Nicolas Foucault and the Quapaws

By Jones, Linda C. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Nicolas Foucault and the Quapaws


Jones, Linda C., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


ON A HOT JULY DAY IN 1702, FATHER ANTOINE DAVION neared the end of a voyage from the Tunica village on the Yazoo River to a mission near the junction of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. Davion, one of several missionaries called to serve in the Lower Mississippi Valley in the late seventeenth century, was no more than a day away from seeing a colleague, Father Nicolas Foucault, and would surely commiserate with him over their respective efforts to Christianize the Quapaw and Tunica peoples, among others.1 But as he traveled up the Mississippi, he came across a hat, a few papers, and a dressed altar for the Holy Eucharist and knew immediately that he need not continue his journey to the Arkansas mission. The horrific scene on the Mississippi's banks would haunt him for years to come. Davion discovered that Nicolas Foucault had been murdered.2

Four years earlier, in May 1698, Bishop Jean-Baptiste de la Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier granted permission to the Seminary of Québec to establish missions along the Mississippi River in order to convert the many nations present to Christianity.3 Soon after, Gov. Louis de Baude, Comte de Frontenac granted a passport to the seminary, allowing it to pro- ceed with sending missionaries to the region. Fathers François de Montigny (the leader of the missionaries), Antoine Davion, and Jean-François Buisson de Saint-Cosme left Lachine, Québec, with twelve men to explore the Native American villages along the lower Mississippi.4 As they journeyed southward, they selected several Indian nations among which to establish missions, notably the Tamarois, the Tunicas, the Taensas, and the Natchez. When the trio first encountered the Quapaws along the Arkansas River, they found them friendly and very anxious to have a mis- sionary placed among them.5 De Montigny advised them to gather their nation into one village. The Quapaws agreed that they would do so by the following spring-of 1700-and would even build a house for the missionaries.6

In May 1701, the Quapaws finally received their missionary.7 Father Nicolas Foucault resided and worked among them for just fifteen months. By most accounts, his efforts to convert them were unsuccessful. Both historians and contemporaries have suggested that the Quapaws mistreated and abused Foucault, thereby seeming to blame these indigenous people for his failure.8 Yet it is impossible to be sure why this first effort to Christianize the Quapaws came up short. Documents from Foucault's hand cannot be found. We do not know if Davion collected any of his papers when he discovered Foucault's murder and, if so, whether such documents remain hidden in a descendant's attic or buried in archives.9 And, too, the Quapaws themselves were without a written language, all of which makes understanding why the Quapaws, in the words of one historian, "proved less than willing receptors of the gospel" all the more challenging.10 But analysis of a range of documents casts considerable doubt on the suggestion that Quapaw hostility toward Foucault accounted for his failure. Earlier visitors, including de Montigny and Father Zénobe Membre remarked on the Quapaws' mildness, warmth, cheerfulness, generosi- ty, and courtesy; Saint-Cosme described their extraordinary honesty." At the same time, events earlier in Foucault's life paint a picture of a man who might seem destined to fail among the Quapaws. Strongly devoted to his scruples, quite meticulous, and often at odds with officers and colonists along the St. Lawrence River, he may just have been poorly suited to working with indigenous nations. Instead of a tireless priest whose efforts were dismissed by the Quapaws, it seems possible that Foucault was, as Antoine de la Mothe de Cadillac described him, simply an "odd man if ever there was one."12

Nicolas Foucault was born in Paris sometime around 1664 to a family of booksellers and publishers from the Rue St. Jacques, a birthright that provided a comfortable upbringing as well as access to books, pamphlets, and other publications that could have alerted him to the variety of cultures that existed far from the streets of Paris. …

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