“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  Countless people have grown up around this adage.  Its purpose is to teach children to let meaningless things, like name-calling, role off their backs.  Unfortunately, as we become older we learn that words are not meaningless.  Names can hurt more than sticks and stones, and the consequences of that hurt can be far deeper than a few scrapes and bruises.  To name equals being in control, which is a power that can quickly be abused.

In twentieth-century western culture the issue of naming is black and white.  However, when we look at this subject in the past the clear distinction seen in modern society becomes much more grey.  The temptation for modern scholars and students of European-American contact is to read these types of words in primary documents and employ their modern definitions.  By doing this the historian is essentially parachuting a document from the past into the present – reviving historical actors to an age totally foreign to them – and putting their words in the present-day political rhetoric.  Sometimes this can be done without consequence, but most often such successes have more to do with luck than the historian’s rigour.

For the historian, every word in a document must be suspect, no assumptions made, no modern context employed without substantial reason.  A word, or in this case a name, must be deconstructed.  First, the historian must search for definitions in the historiography and primary material.  Then (s)he must look at what other synonyms have been used to convey the same idea, or type of people, to the reader.  Once the direct usage of the word has been considered it is also important to learn its background.  What types of notions are these writers appealing to when using the word?  What was the contemporary definition in dictionaries and other published works?  The historian must also look at the context in which various authors have used the word.  What was their purpose in writing and the message that they were trying to get across?  With this kind of analysis the historian can then begin to understand how a word was used in the past and its general meaning at that time.

Olive Dickason has written, “during the seventeenth century, French and English writers were calling all the inhabitants of the New World savages, whether they were descended from the court poets of the city-states of Central and South America, or were nomadic hunters…”[1] Each chapter of this thesis has countered this statement by showing the variety of titles, other than sauvage and savage, that Champlain and Smith used to refer to the North American people.  In order to add greater understanding to this discussion this appendix provides two charts representing vocabulary used to refer to the aboriginal people, the contemporary definitions of each of those words, and a brief historiographical discussion of the terms sauvage and savage.

1. Smith and Champlain’s Vocabulary


Des Sauvages True Relation Voyages (1613) Desc. New Eng. Voyages (1632) Gen. Hist.
Sauvage/Salvage 94 12 133 19 83 202
Indien/Indian N/A 42 1 1 1 7
Peuple/People 4 23 16 13 18 79
Habitant/Inhabitant N/A 3 2 1 2 13
Barbare/Barbarian N/A N/A 1 N/A 1 2
Infidele/Infidel N/A 1 N/A N/A 3 1
Other 3 N/A 23[2] N/A 14 2
Total 101 81 176 34 122 306
Length of Text (pg)[3] 49 35 123 38 86 166


Des Sauvages True Relation Voyages (1613) Desc. New Eng. Voyages (1632) Gen. Hist.
Sauvage/Salvage 93 15 76 56 68 66
Indien/Indian 0 52 0.5 3 1 2
Peuple/People 4 28 9 38 15 26
Habitant/Inhabitant N/A 4 1 3 2 4
Barbare/Barbarian N/A N/A 0.5 N/A 1 1
Infidele/Infidel N/A 1 N/A N/A 2 N/A
Other 3 N/A 13 N/A 11 1
References per pg.[4] 2.1 2.3 1.4 1 1.4 1.8

2. Seventeenth-Century Definitions[5]


Fr: Of certain people who ordinarily live in the woods, without religion, without law, and without fixed abode, and are more beasts than men.  (Les peuples sauvages de l’Amerique, de l’Affrique &c.) In this sense, it is also a noun. (Les Sauvages de l’Amerique. il a vescu long-temps parmi les Sauvages, un Sauvage.)

Eng: 1) A person living in the lowest state of development or cultivation; an uncivilized, wild person.

2) A cruel or fierce person. Also, one who is destitute of culture, or who is ignorant or neglectful of the rules of good behaviour.


Fr: Not in Dictionary

Eng:  A member of any of the aboriginal races of America or the West Indies; an American Indian. Also, examples of American Indian.


