by Clay S. Jenkinson
(This article first appeared in North Dakota Quarterly 71:2 : 6–27.)
October 1804 on the upper Missouri: By now the temperature was falling below freezing at night. The men of the mission didn't need Captain Lewis to consult the expedition's bulky thermometers to recognize that. There was a biting chill in the morning air, and ice crystals were forming on the oars overnight. The explosive golden yellow of the cottonwoods pointed the course of the river, endlessly receding to the north and west. Rusts were prominent now in the prairie grasses; the color of the sky was the shocking blue of autumn on the northern plains. The sun already shone wan in spite of considerable mid-afternoon heat. And these strange new creatures that the captains were not sure what to name—pronghorn antelopes, we call them—were swimming south and west across the great river—migrating, according to their temporary ad hoc guides Joseph Gravelines and the Arikara leader Arketarnarshar, to the Black Hills for the bitter winter about to descend.
Lewis and Clark entered today's North Dakota on October 14, 1804, 153 days into their transcontinental journey. They had just completed a five-day sojourn with the Arikara near the mouth of the Grand River. Clark had called them "Durtey, Kind, pore, & extravigent." Clark's African-American slave York had astonished the Arikara with his big blackness, The Big Medicine, Clark thought he heard them say. York had clowned his celebrity, told the awestruck Arikara that he was a bear that had been captured and tamed by Clark, that he preferred, all things considered, to dine on human flesh. The Arikara children had followed him around the village, examining him from top to toe, Clark said. And shrieking.
But it was not all minstrelsy at the mouth of the Grand. Lewis and Clark examined deserted earthlodge villages there, found mats and toys and fresh produce undisturbed on the floors. It began to dawn on them that one of the harbingers of European "civilization" had already visited the Arikara. Smallpox had shattered the upper Missouri country already at least once by the time the discoverers arrived. More waves would follow over the next fifty years until nine of every ten Mandan and most Arikara and Hidatsa were dead. In the minds of the natives, it would become impossible to distinguish the bold newcomers from the diseases they inadvertently carried with them.
Lewis and Clark entered North Dakota in their own crisis. The sixth of the expedition's seven courts-martial occurred on the North Dakota-South Dakota border. On October 13, in South Dakota, private John Newman was found guilty of uttering "mutinous expressions," and at noon on October 14, on a sand bar just inside North Dakota, the expedition beat the tar out of him while the heavens drizzled over the scene. The Arikara leader Arketarnarshar cried out in pity and disapproval. It would be better to kill Newman altogether, he said, than to humiliate him in front of his peers. How could the fellow ever regain his sense of himself after such public degradation? The Arikara, Arketarnarshar reported, never whipped their own even in childhood. We do not know what Lewis and Clark thought about being called savage by a savage, but Clark explained the ways and means of white folk to his own satisfaction and the expedition proceeded on, with a bloodied white man and a bewildered native man on board.
The expedition had been straining against the Missouri for 1600 miles. Aside from a couple of days of respite at the mouth of the Platte, already the line of demarcation between the lower and upper Missouri, between the medium and tall grass prairie and the short grass and treeless plains, plus a day here and a day there to dry things out and repack, and the four tense diplomatic interludes among the Oto, Missouri, Yankton Sioux, Teton Sioux, and Arikara, the business of the Lewis and Clark expedition had been to roll out at dawn, and hurl the backs of approximately fifty virile young men at the three boats and their staggering load of Enlightenment paraphernalia.
The leading authority on the cargo of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Ken Karsmizki of Oregon, has determined that the expedition started out with approximately thirty tons of baggage. So great a payload was necessary because the captains had to assume they were going to travel to the Pacific Ocean and back again without the slightest real prospect of resupply. Fifty men, thirty tons of stuff, and the appalling currents of the Missouri River to overcome. And no internal combustion engines. The engines of mission progress were the thighs and backs of a corps of volunteers. There were a dozen or so French professionals on board—watermen, voyageurs, engagés, virtually nameless porters who slept and ate apart-but the rest were watercourse amateurs, mostly drawn from the frontier armies of the west. The expedition rowed its boats. It dragged them along the shallows with tow ropes. Under the right conditions it could push the keelboat and pirogues against the bottom of the river by way of setting poles. Or if the wind were just right, crude sails could be thrown up for a few hectic miles.
Lewis and Clark had not expected to spend the winter in what is now North Dakota. Before the official departure from the mouth of the Missouri on May 14, 1804, Clark had speculated that the expedition might get as far as the base of the "rock mountains" before stopping for the winter. Just below some putative Cumberland Gap of the west. But the river was too much for them. They had averaged something under ten miles per day—and that was if they threw everything they had at the boats between dawn and dusk. And now it was about to freeze over. The Missouri froze shut just days after the expedition began construction of its winter quarters below the mouth of the Knife River, and they got underway in the spring of 1805 less than a week after the Missouri ice broke up.
By the time they reached North Dakota, the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition were ready for a long winter's rest. And whatever recreations there were to be had in so profoundly interior a place. They had an enormous distance yet to travel, through country that was virtually uncharted—terra incognita in Lewis's formal vocabulary—but they had journeyed deep into the heart of the continent, to the Great Bend of the Missouri. Whatever their apprehensions about the future, they had reason to feel pride in what they had accomplished during their first year of travel. In North Dakota Lewis and Clark rested, regrouped, reported, and relaxed. It was a bitterly cold winter, but by early April the men had regained their original puissance—and then some.
The journals of the five known North Dakota journal keepers, recently published in the State Historical Society of North Dakota's A Vast and Open Plain: The Writings of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in North Dakota , represent the first rich texts in North Dakota history. Today we pore over them with loving, sometimes obsessive scrutiny. Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, John Ordway, Patrick Gass, and Joseph Whitehouse have a well-known surface story to tell, but most readers try to find a way to peer through the screen of diurnal detail to see what the journal keepers do not volunteer to reveal. It is problematic excavation. It was an official mission, sponsored by the United States government. The journal keepers were writing official documents at the express instruction of the President of the United States. They were not disposed to play Pepys or Boswell on the northern plains, and if they had been, their personal effusions would have been officially discouraged. Nor, with the quasi-exception of Meriwether Lewis, were they literary men. Most of the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition, including several of the journal keepers, were barely literate.
