August 4, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Pierre De Smet: ‘The best friend the Indians ever had’

John F. FinkIn my last column, I wrote about Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino, one of our country’s greatest missionaries. Father Pierre-Jean De Smet was another Jesuit missionary who worked among the Indians, about 150 years later. He earned a national reputation as “the best friend the Indians ever had.”

Father De Smet was born in Belgium, and came to the United States for the first time in 1821. He moved to St. Louis, Mo., in 1823. Until 1830, he studied Indian cultures and languages. In 1833, he returned to Belgium because of health problems, but returned four years later. He worked among the Potawatomi Indians in Iowa.

Then, in 1840, Flathead Indians from the Pacific Northwest, who had heard about Christianity, traveled more than 1,500 miles to St. Louis to ask for a priest to live among them and teach them. Father De Smet left St. Louis, and spent the next 28 years in Oregon Country and the Canadian Rockies. He administered the earliest known baptisms among the Crows, Cheyennes, Araphahoes and Assiniboins. At an Indian council in 1851 near Fort Laramie, Wyo., he baptized 1,586 Indians.

His letters, diaries and maps became invaluable not only to his contemporaries but also to historians. He knew the rivers and trails of the West as did few other white men, other than the 19th century’s famous mountain men. I don’t know how he figured it, but he claimed that, during his 28 years among the Indians, he traveled 260,929 miles by foot, horseback and boat.

The Secretary of War asked him to accompany General William Harney to Utah to try to end Indian revolts without violence. He managed to establish friendly relations with the Indians of the Southwest.

When he was 68, in 1868, Father De Smet was asked to intervene with Chief Sitting Bull. The priest traveled alone for 49 days up the Missouri River from St. Louis, across the Badlands and into the Yellowstone valley. When some scouts from the Sioux Indian camp met him, one of them told him, “Blackrobe, entrance to our camp is given to you alone. No other white man could come out of it with his scalp.”

Father De Smet was taken to Sitting Bull. The missionary asked the chief to call a council at which he could speak. Sitting Bull did so, and a four‑hour meeting followed. The Indians agreed to send a delegation back with Father De Smet to meet with American peace commissioners. Father De Smet was able to do this because of the reputation he had earned as the greatest missionary to the Indians in U.S. history.

Naturally, Father De Smet couldn’t instruct all the Indians by himself. After making contact with various tribes and ensuring friendly relations, he would ask religious orders of women to work among the Indians. The American saint Rose Philippine Duchesne was one of the nuns who responded to his request for sisters to minister to the Potawatomi Indians, who had been forcibly moved from northern Indiana to Kansas Territory.

Father De Smet died in St. Louis on May 23, 1873, at the age of 72.

(John Fink’s recent series of columns on Church history is now available in book form from Amazon. It is titled How Could This Church Survive? with the subtitle, It must be more than a human institution.)

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