Because of the colour of their cassocks, Native peoples referred to the Catholic missionaries who came to evangelize them as "Black Robes". These brave, bold and educated men travelled in far-away places -- frequently without any of their countrymen -- with the objective not of exploration but of evangelization. Reports of their voyages, useful in the promotion of missions, were also used to solicit donations, by describing the "new" peoples to be evangelized, and to inform colony administrators of events that occurred in the "Upper Country." In addition, knowledge of the Canadian geography gained by missionaries -- as well as the information gathered by them from Native peoples -- was frequently used by other explorers. Three religious communities participated in these explorations: the Recollets, the Jesuits and the Sulpicians.
The Recollets were the first missionaries to arrive, brought to Canada in 1615 by Champlain. The best known of these, Gabriel Sagard, made only one return voyage into the Upper Country, in 1623-1624. His account, Le Grand Voyage du pays des Hurons […], became an indispensable work about the Huron people. Sagard's voyage did not contribute to the expansion of New France, but the information that he gathered from the Native peoples on far-away areas helped other voyagers. Among other things, he wrote the first phrasebook of the Huron language.
Voyage through the forest:
"On a aussi quelquefois bien de la peine à se faire passage avec la tête et les mains parmi les bois touffus, où il s'y en rencontre grand nombre de pourris et tombés les uns sur les autres, qu'il faut enjamber, puis des rochers, des pierres et d'autres incommodités qui augmentent le travail du chemin, outre le nombre infini de moustiques qui nous faisaient incessamment une très cruelle guerre; et n'eût été le soin que je portais à me conserver les yeux par le moyen d'une étamine que j'avais sur la face, ces méchants animaux m'auraient rendu aveugle beaucoup de fois; et ainsi en était-il arrivé à d'autres qui en perdirent la vue pour plusieurs jours, tant leur piqûre est venimeuse à l'endroit de ceux qui n'ont encore pris l'air du pays."
(Sagard 1669, 44-45)
"Sometimes also one has great difficulty in making a passage with head and hands through dense woods, in which also a great number of trees that have rotted and fallen on one another are met with, and these one must step over. Then there are rocks and stones and other obstacles which add to the toil of the trail, besides the innumerable mosquitoes which incessantly waged most cruel and vexatious war upon us; if it had not been for my care in protecting my eyes by means of a piece of thin stuff which I had covering my face, these fierce creatures would have blinded me many times, as I had been warned. It had happened so to others, who lost the use of their eyes for several days, so poisonous is their stinging and biting to those who have not yet become acclimatized.
(Sagard 1939, 63)
In 1679-1680, Louis Hennepin, another Recollet, travelled as far as present-day Peoria, Illinois with the explorer Cavelier de La Salle, went up the Mississippi as far as present-day Minneapolis and returned to Montreal via Skunk Bay. His Description de la Louisiane [...] came out in 1683 and, though it contained many untruths, caused a sensation in Europe.
The first Jesuits arrived in New France in 1625. Among them was Jean de Brébeuf, who travelled up to the Huron people the following year. The narrative of his first voyage made him one of the primary chroniclers of the four great families (the Bear, Cord, Rock and Deer) of the Huron nation. From 1632 to 1673, the Society of Jesus published the Jesuit Relations, works that brought together the reports of the missionaries' work in Canada. The Relations attempted to bring readers into the socio-cultural and material world of the Native peoples: their beliefs, lifestyles, conflicts, language, and perceptions of Europeans. The tales abound with information on the natural wealth of the country, the climate, the fauna and flora. They also report on events, including certain voyages of exploration conducted by merchants and people hired to work in the fur trade. For 50 years, it was primarily the Jesuit missionaries who furthered knowledge about the Canadian territory, and especially about the areas around the Great Lakes and between the St. Lawrence River and Hudson Bay. Among Relations important to the exploration of Canada, that of 1660 is notable, as it told of the network of river routes north to Hudson Bay between the Saguenay and Albany rivers. The Relations of 1672 should also be mentioned -- it tells of the exploration of the Mississippi by Jolliet and Marquette. The gigantic Lake Superior was named by the Jesuits, as was Sault (rapids) Ste. Marie, through which Lake Superior flows to Lake Huron. These narratives, as well as many maps, demonstrate the important contribution of missionaries to the exploration of Canada. Among Jesuits who made such contributions were Charles Albanel, Claude Allouez, Claude Dablon and Jacques Marquette.
For their part, the Company of Priests of St. Sulpice, called the Sulpicians, of Montreal Island, only made a single voyage of exploration into the Great Lakes region in 1669-1670. The voyage of François Dollier de Casson and René de Bréhant de Galinée lasted one year. They departed from Montreal with La Salle, who deserted them at the western end of Lake Ontario to return home. The two Sulpicians went to Lake Erie to winter. In the spring, they abandoned their objectives, took the Saint Clair River and Lake Huron and arrived at the Jesuit mission at Sault Ste. Marie before returning to Montreal by the Ottawa River. The detailed map of their exploration confirmed that there were links between the Great Lakes.
"Estans donc arrivez au lieu où nous devions camper, les femmes armées de haches s'en alloient çà & là dans les grandes forests coupper du bois pour la charpente de l'hostellerie où nous voulions loger, ce pendant les hommes en ayans designé le plan, vuidoient la neige avec leurs raquilles, ou avec des pelles qu'ils font & portent exprez pour ce sujet: [...]"
(Society of Jesus 1635, 186)
"Now, when we arrived at the place where we were to camp, the women, armed with axes, went here and there in the forests, cutting the framework of the hostelry where we were to lodge; meantime the men, having drawn the plan thereof, cleared away the snow with their snowshoes, or with shovels which they make and carry expressly for this purpose."
(Thwaites, 1899, 35-37)
Missionaries made known to Europeans civilizations completely different from their own. Over the years, as their particular interest in Native peoples required that they know well the people they were evangelizing, missionaries described in their writings the social, economic and political organization of Native peoples, and the territories that they inhabited. The "Black Robes" thus contributed in large measure to the exploration of North America.