The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 9

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

NINE. The Grand Plan

The first Mandan village they sighted contained, within its stockade of short pickets, about forty big, dome-shaped, earth-covered habitations, almost exactly like those used by the Arikaras. It stood atop a bluff about fifty feet high, the Missouri curling at its base. To land at the narrow beach below the town would give the villagers, if they turned hostile, a strategic advantage no army officer would consider. Nor did the captains want to expose their whole group by advancing in a body. So they moored the boats half a mile downstream. Clark, suffering from rheumatism, stayed with part of the men at the landing place. Several Mandans stayed there also, watching intently as the white cooks set up a little steel mill and ground parched corn into meal for corn pones—a great improvement, certainly, over rolling, as the Indians did, a round stone back and forth over a flat rock, with the kernels in between.

Lewis, meanwhile, accompanied by interpreters George Drouillard and Joseph Gravelines and a squad of riflemen, hiked with a crowd of Mandan men, women, and children to the village. Its name, as Clark later spelled the word phonetically, was Matootonha. (Today's archeologists call the site Mitutanka.) Its principal chief was Sheheke. Because Sheheke was fat and of light complexion, the handful of French-Canadian traders who either lived in the area or visited occasionally from the British posts to the the northeast called him Le Gros Blanc, or Big White in English.

Big White and several other of Matootonha's leading men smoked cordially with the visitors—tobacco was an essential prelude to any important meeting—and Lewis returned to the boats in high spirits. The Corps should have no trouble setting up a council for all five of the neighborhood towns, only two of them Mandan. After that they could settle in for the winter. High time, too, to judge from the flights of geese, swans, cormorants, and ducks passing overhead, the wavering Vs of each southbound flock outlined sharply against the pale sky.

The next morning both captains visited Matootonha. This time they picked up René Jessaume, a free trader who had been living with the Mandans and their neighbors, the Hidatsas, for the past fifteen years. English traders who knew Jessaume considered him devoid of morals. When John Evans, working for the Spanish in 1796, had ordered him to leave the Missouri and return to Canada, Jessaume had tried to kill him, or so Evans charged. After talking with Jessaume for a time, Clark wrote him down as "cunnin, artful, and insonce [insolent]." But the Canadian could speak the Indians' language and understood the power hierarchies in the different villages, attributes that would stand the captains in good stead when the moment came to hand out medals and red coats to the chiefs they formally recognized. [1]

With Jessaume in one of the boats the whites rowed up the sweeping meanders of the Missouri past a second Mandan village. Clark, struggling with the heavy sounds of an unfamiliar tongue, called the village Rooptahee. (Today's archeologists call it Nuptadi.) Not quite as populous as Matootonha, Rooptahee lay on the opposite, or northeastern, bank, surrounded on three sides by the coiling river. Upstream from the town, where the brush of the flood plain had some years since been cleared away for gardens, the Corps made camp. Nearby they raised a flagpole to mark the site for the big council they had scheduled for the following day, October 28. They had already told the Mandans about the meeting. Now they hired three young Indian runners to carry the word, along with carrots of tobacco, to the three Hidatsa villages that dotted the lower mile and a half of the Knife River, where it ran almost parallel to the Missouri.

(A note on nomenclature, which can be skipped if desired. The first white travelers to visit the five riverside villages in what is now central North Dakota lumped them together as the Mandan towns. The Mandans lived only in the lower two, however. The next village above them—the domed huts stood on a west-side bluff overlooking the confluence of the Knife and Missouri rivers—was the home of a group that the Mandans, and hence Lewis and Clark, called the Wattasons or sometimes the Ahaharways. Though the Wattasons spoke their own dialect, they were related to the tribe that lived in two villages of earth-covered lodges farther up the Knife—villages called Metaharte and Big Hidatsa. The latter was by far the largest town in the area. The Mandans, and hence Lewis and Clark, called the dwellers in those upper two towns the Minitaris. Jessaume and his fellow French-Canadians added other names: Souliers (Shoes) for the Wattasons and Gros Ventres (Big Bellies) for the Minitaris. Today the surviving Knife River people call themselves Hidatsa, after the now-vanished village of that name. [2] This account will also use Hidatsa for the tribe, though it means differing from Lewis and Clark's usage.)

Odd similarities marked the Mandan-Hidatsa council and the one the captains had recently concluded with the Arikaras. In both instances clouds of sand stirred up by strong winds forced a postponement. Influential representatives from the upper towns of both neighborhoods failed to appear because of deep-seated jealousies. The upriver Arikara had not wanted a downriver Indian made head chief over every village. The Hidatsas, on their part, feared the Mandans might take precedence in whatever trading arrangements these strangers from the far-off mouth of the river might establish.