We know little more than their names: Nathaniel Pryor, John Ordway, Patrick Gass, William Bratton, John Colter, Joseph Field, Reubin Field, John Shields, George Gibson, George Shannon, John Potts, John Collins, Joseph Whitehouse, Richard Windsor, Alexander Willard, Hugh Hall, Silas Goodrich, Robert Frazer, Pierre Cruzatte, Francois Labiche, Hugh McNeal, William Werner, Thomas Howard, George Drouillard, John Thompson, Peter Weiser, York.
And yet each of the men of the expedition was a fully-realized human being with dreams, doubts, strengths, weaknesses, quirks, habits, hobby-horses, a politics, and a point of view. Each one had a unique personality. Each one had a life of the soul that operated away from the woodcutting and the butchery of bison. Each one had stories to tell. We'd give anything to know how Hugh Hall saw the world, or whether William Werner had a sense of humor, when and under what circumstances George Drouillard prayed, and to whom? or whether Silas Goodrich worried about his mother back home—and where, by the way, was his home? Who were the whiners, the shirkers, the pollyannas, the practical jokesters? Who sulked? Who paired off with whom? What factions shook out among the company? Who, besides Lewis, kept to himself? We have no way of knowing.
Unfortunately we know almost nothing about the interior life of these individuals, and the poverty of the expedition's journals has had the effect of locking each complete and complex human being into a single epithet. Thus Silas Goodrich is remembered as the expedition's fisherman, because he is reported to have fished a couple of times, and Thomas Howard is seen as the expedition's premier tippler because Clark noted (early) that Howard "never Drinks water." Poor George Shannon, at eighteen the youngest member of the expedition, is known as the boy who got lost because he was lost twice, once for sixteen days in today's South Dakota. It seems obvious that each of these individuals would resent being locked into such simplistic biographies. Each one, after all, was the most important person in his universe and the central player in the drama of his own life. We have no way of knowing the nature of their thoughts, the running commentaries we keep in the silence of our souls as we engage in a big enterprise with someone else in control.
Nobody ever paused to write a brief profile of each member of the expedition, to take note of the dominant features of each man's character or physiognomy, to jot down the incidents and remarks by which that individual contributed to the success or the character of the expedition. There were journal keepers but no chroniclers, no poets, and no artists aboard, and the expedition's one literary master Meriwether Lewis was so focused on himself and the success of the mission that he barely ever turned his gifts of observation toward the crew. What personality we glimpse—Charbonnneau's Gallic amour-propre and his celebrated sausage recipe, McNeal's pious sense of triumph at the source of the "mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri," Shannon's sense of terror the second time he was lost—comes from the pen of the remarkable Lewis. But he killed himself (October 11, 1809) before he could bring his gifts to the master narrative of the expedition. The ghost writer Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia did his best to put flesh on the fossil fragments of the journals, but he was writing an official account of the expedition, and he knew only two members of the crew, Clark and young Shannon. And though he had traveled in Greece at the same time Lewis was searching for the source of the Missouri, Biddle never crossed the Allegheny Mountains.
Even the principal players in the story are figures of mystery. What exactly is it about Meriwether Lewis? He was silent for most of the first year of travel. That alone has perplexed everyone who has thought about it. He had been absent from Camp Wood at the mouth of the Missouri River during much of the critical period (December 1803–May 1804) when the scattered individualists of the expedition were formed into a Corps of North Western Discovery. That burden had fallen on the always dependable William Clark. Lewis seems to have preferred to spend his time on shore. In Iowa the notoriously poor speller Clark had ejaculated, "What a field for a Botents and a natirless." That role Meriwether Lewis carved out for himself. He was, at the same time, pretty sure he belonged to a club that included James Cook and Columbus, felt that he was the "first civilized man" this and the "first civilized man" that, and yet prone to believe that any setback might "defeat the expedition altogether." In a sense, his one duty beyond bringing the men back alive was to write about his travels. And this he could not do. Then on October 11, 1809, he committed suicide? Why? Or, as a small but determined set of Lewis and Clark buffs believes, was it murder, possibly conspiracy involving Aaron Burr, James Wilkinson, and perhaps even Thomas Jefferson?
Clark is universally regarded as the steadier partner. But he was calling himself Captain without actually holding that military rank. This seems acceptable only because we are so used to it, but it was actually highly irregular. When Biddle asked for clarification as he prepared the journals for publication, Clark was emphatic: "You express a desire to know the exact relation which I stood in Point of Rank, and command with Captain Lewis—equal in every point of view." "Equal in every point of view." Perhaps Biddle was concerned that Clark might be ridiculed or rebuked for claiming a military title to which he had not been promoted. One can be equal in all essential respects without faking an army rank to which one is not entitled. Meanwhile, in central Montana, on May 29, 1805, Clark named a river for a child-woman he would marry soon after the expedition's successful return. Julia (Judith) Hancock was thirteen years old at the time Clark named a river in her honor, which means she must have been no more than eleven years old when he met her and decided to make her his own. It was an era when women tended to marry young, but enamorment at eleven? Was Clark jealous of Lewis's cozy relationship with the great Jefferson? Did he resent the fact that whenever a moment of true discovery approached, Lewis found reason to light out ahead of the rest and become "the first civilized man to ...."? In questions of this sort, the journals are silent. If Lewis was, as most people now believe, given to what Jefferson later called "sensible depressions of mind," if the principal leader of the expedition was beset by fits of melancholia and silence, and was—at the very least—emotionally detached, how exactly did Clark cope with that on an eight-thousand-mile journey? Did he feel the righteous indignation of the reliable brother of the prodigal son? We do not know. And what precisely was the energy that bound Clark and the three Charbonneaus: the bumbling Toussaint, the child-woman Sacageawea, and the infant son, born to the mission, whom Clark called "my dancing boy Baptiest"? We don't know nearly enough about these great issues. For the first two hundred years the historians have paved over all of this with a thin coat of patriotic narrative. No master Virgil or Homer has come forward to offer the kind of poetic excavation that would make all things clear in a story that might well have become the national epic of the American people.
