Sébastien Rale

Death of Sebastien Rale, French Jesuit missionary in America, 1724 (c1880).
Death of Sebastien Rale, French Jesuit missionary in America, 1724 (c1880).

Sébastien (or Sebastian) Rale (or Râle, Rasle, Rasles) (January 20, 1657 – August 23, 1724) was a Jesuit missionary and lexicographer who worked among the eastern Wabanaki people. He was stationed on the border of Acadia and New England and helped protect the border of Acadia by encouraging raids upon the British settlements in present-day Maine. He fought throughout King William’s War and Queen Anne’s War, eventually being killed by the British during Father Rale’s War.

Early years

Born in Pontarlier, France, Sébastien Rale studied in Dijon. In 1675 he joined the Society of Jesus at Dole and taught Greek and rhetoric at Nîmes. He volunteered for the American missions and came to the New World in a party led by Governor-general Frontenac of New France in 1689. His first missionary work was at an Wabanaki village Saint Francois, near Quebec. (Upon the eventual defeat of Rale and the Wabanaki at Norridgewock, Maine, the Wabanaki retreated to St. Francois). He then spent two years ministering to the Illinois Indians at Kaskaskia. The former teacher of Greek would learn and speak the Wabanaki language, and in 1691 began compiling an Wabanaki-French dictionary.

King William’s War

In 1694 Râle was sent to direct the Wabanaki mission at Norridgewock (now in Maine) on the Kennebec River. (He had been preceded in the area by other priests, the first in 1646. Râle made his headquarters at Norridgewock, where in 1698 he built a church.

The New England colonists regarded with suspicion the arrival of a Catholic French missionary in the midst of a tribe for the most part hostile to the English. They presumed that the Frenchman would do his best to stoke this hostility. Hence the attacks perpetrated on the eastern frontier of New England during Râle’s long residence amongst the Abenaki were for the most part attributed, either directly or indirectly, to him.

Queen Anne’s War

When Queen Anne’s War broke out, with New France and New England again fighting to control the region, Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley arranged a conference with tribal representatives at Casco Bay in 1703 to propose that they remain neutral. However, in August, a party of the Norridgewock tribe joined a larger force of French and Indians, commanded by Alexandre Leneuf de Beaubassin, to attack Wells in the Northeast Coast Campaign. While the English suspected Father Rale of inciting the tribe against them, the French minister, Pontchartrain, wrote to the Jesuit superior Pierre de La Chasse to have Father Rale recalled, as he was suspected of being lukewarm about the war.

Governor Dudley put a price on his head. In the winter of 1705, 275 British soldiers under the command of Colonel Winthrop Hilton were dispatched to seize Rale and sack the village. Warned in time, the priest escaped into the woods with his papers, but the militia burned the village and church.

By 1710, however, Rale had returned to the mission whose members called him “Black Robe.” The Jesuit’s instruction of the tribe in Catholicism was accomplished, and Mass was celebrated in the Abenaki tongue each morning and Vespers each evening. Rale wrote to his nephew that:

“…as it is needful to control the imagination of the savages, too easily distracted, I pass few working days without making them a short exhortation for the purpose of inspiring a horror of the vices to which their tendency is strongest, and for strengthening them in the practice of some virtue.

My advice always shapes their resolutions.”

Rale also succeeded in attaching the tribe to the New France cause. Combined with years of rough treatment by British border settlers who acted as if Indians were “vicious and dangerous wild animals”, the French induced in the tribe a deep distrust of English intentions, despite Abenaki dependence on English trading posts to exchange furs for other necessities.

Treaty of Utrecht

The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht brought some peace, and at the Treaty of Portsmouth, the Indians ostensibly swore allegiance to Britain. But historian Francis Parkman observes that they would not have known what a promise of subjection to England meant. Meanwhile, the boundary between New France and New England remained contested. England claimed all lands extending to the St. George River, but most Abenaki inhabiting them were sympathetic to the French, and through their missionaries, to the Catholic Church. In August 1717, Governor Samuel Shute met with tribal representatives of Norridgewock and other Abenaki bands in Georgetown on a coastal island, warning that cooperation with the French would bring them “utter ruin and destruction”. Nevertheless, in 1720 Governor-general of New France Vaudreuil writes that:

“Father Rale continues to incite Indians of the mission at [Norridgewock] not to allow the English to spread over their lands.”

