A little-known chapter of Columbia Valley history may see at least a bit more attention as a result of a provincial government plan to upgrade some of its Stop of Interest signs.
As reported in the October 5th edition of The Valley Echo, the provincial Ministry of Transportation andInfrastructure will be upgrading or updating some of the 139 such signs scattered across the province, including one in Canal Flats commemorating the Apostle of the Rockies.
The announcement will come as news not just for the fact of the upgrades, but also for the many valley residents who may be entirely unaware that the sign exists and that there existed such a person as the Apostle of the Rockies.
Just who was the Apostle and what did the Apostle do to warrant a sign of commemoration?
The Apostle of the Rockies, it turns out, was the first Jesuit missionary (“Black Robe”) to visit the area — aBelgian by the name of Pierre-Jean de Smet who, as a novitiate (novice in a religious order), snuck away fromEurope without his family initially knowing, to undertake religious studies in Maryland, U.S. and then St. Louis,and eventually gained repute for his extensive journeys across the western portion of the continent.
After being ordained as a priest in 1827, de Smet continued his studies in the U.S. and then went back toBelgium for a period of several years to recover from various health problems. He returned to the Midwest in the late 1830s and began his missionary work in Iowa, focusing primarily on establishing missions among indigenous people.
Several online Catholic publications with histories of de Smet relate that he held a growing distain for how theEuropean-descendant settlers spreading westward in large numbers in the mid 1800s affected the Indigenous people they encountered, with a particular dislike for the Europeans’ introduction of alcohol, usually in the form of trading whisky for Indigenous goods — something utterly and sinfully unconscionable in de Smet’s eyes.
Over time, de Smet made his way further and further west, and as he did he developed a taste for fricasseed buffalo tongue and bear grease (a local Indigenous dish in one area he visited), and acquired considerable mapping skills, evidenced in his creating the first detailed map of the Missouri River system. He also gained fame for his large size and physical prowess, and his willingness to use that prowess if necessary — with one account describing how de Smet apparently handily defeated a hostile, armed opponent who had confronted him, using nothing more than his bare hands.
De Smet’s most famous journey, however, was the one that brought him north into Canada in 1845 and 1846,which included a stop in Canal Flats. The missionary took the trip into territory Washington claimed as theOregon Country and that London, U.K. claimed as the Columbia District (Canada was still more than 20 years away from Confederation at the time). The territory was jointly occupied by the two when de Smet started his travels, but would be divided between them along the 49th parallel by the Oregon Treaty mere months after deSmet completed his trip.
He started in August 1945 from Lake Pend Oreille, in what is currently Idaho, and began following the Kootenay River north, eventually arriving in what is now the Canal Flats area. It was here that de Smet met with, and preached to, local Upper Columbia Valley First Nations — the event commemorated by the Stop of Interest sign.
From Canal Flats, de Smet left the Kootenay River, choosing instead to head north along the shores of ColumbiaLake and Lake Windermere, before heading a short way down the Columbia River to what is now the Radium HotSprings area. De Smet abandoned the Columbia River here, lured eastward by the dramatic route taken by theJames Sinclair-led group of settlers just four years prior, in 1941. In doing so, de Smet might in some respects be considered to be the first visitor to arrive in the Upper Columbia Valley from south of the border and then leave in the general direction of Banff by passing through the narrow gorge of Sinclair Canyon.
This would also make him the first such visitor to not be welcomed into the valley by the occasionally discussed but as-yet-unbuilt “southern gateway” visitor information centre.
On the other side of Sinclair Pass, de Smet rejoined the Kootenay River, crossed it, and then followed what isnow called the Cross River east to its headwaters, crossing the current B.C.-Alberta border at Whiteman’s Pass. At the top the pass, he laboriously built and erected a giant wooden cross, which apparently could be seen for many kilometres and from which the Cross River derived its name. De Smet descended from the pass to theSpray Lakes, following the Spray River down to the present-day Banff-Canmore area. He then followed the BowRiver north to its source at Bow Lake, before then following the Saskatchewan River Valley, eventually arriving atFort Edmonton where he hunkered down for a particularly harsh winter.
In spring 1846, de Smet left Fort Edmonton to head west to Fort Jasper, and then again crossed the currentAlberta-B.C. Border, this time at Athabasca Pass. During this section of the journey, de Smet apparently suffered greatly, but still managed to once again find the Columbia River (via its northernmost tributary, the Canoe River,the lower reach of which is now flooded by the Mica Dam) and then follow the Columbia more than 1,500kilometres all the way down to Fort Vancouver, in present-day Washington State, where he ended the trip.
The lengthy and arduous trip was both the high point of de Smet’s wanderings — and essentially the end ofthem — as once it was done, he more or less settled down into clerical life at one of his Midwest missions. In his later years, he was frequently called upon by government authorities to serve as a sort of diplomat between them and Indigenous groups, and at one point he helped negotiate the Treaty of Laramie with renowned Sioux chief Sitting Bull in 1868, before dying in 1873 in St. Louis.
Aside from being the subject of the Stop of Interest sign in Canal Flats, and being responsible for the CrossRiver’s name, de Smet is the namesake of a host of other geographic entities, including the De Smet Range(mountains near Jasper) and that range’s highest peak, Roche de Smet, as well as a scattering of towns, lakes,high schools and university halls in Missouri, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington State, all called de Smet (or some variation thereof). A statue of him also stands in the Belgian town in which he was born.