The Black Robes
Iroquois Indians accompanied French trappers to western Montana in the early 1800s. While the Iroquois were to teach the local Flathead and Nez Percé how to trap, they also passed on information about Christianity. The Montana Indians heard of “Black Robes” who possessed a Book of Heaven, whose “medicine” or power was great. The Flathead were greatly intrigued and sent four delegations to St. Louis to ask for a Black Robe to come and visit the tribe.
Finally, in 1840, Father Pierre Jean De Smet, a Belgian-born Jesuit, came west. Although the Indians’ spiritual demands had more to do with the search for powerful medicine to protect them from the hostile Blackfeet than with traditional salvation, the Flathead and Nez Percé seemed genuinely friendly and anxious to learn the way of the Catholic fathers.
In 1841, St. Mary’s Mission was established in the Bitterroot Valley near Stevensville. Here the Jesuits taught the Indians agriculture, music, milling, and, of course, religion. The original mission was abandoned in 1850 after De Smet made the mistake of starting missionary work with the Blackfeet. The Flathead were not eager to share their “medicine” with their enemies and lost interest in De Smet’s projects. Another influential early church, St. Ignatius Mission, was established in 1854 in the Mission Valley among the Pend d’Oreille Indians.
Little attempt was made to bring Christianity to the Plains Indians until they were on reservations. Most of the early missionary work was done by the Catholic Church. Protestant missionaries entered the state only after white settlement had begun, when gold ore and high living induced the kind of bad doings best corrected by regular churchgoing.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition