Christianity entered the American west in multiple streams, some as mere trickles that the layers of historical memory have buried deeply under the sediments of ensuing decades, and others came roaring in as floods that carved indelible canyons deep in the western cultural landscape. One such stream that would pool in the Rocky Mountain regions of what is now Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming began with a reconnaissance tour in the summer of 1840 by missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet. This intrepid Jesuit priest carried with him not only the Catholicism of the Black Robes to plant among indigenous peoples of the northern Rockies, he brought new ways of living for the native peoples who would enter the turbulent waters of Christianity.
History remembers Fr. De Smet primarily as the missionary who brought Catholicism west to the northern Rocky Mountain region of the United States. Most accounts view him as a benevolent apostle who was able to cross the boundaries of contention between warring tribes in addition to ameliorating some of the tensions between native peoples and the white intruders encroaching on Indian territories. Despite his own role in the colonial enterprise of civilizing the west, the historical record indicates his high regard among most folks who knew him, Native American and Euroamerican alike.
Tourist in the American West
His first entry into the region where he would have his most lasting impact came on a reconnaissance tour in the summer of 1840. Fr. De Smet went on this initial foray as a missionary of the Catholic faith, but this did not preclude a tourist’s attitude toward the attractions and people of the western landscapes. In fact, his writings often read as a travelogue of western territories.
Among his exploits, both pious and worldly, De Smet tells of ascending a high bluff near the Platte River where he could witness his Native American guides hunting bison; they had encountered a massive herd spread out for more than twelve miles on the plain below. For two hours the missionary priest gazed in amazement at the herd and beheld 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 so many travelers to that land before and since, De Smet dutifully added his name to what he described as “the great register of the desert,” Independence Rock in Wyoming. He thereby inscribed evidence of his claim as “the first priest to reach this remote spot” (as explained in a 1944 essay by Jesuit historian W. L. Davis). Indeed, nineteenth-century missionaries were not exempt from a bit of touristic indulgence as they pursued more pious evangelical ambitions.
The Black Robe’s Legacy
In the decade following his first tour of the Rocky Mountain region, Fr. De Smet led the efforts to establish a lasting Catholic presence among the native peoples of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The influence of the Black Robes in that area 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 the Yellowstone plateau himself, but his reports gathered from people like the renowned explorer and trader Jim Bridger contributed to a public curiosity about the wonderland at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. ♨
[Image credits: 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); the image is in the Mallet Collection of the Emmanuel d’Alzon Library at Assumption College. The Independence Rock illustration appears on the Wyoming Tales and Trails website: http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/oregontrail3.html.]