Church and other buildings
St. Mary’s mission, Stevensville, Montana.
Pierre-Jean de Smet
Fr. Pierre-Jean de Smet

Christianity entered the American west in multiple streams. Some were mere trickles that history has buried under the sediments of ensuing decades. Others came roaring in as floods that carved deep canyons in the western cultural landscape.

One stream that would pool in what is now Montana and Idaho came with the Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet. Besides Catholicism, De Smet brought new ways of living for the native peoples. Through his efforts, they entered the turbulent waters of Christian society.

Most accounts view Fr. De Smet as a benevolent apostle who mediated between warring Native Americans. He also eased tensions between native peoples and white settlers encroaching on Indian territories. In this way, De Smet was an agent of colonial expansion. Nevertheless, he enjoyed high regard among most folks who knew him. Both Native Americans and Euroamericans praised the Jesuit missionary.

Going West

Fr. De Smet first traveled to the western mountains on a reconnaissance tour in the summer of 1840. He went as a missionary of the Catholic faith. But the earnest Jesuit also showed a tourist’s attitude toward the attractions and people of the west.  In fact, his writings often read as a travelogue of western territories.

Among his exploits, De Smet tells of ascending a high bluff near the Platte River. From above the action, he watched as his Native American guides hunted a massive herd of bison. It stretched more than twelve miles on the plain below. For two hours De Smet marveled at the skill of the native hunters slaughtering the enormous animals. It was a wonderful entertainment for a Belgian ex-patriot in the wild west.

De Smet also indulged himself in the time-honored tourist ritual of autographic graffiti. Like many who traveled there, he added his name to what he described as “the great register of the desert,” Independence Rock in Wyoming. His inscription proves his claim as “the first priest to reach this remote spot” (as explained in a 1944 essay by Jesuit historian W. L. Davis). It also evidences a bit of touristic indulgence.

Independence Rock
Travelers gathered at Independence Rock, 1850.

The Black Robe’s Legacy

In the ensuing decade Fr. De Smet led the efforts to establish a lasting Catholic presence among the native peoples of Montana and Idaho. The Jesuits were competing with Protestants for influence in the region. Their success against their rival religionists had an impact that remains even today.  

Fr. De Smet also left a significant written record of the land, people, and traditions that he encountered. Among his voluminous writings we find one of the earliest published mentions of the Yellowstone region. He never visited there himself, but he gathered reports from people like the famous mountain man Jim Bridger. De Smet’s accounts added to a public curiosity about the wonderland at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River.

Notes on images:

The header image is of St. Mary’s mission, in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana; it was the first settlement that Fr. De Smet established. The US Forest Service photo was taken by Roger Peterson in 2011—via Flickr.

The photo of Fr. Pierre-Jean de Smet is from Indian and White in the Northwest, or, A History of Catholicity in Montana, by L.B. Palladino (Baltimore: J. Murphy, 1894); image in the Mallet Collection of the Emmanuel d’Alzon Library at Assumption College.

The Independence Rock image appears on the Wyoming Tales and Trails website.

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