Partnering Up

In five days after my arrival we were ready to start, but no one knew where to go, not even the captain. Finally a man came up, one of the last to arrive, and announced that a company of Catholic missionaries were on their way from St. Louis to the Flathead nation of Indians with an old Rocky Mountaineer for a guide, and that if we would wait another day they would be up with us. At first we were independent, and thought we could not afford to wait for a slow missionary party. But when we found that no one knew which way to go, we sobered down and waited for them to come up. (Echoes of the Past, p. 133)

And a good thing they did.

The wagon train was very lucky to be able to join up with the missionary party. Without the guidance of the trail guide — Thomas Fitzpatrick — hired by the missionaries, they probably would have gotten hopelessly and fatally lost.

Thomas Fitzpatrick, born in County Cavan, Ireland, had been a mountain man, fur trapper, and trail guide in the Rocky Mountains for twenty years. He spoke several Indian languages and knew the geography (like the location of South Pass).

The missionaries were led by Father Pierre Jean De Smet, a Belgian Jesuit who spent many years working among the American Indians. In 1841 he was on his way, with two other priests and three lay brothers, to minister to the Flathead Indians. He established St. Mary’s Mission on the Bitterroot River near Missoula, Montana. Bidwell described him as follows:

He was genial, of fine presence, and one of the saintliest men I have ever known, and I cannot wonder that the Indians were made to believe him divinely protected. He was a man of great kindness and great affability under all circumstances; nothing seemed to disturb his temper. (Echoes of the Past, p. 114)

More information on Father De Smet can be found in this article from Historic St. Mary’s Mission and Museum.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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