Eustace Ahatsistari, Huron Warrior

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This past February 9, I posted an article about the Huron Indian, Joseph Chihwatenha, entitled Red Man Without a Cause. He was a noble man, naturally virtuous, who after his conversion and brief life as a Catholic exhibited the kind of heroic sanctity that should earn him a place on the roster of the canonized.

I write now about another Huron, a warrior, quite probably a friend of Joseph’s, as he was a friend of Joseph’s brother, Teondechoren. His name was Ahatsistari, possibly meaning “he who cooks with fire.” The very sound of his name has a certain thrill to it, or, at least it does to me, having read about his exploits for the first time in a book about Saint Isaac Jogues, Saint Among Savages, when I was a young man in the mid-1970s. Ever since I put down that book I could never forget this awesome character; nor could I resist, if ever the subject of Indians came up, dramatizing for others his last battle, when he had to fight his enemies alone, spitting fire at them with his final breath.

One cannot say that he was the stuff of legend because everything recorded of him was witnessed first-hand, if not by the Jesuit missionaries themselves, by the braves they lived with. Yet, he was a legend in the literal sense of the word, a warrior whose mighty deeds in battle and rousing harangues at the campfires are the kind of things that “ought to be read” by a hero’s people from generation to generation. I suppose I could have been less graphic in recounting the violent scenes that you will read in this article; however, I am not writing this story for grammar school children, nor for the faint of heart.

Huronia, the Setting

Saints John de Brebeuf and Isaac Jogues first met Ahatsistari in 1638 when they visited a village in Huron country called Teanaustayaé (southeastern Ontario). With two thousand inhabitants the village was the largest in Huronia. As a mission the blackrobes named it Saint Joseph’s. Ten years later, in 1648, this mission would be the site of Saint Anthony Daniel’s martyrdom when the Iroquois burned it to the ground, killing everyone who couldn’t escape.

When Ahatsistari wasn’t off on a war party against the Iroquois, he would listen with much interest to the preaching of the blackrobes, but, though the Christian doctrine intrigued him, he was not yet ready to give up his tribal superstitions. His request for baptism was denied. Other villagers, however, did fully accept the true Faith and, after a scrutinizing catechumenate, they became the first community of Catholics among the Hurons in Saint Joseph mission. Ahatsistari, meanwhile, was keeping his guardian angel busy just keeping him alive.

The Warrior

“This man’s life,” wrote one of the missioners, “is but a series of battles.” The native American northeastern Indian tribes, with few exceptions, lived a life of incredible violence. Even with those who were more agrarian, as were most of the Huron villages, war was all too familiar. The tortures inflicted upon prisoners were as extreme as ambition to terrify could push an imagination unbridled by mercy.  Then, again, what these men did to each other with their hands, more “civilized” societies do today with missiles and bombs.  One might even say that in the warped mind of some of these pagan tribes there was a certain code of valor in torturing a warrior, or chief, captured in hand to hand combat — it was their way of honoring a mighty enemy.  In truth, even as they tried to break the victim, they hoped at the same time that they would fail.  If he stood fast to the end, and spurned their knives and fire, then his heart would be worthy of their consumption; for whoever ate it received the spirit of the victim’s courage.

On one occasion, shortly after the missioners arrived, Ahatsistari took fifty Huron braves and attacked an Iroquois war party that out-numbered them six to one. He came back triumphant to the village with a good number of prisoners — and many scalps. So many scalps did Ahatsistari have hanging around his campfire that he was called “the scalp man.” Another time, as he and a small band were scouting the shores of Lake Ontario in their canoes, a flotilla of Iroquois suddenly appeared out of the brush and cut them off. His companions panicked and started to flee for their lives.  That was not an option for this warrior. “No, comrades,” he shouted, “Follow me.  We will start the attack.”  Then, shrilling the blood-curdling war-hoop, typical when in attack mode of all the racially related northern tribes of common stock, Ahatsistari drove his canoe headlong into the Iroquois fleet. Smashing into the first canoe he jumped on board brandishing his tomahawk and split the skulls of two braves while hurling two more into the water. Like a wild man he threw himself alone into the water swinging his hand axe every which way in one hand and swimming with the other.  One, two, three, four more of the enemy fell dying beneath the water from the force of his blows.  Both parties sat motionless in their canoes as they watched this solo assault.  The Iroquois were dumbstruck.  None of them dared to engage the rampaging Huron.  Demoralized, they paddled away with heavy strokes.

