The terms of encounter: language and contested visions of French colonization in the Illinois country, 1673-1702

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During the spring and summer of 1699, two priests-the Jesuit Julien Binneteau and Marc Bergier, a priest of the Seminary of Foreign Missions-competed to control a tiny mission at an Indian village on the Mississippi River known as Tamaroa, or Cahokia.1 Vying for the attentions of local Indians, who must have been perplexed by the feuding priests, Bergier and Binneteau sabotaged each other's religious services. Each priest encouraged Indians not to attend the other's mass. The priests spread rumors about one another to the Indians. And, in a show of surprising aggression, Bergier tried to steal property-in particular an Illinois-language dictionary-from Binneteau.2 Over the course of a few months, news of this feud reached Quebec, and the controversy grew. The director of the Jesuits in Quebec sent complaints to his superiors in Europe about the Seminary priests, and high-level Seminary priests in Quebec defended Bergier's actions to their own superiors. Francois Laval, the eminent former bishop of Quebec, weighed in, defending the jurisdiction of the Seminary priests and attacking the Jesuits. Back in France, the king's confessor, himself a Jesuit, made a direct appeal to Louis XIV on behalf of the Jesuits in the Illinois Country.3 And so a tiny wilderness mission-the most remote in North America-came to the attention of the highest church and secular authorities in the French empire. It is fitting that an Illinois-language dictionary was an object of Binneteau and Bergier's struggle, because language was a central issue in this mission controversy. Previous historians have treated the 1699 contest for the Tamaroa merely as a petty turf war between jealous priests.4 But historians have missed the broader context that gave this dispute its significance and made it not just a jurisdictional struggle, but a contest over competing missionary strategies in France's overseas empire. When he founded the Jesuit mission of the Immaculate Conception in the Illinois Country in 1673, the Jesuit Jacques Marquette marked the occasion by delivering a speech to the Illinois in their native language. In so doing, he demonstrated that the priests of this new Illinois mission would continue the well-established Jesuit practice of adapting themselves to local native practice in order to create authentic Christianity in a native context. They viewed the remote Illinois mission as an isolated refuge where they could realize a Jesuit ideal-helping indigenous people to adopt Christianity on their own terms, and quite literally in their own terms. But the Jesuits' strategy-in the Illinois Country and elsewhere-was controversial. In the late 1600s, church authorities censured Jesuits for heterodoxy in their missions, especially in China, where the priests were judged too permissive in their adaptations of Christian ritual into the native context. 5 Facing similar suspicions, Jesuits in the Illinois Country soon found themselves defending the Illinois project and its underlying vision of an isolated and idiosyncratic Illinois Christianity from opposing religious and secular authorities who favored missions with the more ambitious goal of radically converting, or Frenchifying, Indian peoples and incorporating them into French colonial society, including by teaching them "civilized" lifestyles and the French language. When competing Seminary priests and Recollect priests arrived in the Illinois Country, the resulting struggle was no mere turf war. Rather, it was a fight to determine on what terms, on whose terms, and to what purpose missions should be conducted. Thus the Illinois Country became a front in a worldwide debate about missionary strategy that pitted the Jesuits against imperial authorities and competing missionary officials throughout the Atlantic world and beyond. Fighting over dictionaries and the "terms of encounter," missionaries made the Illinois Country into a battleground to determine the nature of the French-Indian frontier of inclusion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFrench and Indians in the Heart of North America, 1630-1815
EditorsRobert Englebert, Guillaume Teasdale
PublisherMichigan State University Press
Number of pages33
ISBN (Electronic)9781609173609
ISBN (Print)9781611860740
StatePublished - 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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