A Brief History of the Huron
—J. Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God
The neighborhood was under construction in the summer of 1982, and I scoured the half-built houses for refundable pop bottles and cans discarded by the roofers and framers. Sunday mornings, I filled a sack with empties, arranged the cans on the driveway at home, and stomped them one by one till my socks turned tacky with sour beer and cola. Each empty bottle brought me a dime closer to Francis Parkman’s History of France and England in North America, the two-volume Library of America edition with Prussian blue silk ribbons for page-keepers. The set cost forty dollars, or a couple thousand cans, or several hundred bottles. I grew anxious and mulled schemes to swindle the History Book Club, which would doubtless sell out of copies long before I could steal enough loose change to buy my own.
There were maps in those books, the catalog affirmed, reprints of the very maps that Parkman consulted during his researches. Maps of the Ohio Valley and the Pennsylvania frontier, elegant and spare and unadorned maps depicting big rivers bristling with tributary streams that traced back into uncharted forests where the Oneida fished and hunted bear, where the Tuscarora burned their Huron captives, and where the Flemish Bastard and his renegades made their winter camps, there to drink and plot the next raid on the settlements.
I got the money together. On the day the books arrived, I bought a Hershey’s chocolate bar at the convenience store, returned home and sat down, dizzy and exultant, at the kitchen table with a glass of milk and opened Volume I, Pioneers of France in the New World, Chapter I, “Early Spanish Adventure, 1512–1561,” which chronicled the expeditions of Narváez, de Leon, and de Soto. I restrained myself from racing down the page. To read with patience and understanding was agonizing.
Toward the close of the fifteenth century, Spain achieved her final triumph over the infidels of Granada, and made her name glorious through all generations by the discovery of America . . . Nor is it surprising that amid such waking marvels the imagination should run wild in romantic dreams; that between the possible and the impossible the line of distinction should be but faintly drawn, and that men should be found ready to stake life and honor in pursuit of the most insane fantasies.
Hours passed. I looked up from the page to see my dad watching me from the doorway. “Everything all right?” he asked.
In the mid-1990s, I worked as a plumber’s apprentice in Cincinnati and attended plumbers’ trade school at night. The journeyman I worked with was a man named Derek. Broad-shouldered, mid-thirties, dark good looks inherited form his Italian immigrant mother, Derek was a kind man with a generous and disarming nature, and for this reason he was well liked by the office secretaries and by the other tradesmen. I’d never seen a man show such unabashed joy in his children, two girls. His wife was the only woman but one, he told me, that he’d ever slept with. A man generally wouldn’t confess to such a thing if it weren’t true. He was honest like that. Imposture, I think, simply didn’t occur to him.
Here’s an example. A friend of his was killed in a work accident. On the way to a job one morning, we stopped at the cemetery. For a few minutes, he stood in the rain beside the newly-turned grave and remained quiet throughout the day. After work, back at the shop, he wanted to talk about the dead man, but when he brought up the fact of visiting the grave, the other plumbers ridiculed him, and a hurt look came over Derek’s face, an angry hurt.
That kind of person.
One morning, I arrived at the shop—normally a glum place at that hour—and found Derek happily recounting a story to two plumbers. He was not much of a reader, but someone had given him a book, and he’d been carried away by it. He was talking about the swamp-fighting in South Carolina during the American Revolution. I knew the story, and the book’s title.
“Francis Marion, Swamp Fox of the Revolution,” I said.
Derek was astonished, warily so, as though I’d read his mind. “How the hell did you know that?” I didn’t tell him that it was the first book I’d ever read on my own, when I was a kid at Saint James Elementary. For me, it was a wonderful coincidence, but I didn’t say so.
Derek embarked on a book jag. He read books about local history, about the Miami and the Shawnee, about the arrival of the French and English in the Ohio River Valley. As we drove the unmarked van around the city from job to job—sweating water pipe, cutting away disused cast iron at a tear-out job, boiling lead in iron ladles in murky crawlspaces—we talked about the Jesuit Marquette’s voyages, about gauntlets and ordeals; about the indefatigable LaSalle, who paddled the lengths of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, both up- and downstream; Little Turtle, brilliant strategist of the Miami, whose confederacy crushed St. Clair’s army on the banks of the Wabash, inflicting the bloodiest defeat ever suffered by the American military at the hands of Native Americans. We talked about prisoner exchanges and broken treaties; captivity stories; the vanished buffalo of the “Cain-tuck” hunting grounds, the great herds that today exist only on a mural painted on the Newport, Kentucky, levee. And the war chief Blue Jacket who, according to a suspect legend, was a white child adopted by the Shawnee. It was Blue Jacket’s men who routed General Harmar’s army from Ohio and Indiana. He was present, too, at Fallen Timbers in 1794, by which time the Americans—with time, men, and money on their side—had learned the strategic value of burning the tribes’ fields and towns.
