De Smet for decades worked and lived with the Indians, establishing missions, battling 'liquor traffic' and helping secure peace treaties with rivaling tribes.
This Date in Native History: On June 19, 1868, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, a Jesuit missionary, met with the great Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in an attempt to convince “hostile” Indians to make peace with the United States.
A native of Belgium, De Smet was in his early 20s when, in 1827, he was ordained as a priest in St. Louis, Missouri, and began journeying westward to convert the Indians to Christianity and advocate on their behalf. Known as “Blackrobe” to the Indians, De Smet spent his life proselytizing.
From the beginning of his ministry, De Smet adopted the Missouri Jesuits’ statement of purpose: “We left home and country for the Indians; the Indians are in the West; to the West let us go.”
Called a “true friend to the Indians,” De Smet for decades worked and lived with the Indians, establishing missions, battling “liquor traffic” and helping secure peace treaties with rivaling tribes, he wrote in his personal journal, which later was compiled into the four-volume collection, Life, Letters and Travels of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet.
The years just after the Civil War were perhaps the most devastating for American Indians. In the late 1860s, as white settlers flooded west, the government demanded that Indians relocate to reservations. Tribes like the Sioux and Cheyenne that refused to forfeit their lands and fought to keep settlers out were deemed “hostile.”
The word “hostile” raises suspicions, said Herman Viola, curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. If Natives were hostile, it was because they were forced to leave land to which they had legal rights, he said.
“The government wasn’t going to stop until they drove the Indians into the ground,” he said.
After working with Indians for 40 years, De Smet was recognized for having “greater influence with the Indians than any other white man,” and the Interior Department requested that he travel to the “hostile” tribes in Montana and “endeavor to bring them back to peace and submission and to prevent as far as possible the destruction of property and the murder of the whites.”
The result was a series of meetings of the Indian Peace Commission, an agency charged with negotiating peace with the Plains Indians. De Smet’s role was to travel, sometimes long distances, to meet with tribal leaders and help negotiate peaceful—if ultimately broken—agreements with the federal government.
During the first commission meeting in July of 1867, commission president Nathaniel Taylor summed up the government’s desires:
“We can have all we want from the Indians, and peace without war, if we so will,” he said. “We have reached a point in our national history when, it seems to me, there are but two alternatives left us as to what shall be the future of the Indian: namely, swift extermination by the sword and famine, or preservation by gradual concentration on territorial reserves.”
De Smet, who was trusted by the Indians, had to convince them to peacefully agree to relocate to reservations or face extermination. At age 67, he journeyed for several days to reach Powder River, Montana, and negotiate with Sitting Bull. He arrived in the camp on June 19, 1868, and found as many as 4,000 individuals assembled.
In his own words, De Smet described his hour-long speech June 20 to Sitting Bull and other leaders:
“I spoke to them of the damages with which they were surrounded, and of their weakness beside the great strength of the whites, if the Great Father were forced to use it against them,” he wrote. “Today (God’s) hand was ready to aid them, to give them agricultural implements, domestic animals, men to teach them field work and teachers of both sexes to instruct their children, and all this offered without the least remuneration or cession of lands on their part.”
In turn, Sitting Bull recited the injustices the Natives had experienced. Although he didn’t accompany De Smet back to the Peace Commission to sign the treaty, he did consent to the agreement.
“Some of my people will return with you to meet the chiefs of our Great Father who are sent to make peace,” Sitting Bull said. “I hope it will be accomplished, and whatever is done by them, I will accept and remain ever a friend to the whites.”
The treaty, signed July 2, 1868, classified Powder River as “unceded Indian land.” It also guaranteed that all white people except Indian agents would leave the area.
De Smet was powerless to further protect the Indians, however, and war would continue to rage as Indian land diminished. De Smet died in St. Louis in 1873, three years before Sitting Bull won his greatest victory against the United States at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.