So we are stuck with the puny evidence pool left by the more or less random journal fragments. The urge to impose a master narrative on the chaos of the field jottings is so great that nobody who writes about the Lewis and Clark expedition can avoid it. And yet, if the reader of this essay could be dropped for one day into the midst of the expedition's camps, she or he would almost certainly discover enough to shatter to narrative tidiness Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage and force a reassessment of a variety of received notions about the journey and its personnel. The point is that the mysteries are greater than the certainties, and what certainties we have are imposed, not inherent.
They were engaged in what they all knew was an important mission, officially sponsored by the government of the United States. They knew that the more remote of the two leaders of the expedition was the friend and protégé of the President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. They were aware that the President's message to Congress (January 18, 1803) had been confidential and that the President himself had told his aides to circulate the rumor that the expedition was intended to venture for the source of the Mississippi River. They were aware that the Spanish resented their voyage and that the British were still trying to dominate the Indians of the upper Missouri country, including the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and Sioux, in spite of solemnly acknowledged treaty obligations. They were aware that they might have to fight for their lives somewhere on the journey and that the hostilities could come from any number of sources, including Spanish imperial troops. By the time they entered North Dakota, they had survived one harrowing confrontation with Indians—with the Teton Sioux (Lakota) near today's Pierre, South Dakota. During their five-day encounter with the people of Black Buffalo and the Partisan, September 24–28, 1804, they had approached the threshold of bloodshed twice, and their successful avoidance of an armed exchange owed as much to the intelligence of Black Buffalo as it did to their own courage and resolve. Throughout the North Dakota interlude, Lewis and Clark were glancing nervously over their shoulders towards Sioux country.
They could not know, on October 14, 1804, whether there would be more Indian trouble ahead. They had to assume that it might become necessary to use their arsenal for something more than food procurement. They knew that they were about to encounter a very large population of Mandan and Hidatsa (they called them Minitari) Indians, and they knew it would be a mistake to assume that the natives would be friendly. When they came within site of the first Mandan villages on October 26, 1804, Clark, who was under the weather, wrote, "if I was well only one (captain) would have left the Boat & party until we new the Disposition of the Inds." As it turned out, during the entire five months Lewis and Clark spent with the Mandan and Hidatsa, there was only one known act of violence between a member of the expedition and their Indian hosts. On March 25, 1805, Joseph Whitehouse struck a Mandan individual with his spoon for some perceived breach of table etiquette at Fort Mandan. The Mandan man was highly offended, Clark reported, but nothing more came of the incident.
So far there had been no major accidents. The four hunting horses were gone—dead or disappeared—but the three big boats were intact, if somewhat the worse for the wear that the Missouri River had inflicted upon them. At the end of the winter Meriwether Lewis wrote a letter to his mother Lucy Marks, in which he said, "So far, we have experienced more difficulty from the navigation of the Missouri, than danger from the Savages." It was clear that the great keelboat, fifty-five feet in length, drawing at least three feet of water, could proceed no farther. It would be sent downstream in the spring, therefore, and makeshift dugouts would have to be fashioned from the best timber in the district.
One man, Charles Floyd, was dead, a couple of the French watermen had slipped away into the heart of the continent, and privates Moses Reed and John Newman had been disgraced and discharged, though both were still traveling with the expedition as it entered North Dakota. They would be shipped downriver in the spring, with the keelboat, when it carried reports, specimens, maps, artifacts, and all that was no longer needed back down to St. Louis. In the meantime the disgraced men would be subjected to the worst drudgeries of camp life. Lewis later reported that John Newman worked flat-out that winter to recover the respect of his superiors, and that it pained him to have to persevere in his decision to eject Newman from the permanent party. Jefferson later praised Lewis for having been "careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline."
Floyd had died suddenly, virtually overnight, on August 20, 1804, and nobody knew what killed him. Clark called his malady "Beliose Chorlick," which turns out to be an essentially meaningless phrase. There was probably no physician in America who could have determined just what had happened to Floyd, and it has been universally concluded that nobody on earth could have prevented him from dying. There is a lively debate in Lewis and Clark circles about just what killed Floyd. All we know for sure is that the expedition buried Floyd with full military honors on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River at today's Sioux City, Iowa, and named the bluff and the river that washed its base after the fallen sergeant, one of the best of the so-called nine young men from Kentucky. The men had elected Patrick Gass to assume Floyd's duties as one of the expedition's three sergeants. Every journal keeper had expressed sadness at his sudden death.
It is not that death was unexpected on such a voyage into unknown country. Another of the sergeants, the reliable John Ordway, had informed his parents before departing that the mission included "25 picked Men of the armey & country likewise and I am So happy as to be one of them pick'd Men from the armey, and I and all the party are if we live to Return, to Receive our Discharge when ever we return again to the united States if we chuse it." "[I]f we live to Return," Ordway warned. Although it was an era when adults died suddenly in undiagnosable ways, it nevertheless seems certain that waves of anxiety and wonder passed through the ranks of the expedition in the weeks following Floyd's death. If Floyd could suddenly collapse, who was next, and how many more would perish before the bricks of St. Louis come into view again? On October 14, 1804, the men of the expedition could not know that Floyd would be the only white casualty of their immense journey. The odds were overwhelming that he would not be the last to die. William Walton could not know that he would suffer from lower back problems so severe at Fort Clatsop that Captain Lewis would predict his death. George Gibson could not know that he would fall from a horse onto a thick sharp stick in the Yellowstone River valley and somehow avoid a fatal infection. Nobody could know that the Indian woman they would take with them would nearly die of a gynecological malady at the Great Falls, or that Lewis's Newfoundland dog Seaman would nearly bleed to death after a beaver bit through an artery under his foreleg. Indeed, Captain Lewis could not know that he would, in North Dakota, on the return journey, on August 11, 1806, suffer the most serious non-lethal accident of the expedition. He could not know that his heroic homecoming would be clouded by a bullet accidentally fired into his ass. All they knew in mid-October 1804, was that Floyd had been alive one day and was buried on a bluff far from Kentucky the next.
Everyone knows that Lewis and Clark had dozens of encounters with American Indians and that some of the most important of them occurred in North Dakota. But we cannot understand those encounters unless we keep certain things in mind. First, Lewis and Clark did not speak the languages of the Indians they met, and the Indians did not speak English. There was never any direct conversation. Every exchange was heavily mediated—by translators or chains of translators, or through Indian sign language—and the mediators were all highly imperfect beings. Take Charbonneau, for example, the expedition's primary portal to the Hidatsa universe. He had no formal education of any sort. Canadian traders reported that his Hidatsa was highly imperfect. He knew only a smattering of English. He had existing translation contracts with agents of the North West and Hudson's Bay companies, which meant that his duties to the Canadians were often directly at odds with the imperial agenda Lewis and Clark expected him to help further among the Hidatsa. He was an opportunist, more interested in lining his pocket than in promoting anyone else's cause. He was a fussy, irritable, thin-skinned man who tried to insist upon an instant-exit clause in his contract with Lewis and Clark. He was a physical coward and something of a rascal. And yet everything any member of the Lewis and Clark expedition wanted to communicate to the Hidatsa had to go through this interesting filter. And even if Charbonneau had been a professional translator—nuanced and objective and masterful in both languages—the basic cultural differences between the Native Americans of North Dakota and the white visitors from the United States were so fundamental that it is hard to believe that there could have been anything like transparency in their conversations, diplomatic, economic, or otherwise. As children of a monolingual pop culture, we cannot help imagining the exchanges of the Lewis and Clark expedition as a scene out of a Hollywood movie. At first the Anglos speak in English and the natives in native, then the native voices get English subtitles, and after a decent interval everyone agrees to follow the convention of English-on-English exchange. Try as we might to avoid it, we are forced back into that paradigm again and again. The actual field conditions of the Lewis and Clark expedition were far more interesting and complicated than that. The men of the expedition were trying to communicate with peoples who were fundamentally other. All discourse was necessarily problematic.
Second, Lewis and Clark were not cultural relativists. In the crudest terms, they looked down upon Indians, regarded them as childlike, capricious, uncivilized, and primitive. Meanwhile, they regarded themselves as exemplars of the greatest civilization that had ever existed on earth, without a single exception, and they felt no need or desire to consider Indians as simply other rather than less. Their relations with Indians would have been difficult enough if they had acknowledged the essential legitimacy of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, or Sioux way of life. But they did not. Even at their most generous, they regarded Indians (à la Jefferson) as equal in potential capacity, but retarded in a stone age life-way thanks to their geographic isolation in the New World. Meriwether Lewis was frequently amused by the idea that such primitive beings could have some of the same emotions and impulses of highly civilized people. When he ventured up to the Hidatsa villages for the first time on November 25, 1804, he reported that an unfriendly Hidatsa leader, Horned Weasel, like some European aristocrat, "left word that he was not at home." "I sent word to inform Le Blet qui porte les cornes that I intended to take up my Quarters at his Lodge—he returned for answer that he was not at home; this conduct surprised me, it being common only among your English Lords not to be at home, when they did not wish to see strangers." Clark frequently dismissed what was reported to him of native traditions as not worth recording in his journal. On October 17, 1804, he wrote, "This Chief [Arketarnarshar of the Arikara] tells me of a number of their Treditions about Turtles, Snakes, & and the power of a perticiler rock or Cave on the next river which informs of ever thing none of those I think worth while mentioning." We want Lewis and Clark to be as fascinated about Native American culture as we are, as generous to their cultural legitimacy as we like to think we are. They were not.
Third, Lewis and Clark thought of Indians in a wholly instrumental way. They were willing to do President Jefferson's bidding in taking down vocabularies, making ethnographic notes, observing what they could of the physics and the metaphysics of their host cultures, but what they really wanted was a simple set of Indian responses to their presence: peacefulness, cooperation, immediate delivery of whatever assistance they required, from firewood to food to ferrying services, and an immediate acknowledgement of the right of agents of the United States to travel unquestioned through their dominions. Meriwether Lewis found himself admiring Posecopsahe (Black Cat) of the Mandan, but all he could muster was
this man possesses more integrity, firmness, inteligence and perspicuety of mind than any Indian I have met with in this quarter, and I think with a little management he may be made a usefull agent in furthering the views of our government.
Fourth, they were carrying some pretty serious cultural biases. In North Dakota, they could not see the centrality of women in the economy and social structure of the Mandan and Hidatsa people, even though it was obvious to anyone who cared to look (or inquire) that the great agricultural surpluses that made these people stable and prosperous were the work of the women of the tribes, that the earthlodges and most of the furnishings inside were actually owned by women, that the tribes' one watercraft, the bullboat, was owned and maintained by women. And more. They could not see what was right in front of them, because they had absorbed Anglo-American's culture's notion that Indian women were drudges. In his book Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson had categorically declared. "The women are submitted to unjust drudgery. This I believe is the case with every barbarous people. With such, force is law. The stronger sex therefore imposes on the weaker. It is civilization alone which replaces women in the enjoyment of their natural equality." Lewis had listened carefully as he sat at the feet of the Sage of Monticello, and he "discovered" that the Indian women he met were drudges whatever their actual behavior seemed to suggest.
When his spiritual immune system had been worn down by the long journey, especially the ordeal of the Bitterroot Mountains, and the enforced (and unbearably soggy) winter on the Oregon coast left him anticipating "the repast which the hand of civilization has prepared for us" next year, on "the 1st day of January 1807, when in the bosom of our friends we hope to participate in the mirth and hilarity of the day." Meriwether Lewis found himself acknowledging the friendliness of the coastal Indians, and then reverting—as if automatically—to assumptions that had been drilled into him from youth. On February 20, 1806, he wrote,
we never suffer panics of such number to remain within the fort (Clatsop) all night; for notwithstanding their apparent friendly disposition, their great averice and hope of plunder might induce them to be treacherous, at all events we determined allways to be on our guard as much as the nature of our situation will permit us, and never place our selves at the mercy of the savages, we well know, that the treachery of the aborigenes of America and the too great confidence of our countrymen in their sincerity and friendship, has caused the distruction of many hundreds of us....
