Online Artist Archive
Point, Nicolas Fr.
b. 1799; d. 1868
Discipline: Drawing/Illustration, Painting
It's 1844, in what's now western Montana. In the sky above a gathering of Salish Indians hangs a crimson heart, a crucifix, a trio of angels, a levitating priest and a deer with a cross between his antlers. Father Nicolas Point titled his watercolor: "Blessing the Arms Before Leaving for the Hunt." It depicts St. Hubert, the Catholic patron saint of hunters, blessing the buffalo hunt.
Point traveled with bands of Flathead hunters when they left the area of the mission, searching for buffalo. He lived a nomadic life, drawing, painting and keeping a written journal of Indian customs, while he taught his moveable parish Catholicism.
Father Pierre Jean DeSmet had established a mission among the Flathead Indians in 1841, and Point was one of its five members. (Flathead and Coeur d'Alene Indians are all part of the Salish Indians.)
A gifted amateur artist, Point's pen and ink and pencil drawings are strong; his paintings are reminiscent of George Catlin's work, spiced with the addition of Christian fervor.
In the spring of 1847, after spending six years with the Flathead and Coeur d'Alene Indians, Point traveled by barge on the Missouri River from near its confluence with the Marias River to Fort Union in present-day North Dakota, and down river aboard the steamer Martha to St. Louis.
Collections of his drawings include scenes at Fort Union, Fort Berthold and the Missouri River near what's now Bismarck-Mandan.
DeSmet left his mark on the Upper Missouri as a missionary and peacemaker, especially among the Blackfeet and Sioux. Point has since slipped from memory, yet he was a remarkable man.
Born April 10, 1799, near Rocroy, two miles from the Belgium border, Point had attended school for two years when his father died in 1812. He dropped out and began work as a low-level clerk for a lawyer and then in the office of the local receiver general.
In 1813, the Russians, Prussians, English and Austrians became allies and pushed Napoleon out of the Germanies and back into France. As a result, the French Marshall Michel Ney, Duke of Elchingen, set up shop in Rocroy, where he met the fatherless Point. Ney so liked the boy that he tried to adopt him, but the child's mother refused.
After the defeat of Napoleon, Point began to study for the priesthood. He was accepted into the Society of Jesus on June 28, 1819. He continued to study in France at St. Acheul and Montrouge. The curriculum for a priest did not include art, a subject Point taught himself.
France was not a pleasant haven for Jesuits in the early part of the 19th century. During one of his stints at St. Acheul, a mob stoned the rector and burned the monastery to the ground.
Point finished his studies at Brigg, where he was ordained March 20, 1831. He was sent to Frielburg, Switzerland, where he assisted at a small college, until it too was closed because of opposition to the society. Point was then sent to San Sebastian, Spain, where he became vice-rector of the Jesuit college of St. Rock. The Jesuits were forced from Spain in 1834.
The young priest's route to the new world was circuitous and not without bumps. He departed Europe on Aug. 15, 1835, and arrived in New York on Dec. 15. Point's first posting in America was at a school, St. Mary's in Kentucky, after which he was ordered, based on his experience as vice-rector in Spain, to Louisiana to start a Jesuit college.
Point's superiors described him as: "a good school man, a zealous priest, and a man of sufficient judgment and prudence to be inherently entrusted with a new venture."
In the spring of 1837, Point began the construction of St. Charles College in Grand Coteau. The difficulties of building a college from scratch were compounded by fevers that spread through the school's student body. Point was removed from St. Charles, directed to St. Louis in July 1840. It was there that he connected with DeSmet, who that year made a quick trip to the Rocky Mountains and was preparing a mission to the Upper Missouri country.
Before sending Point on the mission, the bishop first sent him to Westport, Mo., a staging area for wagon trains headed west. There he built a small chapel that he decorated with religious painting done in his own hand. He drew and colored small holy scenes to be used as rewards for children in their religious studies.
On April 30, 1841, six members of the mission led by DeSmet left Westport, with 64 others. Point kept the official journal for the trip, and when the mission reached Fort Hall on the Snake River on Aug. 15, he drew plans for a residence, church and other buildings.
As winter approached, the Flathead Indians who made up the membership of the new wilderness congregation had to leave the mission to hunt buffalo. They wanted a priest to accompany them, continuing to teach them through the winter, so DeSmet sent Point. For five months, Point followed the buffalo herds along with the Flathead people.
It was on his travels with the Flatheads that Point met the Coeur d'Alene Indians and established a mission for them on the south shore of the lake with the same name.
For Point, the mission proved discouraging. The Coeur d'Alenes hadn't had prior contact with whites or Catholicism, as had the Flatheads. By 1844, Point's health began to fail. He was 45 years old. He asked the bishop to send him to Canada, so that he could be among French-speaking people.
Meanwhile, Point accompanied DeSmet to Fort Lewis on the Missouri River, near the mouth of the Marias River, to help hammer out a treaty between the Blackfeet and the Flathead Indians. While there, Point began baptizing, mostly children, and by spring 1846, he had baptized 600.
Finally, word came from the bishop. Point was posted to Canada. In March 1847, he traveled by barge to Fort Union and by the steamer Martha to St. Louis and, eventually, Quebec.
On this trip, Point maintained a journal and sketched. The original journal is a part of the collection of the National Library of Italy.
It's from this trip that today we have sketches of Fort Union, Fort Berthold and Upper Missouri landscapes.
Point's new job was to reorganize the mission at Wikemikong on Grand Manitoulin, not far from what's today known as New Windsor, Ontario.
Jesuit historian Joseph P. Donnelly, in his editor's note for "Wilderness Kingdom: The Journals and Paintings of Father Nicolas Point," writes:
"Point sought to put into practice in his new mission all the institutions which had been so successful with the Flatheads. He introduced orderly cultivations of the soil by Indians so they could be self supporting. He reorganized the educational system, introducing nuns as teachers. The parish buildings were repaired and a new stone church was built. Handling his own Jesuit subjects, Father Point was insistent that they not be overburdened with work and that they have regular periods for rest and rehabilitation. The years spent were probably Father Point's happiest."
He retired at Sault-au-Recollet in 1859 to write "Reflections of the Rocky Mountains."
Father Nicolas Point, far from his Belgian home, died in Canada on July 4, 1868, and is buried in the Cathedral of Quebec.
- Ken Rogers
Originally published under the title "Sacred Heart in the Big Sky" in Lewis and Clark: Art of the Upper Missouri. (Ken Rogers, Tim Fought, editors. Jim Bridges, publisher. Bismarck: The Bismarck Tribune, 2000.) Used with permission.