The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent

David Lavender© 2001 University of Nebraska Press Lincoln and London

SEVEN. Emphasis on Indians

"Children," began Meriwether Lewis, looking over the Indians seated in front of him. Every paragraph he spoke to them opened with that word. "Children." It breathed authority and had been used for generations by the representatives of different governments contesting for the allegiance of the Native Americans. It assumed the right of the speaker to give instructions; it implied the duty of the listeners to heed or risk condign punishment.

"Children." The American flag rippled overhead. Uniformed soldiers, rifles held at ease, stood to one side. He continued: the great chief of the seventeen great nations of the United States—the chief who was also the father—now controlled the Western rivers. Only vessels that acknowledged American authority could bring merchandise to the interior. If the father's children displeased him, he would cut off trade, and the families of the Otos and Missouris would suffer want. But if all went well and if the Missouri River became a true road of peace for both red men and white, commerce would flourish and in time the great father would establish trading posts at convenient spots among the tribes. So that the Indians could understand the power and beneficence of the new sovereign, let them choose representatives to visit him at his lodge in the East and see for themselves his cities, "as numerous as the stars in the heavens" and the source of gifts munificent beyond their imagining. [1]

The next part of the ritual was a process called "making chiefs." As required by tradition, the captains had brought with them many hollow silver medals of different sizes, each hung on a loop of colored ribbon. Each bore on one side a likeness of President Jefferson and on the other a symbol of hands clasped in friendship. The medals varied in size and were handed out according to the tribal standing of the recipients. [2]

Though there were no principal chiefs at the Oto council, the captains went grandly ahead with those that were available. Having selected the person who seemed to be held in the most esteem by his fellows, Lewis gestured for him to step forward. A second-degree medal was placed around his neck; his hand was shaken. His lieutenants, as determined by the captains' observations, then received their accolades—in some cases parchment certificates that attested to the good character of the Indian named on the face of the document. A distribution of gifts completed the formal part of the ceremony. Again status counted. Leaders received more and better military coats, leggings, hats, gunpowder, and so on than did the rank and file, who were content with beads, fishhooks, small mirrors, and the like.

Lest easy giving be mistaken for weakness, the whites added implicit warnings by demonstrating their technological superiority. Magnets, compass needles that returned to their original resting position no matter how they were shaken, and magnifying glasses that focused the rays of the sun tightly enough to start fires were always impressive. To the list Lewis added a demonstration of his airgun. Take aim, pull the trigger . . . pop. No smoke, no roar, and therefore no ball. Yet when the watchers ran out to examine the target that had been blazed earlier on a tree trunk, they saw, with cries of amazement, dents in the wood that could have been deadly in flesh. All that, and then a sealing of the new bonds with "white man's milk"—a bottle of whiskey that was given to one of the chiefs to pass out sip by sip according to his own discretion. No responsible treaty maker or trader liked the mischief inherent in liquor, which many Indians craved insatiably, but if one didn't use it, the competition would, and gain advantage thereby.

The Indians at that first meeting, excited by the prospect of a more dependable and, they hoped, cheaper supply of merchandise than they had been accustomed to, responded genially. They probably would have been equally amiable toward any trader who made promises as big as those of Meriwether Lewis, and that wasn't the kind of unswerving loyalty the expedition was trying to create. Yet why should the Indians be loyal to an unseen chief of seventeen nations that were said to exist somewhere off toward the rising sun? What the Americans needed was a gesture that would apply directly to the listeners.

The seed for such a gesture existed. The captains had learned, probably from Fairfong, that the Otos were at war with the Omahas, or Mahas, who lived several miles farther up the Missouri. The visiting Otos said they would like to see the conflict ended. [3] Such a peace would also help establish the American hegemony over Louisiana that Jefferson wanted. Eagerly the captains proposed to act as mediators if some of the group under the awning would go with them into Omaha territory to attest to the validity of the request for peace.

Not a man agreed. They were afraid of being killed, they admitted, a reaction that spoke volumes about their opinion of the expedition's ability to protect them, even though it possessed a magic airgun and was the largest and most heavily armed party that had yet appeared on the river. With no principal chiefs on hand to get things rolling, the disappointed captains gave up the idea.

The council broke up early in the afternoon of August 3. Anxious as always to make the hours count (the Mandan villages were still nearly a thousand miles away) the boatmen resumed the upstream push at once. They had not gone far when one of the soldiers, Moses Reed, exclaimed he had left his knife at camp and asked permission to retrieve it. He would overtake the flotilla as it wound slowly along. When two days passed with no sign of him, his sergeant examined his knapsack, discovered that his extra clothes and ammunition were not there, and reported he had probably deserted. No such breach of discipline could be countenanced—and besides, the captains thought, here might be a chance to get a peace movement underway. Reed had almost surely made for the Oto town. Let a dependable posse go there and pick him up dead or alive—La Liberté with him. By then Little Thief, principal chief of the Otos, and Big Horse, chief of the Missouris, might have returned from their buffalo hunt. If so, the search party should try, with Fairfong's help, to persuade the men to hurry after the flotilla and join the American captains in council near the Omahas' village.

