Thursday, February 3, 2011

Belgian Explorer Pierre-Jean De Smet

I was recently having a conversation with another educational exile from Italy and while we both agreed that Queen Marie Jose was badly treated in not being given more of a chance as Queen of Italy, my pride was somewhat wounded by his assertion that all of the greatest explorers of the world were Italians. After doing some research I finally found a Belgian explorer. Exploration was, I will admit, rather secondary to his primary work which was religious. The famous Belgian I speak of was Jesuit Father Pierre-Jean De Smet. He was born in Dendermonde in 1801 and came to the United States with other Belgian missionaries in 1821. Starting in Maryland (the only Catholic English colony) he later went to Missouri, which was a “frontier” state at the time and he was ordained there in 1827. In 1833 he went back to Belgium to recover his health but soon came back to the American west.

From 1838-9 Father De Smet helped in setting up St Joseph Mission in Iowa to bring Christianity to the Native Americans. The first he worked with were the Patawatomi tribe and in addition to teaching them about Christianity he became an outspoken enemy of the whiskey trade which he saw causing murder, thievery and lowering the moral fiber of the Native Americans. He met a lot of opposition in this and he was also not very successful in convincing the Native Americans to convert to Catholicism. But, fearful of their salvation he secretly baptized many of the children, I suppose so they would at least have a chance at going to Heaven. On the exploration front the father helped Joseph Nicollet map the Upper Midwest. He became quite good at this and drew up the first detailed map of the Missouri River valley from below the Platte River to the Big Sioux River marking the major geographic points and Native American villages.

He explored and set up missions in the area of the Rocky Mountains and some of the Native Americans, who had stories passed on to them over the centuries from the Natives of the northeast, came looking for the men they called “Black robes”. This was the name the natives of the northeast (Quebec) had given to the first Jesuit missionaries from France. The many Protestant missionaries could not help them with that request but Father De Smet was eager to meet them; Nez Perce and Flathead Native American nations. In 1845 the bold Belgian “black robe” explored the areas of Idaho, Montana and even traveled as far north as Alberta, Canada. He met with the Cree, Chippewa and Blackfoot nations and explored farther east before enduring the winter at Fort Edmonton. Suffering greatly from the harsh weather and poor health traveled still to the Columbia River and to Fort Vancouver in the spring. With his missionary work at an end he returned to Missouri.

After that Father De Smet occupied himself by raising money to support the missions he had worked to set up and trying to keep peace between the Native Americans and the expanding United States because he was so respected by both sides. He often went back to Europe to collect donations but always returned to the American west. In 1868 he made history by convincing the famous Native American Chief Sitting Bull to accept the Treaty of Fort Laramie. On May 23, 1873 he died in St Louis, Missouri after a career that saw him travel, preaching, teaching and exploring some 180,000 miles of the vast American western frontier. Today he is remembered as the “Apostle of the Rocky Mountains”. Even the competing Protestant missionaries admitted that Father De Smet was the most trusted and truest friend of the Native Americans.


  1. Thank you again for sharing! This was completely new to me and you have once again surprised me.
    Keep it up!
    There is so much history in our tiny country and it is wonderful to read upon for expats like us!
    Proud to be Belgian!