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Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 10/De Smet in the Oregon Country


By Edwin V. O'Hara.

In the present article the writer intends to present a narrative of the missionary activities of Father DeSmet in the Oregon Country. A recital of the story of this modern "Apostle of the Nations" can scarcely fail to be of interest at a time like the present, when the memories of early frontier life are growing dim and the very names of the pioneers seem to be borne to us from a distant heroic age. The "Oregon Country" is selected as the theater of the events we are to recount both because DeSmet's most effective and permanent work was accomplished here, and because of the historical and geographical unity of the territory lying between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, bounded on the south by the Mexican Possessions and extending as far north as latitude fifty-four degrees and forty minutes, a territory known in DeSmet's day as the "Oregon Country."

The first tidings of the Catholic faith reached the Oregon Indians through the trappers of the various fur-trading companies who had learned their religion from the pioneer missionaries of Quebec and Montreal. Large numbers of Canadian voyageurs accompanied the expeditions of Lewis and Clark in 1805 and of John Jacob Astor in 1811. This latter expedition especially—which resulted in establishing at the mouth of the Columbia the first white settlement in Oregon, the present flourishing city of Astoria—was accompanied by a number of Catholic Canadians, who. became the first settlers in the Willamette valley. The piety of these voyageurs may be seen in the rather unusual fact that the early missionaries on their arrival found a church already erected.

Another agency instrumental in bringing the faith to the far west was the Iroquois Indians. These Indians, among whose tribe the seeds of faith had been sown at an early date by Father Jogues, were in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company at its various forts. The trappers and Iroquois told the tribes of Oregon of the religion of the Black-robes, taught them the simple prayers they remembered, inculcated the observance of Sunday and aroused among them a great desire to receive the ministrations of the Black-robes. An Iroquois named Ignace became a veritable apostle to the Flatheads. Such was the effect of his teaching and example that the Flatheads, together with their neighbors, the Nez Perces, sent a deputation to St. Louis in 1831 to ask for priests.

It was to St. Louis rather than to Montreal that the Indians turned for assistance, for since the days of the great travelers, Lewis and Clark, the traders had renewed their relations annually with that city. The deputation consisted of four Indians. They found Clark still living in St. Louis. Two of the company took sick and died after receiving baptism and the last sacraments. The return of the remaining members of the deputation is uncertain. They had repeated the Macedonian cry, "Come over and help us." The Catholic missionary forces were too weak to respond at once to the appeal. But the presence of Indians in St. Louis from far distant Oregon on such a mission was the occasion of a movement with farreaching results. The incident was given publicity in the Protestant religious press, and aroused wonderful enthusiasm and set on foot perhaps the most remarkable missionary campaign in the history of this country; a campaign which was fraught with important consequences for Oregon. The ists came in 1834 under the leadership of Jason and Daniel Lee, and Dr. Whitman with Spalding and Gray, of the American Board Mission, arrived at Vancouver in 1836.

But to return to our Flatheads. In 1835 the Flathead chief Insula went to the Green River rendezvous to meet those whom he was informed were the Black-gowns. Much to his disappointment he met, not the priests, but Dr. Whitman and Rev. Mr. Parker, of the American Board. On reporting his illsuccess it was determined that the old Iroquois Ignace and his two sons should go in search of missionaries. They met Bishop Rosati at St. Louis, but were unsuccessful in their quest. Nothing daunted, they renewed the attempt, and a deputation under young Ignace again reached St. Louis in 1839. It was on this occasion that DeSmet comes into view for the first time. Young Ignace and his companions paused at Council Bluffs to visit the priests at St. Joseph Mission, where Father DeSmet was stationed. DeSmet gives us the following record of the meeting:

"On the 18th of last September two Catholic Iroquois came to visit us. They had been for twenty-three years among the nations called the Flatheads and Pierced Noses about a thousand Flemish leagues from where we are. I have never seen any savages so fervent in religion. By their instructions and example they have given all that nation a great desire to have themselves baptized. All that tribe strictly observe Sunday and assemble several times a week to pray and sing canticles. The sole object of these good Iroquois was to obtain a priest to come and finish what they had so happily commenced. We gave them letters of recommendation for our Reverend Father Superior at St. Louis." Father DeSmet could scarcely have hoped that it should be his privilege to receive these children of the forest, who so greatly interested him, into the fold of Christ.

Meanwhile certain other events transpired that affected the Oregon Indians. In 1833 the second Provincial Council of Baltimore petitioned that the Indian missions of the United States be confided to the care of the Society of Jesus. In July of the "following year the Holy See acceded to the request. Hence, when the deputation of Indians visited St. Louis and obtained from Bishop Rosati the promise of missionaries, it was to the Jesuit Fathers that the Bishop turned for volunteers. In a letter to the Father General of the Society in Rome, under date of October 20, 1839, Bishop Rosati relates in detail the story of the various journeys of the Indians in search of the Black-robes and gives us the following interesting account of young Ignace and his companion, Pierre Gaucher:

"At last, a third deputation of Indians arrived at St. Louis after a long voyage of three months. It is composed of two Christian Iroquois. These Indians who talk French have edified us by their truly exemplary conduct and interested us by their discourse. The Fathers of the college have heard their confessions, and today they approached the holy table at my Mass in the Cathedral church. Afterwards I administered to them the sacrament of Confirmation; and in an allocution delivered after the ceremony, I rejoiced with them in their happiness and gave them the hope of soon having a priest."

