Father De Smet: Missionary to the American Indian
Father Pierre-Jean De Smet dedicated his life to missionary work among American Indians. He left his home in Belgium and emigrated to the United States. De Smet became a Jesuit priest, and for the next fifty years served as a missionary, fundraiser, and protector of American Indians.
De Smet was born in Termonde, East Flanders, now known as Dendermonde, Belgium, on January 30, 1801. His parents were Josse (Jodocus) De Smet and Marie-Jeanne Buydens, prominent business people in Termonde. De Smet’s father planned on his son joining him in the family business, but De Smet had different ideas about his life’s work. In 1821, he attended a lecture by Father Charles Nerinckx about the need for Catholic missionaries in the United States. De Smet attempted to leave Europe and become a missionary without notifying his family, resulting in two weeks of family turmoil. De Smet later wrote: “To have asked the consent of our parents would have been to court a certain and absolute refusal.”(1) He departed for the United States on August 15, 1821, without his father’s blessing. The senior De Smet was angry and bitter but ultimately reconciled with his son.
De Smet was admitted to the Jesuit order on October 5, 1821 in Washington D.C. He was then sent to White Marsh, Maryland to begin his novitiate. After eighteen months, De Smet was sent to Florissant, Missouri to complete his studies for the priesthood. Four years later, he was ordained a priest.(2) His first assignment was to establish the St. Joseph mission with the Potawatomi, at a site near present day Council Bluffs, Iowa. This was a disappointing start for De Smet. The Potawatomi drank excessively and refused to accept Christianity. He was concerned that he would be a failure as a missionary. In September 1839 De Smet found a reprieve, he met Young Ignace and Peter Gaucher, the fourth delegation from the Flathead. De Smet knew that he had found his calling when he learned that the Flathead wanted a Jesuit priest to live among them and teach Christianity.(3)
Father De Smet, about 1860-65 -- Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection
In the summer of 1840, De Smet made the arduous journey from St. Louis, across the Rocky Mountains, to Pierre’s Hole in what is today eastern Idaho. He met with an estimated sixteen hundred Indians from the Flathead, Pend Oreille, and Nez Perce tribes. De Smet’s main purpose on this trip was to determine if establishing a permanent mission among the Flathead was warranted. De Smet described the Flathead as: “polite, always of a jovial humor, very hospitable, and helpful to one another in their duties…they share one another’s sufferings, give help in time of need, and care for the orphans…they are well mannered, gay, and very hospitable…there are the people that civilized men dare to call barbarians!”(4)
De Smet’s decision was easily reached; the Flathead were to get the mission they so eagerly desired.
On his return trip to St. Louis, in late 1840, De Smet met Sioux Indians for the first time. During a meal break his party was approached by several hostile Sioux. The Indians changed their demeanor when De Smet was introduced to them as a Black Robe. He recounted the incredible turn of events in a letter to his brother: “The chief then invited me to come and spend the night in his village. Twelve warriors laid an immense buffalo hide on the ground before me. The chief took me by the arm and, conducted me to the hide, bade me sit down. Understanding nothing of the ceremony, I seated myself, and imagine my surprise when I saw the twelve Indians seize this would-be carpet by its extremities, lift me from the ground, and, preceded by the chief, carry me in triumph to the village.”(5)
De Smet’s ability to meet with nearly any Indian group, and stay on friendly terms, became a valuable asset later in his life. He returned to St. Louis to gather the necessary resources to establish the mission. Unfortunately, there were no funds available to develop the Flathead mission. This led De Smet to a job that he was well suited for: fund raising. In a short time he had raised enough money to build and supply a new mission. On September 24, 1841 De Smet arrived in the Bitter Root Valley and established St. Mary’s Mission.