There were also profound differences, the main one being that the residents of the three Arikara towns belonged to the same tribe. The Hidatsas and Mandans were different tribes. The Hidatsas were the more bellicose; their war parties regularly rode far west to attack the Indians who lived in the Rocky Mountains—a matter of importance to the captains, who needed to refine their understanding of the lands between the Missouri and the sea. The Mandans, by contrast, stayed close to their fields and only fought, they said, to stave off guerrilla strikes by the Sioux and Arikara.

Winds howled again on October 29, but Lewis and Clark did not want to ask for another postponement lest the volatile groups grow impatient and disperse. Accordingly they had the enlisted men set up a canvas enclosure topped with a canvas awning. The swivel guns boomed; the enlisted men paraded. To the tune of the flutterings and cracklings of the canvas, and with Jessaume interpreting, Lewis gave a long speech "Similer," Clark wrote, "to what we had Delivered to the nations below." Bored by it, one aged Hidatsa stirred restlessly and would have left the gathering if some of the others hadn't rebuked him for his rudeness. [3]

The usual making of chiefs followed. A head man was named for each village and a grand chief for each tribe. Black Cat of Rooptahee was declared principal chief of all Mandans; Kakoaksis of Big Hidatsa—he was Le Borgne to the French because of his single eye—was put over the Hidatsas. The ceremony of recognition was something of a rump session, for Le Borgne was off with a war party, and Big White, named chief of Matootonha town, had been unable to cross the wind-swept river in his frail boat of buffalo hide and willows. The presents intended for the two had to be entrusted to messengers, and so some of the impact was gone.

At the captains' urging, those chiefs who were in attendance consented to smoke with the Arikara peace delegate whom the Corps had brought upstream as part of Lewis and Clark's slowly evolving strategy of opening the river by isolating the obstreperous Sioux. Hidatsas, Mandans, and Arikaras against the Tetons . . . if old bonds could be turned upside down. The Arikara representative played his part so well that Clark rewarded him with a U.S. silver dollar as a medal. The Mandans were more restrained. Though Big White agreed with Black Cat of Rooptahee that peace was wonderful and there might be some advantage in visiting Washington, he added sourly that whenever violence occurred, it was the fault of either the Arikaras or the Sioux or of both acting together. In the battles that followed, he said, the Mandans slew the enemy as easily as if they were little birds. His people might as well make peace as coast along that way. All in all, it was a lukewarm denouement to a council that had begun with cannon fire and parades. But at least the program had been laid before the Indians, and the captains had the rest of the winter in which to improve its luster.

A related problem concerned their handling of foreign traders. One of the people who had come to the riverbank to stare at the flotilla as it hove into sight below the villages had been Hugh McCracken, an illiterate Scot recently arrived from a North West Company post on the Assiniboine River, a hundred and fifty miles to the northeast. His first reaction must have been astonishment: Americans, here where none had ever been before! Louisiana Purchase? He probably had heard nothing about it. On being told, he must have wondered what it meant to him. Would the Americans insist, as the Spanish had tried to do, that British fur men would not be allowed to ply their commerce south of the still unmarked border?

The captains themselves weren't sure. Under the terms of Jay's Treaty, signed by the United States and Great Britain in 1794, traders of each nation were allowed to work in the other's territory if they subscribed to regulations applied by the host nation. In the United States this meant that every trader, American or British, had to purchase, for a small fee, a government license. But did the generous fur-trade provisos of Jay's Treaty extend to Louisiana, which had been acquired after the signing of that document? As Lewis and Clark surely knew, many St. Louis merchants, hoping to keep British competitors out of the huge area, were arguing that the treaty did not apply and therefore the western reaches of the border remained closed, as in Spanish times, to foreign traders. At the time of the Corps's departure from St. Louis no governmental decision had been reached.

Yet how could Lewis and Clark ask the Indians to acknowledge American jurisdiction without demanding the same recognition from the foreigners who dealt with Indians? (The word "foreigners" of course included such resident French-Canadians as René Jessaume, who lived in the villages with their Indian wives and exerted varying degrees of influence over their red neighbors.) So, granted the dilemma, what stance should the captains take, and under what authority?

