Pierre-Jean de Smet.

Life, letters and travels of Father Pierre-Jean de Smet, S.J., 1801-1873 (Volume 4) online

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Life, Letters and Travels of
Father De Smet among the
North American Indians.



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Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, S. J.


Missionary Labors and Adventures among the Wild Tribes of the

North American Indians, Embracing Minute Description of Their

Manners, Customs, Games, Modes of Warfare and Torture,

Legends, Tradition, etc., All from Personal Observations

Made during Many Thousand Miles of Travel,

with Sketches of the Country from St. Louis

to Puget Sound and the Altrabasca

Edited from the original unpublished manuscript Journals

and Letter Books and from his Printed Works with

Historical, Geographical, Ethnological and other Notes;

Also a Life of Father De Smet



Major, Corps of Engineers, U. S. A.













Copyright, 1904,


All rights reserved




Miscellaneous Letters Relating to the Indians . . 1213-1227




The Flathead and other Missions 1228-1249

Letters from the Resident Missionaries .... 1250-1261

Tributes to the Flatheads and other Tribes . . . 1262-1278

Plans for a Sioux Mission 1279-1304

Miscellaneous Missionary Notes 1305-1344




Notes on the Western Country i345-i354

The Missouri River 1355-1387

51 "^"^^r^



Fauna and Flora 1388-1401

The Mormons 1402-1415

Indian Anecdotes 1416-1420

Observations upon America 1421-1450

Religious Persecution 1451-1462

Unclassified Letters, Largely Personal .... 1463-1548

Selected Letters Received 1549-1591

Funeral Oration on Father De Smet .... 1592-1600



Difficulties in the way of missionary work — Deaths of baptized chil-
dren — Polygamy and drink — Thanks an informant — The Grattan
Massacre — Indians must be industrious and rely on Providence —
Testimonials to the mountain tribes.

SEE more plainly every day that a good store of virtue
is required, and the assistance of many prayers, to over-
come the difficulties and obstacles which seem to multiply
with our efforts to advance the greater glory of God. The
demon does not sleep, and seeing that some portion of his
prey is escaping him, " tanquam leo rugiens circuit, qiiarcns
qiicm devoret." He employs all his snares and ruses to at-
tach his devotees to their infamous debauches, and to the
grossest superstitions. If a baptized child dies, the medi-
cine men, true ministers of Satan, put the whole village in
uproar to make us the cause of its death. " It is the medi-
cine (the water of baptism) that they poured on his fore-
head ; it is the medal or cross that they have hung around
his neck, and nothing else, that have caused his death."
By such speeches they increase the fears of these poor

Marriage also, which hampers them, and the prevalent
practice of polygamy, form pov/erful obstacles to their con-
version. The Indian is naturally light and inconstant ; con-
sequently to attach himself for life to a woman, and have
but the one, seems to him impossible and insupportable.
I should explain further that marriage is a species of specu-
lation with them; a father who has several daughters is
rich among the Indians, for he can sell them for one, two

1 Extract from a letter (in French) to the Father-General (in 1839?).



or three horses each. Frequently, after they have followed
and relished our instructions for a long time, as soon as we
touch upon this article they go away, like the disciples of
the Lord, saying, '' Diirus est hie sermo, et quis potest emn
audiref " and we have the grief of seeing persons escape us,
who, in all other respects, were giving us great hopes.