Father DeSmet, deeply impressed by the visit of young Ignace, offered to devote himself to the Indian missions. The oflfer was gratefully accepted by his Superior and by the Bishop, and DeSmet set out on his first trip to the Oregon country late in March, 1840. Past Westport (now Kansas City), he journeyed along the Platte River, through herds of antelope and buffalo, across the country of the Pawnees and Cheyennes to the South Pass across Continental Divide. Here, on the 25th of June, he passed from the waters tributary to the Missouri to those of the Colorado. "On the 30th (of June)", says Father DeSmet, "I came to the rendezvous where a band of Flatheads, who had been notified of my coming, were already waiting for me. This happened on the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado, it is the place whither the beaver hunters and the savages of diflferent nations betake themselves every year to sell their peltries and procure such things as they need.'On the following Sunday, Father DeSmet assembled the Indians and trappers for divine worship. In a letter dated February 4, 1841, he writes: "On Sunday, the 5th of July, I had the consolation of celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of Mass sub dio. The altar Q3180258was placed on an elevation, and surrounded with boughs and garlands of flowers; I addressed the congregation in French and in English and spoke also by an interpreter to the Platheads and Snake Indians. It was a spectacle truly moving for the heart of a missionary, to behold an assembly composed of so many different nations, who all assisted at our holy mysteries with great satisfaction. The Canadians sang hymns in French and Latin, and the Indians in their native tongue. It was truly a Catholic worship. This place has been called since that time, by the French Canadians, la prairie de la Messe."

DeSmet was now in the land of the Shoshones or Snake Indians. Three hundred of their warriors came into camp at full gallop. DeSmet was invited to a council of some thirty of the principal chiefs. 'I explained to them," he writes, "the Christian doctrine in a compendious manner. They were all very attentive; they then deliberated among themselves for about half an hour and one of the chiefs, addressing me in the name of the others, said: 'Black-gown, the words of thy mouth have found their way to our hearts; they will never be forgotten.' I advised them to select among themselves a wise and prudent man, who every morning and evening, should assemble them to offer to Almighty God their prayers and supplications. The meeting was held the very same evening, and the great chief promulgated a law that for the future the one who would be guilty of theft, or of other disorderly act, should receive a public castigation." This was the only occasion on which Father DeSmet met the Snake Indians. His subsequent trips to Oregon were, with one exception, by a different route.

After spending a week at the Green River rendezvous, Father DeSmet and his Flathead guides, together with a dozen Canadians, started northward across the mountains which separate the headwaters of the Colorado from those of the Columbia. They crossed the historic Teton's Pass and came to the beautiful valley at the foot of the three Tetons, of which Father DeSmet has left a striking description. In this valley they found the camp of the Flatheads and of their neighbors, the Pend d'Oreilles, numbering about i,6oo persons. DeSmet describes the affecting scene of his meeting with these children of the wilderness: 'The poles were already up for my lodge, and at my approach, men, women, and children came all together to meet me, and shake hands and bid me welcome. The elders wept with joy, while the young men expressed their satisfaction by leaps and shouts of happiness. These good savages led me to the lodge of the old chief, called in his language, 'Big Face.' He had a truly patriarchal aspect and received me in the midst of his whole council with the liveliest cordiality. Then I had a long talk on religion with these honest folk. I set a schedule of spiritual exercises for them, particularly for the morning and evening -prayers in common and for hours of instruction."

"One of the chiefs at once brought me a bell to give the signals, and on the first evening I gathered all the people about my lodge; I said the evening prayers, and finally they sang together, in a harmony which surprised me very much, several songs of their own composition on the praise of God. This zeal for prayer and instruction (and I preached to them regularly four times a day) instead of declining, increased up to the time of my departure."

DeSmet was wholly astonished at their fervor and regularity at religious exercises. In speaking of this subject on another occasion he exclaims: "Who would not think that this could only be found in a well-ordered and religious community, and yet it is among the Indians in the defiles and valleys of the Rocky Mountains." He was likewise astonished at the innocence of their lives and he has left pages of writing in which he extols their virtues, and their docility. It would be difficult to" find a parallel in the history of Christian missions for this rapid and permanent transformation of a savage tribe into a Christian community with morning and evening prayers in common.

