Open Source: Pere Marquette Preaching to Native Americans

Guest blog post by Michael Ullo


As Karen Ullo’s husband, I was privileged to read the first draft of her upcoming novel, La Citoyenne. The novel takes place during the 1790s and retells Comtesse Alix De Morainville’s traumatic experiences of revolutionary France while she travels the treacherous bayous of colonial Louisiana. It weaves a web of historical fact and fiction that stokes a burning fascination with French royalty, revolutionary politics, Creole history, and religious martyrdom.

The novel’s backdrop is a harrowing trek through the Louisiana wilderness of Attakapas, named for the feared “man-eating” Native Americans who roamed the territory. This man-eating theme looms throughout the journey. Without spoiling the plot, I will focus on a compelling Attakapas character that Karen introduces toward the end of the novel. What caused this surprise introduction? Jesuit missionaries.

I could not believe this kind of character could exist in 1795, so I had to do my research. As it turns out, the Jesuits did in fact have a strong presence in south Louisiana until their suppression in the 1760s, but I could not find Jesuit records of their relations with the Attakapas tribe, at least not advanced enough to suggest development of such an enigmatic character.

And then I stumbled upon this 1781 account by French explorer Louis LeClerc Milfort when he came upon the Attakapas:

The forest we were then in was thick enough so that none of my men could be seen. I formed them into three detachments, and arranged them in such a way as to surround these savages, and to leave them no way of retreat except by the pond. I then made them all move forward, and I sent ahead a subordinate chief to ascertain what nation these savages belonged to, and what would be their intentions toward us. We were soon assured that they were Attakapas, who, as soon as they saw us, far from seeking to defend themselves, made us signs of peace and friendship. There were one hundred and eighty of them of both sexes, busy, as we suspected, smoke-drying meat. As soon as my three detachments had emerged from the forest, I saw one of these savages coming straight toward me: at first sight, I recognized that he did not belong to the Attakapas nation; he addressed me politely and in an easy manner, unusual among these savages. He offered food and drink for my warriors which I accepted, while expressing to him my gratitude. Meat was served to my entire detachment; and during the time of about six hours that I remained with this man, I learned that he was a European; that he had been a Jesuit; and that having gone into Mexico, these people had chosen him as their chief. He spoke French rather well. He told me that his name was Joseph; but I did not learn from what part of Europe he came.

He informed me that the name Attakapas, which means eaters of men, had been given to this nation by the Spaniards because every time they caught one of them, they would roast him alive, but that they did not eat them; that they acted in this way toward this nation to avenge their ancestors for the torture that they made them endure when they had come to take possession of Mexico; that if some Englishmen or Frenchmen happened to be lost in this bay region, the Attakapas welcomed them with kindness, would give them hospitality; and if they did not wish to remain with them they had them taken to the Akancas, from where they could easily go to New Orleans.

He told me: “You see here about one-half of the Attakapas Nation; the other half is farther on. We are in the habit of dividing ourselves into two or three groups in order to follow the buffalo, which in the spring go back into the west, and in autumn come down into these parts; there are herds of these buffalo, which go sometimes as far as the Missouri; we kill them with arrows; our young hunters are very skillful at this hunting. You understand, moreover, that these animals are in very great numbers, and as tame as if they were raised on a farm; consequently, we are very careful never to frighten them. When they stay on a prairie or in a forest, we camp near them in order to accustom them to seeing us, and we follow all their wanderings so that they cannot get away from us. We use their meat for food and their skins for clothing. I have been living with these people for about eleven years; I am happy and satisfied here, and have not the least desire to return to Europe. I have six children whom I love a great deal, and with whom I want to end my days.”

When my warriors were rested and refreshed, I took leave of Joseph and of the Attakapas, while assuring them of my desire to be able to make some returns for their friendly welcome, and I resumed my Journey.

Source: Milfort, Louis Leclerc. Memoirs or A Quick Glance at my various travels and my sojourn in the Creek Nation, Chapter 15

Joseph appears to have been a Jesuit priest who became like Lieutenant Dunbar in Dances With Wolves, living as chief of the Attakapas. But who was Joseph? After an exhaustive search, I could not find him anywhere in the records of Louisiana or Mexico Jesuit missionaries during that time period. Nevertheless, Milfort’s account proves intimate contact between the Jesuits and an Attakapas tribe prior to the 1790s.

I imagine that there were several unrecorded Jesuits who evangelized native peoples during this timeframe. Recordkeeping in the dense wilderness may have been difficult, or perhaps records were lost during the Jesuit suppression. If that were the case, Karen’s character may not be so unbelievable after all. Unfortunately, since much of their tribal identity disappeared before 1800, little information on the Attakapas and their Jesuit influence exists.

The great thing about historical fiction is that when empty-handed in terms of sources, you are free to use your imagination. And this area is where Karen excels. Remaining faithful to G. W. Cable’s Strange True Stories of Louisiana and numerous factual sources, Karen produces a well-researched and realistic narrative of historical events that engages the reader until the end.

Michael Ullo is Karen Ullo’s husband.