The “Boundaries” of the Early St. Regis Mission

by Darren Bonaparte

(Originally published in The People's Voice April 1, 2005)

    Last week we looked at several French documents that pertain to the foundation of the St. Regis Mission in the year 1755, on the eve of the French and Indian War.  This week we continue with this exploration of old documents and traditions concerning the early years of the mission.
    With the defeat of France, Great Britain took control of her Canadian colony and welcomed New France’s native allies into the Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship.  The Jesuits were allowed to continue to minister to their native flocks, in spite of the fact that the British did not entirely trust them.  As it turns out, not all of the natives really trusted them, either, especially here in Akwesasne.
    Daniel Claus, A German who worked for the British Crown under Superintendent of Indian Affairs Sir William Johnson, consulted Father Antoine Gordon about the history of the mission in 1784.  Father Gordon used the opportunity to defend himself against allegations made against him by his “flock:”

Pere Gordon of the order of the Jesuits was the promoter of that settlement at commencement of the war in 1755. The occasion as he told me was that on account of the approaching war such a continual Drunkenness prevailed among the Caughnawagay Indians that Mission became of little use, when he proposed to the sober and well thinking Indns. to remove out of the way of Liquor as the only remedy against Debauch. And accordingly prevailed upon some families to follow him, and he in consequence obtained General Vaudreuil's consent and a promise of a Grant of any spot or Tract of land he might pitch upon that were unconceded Lands on St. Lawrence River above Sault S. Louis. Upon which he left Caughnawagay with the families that determined to follow him and fixed upon the Spot S. Regis Village is now established. That the troubles of War never afforded him an opportunity to get a Deed executed deferring it to the time of peace beside not expecting the War would end so unfavourable for France. Pere Gordon frequently mentioned to me the Extent of the Tract with his reasons for the quantity, which he intended should commence at the River Des Raisons to the foot of the Long Sault Six Leagues deep on each side of the River, urging me after the Conquest of Canada to procure him a grant for said Tract either from the Governor of the Province or Sir William Johnson as sole Superintendent of Indian Affairs, but I always endeavoured to put him of as well as I could and to my knowledge he never received any writing or Title for said Tract.
    The Account the S. Regis Indians give for claiming the above Tract of Land was when they had a falling out with Pere Gordon about taking too much upon him about their political affairs in their village when they demanded of him to deliver them up the Deed of their Lands in his possession which he denied and they insisted upon that he concealed it from them telling me in Council that he actually was possessed of such an Instrument and they believed his Intention was to keep the Land for himself. This is what the Indians alledge abt. their Claim of those Lands.

    It may be probable that the French Governor promised a Grant for the Settlement at S. Regis, for as I have learnt from a faithful Can. Indian it was more a Political Scheme of the French Government to establish a Settlement of Indians there partly for the Security of that Frontier as well as the convenience of Excursions upon the Mohauk River and bringing the Oneida Indians over to the French Interest which was mostly effected during the War.

    Last week we discussed a document written by Father Jean Baptiste Roupe sometime around 1813, in which he relayed an oral tradition that confirmed the 1755 founding date.  This document also contains a description of the boundaries of the mission, which space did not allow us to include last week.  

As to the boundaries of this mission on the north of the St. Lawrence River the whole first grant of Indian reserves in Upper Canada on the shore of the river belong to this mission.  On the south of the river and going down river as far as Salmon River inclusively.  Going up river as well as in the depths in the direction of America if you ask what in the diocese of Quebec, the boundaries of this mission do not go beyond half a league for before that space the provincial border is found.  If you ask about the real jurisdiction, it has no boundary toward the depths and in going up river it goes up to across from Kingstown.  But these two areas are not of the diocese and the powers that the missionary at St. Regis exercises in them are only in virtue of the grant that Msgr. of Carolle made to Msgr. of Quebec.  (Frear 1983:9)    

    As scholar George L. Frear, Jr. pointed out, the “Kingstown” mentioned in Roupe’s document undoubtedly refers to Kingston, and “Upper Canada” refers to the province of Ontario today. Frear points out that what is being discussed is the boundaries of the parish and not the reservation itself…or of the disputed “grant” promised to the Mohawks by the French before the French and Indian War.  What is being discussed here is the way the parish boundaries “overlapped” the political boundaries of the day.  There were only two Roman Catholic bishops in North America in the latter years of the 18th century, one in Quebec and one in the United States.  They both agreed that because the region was so sparsely populated, the pastor at St. Regis, although under the bishop at Quebec, would be allowed to minister to Roman Catholics in the United States.  This tradition continues today, though we are now under three bishops: one from Quebec, one from the United States, and one from Ontario.  There have been times when all three have been present for Mass in St. Regis.

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