The story of the tribes of the United States is one of colonization and disenfranchisement. For hundreds of years, the tribes were subject to pressures from newcomers to their lands. Explorers, missionaries, traders, settlers, all manner of other people seeking to claim land, and take resources from the tribes. This story is well written in hundreds of volumes. The story of the missionaries to the tribes is part of that story of colonization. Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Calvinists, Jesuits, and Black Robes, to name a few, all came to the tribes and worked in many ways to save them from themselves, by destroying their cultures.
The American Catholic church was in competition with the Protestants for converts from the tribes. In the Northwest, the Catholics counted the converted and their success by how many they baptized. At the same time, reports suggested that the Christian religions were not taking hold and Natives continued their cultures. In the late 1850s, the United States began its policy of removing tribes to reservations. Part of their plan was then to subject the tribes to assimilation. Adult men and women were expected to take up recognized trades, farmers, ranchers, housekeepers, and cooks. While the children were taken into reservation schools, all operated by priests in the various faiths. The United States assigned each reservation one of the principal churches for their missionaries to operate the school and attend to the populations. Grand Ronde, Oregon received the Catholic missionaries, while Siletz was assigned the Methodist missionaries. Normally the priests would have an order of sisters to do the actual teaching.
In Oregon in 1860, at the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation came a Catholic missionary, Reverend Adrian Croquet. Reverend “Crockett” as he became known, was trained at the American university at the University of Louvain (Universite Catholique de Louvain, UCL) , as one of the first missionaries to be trained to be sent out into the world and save Native peoples. His mission was to save the souls of the Indian people at the reservation and attend to the spiritual needs of a wide region of all manner of peoples. His church, St. Michael’s, built with native labor in 1860 has now stood in Grand Ronde for over 150 years, even after burned down twice. His territory ranged to the coast, from Coos Bay to the Tillamook region, and into the Willamette valley to attend to the Catholic people. For over 40 years he lived at the Grand Ronde Reservation and experienced poverty and hardship along with the Indians.
The American College was created to train a cadre of missionaries to go out into the world and save the Indigenous peoples of the world. Graduates went into every continent and many went on to great fame. The college was supported by funding from various American archdioceses, including the Archdiocese of Oregon City, with the express purpose of producing more missionaries to help in the grand project of saving the indigenous peoples. Many of these missionaries were very interested in native languages and would become proficient in the languages and write dictionaries.
In the 1870s Croquet was experiencing some hardship. Reports suggest he lived a spare existence and even gave away his food and money to help the Indians. He needed help and asked of his family in Belgium to send someone to help him. They sent Francis Mercier, a nephew, to attend to his needs as he traveled about the land. Francis is now a figure of some fame at the reservation as he married into the tribe, to Marie Petit, the daughter of a Chinook woman and a French Canadian fur trader. In the 1890s, Croquet retired from his work and returned to Belgium to live out his days with his sister.
Reverend Croquet, by all accounts, was a good man, a good human being and did what he could to help the Indians. His efforts and life’s work did contribute greatly to the policy of assimilating the Indian tribes through eliminating their tribal cultures. Each successive generation at the tribe would become less traditional, as their children were forced into reservations schools first, and then later, boarding schools. The tribal culture was forced out of the people and people began accepting their new lives within the United States. In 1907 many of the tribal members became Americans after accepting a fee simple title to their allotment lands. In 1924 all Natives became Americans under the American Indian Citizenship act. Tribal culture did not die, as some individuals practiced their traditions into the termination era (1954) and continue them today. Yet assimilation at boarding schools continued in Oregon at Chemawa Indian School and at dozens of other boarding schools across the nation, even though the people were Americans. The impact of assimilation is felt in the lack of a diversity of Native languages at the tribe- reduction from 27 native languages to 1 remaining- in the lack of knowledge of tribal culture by a good number of people, and by the loss of a working knowledge of our immediate histories.
The next generation of the Mercier family of Belgium begins another history of assimilation which stands in stark irony to Rev. Croquet’s work among Native American tribes.
