A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The origin of “Sky Pilot” as a reference to missionary, pastor, or clergyman is unknown and there is no record of the situation under which someone decided to use that term when referring to an individual who preached the gospel.  We do have some records which indicate that it was first used in 1865.

It was a 19th century slang term for preacher.  It may very well have been first used by hoboes who rode the rails during that period in our early history where the railroads were well established.  They were noted for, among other things, the distinctive lingo that arose among them.  For them, they used the term to describe a preacher or minister.

Some of the earliest “outsiders” to come to the northern plains were the missionaries.  They followed close behind the fur trappers and traders who quickly explored the rivers and streams of what was later to become Dakota Territory.  They were looking for fur bearing animals.  The beaver was their main prey which was in all the rivers and most streams until 1860.  They also traded coyote and wolf pelts for money or provisions.

The first trading post established along the Missouri River in this area was Fort Manuel, ten miles below the North Dakota line on the west bank of the river.  It was in reality a military post built and operated under the appearance of a fur trading station.

In 1812, Manuel Lisa had come up the river from St. Louis with two barges and about seventy men.  On the barges were cattle, hogs, cats, and supplies for the fort.  These were the first known cattle and cats brought into the area.  The cats were brought along to protect the provisions (flour, sugar, etc.) and furs from being destroyed by the mice and pack rats.

Henry W. Smith became a Methodist preacher at the age of 23 in 1850.  In 1861 he enlisted in the 52nd Massachusetts Infantry and served through the entire Civil War.  After the war, he became a medical doctor and moved to Louisville, Kentucky.

Early in 1876, Smith left his home and family (wife and four children) to join a party of “gold seekers” headed for the Black Hills.  It was his mission to bring the gospel to the gold miners in their squalid and sleazy communities in the Black Hills.  He was not sent with the support of any church or denomination.  It was his decision alone and he had to earn money for his rail and stage coach fare.

Also, while in the hills, he had to work at various odd jobs to supplement that which was dropped into the collection hat.  Calamity Jane was known to have passed the hat through the Sunday crowd shouting some phrases which could not be repeated.  He was the first clergy of any denomination to go into those camps and preach the gospel.

After preaching on the corner of Main and Gold streets in Deadwood on the Sunday morning of August 20, 1876, he took his tiny collection and returned to his lonely cabin.

He was planning to preach that afternoon in Crook City so he tacked a note on his door, “Gone to Crook City to preach, and if God is willing, will be back by 3 o’clock.”

He never returned to his cabin.  He was shot and killed while walking on a ridge about two miles from Deadwood.  He was found lying on his back in the middle of the road with his Bible and hymn book clutched in his hands on his chest.  His blood stained sermon notes were found in his pocket.  His text was Romans 1: 5.

In 1914, the Society of Black Hills Pioneers erected a monument on the Deadwood-Spearfish road near where Smith’s body was found.  The relocation of Highway 85 north of Deadwood in 1994 forced the relocation of the Preacher Smith Monument.  Under the monument was buried a copper box which contained historical items, including the blood-stained sermon notes.

The following is part of that sermon which he never had the opportunity to deliver in person:  “The Apostles, next to Christ, may be considered as the most proper pattern for imitation by Christians of the present day.

Of all the disciples of the Lord, none seem to unite more of the graces of the Spirit of Paul.  Peter was zealous and impetuous, a son of thunder.  James was called ‘The Just.’  John was full of gentleness and love.

But it was Paul alone who was able to become all things to all men.  Among excellences of his character, none appear more prominent than his self-sacrificing spirit and his devotion to the Gospel of Christ.

Our Saviour said, ‘Go ye into all the world.’  There are many ways for a Christian to follow Paul as he followed Christ.  Many ways in which we may assist in spreading abroad the story of the Cross include:

  1. Without money. Christ sent His disciples forth without purse or script, but he did not intend that they should live without food.
  2. By sustaining the social needs of Grace. All can do something here, and are required to do something, every man according to his ability.
  3. The Sabbath School.
  4. By personal efforts to lead men to the Savior.
  5. By holding up the life of a consistent God as a guide to our own lives.”

That sermon was written one hundred and forty-six years ago in the Black Hills which were then still a part of the Dakota Territory!


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on September 21, 2022