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Saving Souls in Kente

Pelts and piety - these were the twin obsessions among the Europeans of the 17th century, obsessions that would change the lives of native tribes forever. Wherever the fur traders went in the lands of the Huron and the Iroquois, the zealous Christian missionaries followed. Conversion and commerce were often closely linked: natives who had adopted the Christian faith were paid more for their furs, and favoured during distributions of gifts.

One of the most famous religious missions during the time of European contact was Sainte-Marie, founded by the Jesuits in Huronia (Midland), north of Lake Ontario, during the 1640's. Its destruction by the Iroquois in 1648 marked the decline of the powerful Huron nation, and the beginning of a prolonged struggle between the French and the Iroquois.

By 1666, however, the military might of the French had been strengthened, and French-Iroquois hostilities had waned. In 1668, at the request of representatives of the Cayugas, living on the north shore of Lake Ontario, two members of the Quebec-based Order of St. Sulpice made the arduous 26-day journey from Lachine, up the St. Lawrence River to establish a mission at Kente (or Kentio), in the Bay of Quinte region of eastern Lake Ontario. The exact location of the mission is unknown. The Cayuga are thought to have crossed over to the Lake's north shore from traditional Iroquois lands to the south in 1665, in search of beaver. They may have settled near the present village of Consecon, in Prince Edward County.

The mission was supported not only by the congregations of St. Sulpice in France and Montreal, but also by Jean Talon, the Intendant of New France, who was anxious to establish fur trade relations with the Iroquois. The priests, Abbé François de Salignac de Fenelon, and Abbé Claude Trouvé, ministered to at least 3 villages, including Kente, Ganeraske, located near the present-day town of Port Hope, and a village near present-day Trenton, Ontario. They traveled extensively along the north shore of the Lake, spending at least one winter at the mouth of the Rouge River, near Toronto. The Kente mission itself took on a European character, with more priests, agricultural implements, livestock and even lay servants sent west from Montreal to aid the "Gentlemen of St. Sulpice."

Although the Kente mission became an outpost for fur traders and explorers, including Joliet in 1669 and La Salle in 1672, the missionaries of St. Sulpice felt betrayed when Governor Frontenac chose Cataraqui, further east, as the site of his first Lake Ontario fort. At the same time, the Cayuga themselves had exhausted the hunting grounds of the Bay of Quinte and were drifting away to the western shores of the lake, having only half-heartedly embraced the Catholic religion. Financial support for the mission declined, and by 1680, the post was abandoned, leaving the Jesuits in charge of church work in Ontario.

A brutal fate awaited the natives that were left behind. In 1687, from his base at Fort Frontenac, a new French Governor, the Marquis de Denonville and his Iroquois allies attacked and tortured the remaining Kente natives, taking those who survived back to France to work as galley slaves. Amidst their cries of suffering, the Kente mission faded into oblivion.

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