The camp gradually moved up the Henry Fork of the Snake River to Lake Henry, one of the sources of the Columbia River, Here DeSmet climbed the mountain of the Continental Divide, whence he was able to see Red Rock Lake, the ultimate source of the Missouri. "The two lakes," he writes, "are scarce eight miles apart. I started for the summit of a high mountain for the better examination of the two fountains that gave birth to these two great rivers; I saw them falling in cascades from an immense height; hurling themselves with uproar from rock to rock; even at their source they formed two mighty torrents, scarcely more than a hundred paces apart. The fathers of the Company who are in missionary service on the banks of the Mississippi, from Council Bluffs, to the Gulf of Mexico, came to my mind." And his heart went out to the nations on the banks of the Columbia to whom the faith of Christ was yet to be preached. There he engraved on a soft stone, this inscription: Sanctus Ignatius, Patronus Montium, Die Julii 23, 1840.

After two months among the Flatheads, DeSmet determined to return to St. Louis for assistance. He appointed a chief to take his place, to preside over the devotions and to baptize the children. He was accompanied by thirty warriors, among whom was the famous chief. Insula, whose futile trip to the rendezvous on the Green River in 1835, we have already mentioned. Father DeSmet reached the St. Louis University on the last day of the year, 1840. His first missionary journey to the nations of the Oregon Country had been accomplished and, like another Paul, he returned rehearsing all the things that God had done with him, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Nations.

On the feast of the Assumption, 1841, Father DeSmet had again penetrated the Oregon Country as far as Fort Hall, on the Snake River. Fort Hall occupied a large place in early Oregon history. It was built by Nathaniel Wyeth, in 1834. Wyeth sold it to the Hudson's Bay Company two years later, and consequently at the time of DeSmet's visit, it was under the direction of Dr. John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company in Oregon. The local agent, Ermatinger, was prominent in the service of the Company, and his courtesy and generosity to DeSmet were only typical of the treatment accorded to the Catholic missionaries by the gentlemen of the Hudson's Bay Company, at all of their forts during the McLoughlin regime. DeSmet speaks of Ermatinger in the following terms: '^Although a Protestant by birth, this noble Englishman gave us a most friendly reception. Not only did he repeatedly invite us to his table, and sell us at first cost, or at one-third of its value, in a country so remote, whatever we required; but he also added as pure gifts, many articles which he believed would be particularly acceptable — he assured us that he would second our ministry among the populous nation of the Snakes, with whom he had frequent intercourse."

When Father DeSmet met the Flatheads at Fort Hall on this occasion, he was better prepared to minister to their needs than on his former journey. He was accompanied by two priests and three brothers. The priests are well known in the early annals of Oregon. They were Fathers Nicholas Point and Gregory Mengarini. We shall meet them again in the course of our narrative. DeSmet had been successful, too, in securing financial aid for his missions. The Bishops and clergy of the dioceses of Philadelphia and New Orleans had responded very generously to his appeal. On reaching the Bitter Root Valley, the home of the Flathead tribe, DeSmet was thus enabled to lay the foundations of a permanent mission. He chose a location on the banks of the Bitter Root River, about twenty-eight miles above its mouth, between the site of old Fort Owen and the present town of Stevensville. St. Mary's Mission has had an eventful history. In 1850 it was closed temporarily, the improvements being leased to Major John Owen. Not until September, 1866, was the mission re-opened in charge of the venerated Father Ravalli. It is today a point of interest for the sight-seer in the Bitter Root Valley.

While the work of establishing the mission was in progress. Father DeSmet received a delegation from the Coeur d'Alene nation. They had heard of his arrival among the Flatheads, and came to request his services. "Father," said one of them to him, "we are truly deserving of your pity. We wish to serve the Great Spirit, but we know not how. We want some one to teach us. For this reason we make application to you." Their wish was granted, and the little tribe received the Christian religion with the same zeal and devotion that the Flatheads had displayed. The Pend d'Oreilles, too, a numerous tribe who dwelt in what is now northern Idaho, welcomed the missionaries, as also did the Nez Perces. Father DeSmet had little hope of converting the Blackfeet. They are the only Indians, he writes, of whose salvation we would have reason to despair if the ways of God were the same as those of men, for they are murderers, thieves, traitors, and all that is wicked. Father Point established a mission among them, but the Blackfeet are pagans even to this day.

In establishing the Rocky Mountain Missions, Father DeSmet and his companions had constant recourse to the experience of the Jesuit missionaries among the Indians of Paraguay. He expressly states that he made a Vade Mecum of the Narrative of Muratori, the historian of the Paraguay missions. The field west of the Rocky Mountains suggested to him many similarities with that among the native races of South America. The only obstacle to conversion in the one case as in the other, was the introduction of the vices of the whites. That alone stood in the way of the ultimate civilization of the natives. DeSmet refers to his missions as "reductions," a name borrowed from the South American system where it refers to the settlements which the missionaries induced their nomadic neophytes to adopt. He directed Father Point to draw up plans for the mission stations in conformity with the plans formerly adopted in the missions of Paraguay and described in detail by Muratori.[1]