They decided, in spite of Lewis's ingrained prejudice against all Britons, to be conciliatory. (One senses Clark's calming hand.) When McCracken told them, shortly after the Indian councils ended and he had learned their tenor, that he was about to ride back to his post, they prevailed on him to carry a letter to his superior, Charles Chaboillez. In the letter they stated they had been dispatched by their government to explore the Missouri and the western part of North America "with a view to the promotion of general science." As proof of the "literary" nature of the project, they enclosed a copy of the passport the British ambassador in Washington had granted Lewis at Jefferson's request. The Corps expected, Lewis and Clark continued, to remain in the neighborhood of the Mandans throughout the winter. There need be no frictions. As individuals "we feel every disposition to cultivate the friendship of all well-disposed persons."

"Well-disposed." They used the term again when stating it was the policy of the United States to allow "free egress and regress [Lewis's words, surely] to all citizens and subjects of foreign powers with which she is in amity." And would Mr. Chaboillez kindly have those of his men who came to the villages pass on such information as they possessed about the country's geography and natural history? [4]

It was an adroit letter, not wholly candid. It said nothing about license requirements or the possibility of a complete interdiction of British trade with Indians who lived in American territory. It did establish a precedent of sorts by inviting the Canadians to come on down, an unauthorized step American fur men might well decry. But its very cordiality, Lewis and Clark hoped, might dissuade the British, to whom the Indians were accustomed, from stirring up anti-American acts that would jeopardize the expedition's future. Furthermore, the letter put Chaboillez under an obligation to repay courtesy with courtesy by directing his "well-disposed" traders to tell the American captains what they knew about the Western country and its native inhabitants.

On November 2, the captains, freed of their diplomatic chores, selected a site for the fort that would have to shelter and protect about forty-five people during the winter that loomed ahead. The spot they chose lay approximately six river miles below the confluence of the Knife and the Missouri and half that distance below the closest village, Matootonha, but on the opposite (left) bank. A few score yards back from the site, a bluff rising steeply out of the trees of the bottomland marked the edge of a grassy terrace. Beyond the terrace the bordering hills of the river's broad valley sloped upward to a height of five hundred feet or so. The fort would be built in the shape of a triangle, its apex pointing toward the bluff and its open front facing the Missouri, close to the beach where the keelboat and the two pirogues were moored.

Decisions about personnel accompanied the decisions about the fort. A French-Canadian, Jean Baptiste Lepage, who said he had ventured as far into the wilderness as the Black Hills, was hired to replace the discharged John Newman. Newman, desperately regretting his mutinous flare-up, wanted to be taken back into the Corps. No chance. If the other enlisted men thought discipline was not ironclad, so the captains reasoned, a general unraveling might take place that would jeopardize the entire project. Newman and Moses Reed could stay out the winter at the fort, but their positions would remain those of common laborers.

Though Newman and Reed remained with the group, the French crew of the red pirogue did not. To save the cost of their wages and to reduce the number of mouths that would have to be fed during the winter, the captains discharged them shortly after the boats reached the Indian villages. Nor were they allowed to try to race the ice downstream in the red pirogue they had labored with for the past five months; Lewis and Clark had decided it and the white pirogue would be needed when the upstream journey was resumed in the spring. So there the Frenchmen were, totally on their own. That was the way employment was handled in those days: pay and transportation ended with the job, as the boatmen had understood when signing up. What they did from then on was up to them.

The Arikara peace delegate set an example. He and a few lesser Mandans and Hidatsas started downstream for the Arikara towns in either a boat of buffalo hide or a dugout hewn from a cottonwood tree—no journal mentions the craft. Their intent was to seal the recent truces during a ceremonial smoke with the villagers. Gravelines would follow them in a day or two to guide the arrangements, and an indeterminate number of the French crew decided to accompany him in one or more hurriedly created dugouts. Since Gravelines is known to have reached the Arikara towns (Lewis had employed him to escort some Washington-bound chiefs to St. Louis the following spring), the Frenchmen presumably also reached the villages. If they did not stay there—no records exist—they ran the risk of being caught by either ice or the Sioux.

Those of the French group who did not depart with Gravelines decided to build a small hut near the fort-to-be and winter among the Mandans, trapping beaver and enjoying the favors of the complaisant Mandan girls. When spring came—well, they would worry then. [5] Perhaps they hoped they would be allowed to catch rides back to St. Louis aboard the keelboat. Because it was too big for use on the upper river, it would be sent downstream after the ice had broken with specimens and reports for President Jefferson. The craft would be manned on its descent by Corporal Warfington's soldiers, erstwhile crewmen of the white pirogue. Newman and Reed would also return in the keelboat. Until it left all of them would have plenty of winter work to keep them occupied.

