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Father Pierre Jean De Smet

Peter John De Smet. (1801-1873) American Jesuit missionary to the Indians. — Webster, 1882

The Towns. The following letter explains itself and settles the matter of town sites and their names: Chicago, September 30, 1879. Wm. H. Skinner. Dear Sir: For your information I will say that town on range 46 is “Verdi,” the one on range 49 “Aurora,” the one on range 50 “Brookings,” the one on range 51 “Volga,” the one on range 53 “Nordland,” the one on range 56 “De Smet,” the one on range 58 “Iroquois,” the one on range 60 “Cavour,” and the one on range 61 and 62 “Huron.” Very truly yours, Chas. E. Simmons, Land Commissioner. – Brookings County Press, October 9, 1879.

In By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 23, “On the Pilgrim Way”), Laura and Carrie ask Pa if there is a name for the new railroad town to be built near where they’re wintering in the surveyors’ house. Pa replies that the new town is to be called De Smet, after “a French priest who came pioneering out here in the early days.” The discussion takes place during Reverend Alden’s visit, which historically occurred in February 1880, with Reverend Alden conducting the first church service in the surveyors’ house on February 29th.

So the town that had yet-to-be-surveyed already had a name at that point, but who decided on the town’s name and why was this name chosen?

Father Pierre-Jean De Smet was born January 30, 1801, in Dendermonde, Belgium, the son of a wealthy ship-owner. Peter was one nine children born to Joost De Smet and his second wife; Peter had a twin sister, Colette, who died as a child, and numerous half-siblings from his father’s first marriage. Father De Smet wrote that his father “[took] God for his model in the training of his children.”

Peter De Smet was hardy and adventurous, gentle and generous. He began his education in the local parish school but was sent to boarding school in Ghent around age 12, soon entering the Preparatory Seminary of St. Nicholas to study Latin. He then attended the Jesuit priest-run college of Alost, followed by the Preparatory Seminary at Mechlin. A missionary from Kentucky influenced his desire to pursue a life of missionary work among Indians in America.

De Smet and eleven other Jesuits from Belgium arrived in Philadelphia in 1821; he was ordained priest in Missouri in 1827 and became an American citizen a few years later. Having studied tribal languages and customs for years, Father De Smet’s mission journey carried him from St. Louis into Iowa, and across Missouri, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana, bringing the teachings of Christianity and a message of peace to Indians on the western frontier. Father De Smet became a trusted white man among various tribes in the west, laboring for more than 25 years among the Sioux in the Missouri River basin in present-day Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana.

Even though the progress of Catholicism was his sole occupation and he took little interest in politics, Father De Smet was appointed official emissary of President Ulysses S. Grant in negotiating treaties with Indian tribes in the west. He was dismayed by Protestant missions replacing Catholic ones in the west as well as the encroachment of trappers, traders, settlers and the United States government onto tribal lands. Although seeds were sown for Catholic missions in South Dakota, he founded none there during his lifetime. In 1871, he traveled to Belgium to raise funds for mission work (something he had done numerous times over the years) and to encourage more priests to work among the Indians. Ill health kept him from fulfilling his dream of building a school in Belgium for training novices for the American missions in the Society of Jesus. Although encouraged to spend his final days in Belgium, he returned to St. Louis, where he died at age 72, on May 23, 1873.

Naming of the Town of De Smet, Dakota Territory. As Charles Ingalls says in By the Shores of Silver Lake, De Smet was named in honor of Father De Smet, but if just one person is responsible for bestowing that honor to the town, their name has yet to be found recorded. The naming of Dakota Central railroad towns was the responsibility of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad; note that it is Charles E. Simmons, the Chicago & Northwestern’s land commissioner from 1878-1897 who supplied the name of railroad towns published in multiple Minnesota and Dakota Territory newspapers in October 1879. Simmons also signed deeds of sale for De Smet town lots transferred from the railroad to Western Town Lots Company in Iowa.

Over the years, De Smet newspapers have published inquiries asking who named the town, but no answer has ever been provided. Do you know?

Reverend Alden likely traveled through Volga before finding the Ingallses at Silver Lake camp, and he may have delivered the news to the Ingallses that the Postmaster of Volga had requested on February 24th that a new post office be established at De Smet, the town to be located in 27-111-56, with paperwork to be forwarded to T.H. Maguire. Thomas Maguire sold half interest in his hardware store in Volga to Edward Couse, and it was Maguire who contracted with the railroad to purchase the town lot on which Charles Ingalls erected the building that Edward Couse ran his hardware store out of for five years before replacing it.

Father De Smet Statue in De Smet. In 1984, De Smet mayor Glenn Iverson (1926-2007) visited the birthplace of Father De Smet, Dendermonde, Belgium, and he had attended the dedication of a new statue honoring Father De Smet while there. The people of Dendermonde offered the town of De Smet an identical statue created by the same artist at cost.

The “Action Father De Smet Committee” was formed, funds were raised, and the statue ordered. Donations came from all over and helped pay for the statue, materials needed for its concrete base, and dedication event costs, an amount in excess of $13,000. As is always the case, the project couldn’t have been completed without the help of volunteers. The Army National Guard unit out of Huron did the concrete work, Otter Tail Power Company donated the truck to hoist the statue onto its base, and locals built a fence and planted flowers. Volunteers paid for long distance phone calls (which cost money in those days) and postage to advertise the dedication ceremony and invite dignitaries and guests.

