Pierre-Jean De Smet
|Pierre-Jean De Smet|
circa 1860-65, by Mathew Brady
30 January 1801|
|Died||23 May 1873
St. Louis, Missouri
|Other names||Pieter-Jan De Smet|
|Education||White Marsh Novitiate,
present-day Bowie, Maryland
|Ordained||23 September 1827|
Pierre-Jean De Smet (30 January 1801 – 23 May 1873), also known as Pieter-Jan De Smet, was a Belgian Catholic priest and member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), active in missionary work among the Native American peoples of western North America in the mid-19th century, in the midwestern and northwestern United States and western Canada.
His extensive travels as a missionary were said to total 180,000 miles (290,000 km). He was known as the "Friend of Sitting Bull", because he persuaded the Sioux war chief to participate in negotiations with the United States government for the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
Born in Dendermonde, in what is now Belgium, De Smet first came to the United States with eleven other Belgian Jesuits in 1821 to begin his novitiate at White Marsh, a Jesuit estate near Baltimore, Maryland. Part of the complex survives today as Sacred Heart Church in Bowie.
De Smet and five other Belgian novices, led by Charles Van Quickenborne, moved to Florissant, Missouri, north of St. Louis, at the invitation of bishop Dubourg. They founded several academic institutions, among which was the St. Regis Seminary where De Smet had his first contacts with indigenous boys. After further studies, he was ordained priest on 23 September 1827. Until 1830, he learned about Indian customs and languages as a prefect at the seminary. In 1833 he had to return to Belgium due to health problems. It was 1837 before he could return to Missouri.
Mission work in Iowa Territory
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In 1838 and 1839, De Smet helped to establish St. Joseph's Mission in what is now Council Bluffs, Iowa, in Potawatomi territory. These people had moved west from Illinois. Taking over the abandoned Council Bluffs Blockhouse at the former United States military fort, De Smet worked primarily with a Potawatomi band led by Billy Caldwell, also known as Sauganash. (Of Mohawk and Irish descent, Caldwell was born in Ontario, Canada on what is now the Six Nations Reserve. He was fluent in English and Mohawk, and some other Indian languages.).
De Smet was appalled by the murders and brutality resulting from the whiskey trade, which caused much social disruption among the Indian people. He tried to protect them. During this time, he also assisted and supported Joseph Nicollet’s efforts at mapping the Upper Midwest. De Smet used newly acquired mapping skills to produce the first detailed map of the upper Missouri River valley system, from below the Platte River to the Big Sioux River. His map shows the locations of Indian villages and other cultural features, including the wreck of the Steamboat Pirate.
First missionary tour
After discussion with members of various Iroquois nations, the Salish had gained a slight knowledge of Christianity. They became so convinced of its truth, at a time when they were afflicted by illnesses, that at three times they sent delegations of their tribe more than 1,500 miles (2,400 km) to St. Louis to request "black-robes" from the Catholic Church to be sent among them to baptize their children, sick, and dying. The first three delegations failed, due to disease and massacre while passing through the Territory of the Sioux, but the fourth was successful in reaching St. Louis.
Jesuit missionary Fr. de Smet was assigned to accompany the messengers back to the Indian territory, to determine their nation and establish a mission among them. On 5 July 1840, Father De Smet offered the first Holy Mass in Wyoming, a mile east of Daniel, a town in the west-central part of the present state. A monument to the event stands on this site.
In 1841, De Smet founded St. Mary's Mission in Montana among the Salish, and worked with them for several years. He noted that the Protestant proselytising of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions under Henry H. Spalding based at Lapwai had made neighboring Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) nation wary of Catholicism.
He persuaded one band of Nimíipuu to reside at St. Mary's for a period of two months; all of the people received baptism at the end of this time. Near the end of his time with the Salish, De Smet sent out an appeal to the United States public for financial aid to bolster his efforts. He viewed the Salish habit of seasonal nomadic movement to make it "impossible to do any solid and permanent good among these poor people..." He forwarded a plan proposing that the Salish "be assembled in villages—must be taught the art of agriculture, consequently must be supplied with implements, with cattle, with seed."
1845-1846 Canadian Rockies expedition
One of De Smet's longest explorations began in August 1845 in the region west of the Rockies that was jointly occupied by the Americans, who called it Oregon Country and the British, who identified it as Columbia District. De Smet started from Lake Pend Oreille in present-day north Idaho and crossed into the Kootenay River valley. He followed the Kootenay valley north, eventually crossing over to Columbia Lake, the source of the Columbia River at Canal Flats.
