Letter from Father Vivier, Missionary among
the Ilinois, to Father * * * .
y Dear Friend,
When one leaves France for distant countries, it is not difficult to make promises to one’s friends; but, when the time comes, it is no slight task to keep them, especially during the first years. We have here but a single opportunity, once a year, for sending our letters to France. It is therefore necessary to devote an entire week to writing, without interruption, if one wish to fulfill all one’s promises. Moreover, what we have to write of this country is so little curious and so little edifying that it is hardly worth while to take up a pen. It is less for the purpose of gratifying your curiosity than of responding to the friendship that you display for me, that I write to you to-day. Let us try, nevertheless, to give you some idea of the country, of its inhabitants, and of our occupations. The Illinois country lies about the 39th degree of north latitude, about g degrees from new Orleans, the capital of the whole Colony. The climate is very much like that of France, with this difference, that the winter here is not so long and is less continuous, and the heat in summer is a little greater. The country in general is covered with an alternation of plains and forests, and is watered by very fine rivers. Wild cattle, deer, elk, bears, and wild turkeys abound everywhere, in all seasons, except near the inhabited portions. It is usually necessary to go one or two leagues to find deer, and seven or eight to find oxen. During a portion of the autumn, through the winter, and during a portion of the spring, the country is overrun with swans, bustards, geese, ducks of three kinds wild pigeons, and teal. There are also certain bird: as large as hens, which are called pheasants in this country, but which I would rather name “ grouse; ‘I they are not, however, equal in my opinion to the European grouse. I speak not of partridges or of hares, because no one condescends to shoot at them. The plants, trees, and vegetables that have been brought from France or from Canada, grow fairly well. As a rule, the country can produce all things needed to support life, and even to make it agreeable.
There are three classes of inhabitants: French, Negroes, and Savages; to say nothing of Half-breeds born of the one or the other, — as a rule, against the Law of God. There are 5 French Villages and 3 Villages of Savages within a distance of 21 leagues, between the Mississipi and another river called the Kaskaskias. In the five French Villages there may be eleven hundred white people, three hundred black, and about sixty red slaves, otherwise Savages. The three Illinois Villages do not contain more than eight hundred Savages, of all ages. The majority of the French settled in this country devote themselves to the cultivation of the soil. They sow quantities of wheat; they rear cattle brought from France, also pigs and horses in great numbers. This, with hunting, enables them to live very comfortably. There is no fear of famine in this Country; there is always three times as much food as can be consumed. Besides wheat, maize — otherwise “Turkish corn” — grows Plentifully every year, and quantities Of flour are Conveyed to new Orleans, Let us consider the Savages in particular. Nothing but erroneous ideas are conceived of them in Europe; they are hardly believed to be men. This is a gross error. The Savages, and especially the Illinois, are of a very gentle and sociable nature. They have wit, and seem to have more than our peasants — as much, at least, as most Frenchmen. This is due to the freedom in which they are reared; respect never makes them timid. As there is neither rank nor dignity among them, all men seem equal to them. An Illinois would speak as boldly to the King of France as to the lowest of his subjects. Most of them are capable of sustaining a conversation with any person, provided no question be treated of that is beyond their sphere of knowledge. They submit to raillery very well; they know not what it is to dispute and get angry while conversing. They never interrupt you in conversation. I found in them many qualities that are lacking in civilized peoples. They are distributed in cabins; a cabin is a sort of room in common, in which there are generally from 15 to 20 persons. They all live in great peace, which is due, in a great measure, to the fact that each one is allowed to do what he pleases. From the beginning of October to the middle of March, they hunt at a distance of forty or fifty leagues from their Village; and, in the middle of March, they return to their Village. Then the women sow the maize. As to the men, with the exception of a little hunting now and then, they lead a thoroughly idle life; they chat and smoke, and that is all. As a rule, the Illinois are very lazy and greatly addicted to brandy; this is the cause of the insignificant results that we obtain among them. Formerly, we had Missionaries in the three Villages. The Gentlemen of the Missions étrangères have charge of one of the three. We abandoned the second through lack of a Missionary, and because we obtained but scanty results. We confined ourselves to the third, which alone is larger than the two others. We number two Priests there, but the harvest does not correspond to our labors. If these Missions have no greater success, it is not through the fault of those who have preceded us, for their memory is still held in veneration among French and Illinois. It is perhaps due to the bad example of the French, who are continually mingled with these people; to the brandy that is sold to them, and above all to their disposition which is certainly opposed to all restraint, and consequently to any Religion. When the first Missionaries came among the Illinois, we see, by the writings which they have left us, that they counted five thousand persons of all ages in that Nation. To-day we count but two thousand. It should be observed that, in addition to these three Villages which I have mentioned, there is a fourth one of the same Nation, eighty leagues from here, almost as large as the three others. You may judge by this how much they have diminished in the period of sixty years. I commend myself to your holy sacrifices, in the union whereof I have the honor to be, etc.
Among the Illinois, this 8th_of June, 1750.