Soldier for Christ in a Far Different World

It was not until 1642 that Ahatsistari committed to abandon his pagan practices and obey the rules of religion as he had learned them from the blackrobes.  Once Pere de Brebeuf was convinced of his sincerity he sent him, and other catechumens, to mission headquarters,  Sainte Marie, where they were to be baptized on Holy Saturday. Pere Jogues and his fellow missioners received them with joy, then he called all the catechumens, one hundred and twenty in all, to a council, where certain leaders among them were invited to give testimony as to why they wished to become Christians.

At his turn, the bravest of the braves, lifted his towering frame and spoke:

“I have the Faith deep down in my heart, and my actions during the past winter have proved it sufficiently.  In two days I am departing on the warpath.  If I am killed in the battle, tell me: where will my soul go if you refuse me baptism? If you saw into my heart as clearly as the great Master of our lives, I would already be numbered among the Christians; and the fear of the flames of hell would not accompany me, now that I am about to face death.  I cannot baptize myself. All that I can do is to declare with utmost honesty the desire that I have for it.  After I do that, if my soul be burned in hell, you will bear the guilt of it.”

“What made you first think of believing in God?” asked one of the priests.

“Even before you came into this country,” Ahatsistari answered, “I had escaped from a great many perils in which my comrades were killed.  I saw very clearly that it was not I who saved myself from these dangers.  I had the thought that some spirit, more powerful and unknown to me, was favorable to me and aided me.  . . . When I heard of the greatness of the God whom you preach, and of what Jesus Christ had done when He was on earth, I recognized Him as the being who had preserved me.  I was resolved to honor Him all my life. When I went to war I recommended myself to Him night and morning.  It is to Him that all my victories are due.  He it is in whom I believe.  I ask you for baptism, so that He may have pity on me after my death.”

Council of Christian Chiefs

Ahatsistari received the name Eustace at his baptism.  On Easter Sunday he received his first Holy Communion. Before setting out to war, he and the other Christian chiefs held a private council and pledged:

“Let us be but one body and one mind, since we all serve the same Master.  . . . Whenever anyone among us is afflicted, let him seek consolation among the other Christians. Let us not reveal one another’s faults to the infidels; but let it be recognized, through the friendship that we shall have for one another, that the name of Christian is a tie more binding than the bonds of nature.” And many other things did they all solemnly promise as each chief grunted his approval.

In the summer of the same year, Pere Jogues and Rene Goupil (who would be martyred before the year’s end), and two other Frenchmen asked Eustace Ahatsistari if he could gather some warriors and escort them on the dangerous eight hundred mile trip down river from Trois Riviere to Sainte Marie (near Midland, Ontario, on the Wye River).  They also had with them, Theresa, the daughter of Joseph Chihwatenha, and his young nephew, both of whom had gone to be educated in Quebec and were now returning to their people.  Eustace agreed and organized a small flotilla of twelve canoes that by the day of departure carried about forty Indians, not all of whom were braves. The area they were about to traverse was notorious for the presence of Iroquois war parties and, at that time of year, they would surely be on the path. Nevertheless, rumor had it that the dreaded enemy had retreated back to New York out of fear of the French who had come down to Ville Marie (Montreal) with a mighty show of soldiers, arms, and ships.  So, with that assurance, Father Jogues received permission to return to Huronia.  The rumor proved false.

Ambush

On the second day of their journey, scouts discovered suspicious tracks along the banks of the river.  Ahatsistari confirmed that they were Iroquois, but he underestimated, and figured there were only a few canoes.  They continued on, warily. When they had gone only a mile further, as they took a bend in the river an Iroquois war party of thirty braves ambushed them. War whoops cracked the air as bodies painted blood-red, leveling muskets, emerged from the reeds that hid them in the swamp. The muskets meant that they were Mohawks, the most dreaded warriors of the five-confederated Iroquois tribes, and close allies of the Dutch.  Lead balls whistled through the air and pelted the barque vessels. Eustace sent out a blood-curdling roar, then he shouted: “Great God, to You alone do I look for hope” as he flung himself into battle. Pere Jogues’ canoe crashed into the shore sending him flying into the tall reeds.  The pilot of the vessel, the only pagan on board, had lost the use of a hand in the musket fire. Jogues baptized him Bernard after he readily agreed to the sacrament in the fear of death.

Rising to his knees, the blackrobe could see half of their flotilla managing to escape the battle as they reversed direction.  Meanwhile Eustace, the two donnés, Rene Goupil and Guillaume Couture, and other warriors faced the Iroquois as they moved back to dry ground and formed an arc. The scene was like an arena where each combatant picked his opponent for hand-to-hand combat. Meanwhile, a short distance up river, more war whoops pierced the air. Eight more canoes filled with forty frenzied Mohawk braves swung into shore. These closed off the rear upon the trapped Hurons.