Still another decision involved interpreters. René Jessaume and his wife and child moved into a tepee beside the site of the fort the day construction started, to be on hand whenever interpreting was needed. The family was followed within twenty-four hours by another resident trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, known today to more Americans than any other man of the party except Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The reason, it hardly need be said, was his then noticeably pregnant fourteen-or fifteen-year-old Indian wife, Sacagawea. She, along with another of Charbonneau's women, accompanied him to the embryonic fort. Her name has other spellings: Sacajawea and Sakakawea. The hard g or the second k is generally preferred to the j. Pronunciation is important, according to Sacagawea aficionados, because the name spelled with a g or k and accented on the second syllable is Hidatsa and means "Bird Woman." A soft j makes it Shoshoni "Boat Launcher." [6]

By birth Sacagawea was a Shoshoni. In 1800, aged ten, she had been captured by a Hidatsa war party while trying to flee across the Missouri River at a distant place later called Three Forks. When she turned nubile, Charbonneau either bought her or won her from her captor in a gambling game—take your choice, as with the spelling of her name.

When the Corps of Discovery reached the Mandan towns, Charbonneau was away on a hunting trip. Learning somehow of the council and of the explorers' destination, he realized he owned a profitable bit of merchandise. He hurried to the fort, showed off his wares, and asked for a job as an interpreter. The captains demurred. Jessaume was interpreter enough; besides, he spoke some English, while Charbonneau did not. The trader spluttered back through whoever was translating for him. Listen! This girl—he may well have pushed her ahead right under their noses—was a Shoshoni. Shoshoni, understand? Her tribe lived in the Rocky Mountains. They owned many horses. Horses for carrying baggage across the Continental Divide. The captains would have to have someone who knew their language.

Translation, to be sure, would be awkward. But it could be done. Sacagawea would turn Shoshoni into Hidatsa for her husband; he would transform it into French for one of the expedition's French half-breeds, Cruzatte, or Labiche, or even Jean Baptiste Lepage, whom the captains had just hired. The Frenchman, whoever he was, could then put the words into English for the captains. So Charbonneau was hired. He would receive the pay; Sacagawea would do the work. Curiously the journals mention no hesitation over the fact that the teenager would be carrying a newborn infant at least as far as the Rockies.

The final decision about personnel had to do with the laying in of food for the first part of the winter—food enough for more than forty people, together with the neighboring Indians, who would expect the whites to share what they had, just as the Mandans shared when hunger pinched. It has been estimated that on a single day the crew and associated people could devour an entire buffalo or, in its place, four deer, or one deer and an elk. [7] George Drouillard and six selected but unnamed men were ordered to go downstream in one of the pirogues and bring back as much meat as they could carry. Until they returned, the construction workers would have to depend on whatever corn, dried squash, buffalo steaks, and buffalo tripe the Mandans brought them, either as gifts or for barter.

The builders pitched tents for shelter and then, racing the cold, set about clearing the area the fort would occupy. The green cottonwoods were heavy—full of water, Clark said. [8] Lugging and levering those felled in and close to the clearing was hard enough. The effort grew as distance increased. It took at least four men to bring back one big, trimmed log. The quartet would first roll the timber onto a pair of crosspieces, one near either end. Heaving the cradle and its burden upward, the workers toted it ahead, often chanting to the rhythm of their steps. For help in boosting the log onto the rising walls, they rented a horse from the Mandans and rigged up a rope pulley.

Each arm of the V-shaped structure was to contain four rooms, each fourteen feet square, seven feet high, and designed to hold a stone fireplace that was used for cooking as well as warmth. The point of the V did not quite close; an opening was left that would let armed men squeeze into a rounded bastion whose loopholes commanded a view of the outer walls of the triangle's sides, each fifty-six feet long. The walls of this bastion were made of contiguous pickets about seven feet tall. In time the enclosure would be roofed in order to provide space for storage.

The ceilings of the eight rooms were made of puncheons, which are logs adzed flat on one side. The flat sides, facing up and covered with grass and clay, would form lofts that would be used mostly as dormitories. The outer walls of the lofts projected a little beyond the outside walls of the lower apartments, an overhang designed to add space while discouraging attempts to scale the edifice. The base of the triangular fort, which fronted on the river, eventually was closed off by massive pickets eighteen feet tall and set deep in the ground.

The roofs of the structure sloped toward an inner court. In that limited space the men would often show off their jigs and reels to visiting Indians. A sentry regularly paced the walkways on the roof—after all, this was a military establishment, designed in part to impress the land's native inhabitants. After the chinks between the often crooked cottonwood logs had been daubed with clay and sticks, the place became not only draft-proof but "almost Cannon Ball Proof," to borrow the words of a Canadian who visited it late in November. It was named Fort Mandan in honor of the neighboring tribe.