George Drouillard, two tough privates, Reuben Field and William Bratton, and the Oto-speaking voyageur, François Labiche, made up the search party. Though the assignment left the expedition short-handed by six men, counting the two deserters, a blessed south wind took their place on the 9th, filled the sails, and scooted their boats along for fourteen easy miles. By the 11th they had reached the foot of a steep knoll about three hundred feet high. A post was visible on its top. Blackbird's grave, Dorion said, and added that the Omaha town over which the notorious chief had once ruled—the town where the captains hoped the peace council could be held—was only eight miles away.

The captains looked at each other. Why not visit Blackbird's tomb? They had time enough, thanks to the wind. Besides, hadn't Benjamin Rush and President Jefferson suggested funeral customs as an item to look into while learning the culture of the Western Indians? Up the two captains went with ten men, talking meanwhile about what was known of the old villain.

The Omahas had been a powerful tribe not long since and had exacted heavy tribute from traders traveling along the river. Leader in the rascality was Blackbird. Whenever he wished to eliminate an Indian rival he invited him to a feast laced with arsenic he had obtained from some unscrupulous riverman. His own agonies came in 1802, the year smallpox swept through the village, creating such a frenzy of fear that the men not only burned their moundlike houses but also, Clark heard, "put their wives & children to Death with a view of their all going together to some better country." [4]

When Blackbird caught the disease, he asked his followers to bury him on the knoll, eight miles away, that had been his favorite lookout. (Hilltop burial was an Omaha custom.) From its summit he had been able to survey miles of the curling river, spot travelers, and have his warriors ready when the visitors reached the vicinity of the town. Legend says his tribesmen sat his corpse upright on his slain horse, held both erect while they packed sod around them, and crowned the mound with an eight-foot pole embellished with the chief's pipe, his fringed tobacco pouch, and his shield decorated with eagle feathers and scalps taken in war. To this collection Lewis and Clark added a pennant, perhaps to win favor from the Omahas who, they noted, still placed food on the hilltop as sustenance for the slain chief's spirit. [5]

The captains spent August 12 doing more work on their maps and reports. On the thirteenth they sent a mission under Sergeant Ordway to the Omaha village to prepare for the council. The scouts returned the following day to report the village deserted. Evidently the Indians were still out hunting buffalo. "A great misfortune," Clark scribbled in his field notes. [6]

More time to kill. On August 15 Clark and ten men made a brush seine and, after dragging it up the sluggish mouth of a tributary creek, caught 318 catfish, pike, bass, perch, and a species they mistakenly called salmon. The next day Lewis repeated with twelve men and caught about 800. During that time his co-captain and the carpenters of the group made and set a new mast in the keelboat. [7]

Late in the afternoon of the 17th Labiche appeared and reported the search party was on its way with ReedLa Liberté had escaped—and with nine mounted Indians, including Little Thief and Big Horse, intent on making peace. But no one was around to make it with. Cursing wryly over the irony, the captains had some of their men climb out of the river bottom and start a prairie fire, a standard signal for summoning Indians. Black smoke billowed high, but no Omahas appeared. All in all, the 18th, which would mark Lewis's thirtieth birthday, was not going to go far toward redeeming the shortcomings of the first council.

Moses Reed, quickly found guilty after his return, was sentenced to run four times through a gauntlet made up of the entire body of enlisted men, each armed with nine willow switches. Immediate objections came from Little Thief and Big Horse, who had been traveling for some days with the prisoner and considered him an integral member of the tribe of whites. Indians would not inflict such an indignity on a band member. The captains explained its necessity, to the Indians' satisfaction they hoped, and the soldiers laid on with a will because, Ordway wrote, anyone showing leniency would have to run a gauntlet himself. The culprit was then read out of the expedition and assigned as a laborer to the French pirogue in La Liberté's place. [8]

The evening was merrier. An extra gill of whiskey was issued so the men could toast Lewis's birthday. Cruzatte tuned his fiddle, and the young soldiers worked off the energy that had been building in them during the days of inactivity by dancing jigs and reels until midnight. The Indians saw nothing strange in an all-male dance. That was the way they went at it, too, and perhaps they demonstrated.

Somberness returned with dawn. Sergeant Charles Floyd, Jr., son of one of Clark's friends, was stricken with what the captains diagnosed as bilious colic. Probably one of them bled him. They may also have dosed him with Rush's thunderbolts, for indiscriminate purgings were the common way, in those days, of ridding the body of unhealthful substances. Nothing could have been worse, for the nature of Floyd's symptoms has led modern doctors to suspect peritonitis from a ruptured appendix.