A still greater obstacle, and one which will, I fear, end in
the total ruin of the nation, is drink; which brings in its
train war, famine and pestilence, all together. The country
is overrun by vagabond Americans; and the Government,
which alone could put a stop to this abominable traffic, in
spite of the severity of its laws, pays no attention to the
matter. The Potawatomies, by their treaty with the Gov-
ernment, receive $50,000 per annum; this payment having
been omitted last year, they received double in 1839. Such
a sum, well placed, would procure for the savages victuals
and goods in abundance, and would render them happy in
regard to temporal things. But alas! all this money goes
for liquor. As long as it lasts they neither work nor hunt :
and they now have enough to keep them going from New-
Year's day to the end of December. They quarrel and
fight from morning to night ; their bodies become veritable
furnaces, full of foul humors, which cause them all sorts
of maladies. Their love for liquor is really inconceivable ;
one must see it to be able to form any idea of the thing.
It is a regular tarantula to them ; as soon as they are bitten
by it, all their blood flames in their veins, and they are
crazy for more. If they get it, " More, more ! " is their
war-cry, until, as the flame consumes them, they fall over,
drunk, like animals. And when the fumes of drink evapo-
rate from their brains, their first and only cry is " Whisky !
whisky ! whisky ! " as if it was a matter of life and death.

While they are drunk, their passions control them abso-
lutely. At first they are moved to joyous songs, but these
are soon succeeded by yells and roars. Disputes and quar-
rels follow, and then the knives, lances and tomahawks
come out, and murders finally crown their abominable or-


gies. A great many are dead already, and others are hor-
ribly mutilated. The other day I counted nine bitten-off
noses in a single group of Indians. In their rage, this
little member is the principal object of their attack; and a
drunken Indian who deprives a comrade of his nose, boasts
of it as much as a brave soldier of having carried off a flag
from the enemy. When they are sober, no one v^ould rec-
ognize them; they are mild, civil, quiet and attentive; but
there is no safety in the presence of a drunken savage.
Several times already our lives have been in the greatest
danger; but fortunately by gentle and moderate words we
have managed to appease the rage of these barbarous
drunkards, who were breathing only blood.

Sept. 30, 1852.
Mr. Denig, Fort Union:

My Dear Friend. — At my return home this evening. I
found a card in the parlor with the well-known name of
our good friend Mr. Culbertson, and understood at the same
time that he is to leave on to-morrow for the Upper Missouri.
I cannot let him start without charging him with a few lines
for you. I do not know how to express my gratitude for
your very interesting series of narratives concerning the
aborigines of the Far West. A thousand thanks are due
to your precious and valuable labor and are hereby given,
though language fails to express the feeling which a treasure
like your pages has awakened within my breast. Nothing
could be more gratifying to me than the beautiful and
graphic details which you have given me of the religion,
manners, customs and transactions of an unfortunate race
of human beings, toward the amelioration of whose sad
condition I have in some measure contributed and ant still
anxious to contribute whatever I possibly can. Please read
these sublined words to the Crazy Bear, whose speech has
wonderfully pleased me and whose petition, were it to de-


pend on me, I would most assuredly grant. Explain this
well to him. By the next steamer he shall hear from me,
and I shall send him the words of the big Black-robe (the
Bishop), for I have forwarded a copy of his speech to him.

The lot of the Indian; his severance from the hallowed
influences of Christian civilization ; his profound ignorance,
only exceeded by his grosser superstitions ; the deep and
often unmerited contempt, into which prejudice has thrown
him; all call upon the humane and philanthropic to do for
him what ordinary charity requires of man.

In telling his tale in unvarnished colors to the unknow-
ing world by delineating his character and by painting the
scenes with which he is habitually surrounded, you, dear
friend, will soften into sympathy the public heart and stimu-
late it to active exertion for bettering his future situation;
and you will further awaken an interest in the circumstances
and events which surround the posts, plains and wigwams
of the Indians.

Think that your researches can be spent most profitably
to the Indian and most agreeably to me. Show me this
acknowledgment, for your beautiful manuscript tells me
that I may claim a large share in your friendship and re-
membrance, and for which I feel truly grateful to you. You
are filling up the broken, but important, history of a race of
men whose career, I deem, is well nigh run on this conti-
nent, but whose character, deeds and fate will increase in
interest as generations descend the stream of time. We
shall soon look in vain for the survivors of a once fierce
and dreaded people, but shall find them again on the his-
toric page which you and others shall have helped to swell
with faithful accounts of their savage life, rude customs
and untutored manners. I have read the present series
with absorbing attention and growing interest. My imag-
ination has often carried me back to scenes long familiar
to my experience and to others of a general and kindred
nature which your pen has so well portrayed, in your valu-
able descriptions of their religious opinions, of their great


buffalo hunt, their war expeditions, and in the histories of
old Gauche and of the family of Gros Frangois.

