Number 6 in my series on great Jesuits of American history. Pierre-Jean De Smet first saw the light of day in Dendermonde in Belgium on January 30, 1801. His parents would have been astonished if they had been told that in his life their newborn would travel over 180,000 miles as a missionary, and most of it in the Wild West of the United States.
Emigrating to the US in 1821 as part of his desire to serve as a missionary, De Smet entered the Jesuit novitiate at Whitemarsh, Maryland. In a move that today would have secularists screaming “Separation of Church and State!” and conspiracy buffs increasing the tin foil content of their hats, the US government subsidized a Jesuit mission being established in the new state of Missouri among the Indians. At the time the US government often did this for missionaries of many Christian denominations among the Indians. So it was that in 1823 De Smet and other members of the order trekked west and established a mission to the Indians at Florissant, Missouri, near Saint Louis. Studying at the new Saint Regis Seminary in Florissant, Father De Smet was ordained on September 23, 1827. Now a prefect at the seminary, he studied Indian languages and customs. In 1833 he returned to Belgium for health problems and was unable to return to Missouri until 1837.
In 1838 he founded the St. Joseph Mission in Council Bluffs for the Potawatomi Indians. He also began his career as a peacemaker as he journeyed to the territory of the Sioux to work out a peace between them and the Potawatomi. It should be emphasized that Father De Smet was making these journeys at a time when he was often the only white man for hundreds of miles other than for a few mountain men and scattered traders. He quickly earned a reputation among the Indians as utterly fearless and a white man whose word they could trust.
In 1840 he journeyed to the Pacific Northwest to establish a mission among the Flathead and Nez Perces tribes, who had been begging for a decade for “Black Robes” to be sent to them and teach them about Christ. After visiting them, Father De Smet promised that he would go back to Saint Louis and return with another “Black Robe” to establish a permanent mission. On his way back he visited the Crow, the Gros Ventres and other tribes. In 1841 he returned to the Flatheads along with Father Nicholas Point and established St. Mary’s Mission on the Bitterroot River, thirty miles south of present day Missoula. The mission was quite successful as indicated by this event. One of the converted chiefs of the Flatheads, after baptism, chose the baptismal name of Victor. On one occasion Father De Smet was preaching to the Flatheads and mentioned how in Europe the Holy Father confronted many enemies of the Faith. Victor became indignant and said, “Should our Great Father, the Great chief of the Black robes, be in danger–you speak on paper–invite him in our names to our mountains. We will raise his lodge in our midst; we will hunt for him and keep his lodge provided, and we will guard him against the approach of his enemies!”
Father De Smet traveled to Europe to raise funds for the missions and to recruit missionaries. In 1844 he landed at Astoria after rounding Cape Horn with the missionaries he had recruited including six sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. A mission, Saint Ignatius, was quickly constructed in the area of the Kalispel tribe.
In 1846 Father De Smet made peace between the Crow and the Blackfeet, after a battle between them, in the Yellowstone Valley. Father De Smet so impressed the warlike Blackfeet that he was able to convince them to make peace with the other tribes they were at war with. Father De Smet left Father Nicholas Point to establish a mission with the Blackfeet.
Father De Smet was now called away from the mission field to teach at Saint Louis University. His fame was now immense as word of his travels and missions among the Indians of the far west spread. He was often called upon by tribes to plead their causes in Washington, and he was often consulted by the government who regarded him as the foremost expert on the Indians of the northern Plains, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific NorthWest.
In 1851 Father De Smet made peace between the Indians of California and Oregon and whites who were flowing into these areas as a result of the gold rush. During the US-Mormon War of 1858 he served as a chaplain with the US forces under General William Selby Harney. Father De Smet had earlier helped Harney make peace with the Sioux in the mid-Fifties. After the peaceful conclusion of the US-Mormon War, Father De Smet accompanied General Harney to California and Oregon where he was instrumental in preserving the peace between the Indians and the Whites. During this time Harney became a friend and admirer of Father De Smet, so much so that Harney eventually converted to Catholicism.
In 1862 he was asked by the government to go on a peace mission to the Sioux. Learning that a punitive expedition against the Sioux was planned, Father De Smet refused to go with it, believing that the Sioux had legitimate grievances. This is an example of why Father De Smet was so trusted by the Indians he encountered. He was tireless in denouncing actions by whites, especially the trading of whiskey to Indians and encroachment by whites on tribal territories guaranteed by treaty, that caused the Indians to go to war. In 1867, although his health was visibly beginning to fail, he set out at the request of the government for the territory of the Sioux on a peace mission. Thousands of Indians talked to the legendary Black Robe, laying their grievances at his feet. He had to return to Saint Louis after becoming seriously ill, but he returned in 1868, the only white man trusted by the Sioux chiefs. Alone he traveled across the Bad Lands to the Sioux encampment of 5,000 braves under Sitting Bull. He counseled the Indians and convinced them to meet with the peace negotiators from the government. On July 2, 1868 the treaty of peace was signed. Father De Smet died in Saint Louis on May 23, 1873.
Throughout his life Father De Smet was showered with honors for his work as a missionary, including being made a chevalier by the King of Belgium. His numerous writings still are an important source of information about Indian customs and languages. However to Father De Smet what was important about his career was spreading the Gospel among the Indians, and protecting them to the extent that he could from the ravages of war, both from the whites and from intertribal conflicts. It is a lasting testament to him that wherever he went he brought the Peace of Christ.