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Pierre-Jean De Smet (30 January 1801 – 23 May 1873), also known as Pieter-Jan De Smet, was a Belgian Catholic priest and member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), active in missionary work among the Native Americans of western North America in the mid-19th century, in the midwestern and northwestern United States and western Canada.

Pierre-Jean De Smet
Pierre-Jean De Smet - Brady-Handy.jpg
circa 1860-65, by Mathew Brady
Born (1801-01-30)30 January 1801
Dendermonde, Belgium
Died 23 May 1873(1873-05-23) (aged 72)
St. Louis, Missouri
Other names Pieter-Jan De Smet
Education White Marsh Novitiate,
present-day Bowie, Maryland
Church Catholic
Ordained 23 September 1827 (1827-09-23)

His extensive travels as a missionary were said to total 180,000 miles (290,000 km). 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.


Early lifeEdit

Born in Dendermonde, in what is now Belgium, De Smet 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 moved west to St. Louis to complete his theological studies in 1823.[1]

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.

Likeness of De Smet's map of the Council Bluffs, Iowa area, 1839. De Smet's mission is labeled "St. Joseph's", The area labeled 'Caldwell's Camp' was a Potawatomi village led by Sauganash; this was at or near the later town of Kanesville, the precursor of Council Bluffs.[2]

Mission work in Iowa TerritoryEdit

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. 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.[3][4]

First missionary tourEdit

After discussion with Iroquois, the Salish had gained a slight knowledge of Christianity, and became so convinced of its truth that at three times they sent delegations of their tribe over 1,500 miles (2,400 km) to St. Louis to request "black-robes" to be sent among them to baptize their children, sick, and dying. The first three delegations failed due to disease and massacre, while passing through the Territory of the Sioux, but the fourth was successful. Fr. de Smet was then assigned to accompany the messengers back to the Indian territory, to ascertain the nation and establish a mission among them. On 5 July 1840, Father De Smet offered the first Holy Mass in Wyoming, a mile east of Daniel, a town in the west-central part of the present state. A monument to the event stands on its site.[5]

In 1841, St. Mary's Mission was founded among the Salish by De Smet, who labored there for several years. He noted the proselytising of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions under Henry H. Spalding based at Lapwai had made neighboring Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) nation wary of Catholicism.[6] One particular band of Nimíipuu was convinced to reside at the mission for a period of two months, their time there ending in everyone receiving baptism. Near the end of his time with the Salish, De Smet sent out an appeal to the United States public for financial aid to bolster his efforts. He viewed their cultural habit of a mobile living to make it "impossible to do any solid and permanent good among these poor people..."[6] He forwarded a plan that the Salish "be assembled in villages—must be taught the art of agriculture, consequently must be supplied with implements, with cattle, with seed."[6]

1845-1846 Canadian Rockies expeditionEdit

Engraving of a Kaw (Kansas) village by De Smet, showing earthlodges and other traditional house forms.

One of De Smet's longest explorations began in August 1845 in the jointly occupied region west of the Rockies, known to Americans as Oregon Country and Columbia District to the British. He started from Lake Pend Oreille in present-day north Idaho and crossed into the Kootenay River valley. He followed the Kootenay valley north, eventually crossing over to Columbia Lake, the source of the Columbia River at Canal Flats.

He followed the upper Columbia valley north to and past Lake Windermere. At Radium Hot Springs he turned east and went over Sinclair Pass into the Kootenay River Valley. He recrossed the Kootenay. and continued along the reverse of the route pioneered by the Sinclair expedition. He followed the Cross River upstream to its headwaters at Whiteman's Pass. The Cross River was named for the large wooden cross De Smet built at the top of the pass, where it could be seen for miles away.

On the other side of the Great Divide was the British territory of Rupert's Land. From the crest of the pass, streams lead to Spray Lakes above present day Canmore, Alberta and the Spray River which joins the Bow River near modern-day Banff, Alberta. Once in the Bow Valley, he headed upstream and in a North-westerly direction to its source Bow Lake. He went further north until he came to the Saskatchewan River, which he followed downstream and east.

It was October, and a long cold Canadian winter was looming, when he reached Rocky Mountain House. He had fulfilled one of his main goals; to meet with the Cree, Chippewa, and Blackfoot of the area. At the end of the month, De Smet traveled further 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 of 1846, De Smet began his return following the established York Factory Express trade route to the Columbia District. He headed west to Jasper House, and with considerable suffering followed the route; crossing the Great Divide by Athabaska Pass, to the Canoe River, the north-most tributary of the Columbia River, and eventually onto Fort Vancouver some thousand miles (1600 km) southwest.

He returned to his mission at Sainte-Marie on the Bitterroot River.

Later years and deathEdit

Statue of Pieter-Jan de Smet in Dendermonde, Belgium

In 1854, he helped establish the mission in St. Ignatius, Montana, whose current building was added to the National Register of Historic Places 100 years after his 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, where he was originally buried with some fellow early Jesuit explorers at St. Stanislaus Seminary near Florissant, Missouri. 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.


De Smet's papers, with accounts of his travels and missionary work with Native Americans, are held at two separate locations:

Namesake placesEdit

Several places are named in honor of De Smet, including:

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Literary St. Louis. St. Louis, Missouri: Associates of St. Louis University Libraries, Inc. and Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Inc. 1969. 
  2. ^ Whittaker (2008): "Pierre-Jean De Smet’s Remarkable Map of the Missouri River Valley, 1839: What Did He See in Iowa?", Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 55:1-13
  3. ^ Whittaker (2008).
  4. ^ Mullen, Frank (1925) "Father De Smet and the Pottawattamie Indian Mission", Iowa Journal of History and Politics 23:192-216.
  5. ^ Official State Highway Map of Wyoming (Map). Wyoming Department of Transportation. 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c Smet, Pierre. Origin, Progress, and Prospects of the Catholic Mission to the Rocky Mountains. Fairfield, Washington: Ye Origin Galleon Press, 1972. pp. 9-11.
  7. ^ "De Smetiana". 
  8. ^
  9. ^ Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Govt. Print. Off. p. 105. 


External linksEdit