We talked about trees.
Like the stage set to a gothic drama, in solemn attendance at every chapter of that history, were the enormous woods. We returned to those vanished forests gladly and often, if only in workday talk. The forest was a terror and a mystery for most Europeans who, unlike the first peoples, possessed a constitutional aversion to wilderness. The complex canopy, hundreds of feet high, filtered the sunlight to variable shades of violet. Summers, the combatants and the wandering bands must have blinked like moon-people as they emerged from the gloom to rest beside some sun-struck river or lake. In winter, more natural light fell on the paths, but by then the ways were deep in snow, and travel was agonizing for those unused to snowshoes.
The forests of Ohio were axed and burned long ago, and the memories of nations have largely departed with the solitude of the great woods. By taking thought, I can imagine those trees, but to my mind they only ever appear dim and half-unreal, rooted in abstraction. What remains of the old growth forest in Ohio would fit into an area the size of a county park.
History is not an American pastime. This is partly due, I think, to the fact that history has long been presented to schoolchildren as a thing from which they are meant to draw “lessons,” as though history were a series of unfortunate incidents involving hot skillets and monkey cages, which, in some ways, I suppose it is. The past is something that maladjusted people “dwell on,” after all. “The belief that history has a present use when properly read,” wrote Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence, “is a mark of the modern temper; whole periods and peoples have done quite well without it,” and that seems true enough. Remembrance is morbid, unprofitable. It’s impractical, impolite in certain company. And plainly, we survive whether we record our deeds and disasters for posterity, or we don’t.
James Wright wrote a poem titled, “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned.” It begins with a boy hiding in the “hobo jungle weeds” along the Ohio River. The boy, now a man, recalls how
I saw, down river,
At Twenty-third and Water Streets
By the vinegar works,
The doors open in early evening.
Swinging their purses, the women
Poured down the long street to the river
And into the river.
I do not know how it was
They could drown every evening.
What time near dawn did they climb up the other shore,
Drying their wings?
For the river at Wheeling, West Virginia,
Has only two shores:
The one in hell, the other
In Bridgeport, Ohio.
And nobody would commit suicide, only
To find beyond death
Someday, no doubt, I will step ashore at Bridgeport, Ohio. I wonder if I’ll meet the drowned prostitutes of Wheeling there, or Narváez’s soldiers, or the ghosts of Pottawatomie women wandering the banks, stranded beyond death. Perhaps I’ll find the place deserted but for a stray playing card and a few blackened stones. I don’t know. I’ve never been to Bridgeport, nor has anyone ever returned from there. But just in case, I should bring a small gift along. A goose feather, a holey stone, some flower whose name I’ll probably mispronounce. It’s easy to conceive of the dead as a forgiving crowd, but I’m not so certain. The German poet Heine wrote that God will forgive us, because that’s His métier. But the dead labor under no such obligation.
Scattered up and down the Ohio, Scioto, and Miami river valleys, the sites of historical significance were long ago effaced by tractor and leveler. Here and there, a roadside marker bears the name of a trading post or a treaty site or a vanished Shawnee town. Beyond the sign may be an onion field or a deserted lot or a busy street corner, and the passerby who bothers to read the sign might try to reimagine the scene. It’s difficult to do. Modern society has re-created the land in its image, and the land seems to have turned inward, like a prisoner that’s been tormented and beaten but still refuses to talk.
Heraclitus made the curious observation that Nature loves to hide. History, too, loves to hide. The closer you look at the land, the more it conceals, and so the past becomes an unlikely, semi-mythical, at times unintelligible place. Only shadows and erasures and faint prints remain of the life that this land’s first inhabitants knew.
When I was a kid, I was aware of the presence of ghosts. I had an inborn talent for paying attention, which compensated in a small way for my ignorance. Then, sorrow and love were indistinguishable, and together these constituted a kind of key to a passing knowledge. I mean to say that, innocent of judgment, I was permitted to listen and to look. Things lay unconcealed to me then that are now hidden in plain view. I’m older, lazy, judgmental; the key is lost.
When I was a kid, history books had this in common with the moon at two in the morning: both had a way of making me feel as though I were the only soul in the world who was watching.
From the early seventeenth century, the Huron had represented the Jesuits’ best hope of establishing an empire in the wilderness. The Order had dedicated tremendous resources over many years to Christianizing the Huron, who were geographically most accessible and were deemed, due to their long familiarity with the French, most amenable to mystifying news of the creator’s self-revelation. Once the Huron were converted, the Jesuits reasoned, the other tribes would see the good that came from renouncing war and pantheism; the nations would fall like dominoes before the Cross, and the fleur-de-lis would wave in triumph over the primeval forest. Then the priests would turn their attention to those demons the Iroquois, and only then would the great battle—the Armageddon for the soul of the continent—commence. After half a century, however, of exertion and privation, the Jesuit investment had yielded only a few scattered camps of half-starved converts and a growing honor roll of martyrs.