Another nephew of Rev. Croquet, Desire Felicien-Francois Joseph Mercier, followed in the footsteps of his uncle and attended the University of Louvain in Belgium. There Joseph Mercier did not attend the American College as his uncle had, but instead went into mathematics and philosophy. He taught mathematics and philosophy and even wrote extensively and excelled. Joseph Mercier became a professor at the Malines Seminary and later he was able to secure a new chair of Thomist philosophy at the University of Louvain with the aid of the Pope in 1888. (Kellogg, 1920 , p. 29) Joseph Mercier rose quickly in the ranks of the Catholic Church in Belgium. In 1906 he became the Cardinal of Malines. His full titles were Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, Archbishop of Mechlin, Primate of Belgium.
In 1914 the German military occupied Belgium and established a governor there. During this time the Belgians revolted in many ways, frustrating the German military. The Germans retaliated and destroyed libraries and starved the people. Cardinal Mercier went on the offensive and began pleading for the rights of his Belgian people for food. He carried on a campaign of letters with the German governor for the rights of his people, and he wrote all manner of critiques of the colonization and imperialism of Belgium. Cardinal Mercier even wrote one of the first 20th century treatises on human rights “Patriotism and Endurance.” For his actions, Cardinal Mercier became the hero to the Belgian people, a hero of WWI. He was very outspoken against the slavery imposed on the Belgian people, when by 1916, the Germans were deporting them to work in camps. “Cardinal Mercier led the bishops in a stark condemnation of “European slavery.” He concluded one appeal, “May human conscience triumph over all sophisms and remain steadfastly faithful to the great precept of St. Ambrose: Honor above everything!” Smuggled out of the country in 1916, Mercier’s appeals became famous worldwide, and inspired sympathetic mass rallies and demonstrations, including a single visit to New York to influence the then-neutral United States.”
It is an undeniable tragedy that Belgium was devastated by Germany during WWI. The colonization and destruction of the cultural icons of Belgium was a travesty and It was absolutely the right of all Belgians to stand up and be very critical and take action to protect their sovereignty and lifeways. This is undeniable.
Most interesting is the ironic situation of the role of Reverend Croquet at the Grand Ronde Reservation in comparison with the role of Cardinal Mercier in Europe.
The role of the missionaries to Indian country was to save the Natives from their heathen culture, to assimilate them and their offspring to Catholic or Christian ways. The United States Government borrowed the early models of the missionaries, of industrial schools and of the missionary’s role of saving and civilizing the natives, into the mission and purpose of the boarding schools. The boarding schools were established to assimilate Indian children from Native culture to American culture. Just before assimilation, the tribes were removed from their lands, placed on reservations and forced to adapt to American cultural traditions of agriculture and wage labor. The tribes were imprisoned on these reservations for many decades and not allowed to leave without passes, they being considered violent and not Americans. Tribal sovereignty and agency were taken away and all parts of their lives were administered by the federal government.
The missionaries to Indian country were a part of this colonization effort on behalf of American colonization of the Oregon Territory. While a few decades later a distinguished member of the same family working for the Catholic Church was decrying the colonization of Belgium by Germany. The situation was then reversed, as he had to fight for the rights of his people.
In the world, there are lines and borders around what constitutes oppression and colonization. The wars with the Indian tribes, however subtle, worked to destroy them in favor of American colonization. These wars are seen historically as a righteous action on the part of the United States, as it was their Manifest Destiny of Americans to take the whole of America. While when a similar situation happened in Europe, then it is immoral, unethical, and an illegal act of war and seen by the world thereafter as a great wrong. In Europe, Cardinal Mercier is forever cast in a glorious light of civilization and reason, while many of the Tribal chiefs, who fought against genocide and oppression of their people, were jailed because of their role in fighting against American colonization of their lands.
It is a distinct pleasure for me personally to have this distinguished ancestor in my genealogy. I am a direct descendant of Francis Mercier, a cousin to Cardinal Mercier. In my immediate family history, my father directly benefited from his relations with the cardinal. During the Vietnam War, my father was stationed for a time in Germany. There he had occasion to travel across Europe and through Belgium. One story he passed down was when he entered a tavern in Belgium and mentioned he was related to Cardinal Mercier, and after that everyone bought him drinks.
This story to me is more closely genealogy. The work is so much easier when there is a famous relative that dozens of scholars have written about extensively. There are about a dozen books about Cardinal Mercier, a few others about Reverend Croquet. As such the genealogy of the Mercier family for me is extended back to the 11th century in France.
Final note: the Mercier family must have very powerful genes as there are dozens of people at the Grand Ronde Reservation descendants of Francis Mercier who resemble Cardinal Mercier in many ways.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.