From magical bags to escape tricks, Native American sorcerers played a role in the daily lives of tribes in North America, a role that would come into direct conflict with Christian missionaries arriving with European settlers. One of these “black robes” was Fr. Francis Xavier Pierz, a Slovenian-born priest who arrived in the 1830s.

If your German ancestors moved to Minnesota during the mid-1800s, Fr. Pierz may have played a part. He wrote articles in German-language newspapers urging immigrants to settle in Minnesota, which he viewed as one of the best new territories in Die Vereinigten Staaten. He also wrote a book, Die Indianer in Nord-Amerika, to both describe the Native Americans and the land in Minnesota.

In the grand scheme of European immigration into native lands, Pierz was respected by the tribes he encountered. In translating this work I’ve found that this respect was mutual. Swaying native Americans from sorcery was one of the tasks Father Pierz encountered in his mission, and he details it at length in this book. So without further ado, here is the translation.

Sorcery and Divination Among the Wild Indians

I know that describing sorcery to the unbelieving world nowadays only evokes laughter and sarcasm because all tales of magic are considered humbug, and belief in actual sorcery is not entertained. However, this is not the case. Faith teaches us, and the Bible mentions in several places in the Old and New Testaments, the reality of sorcery among evil people. Moreover, secular history provides us with numerous tales of sorcery confirmed by legal witnesses and authorized commissions, as can be read in the famous work of the highly learned Görres.

I am so convinced of the actual existence of sorcery among the wild heathens through experience and many reliable witnesses that I cannot doubt it at all.

I cannot provide a complete history of Indian sorcery here, but only what I could glean from it or learn from reliable experts.

Sorcery among the Indians is an ancient religious institution and an exclusive society, much like the Carbonari or Freemason orders among the whites. They often hold secret gatherings in the forest, where no one except the actual members may be present. The sorcerer order has five degrees, which the candidate must go through after long examination and initiation ceremonies by the old sorcerers, to whom, upon each advancement in degree, he must provide a feast and many gifts.

At the very first entry level, the candidate must swear many oaths never to adopt the Christian faith and, under penalty of death, never to reveal any secrets of the society to anyone else. At each higher level, he is taught various sorceries at a sorcerer assembly and learns more society secrets. Only in the final grade is the new member given a small stone, called a “swallowing stone,” and an evil spirit is invoked for mutual service. If the swallowing stone comes out of the body within two days, it is a sign that the evil spirit does not want to serve him. But if it remains in the body, he can converse with the demon and ask for its advice in all necessary cases. However, if the swallowing stone comes out of his mouth, the sorcerer must die immediately. This has its proven accuracy through experience. Who should doubt that the evil person, through God’s permission, could enter into an immediate pact with the evil spirit as punishment for his disbelief and voluntary surrender to Satan, in order to practice devilish deeds to the detriment of the world according to his inspiration, until the hand of God’s justice strikes him and puts an end to his sorcery?

The common occupation of sorcerers is to either deceive the simple ignorant Indians through natural arts and secret tricks with various magical formulas, or to accomplish what they are paid for through actual devilry. These audacious deceivers peddle their black art and magic acts or healing practices everywhere; sometimes they are called from 2 to 3 days away and used only for harm.

However, they also sometimes bring healing remedies and attribute a natural cure or accidental recovery to the visibly practiced sorceries and the work of the devil, for which they demand such high payment, equivalent to a human life, that everything valuable in the house becomes their property. I witnessed such a case once: one such charlatan was called to a person suffering from gout; he placed a piece of red flannel on her forehead, on top of which he applied a plaster made from a root known to me to be very poisonous, and covered the head and the entire body of the patient in bed with many blankets and covers.

However, as the poison began to act homoeopathically on the sick body, the patient experienced a great rush of blood and sweat, causing her frail nerves and veins to naturally expand, resulting in a steady circulation of blood and a temporary recovery.

After the sorcerer had finished his grand idolatrous feast, he lifted the head covering, pointed out blood drops on the forehead, and said, “Now behold the illness expelled in blood drops, which I will send to the person who afflicted your daughter with the sickness.” However, the red drops were nothing but color spots driven from the flannel by warm sweat.

Thus, it was a natural improvement for an indefinite period, accomplished under certain spell formulas, and the proud doctor returned home well rewarded for saving a life. Here, a natural semblance of healing was combined with deception. However, countless examples exist where sorcerers have evidently demonstrated true collaboration with evil spirits.

It is customary among the Otchipwe and other wild tribes that when a sorcerer is requested for the healing of a sick person, divination, or other magical works, he first constructs a hut before the crowd. He firmly places 6-8 arm-thick poles, 10 feet high, deeply into the ground in a parallel circular formation, and secures them firmly in the middle with strong ropes so that they cannot wobble.