These biases were deeply rooted in the minds of the men (particularly military men) of the Age of Reason. We cannot understand the Lewis and Clark expedition unless we understand the mental baggage they were carrying at least as well as we count and admire their bales of kettles, needles, awls, waistcoats, curtain rings, mirrors, and blue beads.
For all of that, winter 1804-05 turned out to be a time of mutual discovery. The Mandan and Hidatsa were observing Lewis and Clark as completely as Lewis and Clark were observing them and drawing some preliminary conclusions. On the whole the Mandan liked Lewis and Clark more than did the Hidatsa, who found the pretensions of the newcomers pompous and off-putting. One skeptical Hidatsa leader famously said, "there are only two sensible men among them—the worker of Iron, and the mender of Guns." That would seem to exclude the two captains. The Mandan were pleased to win what might be called the service contract for the American visitors. Lewis and Clark's decision to build their fort at the downriver end of the Mandan-Hidatsa world because of the better timber there put the compound just a few miles from the Mandan villages Mitutanka and Ruptare, but a significant distance from the three Hidatsa villages situated at the mouth of the Knife River. This meant that the expedition's primary trade, diplomatic, and recreational relations would be with the nearby Mandan rather than the comparatively distant Hidatsa. This decision had significant influence on the quality of the five-month encampment.
The Mandan ingeniously further marginalized the Hidatsa by spreading the rumor that Lewis and Clark held them in contempt and would look upon their visits to Fort Mandan as an invitation to hostilities. When Lewis and Clark found out about this diplomatic ruse (November 27, 1804)—a part of the friendly but serious competitiveness between the Mandan and the Hidatsa—they were of course upset, and they hastened to assure the Hidatsa that they had never uttered a disparaging word about them. But the damage was done, and U.S.-Hidatsa relations did not really blossom over the course of the winter. The master-leader of the Mandan-Hidatsa world, Le Borgne of the Hidatsa, did not deign to visit Fort Mandan until March 9, 1805, 134 days into the expedition's stay in the vicinity. He was friendly, generous, and dignified. He was happy, Clark said, to receive a peace medal, a ceremonial gorge, an armband, an American flag, a shirt, and a scarlet waistcoat, but he made no extravagant concessions to the Jeffersonian agenda. On the return in 1806, in spite of the evidence that the Hidatsa had entirely ignored the expedition's demand that it cancel its annual raids into Montana, the captains ostentatiously gave their swivel cannon to Le Borgne. It is not clear what he was supposed to do with this 1806 weapon of mass destruction, but the gesture was clearly intended to impress Le Borgne and confer a special kind of prestige upon him. From Canadians who frequented the Mandan and Hidatsa world we learn-disquietingly-that the Hidatsa gave away the Jefferson peace medals (sovereignty tokens) bestowed upon them by Lewis and Clark. In fact, according to Alexander Henry, they actually gave the medals to their enemies because, as he reported, they were shot through with "bad medicine." This may be little more than a white man's way of understanding a Hidatsa way of saying that they rejected the sovereignty rap of Lewis and Clark.
The Mandan leader Posecopsahe (Black Cat) visited Fort Mandan more often than anyone else from the earthlodge world. He was unfailingly polite, generous, and helpful, but he was not afraid to speak his mind to the assertive Americans. On November 18, 1804, he spent the day at the fort and, in Clark's words, "made Great inquiries respecting our fashions." Then he got to the point:
he mentioned that a Council had been held the day before and it was thought advisable to put up with the resent insults of the Ossiniboins & Christonoes untill they were Convinced that what had been told thim by us, Mr. Evins had deceived them & we might also, he promised to return & furnish them with guns & amunition....
Posecopsahe's challenge was eminently logical: The Mandan, he said, already had reliable, if tense, existing trade relationships that brought them white men's industrial goods. They were certainly willing to consider other sources of supply, and they would rather not be bullied by the Sioux, Arikara, or Assiniboine in the course of their economic transactions, but they were reluctant to grant the newcomers a trade monopoly under any circumstances, and besides, previous traders from St. Louis, notably one John Evans (1795), had made extravagant promises that were not kept. As to America's sovereignty pretensions, Black Cat was willing to listen politely, but it was all pretty abstract given present realities on the upper Missouri; moreover, he wished to keep trade talk and sovereignty talk distinct.
What Posecopsahe could not know, on that November 1804 afternoon, was that the Americans were there to stay. It would be more than a decade before the American presence was regular and reliable, but these buckskinned sovereignty agents of the United States had indeed pre-empted all other European colonialists once and for all. Lewis was telling the truth when he announced that the Mandan and Hidatsa were America's Indians now, and that their future well-being would come to depend solely on their relationship with what he called the Great Father in Washington. This was clear to Lewis and Clark, but Posecopsahe had no way of knowing how pivotal and profound this moment was for the future of his people. The white men's big words may have seemed overconfident to their hosts, but they also reflected a permanent reality. We see all this in retrospect, through a lens of what appears to be historical inevitability. On a November day in 1804, two thousand miles from the White House, in the heart of country indisputably controlled by its native sovereigns, it was hard for Posecopsahe to take the claims of his visitors seriously.
William Clark felt defensive as he tried to assure Posecopsahe that he was not just another white man uttering big—but unrealizable—claims. “[W]e advised them to remain at peace & that they might depend upon Getting Supplies through the Channel of the Missouri, but it requred time to put the trade in opperation." The trade was not truly put into operation until the 1820s. That was a kind of eternity to the metal-starved people of the northern plains. Posecopsahe and the Mandan could not be expected to wait more than a season or two for the promised trade.
The Hidatsa, it turns out, were North Dakota's first deconstructionists. According to the Canadian journal-keeper Charles McKenzie, one Hidatsa leader not only derided the pomposity of Lewis and Clark, but fell into a fundamental critique of the whole white presence on the Great Plains.