On January 1, 1865, in Boston, in the “Introduction” to Pioneers of France in the New World, the first volume of France and England in North America, the author addressed himself in the third person.
During the past eighteen years, the state of his health has exacted throughout an extreme caution in regard to mental application, reducing it at best within narrow and precarious limits, and often precluding it. Indeed, for two periods, each of several years, any attempt at bookish occupation would have been merely suicidal. A condition of sight arising from kindred sources has also retarded the work, since it has never permitted reading or writing continuously for much more than five minutes, and often has not permitted them at all.
In the course of composing this history, a task that consumed decades, Francis Parkman traveled widely in North America and Europe to locate primary sources, which he translated himself from the French, Spanish, and Latin. He visited the relevant historical places—treaty sites, Indian towns, battlefields—some of which, overgrown and uncharted, had to be rediscovered from imprecise descriptions set down in obscure narratives or from the memories of elderly locals. The Niagara and Ottawa river valleys were still largely wilderness in Parkman’s day, and he journeyed by foot, on horseback, and by canoe to sites of interest, acquiring a modest vocabulary of Algonquin along the way.
He was afflicted early in life with what he terms “Injuns on the brain” and, in order to pursue effectively his researches, he trained himself to shoot, paddle, fish, and to navigate by land and water. Because the nations of which he wrote were in many cases destroyed or dispersed by his day, Parkman traveled west to the Great Plains and lived for a time among the Sioux, in hopes of acquiring some familiarity, though at several great removes, with the eastern woodland tribes who were the primary subjects of his studies. These experiences were recounted in The Oregon Trail (1849), which affords a glimpse—both patronizing and vividly detailed—into the lives of the Oglala Sioux, a few years before they were dispersed, murdered, and imprisoned. Parkman’s work and travels led to several breakdowns from nervous exhaustion. Constant study in bad light ruined his eyes. When his exhaustion threatened to overwhelm, he dismissed his assistants and worked in his garden.
After forty years, the seven books that make up France and England in North America were finished. The prose is often purple, the sentiments often dated, and Parkman does not hide his contempt for the benighted bigotry of the Roman Church. He betrays, too, a fastidious distaste for the manners, customs, and earthy humor of Iroquois and Hurons. The term “savage” is commonly preferred to “Indian.” But if our evolved sensibilities detract from this prodigious achievement, won in the teeth of severe mental strain, which preserves in English a chronicle of the deaths of nations, of suffering and sacrifice, and of cruelty and endurance in proportions that strain the limits of credulity, and yet is founded on painstaking research of eyewitness accounts —well, that would be both unhistorical and uncharitable.
Among the Europeans who came to this hemisphere, as depicted in Parkman’s histories, were figures whose imperial ambitions were celestially sanctioned. A breed of schizophrenics: murderers capable of poetic eloquence; fanatics who gladly laid down their lives for strangers. This split-mindedness was a symptom of an age when the medieval and the modern were struggling for mastery—not only for Western civilization, but for individual souls. The mixture proved volatile, as the life of Luther proves, and could produce, if not monsters, then men with monstrous energies.
I was awed and appalled by the likes them, for they seemed larger than life. I never crossed a bridge over the Miami or the Ohio rivers in the family car without imagining Shawnee traders or toque-capped voyageurs or black-robed priests paddling canoes below. But these visions vanished at the sight of a limestone barge, or trash from old floods fixed like bunting in the trees.
At the watershed of the late medieval and the early modern, the Western mind was, for good or ill, more capable than now of accommodating mutually-exclusive certainties. In Pioneers of France, Parkman provides an illustration of this facility with his description of the conquistador Menéndez. Here, the soldier is petitioning the crown to underwrite an expedition to the New World.
He knew, he said, nothing of greater moment to his Majesty than the conquest and settlement of Florida. The climate was healthful, the soil fertile; and, worldly advantages aside, it was peopled by a race sunk in the thickest shades of infidelity. “Such grief,” he pursued, “seizes me, when I behold this multitude of wretched Indians, that I should choose the conquest and settling of Florida above all commands, offices, and dignities which your Majesty might bestow.” Those who take this for hypocrisy do not know the Spaniard of the sixteenth century.
The first four books of France and England in North America concern the settlement of New France. It is the story of Hurons and Iroquois; of Dutch rum- and gun-runners; of Spanish adventurers and French explorers and the multinational struggle for control of a devastating trade in beaver pelts fueled by a faraway craze for hats; of Scottish soldiers and English colonists eking out a precarious existence through miserable Pennsylvania winters, tilling the stony ground with their matchlocks on their shoulders, ever alert to war parties. And through this tale runs, like a strand of black thread, the story of the Jesuits.