Fr: Collective term.  Multitude of men from the same country, who live under the same laws.  (Le peuple Hebreu. le peuple Juif. le peuple d’Israël. le peuple Hebreu a esté appellé le Peuple de Dieu. le peuple Romain. les peuples d’Orient. les peuples Asiatiques. les peuples du Nord. les peuples de Provence, de Dauphiné, &c. Tous les peuples de la terre.)

Eng: 1. A body of persons composing a community, tribe, race, or nation;

2) The persons belonging to a place, or constituting a particular concourse, congregation, company, or class.

3) The common people, the commonalty; the mass of the community as distinguished from the nobility and ruling or official classes.


Fr: It is also a noun and has many more uses than the adjective. (Les habitans de la campagne. on assembla les habitans de la ville. les habitans de ce bourg. habitans d’un tel pays.) One says poetically. (Les habitants des forests. les habitants de l’air, pour dire, Les bestes sauvages, les oiseaux.)

Eng: One who inhabits; a human being or animal dwelling in a place; a permanent resident.


Fr: In every sense, Sauvage, who has neither law nor good manners. (C’est un peuple barbare. l’irruption des barbares. les Tartares, les Yroquois sont de vrais barbares.) It also signifies cruel, inhuman.  (Ame barbare. n’attendez aucune misericorde, aucune grace de ces gens-là, ce sont des barbares.)

Eng: 1) etymologically, A foreigner, one whose language and customs differ from the speaker’s.
2) Hist. a. One not a Greek.    b. One living outside the pale of the Roman empire and its civilization, applied especially to the northern nations that overthrew them.    c. One outside the pale of Christian civilization.    d. With the Italians of the Renascence: One of a nation outside of Italy. 3) A rude, wild, uncivilized person.


Fr: Not available in dictionary

Eng: 1) One who does not believe in (what the speaker holds to be) the true religion;

2) A disbeliever in religion or divine revelation generally; especially one in a Christian land who professedly rejects or denies the divine origin and authority of Christianity; a professed unbeliever. Usually a term of opprobrium.

3. Historiography of Sauvage/Savage

There is a general consensus among historians that the French word sauvage alludes to the European folkloric image of the “wild people of the forest.”  Peter Moogk has described the image to be one of a people who are “physically powerful, yet ignorant of religion, government, and civil society.”[6] Olive Dickason added to this picture by describing these ‘wild people’ as living “away from society, beyond the pale of its laws, without fixed abode, by analogy, one who is rude and fierce.”[7] C.E.S. Franks wrote that is seems “quite likely in 1600 ‘savage’ in English was closer in connotations to the ‘uncivilized’ of the French ‘sauvage’ than it is today, though even then its English usage often included connotations of ferocity and brutishness.”[8] These definitions are fitting with the definitions provided in section two of this appendix.  However, this term has also taken on more negative connotations.  Later in her book Dickason went beyond this traditional definition by suggesting that this image was also “a folk version of Antichrist,”[9] and that Europeans of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period believed ‘wild people’ could turn into apes.[10] And Francis Jennings has noted, “The word savage thus underwent considerable alteration of meaning as different colonists pursued their varied ends… One aspect of the term remained constant, however: the savage was always inferior to civilized man.”[11] What is interesting about these interpretations, no matter how negative the connotations, is that they all appeal to European folklore before Europeans ever travelled to America.  They are firmly based in Natalie Zemon Davis’ first strategy, outlined in the introduction.  This fact should give impetus for historians to dig deeper into how savage and sauvage were applied in America, by heeding her call for “absolute simultaneity” in the approach to this subject.

Before coming to the North American situation, however, one must look deeper into the European background of the word.  Both Cornelius Jaenen and Peter Goddard have found some connection between Europe and North America in their research.  Jaenen has noted, “the concept of civility derived from the urban civitas, implying that the rural or forest dwellers were beyond the influence of the arts and learning of the towns.”[12] Goddard has shown that the patterns of Jesuit evangelism mirrored that of the French countryside, “The pattern of mission among the Montagnais – the work of instructing, reshaping, and reforming this pagan community – differed little from the blueprint suggested for the re-christianization of the French countryside.”[13] This parallel has led many scholars to draw the conclusion that at least the face value of the word, as applied to the aboriginals of North America, “meant not French and not Christian, and not much more.”[14]

