Hot Springs of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, 1872

Yellowstone pilgrimage in 1866 by Jesuit ‘Black Robe’ Missionary

Hot Springs of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, 1872
Hot Springs of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, 1872 (Image courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Image Library)

The tall, muscular Jesuit missionary lay back and let the images sit awhile in his mind as he watched the smoke from the lodge fire curl through the opening where the poles protruded into the night sky.  Camped in the darkening woods along the banks of the Judith River, Francis Kuppens took rest in the lodge of the Piegan leader Chief Big Lake; he listened intently to tales his hosts shared of a mysterious, enchanting land at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. A handful of the younger men reclined in a haphazard circle in their chief’s lodge as they told with restrained eagerness of steep canyons shimmering in an array of brilliant colors, crowned by roaring waterfalls; they spoke of restless waters brimming with fish in a vast sparkling lake rimmed with snow-capped mountains; their talk grew rapid and excited as they described the simmering springs boiling up from underground, sometimes erupting in tall fountains spewing steam and water hundreds of feet into the mountain air.

Inside a Piegan lodge
Inside a Piegan lodge, photograph by Edward S. Curtis 1910 (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Pulling up the thick bison skin blanket against the chill evening, the young Flemish missionary could not be certain of the details that his Piegan companions related, still lacking confidence in his grasp of their native language. The images they evoked, though, were clear enough to rouse his imagination. As he lay in the smoky tent of Chief Big Lake in the dark wilds of the Montana Territory, the young Jesuit determined he must see this enchanted place for himself.

Journey to an enchanted land

The Indians, as far as Fr. Kuppens could tell, seemed as enthused to make the trip to this mysterious land as he was. The way they talked about the place, it seemed that the Piegans anticipated with great delight any opportunity to visit the remote plateau of wonders, not unlike his Flemish countrymen anticipated a visit to Kortrijk in Flanders, site of the legendary Battle of the Golden Spurs. As he traveled with a hunting party in the spring of 1866, Fr. Francis Kuppens had no difficulty urging his companions to show him the place that they had spoken of all winter long.

The excursion up to the land of enchantments sidetracked the little party of Piegan huntsmen from their pursuit of the vast herds of bison on the plains farther east. They followed a lesser-used route up the Yellowstone River toward the high mountain plateau where springtime had not yet vanquished the remains of winter snows. After several days’ travel, Fr. Kuppens’ Piegan escorts led him to the rim of a great canyon as he had never seen. Its steep walls plunged a thousand feet or more toward the dull green of the river far below; the subtle hues of the stones painted a colorful scene of pinks, reds, oranges, and yellows, streaked with white, gray, brown and black, all dotted with the dark gray-green of pines sprouting precariously here and there along the canyon sides. A constant roar of the river’s turbulent passage far below underlay the penetrating silence of the canyon’s expanse. In the distance a majestic falls crowned the scene with the white veil of the great river plunging hundreds of feet into a perpetual cloud of mist shrouding the canyon bottom. The Flemish missionary sat awestruck taking in the glorious scene.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, 1893-1901
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, 1893-1901 (Image courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The glory of God in a mysterious land of wonders

The small party of native hunters with their black-robed missionary guest left the spectacular scene of the canyon and traversed the open valleys of the high plateau, still dotted with patches of snow along the shaded banks of the river. A distinctive sulfurous scent aroused their attentions as they approached a cloud of steam rising beyond a low ridge. Its source was a collection of boiling springs and bubbling mud, all spewing a heavy odor that penetrated the eerie landscape, like a basket of hens’ eggs left too long in the pantry. The party tread cautiously on the fragile ground surrounding the curious caldrons, avoiding a fall into waters that would certainly prove painful if not fatal.

Another day’s travel brought them to a scene that even the young Jesuit’s most vivid imaginings had not anticipated. He took in a vast gray landscape erupting with boiling waters, ruptured with loud hissing of pressurized air escaping from underground through narrow openings, pools of brilliant colors the young missionary had never before seen, all shrouded in billowing clouds of steam rising across the horizon. Fr. Kuppens stood in wonder beside his Piegan companions as an enormous column of steaming water erupted skyward near the river, like the sudden exhalation of a blowhole from some monstrous whale lurking in a hellish sea beneath the fragile ground. A short distance away another stream of steaming water shot a graceful arch over the river. Farther downstream the small party paused to contemplate the calm surface of one of the many deep pools of hot water scattered throughout the area. The crystalline waters reflected a brilliant azure color melding to green toward the outer edges of the pool rimmed in bright oranges and yellows. Fr. Kuppens understood then the glory of a God who had created such a magical and mysterious land of wonders. ♨

Jesuit “Black Robe” in Montana
Jesuit “Black Robe” in Montana (Painting by Fr. Nicholas Point, from Indian Life in the Rocky Mountains, 1840-1847)

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