In October 1842 De Smet returned to St. Louis and immediately began preparing for his next journey to the northwest. He experienced the same problems that occurred with his previous trip. De Smet was able to obtain priests and brothers for new missions, but funding was not available through the church. He designed a comprehensive promotional fundraising program. De Smet had kept a daily journal on his previous expeditions to the Rocky Mountains; he then converted those journal entries to letters which he sent to superiors and relatives. He collected the letters and had them published in a book form. De Smet then sent these books out to prospective donors before visiting them in person. The publication was called Letters and Sketches with a Narrative of a Year’s Residence among the Indian Tribes of the Rocky Mountains (1843). The book included sixteen pen-and-ink drawings by Father Nicholas Point, and a fold-out of De Smet’s Catholic ladder.(6)
De Smet then went on a fund raising tour of the following cities: New Orleans, Boston, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington (City), Philadelphia, and New York City. He received generous support from the citizens of these cities collecting five thousand dollars in donations for the Rocky Mountain Mission fund. This allowed De Smet to send new priests, brothers, and supplies via wagon train to the St. Mary’s Mission. The wagon train departed Missouri in September of 1843.(7)
De Smet next traveled to Europe for a papal visit, personnel recruitment, and fund raising. The outcome of his visit with Pope Gregory XVI was the development of the new position of Bishop for the Oregon Territory. De Smet was offered the position, but declined the position so he could continue to work directly with the Indians. He also visited Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, and Spain recruiting Jesuits and raising funds. De Smet’s efforts produced an astounding sum of $26,500 in donations, eight Jesuit volunteers, and six Sisters of Notre Dame du Namur. He departed Europe in December 1843 with five of the Jesuits and the six nuns for a seven month sea voyage to Vancouver. The three other Jesuits were sent to New York by a separate ship.(8)
The ship with its weary passengers crossed the Columbia River bar on July 31, 1844. De Smet and his band of devotees ascended the Willamette River to find a land of conflicting natural beauty. According to De Smet: “The night was calm and serene—all nature was hushed in profound silence—all invited us to repose; but the swarms of musquetoes [sic] with which these woods abound, prevented our slumber.”(9) The sisters were delivered to their newly built convent at St. Paul’s Mission at the north end of the Willamette Valley. De Smet selected a site for the St. Francis Xavier Mission on the Willamette River near Oregon City, and supervised the initial construction process. He then began moving supplies out to the missions. His first visit was to St. Michael’s, the mission for the Kalispel Indians. Here De Smet selected a site for the new mission building below Flathead Lake. The new mission also received a new name, St. Ignatius. He then visited the Sacred Heart Mission for the Coeur d’ Alenes. Lastly he visited St. Mary’s mission in the Bitter Root Valley.(10) De Smet then traveled by river to Vancouver. On his descent of the Columbia River, he witnessed the deadly power of the river firsthand. De Smet recounted the event in a letter to his superior:
“The melting snow had occasioned a considerable freshet, and our descent was very rapid…approaching the rapids, they [a different boat] fearlessly hurried onward…drawn by the eddy into the centre of a whirlpool..the ill fated barge twirled upon the surface, and then sank, amid the despairing shrieks of the helpless crew…soon the waters resumed their wonted course, and left no trace of the sad catastrophe.”(11)
By July 1845 De Smet had inspected and re-supplied the three missions. He then turned his attention to exploring the region, and visiting Indian camps. In this process De Smet opened two new missions: St. Francis Regis, below Fort Colville, and St. Paul, above Kettle Falls. In late summer 1845, De Smet decided to pursue a visit to the Blackfeet. After an exhausting journey, he found a Blackfeet hunting party. The Blackfeet had been warring, and suffering loses of men and animals. They had also been exposed to a smallpox epidemic that claimed many of their numbers. The Blackfeet were ready for some kind of change and were willing to try Christianity. Unfortunately, De Smet was unable to follow the hunting party immediately and ended up hopelessly lost with an inept guide. After wintering in Canada, He returned to Vancouver, and back again to St. Mary’s. At this point, De Smet began a new role: he became a peace negotiator.(12)
