The Narrative of Francesco Giuseppe Bressani – Indian Captivities

The Italian Jesuit missionary Father Bressani was born in Rome, 6 May, 1612. At the age of fourteen he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus. Becoming zealous to serve as missionary among the American Indians, he went to Quebec in the summer of 1642, and the following year he was sent among the Algonquins at Three Rivers. In April, 1644, while on his way to the Huron country, where a mission had been established, he was captured by the Iroquois, who at that time were an exceedingly fierce and even cannibal nation, perpetually at war with nearly the whole known continent. By them he was subjected to tortures, but finally was made over to an old squaw to take the place of a deceased relative. From her he was ransomed by the Dutch at Fort Orange (the modern Albany), and by them he was sent to France, where he arrived in November, 1644. Despite his terrible experiences among the savages, and his maimed condition, the indomitable missionary returned to Canada the next spring, and labored with the Hurons until their mission was destroyed by the Iroquois four years later. In November, 1650, Bressani, in broken health, went back to his native land. Here he spent many years as a preacher and home missionary. He died at Florence, 9 September, 1672. The following account of Father Bressani‘s sufferings among the Indians is translated from two of his own letters in his book Breve Relatione d’alcune Missioni nella Nuova Francia, published at Macerata in 1653.

First Letter

Dated “From the Iroquois, the 15th of July, 1644.”


PAX CHRISTI—I know not whether Your Paternity will recognize the handwriting of a poor cripple, who formerly, when in perfect health, was well known to you. The letter is badly written, and quite soiled, because, among other inconveniences, the writer has but one whole finger on his right hand, and can scarcely prevent the paper’s being stained by the blood which flows from his yet unhealed wounds. His ink is arquebuse powder [gunpowder rubbed up with water], and his table the bare earth. He writes to you from the land of the Iroquois, where he is now a captive, and would briefly relate what Divine Providence has at last ordained for him.

I set out from Three Rivers, by order of the Superior, the 27th of last April, in company with six Christian Indians and a young Frenchman, with three canoes, to go to the country of the Hurons.

On the evening of the first day, the Huron who steered our canoe, when firing at an eagle, upset us into Lake St. Pierre. I did not know how to swim, but two Hurons caught me and drew me to the shore, where we spent the night, all drenched. The Hurons took this accident for an ill-omen, and advised me to return to our starting point, which was only eight or ten miles off. “Certainly,” they cried, “this voyage will not prove fortunate.” As I feared that there might be some superstition in this discourse, I preferred to push on to another French fort [Richelieu], thirty miles higher up, where we might recruit a little. They obeyed me, and we started quite early the next morning, but the snow and bad weather greatly retarded our speed, and compelled us to stop at midday.

On the third day, when twenty-two or twenty-four miles from Three Rivers, and seven or eight from Fort Richelieu, we fell into an ambuscade of twenty-seven Iroquois, who killed one of our Indians, and took the rest and myself prisoners 1. We might have fled, or killed some Iroquois; but I, for my part, seeing my companions taken, judged it better to remain with them, accepting it as a sign of the will of God….

Those who had captured us made horrible cries, and after profuse thanks to the Sun for having in their hands, among the others, a “Black Robe,” as they call the Jesuits, they changed the canoes. Then they took from us everything; that is, provisions for all of ours residing among the Hurons, who were in extreme want, inasmuch as they had for several years received no aid from Europe.

Having commanded us to sing, they led us to a little river hard by, where they divided the booty, and scalped the Huron whom they had killed. The scalp was to be carried in triumph on a pole. They also cut off the feet, hands, and most fleshy parts of the body to eat, as well as the heart. 2

Then they made us cross the lake to pass the night in a retired but very damp spot. We there began to take our sleep bound and in the open air, as we continued to do during the rest of the voyage….

The following day we embarked on a river, and after some miles they ordered me to throw overboard my papers, which they had left me till then. They superstitiously imagined that these had caused the wreck of our canoe. They were surprised to see me grieve at this loss, who had never shown any regret for all else. We were two days in ascending this river to the rapids [of Chambly], which compelled us to land, and we marched six days in the woods.

