The Apostle of the Rocky Mountains: Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, S.J.

Contemporary historians are inclined to classify the efforts of early Jesuits in this country as being essentially exploratory. The truth is that these noble sons of Saint Ignatius explored our untamed regions simply to bring the message of salvation to heathen souls. Father Jacques Marquette did discover the mighty Mississippi River, for example, but he then used it as a means of finding pagan tribes along its shores.

It was always with this driving ambition that these holy men abandoned the comfort and security of life in their European homelands to venture into the uncharted American wilderness, bringing the Faith and the Sacraments to thousands upon thousands of Indians. Their work, so much akin to that of the Apostles, has even won the admiration of men like George Bancroft, the Protestant historian. He noted: “The history of their labors is connected with the origin of every celebrated town in the annals of French America; not a cape was turned, nor a river entered, but a Jesuit led the way.”

One of those who braved the dangers of the New World’s hinterlands was the tireless Pierre De Smet. He was a Belgian of such great physical strength that even as a boy he had been nicknamed “Sampson.” Pierre was a seminarian when, in 1821, he volunteered for missionary work. He was one of six who were chosen to accompany two priests on their voyage to this country. They arrived at Philadelphia forty-two days later and proceeded to the Jesuit novitiate at Whitemarsh, near Washington, D.C.

A year later, young De Smet and eleven other Jesuit pupils set out on foot for Florissant, Missouri. Here, aided by Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, they established a Jesuit province. Pierre took his vows in 1827 at Florissant and the following year came to St. Louis, where he helped to found St. Louis University, even assisting in quarrying the building stones.


Call of the West

But Father De Smet’s eyes had always been drawn westward, his heart yearning to be among the pagan Indians of those distant and barely explored regions. His dream was to conquer their souls, and his spirit was ever restless with that ambition. Having seen the White Man’s inhumanity and treachery in his dealings with many of the American natives, and the sordid effects of the “fire water” that he had brought into their world, the holy Belgian was eager to reach the savages of the West before white “civilization” did. For in so doing, he could make some restitution for the injustices already inflicted against the eastern tribes and help to safeguard others who had not yet been contaminated by the liquor and immortality of the advancing frontier traders.

It was a great joy to the good Jesuit, therefore, when the Council of Baltimore assigned the Indian missions of the United States to the Fathers of the Society of Jesus. In 1836 he was sent to found a mission among the Potawatomies on Sugar Creek. Soon a little chapel was raised and a school opened. Many, including the sick, came from miles around to learn the Faith and be baptized.


Peace with the Sioux

Overcrowding at the mission was the least of the problems for Father De Smet and his spiritual charges. The Potawatomies were living in terror of the mighty Sioux, who for years were threatening to wipe out their little tribe. The brave priest decided to journey to the distant territory of the fearsome warriors and plead on behalf of the Potawatomies. Not only did he secure a lasting peace with the Sioux through his trusted sincerity and gifted diplomacy, but he also took the occasion to instruct their leaders in the Faith and to baptize many of the children. The Indians were grateful for his sacrifices in their regard, a fact which made his good reputation grow among the various tribes in the Mid-West. This reputation would make his name widely known on two continents and would establish him as the most important missionary in America.

Pierre De Smet in many ways typifies his courageous and pious Jesuit forerunners on the American frontier. These earlier missionaries, accepting certain martyrdom at the hands of the Red Men, eagerly ventured forth to offer their lives in exchange for the occasional conversion of a soul. By such sacrifices they had brought the Iroquois and the Hurons to embrace Catholicism, and these in turn had shared the creed of redemption with other tribes of the Indian world as they were forced westward. Two such tribes were the Flatheads and the Nez Percés, who were destined to play an important role in the missionary career of Father De Smet.

John Upton Terrell, author of Black Robe: The Life of Pierre-Jean de Smet, Missionary, Explorer, Pioneer , gives this account: “Profoundly concerned about their own spiritual state, the Flatheads and the Nez Percés gradually turned to the Iroquois for guidance, and they adopted the rites and customs of the Church performed by them. They came to believe what the stern and stoical Iroquois maintained — that the Indian religion was false and that the Flatheads and Nez Percés were in danger of being thrown into hell. Salvation could be achieved only by embracing the Catholic Faith.”


The Extraordinary Flatheads

But the Flatheads were by far the most virtuous of the North American Indians. Even Lewis and Clarke, having witnessed the widespread degeneracy among many of the Red Man nations, spoke highly of “the honor of the Flatheads. . . . They must be cited as an exception. This is the only tribe that has any idea of chastity.”