Eustace, the two Frenchmen, and the few others braves who were with them darted forward to attack the half-circled phalanx. The great warrior with his tomahawk cut down every opponent.  He and Couture, who was brawny and strong as an ox, cut a path to the forest.  Eustace’s nephew Paul was fighting like a leopard with agility and ferocity.  The others didn’t fare so well and were quickly overcome. So, too, eventually, was Paul. Couture, however, escaped through the forest, but unable to bear the stigma of a deserter, he turned back and was quickly pounced upon and fettered. Only Ahatsistari remained in the battle as he fought alone in the woods. Nor would he flee, when he could have raced away through the trees, but instead he chased those who were chasing him, slaying many, until finally he was overpowered and held fast by a host of braves. With finesse they wrapped his bulging arms to his sides around and around with thongs and secured him captive. Then they pushed him along back to the shore dragging him forward by a rope around his neck.

Whoops and wild cries of victory echoed through the woody marsh as the valiant Mohawks ushered their coveted prisoner back to the rest of the cheering and jeering war party. By this time Father Jogues had emerged from the reeds, having surrendered himself voluntarily that he might make a last attempt to convert those Hurons who were still pagans. The fact that he had surrendered himself voluntarily puzzled the Mohawks and, after stripping him, they chose to honor his request to remain unbound. When Eustace was hauled in Jogues ran to embrace him. “Ah, my Father,” said the warrior, “I swore to you a holy oath that I would remain faithful to you whether I lived or whether I died.”

Days of Torture

Herding off the prisoners, the Mohawks struck out on the river and headed back to their own lands. When they reached Iroquois territory they were joined by a flotilla packed with two hundred more braves.  Jubilantly they pulled ashore and set up camp.  Ahatsistari and the other Huron warriors were marked for torture and probable death once they reached Iroquois territory.  The Frenchmen were to be tortured at once. Jogues, Goupil, and Couture had their fingers chewed to the bone. In addition to this the young braves tormented them with all kinds of sadistic abuse, dragging them around the camp by their hair and beards, plucking out their whiskers and the hairs on their bodies, scratching their white skin with their fingernails and afterwards scraping off the scabs from their blistering wounds. The untreated wounds of their fingers festered and stung as flies and mosquitoes added to the agony. Father Jogues, however, suffered far more interiorly; he wondered why God would allow the pagans to take the lives of the principal Christians, the hope of the church in Huronia. The stifling heat only added to the heaviness in his soul. “When I saw this funeral procession of our Christians,” he wrote, “led before my very eyes. This cortège of death, in which were the five tried Hurons, the sustaining columns of the Church among the Hurons.  Indeed, and I confess it honestly, time and time again I could not restrain my tears, grieving over the lot of these poor Hurons and of my French comrades . . . I had before my eyes continually the sight of the door of the Christian Faith among the Hurons and other innumerable nations shut by these Iroquois . . . This thought made me die every hour, in the depth of my soul.”

Traveling along the shores of Lake Champlain, the party reached the Mohawk River on the fifth day.  So far it was the French who received the worst of the tortures. The Mohawks were saving themselves for the Huron captives, especially for Ahatsistari, who taunted them all along, bragging about how many of their braves he had killed and how easily they fell.  The Mohawks in turn chided him with gory details of what they were going to do to him when they reached their principal village. When they arrived at the banks of their first village, Ossernenon, the Frenchmen were forced to run the gauntlet, up a steep hill  between two rows of club wielding savages. Swift as he was the priest could not escape the weight of the blows and before he could get to the top of the hill he fell unconscious.  When he came to they dragged him and the others to a platform.  They put burning coals under their armpits and between their thighs, slashed them, cauterized the bleeding wounds with red-hot stones, and cut off some of their fingers. Jogues fell lifeless, but was somehow still breathing, and they kicked him off the stage.

They had had their fun with the French; now it was time for the coup de grace, the commencement of the torments of Ahatsistari. They began their blood lust by slashing him from head to foot, and to stop the blood gushing from his wounds, they seared the openings with torches.  The idea was to defeat the warrior and make him cry for mercy.  Never flinching, Eustace continued to taunt them, which only added to their fury. The thumbs, which he had used to launch countless arrows at them, they severed. One of the braves took a stick and shaved it to a point; this he drove into the open finger socket until it protruded from the victim’s elbow. The warrior never even twitched, holding himself upright and stolid.

Such was the love of Father Jogues for his spiritual son that he could not hold back his tears.  He cried out to Eustace to trust in God who would not fail him.  Seeing his tears the Mohawks mocked him, calling him a coward and a squaw.  Eustace raised his voice above theirs: “They are not the sign of cowardice,” he bellowed, “He weeps for me, not for himself.  He never wept while you were tormenting him.  His face always remained dry and cheerful. He weeps for me and not for himself.  Your cruelty and my pains and his love, they are the reason for his tears.” If the reader is wondering how it was that the Iroquois and Hurons understood each other, it is because, perhaps a century earlier, they were once one people.