One of the problems that DeSmet had to meet at the outset, was that of Indian marriages. He acted on the principle that there were no valid marriages among the savages, and he alleges the following reason: "We have not found one, even among the best disposed, who after marriage has been contracted in their own fashion, did not believe himself justified in sending away his first wife whenever he thought fit and taking another. Many even have several wives at the same time. We are then agreed on this principle, that among them, even to the present time, there has been no marriage, because they have never known well in what its essence and obligation consisted."[2] Consequently, immediately after the ceremony of baptism, the marriage ceremony was performed, after the necessary instruction had been given. This procedure gave rise to various interesting situations. Many who had two wives, have retained her whose children were the most numerous, and with all possible respect dismissed the other." Father DeSmet tells of one savage who followed his advice and dismissed his youngest wife, giving her what he would have wished another to give to his sister, if in the same situation, and was re-united to his first wife whom he had forsaken.

During the closing months of 1841, DeSmet undertook a journey from the Bitter Root Valley to Fort Colville on the Columbia. On All Saints Bay he met two encampments of the Kalispel nation, who were to be a great consolation to the missionary. The chief of the first camp was the famous Chalax. Although they had never seen a priest before, they knew all the prayers DeSmet had taught the Flatheads. This is a striking illustration of the religious sentiment among the Oregon Indians of the interior. Their knowledge of these prayers is thus explained by DeSmet: "They had deputed an intelligent young man, who was gifted with a good memory, to meet me. Having learned the prayers and canticles and such points as were most essential for salvation, he repeated to the village all that he had heard and seen. It was, as you can easily imagine, a great consolation for me to see the sign of the cross and hear prayers addressed to the great God and His praises sung in a desert of about three hundred miles extent, where a Catholic priest had never been before."

The Kalispels had been visited during the summer by ministers who had attempted to disaffect the minds of the savages towards the Catholic missionaries. The Indians' natural and instinctive reverence for the Black-robe, however, soon overcame the prejudice instilled by the hostile ministers. Interesting light is thrown on the missionary situation at this time by a private letter of the wife of the leader of the American Board mission. Mrs. Whitman, writing in 1842, and faithfully reflecting the sentiments of her husband, considered that the interests of the Oregon country hung in the balance with the "prosperity of the cause of Christ on the one hand and the extension of the powers and dominion of Romanism on the other." She continues: "Romanism stalks abroad on our right hand and on our left, and with daring effrontery, boasts that she is to prevail and possess the land. I ask, must it be so? The zeal and energy of her priests are without a parallel, and many, both white men and Indians, wander after the beasts. Two are in the country below us and two far above in the mountains."[3] The priests below at Vancouver were Fathers Blanchet and Demers; those above were DeSmet and Point. Narcissa Whitman bears striking testimony to their zeal and energy. With this letter before us we shall not be surprised to learn that when Dr. Whitman and his wife were massacred by the Indians in 1847, his co-workers were in a temper to lay the blame for the outrage at the door of the Catholic missionaries.

Father DeSmet's journey to Fort Colville led him past the beautiful Lake Pend d'Oreille and the magnificent forest at its head. He was an ardent lover of nature and the record he has left of his impressions on beholding this splendid scene is typical of his many descriptions of nature. "At the head of Lake Pend d'Oreille," he writes, **we traversed a forest which is certainly a wonder of its kind; there is probably nothing similar to it in America. The birch, elm and beach, generally small elsewhere, like the toad of La Fontaine that aimed at being as large as the ox, swell out here to twice their size. They would fain rival the cedar, the Goliath of the forest, who, however, looking down with contempt upon his pitiful companions,

"Eleve aux cieux
Son front Audacieux."

The birch and the beech at its side, resemble large candelabra around a massive column. Cedars of four and five fathoms in circumference are here very common. The delicate branches of these noble trees entwine themselves above the beech and elm; their fine, dense and evergreen foliage forming an arch through which the sun's rays never penetrate; and this lofty arch, supported by thousands of columns, brought to the mind's eye the idea of an immense temple reared by the hand of nature to the glory of its author."

He reached Fort Colville about the middle of November, and received a very hearty welcome from the commandant, Archibald Macdonald. Fort Colville was one of the Hudson's Bay Company's stations. Macdonald had been in the employ of the company for many years, having founded Fort Nisqually, until recently the nominal seat of the present Catholic diocese of Seattle. The reception given to DeSmet at Fort Hall was repeated at Fort Colville, and our missionary voices the general sentiment of his co-workers when he takes occasion of Macdonald's hospitality to write, "Whenever one finds the gentlemen of the Hudson's Bay Company, one is sure of a good reception. They do not stop with demonstrations of politeness and affability; they anticipate your wishes in order to be of service to you." Any adequate history of the Catholic missions in Oregon will contain an important chapter dealing with their relations to the Hudson's Bay Company. The record is the same at Forts Vancouver and Hall, Colville and Nisqually, Okanogan and Walla Walla, and the rest. No doubt the influence of Dr. McLoughlin was the determining factor in the attitude of the Company.