White people, said they, do not know how to live —they leave their homes in small parties; they risk their lives on the great waters, and among strange nations, who will take them for enemies.—What is the use of Beaver? Do they preserve them from sickness? Do they serve than beyond the grave?
If this cultural-studies intellectual had known that the beaver pelts eventually found their way halfway around the earth in order to be manufactured into gentlemen's felt hats, he might have expressed his perplexity in even more dramatic terms. But he went on: "The white people came, they brought with them some goods: but they brought the small pox, they brought evil liquors—the Indians Since are diminished, and they are no longer happy." It would have been instructive to have William Clark's answer to this challenge.
The North Dakota interlude was not exactly a time of leisure. The expedition needed food and fuel—neither easy in a windswept subarctic climate with what by today's standards was shockingly inadequate winter clothing. Early on (December 12, 1804) Clark lined a pair of gloves with the fur of a Canadian lynx and had a lynx hat made too. John Ordway was grateful when, as the ranking sergeant, he received one of the four buffalo robes brought to the fort on November II, 1804—Sacagawea's first contribution to the success of the expedition, given as a gift on the day she first appeared (albeit namelessly) in the Lewis and Clark world. Interestingly enough, Sacagawea is never mentioned by name in any journal written in the state of North Dakota. Her name appears on the mustering list of April 7, 1805, but it was clearly written onto the manuscript long after the fact.
It was undoubtedly the coldest winter anybody of the expedition had ever experienced. During the worst of the cold, the guard was changed every half hour to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. John Ordway, who emerges as the most interesting journal keeper, strained in his journal to find language that would do justice to the profundity of the cold. On December 10, he noted that "the weather Gits colder very fast So that the Sentinel had to be relieved every hour." The next day he reported that only one of five buffalo killed by the expedition was butchered owing to the extreme weather. Finally, on December 12, Ordway found the perfect detail. "clear and cold," he wrote, "the frost was white in the Guard chimney where there was a fire kept all last night."
Expedition members hunted whenever there was game nearby. That was the first imperative. Game was relatively scarce. The five Mandan and Hidatsa villages had a combined population of at least four thousand. Although they are often referred to as farmer Indians, their primary source of protein was animal flesh, and the countryside in the vicinity of the five earthlodge villages was so well-hunted that game was difficult to come by in the immediate vicinity of the fort. When buffalo blundered into the Knife River valley, everyone turned out to hunt. On other occasions, expedition parties were forced to venture far from the fort—on one occasion, all the way to today's Bismarck—to procure meat.
The friendly Mandan Indians shared a part of their lives with the confident strangers. Whenever buffalo wandered into the vicinity, the Mandan leaders alerted Lewis and Clark, and joint hunting parties were mounted. Early on, the leader of Mitutanka, Sheheke (White Coyote), famously declared, "if we eat you Shall eat, if we Starve you must Starve also." The Mandan alerted the captains when their always troubled relations with the Sioux broke out into skirmishes, and they found the expedition's unreflective willingness to defend the Mandan with a dramatic exhibition of military force flattering, if somewhat overwhelming. Around New Year's 1805 the men of Fort Mandan and the folks of Mitutanka exchanged dances, parades, and feasts. Small numbers of the Mandan frequently passed their winter days within the walls of Fort Mandan, and some individuals of the expedition passed some of their days in the Mandan villages. On January 5, 1805, a handful of expedition members were permitted to participate in the Mandan Buffalo Medicine Dance (the walking ceremony), in which the return of the buffalo was hastened and solemnized by way of carnal knowledge. On more mundane occasions, some members of the expedition had sexual relations with some women of the Mandan world.
And then there were the Canadians. At least a dozen agents of the North West Company (headquarters Montreal) and the Hudson's Bay Company (headquarters London) were in residence at the earthlodge villages that winter. Lewis and Clark were not very happy to find them trading in American territory. If they had had a way to enforce the President's will, they would have tossed them out of the country. To William Henry Harrison, Jefferson wrote, on January 16, 1806. "The British have clearly no right to trade with the Indians in Louisiana. It is therefore decided to keep that trade to ourselves as the only means of governing those Indians peaceably." Big words, but essentially unenforceable. Lewis and Clark, who were at one of the principal points of international tension in the American northwest, tolerated the Canadians' presence but warned them sternly not to be distributing British sovereignty tokens: flags, medals, ceremonial clothing. The captains played good cop-bad cop. Lewis was generally bad cop. On November 29, 1804, the captains informed the North West Company's Francois-Antoine Larocque that they would not forbid him to trade with the Mandan and Hidatsa but that he must not distribute British sovereignty tokens. Larocque was indignant:
Just as I arrived (at Fort Mandan), they were dispatching a man for me, having heard that I Intended giving Flags & medals to the Indians which they forbid me from giving in the name of the United States, saying that Government, look'd upon those things, as the Sacred Emblem of the attachment of the Indians of their Country. But as I had neither Flags, nor medals, I Ran no Risk of disobeying these orders, of which I assured them.
Two of these Canadians were keeping journals, Charles McKenzie and François-Antoine Larocque. However heretical it may seem, their journals were in almost every respect more interesting than those kept by the five members of the expedition whose North Dakota writings have survived. The most important structural reason for this was that the Canadians had the habit of embedding themselves among individual Hidatsa families. They entered into landlord-guestfriend relationships with actual families, and they ate, slept, and relaxed inside earthlodges. The expedition, on the other hand, built a formidable military compound away from all of the villages, through the gates of which the Mandan and Hidatsa were invited to visit Lewis and Clark under certain conditions and at certain times. This undoubtedly influenced what the Lewis and Clark journal keepers saw. They were not looking at Mandan and Hidatsa life in anything like its natural or spontaneous rhythms. They were witnessing parade culture, diplomatic culture, formal visitation culture. In this respect, the Canadian traders, the mere dozen who diffused themselves among 4500 Indians, had the advantage of the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition who kept apart in what might be called a self-reinforcing social enclave.