Ever since this noble people had scarcely learned of the Faith from the Iroquois, the Flatheads determinedly had sought to find a Jesuit “Black Robe” to give them deeper spiritual instruction and bring them the Sacraments. In fact, the quest became an obsession for them. Several times they had dispatched small expeditions to travel thousands of miles in search of a Black Robe, risking death from enemy tribes. On one such expedition to Saint Louis, when the four emissaries made their arrival, all went immediately into a church and prostrated themselves before the Blessed Sacrament. The other two sadly had to return home with the news that no priest could be spared for missionary work in their dangerously distant Rocky Mountain encampment.

In 1839 two Catholic Iroquois came upon Father De Smet at his Potawatomie mission. Their Christian names were Pierre Gaucher and Young Ignace (after Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus), and they had been living for twenty-three years among the Flatheads, guiding them in the Faith. Father De Smet wrote of them in his journal: “I have never seen any savages so fervent in religion. By their instructions and examples they have given all that nation [the Flatheads] a great desire to have themselves baptized. All that tribe strictly observed Sunday and assembled themselves several times a week to pray and sing canticles. The sole object of these good Iroquois was to obtain a priest to come and finish what they had so happily commenced.” The missionary added: “With tears in their eyes, they begged me to return with them. . . . I would willingly give my life to help these Indians.” Essentially, that is what the good priest did; for, having received permission from his superior, he set out to preach to the Flatheads and Nez Percés and thereupon began his forty-year career among all the great Indian nations of the Northwest.

Pierre Guacher, one of the two Iroquois who had pleaded the cause of the Flatheads to Father De Smet, had been so ecstatic over having at last secured a priest for the tribe that he had raced off to bring the joyous news to his adopted people, leaving Young Ignace alone to lead the Jesuit on this long trek. When De Smet and his companion were still several hundred miles from their destination, they were delightfully surprised to meet a party of Flatheads that had come out to escort the esteemed visitor.


Our Hearts Are Big”

Upon his approach to the encampment, the tribe received their long-awaited Black Robe as though the Savior Himself had come to them, rushing out to him with outstretched arms and with tears streaming down their cheeks. Father De Smet was led to Chief Big Face, who addressed him with this greeting: “Black Robe, you are welcome in my nation. Today Kyleeyou [Our Father] has fulfilled our wishes. Our hearts are big, for our greatest desire is gratified. You are in the midst of a poor and rude people, plunged in the darkness of ignorance. I have always exhorted my children to love Kyleeyou. We know that everything belongs to Him, and that our whole dependence is upon His liberal Hand. Now, Father, speak, and we will comply with all you tell us. Show us the road we have to follow in order to come to the place where the Great Spirit resides. Black Robe, we will follow the words of you mouth.”

And the Black Robe did speak, teaching them prayers, teaching them about the Blessed Mother, and telling them of the Sacred Passion of Our Lord. And as he did so, those touching emotions he had witnessed at the time of his arrival were now even more in evidence among his new spiritual children. Many were soon baptized, including Chief Big Face, who took the Christian name of Paul, and his wife, who took the name Agnes, in honor of the virgin martyr of Rome. Others would have to wait until the spring, when Father could come again to complete their religious instruction. For he had to return to St. Louis before winter set in.

Chief Paul gave this beautiful and moving farewell to his departing spiritual father: “Black Robe, may the Great Spirit accompany you on your long and dangerous journey. Morning and night we will pray that you may safely reach your brothers in St. Louis, and we will continue to pray thus until you return to your children of the mountains. When the snows of winter have disappeared from the valleys, and the first green of spring begins to appear, our hearts, which are now so sad will once more rejoice. As the meadow grass grows higher and higher, we will go forth to meet you. Farewell, Black Robe, farewell!”


Mary Appears

Manifesting her pleasure with, and tender love for, her new children, the Blessed Mother appeared to them on at least two occasions, once in a tepee to a little boy, who described the Lady in a strange robe standing on a serpent that held an apple in its mouth; and again to a twelve-year-old girl as she was dying: “How beautiful!” I see the heavens opening and the Mother of God is calling me to come.” Turning to those around her, the child said, “Heed what the Black Robes tell you, for they speak the truth.” In honor of Our Lady’s great blessings upon them, the Flatheads organized the first Indian society of the Blessed Virgin, with the chief’s wife, Agnes, serving as its president.

Father De Smet returned from the Rockies, arriving at St. Louis in the fall of 1840, to report the happy news of his apostolic victories to his Jesuit superiors. Meeting with him in council, they agreed that his overwhelming success with the Flatheads was a positive sign from the Queen of Heaven of her eagerness to establish her reign among the inhabitants of America’s North-West. An extensive system of missions, therefore, was planned to fulfill this great — not to mention perilous — task of evangelization. And the tireless Belgian naturally was chosen to head the exhausting effort. Each year he would set out for the mountains’ expanse, visit new tribes, and prepare the way for establishing a mission. With this accomplished, other Jesuit Fathers would follow after him and begin permanent labors among the newly-won tribes, while he himself moved on to find others. By this continuing act of dedication and self-sacrifice, De Smet was to bring the message of salvation to some forty thousand souls, numbered among thirty-six separate tribes, the vast majority of whom eagerly received the Faith with open hearts and childlike simplicity.



