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d. 18 June 1886 at Hamilton, Canada West


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LAFITAU, JOSEPH-FRANÇOIS, priest, Jesuit, missionary, discoverer of ginseng in North America, author of Mœurs des sauvages amériquains . . . ; b. 31 May 1681 at Bordeaux, France, son of Jean Lafitau, wine merchant and banker, and Catherine-Radegonde Berchenbos; d. 3 July 1746 at Bordeaux.

The Lafitau family gave two sons to the Jesuits: Joseph-François and Pierre-François (1685–1764). The latter became bishop of Sisteron, France, and was much respected in Rome; he promoted his elder brother’s literary activities and helped get his books published. The family’s resources meant ready access to books, and its commercial activities in a busy port, harbouring vessels from New France, the Antilles, South America, and Africa, afforded opportunities to hear strange tongues and witness diverse manners. Exhibits of captives from the New World were a tradition at Bordeaux festivals. Besides the wines of Gironde, Bordeaux could boast the eminence of Montaigne, and would also claim Montesquieu.

Joining the Jesuits of his native city in the autumn of his 15th year, Joseph-François Lafitau thereafter received a typical Jesuit education. After finishing his noviciate in 1698, he studied philosophy for two years and rhetoric for a year at Pau (1698–1701) before teaching grammar for a year at Limoges (1702); then he read and taught humanities at Saintes for three years (1703–5), and taught rhetoric for a year back at Pau (1706). He completed his studies at Poitiers with a year of philosophy and two years of theology (1706–9), passing his last year at La Flèche and finally going to the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he finished the course in theology in 1711. This was a fair sample of centres of learning in France. During these years he must have read works on the customs of ancient peoples and the New World that would later provide background when he was studying the customs of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee).

On 10 April 1711, from Paris, Lafitau petitioned the general of the Society of Jesus, Michelangelo Tamburini, at Rome, to go to the missions of New France, and was granted permission to leave at the end of the year. Arrangements for his voyage and third probationary year in the field would be made with the procurator in Paris, Father Jean de Lamberville*. Meanwhile, now an ordained priest, he had returned home to be professor of rhetoric at the college of Bordeaux.

Lafitau arrived in New France just before the treaty of Utrecht (1713) and toward the end of a period of intense hostility with the Five Nations. Reporting at Quebec, he was soon ordered to Sault-Saint-Louis (Kahnawake), on the south shore of the St Lawrence opposite Montreal. Here he remained nearly six years (1712–17) as missionary. Iroquois converts, particularly Mohawk, were drawn to this settlement founded by Pierre Raffeix*, Jacques Frémin*, and Jean de Lamberville. By 1682 it had a winter population of some 600 residents in 60 lodges, and a transient summer population half again as large. Kinship ties within the Iroquois confederacy remained strong. At the time of Charlevoix’s visit in 1708 and during the period before Lafitau’s arrival in 1712, the community was declining because intensive cultivation of maize had depleted the soil, firewood was scarce, and the brandy traffic was wreaking havoc on both longhouse and chapel. But the tradition that had been established at Sault-Saint-Louis remained firm among the Jesuits and Iroquois. There were experienced Jesuits at the mission who could help Lafitau in the studies he soon undertook. Jacques Bruyas* had reduced Iroquois verbs to a system during a long residence at Oneida (N.Y.). Most important was Julien Garnier*, then quite aged and a veteran of 50 years among the Iroquois, who became his tutor, and before whom Lafitau pronounced his vows in the Jesuit church at Montreal on 25 Aug. 1716. On 12 September both men were in Quebec to sign the Cahier des vœux, which afforded Lafitau an opportunity to consult books not at the mission.

There are few clues as to how Lafitau gathered information from his Iroquois subjects; he names no sources among them. Rather, his interests ran to topics, and his scientific bent was soon directed not only to discovery but also to publication. He afterward wrote that he read the Relations of previous missionaries and claimed that five of his six years in Canada were spent among Indigenous people, and he was not content simply to know their practices. Instead, he wanted to erect a science of customs by comparing their manners with those of the peoples of antiquity. He was a keen observer himself, and his writing is salted with penetrating insights that combine theory and verification.

