Black Robe And Tomahawk: Fr Pierre-Jean De Smet SJ (1801-1873)

Black Robe And Tomahawk: Fr Pierre-Jean De Smet SJ (1801-1873)

Michael Daniel

The Life and Travels of Fr Pierre-Jean De Smet SJ (1801-1873)

by George Bishop
(Gracewing, 2003, 314pp, $26.00. Available from AD Books)

The 19th century arguably witnessed the largest missionary expansion of the Catholic Church and this development was due to men such as the Belgian Fr Pierre-Jean De Smet SJ who laboured to convert North American Indians for almost 50 years. The author, George Bishop, a lifelong supporter of the Jesuits and author of other works on Jesuit missionaries, recounts chronologically the extraordinary career of this great missionary.

Born in 1801, the young Pierre De Smet was inspired to join the Jesuits after hearing a sermon appealing for missionaries to the North American Indians. After travelling to the USA in 1821 with other eager candidates, he completed his training and laboured until his death in 1873 amongst the Indians.

Much of Black Robe and Tomahawk recounts the long and hazardous missionary journeys undertaken by De Smet to preach the gospel. There were frequent instances in which he barely escaped with his life, for example, when he was almost shipwrecked and when attacked by a bear. However, a significant portion of his ministry also involved travelling to and from Europe, chiefly to raise funds and recruit more missionaries.


The portrait that emerges is not only that of a tireless missionary but also of a man of integrity. As a consequence of his ministry, huge numbers of Indians converted to Catholicism. He also gained the trust of the Indians to the extent that he could travel to territories virtually no other white man could enter with safety, a fact recognised by the US Army and government officials.

The period of his ministry covered the gradual settlement of territories occupied by Indian tribes such as the Sioux who were in many instances driven off their lands, relocated to reservations, and often maltreated by white settlers.

In a climate of mutual hostility, De Smet was able to organise a peace treaty between the Sioux, led by chief Sitting Bull, and the US in 1868. Sadly, the maltreatment of Indians continued and ironically, at the time of De Smet's death, government officials were assigning missionaries of other denominations to reservations whose Indians were Catholic converts of De Smet, ignoring requests from both Jesuits and the Indians themselves to send Catholic missionaries.

One of the strengths of this work is that it contains excerpts from the writings of De Smet, thus enabling the reader to gain a sense of the subject's personality. Although Black Robe and Tomahawk is at times very detailed in its descriptions of his travels, it remains a fascinating account of a priest whose missionary career and role in US history would be unknown to many readers.

Michael E Daniel teaches at a school in Melbourne.

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