Returning to his mission in the Bitter Root Valley, in December, 1841, with the provisions and implements secured at Fort Colville, Father DeSmet spent the winter among his Flathead neophytes. In April, of the following year, he set out on his first visit to Fort Vancouver and the Willamette Valley, a journey of a thousand miles. In the course of his travel on this occasion he evangelized whole villages of Kootenais, Kalispels, Coeur d'Alenes, Spokans, and Okanogans, establishing, in almost every case, the practice of morning and evening prayers in each village. He found the Coeur d'Alene camp at the outlet of the great lake which bears their name. The entire camp turned out to welcome him. An extract from one of his letters will show how eagerly they listened to his words: 'T spoke to them for two hours on salvation and the end of man's creation, and not one person stirred from his place during the whole time of instruction. As it was almost sunset, I recited the prayers I had translated into their language a few days before. At their own request I then continued instructing the chiefs and their people until the night was far advanced. About every half hour I paused, and then the pipes would pass round to refresh the listeners and give time for reflection." Never did DeSmet experience so much satisfaction among the Indians as on this occasion, and nowhere were his efforts crowned with greater and more permanent success. The Coeur d'Alenes have still the reputation of being the best and most industrious Indians in the Rocky Mountains.

The journey from Fort Colville to Fort Vancouver was marred by an unfortunate accident. At one of the rapids of the Columbia, the barge containing DeSmet's effects, capsized, and all the crew, save three, were drowned. Providentially, Father DeSmet had gone ashore, intending to walk along the bank while the bargemen directed the boat through the rapids. After brief visits at Forts Okanogan and Walla Walla, he hastened on to Vancouver, where he received a most affecting welcome from the pioneer Catholic missionaries of the Oregon Country, Blanchet and Demers. The latter has related how Blanchet and DeSmet ran to meet each other, both prostrating themselves, each begging the other's blessing. It was a meeting fraught with important consequences for the Catholic Church in Oregon.

In his Historical Sketches, Archbishop Blanchet gives us a few details in addition to those mentioned in DeSmet's Letters, from which it appears that Father Demers met the Jesuit missionary at Fort Vancouver, and conducted him to the residence of the Vicar-General at St. Paul. "Rev. M. Demers brought him, to St. Paul," says the Archbishop; he spent eight days with the Vicar-General, sung High Mass on Sunday, addressed words of exhortation to^ the congregation. Of the Catholic Ladder he said: 'That plan will be adopted by the missions of the whole world.' DeSmet returned to Vancouver with Father Demers, followed a few days later by Father Blanchet, 'to deliberate on the interests of the great mission of the Pacific Coast.' "At the conference, it was decided that Father Demers should proceed to open a mission in New Caledonia (now British Columbia), leaving the VicarGeneral at St. Paul, while DeSmet should start for St. Louis and Belgium in quest of more workers and material assistance for the missions of Oregon. Dr. McLoughlin, though not yet a Catholic, strongly encouraged Father DeSmet to make every effort to increase the number of Catholic missionaries. On June 30, 1842, DteSmet bade farewell to his new friends at Fort Vancouver, and set out for the East, to secure recruits and supplies for the Oregon missions.

Twenty-five months elapsed before Father DeSmet returned again to Fort Vancouver. After visiting many of the chief cities of Europe, he set sail from Antwerp on the brig Infatigable, early in January, 1844, accompanied by four Fathers and a lay brother of the society, and six Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. The Infatigable rounded Cape Horn on the 20th of March, 1844, and came in sight of the Oregon coast on the 28th of July. After a terrifying experience, they crossed the Columbia bar in safety on the 31st of July, the feast of St. Ignatius. Father DeSmet frequently refers to the "divine pilotage," which brought them unharmed through the shallow passage and the treacherous breakers. From Astoria, DeSmet set out for Fort Vancouver in a canoe, leaving his companions to follow when a favorable wind would permit. He was received with open arms by Dr. McLoughlin, and by Father Demers, who was planning to leave shortly for Canada to secure Sisters to open a school. From Father Demers he received the good news that the missionaries in the Rocky Mountains had received a strong re-inforcement from St. Louis during his absence. The Vicar-General, Father Blanchet, was at St. Paul when informed of DeSmet's arrival. He immediately set out for Vancouver, bringing a number of his parishioners with him and traveling all night by canoe.

On the eve of the feast of the Assumption, the newly arrived recruits for the mission, left Fort Vancouver for St. Paul. "Our little squadron," says Father DeSmet, "consisted of four canoes manned by the parishioners of Fr. Blanchet, and our own sloop. We sailed up the river and soon entered the Willamette. As night approached, we moored our vessels and encamped upon the shore. (This must have been within the limits of the present city of Portland. ) The morning's dawn found us on foot. It was the festival of the glorious Assumption of the Mother of God. Aided by the nuns, I erected a small altar. Father Blanchet offered the Holy Sacrifice, at which all communicated. Finally, the 17th, about eleven o'clock, we came in sight of our dear mission of Willamette. A cart was procured to conduct the nuns to their dwelling, which is about five miles from the river. In two hours we were all assembled in the chapel of Willamette, to adore and thank our Divine Saviour by the solemn chanting of the Te Deiim."

