Father De Smet Pets a Buffalo

By Rebecca Hein

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” It’s an appealing idea, but if you want to know what really happened, you might have to prepare for some surprises. So it was with me and the tale that Father Pierre-Jean De Smet once approached a bison bull, laid his hand on its head—and wasn’t gored.

Father De Smet lays his hand on the head of a bison bull, from the 1958 grade school textbook, Wyoming’s People. Supposedly, the bull was dazzled by the glittering cross.

In late grade school I learned about De Smet from Wyoming’s People, a textbook used widely in Wyoming schools at the time. A drawing in this book shows De Smet standing in front of a bison bull, his hand on its head. The cross on his chest appears to be reflecting the sun. The passage describing this episode starts, “They say,” implying that it was a tale, not fact. But I remembered the story, and retained the idea that this event actually occurred.

When I was 12 years old, my parents purchased a cabin in the Black Hills of South Dakota, in Custer State Park. The park had a large bison herd, which we always saw when driving to our cabin. Sometimes, part of the herd would surround the cabin, or we’d see a lone bull near our favorite hiking trail. My mother instructed me to make sure I was near a large tree, to get behind in the presence of a bison bull.

I got interested enough to do a science project about the north American bison, and learned how dangerous and unpredictable they can be, and how fast they can move. It’s folly to approach one. We soon got used to the park’s roadside signs, “Buffalo are dangerous. Stay on highway near your car.”

So I was even more struck by Father De Smet’s courage and daring. His story was so ingrained in my consciousness that when I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie, and learned about De Smet, South Dakota, I thought, Oh, they named the town after that man who put his hand on the bison bull.

I thought no further until 2014 when I researched De Smet and his presence in the West, especially Wyoming, for WyoHistory.org. In reading part of the four-volume Life, Letters and Travels of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, I got the impression that he wrote down nearly everything he observed and did.

I became curious about the bison story, and began to suspect that it never happened. A few weeks ago, I word-searched the electronic version of the Life, Letters and Travels, finding many mentions of “buffalo,” a few of “bison” but no reference to the famous event.

I’ve provisionally concluded it’s a myth. I remain impressed that the combined drawing and story convinced me, as a child, and endured in my mind for so many decades. The truth about De Smet is fascinating, with no embellishments needed. He was notable for his concern for Native Americans, his intrepid nature and his kindness.

Rebecca Hein is an assistant editor of WyoHistory.org.

Read Father De Smet in Wyoming