Ojibwe Chiefs of the 19th century. The Ojibwe were one of several tribes encountered by Fr. Pierz

Then the sorcerer allows himself to be tightly bound by anyone present, at the hands, feet, and around his entire body, using cords, ropes, chains, and other bindings, further wrapping him tightly with a fishing net and then unwinding it with straps; he is gagged so tightly that no one could free him without cutting through the many knots, making it impossible for him to untie himself. Finally, he is pushed into the magic hut, which is wrapped with mats, blankets, and other coverings so that no one can see in or out.

After a few minutes, the sorcerer begins to throw his bindings out through the upper opening of his hut in such a way that the meshes and knots of his bindings, as they were fastened to his body, remain untied, which everyone must admire. Furthermore, the magic hut starts to shake so strongly that it bends on all sides with the height reaching to the ground, which human strength cannot achieve.

All of this is supposed to serve as proof to those present that the obedient spirit of the sorcerer is causing all this to happen, that it is in league with him and serves him.

Finally, the sorcerer begins to answer questions posed by those who have hired him for sorcery, divination, or healing of a sick person.

However, the answers given by the evil spirit are often of such a nature that they lead to the worst consequences, such as discord, hatred, persecution, and very often acts of murder.

Although I have not personally witnessed this sorcery practice, which is very common among the wild Otchipwe, I have received confirmation from many hundreds of eyewitnesses.

Several Canadian Frenchmen told me that the late Bishop Prevalcheg, when traveling over Red Lac with a priest, intrigued by curiosity aroused by the idolatrous drum, wanted to witness such a form of sorcery, and approached the sorcerer’s hut, but the obedient spirit would not answer the sorcerer until they had to request the bishop to depart.

Another case related to me by several reliable eyewitnesses here was that a Catholic Frenchman had made a bet with a sorcerer that the obedient spirit would not be able to free him if he, the Catholic, bound him. The Frenchman simply tied the sorcerer’s hands behind his back with his scarf, secretly wrapping a consecrated crucifix in it, and indeed won the bet.

Another similar case is widely known here. About seven years ago, an Otchipwe Indian murdered a white man; he was captured and led in irons to court; however, in Crow-Wing, he magically removed the sturdy iron shackles and escaped. He was apprehended again and placed in the same irons, upon which a well-known Catholic woman wrapped a small consecrated crucifix in a cloth, after which the Indian could no longer escape.

I believe these mentioned tales of sorcery only based on the testimony and assurance of many entirely reliable witnesses. However, I have also been sufficiently convinced of the reality of sorcery and demonic influence through my own experiences. Among the Ottawa Nation, I personally knew five sorcerers with whom I often conversed amiably in order to diminish their influence in my missions, instructing them in the faith, attempting to convert them, and threatening them with severe punishments from God.

Through this, I achieved my goal and considerably curtailed demonic sorcery there. The sorcerers, ashamed and intimidated, mostly ceased their sorcery and soon died, one after another. The first drowned in a storm on Lake Michigan, the second died of cholera on the way home from Mackinac to Grand Traverse. The third died a good death in Lacroix after receiving baptism. After he drowned, I made vain efforts for three days to win over the sick man to the faith through instruction and encouragement, but his heart remained as hard as a rock towards conversion; feeling quite discouraged, I almost thought I would have to abandon his poor soul to the devil.

However, one last and best recourse occurred to me: I invited the entire village community to join in a communal prayer in the church for his conversion, I said Mass for him, and behold the good effect, the infinite mercies of God were granted to him; for when I came to his sickbed immediately after Mass, he reached out both hands to me with tearful eyes and said, “My father, now I recognize my ingratitude, that I have resisted your teaching and the great grace of the Great Spirit for so long; I repent of my vices, accept myself as a Christian, reconcile with the Great Spirit, and baptize me so that I may go to heaven after death.” The sick man was solemnly baptized after comforting instruction and died a Christian on the same day.

The conversion of this hard-hearted sorcerer provided me with evidence of the strength of the communal prayer of the faithful, of how gracious the sacrifice of Christ is. His good death had a very salutary effect on the conversion of the other heathens.

The following year, when I made a journey on foot over 50 miles to Grand Traverse to visit the Christians, I encountered the fourth Indian sorcerer near the village beyond the bay, and asked him where he was going. He told me he was going to fetch boxes for his sugar refinery. However, I replied to him, “You have lied, for you are going to fetch your magic bag from the forest and once again practice your sorcery, perhaps on a Christian.” But he swore to me that he would never do it again. I then explained to him that if he dared to try his magic arts on my Christians again, his evil spirit would kill him with God’s permission.

This speech brought him into visible consternation, on which occasion I vividly presented to him the unfortunate death of his first two friends and the fortunate death of the third comrade, and asked him kindly, “Will you then accept my faith and convert to God?” He smiled in response, saying, “Pama, pama” (later, later). But I replied, “Ka wika, ka wika” (never, never), shook hands with him for the last time, and we parted ways.

