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 on Pierre Jean De Smet

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 Biography 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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