Father Pierre-Jean De Smet traveled as the first Jesuit priest and missionary to the Pacific Northwest in 1839. Starting with that journey, his complicated ties to the region and Indigenous tribes reverberate to the present.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of De Smet’s death. He was born in 1801 in Belgium but immigrated to the United States to work with Native Americans. A delegation of Kootenai-Salish men formed in 1839 to invite “Blackrobes” to teach them about Catholicism. While they had been introduced to that faith by Metís fur trappers, they wanted priests to administer communion and other sacraments, tasks reserved to clergy.
De Smet and two fellow priests set up a church in what is now Stevensville, Montana. On September 24, 1841, St. Mary’s Mission was founded. Thus began a relationship between the Native peoples of the Northwest and the Jesuits that lasts to the present.
A prodigious writer and traveler, De Smet penned hundreds of letters, kept a journal, and spent much of his time raising money for the missions. The Jesuit missions eventually included ones with the Skoyelpi and Sinixt (Colville Confederated Tribes) at Kettle Falls, Washington, and with the Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d’Alene Tribe) at Cataldo, Idaho. De Smet also crossed the Atlantic Ocean over a dozen times on fund-raising and missionary recruitment campaigns.
De Smet harbored romantic notions of creating a protected Indigenous island—free from evil outside influences such as alcohol and settler violence. He was forty years too late.
The push of westward settlement by Americans meant continual and violent displacement for Native people. To aid this movement, the US Army built military roads across the West. One of them, the Mullan Road, ran right in front of the Old Mission at Cataldo at the heart of the Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d’Alene) community.
That sums up the topsy-turvy nature of nineteenth-century America. As everything was changing rapidly, it became harder and harder to keep up with the world. De Smet was part of this sudden change for Indigenous people. The move from traditional spirituality to Christianity was not easy and has become more contested in the present day among Indigenous people.
For historians and others, this tremendous transition was documented in De Smet’s letters and journals, which are housed in Washington State University’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections in six linear feet of materials—a tall human’s worth of paper. This treasure trove prompted a recent visit by the De Smet family, the Belgian and Chilean relatives of the Jesuit priest.
Prompted by the death anniversary, three De Smet descendants and their spouses came to see where De Smet ventured. They also wanted to meet Indigenous people. They knew the legacy was complicated but hoped for the best.
The history between the first Jesuit in the Northwest and the contemporary Catholic Church is convoluted, painful, sometimes holy, and at times hellish. While De Smet himself was not involved in the establishment of Native American boarding schools, he gets intertwined with that story as the origin point for that relationship. For that reason, only a handful of Native people wanted to meet with the family.
The De Smet family did see the places and things of their kinsman. The visits to the churches at Stevensville and Cataldo made a deep impression. But the papers made the experience come alive.
As they pored over the letters and diaries, they found references to places and people that they recognized from their family tree. In one of the letters, the mention of De Smet sending a crucifix as a wedding gift for a young nephew, whose heir read the letter, elicited a surprise cry.
This was not just history; it was a family matter. It was a reminder that the past is not that long ago, with relevance and significance still to be considered.
Booth (third from right) at Cataldo Mission with descendants of De Smet (Courtesy Ryan Booth)
Ryan Booth (’21 PhD History), a member of the Upper Skagit Tribe in northwestern Washington, is a postdoctoral teaching associate with the WSU Department of History.