It was a lively place. The days during the first part of November stayed above freezing; construction went apace. Many Mandans (but few Hidatsas) rode by on their way to their hunting camps, or just appeared with their families to see what kind of dwellings white people lived in. They let their horses graze on the good grass in the bottomland while they smoked, ate, and talked as best they could with the always busy whites.

On November 12 and again on the 13th, daytime temperatures slipped to fourteen degrees above zero—"naught," as the captains put the figure on their weather charts. [9] Chunks of ice floated down the river; thin lenses of ice rippled along the shoreline. Hastily the men filled one of the storehouses in the bastion with supplies unloaded from the boats. Lewis and a crew then rowed an empty pirogue up the river to gather stones suitable for chimneys. On the way back, the overloaded craft stuck on a sandbar. Over the gunwales the men went, into icy water, to work the boat free. Cold air on wet feet during the rest of the journey resulted in frostbite for some. But, wrote Sergeant Ordway, "it hapned they had Some whiskey with them to revive their Spirits."

Dwindling food supplies were another worry. Not having heard from Drouillard's hunters for two weeks, the captains sent a "frenchman" (Baptiste Lepage?) downstream to look for the missing men. The next day, just as the cooks were dipping into their reserves of salt pork, the searcher reappeared with Drouillard and word the hunters were stalled thirty miles below. Drift ice had damaged the prow of the pirogue and rowing was almost impossible. The captains responded by sending back a tow rope and enough tin to sheathe the boat's prow. On November 19 the pirogue returned, laden with the dressed carcasses of thirty-two deer, eleven elk, and five buffalo. Considering the rate at which the party consumed meat, the supply would last about three weeks, yet they cooked up enough the next day to provide a feast for several Indians who heard the good news and appeared with grins of anticipation. They also sent Sergeant Pryor to Matootonha to swap trade goods for corn that could be used to stretch out the supply. [10]

On the day the ice started flowing in the Missouri, Black Cat, head man of Rooptahee, brought an Assiniboin chief and seven "men of note" to the fort to meet the captains. Mindful that the Assiniboin tribe ranged mostly on British soil, Clark refrained from giving the chief an American medal or an American flag but substituted a length of gold braid plucked from the storehouse's supply of ribbons—or perhaps from his or Lewis's dress uniform. The gift pleased the fellow, Clark wrote afterward—but, he added, the group as a whole was a surly lot, as was to be expected, since they were related to the Sioux. [11]

For a few days following the Assiniboin visit, not a Mandan appeared at the fort. On the 18th, Black Cat arrived with an explanation. The time had been filled with a huge festival to cement trade relations among the Mandans, Hidatsas, seventy lodges of visiting Assiniboins, and a few of their associates, the Crees. During the celebration the Assiniboins had publicly mocked the Mandans for their friendliness with the Americans. Did the Missouri River Indians suppose they could really get merchandise from southern sources? Hadn't another white man, John Evans, made similar promises eight years ago, only to leave and never return? Stick with us, the Assiniboins said. We and the Crees will buy your vegetables and your horses with our dried meat and leather and with guns and brass kettles and cloth we obtain from the traders in the north. Stay with us, your best suppliers. Or take the consequences.

The high-pressure salesmanship upset the Mandans so much that they held council to discuss alternatives. Should they retain their Assiniboin connections by turning their backs on the Americans? Or should they risk Assiniboin retaliation by opening their ears to the promises of these energetic men from the south?

Though no consensus had been reached at the meetings, it was clear the American program was in trouble. [12] If bullying from nomadic tribes made all the village Indians cower—and how reminiscent of the Sioux-Arikara situation this was!—the river might end up not only being closed to American trade but also to American use as a main section of the route to the Pacific.

What to do? Lamely the captains told Black Cat his people certainly could believe the American promise of bringing a rich trade to the Mandans. Developing the necessary procedures would take time, but if the Indians were loyal, so would the Great Father be.

The talk placated Black Cat, who was friendly already. But what of the Hidatsas, with whom the Corps had had very little contact during the push to complete the fort and provision it with meat? Those chores were finished now except for building a stockade across the open end of the stronghold, and the explorers could return to the murky waters of diplomacy.