On arriving at St. Paul, DeSmet's first care was to seek a convenient location for what was intended to be the base of missionary activities in Oregon. The Methodists offered to sell him their Academy, which they had decided to close. Ten years had passed since Jason and Daniel Lee founded the Methodist mission in the Willamette Valley; a large sum of money had been expended in the enterprise, but as an Indian mission it was confessedly a failure. Hence it was decided to suppress it and sell all the property in 1844. Father DeSmet, however, secured a more advantageous location, where he laid the foundations of the St. Francis Xavier Mission on the Willamette.

When winter came on, Father DeSmet was again among his Indians in the mountains. He re-visited the Sacred Heart mission, founded among the Coeur d'Alenes by Father Point in 1842. Leaving the Pointed Hearts, he set out for St. Mary's mission in the Bitter Root Valley, but was twice foiled in the attempt by the heavy snows and swollen mountain torrents. He was thus compelled to pass Christmas, 1844, among the Kalispels. He gives us an interesting description of the manner in which the day was passed. He writes: "The great festival of Christmas, the day on which the little band (of 144 adults) was to be added to the number of the true children of God, will never be effaced from the memory of our good Indians. The manner in which we celebrated midnight Mass may give you an idea of our festival. The signal for rising, which was to be given a few minutes before midnight, was to be the firing of a pistol, announcing to the Indians that the House of Prayer would soon be open. This was followed by a general discharge of gtins in honor of the infant Saviour, and three hundred voices rose spontaneously from the midst of the forest and intoned in the language of the Pend d'Oreilles, the beautiful canticle, 'Du Dieu puissant tout announce la gloire.' A grand banquqt, according to the Indian custom, follow^ed the first Mass. The union, the contentment, the joy, and the charity which pervaded the whole assembly might well be compared to the agape of the primitive Christians." On the same Christmas morning, the entire tribes of Flatheads and Coeur d'Alenes received Holy Communion in a body at their respective missions. "The Christmas of 1844, was therefore," concludes Father DeSmet, "a great and glorious day in the Rocky Mountains."

The paschal time, 1845, Father DeSmet spent among the Flatheads at St. Mary's mission in the Bitter Root. As the snow began to disappear with the coming of spring, he set out for Vancouver, and the mission of St. Francis Xavier, on the Willamette. He went by canoe down the impetuous Clark's River, to Father Hoeken's mission of St. Ignatius, among the Kalispels. After selecting a site for a new establishment of St. Ignatius, "in the neighborhood of the cavern of New Manresa and its quarries, and a fall of water more than two hundred feet, presenting every advantage for the erection of mills," he hastened to Walla Walla, where he embarked in a small boat and descended the Columbia as far as Fort Vancouver.

At Vancouver he found Father Nobili, who ministered during the absence of Father Demers to the Catholic employees of the Fort and to the neighboring Indians. Of his visit to the Willamette settlement, DeSmet writes: "Father Nobili accompanied me in a Chinook canoe up the beautiful river of Multnomah, or Willamette, a distance of about sixty miles, as far as the village of Champoeg, three miles from our residence of St. Francis Xavier. On our arrival, all the Fathers came to meet us, and great was our delight on being again reunited after a long winter season. The Italian Fathers had applied themselves chiefly to the study of languages; Father Ravalli, being skilled in medicine, rendered considerable services to the inhabitants of St. Paul's mission; Father Vercruysse, at the request of Right Reverend Bishop Blanchet, opened a mission among the Canadians who were distant from St. Paul's. Father DeVos is the only one of our Fathers of Willamette who speaks English. He devotes his whole attention to the Americans, whose number already exceeded 4,000. There are several Catholic families and our dissenting brethen seem well disposed." It was De Vos, who received into the church a year later, at Oregon City, one of the most distinguished of the Oregon pioneers. Chief Justice Peter H. Burnett, afterwards first Governor of California.

Father DeSmet went overland from St. Paul to Walla Walla, past the foot of Mt. Hood. The trail to The Dalles was strewed with whitened bones of oxen and horses, which appealed to our traveler as melancholy testimonies to the hardships which had been faced by the American immigrants during the three preceding years. He becomes enthusiastic about Hood, "with its snowy crest towering majestically upward, and losing itself in the clouds." Leaving Fort Walla Walla, Father DeSmet traversed the fertile lands of the Nez Perces and Cayuse Indians, the richest tribes in Oregon. It was among these Indians that Dr. Marcus Whitman had established a mission for the American Board, and it was here that the savage and brutal massacre of Dr. and Mrs. Whitman, in 1847, made the name of the Cayuse Indians ever infamous in Oregon annals.