Upon De Smet’s arrival at St. Mary’s, he learned that the Flathead had gone to war with the Crow. He and Father Point pursued the Flathead but were unable to overtake them until after the battle had been decided. The Flathead had been victorious, and the Crow had fled the area. However, there were a few Blackfeet with the Flathead and they offered to take De Smet and Point to the main Blackfeet camp. On an island in the Missouri, near Fort Benton, De Smet and Point brokered a peace between the Blackfeet and the Flathead. On September 28,1846 De Smet departed on a small boat to St. Louis.(13)
De Smet was kept busy with church business in St. Louis until 1851. At this time the Indians on the upper Missouri, mostly Cheyenne and Sioux, were nearing war over the influx of whites crossing Indian land to reach the Pacific gold rush. In order to secure by treaty the rights to cross Indian land, the Council of Fort Laramie was organized. DeSmet was asked by the military to help convince the Indians to accept the treaty. He departed St. Louis June 7, 1851 surviving an ordeal before reaching the northern plains. The river boat De Smet was traveling on experienced a cholera outbreak that killed thirteen passengers. He fell ill but survived the disease. De Smet left the boat at Fort Union to begin the overland portion of his journey. Here he found a smallpox epidemic running rampant that had killed hundreds of Indians; most had been left where they died, the surviving Indians could not bury the large number of dead. De Smet baptized over a thousand of these Indians and worked among the sick. Even in a weakened state from his recent illness, he survived this epidemic without incident.(14)
On September 10, 1851 De Smet arrived at the Council of Fort Laramie. He worked with the Indians to convince them to accept the treaty. De Smet believed that the treaty would help bring peace, but he relied more upon religion for a lasting peace. He stated in a letter: “Promises, threats, firearms, and swords are less effective than the Black Robe’s words of peace and the civilizing banner of the cross.”(15) After twelve days of negotiating, the treaty was signed by many of the chiefs, ensuring peace for the time being. De Smet returned to St. Louis on October 22, 1851 completing a harrowing five month journey.(16)
De Smet was not allowed to travel to Indian Country for several years, despite his desire to continue missionary work. It was a trying time for him, but his patience was rewarded in 1858. De Smet was finally given permission to return to the northwest. However, the U.S. Army now expressed interest in De Smet joining General Harney’s command as a chaplain for the campaign into Mormon territory. His work was satisfying as a chaplain to the soldiers. De Smet was also allowed to give instruction and baptism to Indians from the Pawnee, Sioux, and Cheyenne tribes. The Mormon affair was resolved without resistance, and De Smet thought that it was a good time to leave the army and visit the Rocky Mountain mission. With Indian hostilities breaking out in several areas, the Secretary of War declined to release De Smet.(17)
At the outbreak of the Plateau Indian War of 1858 Harney was ordered to the northwest. He moved his troops by ship to the Columbia River. The long travel time resulted in Harney arriving in late October; by this time Colonel George Wright had brought the war to a conclusion. A provision of the peace treaty with the Indians allowed Indian hostages to be held by the military at Fort Walla Walla. De Smet was able to help the Indians yet again by gaining freedom for the hostages. He gave an impassioned plea for the release of the Indians: “I know well the Spokanes, Coeur d’Alenes, and the Kalispels. They are my children, and I will answer for their loyalty with my head, which will be at the disposition of the general should these Indians be untrue to their word.”(18)
De Smet then delivered the former hostages back to their tribes. This allowed him to visit the Indians which he had not seen in many years. It also expanded De Smet’s reputation, he was now known as the “liberator of Indians.”(19)
In 1862 gold was discovered in the area that would become western Montana. The gold rush created a need for a direct route to the gold fields. This new route was the Bozeman Trail. Which ran directly through Lakota lands, from Fort Laramie to Bozeman. This was directly in conflict with the provisions of the 1851 Council of Fort Laramie. The resulting Indian war started in 1862; the military was unable, or unwilling, to stop the violence. Once again the military turned to De Smet to help with peace negotiations. He answered the call, traveling to Sioux territory. De Smet was able to make contact with the Santee Sioux, the main instigators in this uprising. Unfortunately, when he requested General Sully’s permission to meet with them, he was refused in favor of a punitive military action. De Smet felt that being a part of a purely punitive action would compromise his ethical position as a man of peace. He returned to St. Louis and filed a report with his superiors and the government.
