The Jesuit Relations is a collection of texts chronicling the Jesuit missions in New France, written annually from 1632 to 1673. These documents were written by missionaries as reports to update their superiors on the progress of converting various Native American tribes. The reports also had the intended purpose of raising funds for the Order. The texts were often written as narratives, sometimes reading like travel narratives with detailed descriptions of geographical features and local flora and fauna. The reports also detail cultural and religious practices of native peoples.
Alan Greer’s edition of Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in 17th Century North America samples 35 documents of the original 73 volumes. The texts are arranged by theme and accompanied by Greer’s introduction, select journal entries, images, maps, a chronology, bibliography, and questions.
The original Jesuit Relations documents and Greer’s edition are important in the study of 17th century North American history. The detailed firsthand accounts serve as ethnographic documents describing missionary and Native American life in this era.
In studying these texts, however, it is important to remember the motives and biases of the missionary priests who wrote these field letters and their superiors who compiled, edited, and published them. Because the reports were in part written to help fund missionary efforts, the writers would likely have been motivated to portray conversion efforts optimistically. The missionaries’ accounts of the Native American tribes they interacted with must also be read somewhat skeptically. Although the missionaries did have some skill and experience in communicating in native languages, they were influenced by their own cultural and religious biases.