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Death of Father Sebastian Rale of the Society of Jesus, an 1856 lithograph

Sébastien Rale, (or Râle, Rasle, Rasles) (or Sebastian), (January 4, 1657 – August 23, 1724), was a Jesuit missionary and lexicographer who worked among the eastern Abenaki people, but became caught up in political and military struggles between New France and New England which would claim his life.


Early years

Born in Pontarlier, France, Sébastien Rale studied in Dijon. Despite parental disapproval, in 1675 he joined the Society of Jesus at Dole to become a priest. He would teach Greek and rhetoric at Nimes until, full of Counter-Reformation zeal, he volunteered for the American missions. He came to the New World in a party led by Governor-general Frontenac of New France in 1689, and his first missionary work was at an Abenaki village near Quebec. He then spent two years ministering the Illinois Indians at Kaskaskia. The former teacher of Greek would learn and speak the Abenaki language, and in 1691 began compiling an Abenaki-French dictionary.

Mission at Norridgewock

During King William's War, Rale was sent in 1694 to what is now Maine, where he directed the Abenaki mission at Norridgewock on the Kennebec River. In 1698, he built a church. When Queen Anne's War broke out, with New France and New England again fighting to control the region, Abenaki tribes found themselves stuck in the middle. Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley arranged a conference with tribal representatives in 1703 to propose that they remain neutral. On the contrary, however, the Norridgewock tribe in August joined a larger force of French and Indians, commanded by Alexandre Leneuf de Beaubassin, to attack Wells. Father Rale was widely suspected of inciting the tribe against the English because their settlements and blockhouses encroached on Abenaki land (and so uncomfortably close to Quebec), but also because they were Protestant and therefore heretics. 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 which called him "Black Robe." The Jesuit's indoctrination of the tribe into the Roman Catholic religion succeeded, with Mass in the Abenaki tongue each morning and Vespers each evening. He would write to his nephew that:

" 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 as historian Francis Parkman remarks, " is safe to say they did not know what the words meant." Meanwhile, the boundary between New France and New England remained contested. England claimed all lands extending to the St. George River, but most Abenakis inhabiting them were sympathetic to the French, and through their missionaries, to the Roman Catholic Church. In August of 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 4 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."
Jesuit Missionary

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 2 months. The English immediately ceased selling gunpowder, ammunition and food to the Abenakis. Then in January of 1722, while most of the tribe was away hunting, 300 soldiers under the command of Colonel Thomas Westbrook surrounded Norridgewock to capture Rale, but again he was forwarned 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.

Dummer's War

Grave of Sebastien Rale in 1911

As revenge for the raid on Norridgewock, the tribe and its auxiliaries on June 13 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 -- also Father Rale's War.

In August of 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) in 17 whaleboats up the Kennebec. 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 unexpectedly. Many of the Indians were routed, leaving 26 warriors dead and 14 wounded. Among the casualties was Sébastien Rale. 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. His body was mutilated, and his scalp redeemed in Boston with those of the other dead. 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 describes 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."



  • John Fiske, New England and New France, 1902, Houghton, Mifflin & Company, Boston, MA
  • Francis Parkman, A Half-Century of Conflict, 1907, Brown, Little & Company, Boston, MA
  • Herbert Milton Sylvester, Indian Wars of New England, Volume III, 1910, W. B. Clarke, Boston, MA

External links



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