If the sufferer's moans were heard at the next day's awning-shaded council, they were a fitting accompaniment. There was another speech by Lewis to the great father's children, another making of chiefs and a handing out of gifts. But there was no meeting of minds. Little Thief declared the Otos didn't care with whom they traded as long as quality and price were right. Big Horse drew a stern rebuke from the white diplomats by offering to keep his young men from going to war if he was given whiskey to distribute among them. There were hurt feelings among those who felt their medals and certificates weren't true measures of their status. In spite of the general sullenness, however, Little Thief did accept Lewis's invitation to visit Washington the following summer. The council broke up with neither side satisfied with what had been achieved. [9]

William Clark spent that night sitting beside Floyd, doing what he could to bring comfort. In the morning some of the soldiers carried the patient onto the keelboat. Toward noon they halted to prepare a warm bath for him, but before it was ready he whispered to Clark, "I'm going away. I want you to write a letter." The next moment he was dead. His companions wrapped him in a blanket and carried him to the top of a knoll shaped much like Blackbird's but on the other side of the river and upstream, within the present limits of Sioux City, Iowa. He was buried with military honors, Lewis reading the service. A nearby stream was named Floyd's River. Two days later the men elected Patrick Gass to fill his place as sergeant. In the midst of death, life goes on.

The day of the election must have brought with it another tug of alarm. Lewis fell violently ill, and Clark thought he knew the reason. In spite of high winds that filled the air with sand, Meriwether had insisted on prowling around a bluff that showed streaks of what Ordway called "ore." Clark guessed the stuff was a mix of alum, copperas, cobalt, and pyrites. Guesses weren't enough for Lewis. He pounded chunks of the "ore" into powder, sniffed its sulfurous smell, and took several experimental tastes. Shortly thereafter his stomach knotted, and Clark added arsenic to his list of suspected ingredients. Avoiding thunderbolts, Lewis dosed himself with "salts" as a purge. [10]

Either the treatment or his own healthy constitution sufficed. The next day, sand still blowing in such clouds as to interfere with Clark's sightings for his map making, Meriwether felt well enough to walk out with ten or twelve men to see a buffalo Joseph Field had shot—the expedition's first. The labors of everyone who went to view the huge beast were needed to cut up the carcass and lug the meat to the boat.

There was, indeed, no end to curiosities. During yarn-telling time at the last Oto council, an Indian had described a race of little men, eighteen inches tall and equipped with murderously effective bows and arrows. The midgets reputedly slew all humans who came close to the conical hill on—or in—which they lived. Skeptical, the captains sailed the fleet on past the creek the Indian had said would take them to the wonder. Then curiosity and conscience got the best of them. Just suppose such creatures did exist and they left the discovery to someone else?

Choosing nine dependable men, they boarded the white pirogue and dropped back to the disembarking place. For three hours they walked through crushing heat toward a symmetrical hill rising out of the level, treeless plain. Lewis's heavily furred dog, Seaman, collapsed. Lewis, still debilitated by his "poisoning," almost did. The usual high wind was blowing, and when they sought shelter from it on the lee side of the hill, they discovered that innumerable insects had preceded them, as had clouds of swallows drawn by the flying feast. This surprising swirl of life, they concluded, was the basis of the Indian legend. [11] The hill, incidentally, is now called Spirit Mound; it rises in the southeastern tip of South Dakota near the town of Vermillion.

The next day they overtook the keelboat, which had been going slowly upriver in charge of Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor. Anticipation rose. They were nearing the mouth of the James River, a geographically and, in 1804, a politically significant tributary of the Missouri, for it opened a way to far-flung British canoe routes. One led down the Red River of the North to, eventually, Hudson Bay. The other wound via the French-pioneered Great Lakes traverses to British fur companies in Montreal. The powerful Sioux nation sat astride both routes, receiving manufactured goods both for themselves and, as middlemen, for customers farther west. That British orientation Thomas Jefferson wanted to break for the commercial future of American merchants emigrating into Upper Louisiana.