He followed the upper Columbia valley north to and past Lake Windermere. At Radium Hot Springs, he turned east and went over Sinclair Pass into the Kootenay River Valley. He recrossed the Kootenay and continued along the reverse of the route pioneered by the Sinclair expedition. He followed the Cross River upstream to its headwaters at Whiteman's Pass. The Cross River was named for the large wooden cross that De Smet built at the top of the pass, where it could be seen for miles away.
On the other side of the Great Divide was the British territory of Rupert's Land. From the crest of the pass, streams lead to Spray Lakes above present-day Canmore, Alberta and the Spray River, which joins the Bow River near modern-day Banff, Alberta. Once in the Bow Valley, De Smet headed upstream and in a north-westerly direction to its source Bow Lake. He traveled further north until he came to the Saskatchewan River, which he followed downstream and east.
It was October, and a long cold Canadian winter was looming, when he reached Rocky Mountain House. He had fulfilled one of his main goals; to meet with the Cree, Chippewa, and Blackfoot of the area. At the end of the month, De Smet traveled further to the east to search for more Natives. Fortunate to find his way back to Rocky Mountain House, he was guided by Indians from there to Fort Edmonton, where he spent the winter of 1845-1846.
During these years he established among the Flathead and Kootenay Indian tribes St. Mary's Mission in Montana, in present-day Victor. He Also established the mission that became the Sacred Heart Mission to the Coeur d'Alenes in present-day Cataldo, Idaho.
In the spring of 1846, De Smet began his return following the established York Factory Express trade route to the Columbia District. He headed west to Jasper House, and with considerable suffering followed the route. He crossed the Great Divide by Athabaska Pass, traveling to the Canoe River, the north-most tributary of the Columbia River, and eventually on to Fort Vancouver some thousand miles (1600 km) to the southwest.
He returned to his mission at Sainte-Marie on the Bitterroot River.
Later years and death
In his remaining years, De Smet was active in work related to the missions which he helped establish and fund. During his career, he sailed back to Europe eight times to raise money for the missions among supporters there.
De Smet returned to St. Louis. He died there on 23 May 1873, and was originally buried with some fellow early Jesuit explorers at St. Stanislaus Seminary near Florissant, Missouri. In 2003, after some controversy, his remains and those of the other Jesuits were moved and reinterred at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, the burial site for many Jesuits of the Missouri Province.
De Smet's papers, with accounts of his travels and missionary work with Native American nations, are held at two separate locations:
- Jesuit Archives - De Smetiana series in St. Louis, Missouri
- Pierre Jean De Smet Papers at the Washington State University archives in Pullman, Washington.
- De Smet was featured as a major figure in the exhibition Crossing the Divide: Jesuits on the Frontier (February 26 - June 27, 2010), held at St. Louis University Museum of Art in St. Louis.
- The exhibit A Complex Vision: De Smet and the American Frontier (December 17, 2014-2015), at St. Louis University Museum of Art, focused on this missionary.
Several places are named in honor of De Smet, including:
- De Smet, Idaho, a populated place
- DeSmet, Montana, a populated place between Wye and the Missoula International Airport
- DeSmet Junction, near Wye, where US 10, US 93 and MT 200 met (and where I-90 meets them today)
- De Smet, South Dakota, the later childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder
- De Smet Jesuit High School in Creve Coeur, Missouri
- De Smet Range and Roche de Smet in Canada
- Lake Desmet, between Buffalo and Sheridan, Wyoming
- DeSmet Hall, the largest and oldest all-men’s residence hall on the Gonzaga University campus in Spokane, Washington.
- Red Fish, Oglala chief
- Literary St. Louis. St. Louis, Missouri: Associates of St. Louis University Libraries, Inc. and Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Inc. 1969.
- Whittaker (2008): "Pierre-Jean De Smet’s Remarkable Map of the Missouri River Valley, 1839: What Did He See in Iowa?", Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 55:1-13
- Whittaker (2008).
- Mullen, Frank (1925) "Father De Smet and the Pottawattamie Indian Mission", Iowa Journal of History and Politics 23:192-216.
- Official State Highway Map of Wyoming (Map). Wyoming Department of Transportation. 2014.
- Smet, Pierre. Origin, Progress, and Prospects of the Catholic Mission to the Rocky Mountains. Fairfield, Washington: Ye Origin Galleon Press, 1972. pp. 9-11.
- Eberlein, Jake A., Wilderness Cathedral: The Story of Idaho’s Oldest Building, Mediatrix Press, 2017. ISBN 978-0692897652
- "De Smetiana". jesuitarchives.org.
- Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Govt. Print. Off. p. 105.
- Killoren, John J. "Come, Blackrobe": De Smet and the Indian Tragedy, The Institute of Jesuit Sources (2003), reprint of the University of Oklahoma Press (1994); ISBN 1-880810-50-6
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