Date of Award
Father Peter J. DeSmet, S. J. has oftentimes been called the "Apostle of the Rocky Mountains." Perhaps an even more appropriate title would be "Montana’s Apostle," for in all the huge Rocky Mountain region, Father DeSmet was more at home in Montana and, to be even more specific, with the Flathead Indian tribe of western Montana than with any other tribe. In this thesis an attempt will be made to present the missionary work of Father DeSmet with his beloved Indians. But in order to do this it first must be shown how the Indians became interested in Catholicism and how they attempted to obtain the services of a Catholic priest. Such will be the purpose of the first part of this thesis.
Sometime between the years 1812 and 1820, a group of Iroquois Indians from the mission near Sault, St. Louis along the St. Lawrence journeyed to the Rocky Mountains. What their purpose was in this seemingly reckless wandering is not known. What is important is the fact that these Indians had been in contact with Jesuit priests. The leader of the band was Ignatius or Ignace La Mousse, better known as Big Ignace or Old Ignace to distinguish him from another Iroquois, Young Ignace. Old Ignace, as I will call him, was a baptized Catholic and was married by Jesuit priests. Once having arrived in the Flathead country, the small group of Iroquois was so cordially received that they decided to stop their wandering and live with the Flatheads. Before long they became members of the Flathead, sometimes called Salish, tribe and intermarried. Soon Old Ignace was teaching the Flatheads Catholic prayers and explaining the faith to the attentive Indians. The Indians were taught the Lord’s prayer, the Sign of the Cross and other rudiments of the Catholic faith. The Indians kept Sunday holy, baptized the nearly dead and erected a cross over the graves of the dead. The Flatheads were keenly interested in the Catholic religion and desired a Blackrobe to teach them how to get to heaven.
The Pend d' Oreilles and Nez Perce, friendly neighboring tribes, also desired Catholic priests. At the time the nearest Catholic priests were in Quebec and Montreal, more than four thousand miles away. Sometime before 1831, however, it was learned that Catholic priests were in Missouri. Thus Old Ignace assembled the Indians for a tribal council, where it was decided that a group would go to St. Louis in hopes of obtaining a missionary. Four volunteers left the main band in 1831 for a three thousand mile trip across mountains, deserts, rivers, and even more dangerous, Sioux and Crow country, both tribes being deadly enemies of the Flathead and Nez Perce. It is not known definitely whether these four were of the Nez Perce or Flathead tribe. In any event the four Indians probably travelled to St. Louis with a caravan of fur traders. Once in St. Louis, around the first of October, the Indians went at once to a Catholic Church, but the tragedy lies in the fact that no one could understand their language. While in St. Louis the Indians visited General Clark who noticed their flat-heads. The tribe from the Bitter Root Valley, while called Flatheads were subject to a misnomer because they did not practice flattening the head. Evidence indicates that the first group was from the Nez Perce tribe because they did flatten heads to some extent. Nonetheless in a strange surrounding and tired from their journey two of the Indians died within a few days and the other two left to return home. The two who died were buried in the old Catholic cathedral in St. Louis.
Bousliman, George, "Father Desmet And the Flathead Indians" (1962). History Undergraduate Theses. 83.