The American Fur Company wouldn’t accompany De Smet and his men this time, so worried were they that he and his team of men with five wagons would slow them down too much.
De Smet was able to make a deal with the respected scout and mountain man Thomas Fitzpatrick to guide him, however, and his party left Westport with several other parties heading west to Oregon and California, which were led by John Bidwell and John Bartleson.
The Mountain Men Take Charge
He had spent years scouting through the wilderness, and of all the men, he had the best knowledge of how to get to California, mainly having heard it from Jim Bridger.
With him were four other mountain men and fur trappers: Jim Baker, John Gray, William Mast, and George Simpson.
De Smet was able to have an easy rapport with the men, knowing when to proselytize and when to talk of more worldly concerns. It’s easy to imagine De Smet bending coins with his teeth for the men around the campfire at night, something he did often to show off how strong his teeth were.
Hitting the Oregon Trail
The ground was rough most of the way and the wagons jarring, but tall grass and trees were everywhere. Many streams were crossed and there was a break for several days as four oxen had to be rounded up.
A group of young ruffians encountered the group and stayed with them for a few days and shortly after that a crazed preacher appeared, intent on quelling the Indian savages with his words of God. One day saw large hailstones and on another one man accidently shot himself in the heart when he drew his pistol at an odd angle, becoming the first death of the journey. There were also two wedding ceremonies along the route, both performed by De Smet.
A more serious occurrence took place when the party reached the Platte River and a lone hunter went out, something that was strictly against Fitzpatrick’s orders.
He spotted some Cheyenne and fired, was lucky enough to miss and even luckier to be spared. The Indians took everything he had and sent him back to camp, but soon rode in themselves, whooping and hollering all the while. Thankfully they were calmed by one in the party and left the next day.
Reaching the Rockies
After resting for two days the group again set out for the southern route that would take them across the North Platte.
Game began to grow scarce as the group continued on, as did their remaining food supplies. The hunters’ kills each day weren't producing enough for everyone, and many in the group broke out into fistfights.
Things turned around by July 13th when the group managed to kill nine buffalo and reach the top of South Pass five days later. The Green River was reached on July 23rd, and there the group met several fur trappers and mountain men, although by that time the main rendezvous was long over
The party set out from the Green River on July 24th. They kept up their slow pace of about 12 miles a day through the Rocky Mountains until they reached the trail junction just past Soda Springs.
The two parties went their separate ways on August 11th, the Bidwell group heading south on the California trail, the Jesuits and Fitzpatrick’s men north toward Oregon. The group continued to get smaller when they reached Fort Hall on August 15th and De Smet and his men headed up the Snake River while the others continued on westward.
Thankfully there was a lone Flathead Indian waiting for them there, which gave De Smet satisfaction enough to call a rest for three days. The small party journeyed through Hellgate Canyon near present-day Missoula and arrived in the Bitterroot Valley on September 24, 1841, their final destination.
Baumler, Ellen. Montana Moments: History on the Go. Montana Historical Society Press: Helena, 2010. p 125.
Carriker, Robert C. Father Peter John De Smet: Jesuit in the West. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 1995. p 31-64.
“History of St. Mary’s.” Historic St. Mary’s Mission & Museum. Web. Retrieved 7 June 2013 from Stmarysmission.org: http://www.saintmarysmission.org/history.html
Malone, Michael Peter; Roeder, Richard B.; Lang, William L. Montana: A History of Two Centuries. The University of Washington Press, 1976. p 62-3.
McLynne, Frank. Wagons West: The Epic Story of America’s Overland Trails. Random House: London, 2002. p 58-78.
"Pierre Jean De Smet." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Retrieved June 07, 2013 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404701747.html
Toole, K. Ross. Montana: An Uncommon Land. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 1959. p 57-61.