From 1850 to 1870, there was only one thriving, non-military, European-style community in what is now North Dakota, and it existed in the extreme northeastern corner of the state, centered on the town of Pembina.
The person most responsible for tending to the religious and education needs of the residents was considered a “natural leader” — Father Georges Antoine Belcourt. Father Belcourt was "an energetic, French-Canadian priest who had worked among the Canadian Chippewas for more than 15 years and fluently spoke several Indian dialects."
On June 1, 1848, Belcourt arrived at the mission in Pembina, a parish abandoned in 1823 when the Canadian-owned Hudson Bay Company (HBC) learned that they were operating south of the Canadian boundary line. When the HBC moved their operation farther north, most of the Chippewa Indians and Métis who interacted with the company’s trading operation also relocated their settlement. However, because the Pembina “area abounded in wild game of many kinds,” a number of the original Chippewa and Métis inhabitants remained, and by the 1840s, they were able to find American companies eager to purchase their furs.
The American companies were nearly 500 miles away in St. Paul, but the resourceful Métis had devised a way to get their furs to market — Red River carts. In 1843, the American Fur Company sent Norman Kittson to Pembina to coordinate the collection and shipment of furs, and Pembina soon experienced a significant growth in population. By the time Belcourt arrived, the population of Pembina was “1,026, exclusive of Indians.”
“Father Belcourt went to work right away. With a few primitive tools and some native help, he built a log chapel and a cabin close by.” He bought lumber for the building of additional structures and grain for seeding, and he had a few cows and oxen.
Belcourt taught school to 50 children in the chapel and translated a textbook from French to Chippewa. He also held a daily Mass that was attended by members of almost all of the families in the area, and there were 92 regular attendees who received preparation instruction on Holy Communion. On Aug. 15, Belcourt conducted his first baptism.
The busy schedule and meager funds that Belcourt received, $200 a year, seriously affected the progress he was able to make, so he sent a letter to the Bishop of Montreal for assistance. Conditions got worse that winter when the area received a lot of snow with “killing blizzards,” and then massive flooding occurred the following spring.
In the autumn of 1849, a Canadian priest, fluent in Chippewa, was sent to Pembina to be Belcourt’s assistant. Besides the lack of funding, there were three other issues that frequently worried Belcourt: the frequent spring flooding of the Red River; the strained relations with the powerful HBC due to employees who “kept entering American territory and applying their policy of the big stick to the ignorant natives”; and the hostility of some Native Americans who went into a rage over the Christian principles Belcourt was instilling in some of the converts.
“One of the wives of a polygamous chief wanted to become a Catholic and had left her husband. The proud Indian took this as another case of white treachery and swore to kill the priest.” He drilled a hole in the bottom of Belcourt’s canoe and camouflaged it, but the plot was discovered and the priest’s life was spared.
Belcourt’s next brush with death occurred in January 1850 when he, his guides and dog teams got caught in a blizzard. They floundered their way through the drifting snow until they came to a ridge in the Pembina Mountains which “they followed to the shelter of the loftiest peak in the ridge” and burrowed into the snow waiting until the storm was over. Belcourt offered a Mass of thanksgiving for their delivery on Jan. 25, and then had a large wooden cross planted on the peak. In 1933, a cairn was placed where the cross had stood on the summit of what Belcourt had named Butte St. Paul.
Belcourt had originally planned on expanding his church and school facilities, but because the Pembina area was swampy and the Red River often flooded, he was reluctant to implement his expansion plans. When the rivers flooded the banks again in 1851, Belcourt and Kittson decided to look for a better location. They selected a site 34 miles west of Pembina at a settlement called St. Joseph (later named Walhalla), and Belcourt also persuaded some of his Pembina parishioners to move there.
At St. Joseph, Belcourt built his new church and installed a bell, which “was the first church bell to ring in North Dakota.” He also built a school and convinced some Canadian nuns to teach classes there. Belcourt “traveled in all directions and evangelized the whole of the Turtle Mountain region.” Due to Belcourt’s work with the Native Americans in the area, he is given much of the credit for keeping the Chippewa from joining with the Sioux in the Uprising of 1862.
In November 1854, Belcourt traveled to Washington, D.C., to express the wants and needs of the people of the Turtle Mountains, especially protection from raiding parties of the Sioux. In 1856, at St. Joseph, he built the first flour mill in what is now North Dakota. He had high hopes of making St. Joseph a large commercial city, but the hard work and long hours that he was putting in began to take its toll, so Belcourt left the Turtle Mountains and returned to Canada in 1859.
One writer called Belcourt “the Paul Bunyan of North Dakota missions.” Bishop Shanley, the first bishop of North Dakota, wrote, “Of all the priests of pioneer days in North Dakota, he was the most worthy of honor.”
In Canada, Belcourt was sent to North Rustico on Prince Edward Island, where he served as the town’s priest and also constructed a parish hall that he used as a high school. After recruiting a teacher to take his place at the school, Belcourt established and managed the Farmers’ Bank of Rustico in 1863, the first community-based bank in Canada and a precursor of credit unions.
In 1866, after learning about the invention of steam-powered automobiles, Belcourt ordered one from a manufacturer in Bayonne, N.J. The auto was shipped to Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, and then pulled by horse to Rustico, and Belcourt became the first person in Canada to drive a car.
Father Georges Antoine Belcourt died on May 31, 1874, and later that year, his "Dictionnaire Sauteux," the first Chippewa dictionary, was published. In 1888, the name of the Indian mission in Rolette County was changed from Turtle Mountain to Belcourt in his honor.
In 1959, Father Belcourt was designated as a National Historic Person by the Canadian government.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.