We can infer how he worked from his 1718 report on the discovery of ginseng, which made him famous in the academies of Europe. In a letter dated 12 April 1711 to the procurator of the missions in India and China, afterwards widely published in Europe, Father Pierre Jartoux first described the ginseng of Tartary. Lafitau chanced upon this letter on a visit to Quebec in October 1715. For ecological reasons, Jartoux concluded that the plant ought to occur in Canada, and Lafitau set out to find it. Knowing that the Iroquois valued medicinal knowledge above all else, he thought they might know it, and if so, he would have partial proof of their own Asian origin. The plant was indeed native to North America and that it had not been discovered up to then is a comment on the low regard of the French for Indigenous medicine and the failure of his colleagues who knew the languages to extract information. Lafitau soon discovered that a little respect for the ability and learning of the Iroquois would weaken their opposition to divulging private knowledge. The herbalists among them encouraged him to continue the hunt, and one day he chanced to see the plant growing by a house. Amazingly, a Mohawk woman whom he had hired to search for ginseng recognized it as one of the common remedies of the Iroquois, and, acting on his description of Chinese uses for it, she cured herself of a chronic fever. He promptly sent to Quebec for Jartoux’s publication and his informants readily identified the plant from the plate. Lafitau was thus the first to employ botanical plates in the field to elicit information from native informants. Ginseng was reputed as an aphrodisiac in Asia and a proven febrifuge in the New World; the published report of his 1716 discovery was to set off a hunt by collectors eager for sales that nearly eradicated the species from the St Lawrence valley and prompted attempts to grow the plant commercially both there and in France. His 1718 memoir further comments on related species of the Araliaceae – notably spikenard and sarsaparilla – which were long used by Indigenous herbalists.

Three other examples from his work on Indigenous people document his powers of observation and illustrate his ability to make theoretical inferences from field data and reading. In treating the topic of housing, he probed the Iroquois term for themselves – Builders of Lodges – and observed so carefully how longhouses were erected that his detailed description can readily be translated into an architectural rendering and compares favourably with later accounts by John Bartram (1751) and Lewis Henry Morgan (1851). Secondly, by noting the actual composition of a household he worked out what are recognized as the basic rules of Iroquois kinship and exogamy. Thirdly, he perceived how the village council of elders functions as the basic unit of Iroquois political structure and how status is equated with age-grading. Finally, noting the inferior workmanship and crankiness of the Iroquois’ elm bark canoes, which were inventions of necessity when they could not purchase birchbark canoes of superior workmanship from peoples living within the range of the canoe birch, he developed an argument of cultural speciality and ecological fit: the Algonquin were artists in birchbark and the Iroquois necessarily workers in elm bark; like the discovery of ginseng, this presentation shows a nice use of theory and fact.

Lafitau returned to France in 1717 to present a memorial at court opposing the sale of brandy to Indigenous people. He was also to secure permission for moving the mission village of Sault-Saint-Louis from the rapids to its present site, where the soil is better and the location more advantageous. In the former undertaking he was partially successful; in the latter completely.

Lafitau’s superior in Canada, Julien Garnier, made an urgent appeal for his early return on the grounds that he had a unique appreciation for the language and culture of the Iroquois. The request was evidently denied and Lafitau was kept in France. Incomplete records of correspondence in the Jesuit archives in Rome have provided further information about his activities in Europe. Presumably he went to Rome in 1718 to deliver personally the second of his petitions to the general, Tamburini, on behalf of the mission, which included an appeal for his return. Lafitau’s brother, Pierre-François, had gone to Rome earlier, and they were there together on business sometime in 1719–20. In the spring of 1720 Joseph-François was ill and his arrival in Rome was still anticipated in late October, when Tamburini congratulated him on settling some controversy within the Canada mission in the manner of his distinguished brother. In March 1721 the general wrote to Joseph-François: “It is not a small obligation that I owe for what you have accomplished in Paris; and what your brother has accomplished in Rome.” Tamburini evidently held the Lafitau brothers in high esteem, especially Pierre-François, a gifted diplomat and soon to be elevated to monsignor; he respected Joseph-François’s scientific accomplishments, and he needed someone at court in France who could get things done with the regent, Philippe, Duc d’Orléans. The administrative needs of the order thus apparently took precedence over the Canada mission: Joseph-François was kept in France and became procurator in Paris of the Jesuit missions in New France in 1722. He shared this office with Father Louis Avaugour* from 1723 to 1732 and then held it alone until 1741; this arrangement explains how Lafitau found time to write. After publishing his great work, Lafitau returned to Canada for a year between 1727 and 1729, when he is listed as superior of the Sault-Saint-Louis mission.