Sioux. The word sounded like a hiss and probably was meant to. It derived from the Ojibway (Chippewa) sneer nadowe-is-iw. To the Ojibway, a nadowe was a big snake and hence, metaphorically, an enemy, in this case the Iroquois. The diminuitive form, nadowe-is-iw, sometimes written Nadowesseis or Nadowesi by early explorers, meant "little snakes," Sioux for short. The Sioux, however, called themselves Dah-kota, modernized to Dakota, which means "allies." There were seven main bands of them, and those bands were further divided into many subbands. [12]

For decade upon decade, in olden times, Dakota and Ojibway had fought strenuously for control of the wild-rice lakes of Minnesota, a principal source of food. On at least obtaining guns from the French traders of Montreal, the Ojibway had been able to drive the "little snakes" west across the Mississippi into, roughly, the southern quarter of present-day Minnesota and the adjacent fringes of Iowa and South Dakota. There were buffalo in the new homeland to make up for the loss of wild rice, but as population increased hunting grew poorer, and some of the main Dakota bands resumed their migrations westward. The two that could be readily contacted from the Missouri, and hence were of prime importance to Lewis and Clark, were the Yanktons, who ranged from the southwestern tip of the Minnesota along the James to its mouth, and the aggressive Tetons, who utilized a broad strip of woodland and prairies west from the James across the Missouri to . . . well, no one knew how far.

Sioux. "On that nation," Jefferson had written his ex-secretary in St. Louis on January 22, 1804, "we wish most particularly to make a friendly impression because of their immense power." To this Lewis no doubt added wryly the specific Indian information Jefferson had directed him to learn in the instructions that had been handed him in Washington on June 20, 1803. The explorers were to collect data on the strength, trade patterns, territorial claims, dispositions, languages, tools, clothing, customs, medical skills, laws, living patterns, propensities toward war, and the alliances of every tribe they could reach. [13] It was a monumental task, with scant time allowed for completing a survey of any one tribe the flotilla passed. But at least the captains were beginning their Dakota confrontation with the amiable Yanktons. Moreover, they had with them an interpreter, Pierre Dorion, who had lived with the Yanktons for many years. His son still resided there.

On reaching the James, the traveling diplomats set the usual prairie fire to attract Indians. Anticlimax followed. The first person to appear the next morning was George Drouillard, weary from an all-night hike. The previous afternoon he and young George Shannon had killed an elk. While they were butchering it so they could load the edible parts on their horses, the animals had strayed. During the search for them, the hunters had lost track of each other, and Drouillard had not been able to find either his companion or the two horses—the only pack stock the expedition had.

Shannon, the youngest member of the group, lost with two horses in Indian country! Besides, in Clark's opinion, Shannon was a poor woodsman. So, though Dorion insisted the Yanktons were friendly and might themselves bring the lad back if they found him, the captains sent John Shields and Joseph Field out to look for him. [14]

At about the same time, three young Indians swam across the stream with word that a mobile village of Yankton Sioux was located nine miles up the James. Because the explorers wanted the Indians to be impressed by their strength and the tempting lading they carried, they chose not to visit the town but instead invited the Indians to a council at Calumet Bluff, twenty miles farther up the Missouri. The invitation was delivered by old Dorion, Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor, and one of the French voyageurs.

Deprived of the inflow of the James, the shoaling Missouri shrank still more. The keelboat grounded several times, and on August 28, with Calumet Bluff in sight, the French pirogue (the one that had been painted red back at Camp Wood) ran into a snag that punched a big hole in its hull. Fortunately Clark was nearby with the keelboat. He ordered it alongside, and nearly everyone jumped overboard to help. They got the craft unloaded, dragged onto the beach, and overturned for repairs. Of necessity that spot, opposite the side of the river on which the Yanktons were located, became the council site. Making camp, they set up a flagpole and contemplated their situation.

Shannon was one problem. The searchers had discovered tracks that showed he had found the stray horses and was riding up stream at a good clip, unaware of the halt at Calumet Bluff. John Colter was given a load of provisions and told to run him down. Meanwhile the carpenters in the group, led by Sergeant Gass, went to work on the red pirogue. If it didn't prove serviceable for upstream navigation afterwards, it would be sent back to St. Louis with the reports and maps Lewis and Clark had been working on whenever they could find free time. The soldiers in the white pirogue would continue, as agreed, until ice became a threat, and then they too would retreat.

About sunset on August 29, the emissaries to the Yanktons appeared on the far bank with sixty or seventy Indians. The natives spent the night there, making their own preparations for the coming affair. After a heavy fog had burned off the next morning, the white pirogue was pressed into service as a ferry. As it returned, packed tight with Indians, the swivel gun on the bow of the keelboat banged out two salutes. The reply by the Yanktons was livelier. Four men, their naked bodies painted in different colors, leaped from the prow of the pirogue, shaking rattles and singing. Each carried a barbaric shield of buffalo hide covered with antelope skin ornamented with feathers and quills. More feathers, porcupine quills, and paint, along with ornate moccasins, high leggings, and buffalo robes painted different colors on the inside bedecked the warriors who followed. "The squars," Clark added, "wore Peticoats [probably made of thin, beautifully tanned deerskin caught at the shoulder with string] & a white buffalow roab with the black hair turned over thar necks and sholders." [15]

Lewis gave his Children speech, which Dorion translated. A making of five chiefs of different degrees followed; the usual presents were passed out. The recipients retired behind some bushes to divide the booty with their fellows. They would give their replies in the morning, a delay that was a standard Indian custom.

