Episode 133 – “Wendat” vs “Huron”, and a long-awaited museum visit

Bear with me please. I promise to get to pictures and stories of this week’s actual museum visit in a few paragraphs. My BFF and I had an absolutely wonderful, and informative, day in Midland this week – it was the first time we’ve been together since before Covid19 changed the world, and the first time we’ve been able to visit a historic site since activities were closed due to Covid, so all in all it was pretty exciting!

But first, some background.

At 11 years old, in grade 6, I went on a class trip to Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons in Midland, Ontario. Visiting the site, with its Jesuit mission and Indian village, recreated on the original archeological foundations, was related to our Canadian history lessons, which I now realize were woefully lacking in honest perspective. I returned from the trip with 2 pieces of “knowledge”:

  1. The Huron Carol (“Twas In the Moon of Wintertime”) was written at Ste. Marie in the 1600’s by Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary, to teach the Indians about Christmas.
  2. “Savage” Indians burned down the mission and killed Brebeuf and his fellow missionary Gabriel Lalement, turning them into martyrs.

Back in the 1960’s, the terms Indian and savage were still used when teaching history.

At some point in my teenage years, while singing it during a Christmas season church service, I had the sudden realization that the Huron Carol could not possibly have been written in English by a French Jesuit in the 17th century. It turns out that the English lyrics were written in 1926 by a man named Jesse Edgar Middleton, and were completely different from the original lyrics, which I next assumed had been written in French. Looking back at the English lyrics almost 100 years later, they read like a story invented by a white adult to explain Christmas to an indigenous child, using the imagery from a children’s book written incorporating many different indigenous nations’ beliefs, in this case mixing Cree/Algonquin and Wendat/Iroquois. Back in 1926, though, they would not have raised a single eyebrow and, as a child, I loved the carol’s imagery (Jesus wrapped in a cloak of rabbit skin in a lodge of broken bark, instead of swaddled in a manger).

It was only a few years ago that I heard the Huron Carol performed in the Wendat (“Huron” – more about that later) language for the first time, sung by Heather Dale at one of our house concerts (Blog Episode 120), and learned that it had in fact been written in Wendat by Brebeuf, who had spent much of his time in the mission learning the language of the indigenous people so that he could better communicate with them. The French lyrics were not written by Brebeuf, and while not a direct translation of the original, are much closer – and definitely better than the English version.

In 2019, Ted and I took son #2 and his family of 3 little boys to Sainte-Marie for a day. Pre-Covid, the site was bustling with people, and virtually every building was staffed by a costumed interpreter, well versed in the latest discoveries about the site, and often engaged in an activity related to the building’s use. There were people in the mission half of the settlement making nails in the blacksmith shop, tanning hides, forming leather on lasts for shoes, sewing vestments and felting beaver pelts for Jesuit hats, tying corn into bundles for drying, gardening and harvesting herbs. There were people in the Wendat village portion of the settlement tanning hides, sewing leather clothes, cooking, and carving tools from antlers and bones. Our grandsons were able to make bannock over an open fire, grind corn, make clay totems, and print their names on parchment using a quill made from a wild turkey feather.

There was lots to see, do, and learn, but we focussed on activities suitable for a 3, 4, and 7-year old, so I didn’t learn much more about actual “history”.

This time, my BFF and I visited Sainte-Marie with no little ones in tow, ready to learn more about the interactions and relationships between the Jesuits and the Wendat between 1639 and 1649. I hoped to get a better perspective of what really happened during the short 10-year life of what was the first European settlement in what eventually became the province of Ontario.

I was not disappointed.

Despite Covid restrictions that still meant physical distancing, masks, and a specific route through the park (rather than simply wandering around), we were able to visit every building, and there were several costumed interpretive guides available to answer questions – even if we were not able to handle items or do group activities.

We entered through the main gates of the Jesuit portion of the settlement.

Immediately inside the entrance are sleeping quarters for visiting soldiers to the right, and a fleshing area where furs and hides were stored to the left

Sainte-Marie was designated as a Canadian national historic site in 1920, after the discovery in 1880 of an ossuary and the remnants of a stone fortification, but archeological work there was not begun in earnest until 1941.

All the current wooden buildings are replicas, built using traditional style tools, and are situated on their original sites as verified by years and years of ongoing archeological research. The stone structures, like the bastion below, are also replicas, but constructed at a 110% scale in order to enclose and protect the remaining original stone foundations.

The one exception is the hospital (interior shown above). We know from the Jesuit records that a hospital existed – overseen by Father Francois Gendron, who incorporated Indigenous cures into his practice – but researchers are still not sure that they have the building’s location correct. Since the 1600’s, several farms and their barns have existed on the land, at least one of which burned down, as did the original Wendat village. Apparently with burnt foundations, it is difficult to narrow down exact dates, so the hospital might be on its original 1645 foundation…. or on the foundation of an 18th or even 19th century barn.

We were fascinated by the thatched-style roofs (below) made from huge sheets of elm bark. We’d seen cedar shake roofs before, and thatched roofs, but never bark.The Wendat longhouse was also encased in elm bark, indicating that the Jesuits borrowed Wendat methods and combined them with their European construction.