Treating with the Hidatsas fell to Lewis. Off he went on November 25, with Charbonneau and Jessaume as interpreters and six riflemen under Sergeant Ordway as a guard. Somehow—journal details are often exasperatingly sparse—they got a pirogue across the ice-choked river. Somewhere Lewis and the interpreters obtained horses for riding along the snowy, wind-swept terraces to the Knife River communities. Ordway's detail walked; horses were expensive even to rent, and with the long journey to the Pacific looming ahead, the captains were reluctant to expend the trade goods that were their only currency.

Results of the errand were mixed. [13] The party was able to find shelter at the middle Hidatsa village, Metaharte, partly because that was where Charbonneau and Sacagawea had lived before moving to Fort Mandan. Lewis held productive talks there with Black Moccasin, the man Clark and he had recognized a month earlier as the head man of the town. He counciled with chiefs in the other two towns, some of whom seemed reluctant to take his gifts, and he won a bland promise from certain influential warriors not to go to war any more with their accustomed quarry, the Shoshoni of the mountains.

As the weather turned stormy on the 26th and 27th, so did negotiations. One chief, the Horned Weasel, declined to see the Americans. And there is no record that Lewis tried to contact Le Borgne and other principal men of Big Hidatsa village. What really jarred him were rumors of Mandan duplicity. Their conniving was based on tales brought to the villages by Indian travelers: the Sioux planned an attack on the Hidatsas for having entered into an alliance with the Arikaras. The Americans, the account went on, planned to join the war on the side of the Sioux. Why else had they built so strong a fort while talking so earnestly of peace? Why else had Jessaume and Charbonneau and their families, one-time residents among the Hidatsa, moved into the stronghold, if not for the sake of being safe when the battles erupted? And what of that other long-term trader with the Hidatsas, Baptiste La France? He had just arrived on the Missouri with a small party of North West Company men and was popping off with scurrilous remarks about the Americans, each time adding that the Britons were the Hidatsas' only true friends. Why would he say such things?

The reasons seemed clear to Lewis's interpreters. The Mandan villages, located farther down the Missouri than the Hidatsas', were in a good geographic position to capture whatever trade began moving up the river from the south. If the Hidatsas became enemies of the Americans, the Mandans' chances of taking over the role of middlemen for the new commerce improved in direct proportion. Baptiste La France, having sniffed out the way the wind was blowing, was trying to improve the North West Company's standing with the Hidatsas by joining the anti-American chorus.

Lewis countered vigorously. He prevailed on two, perhaps more, important Hidatsa chiefs and several warriors to return with him through the snow to the fort and with their own eyes and ears measure its friendliness toward all the villages, Hidatsa and Mandan. (He did not know that at that very moment a small group of Hidatsas were at Fort Mandan, unable to talk to Clark because, ironically, the interpreters were with Lewis.) [14] And Lewis had a chance to speak his mind directly to the Nor'Westers. While riding between towns, he bumped first into the clerk, or second-in-command, of the small party, Charles McKenzie. What they talked about is not of record, but Lewis's stiffness may account for McKenzie's later remark in his journal that the captain was prejudiced against the British. Next Lewis encountered, at Black Cat's village, the head man himself, François-Antoine Laroque. Well educated and affable, Laroque was only twenty. (His birthday was August 18, one day ahead of Lewis's, who was then thirty-one.) He had not yet heard of the Louisiana Purchase. At the time of his departure from his base on the Assiniboine River, Hugh McCracken had not yet arrived with Lewis and Clark's carefully polite letter to the district manager, Charles Chaboillez. Even so, Laroque was prepared to be cooperative. He was eager that this, his first major assignment, go well—a hope that depended in part on enlisting Charbonneau as interpreter. But Charbonneau, he had learned on reaching the Missouri, was with the Americans, though not actually with Lewis right then, for apparently the interpreter had ridden on to the fort while the captain paused to talk to Black Cat. It was in the chief's lodge that the Canadian asked to "borrow" Charbonneau until his commerce was launched. Lewis agreed and invited the young man to dine at the fort with Clark, the Hidatsa chiefs, and him the next evening, November 28. His prejudices, if any, obviously did not blind him to the advantages of amiability.

Laroque missed the date. He waited in Black Cat's lodge for Charbonneau to show up, but it was snowing hard and the interpreter did not appear. So the next day Laroque rode down to the fort to collar the fellow. There he walked into a chill that matched the weather's. From some unnamed source the captains had heard that the North West people carried British flags and medals for distribution among the Missouri River Indians. Crisply Lewis and Clark told the Canadian to refrain while he was on American soil. The Indians, they added, had been warned to reject any and all tokens of British sovereignty.