This is a rather limited approach, and a number of scholars have sought much more meaning from these early modern words.  The main stumbling point for these seventeenth-century words is their link to the modern English savage. Franks has shown that at the most fundamental level these words were not synonyms, and he chastised those historians who have replaced sauvage with savage in English translations of French documents. To make his argument, Franks went back to the root of the word, salvaticus, or silvaticus in classical Latin, meaning from a tree, woodland, or wild.[15] From this root, Franks suggested, “the French word sauvage designates something not cultivated by human intervention, from outside of civilized society, or wild as in wild flowers, or deep woods.”[16] With similar issues in mind Allan Greer, in his recent anthology of the Jesuit Relations, has noted: “The most problematic term proved to be sauvage, which the Thwaites team rendered as ‘savage.’  I decided that the English term Indian gives a better sense of the connotations of sauvage, except in a few cases where the Jesuits wanted to emphasize savagery.”[17] Again, these types of observations and decisions reinforce the folkloric roots of the word sauvage, and suggest that the early European arrivals to North America employed the word for lack of a better descriptor.

Further compounding this issue is that not everyone agrees with this soft interpretation of sauvage. Mi’kmaq author and columnist Daniel Paul has written:

The word ‘savage’ (sauvage in French)… is a reflection of the racial biases that Europeans harboured at the time.  The word was not then and is not now a fitting description… we must assume that the early writers used the term because of their belief in the superiority of their own race.  In other words they were racist.  Their belief that European civilization was the most superior in the world prevented them from forming unbiased opinions about civilizations that clearly had certain human values superior to their own.[18]

Paul’s words are important for historians to bear in mind, as he wrote not only of the use of the word in the past but also of its legacy in the present.  How aboriginal communities feel about the use of the word is just as important to this discussion as the historiography.

The well-respected historians Cornelius Jaenen, Francis Jennings, and Bernard Sheehan hold similar views.  While acknowledging the issues that Greer and Franks have presented, Jaenen does not feel that they should be used as excuses for French action or diction.  Jaenen explained, “In whatever way Amerindians were viewed, the consensus was definitely that they were unpolished savages, and therefore presented a challenge to Frenchmen to civilize them and impart to them religion, arts and culture of Europe’s leading civilization.”[19] Likewise, Jennings and Sheehan have observed that the fundamental use of savagism was in opposition to civility.[20] In comparison with Franks, who does not adhere to this harder definition, these scholars, although most likely agreeing with Franks’ statement, would think that such a definition still involves a negative projection of the aboriginal people.  To make them European and Christian was culturally destructive and therefore part of the overall negative effect of a foreign presence on the aboriginal population.  Both groups, then, use the same evidence and yet have drawn different conclusions from it.  Franks tends to be softer, perhaps because his work was comparative, whereas Paul and Jaenen are harsher but look mainly at a single European projection and its impact on the indigenous population of North America.  It is the purpose of this discussion to sort through this fundamental disagreement in the scholarship.

Perhaps the principal problem for most scholars, however, is that the vast majority of people who interacted with the native people of North America wrote nothing of their experiences.  Most coureurs de bois, donnés, and fishers did not record their impressions or interactions with the aboriginal people, and yet these were the men who came into closest contact with the First Nations.  Although their voices are continuously absent from all discussion of early modern vocabulary, Gordon Sayre believes that these men were essential players in creating the image that people saw in France.  According to Sayre, truchements (boys who stayed in aboriginal communities) and coureurs de bois “were responsible for the wealth of accurate observations of the Amerindians by French writers because they forged the contacts, even if they did not write many of the narratives, and they set the pattern whereby knowledge of Indian cultures and customs was considered essential to the success of the colony.”[21] Although we know little about how these people understood the aboriginal people, it is important to note that for them the sauvage or savage was most likely just a name – as these were people who in some cases shared their lives together – its meaning merely a geographic representation.  However, their importance to this subject should not be underestimated and more work needs to be done in this area.