Apparently, there are letters written by the French inhabitants of the mission describing how horrid the Wendat homes were: so dark, primitive, and smoky that it would be hard to find even the meanest hovel in France to be worse than the natives’ homes. Conversely, an Indigenous interpreter on site told us that there is oral history indicating that the Wendat found the cold, enclosed European style buildings equally horrible and dreaded living in them.

On the topic of bark, on display inside the on-site museum was a birch bark canoe, made in the traditional way with spruce ribs, and “sewn” together using flexible spruce roots.

When we visited Sainte-Marie 2 years ago, we were told that archeologists’ best guess at what the manmade waterway in the photo below was used for was as a small lock system to bring canoes laden with goods from the river into the mission. Everything from cloth and bibles to iron bars (used to make everything from nails to window grills) and tools had to come from France to Quebec City, and then by canoe to Sainte-Marie; a trip that could take months, with multiple portages. Since then, they’ve rethought the lock theory. The channel is too narrow for the canoes of the time and, given records showing the number of canoes that would arrive together, the lock system would be so inefficient as to cause days-long traffic jams. Having made dozens of portages en route, one more short portage into the mission would surely have been preferable to hours or days waiting in line. The new theory is that a sluice was being prepared for a mill, whose construction never took place due to the destruction of the mission.

The university history and archaeology students on site not only answered questions, but were also cooking lye soap, chopping kindling, and ensuring that visitors got lots of extra information.

In the Jesuits’ kitchen area, we observed smoked flint corn (aka cow corn or “Indian corn”) and smoked wild turkeys hanging from the rafters. This technique was learned from the Wendat, who smoked corn inside their longhouses. The preserved corn would later be ground into meal, or fermented into a soft mush. The Wendat were not herders, so it was not used as animal feed.

There were two churches on the site: one for the use of the Jesuits (left) and the other in which services were held for the Wendat who had been converted to Christianity. The numbers of conversions were certainly not as high as the church would have wished, and many were “deathbed conversions”, so those Wendat would not have been attending services!

In the Wendat church, we were lucky enough to have an Indigenous interpreter alongside a “Jesuit”. She explained that she was not always stationed in the site’s church, but moved around between all of the buildings on the Wendat side of the property, explaining history related to whichever building she was in. Having her in the church, however, allowed us to be re-educated about the second thing I’d learned as a child (the savages killing Brebeuf and Lalement).

Here are the details I missed way back then:

1. It was Mohawks who burned the village and killed the Jesuits, NOT the Wendat/Huron with whom the missionaries were living.

2. The Mohawk attacked the Wendat village to take back goods they believed the Wendat had taken from them in bad faith. The Wendat, because of their good relationship with the Jesuits, were hoping to corner the trading market with the Europeans, and were trading items they’d taken in trade from the Mohawk. The raids, in modern terms, were to cut out the middleman.

3. The Wendat were forewarned of the Mohawk raid. All the Wendat except a small number of converts, and all the Jesuits EXCEPT Brebeuf and Lalement, left before the Mohawk arrived. The 2 remaining Jesuits were taken captive, and the now empty settlement torched. The Wendat ended up resettling in Quebec, and are still in Quebec in an area now called Wendake (“land of the Wendat”).

4. The Jesuits believed that being martyred was proof that their work was blessed by God. Before coming to the new world, Jesuits had to sign an agreement with the Pope that they consented to become martyrs.

Our Indigenous interpreter also asked us to think about historical perspective. The Mohawk were reviled as savages for torturing their Jesuit captives in the 1600’s, yet tortures were routinely carried out in Europe in the name of the church. The Spanish Inquisition alone spanned the years 1478 – 1834, resulting in the execution of 3000-5000 people, and the torture of tens of thousands more, using methods and gruesome tools still displayed in museums all over Europe.

It was a truly fascinating visit, leaving us with lots of new information, and lots of questions about what other aspects of our country’s history might not be exactly as were were taught in school.

It’s just possible this is a museum that is wasted on the young. Or maybe it’s just a place to which visitors need to return at intervals as new facts from our history are revealed.

Smaller temporary dwellings, like this wigwam separate from the communal longhouse, were assigned to visitors, or individuals of high rank, like the village shaman.

I’m definitely looking forward to more “field trips” as Covid restrictions continue to be lifted and museums and historic sites re-open .

Oh…. I promised to get back to “Huron”. Apparently “huron” was a 17th century colloquial French word for the bristle of a wild boar, which is what the male Wendats’ hairstyle reminded the French of (think of the style we call a “Mohawk”). So Huron was not really the name of a nation, but rather a not-so-complimentary nickname… akin to “squarehead” for Germans, or “frog” for the French. There’s no current push to change the name of Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, but we have in recent years stopped referring to the people themselves by that name.

NOTE: Thanks to my BFF for all the photos. Great pics certainly elicit memories.


  1. Aaaaahhhhh! So this is what I’ve been missing! Travelling with Rose and… Barbie I’ve always enjoyed the travelling you two have shared. Love the stories, history and pictures! Xxxxxxxxxxxxxx


    Liked by 1 person

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