July 1656: Jesuits Arrive at Onondaga Lake from Quebec

Jesuit Mission , Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois on Onondaga Lake

On July 11th, 1656, a group of a few dozen men arrived at Onondaga Lake after a month-long canoe journey from Quebec. The group contained Jesuit priests, laborers, and a handful of soldiers. Though the group was small, and their stay short (about 18th months due to growing tensions), the Jesuit landing at Onondaga Lake changed the course of history in the region.

Their goal, under the The Papal Bull “Inter Caetera,” more commonly known as the Doctrine of Discovery, issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4th, 1493, was to establish a mission on the northeastern shore of the lake, which would come to be known as Sainte Marie.

According to The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, The Doctrine of Discovery “became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished.”

European contact with Native Americans, specifically the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in Central New York, had a long-term effect and nearly eliminated many of the nations throughout North America. An exhibit at the Ska-nonh – Great Law of Peace CenterContact, describes this in detail and includes the video below.

The Jesuit missionaries also found the area around Onondaga Lake was rich with salt brine, helping to put the region on the map as Salt was an important commodity.

Today, a recreation of that mission is available for the public to explore as part of the new Ska-nonh – Great Law of Peace Center, a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) cultural center telling the history and culture from the perspective of the Onondaga Nation. Interpretive panels throughout the mission describe what life was like for the Jesuits during their brief stay on the shores of Onondaga Lake.