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.Pierre-Jean De Smet
photograph by Mathew Brady, circa 1860-1865.
St. Louis, Missouri
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'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.
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.
Engraving of a Kaw (Kansas) village by De Smet, showing earthlodges and other traditional house forms.
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.
Statue of Pieter-Jan de Smet in Dendermonde
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 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:
DeSmet, Benewah County, Idaho
DeSmet, Missoula County, Montana, an unincorporated site near the Missoula International Airport
DeSmet, South Dakota, the childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder
De Smet Lake, outside Sheridan, Wyoming
De Smet Jesuit High School in Creve Coeur, Missouri
DeSmet Hall at Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington
DeSmet Hall at Regis University, Denver, Colorado
^ 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
^ Whittaker (2008).
^ Mullen, Frank (1925) "Father De Smet and the Pottawattamie Indian Mission", Iowa Journal of History and Politics 23:192-216.
Killoren, John J. "Come, Blackrobe": De Smet and the Indian Tragedy, The Institute of Jesuit Sources (2003), reprint of the University of Oklahoma Press (1994); ISBN 1880810506