Who were they? Here is Parkman.
The Jesuit was, and is, everywhere,—in the school-room, in the library, in the cabinets of princes and ministers, in the huts of savages, in the tropics, in the frozen North, in India, in China, in Japan, in Africa, in America; now as a Christian priest, now as a soldier, a mathematician, an astrologer, a Brahmin, a mandarin, under countless disguises, by a thousand arts, luring, persuading, or compelling souls into the fold of Rome.
Confronted with the possibilities of the New World, the English Protestants gradually exchanged their inherited hierarchies for a degree of self-determination. The Jesuits in their small, scattered missions suffered no such change of heart in the Canadian forests. Physical life was radically altered by the severe terms of survival, but the soul never quite cut free from French soil, or from Rome, or from the world to come. “Those who shaped the character,” Parkman writes,
and in great measure the destiny, of New France had always on their lips the nothingness and the vanity of life. For them, time was nothing but a preparation for eternity, and the highest virtue consisted in a renunciation of all the cares, toils, and interests of earth. That such a doctrine has often been joined to an intense worldliness, all history proclaims; but with this we have at present nothing to do. If all mankind acted on it in good faith, the world would sink into decrepitude. It is the monastic idea carried into the wide field of active life, and is like the error of those who, in their zeal to cultivate their higher nature, suffer the neglected body to dwindle and pine, till body and mind alike lapse into feebleness and disease.
And who were the instruments and the promoters of this proselytism, at once so devout and so politic? Who can answer? who can trace out the crossing and mingling currents of wisdom and folly, ignorance and knowledge, truth and falsehood, weakness and force, the noble and the base,—can analyze a systematized contradiction, and follow through its secrets wheels, springs, and levers a phenomenon of moral mechanism? Who can define the Jesuits?
When the friars disembarked at Montreal, after the long voyage from France, they carried with them precise instructions from their Superiors in Paris concerning their comportment during the voyage up the Ottawa River to their duty posts. Parkman here translates and summarizes the “Instructions for the Fathers of our Company on the way to the Huron”:
You should love the Indians like brothers, with whom you are to spend the rest of your life.—Never make them wait for you in embarking.—Take a flint and steel to light their pipes and kindle their fire at night; for these little services win their hearts.—Try to eat their sagamite as they cook it, bad and dirty as it is.—Fasten up the skirts of your cassock, that you may not carry water or sand into the canoe.—Wear no shoes or stockings in the canoe; but you may put them on in crossing the portages.—Do not make yourself troublesome, even to a single Indian.—Do not ask them too many questions. —Bear their faults in silence, and appear always cheerful.—Buy fish for them from the tribes you will pass; and for this purpose take with you some awls, beads, knives, and fishhooks.—Be not ceremonious with the Indians; take at once what they offer you: ceremony offends them.—Be very careful, when in the canoe, that the brim of your hat does not annoy them. Perhaps it would be better to wear your night-cap. There is no such thing as impropriety among Indians. —Remember that it is Christ and his cross that you are seeking; and if you aim at anything else, you will get nothing but affliction of body and mind.
After the perilous journey up the Ottawa, the priests divulged to the assembled villagers their dreams of a Christian empire where French and Indian lived together in peace and prosperity. Official histories record the priests’ astonishment at their hosts’ prodigious memories, and their selflessness. The Huron were much given to dancing and to practical jokes, and they faced their precarious existence with good humor and resilience. Stinginess was the one unforgiveable sin.
Among the Iroquois and Hurons . . . there were marked distinctions of noble and base, prosperous and poor; yet, while there was food in the village, the meanest and the poorest need not suffer want.
To the Huron, the French were a mystifying species, “marvelous in knowledge, careless of life.” They could not fathom the good fathers’ scorn for the passing joys of food, dance, and sex. The priests were welcomed in good times, tolerated in lean times. Their proven courage carried much currency among their hosts and spared the Frenchmen’s necks when the Huron were tempted by hunger to rid themselves of unproductive dependents.
The Jesuits continually, and with limited success, implored the Huron not to burn or torture the prisoners who fell into their hands, but on one occasion these cruel practices supplied the priests with a fitting illustration of the creed they expounded:
“You do good to your friends,” said [Father] Le Jeune to an Algonquin chief, “and you burn your enemies. God does the same.”
In Parkman, admiration for the priests is mixed with disdain.
. . . a band of thoughtful men, clad in a threadbare garb of black, their brows swarthy from exposure, yet marked with the lines of intellect and a fixed enthusiasm of purpose. Here was Bressani, scarred with firebrand and knife; Chabanel, once a professor of rhetoric in France, now a missionary, bound by a self-imposed vow to a life from which his nature recoiled; the fanatical Chaumonot, whose character savored of his peasant birth,—for the grossest fungus of superstition that ever grew out of the shadow of Rome was not too much for his omnivorous credulity, and miracles and mysteries were his daily food.
