bark chapel took its place with the stockade and the trading house. Not infrequently the awe-inspiring ceremonies of the church preceded the pomp and pageantry of the military, so characteristic of the old regime in the forest of Canada. While the adventurous soldiers of New France dreamed of the "Great south Sea," to be reached by an inland waterway they should find, and in imagination saw the lilies of France waving domination for the "Great King" over vast regions yet to be discovered, the soldiers of the Cross had a vision of that glorious time when the Indian nations of the 'forest continent' should be gathered to the bosom of the Christian church.

It was needful, however, that a more powerful order than the Recollects should aid in carrying forward this pioneer work of the church to the region of the Great Lakes. This task fell to the Jesuits, members of the Society of Jesus, a powerful and aggressive order founded in the 13th century by the great Ignatius Loyola, a soldier, who gave from his rich and varied experience as a military leader those qualities to his order which made it the most successful agency that ever worked among the almost insurmountable obstacles of Christian missions to savage peoples. A few Jesuits came to Canada as early as 1611, but not until 1625 did the work of this order there really begin. In that year there came to Canada, among others, Fathers Charles Lalement, Jean de Brebeuf and Enemond Masse, who were the first great pioneers of the Jesuit order in America. Brebeuf, the story of whose martyrdom for a great cause thrills us even at this far reach of time, worked among the Hurons of the Georgian bay where le Caron has labored before him. Within a few years of their arrival in Canada, the Jesuits were officially chosen as spiritual managers, under the patronage of the powerful Cardinal Richelieu, of that colony the destinies of which Champlain controlled until his death in 1635.

The year before Champlain died he sent out Jean Nicolet, a friend of the Jesuits, a master of the Algonquin dialects, and a man of great tact and influence with the Indians, to discover and explore the great waterway supposed to empty into the "Great South Sea." which should open a way to trading operations with China or Cathay. In that year Jean Nicolet, in a canoe paddled by Indian escorts, passed through the straits of Mackinac, probably the first white man to set foot upon the shores of what is now Michigan. A memorial tablet, affixed to the rocks of Mackinac Island, was recently unveiled, marking the site of the Nicolet Watch Tower, and inscribed, "In honor of John Nicolet, who in 1634 passed through the straits of Mackinac in a birch bark canoe, and was the first white man to enter Michigan and the old Northwest." The character and qualities of this early pioneer of the Great lakes are worthily set forth in words used on that occasion by a gifted scholar of our own time, the Rt. Rev. Monsignor Frank A. O'Brien, LL. D., president of the Michigan Historical Commission in 1915, who said of him, "Nature had endowed Nicolet with wondrous gifts. Grace had supernaturalized his ambition into a burning fidelity to God and country. Others were blessed with great loyalty; others enjoyed a greater rank; but none possessed a nobler nature, a stronger arm, or a more devoted heart. He had a soldier's aspiration, without the soldier's love of greed. He had the love of victory, without the love of honors which it gave. He yearned for something great, yet he felt that the Old World would give him little to do. France has not been able to call his greatness into action. He sought other fields to increase his country's glory by discovery. He sought to spread God's kingdom. Under the banner of the Cross he went forward. He led his chosen bands through wilds unknown. He was as swift as lightning to resolve and as firm as a rock in execution. Where others hesitated, he quailed not. He was majestic, animated, resistless and persistent. He did better then he knew."

The earliest recorded visit tot he shores of Michigan after Nicolet was made in 1641 by two Jesuit missionaries, Charles Raymbault and Isaac Jogues, who in that year reached and named the Sault de Ste. Marie, and there preached the Gospel to two thousand hospitable Ojibways. Father Raymbault died shortly afterward, a victim of consumption brought on by exposures. Father Jogues, s short time after Raymbault]s death, attempting to return to the Sault, was captured by a marauding bank of Mohawks, the beginning of that remarkable series of captivities and persecutions which ended in his being burned at the stake.

In 1660 Father Rene Menard, another Jesuit missionary, was the first white man to coast along the northern short of the Upper Peninsula, exploring the mysteries of Gitchi Gomee, the "Shining Big Sea Water." He said, "I trust that providence which feeds the little birds of the air and clothes the wild flowers of the desert," and in this simple faith of a little child he tried to found a mission among the Indians on Chaquamegon bay. In the following year, while on a mission of mercy, he became lost in the forest and perished.

The first map of any part of Michigan was one made of the Lake Superior region, and the northernmost parts of the Lakes Huron and Michigan, a few years later, by the Jesuit Fathers Allouez and Marquette. Father Claude Allouez came there in 1666, naming the great northern lake, "Lae Tracy on Superieur." in honor of the viceroy of Canada--a name which it bears on his map. This map was remarkably accurate of this early day. "When it is considered," says a well known report of the region, "that these men were not engineers, and that to note the geographical features of the country formed no part of their requirements, this map may, for that age, be regarded as a remarkable production; although, occasionally, points are laid down half a degree from their true position. The whole coast, sixteen hundred miles in extent, as well as the islands, were explored."

The first accounts of copper in upper Michigan we have, are from the pen of Allouez. He writes: "It frequently happens that pieces of copper are found, weighing from ten to twenty pounds. I have seen several such pieces in the hands of the savages; and,. Since they are very superstitious, they regard then as divinities, or as presents given to them to promote their happiness, by the Gods who dwell beneath the water. For this reason, they preserve these pieces of copper, wrapped up with their most precious articles. In some families they have been kept for more then fifty years; in others they have descended from time out of mind, being cherished as domestic gods."

Our first description of the great copper mass now in the Smithsonian Institute at Washington, is also from Allouez. "For some time," he says, there was seen near the shore a large rock of copper, with its top rising above the water, which gave opportunities to those passing by to cut pieces from it; but when I passed that vicinity it had disappeared. I believe that the gales, which are frequent, like those of the sea, had covered it with sand. One savage tried to persuade me that it was a divinity, who had disappeared, but for what cause he was unwilling to tell."

The oldest settlement in Michigan is undoubtedly Sault Ste. Marie. Fathers Jogues, Raymbault, Menard and Allouez had tarried there; its actual permanent occupation by white men began as early as 1668, with the arrival of Fathers Claude Dablon and Jacques, who founded there the first permanent mission in Michigan.

Formal possession of Michigan, and of all the Great lakes region, in the name of France, was taken in 1671, at Sault Ste. Marie, accompanied by one of the most imposing ceremonies ever witnessed in that region. Here was gathered a motley array, representing all the types of New France: soldier, priest, trader and trapper, the picturesque couruer de bois, and the native red men. Church and state stood side by side. It was Father Allouez, mindful of his temporal as well as his spiritual master, who pronounced upon Louis XIV a panegyric the like of which was seldom heard by the sons of the forest. In large measure, it was this loyalty of the church that made possible the extension of trade, commerce and the temporal domain of the French crown over the magnificent reaches of the Great Lakes.


History of Genesee County, Michigan, Her People, Industries and Institutions
by Edwin O. Wood, LL.D, President Michigan Historical Commission, 1916

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Deb

You are the 2894th Visitor to this USGenNet Safe-Site™ Since March 1, 2002.