"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


FATHER DE SMET




Father De Smet.
(From Chittenden & Richardson's "Life, Letters & Travels of Father De Smet." Francis P. Harper, N. Y.)

One of the most honored names in Nebraska annals is that of Father Pierre Jean De Smet, first Catholic missionary to the Indians of the Platte and upper Missouri region. He was born in Belgium January 30, 1801, came to St. Louis in 1823, and in 1838 reached Council Bluffs, Iowa, as missionary to the Pottawatomie Indians who had just removed from their old home in Illinois to the borders of Nebraska.

For the next thirty years Father De Smet was the most active missionary in the western world. He explored the plains and mountains, crossed the continent several times to the Pacific Ocean, founded missions wherever he went and gained the confidence of the Indians everywhere. He also made many visits to Europe to secure funds for mission work.

Only a small part of Father De Smet's active life was spent in the region which is now Nebraska, but he was known and loved by all the tribes of Nebraska Indians and probably had more influence over them than had any other man at any time. Four times he crossed Nebraska over the Oregon Trail, and seventeen times on steamboat, skiff or canoe he followed the waters of the Missouri River past the Nebraska shores.

The beauty of early Nebraska Father De Smet was quick to see and appreciate. No better picture of our own Platte River has ever been given than this by him in 1840:

''I was often struck with admiration at the sight of the picturesque scenes which we enjoyed all the way up the Platte. Think of the big ponds that you have seen in the parks of European noblemen, dotted with little wooded islands. The Platte offers you these by thousands and of all shapes. I have seen groups of islands that one might easily take, from a distance, for fleets under sail, garlanded with verdure and festooned with flowers; and the rapid flow of the river past them made them seem to be flying over the water."

The future of this region was clearly foreseen by this great missionary. The vacant plains stirred within him memories of the crowded peoples of Europe when he wrote:

"In my visits to the Indian tribes I have several times traversed the immense plains of the West. Every time I have found myself amid a painful void. Europe's thousands of poor who cry for bread and wander without shelter or hope often occur to my thoughts. 'Unhappy poor,' I often cry, 'why are ye not here? Your industry and toil would end your sorrows. Here you might rear a smiling home and reap in plenty the fruit of your toil.' The sound of the axe and hammer will echo in this wilderness; broad farms with orchard and vineyard, alive with domestic animals and poultry, will cover these desert plains to provide for thick-coming cities which will rise as if by enchantment with dome and tower, church and college, school and house, hospital and asylums."

Father De Smet was present and took an active part in the first Fort Laramie council of 1851, which resulted in the treaty of that year. He wrote the best account of this great event in Indian history. Although called "The Fort Laramie Treaty" the council was held and the treaty made forty miles east of Fort Laramie in what is now Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska. Here, on a vast plain where the waters of Horse Creek unite with those of the Platte, the tribes of the plains and the mountains met and for the first time made a treaty with the United States, peace with each other and a division of the land among the tribes. This council lasted for eighteen days and was attended by over 10,000 Indians. Here Father De Smet was greeted by thousands whose homes he had visited; his advice was eagerly sought on the great questions before them and the rite of baptism was administered by him to 1586 Indians.

The Sioux were always near the heart of Father De Smet. He admired their courage and independence. He sought to abate their cruelty. In a great speech to them he told how the Indians at the head of the Missouri had buried the hatchet and forsaken the white man's firewater. He asked them to do the same. The head chief replied:

"Black-robe, I speak in the name of the chiefs and braves. The words you bring from the Master of Life are fair. We love them. We hear them to-day for the first time.

"Black-robe, you are only passing by our land. Tomorrow we will hear your voice no more. We shall be, as we have been, like the Wishtonwish (prairie dogs) who have their lodges in the ground and know nothing.

"Black-robe, come and set up your lodge with us. We have bad hearts, but those who bring the good word have never got as far as to us. Come and we will listen and our young men will learn to have sense."


Indian Welcome to Father De Smet.
(From Chittenden & Richardson's "Life, Letters & Travels of Father De Smet." Francis P. Harper, N. Y.)

Father De Smet's greatest service to Nebraska and the West occurred in 1868. For several years a bloody war had raged along the Sioux border. A peace commission had been sent from Washington to Fort Laramie with General Sherman at its head. Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and other hostile chiefs had gone with several thousand followers into the wild region northwest of the Black Hills. At the request of the United States Father De Smet left his home at St. Louis and journeyed by steamboat up the Missouri River to Fort Rice near the mouth of Cannonball River in North Dakota. From here he set out alone with an interpreter and escort of Indians for the camp of the hostiles. He found these near the junction of the Powder and Yellowstone rivers. He was received joyfully by them and here on June 21st he held a great council with 5,000 hostile Sioux. Father De Smet was given a seat in the center near the two head chiefs, Four Horns and Black Moon. His large white banner of peace was placed beside him. His own account says:

'The council was opened with songs and dances, noisy, joyful and very wild, in which the warriors alone took part. Then Four Horns lighted his calumet of peace; he presented it first solemnly to the Great Spirit, imploring his light and favor, and then offered it to the four cardinal points, to the sun and the earth, as witnesses to the action of the council. Then he himself passed the calumet from mouth to mouth. I was the first to receive it, with my interpreter, and every chief was placed according to the rank that he held in the tribe. Each one took a few puffs. When the ceremony of the calumet was finished, the head chief addressed me, saying, Speak, Black-robe, my ears are open to hear your words."

The white haired missionary was then sixty-seven years old, with a face calm, mild and peaceful, which all loved to look upon. He spoke to the fierce Indians as to children, told them the terms of peace he brought them and pointed out the danger and folly of fighting the white man. At the close of his speech Chief Black Moon said:

"We understand the words the Black-robe has spoken. They are good and full of truth. This land is ours. Here our fathers were born and are buried. We wish, like them, to live and to be buried here. We have been forced to hate the whites. Let them treat us like brothers and the war will cease. Let them stay at home. We will never go to trouble them. Thou, Messenger of Peace, hast given us a glimpse of a better future. Let us throw a veil over the past and let it be forgotten. Some of our warriors will go with you to Fort Rice to hear the words of the Great Father's commissioners. If they are acceptable peace shall be made."

The other chiefs spoke in the same spirit and the second great treaty of Fort Laramie, that of 1868, was concluded.

Father De Smet died May 23,1873, at St. Louis. In his death the West lost a great missionary and explorer, and the Indians lost their best friend.


QUESTIONS

  1. How far has Father De Smet's prophecy, regarding Europe's poor, become true in Nebraska?
  2. Explain why Father De Smet had so much influence over the Indians.
  3. Did Chief Black Moon tell the truth in his speech?



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