The Huron were, to the Jesuits’ happy surprise, often amenable to visions of Paradise and the One True God, but the obscurer notions of sin and perdition did not often pass muster.
Despite an honest desire to indulge these bizarre strangers, the Huron could not wholly suppress their instinctive skepticism. At these moments, the Huron came to life on the page, for their humor was to me a familiar mix of mock-obtuseness and downright irreverence, and in their words I heard the voices of my un-mystical neighbors, the German Catholics of Cincinnati’s west side, with their inborn leeriness of other worlds. “With respect to the advantages of the French Paradise,” Parkman wrote, the Huron “was slow of conviction.”
“I wish to go where my relations and ancestors have gone,” was a common reply [to the Jesuits]. “Heaven is a good place for Frenchmen,” said another; “but I wish to be among Indians, for the French will give me nothing to eat when I get there.”
It was scarcely possible [Parkman writes] to convince the Indians that there was but one God for themselves and the whites. The proposition was met by such arguments as this: “If we had been of one father, we should know how to make knives and coats as well as you.”
“Which will you choose,” demanded the priest of a dying woman, “Heaven or Hell?” “Hell, if my children are there, as you say,” returned the mother. “Do they hunt in heaven, or make war, or go to feasts?” asked an anxious inquirer. “Oh, no!” replied the Father. “Then I will not go. It is not good to be lazy.”
“Why did you baptize that Iroquois?” asked one of the dying neophytes, speaking of the prisoner recently tortured; “he will get to Heaven before us, and, when he sees us coming, he will drive us out.” At the height of the pestilence, a Huron said to one of the priests, “I see plainly that your God is angry with us because we will not believe and obey him. Ihonatiria, where you first taught his word, is entirely ruined. Then you came here to Ossossané, and we would not listen; so Ossossané is ruined too. This year you have been all through our country, and found scarcely any who would do what God commands; therefore the pestilence is everywhere.” After premises so hopeful, the Fathers looked for a satisfactory conclusion; but the Indian proceeded,—“My opinion is, that we ought to shut you out from all the houses, and stop our ears when you speak of God, so that we cannot hear. Then we shall not be so guilty of rejecting the truth, and he will not punish us so cruelly.”
Several converts were filled with anxiety in view of the probable want of tobacco in Heaven, saying that they could not do without it.
The Jesuits prayed for patience for themselves, enlightenment for the heathens, and persevered. “Send me,” wrote the priest Garnier in a letter to a correspondent in France,
“a picture of Christ without the beard.” Several Virgins are also requested, together with a variety of souls in perdition—âmes damnées—most of them to be mounted in a portable form. Particular directions are given with respect to the demons, dragons, flames, and other essentials of these works of art. Of souls in bliss—âmes bienheureuses—he thinks that one will be enough. All the pictures must be in full face, not in profile; and they must look directly at the beholder, with open eyes. The colors should be bright; and there must be no flowers or animals, as these distract the attention of the Indians.
The friars occasionally were killed or driven off. But slowly, imperceptibly, over the toilsome years, a community of converts began to grow. Each year the Jesuits would reunite in the spring at Sainte Marie and trade accounts of souls snatched from the very teeth of Satan. Were there moments of doubt, when the hungry and reviled priest yearned for home and an end to exile and thankless sacrifice?
But, in this exaltation and tension of the powers, was there no moment when the recoil of nature claimed a temporary sway? When, an exile from his kind, alone, beneath the desolate rock and the gloomy pine-trees, the priest gazed forth on the pitiless wilderness and the hovels of its dark and ruthless tenants, his thoughts, it may be, flew longingly beyond those wastes of forest and sea that lay between him and the home of his boyhood: or rather, led by a deeper attraction, they revisited the ancient center of his faith, and he seemed to stand once more in that gorgeous temple, where, shrined in lazuli and gold, rest the hallowed bones of Loyola. Column and arch and dome rise upon his vision, radiant in painted light, and trembling with celestial music. Again he kneels before the altar, from whose tablature beams upon him that loveliest of shapes in which the imagination of man has embodied the spirit of Christianity. The illusion overpowers him. A thrill shakes his frame, and he bows in reverential rapture. No longer a memory, no longer a dream, but a visioned presence, distinct and luminous in the forest shades, the Virgin stands before him. Prostrate on the rocky earth, he adores the benign angel of his ecstatic faith, then turns with rekindled fervors to his stern apostleship.