On March 30, 1868 De Smet departed St. Louis at the behest of the military to bring the Sioux to the negotiating table. He was sixty-seven years old, and his health was failing. This time De Smet approached the Indians with only an interpreter and a small party of peaceful Indians. After sixteen days of searching he found the Sioux and was conducted to Sitting Bull’s camp, where he presented the chief with a flag bearing the image of the Virgin Mary. De Smet’s concluding remarks were straight forward and reaffirmed his belief of the peace process: “In the name of the Great Spirit, and in the presence of your chiefs and braves here assembled, I conjure you to bury all resentment and accept the hand that is generously offered to you. The banner before you is the sacred emblem of peace, and never before has it been carried such a distance. I will leave it with your chiefs as a guarantee of my sincerity, and as a continual reminder of my wishes for the happiness of the Sioux tribes.” (20)
After a two day conference, De Smet was able to convince the Indians to attend the peace conference at Fort Rice. The Peace Counsel took place on July 2, 1868 and the distribution of gifts to the Indians was made on July 4th. De Smet later made the simple statement: “I left the same day.”(21)
De Smet’s health continued to deteriorate, but he refused to give up the effort to establish new missions. Late in 1868, he made his final trip to Indian Country. This visit was to find a suitable location for a mission among the Sioux. Soon De Smet became so medically fragile that his Jesuit Superiors were afraid to let him venture far from medical care. The last years of his life were spent in either St. Louis or Europe working on several writing projects and lobbying for improvement of the treatment of Indians. De Smet died in St. Louis on May 23, 1873 of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment.
De Smet was unusual among missionaries, he seemingly walked in two worlds simultaneously. He was comfortable, and competent, when appealing to the elite for the much needed funds to keep the missions open. De Smet was equally at ease while journeying across rugged wilderness such as the Rocky Mountains. His advice to missionaries coming west revealed his unique perspective on nature and life: “a fast of a day or two gives zest to appetite. Should a storm keep one awake, one sleeps better the following night. The sight of the enemy lying in wait to take one’s life teaches more confidence in God; teaches one to pray well.”(22) Most of De Smet’s life was spent as a missionary, but he never spent much time in one place. His skill was to set up missions, then work from afar to keep them open and serving the Indians. One of the greatest tributes paid to De Smet came in a simple statement by Major General David S. Stanley: “He is the only man for whom I have ever seen Indians evince a real affection.”(23)
Stuart Gimblin is a graduate student in History and a Cody Fellow at Eastern Washington University. (December 7, 2010)
1. Robert Carriker, Father Peter John De Smet: Jesuit in the West, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, 4-7.
2. Pierre-Jean De Smet, Oregon Missions and Travels over the Rocky Mountains in 1845-46, Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1978, XII-XIII.
3. Robert Carriker, De Smet, xvi-xvii.
4. Ibid., 37.
5. Laveille, E. The Life of Father De Smet, S.J., Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1981, 116.
6. Ibid., 63-4.
7. Robert Carriker, Father De Smet, 64-7.
8. Ibid., 79-80.
9. Pierre-Jean De Smet, Oregon Missions, 78.
10. Robert Carriker, Father De Smet, 82-3.
11. Pierre-Jean De Smet, Oregon Missions, 95-96.
12. Ibid., 90-10.
13. John Upton Terrell, Black Robe: the Life of Pierre-Jean De Smet Missionary, Explorer, Pioneer, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1964, 227-29.
14. Ibid,. 247-54.
15. De Smet to the Editor, Brussels Journal, June 30, 1853.
16. De Smet to Father Huddeghem, St. Louis, November 13,1851.
17. E. Laveille, The Life of Father De Smet, S.J., 268-70.
18. Ibid., 276.
19. E. Laveille, The Life of Father De Smet, S.J., 276.
20. E. Laveille, The Life of Father De Smet, S.J., 353.
21. John Upton Terrell, Black Robe: the Life of Pierre-Jean De Smet
22. Robert Carriker, Father De Smet, xvii.
23. General David S. Stanley to Archbishop John B. Purcell, 1868.
Carriker, Robert. Father Peter John De Smet: Jesuit in the West. (Norman: University of
Oklahoma Press, 1995).
De Smet to the Editor, Brussels Journal, June 30, 1853.
De Smet to Father Huddeghem, St. Louis, November 13,1851.
De Smet, Pierre-Jean. Oregon Missions and Travels over the Rocky Mountains in 1845-46.
(Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1978).
Laveille, E. The Life of Father De Smet, S.J. (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1981).
Stanley, General David S. to Archbishop John B. Purcell, 1868.
Terrell, John Upton. Black Robe: the Life of Pierre-Jean De Smet Missionary, Explorer,
Pioneer, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1964).