Of those who wrote most positively of the aboriginal people was Marc Lescarbot.  Lescarbot, a fairly well known lawyer in Paris, was classically educated and well read.  Throughout his Histoire de la Nouvelle France he made statements that few Europeans, from any kingdom, parallel.  For example, Lescarbot wrote,“c’est à grand tort qu’on dit d’eux que ce sont des bestes, gens cruels, & sans raison.”[22] With this reasoning in mind Lescarbot recorded a few pages later that “en consideration de l’humanité, & que ces peuples desquels nous avons à parler sont hommes comme nous, nous avons deqouy estre incités au desir d’entendre leurs façons de vivre & mœurs…”[23] What is most interesting about his work is that despite his positive statements, he continually employed the word sauvage – suggesting that there were few alternatives for writers to use.  However, he also provided some insight that on top of the geographic considerations discussed earlier in this appendix, his definition of sauvage also included an element of physical depiction.  A few lines after the previous quotation he wrote, “par la consideration de leur deplorable condition nous venions à remercier Dieu…”[24] However, rather than an implicit value judgement, it appears that Lescarbot was making a physical observation of the aboriginal standard of living rather than an overall statement of the civility of a group of people.  The First Nations remain for him “autant d’humanité, & plus d’hospitalité que nous.”[25]

There does not seem to have been an exact definition for sauvage or savage in the early modern period.  James Axtell emphasized this when he wrote, “the key term of reference [to savage] is civilize, which by circular definition means ‘to bring out of a state of barbarism’… and barbarous is defined no more helpfully as ‘rude, savage,’ the opposite of ‘civilized.’ In other words, the meanings of all these terms depend on an imaginary construct, a social-evolutionary hierarchy in the speaker’s mind which has no objective or historical reality.”[26] Civility and savagery were not, and are not, entrenched in positive and negative connotations.  As the historiography of the Renaissance has made clear, there were plenty of people in Europe who were disenchanted with civilization as it appeared in Europe.[27] Rather, Axtell was highlighting the respect that historians must give to their historical subjects, by treating them as individuals whose vocabulary varied pending on education and circumstance.

The bulk of this appendix has sought to show that for both people living in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the historians who have written about them, there existed many different connotations of the word sauvage. In this way both the historical context and the historiography are intertwined.  Thus creating the need for each image/definition and historiographical understanding to be braided together in order to understand the full meaning of each word. This is an image that serves the end of this discussion well.

The braided approach to understanding the words savage and sauvage provides for a dynamic synthesis of all these different perspectives.  A complete understanding of the subject cannot be had without the realization that people can change and that actions do not always reflect opinion.  Cornelius Jaenen has shown the dangers of basing any analysis merely on the vocabulary of various historical actors.  “Those who held favourable views of Amerindian qualities might still justify their enslavement, their segregation, or their exclusion from holy orders,” Jaenen wrote; “so also, those who had a very low opinion of Amerindians’ intellectual capacity and character might advocate humane treatment and equitable political and economic accommodations.”[28] An evolving relationship with, and therefore evolving perspective of, the aboriginal people caused part of this situation.  Later in his book Jaenen wrote, “the opinions of the French were circumscribed by three factors: tradition, experience, and expectations… Tradition and expectations, while influencing their comments, were shaken by sustained contact which brought a realization of the divergence between their image of the New World and the reality of that world.”[29] By constantly evolving, the image of the sauvage remained for some people steeped in the tradition of European folklore, while for others it was more negative – based on the standard of living – and for others it was more positive – most often involving the moral situation in Europe.  Although at some times one of these images would dominate more than others, all of these images existed at the same time among English and French adventurers.[30] Karen Kupperman put this concept best when she wrote, “The European-American relationship must be visualized not as steadily, though unevenly, growing knowledge of a constant reality, but rather as a many-stranded spiral of discourse that transformed all participants.”[31] There was never any one definition of sauvage or savage that was universally accepted during this period in Europe and North America’s history.

