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His first trip up river

By April 5, 2024 9 Comments

Just about ten years ago, St. Louis University, a private Jesuit institution, moved a statue featuring one of its own founders, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, from a prominent location on campus to the school’s museum.

It must have been a difficult decision, given De Smet’s historical significance, not only as one of its own, but also one of the very first Black Robes to visit the Indigenous of the upper Missouri all the way to the Rockies with the story of salvation. On the other hand, pressures for removal of the monument were great and understandable. An op-ed in the student newspaper argued this way: “The statue of De Smet depicts a history of colonialism, imperialism, racism and of Christian and white supremacy,” and did so even visually, Father De Smit standing significantly above two tribal people in traditional dress.

Native American mission outreach is not highly regarded these days. Boarding schools were only part of the inherent arrogance of the enterprise in the early days. It is amazing to think there was a time when white Christians assumed they could painlessly remove an Indian soul and replace it with a white one.

Moving the De Smet sculpture from the heart of the campus to the museum obfuscates the offense, but also lowers the prominence and presence of a Flemish priest whose life story, whose works of compassion and courage, should not be lost.

Let me tell you one story because mostly it happened in my neighborhood, where for a short time, Father De Smet, in his first stint as missionary, was, by way of his understanding, failing miserably.

It was a mission, even in his estimation–his life, I mean, and it wasn’t going well, not at all, for all kinds of reasons, including the St. Louis Jesuits, who seemed all too often to sit on their hands in all things, including simply writing friendly letters. Life on the frontier was no picnic. Every day he’d see something that, back in Europe, he’d never imagined he would have. Sometimes, especially when the whiskey barrels would roll in, he’d come to wonder a bit about his own calling, whether it was here with the refugee Potawatomie, and sometimes whether or not his calling even existed.

There they sat, in a circle, with their chins on their knees, or so he wrote in a letter detailing his visit up river to the Yankton. De Smet was a big man, square-shouldered, more Flemish than American, a man unaccustomed to squatting like the Yankton tribal leaders, “a position,” he wrote, “my corpulence forbade me to assume.” 

Instead, the corpulent pastor reported he sat “tailor-style,” and, after the pipe, was served dinner, a portion of venison so ample he claimed he could eat left-overs for two days. 

It’s impossible to imagine how dangerous this trip was. Father De Smet had, all by himself, left the Council Bluffs mission to ask some forbearance. The Yankton knew every nook and cranny from the Des Moines River to the Missouri and beyond. They were well-supplied and situated in a homeland they’d known for two centuries. They had no good cause to raid the rag-tag immigrant Potawatomie, who had no idea where they were, not simply because of the whiskey they all too readily consumed, but also because they found themselves strangers in a very strange treeless land. Call him courageous or a nut case, Father De Smet left Council Bluffs determined to ask the Yankton to stop raiding the miserably poor.

He hadn’t walked all the way to the Vermillion River, although not many years later he would cover that kind of distance short shrift–100 miles or so. On this his first trip up the Missouri, he’d hitched a ride on a steamboat, where the company was itself a blessing. He’d teamed up with a string of scientists out to make discoveries whenever the steamer pulled over to avoid a snag or sandbar, which was often. Next to baptizing men and women and children, looking closely at the rich, fascinating natural world around him was his very favorite thing to do. De Smet’s letters give evidence he took great interest and pleasure in a new, natural world all around. That he missed his Flemish homeland was clear in the letters he wrote to his family, but this new world was a pageant of heavenly handiwork.

When the steamship arrived at the Vermillion, he left the explorers behind and assumed the divine office of peacemaker.

In sheer innocence, he’d come alone and weaponless. Almost 200 years later, that seems shamelessly naive and dangerous, but the mission was crucial. In everything he said around that leadership circle–he’d never worked with a translator before–the Yankton must have sensed both urgency and conviction because they listened to what he’d come to say. They could have easily sent him home with much, much less than venison leftovers.

So, what happened? There’s no record, but he might well have told them a story, how, back at the mission, after too many months without food or provisions, finally a steamer came up the river full of so much of what they needed, how it was close enough for the Potawatomie to see, how deliverance from hunger seemed so very close–and how right there in front of them that steamer like a stone when it caught a tree it couldn’t avoid. They’d see it all. It’d been right there in front of them. They’d seen it go down. He’d been right there with them. 

Father De Smet told them he’d come to ask them to stop raiding the woebegone tribal people who woke up every morning, without supplies, in a foreign country ever so far from Lake Michigan. They needed to be left alone, he probably said. He’d come to beg; he had no authority, although he had the black robe the Yankton somehow sensed carried white man’s “medicine.” This man, this Black Robe, armed only with faith, had come to call on them to live in peace with the refugees down river, a people who drank way too much whiskey and were in dire need to be left alone. It was late May, 1839. “In the name of God,” he might well have said, “I’m asking you for peace.”

And he got it. The Yankton said okay and stopped the raids, at least for a time. 

Soon enough, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet left Council Bluffs to go up river again–far, far up river with the Word and the sacraments and a well-earned reputation for justice and peace. 

That parlay at the Vermillion River isn’t the only reason Father De Smet has a place in the stained glass of Catholic churches throughout the West. Truth be told, very few who know the De Smet story bother much with his visit near the Vermillion River in 1839. It’s almost a trifle. There are bigger stories packing far more adventure, but none, perhaps, more rich and blessed as Father De Smet’s very first innocent attempt at Jesus’s own brand of peace-making, just a few miles up river from here.

No, there’s no historical marker, no sign telling the story.

It just seems that someone should tell this one, a lovely story of peace, right here in neighborhood. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    And thank you once again for telling it.

  • RZ says:

    Not the first time you have held up Fa De Smet as a man of Christian virtue. Yes, he was a man of his time and undoubtedly held some culturally presumptuous beliefs. But such 9eicontrast with the Manifest Destiny of his day and the Christian Nationalism of ours is striking. It is so inspiring when one’s Christian compassion and selflessness overwhelms pragmatism and “doctrinal” strategy of the times. So much like Jesus. We needed this story. Thanks!

  • I am jealous of your knowledge of history and your writing skills. Thank you for this wonderful story of witnessing for the kingdom.

  • Ruth E. Stubbs says:

    Thanks for telling the story, Jim. You tell it so well. I’m glad to know it now.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thanks for this story, Jim, of Father De Smet whose ministry in peacemaking belied the meaning of the Dutch-Flemish name he was born with.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for the story. Looking at the statue, it’s easy to see why it gives offense. I wonder if De Smet would have approved of the stature? What if De Smet had been depicted on his knees, hands together, looking up into the faces of the Native Americans, and imploring…?

    • James Schaap says:

      In this first placement, the work was in every way tough. He took great joy out of surreptitiously baptizing babies when parents would bring them in for the white man’s medicine. A much better scene would have been him sitting holding a baby, the child’s parents behind him lovingly.

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