About Pierre-Jean De Smet, s.j.
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 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.
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.
Mission work in Iowa Territory
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. With little success in religious conversions, De Smet was said to secretly baptize Indian children. 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.
De Smet's travels in the West meant that he spent years exploring and organizing missions. He was involved in extensive missionary work, especially among the Flathead. He was sent by Bishop Joseph Rosati after several pleas from the Nez Perce and Flathead Indians to receive a "Black robe". This was the name by which they referred to the Catholic missionaries, based on their traditional long black cassocks.
One of De Smet's longest explorations began in August 1845. He started from Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho and crossed into the Kootenay River valley. From there he followed the valley, eventually crossing over to the source of the Columbia River. He traversed a portion of that valley, followed Sinclair Pass, recrossed the Kootenay and, using White Man’s Pass, reached the Bow River valley, near the site of present-day Canmore, Alberta. From there he headed north 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 to 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 reached the Columbia River and 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
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.
His papers, with accounts of his travels and missionary work with Native Americans, are held by the library at St. Louis University, which he helped establish and added to with valuable books from Europe.
Several places are named in honor of De Smet, including:
De Smet, Idaho, a populated place
DeSmet, Montana, a populated place near the Missoula International Airport
De Smet, South Dakota, the 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, Wyoming and Sheridan, Wyoming