The braided understanding of sauvage complicates this subject.  Jaenen wrote, “Even within the works of a single author, or of a single book, contradictory images and interpretations abounded.  The reality was greater than the cadres employed to render it intelligible.”[32] This statement holds true for the sauvage.  Through examining the issues surrounding the use of the word, it is apparent that one cannot merely define sauvage by appealing to the folkloric image, but rather one must look at the term during this period as one synonymous with “the inhabitants of North America.”  To make this point C.E.S. Franks took his readers through a linguistic exercise removing sauvage from the text.  What he found was that many of the negative connotations associated with the text fell away.  Daniel Paul has reached the same conclusion.  After chastising historical actors for using sauvage, Paul wrote, “The glimpses of the Mi’kmaq offered by Lescarbot, Biard, Denys, and Le Clerq do not reveal an uncultured, uncivilized and barbarous people.  Instead, they show a sensitive, generous, caring and progressive people who had not developed their technologies as fast as they had developed the social fabric of their societies.”[33] It appears that for many the early modern use of this term is a stumbling block preventing readers from seeing a clearer picture of the relationship between the French, English and Aboriginal peoples.

[1] Olive P. Dickason, Myth of the Savage, (Edmonton, University of Alberta, 1984), 65.

[2] This entry is so large because of the size of the text and also because of greater word vocabulary.  Included here are the words nation, compagnons, and gens, which are often used in reference to a term listed elsewhere on this chart.

[3] The page count for Champlain’s work has been divided in two because Biggar’s edition splits the page into French and English.

[4] These numbers do not accurately portray the amount of space given to the aboriginal people, but rather this presents a rough estimate of how frequently the author needed to clarify about whom he was speaking.  Most often these words were only employed at the beginning of a discussion and then pronouns replaced each word in the rest of the text.

[5] The French definitions have been translated by myself and are from the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 1st Edition (1694) found at The ARTFL Project, The University of Chicago, http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/efts/ARTFL/projects/dicos/ and the English definitions are from the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary. (www.oed.com)

[6] Peter N. Moogk, La Nouvelle France, (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 2000), 17.

[7] Dickason, 63.

[8] C.E.S. Franks, “In Search of the Savage Sauvage: An Exploration into North America’s Political Cultures,” American Review of Canadian Studies, vol. 32 no. 4 (2002), 549.

[9] Dickason, 72.

[10] Dickason, 73.

[11] Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest, (Chapel Hill, N.C. 1975), 59.

[12] Cornelius Jaenen, “‘Les Sauvages Ameriquains:’ Persistence into the 18th Century of Traditional French Concepts and Constructs for Comprehending Amerindians,” Ethnohistory, vol. 29 no. 1 (Winter 1982), 46.

[13] Peter Goddard, “Converting the Sauvage: Jesuit and Montagnais in Seventeenth Century France,” Catholic Historical Review, vol. 84 no. 2 (April 1998), accessed online without page numbers.

[14] Franks, 551.

[15] Franks, 548.

[16] Franks, 548.

[17] Allan Greer,(ed.), The Jesuit Relations, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), vi.

[18] Daniel N. Paul, We were not the Savages, (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2000), 41.

[19] Jaenen, Friend and Foe: Aspects of French-Amerindian Cultural Contact in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976), 190.

[20] Jennings, 59 and Bernard Sheehan, Savagism and Civility: Indians and Englishmen in Colonial Virginia, (Cambridge, 1980), 1-3.

[21] Gordon Sayre, Les Sauvages Américains, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 7.

[22] Marc Lescarbot, The History of New France, W.L. Grant and H.P. Biggar (eds.), 3 vols, (Toronto, 1907-1914), 3. My Translation: “it is a big lie when one says they are beasts, cruel men, and without reason.”

[23] Lescarbot, 7. My Translation: “in consideration of their humanity, and that these people of whom we speak are men like us, we are incited with desire to learn their way of life and morals.”

[24] Lescarbot, 7. My Translation: “by the consideration of their deplorable condition we come to thank God…”

[25] Lescarbot, 3. My Translation: “equally human, and more hospitable than us.”

[26] James Axtell, After Columbus, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 39.

[27] See Andrew Fitzmaurice, Humanism and America, (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2003).

[28] Jaenen, Friend and Foe, 16.

[29] Jaenen, Friend and Foe, 34.

[30] For a greater discussion see the introduction.

[31] Kupperman, (ed.), America European Consciousness, (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1995), 5.

[32] Jaenen, “‘Les Sauvages Ameriquains’,” 46.

[33] Paul, 42.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s