The nonplussed trader said his party had neither medals nor flags with them and hence no intentions of handing any out. His earnestness restored accord, and he was allowed to borrow Charbonneau, as arranged earlier, whenever the man's services were not needed by the Americans. With this proviso: the interpreter was not to be asked to translate remarks in any way derogatory to the new owners of Louisiana Territory. And then the captains explained what their aims on the upper Missouri were. Science and the finding of a usable route to the Pacific, yes. But there was more—an alliance of the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras against the Sioux that would benefit everyone's trade. For of course British subjects had a treaty right to trade south of the border if they obeyed the same regulations under which Americans operated—no liquor, no following the Indians out to their hunting camps, and so on. In the future, moreover, the United States government might extend its own trading houses up the river in order to make sure the Indians were not gouged by grasping traders from any nation.

Laroque's observations, if any, were not recorded. They would have been interesting, for though he was young he was not naive. After the conversations, he wrote dryly in his journal, "During the time I was there a very grand plan was schemed, but its being realized is more than I can tell, although the Captains say they are well assured it will." [15]

As Laroque and his clerk, Charles McKenzie, would soon learn, there was reason to be skeptical about the plan. The Hidatsas were not as convinced that joining a U.S.-sponsored alliance would be useful. What seemed to them Lewis and Clark's excessive boasting about the power of the distant Great Father had turned them off. Several chiefs, fearing that there might be harmful medicine in the medals and certificates that were presented to them, had given the symbols away. They felt, too, that the visitors were incompetent, except for the blacksmith and the mender of guns. They wondered why the Americans, who talked about great riches, had not brought more gifts, trade goods, and ammunition with them in their big boats. And if the Americans thought that young Hidatsa warriors would abandon the fighting through which they gained recognition, they were ill informed indeed.

One development turned out to be more than gossip. A little after sunrise on November 30, a Mandan from Matootonha yelled across the river that he had news for the Americans. After a pirogue had battled through the ice to reach him, he apologized; the river by the village was frozen solid and he had supposed it would be frozen here as well. Anyway, he had been sent to tell the captains that a roaming party of Sioux and Arikaras—there was no mistaking the emphasis on Arikara —had surprised five Mandans hunting buffalo on the plains eight leagues to the southwest. The attackers had killed one hunter, wounded two, and made off with nine horses.

Here, the captains thought, was a chance to replace words with action. Let a party of volunteers march to Matootonha, consult with Big White and the other chiefs there, and if hostile attack seemed imminent join with warriors from all the villages and engage the Sioux—those damnable Sioux. Though the strategy seems fitted to Lewis's impulsive nature, Clark apparently was its originator. [16] And because Lewis had only recently returned from the long, snowy, exhausting ride to the Knife River villages, Clark led this foray.

Within an hour twenty-three men, including both Charbonneau and Jessaume, had been ferried to the timbered bottomland on the far side of the river. There Clark spread the men out in skirmish formation and advanced, with a good deal of floundering, through thick brush and foot-deep snow toward the terrace bluff. After scrambling up that, they swung across open ground toward the town. The sudden appearance of so large a group in military formation alarmed the Indians. To calm the excited people, Big White and a delegation of other chiefs wrapped themselves in buffalo robes and walked out to discover what was afoot. Clark explained. They wanted to help the Mandans chastise the Sioux "for taking the blood of our dutifull children."

Big White said the matter needed discussion and invited the soldiers to divide into small groups and make themselves at home in different lodges, resting and eating while the leaders talked. To Clark, what followed was total anticlimax. The chiefs insisted the murderers could not be overtaken on the snowy plains; vengeance would have to wait for spring. Recriminations erupted next. A chief called Big Man blamed the Americans for the tragedy by saying that the injured party, believing peace had been achieved, had gone onto the plains with a recklessly small group and had paid the price. The Arikaras might talk peace, but in reality they had always been liars and aggressors.

To keep Lewis's and his grand plan from crumbling then and there, Clark drew on all the persuasiveness he possessed. The snowstorm was unfortunate, he said, for the Americans wanted to show tribes everywhere what would happen to those who were foolish enough to harm the Great Father's allies. Also, it was wrong to blame all Arikaras for the actions of a few. Those few clearly had felt they must follow the Sioux's bad advice in order to get firearms and ammunition from them. Mandans should understand that kind of pressure. Didn't they have to stay on good terms with the Assiniboins and Crees to obtain what those middlemen brought them? But as soon as American goods were flowing up the river and the villagers lived under American protection, the Mandans and the Hidatsas could become independent people at last. [17]

Had he made his point? He hoped so. The Mandans fed the soldiers liberally and expressed polite thanks for the Americans' concern. Taking as much satisfaction from that as he could, Clark gathered his detachment together, paraded them through the village plaza, and then crossed the ice to the other shore. As the cold descended—that night the Corps's thermometer dropped below zero for the first time—they slogged back through brush and drifted snow to the fort. "Verry fatigueing," Clark summed up the experience after passing out extra measures of cheap rum to the men.