Outstanding though the preacher’s successes were, however, they did not simply fall effortlessly into his lap like fruit from a tree. They were won by perseverance against the most trying obstacles and difficulties. Father De Smet and his fellow Jesuit missionaries had to travel thousands of miles across trackless wild — through the choking heat of summer with its swarms of insects making ceaseless war on them, into the numbing cold of winter with its biting winds and blinding snows. They crossed foreboding mountains, forded erupting rivers, ferried stagnant swamps. And they were constantly in danger from poisonous reptiles and wandering beasts.

Of course, there was also the ever-present threat of hostile savages. And this was even a greater hazard because, as De Smet himself observed on many occasions, there was nothing on the face of the earth more unpredictable than the American Indian, whether he be friendly or hostile. Fortunately the missionary was able to discern one trait that was common to all. This was their “desire to discover some power superior to man.” He found that by the singular grace of this spiritual hunger, the Indians were “attentive to the least word that seems to convey the slightest knowledge of a Supreme Being.”

The good Father put that grace to his own advantage frequently, for he was set upon many times by bands of unfamiliar tribes. He could almost always disarm even the most fearsome of them, first by arousing their curiosity over his strange-looking black habit, and then by using his gentle manner, simple candor, and sincere love to explain his peaceful mission as a man of God. This did not remove all hazards entirely, however, for it was customary that he should then cement his friendship by feasting with the tribes on native dishes that were usually uncooked, often rancid, and always revolting to the White Man’s delicate appetite.

There were some Indians, on the other hand, who respected only one virtue: courage. And his was tested to the limit on several occasions by ferocious warriors, brandishing tomahawks and knives, who ambushed the unarmed priest, if not to kill him then at least to terrorize him into flight.

Another difficulty was language. The Indians did not use abstract concepts of thought, but were strictly confined in their conversation to material entities. Even learning one such language, therefore, and using it to communicate theological ideas, would be difficult enough for missionaries, but the Jesuits had to assimilate many different spoken tongues and dialects of the Indian world.

Then there was the lack of money. In this country the sons of Saint Ignatius were extremely poor. Americans had little care for helping the Jesuits who labored among them. As a consequence Father De Smet had to cross the ocean no less than nineteen times, raising funds in Europe for his noble work.


Gold, Whiskey, Socialists, and Mormons

And yet we learn in the following instance that he could have been rich beyond imagination without having to leave the Rockies, had he been willing to weaken his high ideals. While traveling through one mountain valley, he came onto a gold nugget as big as a fist, which could only have come from a very large vein. (In fact, it was subsequently found that he actually had discovered one of the richest gold deposits in the world.) But the virtuous priest knew that were he to make known his discovery, it would bring a flood of fortune seekers upon the Indians’ last refuge, along with the worst elements that greed engenders. As badly as money was needed for his work, Father De Smet decided to keep his secret locked within his heart for the sake of his Red children.

Sad to say, it was impossible to prevent the White Men from finding other deposits in the West, and within a few years they were coming in droves. What a cross this was for Pierre De Smet! He could do little but pray as he watched his magnificent spiritual achievements being threatened and sometimes destroyed by the scandalous behavior of amoral libertines, heretics and bad Catholics. “Imagine,” he wrote to his family, “thousands of adventurers from every country, deserters, thieves, murderers, the scum of the states . . . living together, free of all law and restraint.”

These unscrupulous characters gave the Indians whiskey for their gold. And with the advent of whiskey, drunkenness, depravity, and barbarity soon seized the once-noble, Christianized nations of the western Red Men, not to mention the pagan nations that, in the western mountains and plains, at least, tended to be less warlike by nature. These poor souls were cheated in every way possible, and they retaliated in drunken rage by bloody frenzies of revenge. Inevitably the horrible condition led to a state of war.

There were other ruinous compulsions besides the lust for gold that drew White Men into the West. One was political. This was the Icarian movement, led by the exiled French Socialist, Etienne Cabet, who had founded several communistic settlements in the United States. Cabet and his Icarians wanted to set up new states in the West under a Communist form of government. Cabet, wrote the priest “is negotiating at this moment to go and occupy a large territory east of the Rocky Mountains. The poor simple savages will be his dupes. . . .”

Another of the dangers was religious. “The Mormons are there already,” added De Smet, “fifty to sixty thousand in number.” One time he wrote of “that terrible sect of modern fanatics” as follows: “Flying from civilization, [they] settled in the midst of . . . wilderness. With hearts full of hate and bitterness, they never ceased, on every occasion which presented itself, to agitate the country, provoke the inhabitants, and commit acts of robbery and murder. . .”