Father Jogues responded in kind: “It is true what you say, Eustace.  I do not feel my own wounds nearly so much as the sorrow which I suffer for you. . . . Take courage, my dear brother.  Keep remembering all the time that there is another life, remember that there is a God who sees everything and who knows well how to reward all the things which we endure now, on this occasion, for His sake.”

Death to Three Warriors

Ahatsistari, however, was too prized to be killed here at Ossernenon, where the Auriesville shrine, dedicated to the North American martyrs now stands. He was to be taken to the capital Mohawk village of Tionontoguen, about twenty-five miles further west, there to be burned to death. Two other Huron warriors, both Christians, were sentenced to be sacrificed to the demons of war. Stephen Totiri was to be burned at Andagaron, a village ten miles west. Paul Onnonhoaraton, Eustace Ahatsistari’s brave young nephew, was to burned at Ossernenon. The rest were to be distributed among the villages as slaves to certain privileged chiefs, who could keep them or kill them.

Father Jogues’ heart was breaking as their party was separated.  He gave to all his last words of encouragement, blessed them, and gave final absolution to Stephen and Eustace. As quickly as he had done so, they were gone.

Paul was put through every ordeal of torture imaginable. They butchered him with their knives, chewed his fingers to the bone, and burned his flesh with fiery sticks. Finally, when they could not elicit a whimper from him, and were shouting themselves coarse with their demonic howling, they tied him to a pole and set a raging fire beneath his feet. A crazed brave then charged the blaze and split the warrior’s head with his tomahawk.

“He was a young man of about twenty-five,” Jogues recorded, “full of life and courage, . . . It is such a one, generally, that they choose to put to death, in order to sap, as it were, the life blood of the hostile nation. He showed a noble contempt for death, for he kept crying out openly that he had hope of a better life to come.” Too, “this generous-hearted man repeatedly offered himself to the savage in my place, telling them to leave me alone and to turn their rage on him.”

At the village of Tionontoguen a huge crowd of Mohawks had gathered for the execution of Eustace. He was already half dead, with a foot long spike lodged all the way up his forearm, and his skin burned and shredded. In his last message to his fellow Hurons he begged them not to hold what was about to happen to him against the Iroquois.  “Let it not be a hindrance to a future peace,” he pleaded. His enemies heard these strange words and wondered, words so contrary to “Arise, someone from our bones as avenger” — those traditionally uttered by a captive Indian about to be slain.

Nevertheless, there was to be no mercy.  The sentence had been passed and the diabolical bloodlust needed satiation. Young braves repeated the searing of his flesh with firebrands until he had hardly an inch left that wasn’t roasted. He stood there tall, unflinching, defying his tormenters with his gaze and grunts of mockery. Then, they cut out his tongue and smashed his teeth. After swaggering, he regained his balance and stature: the giant of a man was the paragon of non-conquerability. They would cut him down by severing his legs under the pelvis. But, no, he would not fall; he held himself up on the stumps that were left of his femur bones.  The arms that had slain so many of their braves were then chopped off. Swirling around his truncated torso, dancing, wailing, and howling in demonic rage, they kicked the mighty Huron over into the burning faggots that were to be used to kindle the pyre for his final immolation. Eustace somehow managed to turn over onto his stomach and put his face into the smoldering sticks.  Opening his mouth he gathered his fiery ammunition and, lifting up his neck, in his last act of defiance, he spit out the embers at his enemies. Stunned, and silenced for a moment, they circled around him.  A chief nodded to a young brave who then took his knife and cut off Ahatsistari’s head.

Guillaume Couture witnessed the end of the warrior.  He himself would be spared, but the loyal donné, already brutally wounded, would suffer more before he was released by the Mohawks in a prisoner exchange with the French three years later. In fact, the few fingers that he still had would be gone by then. Despite their hatred for the French, the Iroquois grew to respect, even esteem Couture. He spoke their language as if he were raised in it. He was even invited to sit in as a regular at their chiefs’ councils.

The kingdom of heaven will have, thank God, all the saintly characters that we are used to reading about in the history of the Church. Beggars and kings will sit side by side at the Father’s table; hermits and popes; every race and every state of life will among its denizens.  There will be those who worked in the field from sunrise to sunset, and those who worked only in the last hour. And there will be soldiers, and warriors, too, as well as the peacemakers.  And, then, there will be Eustace Ahatsistari.

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