In the village of my subsidiary mission, I inquired about an old sick Indian woman whom I baptized there three months ago. I was told that the old woman was lying sick beyond the bay in a forest hut. I guessed what the sorcerer intended to do, without knowing anything about the sick woman nearby, and resolved to visit her the next day. However, to my surprise, I soon learned that the body of the sorcerer, who had suddenly died beyond the bay, was being brought back heathen band. The magic stone came out of his mouth because he practiced his sorcery on a sick Christian woman.

Finally, in the following night, the fifth and last sorcerer of the area came to my room, throwing himself down on his knees before me, weeping and trembling, and said, “My Father, twenty years ago I was a Christian, but evil companions led me into the sorcerer’s society and tempted me into great sins. Since four of my companions have already died, perhaps my turn will come soon. Father! accept me as a penitent, and reconcile me with the Great Spirit.” I kindly accepted him and had him make a general confession.

After comforting him with instruction and assigning penance, he withdrew to a solitary forest wilderness for two months, where he performed sincere penance. At the appointed time, he received the beneficial absolution and the grace of God’s mercy. He then traveled to another distant mission to live there truly Christian and hidden, so as not to be killed by known heathens in case they learned of his conversion. On the first night, he brought his magic bag to burn, whereupon, at my request, he explained the meaning of several magical objects and revealed some secrets of the society, which I do not wish to mention under the promise of secrecy.

From the accurate and true stories of sorcery mentioned here, along with many other circumstances and events in my Indian missions and interactions with wild heathens, I reliably know from testimonies of others and my own experience that among the wild heathens there exists real sorcery or direct influence of the devil, acting as a servant spirit, on unbelieving heathens. These troublesome spirits not only wield great power and authority over the heathens but can also, by God’s permission, sometimes present significant obstacles to missionaries in converting the heathens. Top of Form

For example, when I embarked on a promising heathen conversion, even though I set sail with fair winds or calm waters, almost invariably a storm or tempest arose, leading me to believe that evil spirits and jealous forces were stirring up cold waves to dampen my zeal for soul-winning or to intimidate me. However, this only encouraged me further and strengthened my hope for success. Whenever I preached to the heathens in large gatherings, I noticed a hindering influence of the evil Satan.

It was not an isolated incident but almost every time either all the children of the village gathered in front of the house or tent where I preached, or all the dogs of the place gathered together and barked or fought so loudly that I had to drive them away to continue the instruction.

Last summer, when I preached at a large heathen gathering in Mille Lake, about six or seven times all the horses of the village galloped back and forth with such noise that it disrupted the continuation of my sermon and completely distracted my listeners.

The accompanying schoolteacher informed me that a large swarm of black flies, rarely seen, was plaguing the animals, causing them to run.

About five years ago, when I preached to the heathens in the chief’s house in Agagotchiwing and explained the Last Judgment, a wild Indian quickly got up and left. After the sermon, I found him outside the house and asked him the reason for his sudden and inappropriate departure. He confessed to me that he greatly enjoyed my sermon and would have liked to stay until the end, but an unknown power had lifted him up and carried him away against his will.

On many occasions, when I engaged in lengthy religious discussions with wild Indians or asked old, stubborn women about the reason for their resistance to conversion, to my surprise, I received such witty objections to religion that even the most learned philosopher could not have conceived better ones. Therefore, they were either inspired by the evil demon or uttered by the human instruments of a possessed person.

My observations and experiences in the aforementioned and similar circumstances increasingly confirm me in the opinion that sorcerers and some other wicked natives are either truly possessed by evil spirits or at least so strongly influenced by them that these infernal spirits can maliciously affect others through human senses and organs. Therefore, I am no longer offended by the harsh expression in the exorcism of the baptismal formula, which the Catholic Church wisely incorporated into the Roman Ritual: “Exi inmunde Spiritus ex hoc plasmate Dei, et da locum Spiritui sancto” (Depart, unclean spirit, from this creature of God, and make room for the Holy Spirit).

Consequently, there is no doubt that true sorcery and divination have existed among the heathens since ancient times, and still exist today, whereby evil spirits, with God’s permission as punishment for unbelief, maliciously influence the physical world to serve wicked people mutually and constantly oppose the kingdom of God. However, good Christians, supported by the grace of the Almighty and sheltered by their guardian angels, have nothing to fear from them as long as they faithfully serve God.

Other Genealogical Notes About Fr. Francis Pierz

Another set of immigrants that might be familiar with Fr. Pierz are the families that followed Father Joseph Albrecht from St. Joseph Ohio to Ottertail County.

These families would include:

  • Eifert
  • Bender
  • Boedigheimer
  • Silbernagel
  • Foltz
  • Doll
  • Steinbach
  • Staab
  • Riesterer
  • Weis
  • Hasler

When Fr. Albrecht had been excommunicated, Fr. Pierz asked the bishop to reconsider, believing that he might be able to get Albrecht to return to the Church, an effort that was unsuccessful.

Questions? Comments?

If you have any questions related to German immigrants, Fr. Pierz or other genealogical and historical subjects, feel free to contact me.