The Jesuit annals record every moment of visionary transport, every act of tender care for the aged, the infirm, and the dying prisoner. Word of an infant succumbing to plague would compel them in any season on long journeys with a vial of holy water and perhaps a few drops of chrism. They hoped to die alone in the forest, in the service of souls, drowned in a cataract, or cut down on a lonely path, for by such means lay the surest route to redemption, and privation and pain represented powerful sureties against their own miserable sins. There is a strange anecdote about the welcome that the Jesuits prepared for the arrival of the first Ursuline nuns at Montreal.
Tents, baggage, arms, and stores were landed. An altar was raised on a pleasant spot near at hand; and Mademoiselle Mance, with Madame de la Peltrie, aided by her servant, Charlotte Barré, decorated it with a taste which was the admiration of the beholders.
The afternoon waned; the sun sank behind the western forest, and twilight came on. Fireflies were twinkling over the darkened meadow. [The priests] caught them, tied them with threads into shining festoons, and hung them before the altar, where the Host remained exposed. Then they pitched their tents, lighted their bivouac fires, stationed their guards, and lay down to rest.
All was over with the Hurons. The death-knell of their nation had struck. [. . .] The last year’s harvest had been scanty; the fugitives had no food, and they left behind them the fields in which was their only hope of obtaining it. In bands, large or small, some roamed northward and eastward, through the half-thawed wilderness; some hid themselves on the rocks or islands of Lake Huron; some sought an asylum among the Tobacco Nation; a few joined the Neutrals on the north of Lake Erie. The Hurons, as a nation, ceased to exist.
The Jesuit Paul Ragueneau, in the Relation des Hurons (1650), writes that his pen “has no ink black enough” to describe the miseries of the Huron, or the fury of the Iroquois.
Go where they would, they met with slaughter on all sides. Famine pursued them, or they met an enemy more cruel than cruelty itself; and, to crown their misery, they heard that two great armies of Iroquois were on the way to exterminate them . . . Despair was universal.
There is an incident from these days of the Iroquois incursions—when the Huron teetered on the verge of extinction, and the entire Jesuit enterprise in Canada was imperiled—that has remained in my mind all these years. It is an incident purely inconsequential of itself, and I’m not certain why Parkman chose to preserve it. It is the vision of Father Brébeuf.
Once, when he was among the Neutral Nation, in the winter of 1640, he beheld the ominous apparition of a great cross slowly approaching from the quarter where lay the country of the Iroquois. He told the vision to his comrades. “What was it like? How large was it?” they eagerly demanded. “Large enough,” replied the priest, “to crucify us all.”
Thirty years after I read of Brébeuf’s vision, I encountered a similar vision recorded in another book, Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War. In his account of his experiences in the trenches during the First World War, Blunden recalls a strange apparition. His “poor, dear platoon” are out stringing barbed wire, when “a wisp of vapour was seen by my working party to glide over the whole sky from west to east, preserving all the time a strange luminous whiteness and an obvious shape, as some said, that of a cross, as others antipathetically held, of a sword, then there was a subdued conversation about it, which spread from man to man.” I never fail, when I see the intersection of two jetliner contrails in some corner of the sky at evening, to picture three priests in black robes conversing beneath the trees or soldiers in muddy boots staring at clouds.
The implications of some awful mystery, one that has its source deep in Western memory, reveal themselves, at long intervals and in awful forms, to common souls in moments of uncommon distress. Death is cruciform, it seems, like the human body, like the tree of pain, and has appeared on at least two occasions: once, over three centuries ago, to a Jesuit priest in the Canadian woods, and again to a platoon of Royal Sussex riflemen in France in 1917.
Christianity is a religion of death and for centuries derived its worldly force from the power of death, and from the fear of death. But among Christians there has been a long turning away from these dark matters, a sea change coincident with Christianity’s long decline. Brébeuf’s talent for severer visions, a gift for perceiving specters, though common in his day, is rare in ours. The noise of the world has degraded that ancient faculty. I suppose we should be grateful.
Banished from the Old World to the New by nationalism, by rising wealth and a burgeoning individualism, by Renaissance and Reformation, the medieval spirit endured for another century in the forest that stretched between the Illinois River and Nova Scotia. It wore a tattered cassock and dug for roots in the earth with Huron children. It learned to paddle, to live on berries and fish, and to speak various dialects of Iroquoian. This spirit lingered, in somber exile, telling its beads, making its rounds through snowy forests to preach the brotherhood of man to the tribes of the Ottawa and Niagara river valleys, the Great Lakes and the upper Ohio, muttering to the end the ancient prayers of gratitude for holy martyrdom.
While disease and war and theft decimated the Huron, a new spirit was busily staking its claims in the New World, mining silver with slave labor in the cloud forest at Potosí, building walled towns in the Virginia swamps and whitewashed churches at Albany. The modern world had arrived, and with it the Americans, and they had little use for either Huron or Jesuits.