The Mémoire . . . concernant la précieuse plante du gin-seng . . . had been presented to the regent in 1718, and Lafitau wrote his two-volume Mœurs des sauvages amériquains . . . between 1722 and 1724. This work of comparative ethnology, again dedicated to the regent, was an immediate success and went through two printings in 1724, the first in two quarto volumes and the second in four octavo. It was soon available in Dutch (1751) and later in German. The two original volumes are of unbalanced length and emphasis. Written hastily, the work evidently got out of hand: the first volume contains a book-length chapter on religion, but only two chapters on ethnographic topics. Later Lafitau decided to issue the chapter on religion separately, and his brother, now bishop, guaranteed the printing. But after Joseph-François had secured the necessary permissions from his order and other church authorities, oddly enough the civil censor frustrated his plans. Apparently Lafitau had let some of his colleagues see the second version of the chapter; later, without giving a name, he accused one of them of pirating his ideas. At one point he had entrusted the manuscript to Father Antoine Gaubil of the China mission who kept it until after Lafitau’s death, when he wrote: “I failed at the time to read it because of other occupations. I intended to send him my views, especially with regard to China, when I was apprised of his death . . . without knowing whether his manuscript, full of citations of every kind, had been printed. . . .”

Lafitau published two other works. One, Histoire de Jean de Brienne, Roy de Jérusalem et Empereur de Constantinople (Paris, 1727), was released before he returned to Canada; it is little known and seldom seen. A two-volume Histoire des découvertes et conquestes des Portugais dans le Nouveau Monde . . . (1733) appeared after he came home to France. Frequently found in libraries, it is not just a compilation of original sources but an attempt to make available to French readers a story of exploration and adventure otherwise denied to them. In the chronicles he sees a long development of customs hitherto unnoticed, such as those described in his Mœurs. From these customs, which he said could be understood only in the original languages of the people who practised them, he builds his “system” or philosophy of history. He also revisits the relation between custom and natural history, or ecology.

Lafitau is of special interest to historians of anthropology. What sets him apart from his immediate predecessors and contemporaries is, indeed, his explicit formulation of a method for recovering the past. Without referring to dates, places, or persons, and putting himself outside of events, he used his observations in North America and a kind of evolutionary inference to illuminate the customs and practices of antiquity. Lafitau’s concept of the method of reciprocal illumination came from two kinds of sources: the literature of exploration of the New World (works by writers such as André Thevet*, Marc Lescarbot*, and José de Acosta), which compared peoples of the new and ancient worlds; and secondly, the literature on non-Christian conformities written by contemporaries and predecessors about Asian religions. But where Lafitau departed from all the grand comparators was his stress on the importance of describing cultures on their own terms. In his view the people of the New World, considered by many to be savages, were men, the Iroquois were people in their own right, and their customary ways were worthy of study. This was a new kind of primitivism that would transform generic Indians into specific Indigenous people.

Although many of his comparisons seem farfetched today, and his inferences from them unjustified, he was more competent than his contemporaries and more mature: his unique way of utilizing field observations to criticize earlier sources on the Iroquois and of employing their customs as a means of understanding the nature of ancient society and culture set him apart. The extent to which his work exceeded expectations for historiography and belonged to another genre prompted his colleague Charlevoix, himself an historian, to remark of the Mœurs, “. . . we have nothing more exact on this subject. The parallel between ancient nations and the Americans is very ingenious, and shows a great familiarity with antiquity.” Indeed it is possible that Charlevoix, who had returned to France in 1722 and was assigned to the editorial staff of the Jesuit journal, the Mémoires, at the moment when Lafitau was writing the Mœurs, was responsible for the extensive review articles that began to appear while Lafitau’s book was still in manuscript and alerted the learned world to its scope and importance (and price) while it was in press.