The next day, which was Friday, the sixth of May, we met other Iroquois going out to war. They added some blows to the many threats they had made; and having related to us the death of one of their party, killed by a Frenchman, was the cause of their commencing to treat me with greater cruelty than before.

At the moment of our capture the Iroquois were dying of hunger; so that, in two or three days, they consumed all our provisions, and we had no food during the rest of the way but from hunting, fishing, or some wild roots, if any were found. Their want was so great that they picked up on the shore a dead beaver already putrefying. They gave it to me in the evening to wash in the river; but, its stench leading me to believe that they did not want it, I threw it into the water. I was paid for that by a severe penance.

I will not here relate all I had to suffer in that voyage. It is enough to say that we had to carry our loads in the woods where there were no roads, but only stones, shoots, holes, water, and snow, which had not yet everywhere melted. We were barefooted, and were left fasting sometimes till three or four o’clock in the afternoon, and often during the whole day, exposed to the rain, and drenched with the waters of the torrents and rivers which we had to cross.

When evening was come I was ordered to go for wood, to bring water, and to cook when they had any provisions. When I did not succeed, or misunderstood the orders which I received, blows were not spared; still less when we met other barbarians going to fish or hunt. It was not easy for me to rest at night, because they tied me to a tree, leaving me exposed to the keen night air, which was still quite cold.

We at last arrived at their lake [Champlain] 3. We had to make other canoes, in which I too had to do my part. After five or six days’ sailing we landed, and marched for three more.

The fourth day, which was the fifteenth of May, we arrived about the twentieth hour [3 P.M.], and before having as yet taken any food, at a river where some four hundred barbarians were gathered fishing. Hearing of our approach, they came out to meet us. When about two hundred paces from their cabins, they stripped off all my clothes, and made me march ahead. The young men formed a line on each side, armed with sticks, except the first one, who held a knife in his hand.

When I began my march this one stopped my passage, and, seizing my left hand, cleft it open with his knife between the little finger and the ring finger, with such force and violence that I thought he would lay open my whole hand. The others then began to load me with blows till I reached the stage which they had erected for our torture. Then I had to mount on great pieces of bark, raised about nine palms high so as to give the crowd an opportunity to see and insult us. I was all drenched and covered with blood that streamed from every part of my body, and exposed to a very cold wind that made it congeal immediately on my skin. But I consoled myself, seeing that God granted me the favor of suffering in this world some pain in place of what I was under obligation, on account of my sins, to pay in the other with torments incomparably greater.

The warriors came next, and were received by the people with great ceremony, and regaled with the best of all that their fishing supplied. They bade us sing. Judge whether we could do so, fasting, worn down by marching, broken by their blows, and shivering from head to foot with cold.

Shortly after, a Huron slave brought me a little Indian corn, and a captain, who saw me all trembling with cold, at last, at my entreaty, gave me back the half of an old summer cassock, all in tatters, which served to cover rather than warm me.

We had to sing till the warriors went away, and were then left at the mercy of the youths, who made us come down from the scaffold, where we had been about two hours, to make us dance in their fashion; and, because I did not succeed, nor indeed knew how, they beat me, pricked me, plucked out my hair, my beard, etc.

They kept us five or six days in this place for their pastime, leaving us at the discretion or indiscretion of every one. We were obliged to obey even the children, and that in things unreasonable, and often contradictory. “Sing!” cries one. “Hold your tongue!” says another. If I obeyed the first, the latter tormented me. “Stretch out your hand; I want to burn it.” Another burned it because I did not extend it to him. They commanded me to take fire between the fingers to put in their pipes, full of tobacco, and then let it fall on the ground purposely four or five times, one after another, to make me burn myself picking it up each time.

These scenes usually took place at night. Towards evening the captains cried in fearful voices around the cabins, “Gather, ye young men; come and caress our prisoners!”

