The Jesuit Relations

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Cover of the Jesuit Relations for 1662-1663

The Jesuit Relations, also known as Relations des Jésuites de la Nouvelle-France, are early ethnographic documents that chronicle Jesuit missions in New France. The works were written annually and appeared in print beginning in 1632, and ending in 1673.

Originally written in French, Latin, and Italian, The Jesuit Relations were reports from Jesuit missionaries in the field that were sent to their superiors to update them as to the missionaries’ progress in the conversion of various Native American tribes. Constructed as narratives, the original reports of the Jesuit missionaries were subsequently transcribed and altered several times before their publication, first by the Jesuit overseer in New France and then by the Jesuit governing body in France. The Relations gradually became more focused on the general public as its readers, in terms of a marketing tool to procure new settlers for the colonies, while simultaneously trying to gain the capital to continue the missions in New France.


It was the duty of Jesuit missionaries to annually transmit to their superior in Québec, or Montréal, an account of their activities. Annually, between 1632 and 1673, the superior made up a narrative, or "Relation" of the most important events which had occurred in the several missionary districts under his charge, sometimes using the exact words of the missionaries, and sometimes summarizing the individual journals in a general account, based in part upon the oral reports of visiting fathers. This annual "Relation" was forwarded to the provincial of the order in France, and, after careful scrutiny and re-editing, published by him in a series of duodecimo volumes, known collectively as The Jesuit Relations.[1] At times the Jesuit Relations read like travel narratives, describing geographical features and observations about the local peoples, flora and fauna.

According to Thomas Campbell, a letter of Charles Lallemont to his brother, dated 1 August 1626, inaugurated the series Relations des Jésuites de la Nouvelle-France about the missionary work in New France.[2]

The Relations were published annually, in Paris, until 1673, when the series was discontinued, probably through the influence of Louis de Buade de Frontenac, to whom the Jesuits were distasteful.[3]


The later use of The Jesuit Relations by the Jesuit order for monetary gain highlights the possibility of textual incongruity or fictionalized accounts. Daniel K. Richter states that the fact “[t]hat printed reports were designed to raise money for the mission suggests a need for caution.” [4] When examined with care, The Jesuit Relations still function as an important resource in the study of the relationship of cultural exchange that occurred between the settlers of New France and Native Americans.

Jesuit Relations were publicized as field letters from the missionary priests, unadulterated reports of eyewitness and testimony, although Allan Greer cites several disconnects with this assumption. Firstly, he notes the geographical procession in which these letters were routed and rerouted for editing, “It began with detailed letters from priests in the field, the most important usually being the one brought down by the summer canoe brigade from the Huron Country. The superior at Quebec would compile and edit these letters, paraphrasing some parts, copying others verbatim, and forwarding the whole package to France."[5] The documents had to be approved by the Jesuit Society in France before publication, which likely may have altered some of the contents by editing. Likewise, John Pollack notes the account of Father Isaac Jogues in 1641 “is not an eyewitness testimony” but, rather, a second-hand relation by his superior, “drawn from Jogues’ letters.”[6] Pollack notes further that the Relations “were edited by Jesuit missions in Paris before publication." [6]

Because of the wide distribution of the letters after publication, scholars ask the question: who decided the relevance of information contained in these field letters? Although the Jesuits tried to avoid disclosing any compromise in their principles, “it is possible to detect evidence of soul searching and shifting points of view”[7] relative to their success at the conversion of Native peoples. After extensive cultural immersion, the missionaries may have moved from tolerating native belief systems to assuming native idiosyncrasies. Jesuit officials in France would be liable to omit any threat to their philosophies in the final product. The issue is less the basic accuracy of the Jesuit Relations but the “manipulative literary devices”[8] employed by the editors. Greer notes that European writings were popularly documented in one of two forms, as travel narratives or as encyclopedic catalogs. Greer notes that the Jesuits obscured the boundaries between these two genres in an attempt to raise funds to continue Jesuit missions in New France: “One of the peculiarities of the Jesuit Relations is that they combine both types of writing: Jacques Marquette’s personal narrative of his trip down the Mississippi, for example, shares space with Jean de Brébeuf’s systematic description of Huron society.”[5]

