This week I’m starting a post on Huronia and the great change it had undergone by the middle of the seventeenth century. Indeed, the whole of Southern Ontario had undergone tumultuous upheaval. But first let me describe the first contact between the Iroquoian speaking peoples of Southern Ontario and the Europeans.
To give you some context check the map from my last post. As you can see in the first half of the century the Huron Nation were living between Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario. The Tobacco Nation were living just west of them in the area of the Bruce Peninsula with the Neutral Nation occupying the territory north of Lake Erie. But the first to see the bearded, pale skinned men were the Huron.
Samuel D. Champlain made his way to Huronia via the Ottawa River. A sharp left at the Mattawa River, a short portage to Lake Nipissing and down the French River to Georgian Bay brought him to the outskirts of Huronia. This would quickly become the preferred trade route to Montreal and far superior French trade goods.
Never slow at recognizing an opportunity to save lost souls the Church sent its most ardent evangelists, the Jesuits, back to Huronia to show these poor devils the way to Paradise. And they didn’t mind the arduous, month-long trip either. In 1637 Father Jean de Brebeuf wrote in his instructions for arriving Jesuits that they had to try to eat at daybreak because the day was long and the “barbarians” only ate at sunrise and sunset. He also said of his own journey there that he was on the road for 30 days of continual hard work with only one day of rest. Not a trip for the faint of heart!
Huronia, he tells us, was a thriving country of about 20 towns with a population of 30,000. At first the outlook for the new relationship between these very different peoples looked bright. Trade was good and this pleased the Governor who represented the state. Conversions were being made pleasing the Bishop who represented the Church in New France. But all was not well in the land of the Huron. There was a foreboding sentence at the end of his very first letter that foreshadowed a calamity to come.
Smallpox and measles! Dreaded diseases in the seventeenth century. Even more so for the poor Huron. The Europeans had struggled with these maladies for centuries and had built up some immunity. But not the peoples of the New World. They had no immunity.
The Jesuits believed their immunity to be a gift of God and blamed the sickness on the “deviltry” practiced by the Huron. They continued to tend to the sick and reported back to their superiors that the sickness had grown more general and widespread. Father Francois Joseph Mercier reported in 1639 that of the 300 conversions at his post that year 122 people were sick!
All this sickness produced another critical problem for them, famine. There wasn’t enough healthy people to tend the fields or go on the hunt to produce the amount of food required to support the population. So, only a few short years after meeting their saviors from the east the mighty Huron Nation was languishing in sickness and famine. Two calamities had befallen them. Would there be a third? Stay tuned next week to find out!
NEXT WEEK: Huronia in the 1640’s