Largely ignored by the great minds of the Enlightenment, Lafitau’s reputation was rehabilitated by historians of ideas in 20th century, when he was discovered by Gilbert Chinard (1913) and placed him in the history of French thought. In Paris on the eve of First World War, the ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep critically appraised Lafitau and his period, applauding his systematic sense and pointing to him as an inspiration for modern French ethnology. Later, Alfred Métraux compared the outline of Lafitau’s work to a 20th-century anthropological textbook, although M. T. Hodgen demonstrated that the arrangement of his table of contents reflects the concerns of the Reformation and cultural classifications based on these concerns had become the accepted way to organize such a work. After a “Design and Plan” in two preliminary chapters, Lafitau posits an Asian origin for the Indigenous peoples of North America, considers the “Idea and Character of Savages in General,” whom he finds quite human, and then plunges into the troublesome morass of “Religion,” at last emerging to finish volume one with “Political Government” and “Marriage and Education.” Volume two opens with paired chapters on the division of labour by sex – “Occupations of Men in the Village” and “Occupations of Women,” the latter being crucial in a kinship state based on matriliny. These are followed by appropriately major chapters on “War” and “Embassies and Trade” – chief activities of Iroquois men; “Hunting and Fishing” get short shrift to our impoverishment, although “Games,” of perennial interest to the court of Versailles, rate 20 pages. There are two balanced chapters on “Sickness and Medicine” and “Death, Burial and Mourning,” representing enduring concerns of the Iroquois. The final chapter on “Language” falls short of the mark attained by his predecessors, particularly Pierre-Joseph-Marie Chaumonot* and Bruyas, and belies Garnier’s claim for Lafitau’s abilities.

But “Lafitau . . . took the first step toward ethnological research for its own sake,” as K. Birket-Smith remarked. And his contributions were not inconsiderable. He brought forward empirical evidence for exploding a notion then prevalent in Europe: that the stone implements similar to celts that he had observed Iroquois using to grind were “thunder stones.” In social organization, he discovered matriliny and outlined the classificatory kinship system of the Iroquois, which L. H. Morgan, who never read Lafitau, was to rediscover a century later. Lafitau related residence to social structure, and he indicated the importance of age-grading in differentiating the status and role of warriors and chiefs. This last contribution marked him for the social anthropologists who, from Sir John Myers to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, would claim him as a pioneer in their discipline. In his treatment of the boundaries of local government – the importance of old men in decision-making – he laid the foundations of political anthropology.

No prophet, Lafitau had his eye on the contemporary scene. That a matron had the power to make peace or war would certainly be news in Europe. And as a citizen of France under Louis XV he had learned that war is but one face of politics and the state. He probed the subtleties of Iroquois “cold war” tactics and diplomacy. He described warrior bands travelling enormous distances through sombre forests to strike a blow, lift a few scalps, take prisoners, and then fade into the wilderness. He knew of the need to replenish dwindling numbers by adopting captives rather than burning them, a choice in which women could influence the council of elders. He observed that the old men among the Iroquois had learned the advantage of federation in contending with their neighbours, and with Europeans; but he nowhere describes the League of the Five Nations as such or lists the composition of delegations to the Grand Council at Onondaga (near Syracuse, N.Y.). We should like more historical depth on surviving Iroquois political institutions. But in the area of local politics at the village level, Lafitau’s empirical observations are unexcelled. At various points Lafitau discusses the Condoling Council and its attendant customs, which he compares with those of the ancients. The guarantee of continuity for Iroquois society and polity is their custom of resuscitating the dead by symbolically passing on the name or title to a living person, who assumes the personality and duties of the deceased. This perpetuation is the purpose of the Condoling Council for the installation of chiefs, whose ritual roots we can trace to the treaty-making process and alliance systems of the first third of the 17th century.

