If you lived in the United States during the 19th century and asked anyone, other than a Native American, to name the most famous person in the American West, the answer might be Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson or explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

But if you asked a Native American the same question, the response would likely be the “black robe” Father Pierre-Jean De Smet. Perhaps no individual in the 19th century had more impact on Native Americans than this Catholic missionary.

Born in 1801, Pierre-Jean De Smet began seminary training as a teenager in his native Belgium. Excited by the possibility of being a Catholic missionary in the New World, he immigrated to the United States at the age of 20 and entered the Jesuit Novitiate at White Marsh, Md. In 1823, he moved to the Jesuit facility in St. Louis, where, four years after arrival, he completed his priestly training and was ordained.

In 1826, Pope Leo XII established the Diocese of St Louis, which exceeded the size of the other nine American dioceses combined; it encompassed everything north of Louisiana and west of central Illinois. Almost all of this new diocese, especially west of the Mississippi River, was made up of remote and undiscovered land. It was along the Missouri River, in the Rocky Mountains and west toward the Pacific Ocean that Father De Smet would spend a lifetime proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to the Indians.

Eleven years after taking his priestly vows, Father De Smet was assigned to assist in the establishment of a Catholic mission, called St. Joseph, at Council Bluffs, Iowa. Here, near present-day Omaha, Neb., more than 2,000 Potawatomi Indians had been relocated from the Upper Midwest. Father De Smet spent two years among these people professing the Word of God and exposing them to Christian precepts. Although success was limited, many of these people did find new dignity, freedom and salvation in Christianity.

However, there was one problem that constantly nagged and hampered Jesuit efforts. The relocation agreement that moved the Indians to Council Bluffs stipulated that the U.S. government would monetarily compensate the Indians. White traders and merchants seemed to know of this stipulation and were quick to exploit the Indians, introducing them to the vices of the white man, including alcohol. Father De Smet and his colleagues struggled continuously to keep alcohol out of the missionary encampments, even protesting to the highest levels of government, but with little success.

In that era, the enemy of the Potawatomi was the aggressive and much larger Sioux tribe. These two tribes had frequently engaged in warfare, mostly to the Sioux’s advantage. In 1839, Father De Smet took it upon himself to end the violence. He made the trip from Council Bluffs to the Sioux encampment in the eastern Rocky Mountains, some 12 days of travel up the Missouri River. Alone and unarmed, he walked into the Sioux camp. As he found throughout all his missionary efforts, he was treated respectfully and provided great hospitality. The Indians listened to what this black robe had to say and agreed to make peace with the Potawatomi.

Father De Smet was graced with a God-given special charism that allowed him to relate and minister to Native Americans. He never offended them, never lied, never took advantage or mistreated them. In fact, he would, on numerous occasions, zealously defend their rights before presidents and congressional leaders alike. He was their benefactor at a time when many other whites regarded them as little more than savages. In the most unsanitary, foreign and remote conditions he accepted whatever charitable gifts they offered. A smelly buffalo robe was graciously accepted, or food served on a filthy plate was eagerly consumed; he found ways to fit in with people he grew to love and admire.

In 1840, after two years at Council Bluffs, Father De Smet was assigned to minister to the Flathead (or Salish) Indians, located in what is now Montana. During the several years prior to Father De Smet’s assignment, the Flatheads had made repeated trips to St. Louis seeking a black robe to come live with them and teach them about Jesus. In the spring of 1840, Father De Smet was directed to proceed to the Flathead encampment near present-day Missoula, Mont., and establish what became known as St. Mary’s Mission.

Missionary Challenges

Father De Smet, along with other Jesuits, would establish at least seven missions in the Rocky Mountains, as well as numerous smaller locations largely using the methods of their founder, St. Ignatius. This was never an easy task as the effort was plagued with danger. Just getting to the Indians took days, weeks or even months. Travel was primarily by riverboat, and those river journeys were filled with potential accidents: sand bars, tree stumps, snags, low water and unchartered shore lines. Disease, terrible weather, including tornadoes and snowstorms, forests and thickets also had to be braved. And always there was the unknown reception by the Indians, which never seemed to slow Father De Smet.

Additional aggravation came from the U.S. government, which was forever trying to force the Indians farther and farther west, to confine nomadic people to the reservation. The government also insisted on parceling up the Indians among different religious missionary groups, clearly favoring the Protestants. Perhaps the biggest detriment to all the missionaries was the idea that the noble, proud Indians would adapt to the white man’s culture — that is, they would not only be Christianized but act, dress and conform to a white man’s world. That last challenge was never fully realized.

The Jesuits would quickly discover that the harvest was plentiful but laborers were few. There was an ongoing need for funding and more black robes if their missionary effort was to succeed.

Father De Smet was up to the challenge. He raised money by selling his writings that described the Indians and the geography of the West. He went to Europe repeatedly and not only obtained funding, but convinced more Jesuits to migrate to his missions in the United States. He also petitioned U.S. Congress to support the Jesuit missionary efforts.

During his 72 years of life Father De Smet would come to know and associate with popes, Catholic superiors, presidents, members of congress, Indians from dozens of tribes and his fellow Jesuit missionaries. He would use them all for the greater glory of God.

Peace Mediator

On seven occasions over a 20-year period, Father De Smet was solicited by the U.S. government to intercede between warring Indian tribes and between conflicts of Indian tribes and the United States. One Indian tribe not willing to accept containment on a reservation, not willing to accept the white man’s infringement into their way of life, was the Sioux.

In 1862, they started a war against the United States. The army struggled to handle the situation, and once again the government asked Father De Smet to find a way to intercede and end the warring. The Jesuit, by now 67 years old, took on the assignment to stop the bloodshed and save the Indians from eventual extermination. From St. Louis, Father De Smet traveled 33 days by boat up the Missouri and then trekked another 16 days over land into south central North Dakota looking for the chief of the Sioux, Sitting Bull.

In April 1868, armed with his crucifix and black robe, he entered the Sioux camp and after a few days convinced the famous chief to send representatives to meet with government officials at Fort Rice, N.D. At face value this was a remarkable achievement, because there is little evidence that the two men had ever met. It was Father De Smet’s reputation and the Holy Spirit at work. At the conclusion of the Fort Rice conference, Father De Smet returned to St. Louis where he died on May 23, 1873, Ascension Thursday, from kidney disease.