The intervening evening was spent watching a fire-lit dance put on by warriors who had painted their faces and breasts with streaks and patches of white. Music came from rattles, from "little instruments" (Private Whitehouse called them jew's harps; if they were, some earlier trader had passed them around) and from a drum whose taut leather head was a gift from Meriwether Lewis. Every now and then one of the warriors let out a whoop and sang about his brave deeds. The American soldiers kept the merriment rolling by tossing out pieces of tobacco and small gifts. The next morning the principal chief, Weuche, appeared, resplendent in his gift from the explorers, a richly laced, red artillery officer's coat and cocked military hat decorated with a plume. Ornamented peace pipes passed back and forth. The chiefs made their harangues. They were poor; they needed trade; if the visitors did not provide it from their richly laden boats, Weuche hinted, the Yanktons might have to stop the next craft that appeared and requisition what they needed.

Behind the Yankton's protestations of poverty lay a complexity that Lewis and Clark did not fully grasp. The Indians wanted manufactured goods not only for themselves but for resale at a big annual Sioux trading fair held each summer on the upper James River. The Yanktons could get some of the things they carried to the fair from contacts on the Des Moines River in Iowa. More came from British traders who operated out of tiny posts on the upper Mississippi and the St. Peter's (now the Minnesota) River. The demand for white-made merchandise was voracious, especially on the part of the Teton Sioux, who carried what they acquired at the fair west for trade with the tribes along the Missouri and still farther west. The Yanktons were eager to fill the Tetons' demand, but Loisel's overly extended Missouri Fur Company could not provide it. Perhaps these Americans could. So they made their pitch feverishly, threatening, through Chief Weuche, to hijack boats if that was the only way they could get what they wanted.

The Americans tried to explain. They were not traders but explorers, opening a road from St. Louis for professional merchants to follow. To achieve that goal they would need the goods in their boats as gifts to tribes living farther up the river. Then, in the days that followed, everyone would be well supplied.

Easy talk. But how could the Indians be sure the whites were speaking with straight tongues?

Make peace with the tribes around you, the captains urged, and go with Dorion to St. Louis and Washington, to see for yourselves the power and richness of America.

After prolonged dickering Weuche agreed, and in high spirits the captains rounded out the day collecting Sioux vocabularies, learning the names and territories of the tribe's many bands, and, for Jefferson's sake, gathering other bits of ethnographic lore about beliefs, weapons, dress, and so on.

The only sour note was sounded by a lesser chief, Half Man. Though the Yanktons had listened to the visitors, "those nations above," he said, "will not open their ears." In other words, don't get overconfident. The captains, in their euphoria, paid no heed. They even left Dorion behind as they started on, thinking it more important for him to nail down the Yanktons than to continue with the boats as interpreter, though they had no other person fluent in Sioux with them.

The distance from the mouth of the James River to the mouth of the Bad, where the Corps of Discovery expected to encounter the Teton Sioux, was, by Clark's calculation, about 250 miles. In that relatively short traverse to the northwest—from about the ninety-eighth meridian to the far side of the hundredth—the explorers left the humid setting familiar to most Americans of their day and entered a region of wind, sun, and treeless space whose very aridity demanded new life forms and new ways of living.

In the bottom of the Missouri's broad trench the change was not immediately noticeable. The river's islands and flood plains were still cloaked with groves of many kinds of trees among which grapes, plums, chokecherries, and other fruits grew riotously. Occasional meadows and sandbars provided delectable camping places. But a short climb above the flood plain brought a foretaste of a radically different environment.

First the hikers reached treeless terraces that were a mile wide in places. After crossing the terraces, they encountered steep hills whose gullies sheltered patches of dry-land junipers and stunted oaks. The crests of the hills, sometimes called breaks, were high enough—up to six hundred feet above the flood plain—and rough enough that Clark called the country mountainous. That was a deceptive view, however, for beyond the breaks the land leveled off to a treeless, gently undulating plateau that stretched out through air of brilliant clarity to a horizon as sharp as a knife blade.

These High Plains, as they came to be called, were matted with short, curly, appropriately named buffalo grass studded with clumps of prickly pear cactus. Magnificent hawks sailed overhead; lovely black-and-white magpies made pests of themselves around the camp, snatching food almost from a man's fingers. Buffalo abounded. Soon everyone, including York (who, as a slave, was not legally entitled to carry a gun) was firing away at the massive beasts, killing them on the plains and river terraces, on the islands and even in the water. Big, black-tailed deer became common. Lewis named them mule deer because of the size of their ears. Another far-bounding creature defined by its oversized ears was a large hare called jackass rabbit, or jackrabbit for short, though strictly speaking it was not a rabbit at all. Big wolves were another everyday sight—and their howling an every-night sound. So, too, with smaller, elusive, yipping creatures the captains called foxes until they were able to kill one for study. It was not a fox, they decided, but a "small wolf"; today we know the species as coyotes.