Our missionary spent the feast of St. Ignatius, 1845, Kettle Falls, in the vicinity of Fort Colville, on the Columbia, where nearly a thousand savages of the Kalispel nation were engaged in salmon fishing. He had a little chapel of boughs constructed on an eminence in the midst of the Indian huts, and there he gave three instructions each day. The Indians attended faithfully at his spiritual exercises and he spent the 31st of July (St. Ignatius' Day) baptizing the savages. He recalls that it is just a year since he crossed the Columbia bar "as if borne on angels' wings," and reviews the work of the Catholic missions in Oregon during that period with deep appreciation of the kindly Providence which gave the increase in the field which he had planted.

An interesting incident early in August, 1845, brings Father DeSmet's views of public affairs to our attention. The "Oregon Question" was then the all-absorbing theme. While DeSmet was ascending the Clark River, he had an unexpected interview on this subject. As he was approaching the forest on the shore of Lake Pend d'Oreille, several horsemen issued from its depths, and the foremost among them saluted him by name. On nearer approach, Father DeSmet recognized Peter Skeen Ogden, one of the leading representatives of the Hudson's Bay Company. Ogden was accompanied by two English officers, Warre and Vavasour. DeSmet was alarmed by the information he obtained from the travelers regarding the Oregon question. He writes: "They were invested with orders from their government to take possession of Cape Disappointment, to hoist the English standard, and to erect a fortress for the purpose of securing the entrance of the river in case of war. In the Oregon question, John Bull, without much talk, attains his end and secures the most important part of the country; whereas Uncle Sam loses himself in words, inveighs and storms! Many years have passed in debates and useless contention without one single practical effort to secure his real or pretended rights."

Some writers have gathered from those expressions that Father DeSmet was hostile to the claims of our country, and would have preferred to see the Oregon Country fall under British sovereignty. This view was given wide circulation by the Protestant missionaries. For example. Dr. Whitman writes from Waiilatpu, under date of Nov. 5, 1846: "The Jesuit Papists would have been in quiet possession of this, the only spot in the western horizon of America, not before their own. It would have been but a small work for them and the friends of the EngHsh interests, which they had also fully avowed, to have routed us, and then the country might have slept in their hands forever.[4] The truth is, of course, quite the contrary to these representations. What Father DeSmet feared was that Oregon might be lost to the United States, at least temporarily, by indecision on the part of our government.

In a letter to Senator Benton, written in 1849, DeSmet recounts a conversation which he had with several British officers on the brig Modeste, before Fort Vancouver, in 1846, in which his attitude towards the Oregon question is made clear. The party was discussing the possibility of the English taking possession, not merely of Oregon, but of California as well. Father DeSmet ventured the opinion that such a conquest was a dream not easily realized, and went on to remark that should the English take possession of Oregon for the moment, it would be an easy matter for the Americans to cross the mountains and wrest the entire country from them almost without a blow. On hearing these sentiments, the captain asked DeSmet somewhat warmly: "Are you a Yankee?" "Not a born one, Captain," was my reply, "but I have the good luck of being a naturalized American for these many years past; and in these matters all my good wishes are for the side of my adopted country."

Father DeSmet pushed on from Lake Pend d'Oreille, through dense forests, to the Kootenai River, where he encountered a branch of the Kutenai (Kootenai) tribe, which he calls the Flat-bows. He found them well disposed and already instructed in the principal doctrines of the Catholic faith by a Canadian employee of the Hudson's Bay Company. On the feast of the Assumption (1845), he celebrated Mass among them and erected a cross, at the foot of which the Indians renounced their practices of jugglery and superstition. The Kutenai tribe furnished another illustration of the marvelous dispositions for faith which Providence had planted in the hearts of the Oregon Indians. They remain Catholics to this day.

In June, 1846, DeSmet was back again at Fort Colville, and was there joined by Father NobiH, who had just returned from a missionary journey to Fort St. James, the capital of Nevs Caledonia, situated on Stuart Lake. The end of June saw him at St. Francis Xavier mission on the Willamette. A few weeks later he was making his way up the Columbia in an Indian canoe with two blankets unfurled by way of sails. At Walla Walla he experienced the hospitality of Mr. McBean, the superintendent of the Fort. Taking farewell of Mr. McBean, Father DeSmet visited the Nez Perces, Kalispels, and Coeur d'Alenes, among whom were stationed Fathers Hoeken, Joset and Point. On the feast of the Assupmtion, he was again among the Flatheads in the Bitter Root Valley. St. Mary's mission had prospered, both materially and spiritually. He found the little log church which had been erected five years before, about to be replaced by a large and handsome structure. Another agreeable surprise awaited him. The mechanical skill of Father Ravalli had erected a flour mill and a saw mill. "The flour mill," writes Father DeSmet, "grinds ten or twelve bushels a day and the saw mill furnished an abundant supply of planks, posts, etc., for the public and private building of the nation settled here."