In the Service of Uncle Sam — and the Blessed Virgin

Criticizing the White Man for his crimes against the Red Man is not a pursuit reserved for bleeding-heart liberals and progressivist haters of western culture. In pursuit of “Manifest Destiny,” Anglo-America committed numerous crimes against the natives out West (including the Mexicans in the Southwest). Uncle Sam had stirred up a hornets’ nest, and in the face of these upheavals, the United States government turned to Pierre De Smet for help. He was enlisted as a chaplain in the Army, but his role was more that of a diplomat. Because the federal government had such a shameful record for violating treaties, the Indians rejected the government’s overtures for negotiating a settlement. Being the only paleface the Indians would trust — “the white man whose tongue does not lie,” he had been called — Father De Smet was the only hope that the United States had for reaching terms of peace with the wronged natives.

Perhaps the most remarkable event in the sad history of these bitter and tragic wars was a meeting with the Sioux, the last force of Indian resistance. Sitting Bull was their leader, and he knew the Sioux nation was no longer any match for the United States Army with its modern weapons. Weary of fighting, and of the suffering his people had had to endure, the famous chief sent word that he was agreeable to meet and discuss a peace treaty with the great Black Robe. And so, at the age of sixty-eight, Father De Smet made the long and arduous journey to the land of the Sioux. A party of five hundred warriors met him upon his arrival. As the warriors approached, Father De Smet unfurled a banner bearing on one side an image of the Blessed Virgin, and on the other the holy Name of Jesus. The war party cried out with joy at this glorious sight and eagerly rushed to welcome the devoted Jesuit.

The peace conference commenced on the following day, throughout which a standard bearer was assigned to hold the banner of Our Lady aloft in the middle of the Sioux camp. Motioning for silence, Chief Sitting Bull began to speak: “Black Robe! I hardly sustain myself beneath the weight of White Man’s blood that I have shed. The Whites provoked the war — their injustices; their indignities to our families; the cruel, unheard-of, and totally unprovoked massacre at Fort Lyon of six or seven hundred women, children, and old men, shook all the veins which bind and support me. I rose, tomahawk in hand, and I have done all the hurt to the Whites I could. Today you are among us, and in your presence my hands fall to the ground as if dead. I will listen to your good words, and, as bad as I have been to the Whites, just so good am I ready to become toward them.”

Father De Smet presented the government’s peace proposal to the Sioux leaders, and then, pointing to the banner of the Blessed Virgin, he said: “The banner before you is the sacred emblem of peace, and never before has it been carried for such a distance. I will leave it with your chiefs as a guarantee of my sincerity and as a continual reminder of my wishes for the happiness of the Sioux tribes.”

Another chief, Black Moon, rose to answer: “You, messenger of peace, have given us a glimpse of a better future. Very well. So be it, let us hope. . . .I express to you here my thanks for the good news that you have announced and for all of your good counsel.” The terms of peace were accepted. The Sioux mothers would not allow the Black Robe to leave them until he had laid his holy hands on the heads of all the little children and infants.

What great personal satisfaction the wonderful priest must have felt from all of this! What a magnificent service he had performed! Not merely among the Sioux, but among many peoples, both Red and White, and over the course of many years before his death at the age of seventy-two. So important a figure had Father De Smet been, as the link of peace between the Indian world and the White world, that the Administrations of three successive Presidents — Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant — could enact no treaty with the Indian nations without his services.

This heroically dedicated “Apostle of the Rockies,” as he was known, loved America. He loved the Indians, and he loved the Whites, from whose Protestant numbers he had also received converts. In spite of the abuses made of it through human weaknesses, this European even loved our system of government: “Show me a spectacle more glorious, more encouraging,” he wrote, “in all the pages of history — a constellation of free states, with no public force but public opinion, moving by a well-regulated law, each in its own proper orbit, around the brighter star in Washington. . . . God grant that it may continue as the beautiful display of infinite wisdom. . . .”

Would that our Republic had lived up to such a noble portrait! And would that its people had better followed the promptings of God’s grace, brought to them by numerous avenues, including such missionaries as Pierre-Jean De Smet, S.J. May the day come speedily when we stop kicking against the goad.

When writing to the people of the United States in 1895, Pope Leo XIII observed: “The names newly given to so many of your towns and rivers and lakes teach and clearly witness how deeply your beginnings were marked with the footprints of the Catholic Church.” The “Apostle of the Rockies” wanted America to be a Catholic nation. And he left his own footprints all across its vast expanse to make it so.

Thank you, Black Robe. Your children are grateful. May your big heart rejoice in the place where the Great Spirit resides!