On this they flocked together, and assembled in some large cabin. There the remnant of dress which had been given me was torn off, leaving me naked. Then some goaded me with pointed sticks; some burned me with firebrands or red-hot stones, while others used burning ashes or hot coals. They made me walk around the fire on hot ashes, under which they had stuck sharp sticks in the ground. Some plucked out my hair, others my beard.

Every night, after making me sing, and tormenting me as above, they spent eight or ten minutes in burning one of my nails or a finger. Of the ten that I had I have now but one left whole, and even of that they have torn out the nail with their teeth. One evening they burned a nail; the next day the first joint; the day after, the second. By the sixth time they burned almost six. To the hands they applied fire and iron more than eighteen times; and during this torment I was obliged to sing. They ceased torturing me only at one or two o’clock at night. Then they usually left me tied to the ground in some spot exposed to the rain, with no bed or blanket, but a small skin which did not cover half my body, and often even without any covering; for they had already torn up the piece of a cassock which had been given me. Yet, out of compassion, they left me enough to cover what decency, even among them, requires to be concealed. They kept the rest.

For a whole month I had to undergo these cruelties, and greater still, but we remained only eight days in the first place. I never would have believed that man could endure so hard a life.

One night that they were as usual torturing me, a Huron, taken prisoner with me, seeing one of his companions escape torments by siding against me, suddenly cried out, in the middle of the assembled throng, that I was a person of rank, and a captain among the French. This they heard with great attention; then, raising a loud shout in sign of joy, they resolved to treat me still worse, and the next morning I was condemned to be burnt alive, and to be eaten. They then began to guard me more narrowly. The men and children never left me alone, even in the necessities of nature, but came tormenting me to force me to return to the cabin with all speed, fearing that I might take flight.

We left there the 26th of May, and four days after reached the first village of this nation. In this march on foot, what with rain and other hardships, I suffered more than I had yet done. The barbarian then my keeper was more cruel than the first. I was wounded, weak, ill-fed, half naked, and slept in the open air, bound to a stake or a tree, shivering all night with cold and from the pain caused by my bonds.

At difficult places in the road my weakness called for help, but it was refused; and even when I fell, renewing my wounds, they showered blows on me again, to force me to march; for they believed that I did it purposely to lag behind, and so escape.

One time, among others, I fell into a river, and was like to have drowned. However, I got out, I know not how, and in this plight had to march nearly six miles more till evening, with a very heavy burden on my shoulders. They jeered at me and at my awkwardness in falling into the water, and they did not omit, at night, to burn off one of my nails.

We at last reached the first village of this nation, and here our reception resembled the first, but was still more cruel. Besides blows from their fists, and other blows, which I received in the most sensitive parts of my body, they a second time slit open my left hand, between the middle finger and the fore finger, and the bastinade was such that I fell half dead on the ground. I thought I would lose my right eye forever. As I did not rise, because I was unable to do so, they continued to beat me, especially on the breast and head. I should surely have expired beneath their blows had not a captain caused me to be dragged by main strength upon a stage made, like the former one, of bark. There they soon after cut off the thumb and mangled the fore finger of my left hand. Meanwhile a great rain came, with thunder and lightning, and they went away, leaving us exposed naked to the storm, till some one, I know not who, took pity on us, and in the evening took us into his cabin.

Here we were tormented with more cruelty and impudence than ever, without leaving a moment’s rest. They forced me to eat filth, and burned some of my fingers and the rest of my nails. They dislocated my toes, and ran a firebrand through one of them. I know not what they did not do to me another time, when I pretended to faint, so as to seem not to see an indecent action.

After glutting their cruelty here, they sent us into another village, nine or ten miles further. Here they added to the torments of which I have spoken that of hanging me up by my feet, either with cords or with chains, which they had taken from the Dutch. By night I lay stretched on the ground, naked and bound, according to their custom, to several stakes, by the feet, hands, and neck. The torments which I had to suffer in this state, for six or seven nights, were in such places, and of such nature, that it is not lawful to describe them, nor could they be read without blushing. I seldom closed my eyes those nights, which, though the shortest of the year, seemed to me most long. “My God, what will purgatory be?” This thought lightened my pains not a little.

In this way of living I had become so fetid and horrible that every one drove me away like a thing of carrion, and they never came near me save to torment me. Scarcely anyone would feed me, although I had not the use of my hands, as they were extraordinarily swollen and putrid. Thus I was still further tormented by hunger, which led me to eat Indian corn raw, not without concern for my health, and made me find a relish in chewing clay, although I could not easily swallow it.

I was covered with loathsome vermin, and could neither get rid of them nor defend myself from them. In my wounds worms were born; more than four fell out of one finger in one day….

I had an abscess in the right thigh, caused by blows and frequent falls, which hindered me from all repose, and especially as I had only skin and bone, and the earth, for bed. Several times the barbarians had tried, but failed, to open it with sharp stones—not without great pain to me. I was forced to employ as surgeon the renegade Huron who had been taken with us. He, on what was supposed to be the eve of my death, opened it for me with four knife-thrusts, and caused blood and matter to issue from it in so great abundance, and with such stench, that all the barbarians of the cabin were constrained to abandon it.

I desired and was awaiting death, though not without some horror of the fire. Still I was preparing for it as best I could, and was commending myself to the Mother of Mercy, who was, after God, the sole refuge of a poor sinner forsaken by all creatures in a strange land, without a language to make himself understood, without friends to console him, without sacraments to strengthen him, and without any human remedy to sweeten his ills.

The Huron and Algonquin prisoners (these are our barbarians), instead of consoling me, were the first to torment me, in order to please the Iroquois.

I did not see the good Guillaume [Cousture], except afterward, when my life was spared me, and the boy who had been taken in my company was no more with me. They had noticed that I had him say his prayers, and that they did not favor. But they did not let him escape torments, for, although he was no more than twelve or thirteen years old, they tore out five of his nails with their teeth; and, on his arrival in the country, they bound his wrists tightly with thongs, causing him the severest pain—and all before me, to afflict me the more….

My days being thus filled up with sufferings, and my nights being spent without repose, I counted in the month five days more than there were; but, seeing the moon one night, I corrected my error. I was ignorant why the savages so long deferred my death. They told me that it was to fatten me before eating me; though they took no means to do so.

One day, at last, they assembled to despatch me. It was the nineteenth of June, which I deemed the last of my life, and I begged a captain to put me to death, if possible, otherwise than by fire; but another man exhorted him to stand firm in the resolution already taken. The first then told me that I was to die neither by fire nor by any other death. I could not believe it, nor do I know whether he spoke in earnest; yet finally it was as he said, because such was the will of God and of the Virgin Mother….

The barbarians themselves marveled at this result, so contrary was it to their intentions, as the Dutch have written to me. I was therefore given, with all the usual ceremonies, to an old woman, to replace her grandfather, formerly killed by the Hurons, but instead of having me burned, as all desired, and had already resolved, she redeemed me from their hands at the expense of some beads, which the French call “porcelain” [wampum].

I live here in the midst of the shadows of death, hearing nothing spoken of but murder and assassination. They have recently murdered one of their own countrymen in his cabin, as useless and unworthy to live.

I have still something to suffer; my wounds are yet open, and many of the barbarians look upon me with no kindly eye. But we cannot live without crosses, and this is like sugar in comparison with the past.

The Dutch gave me hopes of my ransom, and that of the boy taken prisoner with me. God’s will be done in time and in eternity! My hope will be still more confirmed, if you grant me a share in your holy sacrifices and prayers, and those of our fathers and brethren, especially of those who knew me in other days.

Second Letter

Dated “From New Amsterdam, the 31st of August, 1644.”

I have found no one to carry the enclosed, so that you will receive it at the same time as the present one, which will give you the news of my deliverance from the hands of the barbarians, whose captive I was. I am indebted for it to the Dutch, and they obtained it with no great difficulty, for a moderate ransom, on account of the little value which the Indians attached to me, from my unhandiness at everything, and because they believed that I would never get well of my ailments.

