Father Jean Pierre DeSmet

The lesson of American history is the wicked and the strong always find plenty of pretexts to oppress the innocent and the weak, and when they lack good reasons they have recourse to likes and calumnies.

(1801 - 1873)

Belgian-born Jesuit priest who became a leading figure in the 19th century history of the American West as a missionary to the Indian tribes.


         Jean Pierre DeSmet, the peripatetic Jesuit who traveled tens of thousands of miles across the mountainous West - and in doing so, became the most trusted white man among the western tribes - was an important interpreter and witness to the peace council at Horse Creek in 1851. 

          Known as 'Blackrobe' to the tribes of the West, Pierre DeSmet, a Belgian-born Jesuit priest, arrived in St. Louis in 1823 and became a U.S. citizen ten years later.

  He would spend the next thirty years travelling among the western tribes and establishing missions in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and the Dakotas, often traveling on foot and by himself.   He sailed to Europe on four different occasions to raise money for his many causes, and in time, became the most trusted white man in Indian country.

          At the request of David Mitchell, DeSmet escorted the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes to the peace council at Horse Creek, in 1851.  When it concluded he drew a now-famous map of the territory formally recognized by Congress as being owned by the western tribes.

          DeSmet was probably the only white man outside of the fur trading enterprise to travel across the entire Western half of the United States before railroads and pioneers changed the face of the frontier.  Like his good friend of Thomas Fitzpatrick, DeSmet would go to his grave lamenting: "Poor unfortunate Indians!  They trample on treasures, unconscious of their worth, and content themselves with the fishery and the chase.  When these resources fail, they subsist upon roots and herbs; whilst they eye with tranquil surprise the white man examining the shrinking pebbles of their territory."   Over the course of his adventures in the West, deSmet travelled more than 150,000 miles on horseback or on foot, and it seemed to make him unusually clairvoyant about the Indian's future: "The policy of the U.S. has ever been to remove the Indians from each new state as soon as it is admitted…when the lands of the Indians cease to be valuable, and the white can do without them, then only will the Indian enjoy the privilege of retaining them."

                        Of the men, women, and elected leaders of his adopted country, deSmet was no less insightful: "American liberty and tolerance, so highly boasted, exist less in this great republic than in the most oppressed country of Europe…Mobs are the order of the day (in a nation where) liberty is a perversion of the word; it is rather pure license which has got the upper hand…the unhappy land is flooded with crimes and misdeeds of every sort. The American nation is a great, imitative people…they cannot live without some or other great excitement."

          Father Pierre DeSmet died in St. Louis on May 23, 1873, and is buried at the Jesuit Novitiate at Florissant, Missouri.