Was it the vast dimensions of this tragedy that riveted Parkman all those years, the fascination afforded by an epic at once so pathetic, violent, and catastrophic? Throughout the books, Parkman lapses into frank admiration for the priests’ and nuns’ self-denial and for the Huron’s powers of endurance. But I suspect that the essential and hidden natures of the participants were beyond the historian’s comprehension. The question punctuates the narrative: Who were these people? Who were they? Who were they?
Over the course of a lifetime, he tracked their spirits, but in the end they escaped him, as, of course, he knew they would. The historian would have subscribed to Thomas Browne’s appeal for leniency: “We mercifully preserve their bones, and pisse not upon their ashes.” To be generous to the memory of the dead, to preserve their stories in our classrooms and their pain in our hearts, to learn from them, to forgive the crimes of their age, as we hope our own crimes will be forgiven by posterity. An interesting and fallacious feature of the modern faith in progress is the conviction that we have become, through the ages and in important ways, better people. Let history be the judge of that.
The name “Ohio” is derived from Oyo, or “great river” in Iroquoian. Like most places in the United States, it resembles a palimpsest and bears traces of a succession of peoples. Here, the French preceded the first English settlers. The Shawnee and Miami and Huron arrived centuries before them. The people of the Adena and Hopewell cultures lived here thousands of years before the Shawnee and left giant mounds in the shape of serpents. The serpents remain, and they’re visited throughout the year by schoolkids on field trips.
French is spoken along the Ohio again, no longer by voyageur traders in canoes, but by Burundian and Tanzanian refugees, resettled by Catholic Charities in Cincinnati. Many of the refugees are new congregants at the same parish my immigrant Irish granny belonged to when she arrived in this city to work in a silk-screening shop.
There’s a German Mass early Sunday mornings at Old Saint Mary’s on Thirteenth Street and a noon service in Swahili at Saint Leo the Great in Fairmount. Between these churches lies the Mill Creek industrial district, home to descendants of freed slaves who came north looking for work. Like most cities, it’s a ferment, a patchwork, a low boil of immigration and dislocation, of new beginnings and last resorts, the unending human iterations of dispossession, resilience, and catch-as-catch-can.
That the past is condemned to be abandoned is a realization that comes, sooner or later, to most people. Some are not overly troubled by this; others are constitutionally afflicted with an inexpressible guilt at a failure that seems preordained and profoundly unjust. The latter see political blandishments to embrace the future as a diversion and a whitewash; they refuse to face the future before the sins of the past are properly tallied. They’ll find little satisfaction, because the powers-that-be are accountable only to investors, and God knows there’s no money in justice.
Perhaps this is for the best. The inability to forget would be a burden so crushing it would extinguish life in an instant. Selective memories have been selected for, written into our genetic code. In the process of completing the circle and then erasing the circle altogether, it no longer occurs to most people to be grateful to the semi-oblivion in which they live and move.
But the desire to retain something persists, and some people are incapable of leaving anything behind. This dilemma can define a person, not always in salutary ways. Such people are overwhelmed by the obligation, compelling because unspoken, to forget nothing. But it’s like carrying the world in a spoon.
When people speak of prophecy, they commonly think in terms of the future. But if you conceive of history as a threadbare tapestry, deteriorating and becoming less and less intelligible as you read backward through time, then the past begins to resemble, in its increasing obscurity, a mirror image of the future. Knowledge of the past extends but a few brief millennia, the present is mere flux, and tomorrow a sheer blank. We are beset on three sides by darkness. It is a womb-like existence, absent the ready nourishment and the peace.
God took up the prophet in His hand and set him down in a valley of dry bones. “And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.” It was not, I think, to demonstrate His almighty powers that God set Ezekiel in that field of death. God said to him, “Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”
It is the mortal, solitary, and insignificant human being who is instructed and obliged, to bridge the gulf that separates the living and the dead. “So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.” But words were not enough; there was no breath in the bones. “Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” If the people are ever to be healed and reconciled to their creator, the prophet had to wake the dead; wheresoever they are led, the people may not leave their dead behind.
If we fail to bring the past with us into the future, we will arrive less than human. A rootless and death-forgetting people have no one to forgive them, and nothing to forgive. They see no need for atonement and therefore seek no absolution. For such a people, blameless in their own eyes, compassion and mercy become difficult. “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger,” reads Exodus 22, “nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In this sense, justice, without which there is no life, is founded in remembrance. A forgetful man becomes proud, sufficient unto themself. To preserve something of the past, no matter how revolting or ennobling, humanizes one.
If somebody had told me, as I sat at the kitchen table thirty-five years ago reading Parkman’s book, that the dead were dead and that was that, I would have understood well enough what I was being told. But if the dead are dead, if the past is past, then the marketers and politicians are justified.
