Since the very formation of the Society of Jesus, members of the order have travelled vast distances to put themselves at the service of others. Pierre-Jean De Smet made it his life’s work to see to the needs of many Native American tribes across the continent.
Pierre-Jean De Smet was born in Dendermonde, in what is today northern Belgium, in 1801. At the age of twenty, he, along with eleven other Belgians, sailed across the Atlantic to join a Jesuit College near Baltimore and begin his novitiate there. From here he moved down to Missouri where a new Jesuit establishment was being founded, and where he was ordained as a priest. It was here that he first came into contact with Native American tribes, and from that time on much of his life was spent travelling across the country to bring Christianity, aid, and council to many of the indigenous peoples.
In Iowa, De Smet founded St Joseph’s, his first mission, among the Potawatomi, and in 1839 he forged a peace negotiation between them and the Sioux, the first of many negotiations he helped build. In the Rocky Mountains to the west, the Salish people had heard of Christianity and sent representatives to seek out a priest to return with them. De Smet agreed and he travelled to Montana where he established St Mary’s Mission in 1841. He returned to Europe in 1842, where he endeavoured to find resources and workers to accompany him. Upon returning to the Rockies he founded another mission, St. Ignatius’, and continued his work, travelling between the many Native American tribes.
De Smet’s competence as a peacemaker and his acceptance among many of the Native American peoples led to his inclusion in peace deals between the American government and different tribes. In 1851 he attended a peace council where chiefs allowed the construction forts and movement along trails through their land, and, most notably, in 1868 he convinced the Hunkpapa Sioux to agree to a treaty allowing the construction of a road across their land, provided the forts were abandoned. Both treaties were violated by the American government. Throughout his life, De Smet is thought to have travelled at least 290,000 kilometres, having sailed back and forth from Europe eight times, and travelled far and wide across North America. Pierre-Jean De Smet died in 1873, at the age of seventy two.