First Priest in Sheridan-Johnson Counties

Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, ‘Black Robe’ Courtesy Missouri Historical Society.

Probably the first known Catholic mass to be held in the Sheridan-Johnson County area was held in 1851, by the Jesuit priest Father Pierre -Jean De Smet on the shores of in his words, “a lovely little lake about six miles long.”

In a fitting gesture, De Smet’s companions named this lake after him.

Although most of Father De Smet’s mission work was done in Montana and Canada, he was in the area of Lake De Smet due to the Horse Creek Treaty of 1851.

The Lake DeSmet Marker. It says 1840, but Father DeSmet was not here until 1851

Father De Smet was known and respected by many Indian Tribes, so he was asked to help negotiate the treaty in September of 1851. Government officials believed his presence would help persuade tribal representatives to sign the treaty, which promised compensation to the tribes of specific lands for specific tribes in exchange for free passage of settlers traveling along various trails.

Father DeSmet’s story starts in 1801 across the seas in Belgium. As a young man his dream was to become a missionary to the Indian Tribes in the American West. In 1821, when he was 20, Pierre-Jean De Smet, left the Catholic Seminary in Mechelen, Belgium against his father’s wishes. From there he and some fellow missionaries boarded a ship at Amsterdam that carried them to Philadelphia, USA.

In 1823, De Smet was transferred to Florissant, Missouri just north of St Louis, to complete his theological studies and to begin his studies of Native American languages. He was ordained in September 1827. Six years later, on September 23, 1833, De Smet became an American citizen.

In 1838 and 1839, De Smet began his missionary work among the Native Americans, working primarily with a Potawatomi band.

Photo Courtesy of Missouri Historical Society

In 1839, De Smet got his wish to move farther westward. The Salish Tribe in Montana had requested a ‘black-robe’ to minister to their people, and Father De Smet was granted the position.

For safety and convenience De Smet traveled with an American Fur Company  brigade. The party camped at Red Buttes, near Casper, Wyoming on June 14, 1840. A few days later they passed by Independence Rock, where De Smet inscribed his name, “that of the first priest to reach this remote spot.”

On July 5, they reached the Green River Rendezvous where Father De Smet offered the first Catholic Mass in Wyoming, a mile east of the present day town of Daniel. Today there is a monument near the site. 

When De Smet arrived at Pierre’s Hole, (in present-day Idaho) 1,600 Native Americans greeted him. He baptized 350 people, afterwards returning to the East to raise funds to start a mission.

In 1841, De Smet returned accompanied by two priests, Gregorio Mengarinia and Nicholas Point, and three friars. They founded St. Mary’s Mission in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana among the Salish Tribe, and worked with them for several years.

When the government asked De Smet to help with the treaty negotiations ten years later, he was in St. Louis. His 800- mile journey became something of a saga. First he traveled on the steamboat St. Ange from St. Louis to Fort Union. Fort Union by was built by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company where the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers join, in 1828. Between 1828 and 1867, Fort Union was the most important fur trade post on the Upper Missouri River.

Leaving Fort Union, Father De Smet wrote about the journey in his journals. He wrote there were Assiniboins, Minetarees and Crow along, and the party consisted of 32 men. Their route took them across the Yellowstone river to Fort Alexander, (near present day Decker, Montana,) which he had visited before.

Lake DeSmet Today

On July 31, 1851, three Crow braves they met en route misdirected them, and the party became lost and had to backtrack several times before entering what’s now Sheridan County. The party made their way southwardly, along the eastern base of the Big Horn Mountains to the Platte river (near Casper.) It was during this journey they stopped at Lake De Smet. They finally arrived at Red Bluffs. The planned start date of the council had been September 1, but because of other issues, the meeting actually convened on September 8. De Smet knew his way from Red Buttes to Fort Laramie, and was on time for the council.

Then they came upon the Oregon trail, and the Indians were amazed by the size of the wagon tracks. “They were filled with admiration on seeing this noble highway, which is as smooth as a barn floor swept by the winds.” De Smet said that no grass could grow on account of the continual passing. The Indians along with him relished picking up abandoned knives, forks, spoons, basins and coffee pots at camping sites along the trail, and De Smet said that when they got back to their villages, “How wonderful will be their accounts of the great medicine road…..”

As well as Jesuit Father Peter De Smet, beloved ‘Black Robe’, others included in the negations were: Thomas Fitzpatrick (fur trader and indian agent); David D. Mitchell (Superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis); Jim Bridger; and John C. Fremont (surveyor and explorer). Most of the tribes representatives signed on to the treaty.

.Father De Smet was affectionately known as a “Friend of Sitting Bull,” and 17 years later he tried to persuaded the war chief to participate in other negotiations at the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

Model of Old Fort Laramie

Father De Smet was less than successful with Sitting Bull. In Frontier Index Newspaper July 7, 1868: On the 3rd, General Terry and Father De Smet were at Fort Rice, urging peace upon the whole Sioux nation. The Indians said they didn’t care about peace, but wanted more ammunition.

Father De Smet spend many years, from 1839 until the early 1870s, (he died in 1873) working with the Indian Missions in Montana, Idaho and Canada. His extensive travels as a missionary were said to total 180,000 miles. He established several missions, many that are now on the register of National Historic Places. He helped to convince the tribes to negotiate with the government on treaties, and brought many Native American’s into the Catholic fold.

Almost as an epilogue, this item appeared in the HUDSON, of FREMONT COUNTY, WYOMING, FRIDAY, JUNE 3, 1910.

Interesting Find. While Father Mooney was superintending, last Friday, the demolition of a barn which stood at the rear of the Catholic church m Lander he found an old Roman Missionbook such as was used by the old-time missionaries who taught the Indians their first, religions duties. On the cover of this book, which is surprisingly well preserved, are to be seen the letters **met” and the others are almost entirely obliterated by the ravages of time. Father Mooney is of the opinion that the book at one time belonged to that pioneer of pioneers, Father De Smet, who as is well known was almost the first white missionary to come into the wilds of the west, and who labored for years among the tribes in this part of the country. An effort is being made to decipher, by the means of a solution, the rest of the letters on the cover of the book and if it is proven that the book was at one time property of the aged missionary, it will be kept in Lander as an almost priceless piece of historical evidence that the Reverend gentleman was at one time in the Lander valley. Father Sefton, of the mission below Arapaho, saw it and he is firmly convinced that Father Mooney is right in supposing that the book was the property of Father De Smet.

As well as Lake De Smet, several towns also bear his name, a remembrance of a unique individual who followed and lived his dream when Wyoming was still the stronghold of many Native American tribes and the few other white men were either trappers or traders that passed through the area like the Wyoming wind.

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