St. Regis Mission Established
250 Years Ago This Year

by Darren Bonaparte

(Originally published in The People's Voice March 25, 2005)

    The summer of 2005 marks a major milestone for Akwesasne.  According to documentary sources, the St. Regis Mission was established here 250 years ago by French Jesuits as an offshoot of the village of Kahnawake near Montreal.
    Onkwehonwe people have of course used this territory for thousands of years before that, as evidenced by archaeology and oral traditions, but 1755 marks the first permanent settlement here.
    The St. Lawrence River missions were intended to draw Mohawks and other Iroquois people away from their homelands and into alliance with New France.  In 1747, a mission was established at what is now Ogdensburg, New York, which drew mostly Onondagas, Cayugas, and Oneidas.  The community was known to Mohawks as Sawekatsi  but the name has generally been recorded as Oswegatchie.
    Halfway between Oswegatchie and Kahnawake, at what is now Akwesasne territory, an incident occured that year which caused the French to doubt the fidelity of their Kahnawake allies.  We find this in Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New-York, Volume X (1858):

This officer had discovered a settlement formed by people of the Saut at the mouth of the River St. Louis, at the head of Lake St. Francis, the place where the Mohawks pass when they are coming to attack our settlements, which has created the suspicion that these same Indians might favor the Mohawks.  What more surprised them was, that some of the Saut Indians who accompanied M. de St. Pierre endeavored to take the lead when they supposed themselves near the Mohawks, and were so bold as to fire the three shots again as a signal, which have been repeated whenever these Indians have been pursued.  These gentlemen have sent some messages, expressive of their displeasure, to the people of the Saut who received them with much attention and have promised to behave better in the future.  M. de St. Pierre has brought back with him the Indians who had settled at Lake St. Francis, and had broken several bark and elm canoes there which had been constructed by Mohawks.

    Something of this event may have come down through Mohawk oral tradition, as documented in Tewaarathon (Lacrosse): Akwesasne’s Story of Our National Game (1978):

The Akwesasne elders have often related the story of how the Mohawks from Caughnawaga found their cousins living about eighty miles upstream from their settlement.  It seems that some Caughnawaga hunters had decided to move further upstream in search of better game and came upon a canoe that had drifted.  They noticed that the canoe  bore the wolf clan emblem and they knew that their relatives were living not far from them.  After this incident, visits were very frequent between Caughnawaga and Akwesasne.

    Although some historians tend to paint the Kahnawake Mohawks and their Mohawk Valley kin as mortal enemies, documents such as this suggest otherwise.  In the days leading up to the French and Indian War, the French were trying to get more Mohawks in the Mohawk Valley to move to the St. Lawrence River, while the English tried to get the Kahnawake Mohawks to move back to the Mohawk Valley.

My negotiation with the Mohawks succeeds admirably, as you will see by their propositions, but they cannot settle in the village of the Sault St. Louis, because the lands in that quarter are exhausted, so that more than thirty families belonging to that mission, being unable to collect wherewithal to feed themselves, are going to settle at Lake St. Francis, twenty leagues above Montreal, on the south side, where there are very good lands; the Mohawks have agreed with these thirty families to accompany them; this change, which costs the King only the erection of a saw-mill, that will furnish abundantly wherewith to build the cabins, becomes very advantageous to the Colony, in as far as it will be easy in time of war, to be informed of all that might occur in the direction of Choueguen; besides, La Presentation, and this new village on Lake St. Francis, the Sault St. Louis and the Lake of the Two Mountains, will form a barrier which will protect the government of Montreal against all incursions, because in that weak quarter, the troops that might be sent thither, will be always supported  by these Indians.
    I have dwelt much on the consideration of this new expense, though very trifling, but I have reflected that if I had ordered the thirty families in question, to remain at the Sault St. Louis, I could not have avoided having to feed them, which would cost an immense sum…
    …The English are furious at the Indians for abandoning them; they have ample cause, for the government of Orange is wholly unprotected, and there would be great need to attend to it in time of war.
[M. Duquesne to M. de Machault, October 31, 1754, NYCD X: 266-267]
    The following summer, Duquesne wrote to M. de Vaudreuil to update him on the project:

Although we informed the Marquis de Vaudreuil of the motives which have induced us to allow the missionaries of the Sault a new mission on Lake St. Francis, in order to attract the Mohawks thither, who had evinced some repugnance to come to the Sault, either because the land there was not fertile, or rather because they had remarked that Brandy was as abundant among their praying brethren as among the English, I repeat to him that it had never been my intention to settle the people of the Sault there, but on the contrary to attract those Mohawks and the Indians belonging to the Five Nations who would like to come thither, having already taken some steps.  I have reported to the Court the necessity that existed of attracting the Mohawks to a place they asked of me, the rather as Father Billiard in Mr Varin’s presence, demanded no greater advance than one hundred pistoles, at most, for a saw-mill, and that we would undertake the rest.
[M. Duquesne to M. de Vaudreuil, July 6, 1755, NYCD X: 301]   

    A French military officer mentioned seeing the new mission during his travels up the St. Lawrence River in 1756:   

July 24: Left at half-past four, passed Anchorage Pont, Point a la Morandiere, Isle au Raisin, stopped to dine at Les Cheneaux, about three leagues from the entrance of the Lake. From there one could see Fort St. Regis, which is on Riviere a la Mme. This fort is stockaded, built last year. There is a Jesuit Mission there where some of the Iroquois have started to come.
[Louis Antoine de Bougainville, Adventures in the Wilderness: the American Journal of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, 1756-1760.(1990)]

    Captain Pierre Pouchot, another French officer, included St. Regis both in a map he drew and in his detailed notes that accompany it, compiled sometime around 1768:

From Pointe a la Morandiere, navigation is constantly encumbered by rushes. Caution is necessary to keep the N. without getting too close to land in order to identify the correct channel of the river. After the rushes, the boat travels among a number of beautiful islands, which are called “Les Chaneaux”. After these islands, you cross to the S. shore if you want to visit the mission of St. Regis, recently established by the Jesuits though with very few missionaries. The lands in the surrounding area would be admirable for cultivation. It is very fine hunting country.
[Pierre Pouchot, Memoirs on the Late War in North America between France and England

    In 1983, George L. Frear, Jr. published an article, “The Founding of St. Regis,” in which he presented a translation of a document he found in the Archives of the Society of Jesus in French Canada, located in St. Jerome, Quebec.  The document appears to be written by Jean-Baptiste Roupe (1782-1854), who was stationed at St. Regis from 1807 to 1813:

It is a bit difficult to give you a certain knowledge concerning what you are asking, the first records having been burned with the second church of this mission.  What I am going to report to you is the testimony of an elderly Canadian, a respectable and fairly well educated man: in 1754 in the month of November the reverend father Ant. Gordon and Father Biard whose baptismal name is not known, both Jesuits, drew from Sault St. Louis a certain number of Indian families and came with them to dwell by a little river called by the Indians Where the partridge drums.
    The following spring they passed to the nor[th] shore [of the] river and built there a little chapel of bark to which succeeded a chapel of wood which burned.  After the burning of this second chapel according to the records (which seem to begin there) in 1762 a third chapel of wood was built.  At this time there also existed in the village a little individual chapel devoted to St. Rock built by the devotion of an individual.

    As Frear points out, “What is most striking about this document is how neatly it dovetails with Duquesne’s two letters that date from the time.  Duquesne writes on October 31, 1754 that some families are going to start out and Roupe says that they did so in November of that year.  On July 6, 1755, Duquesne writes of the village as an accomplished fact, and Roupe says that in the spring of that year the settlers crossed the St. Regis river to found the village and the church.”
    These, of course, are just the French documents that relate to this period.  There are English documents and at least one Mohawk document which we will discuss in future editions…

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