Braves began to kill cattle, burn haystacks and otherwise harass English settlers below them on the Kennebec. But upon the death of Chief Taxous, his successor Wissememet advocated peace with the English, offering beaver skins as reparation for past damages, and four hostages to guarantee none in the future. Rale was chagrined at the offer of peace, even dismissing the new chief as a “cipher”. He declared that:

“Any treaty with the governor… is null and void if I do not approve it, for I give them so many reasons against it that they absolutely condemn what they have done.”

He wrote to Vaudreuil for reinforcements. An infusion of 250 Abenaki warriors from near Quebec, reliably hostile to the English, arrived at Norridgewock to stiffen its resolve. It worked. On July 28, 1721, over 250 Indians in warpaint, and flying French colours from a flotilla of 90 canoes, landed at Georgetown. With them were Rale and the Superior of the Missions, Pierre de la Chasse. They delivered a letter, forwarded to Shute, which demanded the return of the hostages, and withdrawal of all English settlers from Abenaki lands—or the houses would be burned and their occupants slain, together with their livestock. A reply, it read, was expected within two months. The English immediately ceased selling gunpowder, ammunition and food to the Abenaki. Then in January 1722, while most of the tribe was away hunting, 300 soldiers under the command of Colonel Thomas Westbrook surrounded Norridgewock to capture Rale, but he was forewarned and escaped into the forest. Found among the priest’s possessions, however, was his strongbox with a hidden compartment containing letters implicating Rale as an agent of the French government, promising Indians enough ammunition to drive the English from their settlements. Also inside was his three-volume Abenaki-French dictionary, which was presented to the library at Harvard College.

Father Rale’s War

During Father Rale’s War, as revenge for the raid on Norridgewock, the tribe and its auxiliaries on June 13, 1722 burned Brunswick at the mouth of the Kennebec, taking hostages to exchange for those held in Boston. Consequently, on July 25 Shute declared war on the eastern Indians. But on January 1, 1723, Shute abruptly departed for London. He had grown disgusted with the intransigent Assembly (which controlled funding) as it squabbled with the Governor’s Council over which body should conduct the war. Lieutenant-governor William Dummer assumed management of the government. Further Abenaki incursions persuaded the Assembly to act in what would be called Dummer’s War.

Battle of Norridgewock

In August 1724, a force of 208 soldiers (which would split into 2 units under the commands of captains Johnson Harmon and Jeremiah Moulton) left Fort Richmond (now Richmond, Maine) in 17 whaleboats up the Kennebec.[4] At Taconic Falls (now Winslow), 40 men were left to guard the boats as the troops continued on foot. On August 23, 1724 (N. S.), the expedition came upon the village of Norridgewock unexpectedly. Many of the Indians were routed, leaving 26 warriors dead and 14 wounded. Among the casualties was Sébastien Rale. Harmon’s son-in-law, Lt. Jacques, scalped Fr. Rale.

Rale’s body was mutilated, and his scalp redeemed in Boston with those of the other dead. The Boston authorities gave a reward for the scalps, and Harmon was promoted. Thereafter, the French and Indians claimed that the missionary died “a martyr” at the foot of a large cross set in the central square, drawing the soldiers’ attention to himself to save his parishioners. The English militia claimed that he was “a bloody incendiary” shot in a cabin while reloading his flintlock. A Mohawk named Christian, who accompanied the troops, slipped back after they had departed and set the village and church ablaze.

The 150 Abenaki survivors returned to bury the fallen before abandoning Norridgewock for Canada. Rale was interred beneath the altar at which he had ministered his converts. In 1833, Bishop Fenwick dedicated an 11 foot tall obelisk monument, erected by subscription, over his grave at what is today St. Sebastian’s Cemetery at Old Point in Madison.

Rale remains a polarizing figure. Francis Parkman described him as:

“…fearless, resolute, enduring; boastful, sarcastic, often bitter and irritating; a vehement partisan; apt to see things not as they are, but as he wished them to be; given to inaccuracy and exaggeration, yet no doubt sincere in his opinions and genuine in zeal; hating the English more than he loved the Indians; calling himself their friend, yet using them as instruments of worldly policy, to their danger and final ruin. In considering the ascription of martyrdom, it is to be remembered that he did not die because he was an apostle of the faith, but because he was an active agent of the Canadian government.”

On the other hand, historian W. J. Eccles says that since 1945 Canadian historians have discarded Parkman’s view of the history of New France, as characterized by “prejudice in favor of Anglo-American values, institutions, myths, and aspirations,” and corresponding denigration of Catholic, French, and Native American elements.


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