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Father Hoecken


The first recorded baptisms in North Dakota took place on this date in 1840. Father Christian Hoecken, a Roman Catholic missionary priest from Holland, performed seven baptisms at Fort Clark, near present-day Bismarck. Although earlier baptisms may have occurred at the Red River settlement of Pembina, those records did not survive the Hudson Bay Company’s abandonment of the site in the 1820s.

In 1836, Hoecken traveled to the Territory of Kansas as a Catholic missionary. One of the earliest white men in the region, Hoecken astonished the Kickapoo Indians by learning their language and deciphering the grammar, which allowed it to be transcribed. He also quickly studied and learned the Powatomie language, becoming one of the earliest linguistic anthropologists on the Plains.

Hoecken opened a school for the Kickapoo children and held Mass each Sunday, becoming known among the tribe as “Kickapoo Father.” He founded the Sugar Creek Pottawatomie Mission and continued to work with both the Kickapoo and the neighboring Powatomie tribes, often traveling for weeks or months at a time. In 1838, he received the surviving Powatomie who had been forced to march westward from Indiana along the “Trail of Death.” The survivors, along with Hoecken’s Kansas followers, founded St. Mary’s Mission in eastern Kansas. While working among the Prairie Powatomie at the St. Joseph’s Mission in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Hoecken met Father Pierre de Smet. De Smet, who had worked among the Yankton Sioux at Fort Vermillion, convinced Hoecken to travel northward into Dakota. On his way to Fort Union, Hoecken stopped at Fort Clark to administer baptisms. Although told by the settlers to avoid meeting any of the dangerous and violent Sioux, Fathers de Smet and Hoecken were both received with kindness and hospitality by the Santee and Yankton tribes.

In 1851, Hoecken and de Smet set out from St. Louis on the steamboat St. Ange, bound for Fort Union to hold a Great Council among the Oglala and Brulé tribes and with hopes of eventually building a permanent mission for the Sioux. However, a deadly cholera epidemic broke out among the steamboat’s passengers only a few days into the journey. Father Hoecken heroically nursed the sick passengers until he himself took ill and passed away near the Little Sioux River. He was buried by Father de Smet, who went on to baptize 280 Sioux children at the meeting of the Great Council.

-Jayme L. Job


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