Compilation and modern publication[edit]

What are generally known as the Relations proper, addressed to the superior and published in Paris, under direction of the provincial, commence with Le Jeune's Brieve Relations du Voyage de la Noevelle-France (1632); and thereafter a duodecimo volume, neatly printed and bound in vellum, was issued annually from the press of Sebastien Cramoisy, in Paris, until 1673, when the series was discontinued.[1] Several similar texts that were published prior to 1632 are also sometimes considered part of the corpus.

No single unified edition existed until Reuben Gold Thwaites, secretary of the Wisconsin Historical Society, led the project to translate into English, unify, and cross-reference the numerous original Relations. Between 1896 and 1901 Thwaites and his associates compiled 73 volumes, including two volumes of indices, the Relations effectively comprise a large body of ethnographic material. He included many other papers, rare manuscripts and letters from the archives of the Society of Jesus spanning a period from the founding of the order to 1791.[9]

The indices are comprehensive in scope and include titles such as: Marriage and Marriage Customs, Courtship, Divorce, Social Status of Women, Songs and Singing, Dances, and Games and Recreation. Much can be learned through the examination and study of the ethnographic material compiled by the Jesuit missionaries in New France. The depth of the cross-referencing allows for several hundred years of Native American/European interaction to be easily accessed.[10]

While Thwaites is the first and arguably the best known, there are a number of modern editions of the Jesuit Relations. That of Lucien Campeau SJ (1967–2003) contains a discussion of the texts it includes and the historical events that they treat, and may be considered as giving the most detailed and exhaustive general overviews available.[11]



  • Relations des jésuites: contenant ce qui s’est passé de plus remarquables dans les missions des pères de la Compagnie de Jésus dans la Nouvelle-France. Quebec: A. Côté, 1858.
  • Deslandres, Dominique. 'Exemplo aeque et verbo: The French Jesuits' Missionary World.' In The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences and the Arts, 1540-1773. Ed. John W. O'Malley and others. Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 2000.
  • Donnely, Joseph P. Thwaites' Jesuit Relations: Errata and Addenda. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1967.
  • Greer, Allan. The Jesuit Relations. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.
  • McCoy, James C. Jesuit relations of Canada, 1632-1673: a bibliography. Paris: A. Rau, 1937.
  • Sulte, Benjamin (1897), "(Review of) The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents by Reuben Gold Thwaites", The American Historical Review 2 (3): 522–527, doi:10.2307/1833412, ISSN 0002-8762 
  • Pollack, John. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Houghton Mifflin. Boston, United States. 2009. 243.
  • Richter, Daniel. K. "Iroquois versus Iroquois: Jesuit Missions and Christianity in Village Politics," 1642-1686. Ethnohistory. 32.1 (1985) 1-16.
  • Spalding, Henry S. (1929), "The Ethnological Value of the Jesuit Relations", The American Journal of Sociology 34 (5): 882–889, doi:10.1086/214829 
  • Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed. (1896–1901), The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791, Cleveland: Burrows Bros. Co., OCLC 2954235  Creighton University version

Further reading[edit]

  • Crawford, David E. (1967), "The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, Early Sources for an Ethnography of Music among American Indians", Ethnomusicology (Society for Ethnomusicology) 11 (2): 199–206, doi:10.2307/849818, JSTOR 849818 
  • Deslandres, Dominique, Croire et Faire Croire: Les Missions Francaises au XVIIe siecle (1600-1650). Paris: Fayard, 2003.
  • Moore, James T., Indian and Jesuit: A Seventeenth-century Encounter. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1982.
  • Morrison, Kenneth, The Solidarity of Kin: Ethnohistory, Religious Studies, and the Algonkian-French Encounter. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

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