I have been twice sold: first to the old woman who was to have me burned, and next to the Dutch, dear enough, that is, for about fifteen or twenty doppias [sixty to eighty dollars in gold].

I chanted my “exodus from Egypt” the nineteenth of August, a day that is in the octave of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, who was my deliverer.

I was a prisoner among the Iroquois for four months; but small is that compared to what my sins deserve. I was unable, during my captivity, to render to any of those wretched beings, in return for the evil they did me, the good which was the object of my desires; that is, impart to them a knowledge of the true God. Not knowing the language, I tried to instruct, through a captive interpreter, an old man who was dying; but he was too proud to listen to me, answering that a man of his age and standing should teach, and not be taught. I asked him if he knew whither he would go after death. He answered me: “To the Sunset.” Then he began to relate their fables and delusions, which those wretched people, blinded by the Demon, esteem as the most solid truths.

I baptized none but a Huron. They had brought him where I was, to burn him, and those who guarded me told me to go and see him. I did so with reluctance; for they had told me falsely that he was not one of our Indians, and that I could not understand him. I advanced towards the crowd, which opened and let me approach this man, even then all disfigured by the tortures. He was stretched upon the bare ground, with nothing to rest his head upon. Seeing a stone near me, I pushed it with my foot towards his head, to serve him as a pillow. He then looked up at me, and either some wisp of beard that I had left, or some other mark, made him suppose I was a foreigner.

“Is not this man,” said he to his keeper, “the European whom you hold captive?”

Being answered “Yes,” he again cast towards me a piteous look. “Sit down, my brother, by me,” said he; “I would speak with thee.”

I sat down, though not without horror, such was the stench that exhaled from his already half-roasted body. Happy to be able to understand him a little, because he spoke Huron, I asked him what he desired, hoping to be able to profit by the occasion to instruct and baptize him. To my great consolation I was anticipated by the answer:

“What do I ask?” he said; “I ask but one thing, baptism. Make haste, for the time is short.”

I wished to question him as to the faith, so as not to administer a sacrament with precipitation; but I found him perfectly instructed, having been already received among the catechumens in the Huron country. I therefore baptized him, to his and my own great satisfaction. Though I had done so by a kind of stratagem, using the water which I had brought for him to drink, the Iroquois nevertheless perceived it. The captains were at once informed, and, with angry threats, drove me from the hut, and then began to torture him as before.

The following morning they roasted him alive. Then, because I had baptized him, they brought all his members, one by one, into the cabin where I was. Before my eyes they skinned and ate the feet and hands. The husband of the mistress of the lodge threw at my feet the dead man’s head, and left it there a long while, reproaching me with what I had done, alluding to the baptism and prayers which I had offered with him, and saying: “And what indeed have thy enchantments helped him? Have they perhaps delivered him from death?”

[box]Source: Kephart, Horace. Captives Among the Indians, Number 3, pp. 117-142. Outing Publishing Company. 1915. Translated from the original: Father Bressani. Breve Relatione d’alcune Missioni nella Nuova Francia. Macerata. 1653.[/box]

Bressani, Cousture,

Collection: Indian Captivity Narratives. A collection of first hand Indian captivity narratives from a variety of sources. For a list of sources, please see title page.

  1. Obviously the young frenchman was taken prisoner.[]
  2. It is known that at the time of European contact, and for at least 200 years later, that the Iroquois, incorporated cannibalism as part of their ritual after a conquest in war. It was said it inspired the warrior with “courage in attack, and bred him to meet death with fearlessness.” See Narrative of the captivity of Alexander Henry, Esq for another example of known cannibalism by the Iroquois.[]
  3. Annotating the lake as Champlain was correct, and the Iroquois did call it their lake, but they inhabited only the western portion, the eastern portion, especially north-eastern was occupied by Abenaki[]

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