Mr. Culbertson will bring you all the news of the civil-
ized world and a little remembrance from me, consisting
of a couple of good razors and penknife.

Believe me to be, etc.

The Grattan Massacre.

Bardstown, Ky., April 17, 1855.
My very dear Gustave and Marie :

I have received your good letter of the 4th of October last
in response to mine of September 12th. Thank you for it
most sincerely. I cannot express to you how much good
your letters, going into such details and so full of family
news, do me. I shall keep them most carefully ; I find only
one fault with them — their dates are rather too far apart ;
let them be closer together, and I promise you, dear friends,
to make it up to you. I rejoiced at the announcement of
the birth of your first-born and I implore the Lord daily to
keep him for you, for your mutual happiness and the con-
solation of your dear parents on both sides.

I told you in my last letter that I proposed to return to
the desert in the course of this spring. That was sincerely
my desire and I regret that serious difficulties have come up
which compel me to put off my visits to the savages to more
favorable times and circumstances. For you must know.
that the grand and glorious Republic is going to appear
on the stage of the great Indian desert to give a representa-
tion of the lovely fable of La Fontaine (always old and al-
ways new) of the Wolf and the Lamb. The moral is,
" The wicked and the strong always find plenty of pretexts
to oppress the innocent and the weak; and when they lack


good reasons they have recourse to Hes and calumnies.'*
An unpardonable offense, it appears, has been committed
in the eyes of our civilized people by the Indians, They
had repaired, to the number of 2,000, to the appointed
spot at the time fixed by the Government agent to receive
their annuities and presents. They waited several days
for the commissioner to arrive and in the meantime they ran
out of provisions. Then a Mormon wagon-train, on its
way to the Territory of Utah, came peaceably by the Indian
camp. One of the party was dragging after him a lame
cow hardly able to walk. A famished savage, out of pity
for his wife and children, and perhaps, also, from com-
passion for the suffering animal, killed the cow and offered
the Mormon double value for it in a horse or a mule.

Such an act with such an offer under such circumstance:?
passes for very honest, very fair and very polite, in a wild
country. Still the Mormon refused the proffered exchange
and went and filed a complaint with the commandant of
Fort Laramie, which is in the neighborhood. Like the wolf
who leaped upon the lamb to devour it, crying : " I know
very well that you all hate me, and you shall pay for the
rest," the illustrious commandant straightway sent out a
young officer with twenty soldiers armed to the teeth and
with a cannon loaded with grapeshot. He was absolutely
determined to capture the so-called robber and make an
example of him. The savages were astonished at the men-
acing turn that the affair of the cow, so frivolously begun,
had taken; they begged the officer to take one, two, three
horses in exchange, a hundred times the value of the cow,
if necessar3^ They wished at any price to " bury " the af-
fair, as they express it; that is to arrange it peaceably and
quietly, but without giving up to him their brother, innocent
according to their code. The officer was inflexible, refused
all offers; he must absolutely have his prisoner; and when
the latter did not appear, he fired his cannon into the midst
of the savages. The head chief, whom I knew well, the
noblest heart of his nation, fell mortally wounded and a



number of his braves beside him. At this unexpected mas-
sacre the Indians sprang to arms; and letting fly hundreds
of arrows from all sides they instantly annihilated the ag-
gressors and provocators. Will you in Europe believe this
tale of a cow? And yet such is the origin of a fresh war
of extermination upon the Indians which is to be carried out
in the course of the present year. An a.rmy of 3,000 to
4,000 men is being got ready in Missouri at this mo-
ment to penetrate into the desert. A very large number of
whites will lose their lives without a doubt, but in the end
the savages will have to yield, for they are without fire-arms,
without powder and lead and without provisions.^