Lately, I’m troubled by an image, a waking nightmare of a nameless day in a nameless future. Two people, a woman and a man, are floating down the Ohio in a small boat, past the relic factories and the brick depot buildings, past the toppled coal cranes and collapsed iron trestles; past the disused, overgrown, abandoned river towns. I wonder what they are thinking. They might be too consumed with more immediate concerns to speculate about the habits of a vanished people who left so much of the earth a waste and a ruin. If they think of us at all, it will be because they have no choice. Every bend of the river, as the pair drifts along, will reveal yet more discouraging evidence of our passage. Perhaps they will assign us a name, as people usually do to their predecessors. Perhaps they will wish to forget about us, but it will not be possible.
We arrived at the Wells Fargo bank tower one evening as the last office workers were departing. In the basement, five stories below the street, at the bottom of a long iron staircase, in the room where rumbling boilers the size of bull elephants drowned our voices, Derek shut off the water intake valve with a three-foot pipe wrench, then opened the relief. A stream of water the width of a stovepipe hammered the wall like a rock drill, and Derek leaned on the wrench and watched with equanimity as forty floors drained. By the time we reached the maintenance deck on the top floor of the building, the tank that contained the building’s water was empty.
The tank was the size of a garden shed, ten feet deep. Its iron walls were coated with a slick rusty film the color of Georgia clay. The interior smelled like a disused mine. At the bottom of the tank was the occasion for all this business: a copper coupling with a small split, in size somewhat like an infected paper cut.
We worked through the night, in a dampened, discolored haze of scorched solder paste. Quiet and hands-off, Derek had a talent for instruction not common among men.
Turn the flame down, Grasshopper, he told me as I knelt at the pipe with the acetylene torch. Keep a baby finger of blue heat on it. Let the flux draw. Touch the solder to the cup. Work around. Okay, kill it. Now let’s see how bad you fucked things up.
At some miserable hour, we climbed out for a breath of air and stood at the window, high above the city. Bridge lights glittered on the black river. An ambulance drove down Fourth Street, its red light sweeping the brick facades like a research sub probing for life in a deep-sea canyon.
By five in the morning, the pipe was repaired, and Derek turned the water back on. By then my shirt was soaked and stiff with rust (Derek’s not so much), and we walked out into the morning light and the noise of traffic as into a dear and half-remembered world.
A year after I quit the plumbing job, I ran into Derek on Sixth Street as he was turning a corner with a bucket of tools. I had a new job as a bicycle messenger, and he regarded my helmet and pager with some amusement. Why not come back, he asked, and finish my apprenticeship? He would talk to the boss about getting me a little more money, he said. Another buck-fifty an hour maybe.
I was happy pedaling around town, I told him, I can’t do that shit work anymore. When I said those words, he looked down the street as if he could see, past my shoulder, something unpleasant approaching, and then I realized what I’d done, but it was too late, and there was no way to take the words back.
“Well, take care,” he said. “Be in touch if you change your mind.” He walked off, and that was the last time I saw him. I was too ashamed, and lacked the courage, to pick up the phone and apologize for the prideful and ugly thing I’d said to Derek, a man who had always been kind and generous to me, a man who, with patience and good humor, had taught me many useful things.
He died about a year after that day. He was not yet forty when he took his own life. I’ve dreamed of him since then. The tenor of the dreams is always easy and warm, as when a friend drops by on a quiet afternoon, unexpectedly, for a coffee and a chat. The dreams become more vivid even as they become less frequent. The most recent dream takes place in a castle, high above the sea. Think of the opening scene, in the predawn fog and darkness—that hopeless hour of night—when Hamlet and the soldiers are awaiting the ghost. Imagine the same place, but in broad daylight, on a bright September afternoon, one of those mournful golden hours that graces the end of late summer days in northern places, when not a breath of wind riffles the leaves, and time is a long expiration of light.
The place where we stand is open to the sky. Far below, the little ships rock gently, and their colorful pennants flutter in the breeze. There are people about, not for any special occasion, but simply to enjoy the beautiful weather. There are not many such days in Denmark, after all.
And there he is, leaning at the parapet, watching the water. “Derek,” I say.
He straightens and smiles. “I’m not Derek.” He is wearing the powder blue company shirt, and I point to the name patch above his breast pocket, where his own name is printed, and he laughs. “That’s not me.”
I don’t understand, but it’s not important. We watch the water together for a time, then we shake hands, and he walks away.
In 1841–1842, cheated and robbed of their lands, the Huron were removed to Indian Territory. Harassment and theft attended the long migration, and cholera and hunger greeted them at their destination in Kansas. The tribe survived this trial, as well as the US government’s assimilation and termination policies of the mid-twentieth century, and today numbers about 5,000 members scattered across the United States. Many live in Wyandotte Nation in northeast Oklahoma.
 The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, by Francis Parkman (Boston, 1867). All quotations to the end of section 2 are taken from this work.