Pierre-Jean De Smet

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Pierre-Jean De Smet
Pierre-Jean De Smet - Brady-Handy.jpg
Photograph by Mathew Brady, circa 1860-1865.
Born (1801-01-30)30 January 1801
Dendermonde, Belgium
Died 23 May 1873(1873-05-23) (aged 72)
St. Louis, Missouri
Other names Pieter-Jan De Smet
Education White Marsh Novitiate in present-day Bowie, Maryland
Church Roman Catholic
Ordained 23 September 1827 (1827-09-23)

Pierre-Jean De Smet (30 January 1801 – 23 May 1873), also known as Pieter-Jan De Smet, was a Belgian Roman Catholic priest and member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), active in missionary work among the Native Americans of the Midwestern United States, Western United States and Western Canada in the mid-19th century.

His extensive travels as a missionary were said to total 180,000 miles. 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.

Early life[edit]

De Smet was born in Dendermonde, in what is now Belgium. He 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, at the invitation of bishop Dubourg. Several academic institutions were immediately founded, among which 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.

Likeness of De Smet's map of the Council Bluffs, Iowa area, 1839. De Smet's mission is labeled "St. Joseph's", The area labeled 'Caldwell's Camp' was a Potawatomi village led by Sauganash; this was at or near the later town of Kanesville, the precursor of Council Bluffs.[1]

Mission work in Iowa Territory[edit]

Society of Jesus

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In 1838 and 1839, De Smet helped to establish St. Joseph's Mission in what is now Council Bluffs, Iowa. Taking over the abandoned Council Bluffs Blockhouse military fort, De Smet worked primarily with a Potawatomi band led by Billy Caldwell, also known as Sauganash (of Irish and Mohawk descent, he was born in Canada and spoke English as well as some 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 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.[2][3]

First missionary tour[edit]

After discussion with Iroquois, the Salish had gained a slight knowledge of Christianity, and became so convinced of its truth that at three times they sent delegations of their tribe over 3000 miles to St. Louis, MO, to request "black-robes" 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. Fr. de Smet was then assigned to accompany the messengers back to the Indian territory, to ascertain the nation and establish a mission among them. On 5 July 1840, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet offered the first Holy Mass in Wyoming, one mile east of Daniel, a town in the west-central part of the state. A monument to the event stands on its site.[4]

In 1841 St. Mary's Mission was founded among the Salish by De Smet, who labored there for several years. He noted the proselytising of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions under Henry H. Spalding based at Lapwai had made neighboring Nimíipuu nation wary of Catholicism.[5] One particular band of Nimíipuu was convinced to reside at the mission for a period of two months, their time there ending in everyone receiving baptism. 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 their cultural habit of a mobile living to make it "impossible to do any solid and permanent good among these poor people..."[5] He forwarded a plan that the Salish "be assembled in villages—must be taught the art of agriculture, consequently must be supplied with implements, with cattle, with seed."[5]

1845-1846 expedition[edit]

Engraving of a Kaw (Kansas) village by De Smet, showing earthlodges and other traditional house forms.

One of De Smet's longest explorations began in August 1845, in the region then known as Oregon Country to Americans and Columbia District to the British. He started from Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho and crossed into the Kootenay River valley. He followed the valley north, eventually crossing over to Columbia Lake, the source of the Columbia River. He traversed a portion of that valley north to Windermere Lake (British Columbia), and Radium Hot Springs. He followed Sinclair Pass east, recrossed the Kootenay and continued east and upstream along the Cross River (British Columbia) to, and over, the Continental Divide using Whiteman’s Pass, into the Bow River valley near the site of present-day Canmore, Alberta. The Cross River was named for the large wooden cross he built at the top of the pass. From there he headed upstream again, travelling northwest along the Bow, past modern day Banff, Alberta, to its source Bow Lake (Alberta) and then east along the Saskatchewan River to Rocky Mountain House. By this time it was October and he fulfilled one of his goals; to meet with the Cree, Chippewa, and Blackfeet of the area. At the end of the month, De Smet traveled further the east to search for more Natives. He was fortunate to find his way back to Rocky Mountain House and was guided from there to Fort Edmonton, where he spent the winter of 1845-1846.

In the spring, De Smet returned to Jasper House and, with terrible suffering he re-crossed the Great Divide, by Athabaska Pass, to the Columbia River and eventually onto Fort Vancouver. He returned to his mission at Sainte-Marie on the Bitterroot River. Finally he returned to St. Louis, Missouri. His time as a missionary in the Rockies was over.

Later years and death[edit]

Statue of Pieter-Jan de Smet in Dendermonde, Belgium

In his remaining years, De Smet was active in work regarding the missions he helped establish and fund. During his career, he sailed back to Europe eight times to raise money for the missions among supporters there.

In 1868 he persuaded Sitting Bull to accept the Treaty of Fort Laramie.

He died 23 May 1873 in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was originally buried with some fellow early Jesuit explorers at St. Stanislaus Seminary near Florissant. 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 Missouri Province Jesuits.


De Smet's papers, with accounts of his travels and missionary work with Native Americans, are held at two separate locations:

Namesake places[edit]

Several places are named in honor of De Smet, including:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Whittaker (2008).
  3. ^ Mullen, Frank (1925) "Father De Smet and the Pottawattamie Indian Mission", Iowa Journal of History and Politics 23:192-216.
  4. ^ Official State Highway Map of Wyoming (Map). Wyoming Department of Transportation. 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c Smet, Pierre. Origin, Progress, and Prospects of the Catholic Mission to the Rocky Mountains. Fairfield, Washington: Ye Origin Galleon Press, 1972. pp. 9-11.
  6. ^ "De Smetiana". jesuitarchives.org. 
  7. ^ http://ntserver1.wsulibs.wsu.edu/masc/finders/cg537.htm
  8. ^ Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Govt. Print. Off. p. 105. 


External links[edit]