Since the discovery of America a system of extermination,
of moving the Indians, thrusting them farther back, has
been pursued and practiced by the whites, little by little, at
first — more and more as the European settlers multiplied
and gained strength. At this day this same policy is march-
ing with giant strides ; the drama of spoliation has reached
its last act, both east and west of the Rocky Mountains.
The curtain will soon fall upon the poor and unhappy rem-
nants of the Indian tribes, and they will henceforth exist
only in history. The whites are spreading like torrents over

* This is what is known as the Grattan Massacre, from the name of
the officer in charge of the detachment sent after the thief. There is
no donbt that the Indians were already in bad temper over their gen-
eral situation before this incident occurred, and that it required but
little provocation to make trouble. But the unfortunate affair could
probably have been prevented if the commanding officer at Fort
Laramie had understood the gravity of his action and had sent an
officer of sound judgment and experience. The conduct of Lieutenant
Grattan showed him to be lacking in both these qualities. The massacre
took place August 19, 1854.

A little over a year later, September 3, 1855, General Harney, who
had been sent out with a military force to punish these Indians, met
them in battle on the north shore of the north fork of the Platte op-
posite the place known on the Oregon Trail as Ash Hollow. The In-
dians were completely defeated. General Harney then went overland
to Fort Pierre where he succeeded in bringing about a general pacifica-
tion of the tribes.


all California and the Territories of Washington, Utah and
Oregon; over the States of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa,
Texas, and New Mexico, and latterly over Kansas and
Nebraska, which have just been incorporated into the great
American confederation. At a very recent epoch, within
my own knowledge, all these first-named States and Terri-
tories were occupied by Indian nations, and just as fast as the
whites settle and multiply there the natives disappear and
seem to fade away. To-day the very names are hardly
known of hundreds of tribes that have entirely disappeared.
The immense regions that I have just named contain sev-
eral million square miles of land. The Territories of Kansas
and Nebraska alone are forty times as large as all Belgium.
When I began this letter I had no idea of saying so much
about the savages, which can be of very little interest to you.
I speak, no doubt, from the abundance of my heart — it is
my favorite subject — and most willingly would I conse-
crate the remnant of my days to their spiritual and tem-
poral happiness. I recommend them most urgently to your
good prayers.

St. Louis University, September 7, 1868.
Dear Colonel:

Your kind and most welcome favor of the 8th ultimo
was received yesterday and has afforded me a great deal of
pleasure and consolation to be remembered by you. Major
Galpin called thrice on me during his stay in St. Louis. He
kept very busy all the time. I occasionally visited his wife
and children at the hotel. They enjoyed good health but
seemed to prefer Fort Rice. The major gave me all the
news from Fort Rice and mentioned you often. I intro-
duced him to General Sherman with whom he had long
conversations. He met General Harney at the Southern
Hotel. I did not see the major before his departure from


St. Louis, and was informed by Captain Haney that he
was hurried off to Sioux City, by a telegram from Harney.
I recommended the major in strong terms to both gener-
als, I hope he has found some honorable employment and
in accordance with his wishes. His long experience among
the Indians might make him a very efficient man, and
with the co-operation of his good wife, he might render
great service to the Indians, particularly the hostiles, under
the existing circumstances. It is my candid opinion that
he may be very favorably employed and to very good pur-
pose, by the commissioners and the commanding officers
at the various upper posts on the Missouri.

The news you give me from my adopted brother Two
Bears, truly affects me and I am sorry to hear of the dis-
tress and sufferings of his people. The advice you have
given him is the only true one. His actual trials should
not make him despond and omit his prayers. He should
rather redouble in fervor and pray oftener, doing all the
good he can among his own people, to keep them in the
straight path. Trials received with patience and resigna-
tion will render us more pleasing in the sight of the Great
Spirit and more worthy of receiving his favors and assist-
ance, whereas murmurs make things often worse than
before. As you so well advised him, he should continue
to pray, be industrious in hunting, fishing and digging
roots. He must, meanwhile, rely on the kind providence
of the Lord, on whom our dependence must rest altogether.
I join him daily in my poor supplications to God.