Two more biologically inappropriate names came from early French voyageurs. One was attached to those soft-furred, yellow-gray little rodents, relatives of the ground squirrel, that lived in immense colonies throughout the High Plains. Petit chiens, the amused viewers said—little dogs of the prairie, or prairie dogs. The other misnamed animal was smaller than a deer, with a light brown back, white underparts, white throat stripes, and a white rump. The French called it cabril, or goat. After Clark finally succeeded in killing a male, he dissected it and arrived at the conclusion that it was "more like the Antilope or gazelle of Africa than any other species of Goat." The creature lacked a beard. Its horns were soft and hollow, and were shed annually—nothing like a goat. It was a pronghorn, a species found only in western North America. Now it is commonly known as antelope, which is as erroneous as calling a bison a buffalo. Change is unlikely, however. [16]

Because prairie dogs were small, Lewis and Clark decided to capture one alive, cage it, and send it to Jefferson when the red pirogue turned back downstream. A colony sighted, most of the crew advanced on it with shovels. The little animals rushed about like a mass of disturbed ants, each to the low mound of earth that ringed its burrow. For a moment they sat ramrod-straight on the mounds, barking shrilly—or whistling, as the captains sometimes wrote, though they also used the term "barking squirrels." Then, as the invaders neared, each chien dived out of sight into its steeply pitching tunnel.

After trenching fruitlessly to a depth of six feet, the frustrated hunters switched to water. They filled five barrels with liquid lugged up from the river in kettles, poured the contents into another burrow, and flushed out one miserable specimen, which they took alive. Water was indeed a strange substance to the little animals. As Lewis correctly deduced from the huge colonies they later examined many miles from any stream or pond, prairie dogs never drank but subsisted by metabolizing minute amounts of moisture from the vegetation they ate. [17]

The captains also wanted to send Jefferson the skins, horns, and bones of both male and female pronghorns. After Clark had prepared the male he had shot, Lewis set out, on September 17, with two flankers to obtain a female. The hunt is remarkable mostly because the account of it is one of the very few passages in his hand about the long push up the Missouri. A sense of release and exuberance suffuses his tale. After wending their way through a mile-wide colony of barking squirrels, the three hunters climbed to the top of the breaks and confronted the vastness beyond. The exhilaration arising from those infinite miles was heightened by the "immense herds of buffalo, deer, elk, and antelopes we saw in every direction." Surely they would get what they wanted. But no. Though they painstakingly stalked several groups of pronghorns, they never crept close enough for a shot. There was recompense, however—a vivid memory of the animals' extraordinary fleetness, "equal if not superior to that of the finest blooded courser." A few years later the comparison became, in Biddle's version of the journals, "a speed equal to that of the most distinguished racehorse. [18] Faster, probably. The advent of automobiles has allowed the clocking of fleeing antelope at sixty miles an hour. (Later on, incidentally, the explorers did bag a female to send East with the male. Another anticlimax. The Osage Indians who had visited Washington earlier that summer at Pierre Chouteau's and Lewis's instigation had already showed Jefferson a well-tanned skin, its sex unrecorded.)

The abundance of game was of no help to the expedition's lost hunter, young George Shannon. Believing the boats were still ahead of him, he kept going upstream through the tangled woods of the flood plain as fast as the state of the two horses he had recovered permitted. That formidable outdoorsman, John Colter, could not overtake him, partly because of Colter's own irrepressible trigger finger. Whenever an edible animal crossed his path, he killed it, cut the meat into strips, and placed them on wooden racks to dry. On September 6 he turned back, flagged down the boats, and as they toiled along pointed the way to the jerky he had prepared.

Cold rains and high winds swept the river. A mast snapped off and had to be replaced. The river level stayed low in spite of the erratic storms. Shoals and sandbars grew more numerous. The keelboat kept grounding. Unable to make much headway with either poles or oars, the men had to tumble out and resort to the device they hated most, the tow rope.