The Canadians frequently visited Fort Mandan, and though the captains never returned the visit according to good Georgian (Jane Austen) protocol, some individuals of the expedition sought out the Canadians in the Hidatsa villages to purchase carrots of tobacco in exchange for whatever they could plausibly call their own. The skeptical sergeant Patrick Gass concluded that the men of the North West Company visited Fort Mandan not for the comfort of conversation with fellow Euro-Americans, but to engage in imperial espionage. He believed they wanted to know just what the newcomers were up to and where they were headed. François-Antoine Larocque approached the captains on several occasions with the notion that he might accompany them when they resumed their westward journey. The captains politely but firmly declined Larocque's offer. They were engaged in a mission whose primary purpose was the assertion of American sovereignty in the Louisiana Purchase territory, and they were not eager to share their discoveries with a man—however curious, engaging, or agreeable—whose loyalty was to British mercantilism.
Gass could not have been entirely correct. Charles McKenzie's journal reveals that he and his colleagues sometimes visited Fort Mandan for purely social satisfactions in a lonely place. "Mr. La Roque and I having nothing very particular claiming attention, we lived contentedly and became intimate with the Gentlemen of the American expedition; who on all occasions seemed happy to see us, and always treated us with civility and kindness. It is true Captain Lewis could not make himself agreeable to us—he could speak fluently and learnedly on all subjects, but his inveterate disposition against the British stained, at least in our eyes, all his eloquence. Captain Clark was equally well informed, but his conversation was always pleasant, for he seemed to dislike giving offence unnecessarily." Such journal entries as this provide a window of insight on the Lewis and Clark expedition not available from the expedition's own journals.
The captains were traveling with a small reference library. It included celestial almanacs (for determining latitude and longitude), primers in botany and zoology and mineralogy to enable them to identify their discoveries, and a couple of more discursive books, including Du Pratz's History of Louisiana, William Owen's Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, and Alexander Mackenzie's Voyages from Montreal. Larocque borrowed a book from the library during one of his early visits to Fort Mandan. He returned it on January 18, 1805. Unfortunately, Larocque did not specify which book he borrowed. Speculation abounds. Thus Lewis and Clark created the first lending library in North Dakota history. Lewis also repaired Larocque's compass in the course of the winter.
Of course there was sex. Some significant percentage of the fifty men formed sexual connections with native women. The women were probably Mandan from Mitutanka and perhaps Ruptare. Those were the villages closest to Fort Mandan, and it is unlikely that the captains permitted sleepovers within the fort. The journal keepers don't discuss sex often or much, but at the end of the winter Clark matter-of-factly reported that the men were "helth. except the—vn. [veneareal diseases]—which is common with the Indians and have been communicated to many of our party at this place—those favores being easy acquired." We know that the otherwise reliable John Ordway got himself involved in a sexual triangle (November 22, 1804) that finally had to be sorted out by the two captains (acting for the United States), and Posecopsahe (on behalf of the Mandan), to avoid diplomatic fallout. Ordway, the most reliable of the expedition's journal keepers, managed to write an entry for November 22, 1804, without ever mentioning his ordeal—surely one of the most embarrassing moments of the journey for him.
Sex is a complicated business even among individuals who share a wide range of cultural assumptions, but sex between the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition and native women was inherently perplexed. It might seem that for the men of the expedition, sexual access to willing Indian women was a straightforward desire, but that assumes that we know the sexual orientation of several score of men about whom we know almost nothing else, that all such men are equally sexually avid, that their attitudes towards race, hygiene, self-expression, chastity, trade, and personal safety are uniform, or for that matter that native women found them equally attractive. Native women became available for sexual exchange for a variety of reasons. It is not altogether preposterous to believe that some native women may merely have wanted to enjoy sexual pleasures with the exotic strangers, but it is infinitely more likely that they provided intimacy in the hope of obtaining trade goods from the expedition's stores; or that they were attempting to increase the prestige of their families or clans; or that they were opening up linkages that might lead to more routine trade later on; or that they were embedded into the Lewis and Clark world to find out more about who the strangers were and why they had come so far in such great numbers; or that they were forced to consort with the men of the expedition by tribal members more powerful than themselves. We cannot know, but we can safely conclude that it would be a mistake to think about sex on the Lewis and Clark trail as simple recreation.
When the expedition left Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805, what was now being called the "permanent party" numbered thirty-three. Although a significant minority had, according to plan, been sent back down river to St. Louis, among the permanent party were four newcomers—every one of them with a fascinating story about which we know almost nothing. The most famous of these is Sacagawea (Sakakawea-Sacajawca-Jancy), who was approximately seventeen years old. What we actually know about her would not fill a passport book. And yet she is the first or second most famous Indian woman in American history, the object of unbearable amounts of fantasy and speculation, the focus of some of the most significant controversies in the Lewis and Clark world, and—in the minds of many—the sine qua non of the bicentennial. Take the Indian maiden out of the picture, and it is not clear that America would choose to find the Lewis and Clark expedition compelling enough to build dozens of new interpretive sites (some in North Dakota), read articles about the expedition in virtually every magazine with even the slightest connection to Lewis and Clark, or commemorate their journey—what James Ronda has called the first great road trip in American history-in a score of national "signature events."
Just how Sacagawea (1787?-1812?) became one of the two or three central figures in the Lewis and Clark mythology is a long and interesting story. It is perhaps enough to say that her post-expedition journey has been even more eventful than the one she embarked upon (perhaps against her will) with Lewis and Clark. As the twenty-first century opens Sacagawea has become what might be called a cultural construct, a curious mixture of lore, mythology, wishful thinking, feminist projection, multicultural idealism, race-soothing, and erotic fantasy. Somewhere beneath the thirty tons of this accumulation of historically-problematic Sacagawea tradition stands the biographical Sacagawea, the actual Shoshone-Hidatsa woman about whom we in fact know next to nothing. She is an essentially voiceless woman. Needless to say, she kept no diary, and whatever oral account she provided of her adventures has been mostly lost to us. She is never quoted directly in the journals and for that matter scarcely ever mentioned. Her precise contribution to the success of the expedition is a much-debated and elusive issue. Niels Bohr once said that anyone who thinks he knows something about quantum physics is a fool and a liar. It is almost that bad with Sacagawea. From the pronunciation of her name to the circumstances (and date) of her death, she is a subject of profound mystery. Sacagawea is a cipher and an inkblot test. And yet she is the most statued woman in American history, the face on the nation's second female-featured dollar coin, the subject of endless cultural entertainment.