The statues of Father De Smet in Dendermonde, Belgium and De Smet, South Dakota are the work of sculptor Michaël Peleman, who was hired to recreate a statue of Father De Smet commissioned shortly after his death. The original statue was the work of Belgian sculptor Charles-Auguste Fraikin (1817-1893) and was dedicated in 1878, and stood for over 100 years across from the south entrance to the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame. Frakin’s statue was made of a thin copper shell composed of multiple pieces welded together, supported by and reinforced with lead on the inside. The 1878 statue fell from its base in 1982 and was found to have deteriorated beyond repair, so a competition was held to find an artist to replace it.

Peleman was able to use Fraikin’s original plaster model (housed in the Fraiken Museum) as his model for the replacement, which was made of fiberglass and placed on the original, recut base. Click HERE to see the street view of the Peleman statue of Father De Smet. The current address for its location is 89 Kerkstraat, Dendermonde, Flanders.

The March 2015 photo shown here was taken from the northeast corner of Washington Park at the intersection of 3rd Street SW and Harvey Dunn Avenue SW, in De Smet, South Dakota. The Ingallses’ Third Street house is three blocks east of Washington Park. Click HERE to see a street view of the De Smet statue. De Smet’s statue is a 1985 copy of the Peleman’s Dendermonde statue, fabricated in fiberglass by Watertown Monument Works. The carved inscription on the base reads: As a lasting tribute to the memory of Father Pierre Jean De Smet of the Society of Jesus, who for over thirty years offered his life in the service of the Indian people traveling far beyond the Rocky Mountains and Sharing with them his deep love of God and Country.


Dedication brings into focus the power of De Smet’s work. Father Pierre Jean De Smet walked this earth more than 100 years ago bringing the message of Christ and of peace to the Indians of the Western frontier.

On Sunday, the lasting power of what he accomplished in his lifetime was brought into focus as people from three nations—the Native American tribes, the United States and Belgium gathered to dedicate a statue to him.

The statue, a replica of the one erected to Father De Smet in 1984 in his hometown of Dendermonde, Belgium, stands proudly on the northeast corner of Washington Park in De Smet overlooking St. Thomas Aquinas Church.

It was in this corner of the park, amid a colorful array of American flags flown in honor of this community’s veteran dead and the flowers and shrubs which surround the base of the statue, that hundreds gathered to be a part of the dedication.

They heard the South Dakota National Guard Band, singers, a bell choir, speakers from Belgium and from South Dakota; they witnessed a Native American prayer and honor song; they saw the statue unveiled and they saw a meeting of different cultures in a common goal.

This pageantry unfolded on a bright, cloudless yet comfortable late spring day as a light breeze made the flags gently flow.

De Smet Mayor Glenn Iverson thanked the community for its help in getting the statue project completed. “It speak well of our community,” he said.

Dendermonde Mayor Albert Cool, through interpreter Hubert Maes, said his city is proud that Father De Smet has made it possible for the two cities to come closer together.

Andre Pauwels, chairman of the Action Father De Smet Committee in Dendermonde, spoke about the courage of sculptor Michael Peleman in creating the statue and he praised Iverson for working with energy and gentleness, like Father De Smet worked, to bring the project to completion.

The Rev Stanislas Maudlin, OSB, from the Blue Cloud Abbey near Marvin, delivered the main address. He greeted the crowd in Lakota and then reviewed Father De Smet’s life, nothing that Father De Smet loved the Dakotas and that he had always missed them when he was not among them. “My last and greatest happiness would be to die among them,” Father De Smet had written. The Rev. Maudlin said those words also reflected his feelings.

Rollin Crazy Buffalo and the Battle Lake Dancers tied all these words and feelings together in a prayer ceremony with the peace pipe and with an honor song. Crazy Buffalo urged those attending to pray along with him in their own way. “We all pray to one God,” he said, “and the strongest thing one has in his body is his prayer.”

Crazy Buffalo then presented star blankets, the highest gift the Dakotah give a friend, to Cool, the mayor of Dendermonde, and to Herman Dehennin, the Belgin ambassador to the United States.

Dehennin, the last dignitary to speak, said how good it was to come into America’s heartland and to be welcomed so warmly. He said that he and his countrymen visiting De Smet feel the small towns are more hospitable than the big cities and that it was good for he and his countrymen to leave the big cities and get out where the heartbeat of the nation was. And he thanked the people of De Smet for an unforgettable 24 hours here.

Iverson on Tuesday said the significance of the statue and the dedication was only now beginning to hit him. “It’s something I really can’t explain,” he said, noting that he has strong feelings about what the community should do now to learn as much as it can about Father De Smet and his life.

Iverson said it was deeply moving how close those of the Belgian delegation and their American hosts became in the two days they were here. He said when they parted at the Sioux Falls airport it was almost like saying goodbye to family. That bond formed in a couple of days, days that began with local hosts worrying about the language barrier and whether they could cope. Those fears quickly dissolved into the experience of a lifetime. – De Smet News, June 11, 1986, page 1.


Father De Smet (SSL 23) – Click HERE to read The Life of Father De Smet, S.J. (1915) translated from the book by E. Laveille, S.J.