On September 11, Shannon amazed them by materializing out of a clump of trees, hungry and with only a single horse. A few days after starting his ill-judged pursuit of the boats he had expended the last of the little ammunition he was carrying. By whittling substitute bullets out of wood he had managed to knock down a rabbit, but when that morsel was gone he had only grapes and wild plums to eat. Once a buffalo plodded by within thirty feet of him, but he had only been able to stare at it in frustration. When one of the horses played out, he left it to die uneaten, at least by him. He kept haunting the riverbanks, hoping some trader's boat would come along, but none did—not that late in the season, so far up the river. Clark greeted him with combined relief and anger, the reaction many parents exhibit when errant children return unharmed. Imagine starving in a land of plenty, he wrote scornfully, forgetting that after Shannon had expended his ammunition, he could do nothing other than survive on grapes. [19]

The next day, September 12, the keelboat hung up on a sandbar and nearly overturned. Though they straightened it out after a struggle, the current along that stretch was so fast they made only four miles between breakfast and supper. Meanwhile wind-driven rain was seeping through the tarpaulins of all three boats and wetting the ladings. When the 16th dawned clear, the captains decided to halt, dry out the merchandise, and reload in such a way as to lighten the keelboat.

Most of the excess cargo went into the red pirogue. Because its new load and the lading of the white pirogue would be needed during the winter among the Mandan Indians, the crews of both boats, the captains announced, would have to keep on rowing the full distance. That meant wintering among the Indians, because if the pirogues turned back after finally reaching the villages, their crews would risk being icebound. The decision was a blow for everyone. Lewis and Clark were violating promises they had made to the men in St. Louis—promises that may have led voyageurs and soldiers alike to make winter plans of their own. And Jefferson would not receive until the following summer the specimens, maps, and reports over which Lewis and Clark had worked so assiduously. [20]

Did anyone complain? The journals don't say. As far as the captains were concerned, the order was the result of military necessity and hence not subject to discussion.

The adjustment in lading helped. On September 20, aided by favoring winds, the flotilla covered twenty-seven miles of what was called, variously, the Great Detour and the Grand Detour. At that spot, about thirty-five direct miles southeast of present-day Pierre, South Dakota, the river bulges northward in a big, inverted, lopsided, tight-mouthed topographic U. Wanting his map of the curiosity to be accurate, Clark left the boats and stepped off the distance across the bottom of the bulge. Two thousand yards, he found. Dropping into the river trough, he rejoined the boats and picked up the observations that had been made along the course of the detour. It turned out that the river wandered thirty miles through the bulge while advancing a meager 2,000 yards down country.

Camp that night was on a sandbar whose perpendicular sides rose several feet above the level of the river. It was an almost disastrous choice of sites. As usual, a few of the men slept on the boats. Most spread their blankets on the ground near the edge of the bar. Between one and two o'clock in the morning, a sudden rocking of the keelboat and a shout of alarm from the guard awakened Clark. Along with the rest of the party he reared up into a frightening scene silvered by the light of a full moon.

On either side of the three boats undercut banks were caving into the water—a peeling off of tons of earth that was closing in on the camp like the jaws of an agitated vise. The captains shouted the men into place and they escaped just ahead of a roaring cataract of sand and clay. The pirogues at least, and possibly the keelboat, would have been sunk if they had been caught. As for the campground where many had been sleeping, it vanished.

That afternoon they received a portent of more trouble, an abandoned island trading post constructed the year before by Regis Loisel, head of the reorganized Missouri Company. He had built well, there on Cedar Island, where he planned to trade with some of the Teton bands of the Dakota nation. Pickets thirteen and a half feet high formed a square some sixty or seventy feet to a side. Bastions at diagonally opposite corners allowed armed men inside the projecting boxes to rake attackers with an enfilading fire. Inside the stockade was a log building that housed a trading room and counter, a storage room for merchandise and pelts, and living quarters for the traders. But from what Loisel and Dorion had said, it was clear the Teton Sioux, correctly sensing the timidity of the traders' underpaid voyageurs, had not been fazed by the mere appearance of strength.

We have the story of the unhappy winter from one of Loisel's principal clerks, Pierre Antoine Tabeau of Montreal ( Tabeau's Narrative of Loisel's Expedition to the Upper Missouri, translated and edited by Annie Heloise Abel in 1939). Lewis and Clark must have already heard parts of the tale from Loisel and Dorion, and it was not reassuring.

The most malicious of the traders' antagonists had been a chief called the Partisan, for unknown reasons. His band was a division of the Tetons called the Bois Brulés because, one suggestion runs, of their unusually dark complexions. The Partisan's bullies had concentrated particularly on Pierre Dorion, blowing out the half-blood's candles, walking off with his pipes, and in general humiliating him in front of both the voyageurs and the mocking Indians. The Partisan rewarded his swaggering "soldiers" by giving them blankets he pilfered openly from the stocks in the store. The gang had once closed the post to trade until they had been bought off with a barrel of brandy. But the worst was a notion that had grown up among the Bois Brulés that if an Indian could lay hold of, and keep hold of, a pirogue's mooring rope, the boat became a prize of war. That had happened to Loisel, and he had recovered a portion of his goods only by pleading his case in front of a council attended by a few of the band's less hostile chiefs. Trade at the island fort was so unprofitable, indeed, that when spring came Loisel had sent Pierre Antoine Tabeau and seven men upstream to try their luck among the Arikaras.

The Partisan's harassments were intended to benefit not only his Indians but also his friends the British, whose support he coveted in his rivalries with the other Bois Brulé chiefs. "He intrigues," Tabeau sputtered in ink, "he agitates, he incites, he inveighs against against our meanness, forbids dealing with us, and encourages reserving the pelts for [the Canadians at] the River St. Peter's." [21] How could Lewis and Clark, struggling to replace the British with American traders, cope with such a man in one short meeting?

Pushing the worry aside, they pressed on upstream. With Pierre Cruzatte doing his poor best as interpreter, they learned from some Indian boys they met that two villages of the Bois Brulé lay ahead, one beside the Missouri and the other a short distance up the Bad River, whose mouth was not far away. Good, the captains answered; tell your people we want to hold a council with them.

A little farther on, they overtook John Colter, who had been hunting with the single horse the expedition still possessed. He had shot an elk and while the disjointed carcass was being put aboard one of the pirogues, the horse disappeared. Stolen, Colter was sure. On encountering five mounted Indians a mile or so upstream, the captains jumped to the conclusion they were the thieves. Through Cruzatte, with François Labiche perhaps chiming in, the captains demanded the animal's return.

The Indians, surprisingly agreeable, said they knew nothing of the horse. If anyone from their village had taken it, they added, it would be returned. Accepting the statement, the captains gave the five some tobacco and let one of them sleep on the keelboat that night. The five were still with them the next day when they reached their stopping place, an island in the mouth of the Bad River, which they renamed the Teton, perhaps in the hope of flattering the tribe. (The name was later changed back to the Bad and remains that today.) For safety's sake, they anchored the boats well out in the Missouri. Except for the cooks, who did their work on the sandy beach of the island under the protection of a few guards, everyone slept on board.

In the morning—it was September 25—they erected the usual awning of sailcloth and raised a flag. Most of the soldiers then donned dress uniforms—cocked hats, white belts crisscrossing on their jacket fronts. The captains buckled on swords; the troopers saw to their rifles. Toward midmorning, sixty or so Indians drifted in from their villages two miles up the Bad. They were a colorful group, their moccasins decorated with porcupine quills and the insides of their buffalo robes garishly painted. Warriors who had won the right to do so wore eagle feathers in manes of hair that crested their scalps. There were women and children with the men, which was reassuring. After thirty or so chiefs and warriors had found seats in the shade under the awning, each side offered the other generous gifts of food. A pipe passed around, and when the last puffs of smoke had threaded away into the autumn air, the talks began.


1. The talk is given in full in Jackson, Letters, 203–8. (back)
2. For an introduction to the long history of medal giving, see Hodge, I, 829–36. (back)
3. The notes on the council Clark wrote on the spot are not as specific about the Otos' fear of meeting with the Omahas as he made them when being interviewed by Biddle. Jackson, Letters, II, 514. (back)
4. Clark quotation from Moulton, Journals, II, 478-79. For Blackbird, DeVoto, Course, 367, 375–76. Appleman, 93–94, 334. (back)
5. Ordway in Quaife, 108–9. (back)
6. Osgood, Field Notes, 109. (back)
7. Ordway in Quaife, 108–11. (back)
8. Ibid., 112. (back)
9. Moulton, Journals, II, 492–96. (back)
10. Ibid., 499–502. (back)
11. Ibid., 504ff. Ordway in Quaife, 117. (back)
12. White, 319–43, discusses the Sioux's westward migrations. Lehmer, Middle Missouri Archeology, 168–69, touches on the James River rendezvous. Hodge, I, 227, 376–77, II, 736–37, 988–89, summarizes the early history of the Ojibway (Chippewa) and Dakota (Sioux) tribes, and the Teton and Yankton divisions of the Dakotas. (back)
13. Jackson, Letters, 62–63, 116. (back)
14. Osgood, Field Notes, 120. Ordway in Quaife, 117. (back)
15. I, 126–31. Biddle, 50–55. Osgood, Field Notes, 123–28. Ronda, 24–26. (back)
16. Abel, Tabeau's Narrative, 72n. Cutright, Pioneering Naturalists, 80, says Ordway may have been the first person to use the term "prairie dog." This may be true for the Corps's journalists, but not for the French, who saw the plains years before the Americans appeared. For more on the encounter with the prairie dogs, Osgood, Field Notes, 133–34. (back)
17. Cutright, Pioneering Naturalists, 144. (back)
18. I, 152–54. Biddle, 66. (back)
19. Osgood, Field Notes, 135. (back)
20. Ibid., 139. (back)
21. Abel, Narrative, 107–20. (back)