Accompanying her was her husband Toussaint Charbonneau (1767–1843?), one of the most colorful figures in the history of the American West. Usually regarded as the buffoon of the expedition, Charbonneau was actually a rather remarkable individual who managed to make himself indispensable to the captains the day he met them and who somehow gained the affection of William Clark. The last document Clark wrote in what is now North Dakota, on August 20, 1806, approximately where John Newman was court-martialed twenty-two months earlier, was a letter to Charbonneau inviting a continuing relationship, perhaps only to make it possible to raise the boy Jean Baptiste Charbonneau as one of his own. "You have been a long time with me and have conducted your Self in Such a manner as to gain my friendship." Clark wrote; "your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocian and back discrved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans." It is a very remarkable letter, unusual, and hard to make sense of, and it is not at all clear just how Charbonneau received it and under what circumstances. But it is unmistakable that Clark was declaring that he was unwilling to say goodbye forever to the Charbonneau family. His sense of embarrassment at writing so affectionate a letter can be seen in the postscript. "Keep this letter and let not more than one or 2 persons see it, and when you write to me seal your letter," Clark advised.
Their child Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (1805–1866) had barely entered the first of the seven ages of man. Although there is no evidence that he was "mewling and puking" in his mother's arms, he was certainly nursing throughout the journey and winning the heart of Clark and perhaps others. His importance on the journey was purely symbolic, but he would achieve a certain notoriety decades later, as a kind of celebrity guide and outfitter. He became the best-traveled of any member of the expedition, with a long sojourn in European court circles where he learned several Indo-European languages. He is the first recorded birth in North Dakota history. His autobiography would have been an amazing document, but he left posterity not a single account of his adventures and travels.
The fourth new member of the expedition, Baptiste Lepage, was unrelated to the Charbonneaus. He is a figure of considerable mystery. He was perhaps a free trader or a deserter from the ranks of the North West or Hudson's Bay companies. All we know about him is that he had spent the summer of 1804 with the Cheyenne Indians in what Clark called the "Black Hills," then floated down the Little Missouri River and the Missouri to the Mandan and Hidatsa villages. The captains needed someone to replace Moses Reed. Lewis, after the expedition, characterized Lepage as a man of "no particular merit." So far as we know, Lepage was the first person ever to float the entire course of the Little Missouri River. He must have had an extraordinary story to tell of his solo adventures in the Black Hills country and with the Cheyenne Indians. Unfortunately, he left no known diary. He may not have been literate. His story is lost to us.
Finally, it is interesting to note that the hypersensitive Captain Meriwether Lewis's two peak experiences occurred in North Dakota. On April 7, 1805, he uttered his most clearly epic remarks upon departing from Fort Mandan into what he took to be terra incognita. "Our vessels consisted of six small canoes, and two large perogues,” he wrote, perhaps—as the verb tenses and the formality of what follows atttest—long after the fact. "This little fleet altho' not quite so respectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs; and I dare say with quite as much anxiety for their safety and preservation. we were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for expenment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves.... entertaing as I do, the most confident hope of succeeding in a voyage which had formed a Baling project of mine for the last ten years. I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life." It doesn't, as they say in the world of sports and beer advertisements, get any better than this. We can safely take Lewis at his word.
Just sixteen months later he was shot in the buttocks by his own man at a place he called the "Burnt hills" east of today's Williston. One day later one of the best of the men, John Colter, sought permission to turn back into the fur paradise of the upper Missouri. Lewis spent the rest of his North Dakota days recumbent. He was carried out of the state wounded, perplexed, diminished, and profoundly uncertain of his future.
All this, and much more, occurred during the 215 days that Lewis and Clark spent in what is now North Dakota. A winter encampment that they had not expected to make in North Dakota turned out to be one of the most harmonious, productive, and interesting episodes in their 7,689 mile journey. In their report to President Jefferson, Lewis and Clark called the Mandan "the most friendly, well disposed Indians inhabiting the Missouri. They are brave, humane and hospitable." The only fault the captains found with the Hidatsa was "the unjust war which they . . . prosecute against the defenceless Snake Indians, from which, I believe, it will be difficult to induce them to desist."
Donald Jackson called Lewis and Clark the writingest explorers in American history. The journals written in the state of North Dakota are among the richest and most interesting of the entire expedition, especially once Meriwether Lewis picks up his pen on April 7, 1805. Even so, the journals are maddeningly silent on a wide range of topics that matter to us, and the narrative thread that historians like Stephen Ambrose and David Lavender tease out of them must be regarded as radically unstable and problematic documents. The more one studies them the more mysterious they become and the more unanswerable questions one accumulates.
And so we sift among the fragments, searching for clues and meaning, trying to feed our nostalgia for a time when there were tens of millions of buffalo grazing on the Great Plains, and the fierce individualistic Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Sioux, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, and Ojibwe were more or less culturally intact. It is not clear quite what we are looking for in our obsessive enquiry into what was, after all, just one of a number of military surveys of the American interior, and one of doubtful actual impact on the future of the American west. Each generation takes the intriguing clues offered up by the journals and forms a master narrative that feeds its soul and permits us to make sense of the American experiment. We like to deride the old paradigms—the triumphalism, the apotheosis of Sacagawea as the "Madonna of her race," the "guide who led Lewis and Clark on the passage to India," or the notion that when Lewis and Clark had difficulties with Native Americans, the Indians must have misunderstood their nobility of purpose. But it is not clear that our ways of seeing the Lewis and Clark expedition are really superior. The emerging paradigm has the benefit of being more culturally embracing, more celebratory of the host peoples and their ways, more attuned to diversity within the Corps of Discovery. But our understanding of the Lewis and Clark story is not conclusive and not final. The mysteries belittle the certainties. Which is why we cannot leave the story alone.
This article is reprinted with the permission of the North Dakota Quarterly .