Pierre-Jean DeSmet

January 30, 1801 - May 23, 1873

DeSmet, Pierre-Jean, Jesuits missionary (Jan. 30, 1801-May 23, 1873). Born at Termonde, Belgium, he was educated in Belgium, came to the United States in 1821 and entered the novitiate of the Jesuit order near Baltimore, two years later moving to Florissant, near St. Louis. He was ordained in 1827, taught at the University of St. Louis and spent 1833-1837 in Europe. In 1838 his ambition to become a missionary to Indians was realized when he was sent to the Potawatomi at today's Council Bluffs, Iowa. There it is said he met a deputation from the Flathead tribe of western Montana seeking religious instruction and in 1840, upon his solicitation, was detailed by his superior to assess and report on prospects for a mission in the Flathead region of the Rocky Mountains. In April 1840 he set out with a fur trade caravan bound for the Green River rendezvous. There he met ten Flathead sent to escort him to their homeland, and accompanied them and Jim Bridger's brigade through Jackson's and Pierre's holes, at the latter of which some 1,600 Indians awaited him and his teaching. DeSmet spent two months with the Indians, visiting the Three Forks region of Montana and the mountains to the west and north, then made his way to Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone and descended the Missouri to St. Louis where he arrived December 31. He spent the winter gathering resources for a more prolonged reconnaissance and left Westport, Missouri, in May 1841 with an emigrant train, at Fort Hall, Idaho, again meeting a Flathead deputation. He accompanied "his" Indians northward to found St. Mary's Mission at the site of the later Fort Owen in the Bitterroot Valley, making a journey onward to Fort Colville on the Columbia River before returning to St. Mary's. In the spring he went to Fort Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia, narrowly escaping drowning in the rapids of the Columbia where five of his boatmen perished. DeSmet decided to seek reinforcement and assistance from Europe to expand the promising work of his "new Paraguay," arriving at St. Louis October 31, 1842, and going on to Europe (in his career he crossed the Atlantic 19 times), where he assembled a company of sisters of Notre Dame to found a convent and school in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and enlisted four priests, a Belgian and three Italians. His party left Antwerp by sea on the eight-month voyage around Cape Horn and up the west coast of America, reaching Oregon July 28, 1844. He established the sisters on the Willamette, then took his priests across the mountains to visit his mission posts among the Flatheads, enroute establishing a mission for the Pend d'Oreilles on the Idaho lake of that name. In 1845 he made a reconnaissance of the hostile Blackfoot country, proceeding up the Columbia, across the Canadian Rockies to the Saskatchewan River and reaching the Hudson's Bay Company Rocky Mountain House October 5, 1845, wintering at several fur trading posts of Canada and regaining Fort Colville, Washington late in May. Once more he made a round of the mission stations, also visiting Fort Vancouver and the Willamette establishment. He decided to return to St. Louis to solicit additional aid for the missions, enroute spending three weeks among the Blackfeet and securing a peace between them and the Flatheads, hitherto irreconcilable enemies. DeSmet embarked in a skiff near the present Fort Benton, Montana, and reached Fort Union October 11. He met Brigham Young and a large assembly of Mormons below Council Bluffs (according to one report suggesting to Young that attractions of the Salt Lake Valley as a site for settlement) and reached St. Louis, concluding his final missionary journey to the Far West. In 1851 he attended the great council at Fort Laramie, helping bring about a general understanding among the tribes. He also was credited with attempting to mediate the "Mormon War" of 1857-1858 and the Yakima Indian War of Washington in 1858-1859. In May of 1868 DeSmet arrived at Fort Rice, North Dakota, with the authority of Sherman and the Grant Administration Peace Commissioners to visit the camp of the hunting or "hostile" Sioux, seeking a general peace. He persuaded Charles E. Galpin, Indian trader to accompany him with Mrs. Galpin, a respected Yanktonnais Sioux who would interpret. Both of the Galpins were well known to the hunting Sioux. With them went an escort of 80 friendly Sioux, including noted chiefs of many bands. Runners preceded them to the hostile camp on Powder River; the leader among them, Sitting Bull agreed to meet DeSmet "with arms stretched out, ready to embrace him," and extended an invitation to be a guest in his camp. About two weeks out of Fort Rice DeSmet on June 19 met the aloof Indians. Although there was initial tension and a fear of some unhappy incident perhaps sparked by some impetuous hothead, DeSmet was entertained in Sitting Bull's lodge for safety and a great council held the next day. Sitting Bull was not, as has been reported, baptized by DeSmet, in Vestal's belief, although he accepted religious articles. He would not come in to sign the Fort Laramie treaty, but sent Gall to do it. But the affair was a personal triumph for DeSmet, one of several high points in an extraordinary career. "No White man has ever come close to equalling his universal appeal to the Indian," in Burn's view, adding that DeSmet, paradoxically was not really suited to the routine of missionary life. He tried to do too much and "was at his worst as an administrator." Half of his venturesome life was spent as businessman and financier for his province, with his Indian experiences, his books and his 180,000 miles of travel fitting in where he could do it. "His real talent was an intuitive flair for winning the Indian heart and reading the Indian mind. Allied to this were his services as publicist to Europe for the Indian world, his exploits as peacemaker, and his steady acquisition of men and money for the Indian missions." DeSmet died at St. Louis University of Bright's disease. Of medium height, stocky build and a tendency to gain weight, he was energetic, muscular and virtually immune to hardship. He was invariably cheerful and good humored, tolerant of all but non-Catholic religious workers although he was assisted materially at times by Protestant missionaries who had preceded him to the Northwest. He was however of a friendly persuasion toward anyone, on an individual basis. He was generally liked, universally respected and had a positive impact wherever he paused on his wide travels and intense labors.

Robert Ignatius Burns, S.J., The Jesuits and the Indian Wars of the Northwest. New Haven, Yale Univ. Press 1966; Stanley Vestal, Sitting Bull. Norman, Univ. of Okla. Press, 1969; John Upton Terrell, Black Robe: The Life of Pierre-Jean DeSmet. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday & Co., 1964; Rev. P.J. DeSmet, Western Missions and Missionaries: A Series of Letters, by Rev. P.J. DeSmet. New York: P.J. Kenedy, Excelsior Catholic Publishing House, 5 Barclay Street, 1881.