Missionaries impacted Great Lakes and Northwoods Indigenous communities. For two centuries, Catholic missionaries, connected to the French fur trade, dominated mission work. The journals of Protestant missionaries Sherman Hall and Jedidiah Stevens, members of the American Board Commissioners of Foreign Mission (ABCFM), stand out in delivering keen insights on early Northwoods history. Importantly, recent research and analysis directly challenges the intent and actions of missionaries upon the Ojibwe and other tribal communities.
Today, the role of religion in colonizing North America can spark controversy among several diverse groups. Consequently, the MWHS missionary webpage will have little historical analysis. Original journals and articles regarding Northwoods missionaries will be linked below with buttons for users to click, read and personally interpret.
During the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries, a Catholic order known as the Jesuits conducted diligent missionary work in the most remote areas of New France (the regions around the Great Lakes). Traveling hundreds of miles and often working with fur traders, these missionaries advanced conversion to their faith. In 1661, Father Rene Menard famously traveled from Lake Superior deep into Wisconsin's Northwoods to reach Odawa and Huron camps. Sadly, Menard perished near the headwaters of the Black River; his devotion established him as Wisconsin's first priest.
While Protestant missionaries from ABCFM arrived in the 19th century, they projected a similar version of Christianity upon Indigenous communities and were closely tied to the American Fur Company. The ABFCM felt the early Catholic influence tied to Hudson Bay and Northwest companies undermined their evangelical efforts. Reviewing 19th century journals suggests that all Indigenous religious conversion efforts in the western Great Lakes were limited.
Sherman Hall’s journal and letters deliver extraordinary detail of his trip from LaPointe to Lac du Flambeau. Details regarding portaging, rugged trails, Ojibwe camps/villages, voyageurs, and wilderness practices are among the best to be found in a journal. Hall goes further to describe his challenges as a missionary, the seasonal travels of Ojibwe, and his strong alliances with fur traders and government agents. A nice narrative of contrasting the building of Ojibwe structures and fur trade post log structures adds further insights. Though Hall seems less overt than Stevens in his demeaning of the Ojibwe culture, his bias is clear.
Stevens’ journal is far more critical of the Ojibwe and is zealous with religious references in every paragraph. Stevens also traveled from LaPointe to Lac du Flambeau as the snow was melting and the ice retreating from lakes and streams. His stories of hardship, hunger and use of a dog sled furnished by a Lac du Flambeau trader are impressive. Stevens was consumed by his evangelical mission, but key insights regarding trades and exchanges with the Ojibwe and the fur traders can be gleaned. Stevens will then travel 180 miles from Lac du Flambeau to Sandy Lake, which was documented at the end of the journal.
Michael John Witgen (Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe) and professor at Colombia University published the book Seeing Red in 2022. Honored as a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Seeing Red delivers a wealth of research and analysis on how the treaty process was impacted by government agents, fur traders, missionaries, settlers and more. Witgen reframes many of the motivations and processes used in transferring Indigenous land from the Northwest Ordinance to the U. S. Government. Much of Witgen’s book focuses on Wisconsin and the western Great Lakes.
Both Hall’s and Stevens' missionary journals provide countless examples that connect with Witgen’s Seeing Red. Importantly, these journals are local to the Northwoods and illuminate how Witgen’s startling claims occurred here. Any person who has read Seeing Red should consider reading each of these journals for greater context and insight.