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Pierre Jean De Smet

Pierre Jean De Smet

The Belgian Jesuit priest Pierre Jean De Smet (1801-1873) was a pioneer Roman Catholic missionary among the Native Americans west of the Mississippi River.

Pierre Jean De Smet was born at Termonde on Jan. 30, 1801. At the age of 14 he entered the seminary at Malines. On Sept. 21, 1821, he arrived in the United States to enter the novitiate of the Jesuit order at White Marsh in Maryland. Two years later he was a member of a group that traveled overland to St. Louis whose purpose was to establish a new novitiate in the West. At his ordination as priest in 1827 he expected assignment as missionary among the Native Americans, but other pastoral assignments and serious illness delayed his dream for another decade.

Father De Smet's long missionary work among the Native Americans began in 1838, when he was sent among the Potawatomi Indians to found a mission. On this journey he began to keep the journals and write the long letters that were published later in book form and became the literary basis for his reputation. In 1840 he set out on the first of several long expeditions across the Northwest to evaluate the possibilities for missions among the Flathead and Nez Percé Indians in the Oregon country.

During 1841-1842 Father De Smet returned to Oregon, explored more of the territory, and established several missions. Finding that Canadian priests had already begun work in the Willamette Valley, he agreed to collaborate with them in extending the system of Catholic missions. He traveled to New Orleans and eastern cities and then went to six countries in Europe to solicit badly needed funds and personnel in 1843. Father De Smet returned directly to Oregon with several priests, nuns, and supplies the next year by sailing around Cape Horn. In future years he made many journeys through the West; he eventually crossed the Atlantic 19 times.

The entire region from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest became his domain. Father De Smet was the leading "black robe" (Jesuit) to the Native Americans, and he was so respected that he was the only white man trusted by them. In turn, he loved the Native Americans and sought to keep white traders, settlers, or government agents from abusing them. Both the U.S. government and Native American tribes used him as mediator. He was especially important in this regard in 1851 at Ft. Laramie and in the Yakima War (1858-1859); he also undertook a number of peace missions to the Sioux. Eventually, he came to distrust government dealings with the Native Americans as much as he had earlier deplored Protestant missionary efforts among them.

Father De Smet's superiors increasingly recognized his appeal and thrust him into the work of propagandist and fund raiser for the Native American missionary work. Not as happy doing this as when working among the Native Americans, he nevertheless served faithfully until his health failed. He died at St. Louis on May 23, 1873.

Further Reading

The best biography of De Smet is John Upton Terrell's well-written Black Robe: The Life of Pierre-Jean De Smet: Missionary, Explorer, and Pioneer (1964). Life, Letters and Travels of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, edited by Hiram Martin Chittenden and Alfred Talbot Richardson (4 vols., 1905), is the basic source, containing nearly all the missionary's published materials.

Additional Sources

Carriker, Robert C., Father Peter John de Smet: Jesuit in the West, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Laveille, E., The Life of Father De Smet, S.J. (1801-1873), Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1981. □

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De Smet, Pierre Jean

Pierre Jean De Smet (pyĕr zhäN də smĕt´), 1801–73, Jesuit missionary in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, b. Belgium. He emigrated to the United States in 1821, served his novitiate in Florissant, Mo., and was ordained in 1827. He began (1838) his long missionary career at a mission on the site of Council Bluffs, Iowa. In 1840 he went to Montana with two Salish who had come to St. Louis in search of a "black robe" (Jesuit), and he established missions in Montana and Idaho. Traveling widely across the Northwest from 1840 to 1846, he won the friendship of various tribes. Later he acted often as mediator between Native Americans and whites—notably in the council at Fort Laramie in 1851 and in the Yakima War of 1858–59. He is said to have advised Brigham Young as to a place for the Mormons to settle, and he was a pacifier in the Utah War. He undertook several peace missions to the Sioux. His books are excellent source material in Western history—Letters and Sketches (1843), Oregon Missions and Travels (1847), Western Missions and Missionaries (1859), and New Indian Sketches (1863).

See biography by J. U. Terrell (1964).

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Smet, Pierre Jean de

Pierre Jean de Smet: see De Smet, Pierre Jean.

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de Smet, Pierre Jean

DE SMET, PIERRE JEAN

Founder of Native American missions; b. Termonde, Belgium, Jan. 30, 1801; d. St. Louis, Mo., May 23, 1873. De Smet was of Flemish-Walloon stock and the fifth of nine children. After meeting Charles Nerinckx, early Kentucky missioner, he came to the U.S. in 1821, entered the Society of Jesus, and was ordained at Florissant, Mo., on Sept. 23, 1827. He then became treasurer of St. Louis College (later University). Returning to Belgium because of ill health, he remained there for four years, two of which he spent outside the Society. In 1837 he returned to Missouri, was readmitted to the Jesuits, and a few months later set out for the mission at Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he remained until 1839. The same year he visited native tribes along the middle Missouri River and encountered two Flathead natives en route to St. Louis to ask for priests to instruct their nation. This visit was to prove the turning point of his life.

De Smet visited the Rocky Mountain area in 1840. Returning in 1841 with five companions, he founded St. Mary's Mission (near Missoula, Mont.), visited Fts. Colville and Vancouver in the far Northwest, and with missionaries F. N. blanchet and Modeste demers (both future bishops) planned the expansion of the Church in the Oregon country. In 1843 he sailed to Europe, recruited five Jesuits and six Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, chartered a vessel in Antwerp, Belgium, and returned to the United States on July 31, 1844. After founding a central mission on the Willamette River (near St. Paul, Ore.), De Smet revisited the natives in the mountains and journeyed to Ft. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to bring the Blackfoot confederacy to peaceful ways.

On his return he was notified of his removal from the office of superior and of his recall to St. Louis. Arriving there he was made provincial treasurer and secretary; his formal missionary career in the Far West had come to an end. During the 1850s and 1860s, however, he visited the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains seven times as an agent of the federal government. In 1864 he alone could enter the camp of Sitting Bull; and his last journey West (1870) was to establish a mission among the Sioux. De Smet was not so much a missionary as he was a promoter and procurator of missions; in their interest, he made repeated journeys to the mountains and crossed the Atlantic Ocean 16 times. His principal published works include Letters and Sketches (Philadelphia 1843), Oregon Missions and Travels (New York 1847), Western Missions and Missionaries (New York 1863), and New Indian Sketches (New York 1865).

Bibliography: h. m. chittenden and a. t. richardson, Life, Letters and Travels of Father Pierre Jean De Smet, S.J., 4 v. (New York 1905). g. j. garraghan, Jesuits in the Middle United States, 3 v. (New York 1938). e. laveille, Life of Father de Smet, S.J., tr. m. lindsay (New York 1915). h. margaret, Father De Smet, Pioneer Priest of the Rockies (Milwaukee 1940). j. schafer, Dictionary of American Biography, ed. a. johnson and d. malone (New York 192836) 5:255256.

[w. l. davis]

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