The Mohawk Migration to the Village of Prayer and Kateri Tekakwitha

From the Land of Flint to the Land Where the Partridge Drums The Migration from the Mohawk Valley to Kahnawake and Akwesasne

by Darren Bonaparte

The Mohawk Migration to the Village of Prayer

During the seventeenth century French Jesuits entered Mohawk and Haudenosaunee territory to convert them to the Christian faith. The Mohawks were suspicious at first; they knew that the “Black Robes” held a position of power among their mortal enemies, the Huron and the Algonquin. Jesuit Father Isaac Jogues, who had been captured during a Haudenosaunee attack on a party of Hurons in 1642, was taken to a Mohawk village for a time and eventually escaped. When the Haudenosaunee and the French agreed to a cease hostilities in 1645, the Jesuits were allowed to enter their villages more or less as peace envoys. Jogues returned to the Mohawks in 1646, but he and his companion were slain one month later, possibly because certain Mohawks blamed him for a smallpox outbreak that decimated their village after his escape a few years earlier. Other Jesuits such as Bressani, Poncet, and Le Moyne appeared on the scene during this time as well, but missionary work suffered greatly from renewed hostilities that saw the three main Mohawk villages destroyed by French expeditions in 1666. In 1667 French Jesuits Fremin, Pierrun, and Bruyas reestablished missions among the new villages, and by 1668 there were Catholic missions among all of the Haudenosaunee nations. (Beauchamp 1976:183-219)

Missionary work was made easier with the presence of Christian Huron and Algonquin captives among the Haudenosaunee, but the conversion of the Haudenosaunee was often contentious. New converts often found themselves shunned by neighbors who still resented the French Jesuits for their association with the Governor of New France, whom the Haudenosaunee called Onontio (“Man On The Mountain”). Maintaining a strategic position in the fur trade meant playing European powers off one another, and the fact that some of their people were forging such close ties to the French was a cause of considerable tension. (Shea 1855:263-274)

In time, however, the Jesuits led us many as 1000 to 1500 converts to a new settlement near Montreal where they could practice their new religion without the harassment of their neighbors. This mission was called St. Francis Xavier du Pres and was located at la prairie de la Magdeleine (La Prairie). It’s population was made up primarily of Mohawk and Oneida converts, but in time Hurons and Onondagas joined the mosaic. For many years the mission served as a buffer from attacks on the French by the English and their Haudenosaunee allies. (Fenton and Tooker 1978:469-471)

Kateri Tekakwitha

The most famous Mohawk convert of all was Kateri Tekakwitha, a young woman orphaned and scarred by a smallpox epidemic in the Mohawk Valley. Her story gives us a good look at the atmosphere in the villages when the migrations to the Village of Prayer took place. Her adoptive father was a chief who saw the advent of Christianity as a destructive force that weakened the Mohawk people and made them subservient to the French. He refused to allow Kateri to be baptized by the visiting Jesuit missionaries, but she did so in secrecy and migrated to the Village of Prayer in 1677. Her uncle’s fears were ultimately realized: Mohawk Chief Kryn (also known as Kaneakowa, or “The Great Mohawk” and Joseph Togouiroui) encouraged more Mohawks to move to the Catholic missions and eventually led war parties against his own people. It has been estimated that the migration of Christian Mohawks to Laprairie left the villages in the Mohawk Valley with half of their original population.

Kateri, like many of her fellow converts, was unconcerned about the political consequences of her conversion. Instead, she dedicated herself to her new faith with a devotion that even the Jesuits found astonishing. The village in which she lived heard its share of rumors of impending attacks and warfare, but she chose a pious life of prayer, humility, and penance. When she died in 1680, she was only 24 years old. A Jesuit priest observed that at the time of her death the smallpox scars on her face were miraculously healed. (Weiser 1972:160-161) Miracles have been attributed to her in the three centuries since her death, and she has thousands of advocates in North America and the rest of the world who promote her canonization as a saint. In 1980 the “Lily of the Mohawks” was beatified by Pope John Paul II. The following is an extract of the speech he delivered at KaterTs Beatification Mass:

“The last months of her life are an even clearer manifestation of her solid faith, straightforward humility, calm resignation and radiant joy, even in the midst of terrible sufferings. Her last words, simple and sublime, whispered at the moment of her death, sum up, like a noble hymn, a life of purest charity: ‘Jesus, I love you…’ “

By Darren Bonaparte, historian and author of  The Wampum Chronicles. Reprinted with permission.

Darren Bonaparte is a cultural historian from the Akwesasne First Nation. He is a frequent lecturer at schools, universities, museums, and historical sites in the United States and Canada. He has written four books, several articles, and the libretto for the McGill Chamber Orchestra’s Aboriginal Visions and Voices. Darren is a former chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. He is the creator of The Wampum Chronicles and historical advisor to film and television. He currently serves as the Director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Next week: Kahnawake.