What I have foreseen for several years past is now ap-
proaching. The buffalo are fast disappearing from the
country and their time is well-nigh spent. Their want is
already severely felt. Under these trying circumstances,
the Great Spirit has moved the heart of their Great Father,
the President, to lend his red children a fatherly hand in
their actual sufferings. They must avail themselves eam-
nestly of the opportunity he offers and follow the advice
given them by the commissioners. They must set to work


in due season in the cultivation of the soil and the raising
of domestic cattle and animals. Under the providence of
God, it is to be hoped that their labors will prove successful
in time, and before long their children may live in compara-
tive abundance, by the labor of their own hands. Our great
maxim in all things must be : "To do what we can, to ask
God's blessing in what we cannot, and if we are deserving,
the Lord will help us in our need." He commands us to
" ask " and promises " we shall receive." All this, of
course, is intended for my friend Two Bears. I hope Frank
will make him understand it well. He may add that the
actual want the Lord permits may be a warning to his
red children to make strong exertions and efforts to suc-
ceed in the new life they are about entering. I place great
confidence in my brother and friend Two Bears. He will
tell his people, particularly the chiefs and orators, not to
despond, to have courage and hope in the future. Industry
and perseverance must crown their efforts. I remain truly
attached to my red children of the upper country. The
summer has been very severe and long. I have suffered
much, and though it is much cooler at present, I still con-
tinue to feel the effects of the previous heat. Should my
health permit, I intend to return to the upper country in
the course of next spring. I have received some encour-
agement for the erection of a mission among the Sioux and
I sincerely hope that it may be realized.

From the news I read yesterday, in the Missouri Re-
public, the Sioux on the waters of the Platte and its tribu-
taries have refused to join the Cheyennes and Arapahos
in the new depredations and murders. I have been assured,
on good authority, that reckless endeavors are made in the
new western settlements to continue the war with the In-
dians. " It brings them money in abundance, and they are
determined to have it !"

A letter from you, dear Colonel, will be always most
welcome. Please present my best respects to the officers
of Fort Rice.


St, Louis University, May, 1870.
Honorable Sir.-^

I received your favor of the 27th ultimo. Permit me
to express to you my sincere thanks for the kind senti-
ments you entertain in my regard and which I shall ever
gratefully remember. You reiterate to me the invitation,
in the name of the " Honorable Committee of the United
States Indian Commission " to assist at your meetings in
New York on the i8th instant. Even apart from the
great honor you are pleased to confer on me, nothing could
be more pleasing to my personal feelings than to be ad-
mitted in the presence and at the deliberations of the most
highly esteemed gentlemen of the country to whom the
administration has confided in its wisdom the important
Indian question as to the future welfare of the remaining
Indian tribes. I stated in my previous letter that my health
is rather declining, and must add that my hearing, par-
ticularly, is failing fast and makes my presence in meet-
ings rather unpleasant. Besides, the invitations I have
received from the Upper Sioux Indians and the promises
I have made to them, if in my power to comply with their
requests, make me humbly decline your very kind and hon-
orable invitation, for which please receive again my sin-
cere and heartfelt thanks.

You do me the honor to ask me some account as to my
personal experience among the Indians and my conviction
as to their capacity for civilization and receiving religious
instruction, etc. Though pressed for time, I take great
pleasure in reviewing some of my early experience among
the Indian tribes, accompanied with a few simple illustra-
tive occurrences, showing the Indian character in its primi-
tive nature where it had remained uncontaminated by the
contact of vicious whites.

You allude in your letter to the anecdote I related to the
honorable commissioners at Fort Leavenworth (1868) to

' Letter to Hon. S. F. Tappan.


wit : to the chapel trunk I had left among the Rocky Moun-

Online LibraryPierre-Jean de SmetLife, letters and travels of Father Pierre-Jean de Smet, S.J., 1801-1873 (Volume 4) → online text (page 1 of 33)