Fatiguing—and worrisome. Hoping to learn what was really going on down the river, the captains found a messenger who was willing to ride to the Arikara villages with a letter for Tabeau. What was the situation there—and would the trader please do all he could to hold the grand alliance together?

On the personal level there was more warmth. Three days after the fiasco, the father and brother of the man the Sioux had slain appeared at the fort with gifts of dried pumpkin and pemmican. The village chiefs might believe privately that the American offer to lead a winter pursuit of the murderers was stupid, but in the minds of the those most concerned, the interest had "produced a grateful respect . . . which pleased us very much." [18]

And on that note the Corps settled down to the arduous tasks of surviving the present while preparing for the future.


1. Osgood, Field Notes, 169. Clark omitted his denigration of Jessaume in his official journal. Alexander Henry, who encountered Jessaume in 1806, was also unfavorably impressed. Coues, 333. (back)
2. For the names of the tribes and the villages they inhabited—more names than I have given—consult Clark's notes to Biddle in Jackson, Letters, II, 522, 524–25. See also Hodge under "Mandan," "Hidatsa," etc., and Ronda, 67–70. Henry gives the locations of the villages in Coues, 322–24. Thompson, Narrative, 169n, says the towns were scattered along eleven and a half miles of the riverbank. Perhaps so as the river curved, but the distance from the lowest Mandan village, Matootonha, to Big Hidatsa could not have been much more than six miles in a direct line by land. The maps in Ronda, 68, and Appleman, 238–39, do not agree with Clark's map as reproduced in Moulton, Atlas, plates 29 and 61. I have followed Clark. (back)
3. I, 210–13. (back)
4. Jackson, Letters, 213–14. For American licensing provisions under Jay's Treaty: Phillips, II, 73–74, and Jackson, Zebulon Pike, 1, 256. In spite of Jay's Treaty, foreign traders were excluded from the Missouri in 1805. (Jackson, Letters, 256–57.) The sentiment that led to the exclusion must have been noticeable in St. Louis when Lewis and Clark were studying trade problems there. (back)
5. Although Bernard DeVoto says flatly that four of the French boatmen headed downstream in November, other students of the expedition are content to say their exact numbers cannot be determined. The issue is confused by two French trappers who met the Corps on its way upstream and continued to the Mandans with the American boats, hoping to recover some traps and furs the Indians had taken from them. DeVoto, Journals, 63 n. 4. Appleman, 367, 368 nn. 64, 66, 74. Jackson, Letters, 237 n. 7. (back)
6. For the spellings and their meanings: Jackson, Letters, 316n; Appleman, 115–17. I follow Kenneth O. Owens, "Sacagawea," in Lamar, 1055, for her age. (back)
7. Cutright, Pioneering Naturalists, 110. (back)
8. I, 218. For the fort in general: Biddle, 113; Wood and Thiessen, 143; and the appropriate sections in Moulton, Journals, III. (back)
9. Every day someone checked the expedition's thermometers at sunrise and at 4:00 P.M. The readings were relayed to the captains, who recorded the figures in their weather journals, along with data about wind, precipitation, cloudiness, etc. A line of remarks followed most weather entries. The data are reproduced by the month in Moulton's edition of the journals, and are collected in a single entry and printed as an appendix in Biddle, III, 846–89. (back)
10. I, 222ff. Osgood, Field Notes, 178. VII, 69. Ordway in Quaife, 164–66. Whitehouse counts the spoils as 34 deer, 10 elk, 5 buffalo; Ordway as 30 deer, 11 elk, 5 buffalo. (back)
11. Osgood, Field Notes, 174n. Moulton, Journals, III, 234. VI, 104. (back)
12. Ronda, 89–90. Osgood, Field Notes, 176–77. (back)
13. For Lewis's diplomatic adventure: 1, 227–29; Moulton, Journals, III, 241–49, passim. (back)
14. I, 226. (back)
15. Laroque, reprinted in Wood and Thiessen, 137, 140. Also Charles McKenzie, "Narrative," in ibid., 232–38; Coues, 349–50. (back)
16. I, 229. Ordway in Quaife, 168. (back)
17. I, 230–32. (back)
18. Biddle, 121. (back)