In his own day Lafitau was a man of the past; but in his scientific contributions he belongs to the 18th century, for he was a voyageur in the mainstream of empirical ethnography.

William N. Fenton

Joseph-François Lafitau, Mémoire présenté à son altesse royale Mgr le duc d’Orléans, régent de France, concernant la précieuse plante du gin-seng de Tartarie, découverte en Amérique . . . (Paris, 1718; nouv. éd. H.-A.-J.-B. Verreau, édit., Montréal, 1858); Mœurs des sauvages amériquains, comparées aux mœurs des premiers temps (2v., Paris, 1724; 4v., Paris, 1724); Histoire des découvertes et conquestes des Portugais dans le Nouveau Monde . . . (2v., Paris, 1733); De Zeden der Wilden Van Amerika . . . (Amsterdam, 1751); “Mémoire du P. Lafitau: sur la boisson [vendue] aux sauvages,” JR (Thwaites), LXVII, 38–46.

AD, Gironde (Bordeaux), État civil, Bordeaux, 31 mai 1681. ARSI, Aquitaine 7, f.261; 12, f.318; Epist. Gen. ad diversos, 1719–1726, VI, 46; Epp. NN.; Francia 49, 79/133–34, 116, 209ff.; Gallia 65; Gallia 110, ff.133, 331–33. Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, première partie: bibliographie par les pères Augustin et Aloys de Backer; seconde partie: histoire, par Augustin Carayon, Carlos Sommervogel, édit. (11v., Bruxelles, Paris, 1890–1932). John Bartram, Observations on the inhabitants, climate, soil, rivers, productions, animals, and other matters worthy of notice, made by Mr. John Bartram, in his travels from Pensilvania to Onondago, Oswego and the Lake Ontario in Canada; to which is annex’d a curious account of the cataracts at Niagara, by Mr. Peter Kalm, a Swedish gentleman who travelled there (London, 1751). Kaj Birket-Smith, The paths of culture: a general ethnology, trans. Karin Fennow (Madison, Milwaukee, 1965). Gilbert Chinard, L’Amérique et le rêve exotique dans la littérature française au XVIIe et au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1913). J. M. Cooper, “Joseph-François Lafitau (1681–1746),” Encyclopaedia of the social sciences, ed. E. R. A. Seligman (15v., New York, 1930–35). M. T. Hodgen, Early anthropology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Philadelphia, 1964). F. E. Manuel, The eighteenth century confronts the gods (Cambridge, Mass., 1959). L. H. Morgan, League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (Rochester, N.Y., 1851). A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Method in social anthropology: selected essays, ed. M. N. Srinivas (Chicago, 1958). Rochemonteix, Les Jésuites et la N.-F. au XVIIIe siècle, III, 384–86.

Kaj Birket-Smith, “The history of ethnology in Denmark: Huxley memorial lecture for 1952,” Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Journal (London), LXXXII (1952), 115–28. W. N. Fenton, “Contacts between Iroquois herbalism and colonial medicine,” Smithsonian Institution Annual Report, 1940–41, 503–26; “J.-F. Lafitau (1681–1746), precursor of scientific anthropology,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology (Albuquerque, N. Mex.), XXV (1969), 173–87. Alfred Métraux, “Les précurseurs de l’ethnologie en France du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle,” Cahiers d’histoire mondiale/Journal of World History/Cuadernos de Historia mundial (Neuchâtel), VII (1962–63), 721–38. Léon Pouliot, “Les procureurs parisiens de la mission de la Nouvelle-France,” Lettres du Bas-Canada (Saint-Jérôme, Qué.), XXII (1968), 38–52. Arnold Van Gennep, “Contributions à l’histoire de la méthode ethnographique,” Revue de l’histoire des religions (Paris), LXVII (1913), 321–38.

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Cite This Article

William N. Fenton, “LAFITAU, JOSEPH-FRANÇOIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lafitau_joseph_francois_3E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lafitau_joseph_francois_3E.html
Author of Article:   William N. Fenton
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1974
Year of revision:   2023
Access Date:   June 18, 2024