On August 16th, 1846, Father DeSmet left St. Mary's mission in the Bitter Root and reached the University of St. Louis, December 10. His missionary work in Oregon was at an end. His biographers, summing up this period of his career, write as follows: "The results of his labors from a missionary point of view, were highly successful. The whole Columbia valley had been dotted with infant establishments, some of which had taken on the promise of permanent growth. He had, indeed, laid the foundation well for a spiritual empire throughout that region, and but for the approach of emigration, his plans would have brought forth the full fruition that he expected. But most important of all, from a public point of view, was the fact that he had become a great power among the Indian tribes. All now knew him, many personally, the rest by reputation. He was the one white man in whom they had implicit faith. The government was beginning to look to him for assistance. The Mormon, the Forty-niner, the Oregon emigrant, came to him for information and advice. His writings already known on two continents and his name was a familiar one, at least in the religious world.[5]

Father DeSmet paid two subsequent visits to the scenes of his missionary labors in Oregon. The first of these visits was occasioned by the Indian outbreak in 1858, known as the Yakima war. The savages, viewing with alarm the encroachments of the whites upon their lands, formed a league to repel the invaders. Even the peaceful Flatheads and Coeur d'Alenes joined the coalition. The United States Government sent General Harney, who had won distinction in several Indian wars, to take charge of the situation. At the personal request of General Harney, Father DeSmet was selected to accompany the expedition in the capacity of chaplain. Their party reached Vancouver late in October, 1858. The news of the cessation of hostilities and the submission of the Indians had already reached the fort. But the Indians, though subdued, were still unfriendly, and there was constant danger of a fresh outbreak. The work of pacification was still to be effected. Upon this mission, DeSmet left Vancouver, under orders of the commanding general, to visit the mountain tribes some 800 miles distant.

He visited the Catholic soldiers at Fort Walla Walla, and there met Father Congiato, superior of the missions, from whom he received favorable information concerning the dispositions of the tribes in the mountains. By the middle of April, 1859, Father DeSmet had revisited practically all the tribes among whom he had labored as a missionary. On April 16, he left the mission of St. Ignatius, among the Pend d'Oreilles to return to Fort Vancouver. He was accompanied, at his own request, by the chiefs of the different mountain tribes, with the view of renewing the treaty of peace with the General, and with the Superintendent of Indian affairs. The successful issue of Father DeSmet's mission is seen from a letter of General Harney, dated Fort Vancouver, June i, 1859. He writes: "I have the honor to report, for the information of the General-in-chief, the arrival at this place of a deputation of Indian chiefs, on a visit suggested by myself through the kind offices of the Reverend Father DeSmet, who has been with these tribes the past winter. These chiefs have all declared to me the friendly desires which now animate them towards our people. Two of these chiefs—one of the upper Pend d'Oreilles, and the other of the Flatheads—report that the proudest boast of their respective tribes, is the fact that no white man's blood has ever been shed by any one of either nation. This statement is substantiated by Father DeSmet. It gives me pleasure to commend to the Generalin-Chief, the able and efficient services the Reverend Father DeSmet has rendered." Having fulfilled his mission, DeSmet secured his release from the post of chaplain and returned to St. Louis, visiting a score of Indian tribes on the way. It is typical of him that he should have planned, despite his three score years, to cover the entire distance from Vancouver to St. Louis on horseback—a project which he was regretfully compelled to abandon because of the unfitness of his horses for so long a journey.

Once more, in 1863, DeSmet traversed the "Oregon Country," renewing his acquaintances with the various missions and enjoying the hospitality of the three pioneer bishops of the province, at Portland, Vancouver, and Victoria.

DeSmet's missionary labors in Oregon had come to a close before the arrival of Bishop A. M. A. Blanchet in the Pacific Northwest. But Archbishop Blanchet and Bishop Demers were co-apostles with him in this new corner of the Lord's vineyard, and with him had borne the burden of the pioneer work. Now, however, the pioneer days were over, and DeSmet as he set sail from Portland on the 13th day of October, 1863, could bear witness to the altered aspect of the country. But with all the signs of progress about him, there was one undeniable feature of the situation which brought sadness to his heart. The Indian tribes for whom he had labored with such apostolic zeal, the children of the forest, whose wonderful dispositions for Christian faith and Christian virtue had been his consolation and his glory, were doomed. The seed of the Gospel, which he had sown, had taken root and sprung up and was blossoming forth with the promise of an abundant harvest when the blight came. The white man was in the land. The Indian envied his strength and imitated his vices and fell before both. "May heaven preserve them from the dangerous contact of the whites!" was DeSmet's last prayer for his neophytes as he bade farewell to the Oregon Country."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).

  1. See a letter dated St. Mary's, Rocky Mts., 26th Oct., 1841.
  2. Letter dated Dec. 30, 1841.
  3. From a letter dated Waiilatpu, August 23, 1842.
  4. Transactions of the Oregon Pioneer Association for 1893, page 200.
  5. Chittenden and Richardson, Vol. i, page 57.