Fort Owen State Park may not have much money, but it sure has a lot of friends. More than six dozen people packed the community room at the North Valley Public Library last week just to hear a strange story about the fort’s founder, Major John Owen, and the more well-known Jesuit priest, Father Pierre DeSmet, who served at St. Mary’s Mission for a number of years.
Anthropologist, historian and author Sally Thompson has interviewed over 200 elders and educators from 37 native American tribes and worked with Kootenai and Blackfeet elders on a book, about their seasonal rounds through Glacier National Park, called “People before the Park.” As Margaret Gorski, President of Friends of Fort Owen, noted in her introduction, Thompson likes to look at things like history from the Native American point of view.
In her talk, “A Strange Story of John Owen and Father DeSmet, Spring 1859,” she doesn’t hide her admiration for the mercantilist and trader John Owen over Father DeSmet, who strikes her as more of a fame and celebrity seeker.
“John Owen is a friendly, lovable guy,” said Thompson frankly to the audience. “He’s so happy you are here to support him because he’s almost lost to history, except for you. And yet, DeSmet is known worldwide, with statues built for him, and here is this [other] man, who really took care of this area and the people in it and had a wonderful heart.”
She paints a picture of Father DeSmet as being a short timer in the area compared to Owen and far less travelled in the area as a result. Owen on the other hand spent decades in the area making extensive supply trips, becoming much more familiar with the terrain and the tribes.
Although Jesuit priests are famous for being able to write and keeping journals, not many of your average frontiersmen could. John Owen was an exception. DeSmet’s journals, according to Thompson, were written with the express intention of being published and sent even to Europe. She is not sure why Owen kept a journal or what he meant to do with it. It was found after his death in a barn. DeSmet’s, however, helped make him famous and helped earn him the title “peacemaker” following the failure of the Walla Walla Treaty.
Thompson uses a historical photo of DeSmet purportedly pictured with seven rebellious “chiefs” that he brought to the peace table to make her point. By using both Owen’s and DeSmet’s journals and tracing their parallel journeys during that spring of 1869, Thompson makes the case that it was actually John Owen who brought the Indians to the peace table. Something DeSmet did not mention in his journal accounts at all.
According to Gorski, the Friends of Fort Owen are currently working on a memorandum of understanding with the state to form a working relationship, making them official friends of the park and giving them some added leverage with the State Parks and Recreation Board. She said currently the state has zero funding for Fort Owen State Park outside of the manager’s salary.
“We are stepping up to see what we can do,” said Gorski.
For more information on the Friends, contact Gorski at 406-552-2072.