The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 19

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

NINETEEN. Hurrying Home

As Lewis and Clark prepared to go their separate paths from Traveler's Rest to the Missouri, they began to wonder, inevitably, about ways to rescue the diplomatic assignments whose completion had eluded them on their way up the river. Except for their hard-earned horse herd they were dirt poor and could offer the Indians few shiny, colorful, mechanically helpful manufactured goods and inducements. How, then, could they persuade Hidatsa and Mandan chiefs to visit Washington with them? How could they persuade the belligerent Teton Sioux to quiet down and let the expedition pass safely along the Missouri with its Indian delegations, if any? How, indeed, could they purchase what they themselves would need for this last leg of their journey home?

Horses—perhaps they could provide the answers. [1] Horses could he traded for food and merchandise at the Hidatsa-Mandan villages. Properly manipulated, they might even be the key to making peace with the Sioux—if the Canadian fur trader, Hugh Heney, could he induced to come to the Americans' aid. A native of Montreal, Heney had become associated in the fur trade with another Canadian, Regis Loisel, head of the Spanish-licensed Missouri Company, operating out of St. Louis. In the strangely intricate ways of commerce, Heney also was connected with the North West Company of Canada. His base, when Lewis and Clark had encountered him at the Mandan villages during the winter of 1804—5, had been one of the Nor'Westers' trading posts on the Assiniboine River.

He had been very cordial with the captains. He had showed Clark Indian maps of the country west of the Mandan towns. He had given Lewis a plant reputedly useful as an antidote to the bites of rattlesnakes and rabid wolves—a specimen so curious that Lewis had sent it to Jefferson, with a special note, when the keelboat went back down the river in April 1805. [2]

During the Corps's recuperative pause at Traveler's Rest, June 30 through July 2, 1806, Lewis composed a long letter to Heney while sitting under a net to protect himself from mosquitos. The letter offered Heney a job pacifying the Teton Sioux, whom the Canadian knew well through his trading. If he succeeded—that is, if he freed the Missouri from harassment by the Sioux—he could look forward to being appointed U.S. Indian agent, salary $111 a month, at a trading post to be built at the mouth of the Cheyenne River, assuming the government followed Lewis and Clark's recommendations. As a part of the pacification program, Heney should persuade several influential Sioux chieftains to accompany the captains "to the U. States, where they will have an ample view of our population and resources . . . and on their return convince their nations of the futility of an attempt to oppose the will of our government." [3]

That was where the horses came in. As soon as Clark's detachment reached the Yellowstone and no longer needed the animals, they would be entrusted to several soldiers under Sergeant Pryor for delivery to the North West Company post on the Assiniboine. Heney could use twelve of them for purchasing the presents needed to win the good will of the Sioux. He could use three more for mounting himself and whomever he hired to help reach the Sioux camps. He would receive a dollar a day salary and all expenses while he was on this mission, regardless of whether or not he won the Sioux over. The captains would use whatever animals were left over for their own needs.

What the letter did not say, though Heney could fill in the silence well enough from his own knowledge, was that the Hidatsa and Mandan emissaries the captains hoped to enlist for a downriver trip would be more willing to go along if they knew the Sioux had embraced American peace overtures. And then the letter did say that the expedition had reached the mouth of the Columbia and that its planned exploration of a river they had named Maria's would soon push the American presence close to British claims along the Saskatchewan. The United States, in other words, was on the move and Britain's fur traders should know it. Yet they expected Heney to cooperate on an American plan concerning the Sioux. There always was a certain naiveté in Lewis and Clark's diplomatic thinking.

Clark was to carry the letter to Heney with him until he needed to hand it over to Sergeant Pryor for delivery, along with the horses, to the Canadian trader. (At the time of Pryor's departure, which would occur somewhere along the Yellowstone, Clark would make a copy for his records.) Between them Pryor and Heney would decide on a place for meeting the expedition and reporting on results—perhaps even in the country of the Teton Sioux.

Arrangements completed, Lewis started north down the Bitterroot River toward Hellgate. Clark's much larger party reined north up the stream, riding and driving a total of forty-nine horses and one colt. In his group were black York, Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and her eighteen-month-old son Jean Baptiste, called Pomp by Clark. On this trip Charbonneau achieved a role of his own. Clark identified him not just as an interpreter but, specifically, as an interpreter for the Crows, the only major tribe with whom the expedition as yet had had no contact. Until the Crows received the American message, the explorers' survey of the upper Missouri River basin would not be complete.

It was a beautiful season for riding along the Bitterroot Valley. To the east were the high, rhythmic swells of the Sapphire Range; to the west, the jagged summits of the Bitterroot Mountains, culminating in what became known as Trapper's Peak. At 10,153 feet above sea level it rose more than a mile higher than the lush, well-watered valley floor with its "great variety of Sweet cented plants, flowers, and grass." The only disruptions to the serenity were the swollen streams that plunged out of the western range. The water was so swift that when the riders forded the creeks, the current hit the horses broadside with such force that it billowed over the backs of the smaller animals, wetting the baggage and causing more of what by then must have seemed interminable stops to dry the contents.

Late in the afternoon of July 5 they reached Ross's Hole, the lovely basin where they had met the Flatheads the year before. At that time the Indians had told them of a trail across the Continental Divide to the Beaverhead that would eliminate the arduous crossing to the Salmon River and the long ride to Lemhi Pass. Though it was a cold shortcut—hard frosts at night in July—it confronted the riders with neither steep, rocky climbs nor down timber, and it saved them two days of riding, by Clark's estimate. The enormous vistas of the Big Hole Basin were stimulating, the camas lilies were beginning to touch the meadows with spots and streamers of blue, and Sacagawea, who as a child had visited the region with parties of Shoshoni root diggers, was able to point across the blue distance to gaps in the hills through which the explorers should make their way. On the afternoon of July 8, after covering 164 miles in six days, they reached the pond in which they had cached their dugouts the preceding August before tackling Lemhi Pass.

The first order of business was a frenzied unearthing of the caches by those who chewed tobacco, Clark among them. They'd not had a chew since leaving Fort Clatsop and the strain, Clark admitted, had been severe. After they had unearthed a few carrots of the stuff, Clark gave each man a tangled strand two feet long; the rest was boxed for carriage in the dugouts down the Missouri to the portage at Great Falls and, eventually, to a rendezvous with Lewis's equally tobacco-starved group somewhere near the mouth of the Marias.

Comfort restored, they dragged the boats out of the pond. They had wintered well and repairs were quickly made. A high wind dried out the wood overnight, and on the frigid morning of July 10—three-quarters of an inch of ice on a cooking pot—down the Beaverhead they went, some in the dugouts and some coursing the banks with the horses. In spite of sore-footed animals, headwinds, the snakelike windings of the river, and a pause to make paddles out of the dugout Clark had abandoned beside the stream the year before, the two units reached the Three Forks of the Missouri almost simultaneously at midday on July 13. The men must have bandied joyful remarks about the swiftness. The descent of the river from the caches had taken three and a half days; ascending the same stretch the previous year had required two and a half weeks.

They paused at Three Forks only long enough to rearrange the baggage according to destination. At 5:00 P.M. Ordway and nine men left in the dugouts for the Great Falls. At the same time Clark and eight volunteers, together with York and the Charbonneau family, turned the horse herd up the Gallatin toward the Yellowstone, or, as Clark persistently wrote the name, the Rochejhone, his version of the French Roche Jaune. As they traveled, he noted several buffalo and Indian trails leading toward a pronounced gap in the mountains eastward and some eighteen miles distant from where they were. He asked Sacagawea if they should go that way. She said no, the pass they wanted lay farther south—Bozeman Pass, to use its current name. A "great service," Clark commented. From that and a few other expressions of appreciation has sprung the overblown legend of Sacagawea the pathfinder. More statues, most of them showing her with her child on her back and her index finger pointing ahead, have been erected to her, it is said, than to any other American woman. These remarks are not intended to depreciate her charm and patient fortitude as a person.

The next day they floundered through a welter of marshes created by the overflowing of beaver ponds, worked up a fork of the Gallatin River into the mouth of the pass, and camped. [4] At two in the afternoon of the following day they reached the Yellowstone slightly below the gateway where it breaks swiftly and spectacularly out of the mountains. When Shannon killed a fat bull buffalo twenty-four hours later, Clark devised a way of shoeing some of the sore-footed, far-traveled horses. He had the men cut the hide into pieces and make round bags for fitting over the hoofs of the lamest animals.

It had been the party's intention to make dugouts out of cottonwood trees as soon as they reached the river. The trees in the bottomlands were too small, however. They discussed making substitute boats out of buffalo hides and flexible willow poles, like those they had seen Hidatsa and Mandan women paddling up and down the Missouri near their villages. But the Yellowstone's current looked dangerously swift, capable of carrying them without warning into rapids they could not manage in the fragile craft. So on they rode, driving the extra horses with them, looking for suitable trees and finding none, but marveling at such staggering numbers of buffalo, antelope, elk, and deer that Clark gave up trying to estimate how many. The tally was "increditable. I shall therefore be silent on the subject further." [5]

The problem of boats came to a head on July 18, some seventy-five miles down the river from the point where the cavalcade had first struck it. While running full speed after a buffalo, Charbonneau's horse stepped into a badger hole and catapulted the rider to the ground. He was not seriously hurt, but might have been. How would they have transported him then? Later that day, George Gibson forced the question. As he was trying to mount after killing a deer, his horse whirled and he fell backward onto a snag whose fire-blackened point drove two inches into "the Muskeler part of his thy." Clark dressed the wound, almost as rough a procedure as the piercing, and that night pain kept Gibson from sleeping. The next morning he could not ride, though the men padded his saddle with a buffalo robe and blankets and put him on the gentlest horse in the bunch. If the party was to avoid a long delay while he healed, they would have to build a boat in which he could stretch out. [6]

A diligent search through the groves in the nearby bottomlands revealed no cottonwood big enough for the dugout Clark had in mind. (While combing the woods, the searchers did see a plume of smoke in the distance, but paid it little heed.) Of necessity Clark turned to what was available and had his axmen hew out of smaller trees a pair of canoes twenty-eight feet long, sixteen inches deep, and from sixteen to twenty-four inches wide. When the slim little craft were finished, he had them lashed together for greater stability.

The horses were sloppily guarded at night during the construction period, in spite of the smoke plume. On the morning of July 21, the camp awoke to find half the animals gone—stolen by Indians who knew their business, for they had either led or driven the horses in almost total silence across land so dry and hard their tracks could not be followed. Well, at least enough still remained to fund Heney's work with the Sioux.

While the canoes were being loaded, Clark made a copy of the letter to the Canadian trader and then handed the original to Sergeant Pryor for delivery. Privates Shannon and Windsor were assigned to help him drive the herd first to the Mandan villages and, if necessary, on to the Assiniboine. Three men, it developed, were not enough for the job. Most of the horses had been trained by the Shoshoni and Nez Percé for buffalo hunting. Whenever they saw a herd of the shaggy beasts, they took after them pell-mell. Totally exasperated, Pryor and his men drove the horses back to the river, intercepted the dugout, and asked for an additional man who could ride far ahead of the remuda to chase buffalo out of the way. Hugh Hall, who could not swim and was nervous in the crowded double canoe, volunteered for the job. He was practically without clothing, a lack that would do on the river but not on horseback. So Clark gave him "one of my two remaining Shirts a par of [hip-high] leather Legins and 3 pr. of mockersons," and sent him on his way.

It was not a way that was calculated to reduce Hall's fear of water. Two days after the quartet had left the main group, Indians stole the rest of the horses. Desperate, the four whites pursued the raiders afoot, gave up, and returned to their camp. Packing their gear on their backs, they struck for the river. Their first plan was to build a single leather boat, the hair still on the hide, that all four men could crowd into with their bits of baggage. But if that boat overturned and dumped them, their rifles, and their powder into the water, they would not be able to hunt for food. So they decided that in spite of their hurry to catch Clark, they had better construct two bull boats and divide themselves and their essential possessions between them.

Shannon produced the buffalo. From the skins they cut out circular pieces of hide big enough to form basins seven feet three inches in diameter at their tops. Each was sixteen inches deep. They tied inch-thick willows together to form, for each boat, two hoops, one for the top rim and a smaller one for the bottom. They crisscrossed fifteen inch-thick, flexible willow sticks to form the frame. They tied the pieces of frame to the rim and to each other where they crossed with leather thongs. They then waterproofed the surfaces with melted buffalo fat mixed with ashes. The sealing was not impervious; every night they would have to take the boats out of the water and turn them upside down to let the leather dry.

Down the Yellowstone they went, two men in each craft. The man in front knelt, reached over the rim, and drew his crudely whittled paddle toward him rather than working it off to the side. Paddles were used, too, to keep the round vessels from spinning. The second man, though also equipped with a paddle, acted mostly as ballast. Undoubtedly the men changed places from time to time, and one assumes Hugh Hall quickly learned how to manage his fear of water. They bobbed without trouble down one rapid where Clark, still far ahead, lined his double canoe through with ropes. Their only adventure came one night when a wolf slipped into the camp, bit the sleeping Pryor in the hand, and was swinging around to attack Windsor when Shannon awakened, grabbed his rifle, and put an end to that. Reading of the episode today, one suspects rabies. Pryor, however, showed no such symptoms, and his hand healed cleanly. [7]

His party reduced to nine persons by the departure of the horses, Clark's wooden dugouts floated briskly ahead on a fast current. The day after the parting from Pryor, he spotted a flat-topped butte rising in isolation from the bottomlands. Landing, he and the others walked through the tall grass and among the scattered trees to look it over. Sacagawea's baby was of toddling age by then, but she probably carried him to keep him from holding her back, for she was curious and wanted to see everything, just as she had wanted to see the beached whale on the Pacific shore. The butte, an odd erosional remnant, turned out to be four hundred paces in circumference. Its sides were gray, gritty cliffs two hundred feet high and unscalable except where they were broken on the northeastern side by a steep gully.

Clark clambered up the break with an unspecified number of his crew. Just below the rim, where Indians had left many petroglyphs, he carved his name and the date into the soft stone. (The graffiti, protected now, is still visible.) On top he found two Indian cairns and a delightful prospect of distant mountains and of "the extensive country around, and the emence herds of Buffalo, Elk and wolves in which it abounds." Did Sacagawea toil up that far with little Baptiste on her back? It is impossible to be sure. Still, it is intriguing to try to read Clark's mind at that particular moment. Lewis and he had already named streams for Charbonneau and Sacagawea. One or the other of them had named, or soon would name, other landmarks for every member of the expedition, including themselves and the dog Seaman. And suddenly William Clark thought "This rock . . . I shall call Pompy's [sic] Tower." Today it is called Pompey's [sic] Pillar through vague association with Pompey's Pillar in ancient Egypt. But William Clark meant Pomp, his nickname for little Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, of whom he had grown very fond. It is also the nickname he used many years later for one of his own sons. [8]

On they went, "glideing down this Smooth Stream passing maney Isld. and Several Creeks and brooks." The noise of buffalo at night so disturbed the men's sleep that they would jump up with shouts of rage and fire guns to scare the beasts away. They filled Clark with alarm lest the marching columns of them trample their boat to pieces. Occasionally the travelers had to sit on the banks while herds miles long swam across the river ahead of them. Elk were almost as numerous. Although Clark's count of the game killed is not always as specific as Lewis's, it is clear that in the presence of such animal wealth his party was equally unrestrained. They killed to get skins for shelter, for clothes, for trade. And for fun. Why not? They were living off the country, and all their exuberance after so many hungry days west of the divide was not making the slightest dent in the vast, rich life around them. Yet like frontiersmen throughout the continent they were helping create, bit by bit, an American attitude with each unnecessary shot they fired. One thinks of Africa today.

Each evening Clark wrote down his impressions of the countryside they had passed. He made detailed sketch maps of the part of the Yellowstone they covered. He noted seams of coal that might be useful sometime in the future. (This was near the Powder River, where many years later gargantuan machines would tear the ground apart, strip mining for energy.) He collected botanical and zoological specimens. One day he walked so far up the tributary Bighorn, wondering about its course, that on his return to camp he went straight to bed, too fatigued to eat. In anticipation of meeting roving parties of Crow Indians, he prepared an elaborate "Children" speech for them. His goal was to lure some of their chiefs to join him—and, he hoped, some Mandan and Hidatsa chiefs as well—for a visit to the great father, Thomas Jefferson, "and receive from his own mouth his good counsel and from his own hands abundant gifts." [9] No Crows rode to the riverbanks to greet the whites, however, for probably members of the tribe were the ones who had stolen the whites' horses and they were keeping out of sight. Their absence left a disappointing gap in the expedition's surveys.

On August 3, they entered the Missouri. There was no sign of Lewis. Strangely, there were no buffalo in the vicinity, either. But there were excruciating swarms of mosquitos. Looking for a place where the party could find more of the one and fewer of the other while they waited for Lewis, they drifted on.

At 8:00 A.M. on August 8, Clark was astonished to see Pryor and the horse herders come bobbing around a bend in two skin boats. With growing dismay he listened to their story. So much for Hugh Heney and the plan to quell the Sioux. And for the captains' hope of using the extra animals for buying from the Mandans corn, beans, and whatever else they needed for the rest of the trip to St. Louis. The only bargaining substitutes for the horses he could think of were deer- and elkskins. In order to provide as many as possible, he decided to lay over for a day and turn his hunters loose. He also built, at another camp farther down the river, a rack on which meat could be dried, for that commodity, too, had some trade value. [10]

Disturbing portents continued to pile up. On August 11, the contingent met the Illinois trappers, Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson. From them Clark picked up information that the wounded Lewis must also have learned but for some reason had failed to record. The pair said that they and a trader whose name Clark recorded as Ceautoin had spent the winter with the Tetons and had been ill treated. So that band was as bad as ever. The Mandans and Hidatsas, the trappers went on, were fighting with the Arikaras again. So much for the peace the captains thought they had established between those tribes during the spring of 1805. So much, too, for their hope of persuading influential Mandan and Hidatsa chiefs to run the Sioux gauntlet with the Corps in order to reach St. Louis and Washington. The mess looked bad, at least as the trappers described it. Yet the explorers had to tidy it up somehow, or the ambitious Indian program they had believed was in their grasp a year ago would evaporate. Well, at least they would have Lewis's persuasive oratory to rely on, or so Clark thought.

That comfort, too, collapsed when he rejoined Lewis's party and saw how disabling his friend's wounds were. Clearly Lewis would not be able to participate in the councils Clark felt had to be held when they reached the Hidatsa and Mandan villages a few days thence.

Indians riding along the bank saw them coming and spread the word. By the time the little fleet hove in sight, the river's edge was lined with crowds. Salutes of gunfire rattled back and forth. After pausing at the two lower Hidatsa towns to greet friends and prepare groundwork for the meetings, the whites moved on and camped between the clusters of dome-shaped, earth-covered huts that made up the Mandan towns. When the grand council assembled, Clark delivered the usual pitch about going "to see their great father and hear his good words & receve his bountiful gifts [Clark's emphasis]." The chiefs were amiable and heaped the visitors with gifts of corn. But whenever Clark thought one was on the point of agreeing to take the trip, minds changed. They feared the Sioux, they said, and did not believe Clark's insistence that he would keep them safe, both during the trip down and on their return. His nerves tightening, he scolded the Hidatsas for sending war parties against the Shoshoni in violation of their promise to be peaceful. (But where, except on the warpath, could a young man prove himself?) He was mocked in turn for boasting, during the Corps's first visit to the villages, that the Americans had won promises of good behavior from the allied Sioux and Arikaras when, in fact, warriors of those tribes had attacked people from the Hidatsa towns as if nothing had changed. (Could old alliances and ingrained hostilities be changed by words from the outside?)

In a final attempt to sway Le Borgne, the grand chief of Big Hidatsa town, Clark fired off the swivel gun that had once been mounted on the keelboat but had proved unsuited to the white pirogue. He then ceremoniously gave the weapon and some powder to Le Borgne. The chief was delighted, but still declined to join the fleet. Clark must have felt totally frustrated. Were the failures somehow his? There is no evidence that Lewis attended any of the councils (as yet he could not walk) or that he would have made any difference if he had. The two cultures, red and white, were talking on different levels.

At some point during the verbal seesawing, Clark may have created trouble for himself by making a reckless promise to Toussaint Charbonneau. He told him that if any Hidatsa chiefs joined the expedition, he would hire Charbonneau as interpreter. Charbonneau, furthermore, could bring Sacagawea and his son Pomp along. If he chose to remain near civilization at the end of the trip,Clark would help him find employment. Sacagawea merited a reward for her services to the Corps, and "As for your little Son (my boy Pomp) you well know of my fondness for him and my anxiety to take him and raise him as my own child." When no Hidatsas would agree to go along, the proposal died. Clark, however, offered to take Pomp down without his parents, educate him, and help him become a trader. It was an obtuse statement for him to make at the time, for he must have noticed that the child, in keeping with Indian custom, was not yet weaned though nineteen months old by then. The parents declined. Next year, perhaps.... [11]

Quite possibly, that rascally trader to the Mandans, JRené essaume, learned of the proposal. Anyway, he was prepared when Clark, trying to salvage some crumb from the councils, asked his help in persuading a Mandan chief to join the trip. If René was successful, he would be hired to go along as interpreter. Jessaume responded with a vengeance. He won over Sheheke (Big White), a chief of the lowest village and a friend from the days of the Mandan wintering, by promising that the Americans would transport not only Sheheke and his wife and son but also Jessaume's wife and two children. "we were obliged to agree," Clark wrote angrily, with no way of foreseeing that a few years later the bargain would help bring about Meriwether Lewis's death.

One last parting remained. The trappers Dickson and Hancock had followed the explorers to the villages, hoping at first to prevail on some French-Canadian voyageur to join them as helper. The plan shifted when they talked to John Colter. Stirred by his stories, they asked whether he could obtain an early discharge from the army and join them as a partner. Forgetting the joys of civilization, which perhaps were not joys to him, Colter said he'd try. The captains, feeling his exceptional work on the trip had earned him this opportunity, agreed—with one proviso, which they explained at a meeting of the men. Colter would be free to go if no other enlisted man asked for a release before the expedition arrived at St. Louis. The soldiers shouted compliance; everyone, Lewis and Clark included, chipped in to give the new civilian traps and supplies, and away he paddled with his new friends. Where the trio wintered is unknown. Dickson and Hancock vanish from the records, but during the next few years John Colter became one of the heroic figures in that surge of trappers and traders—the mountain men—who were the true pathfinders of the American West.

On August 17, having fastened two dugouts together with poles and having perhaps put a platform on the poles as a houseboat of sorts for Sheheke's and Jessaume's families, the Corps of Discovery left the villages, bucking high waves created by the unremitting winds of the plains. The 19th turned out to be a red-letter day. "Capt. Lewis'es wounds," Clark wrote, "are healing very fast, I am in hope of his being able to walk in 8 or 10 days." Later, when the party camped, Jessaume, after eyeing an approaching rain cloud, loaned Clark a piece of a tepee. The two Indian women "Stretched it over Some Sticks, under this piece of leather I Slept dry, it is the only covering which I have had Sufficient to keep off rain Since I left the Columbia." The next morning, following a downpour at dawn, he boasted smugly, "all wet except myself and the Indians." [12] Sleeping wet and cold during four months and more than fifteen hundred miles of travel through frequent and often violent storms—of such glum realities are high adventures made.

They were moving fast now. On the 21st, a short distance upstream from the Arikara towns, they met three French traders, one of whom, a mere lad, they let join them as an oarsman. From the others they learned that, yes, JoeGravelines had taken an Arikara chief downstream on the keelboat in the spring of 1805, as scheduled. Rumor said the chief had died somewhere in the United States; anyway, he had not returned home. Bad news, but in spite of it the captains were determined to meet Jefferson's instructions by rounding up a few more Arikara chiefs to travel East with them, for the Arikaras occupied strategic sites along the riverbanks and, unless they were turned into allies, could cause trouble to future traders. After ordering the men to check their guns, on they went to the Indians' towns.

It was another fruitless meeting despite considerable puffing of smoke and exchanging of gifts. Both the Arikara chiefs and Big White, the latter speaking for the Mandans, blamed the Sioux for breaking the peace. But, they all said solemnly, their ears were open now; they understood what the Americans were saying; there would be no more trouble. As for visiting the Great Father, not yet. First they wanted to talk to the chief who had been there. Clark carefully refrained from mentioning the rumor he had heard, and found solace by spreading the Corps's message to a band of wild Cheyennes from the Black Hills who were visiting the Arikaras to trade. No, they'd not visit the Great Father, either. But they had many beaver in their land and would be glad if Americans visited them. [13] That, at least, was a small gain.

On the 22d Lewis walked for the first time; on the 27th, pushing himself too hard with characteristic impatience, he broke the wounds open and was immobilized again. So when they sighted the first Teton Sioux on August 30, Clark had to set the whites' course of action alone, except for the assistance of Cruzatte and Labiche, who knew a smattering of the Sioux language. There were eighty or ninety of them, mounted, silhouetted strongly on the skyline across the river from the explorers' anchored boats. Clark meant to keep them at a distance, but he also wanted them to know how he regarded them: they were the spoilers of all he and Lewis had worked for on the upper Missouri. He rowed in a small canoe with his interpreters to a sandbar in midstream. Several Indians rode to the water's edge on their side of the stream. Dismounting, three young men swam to the bar. Grimly Clark cut off their overtures. Using some of the signs he had learned and letting Cruzatte and Labiche supply such words as they knew, he used the trio as a conduit for roasting the entire tribe. Even Black Buffalo, who had acted with more restraint than any of the other Indians of the Teton band during the confrontation of two years ago, was unacceptable, and the encounter ended with threats, insults, and jangled nerves all around. [14]

Except for a brief meeting with some noisy Yankton Sioux, it was their last significant encounter with Indians. Travel grew tiresome, partly because of the crew's own impatience to reach home. The heat was often suffocating. Repeatedly Clark complained to his journal, "Musquetors troublesom." Lightning storms flared. Buffalo disappeared; deer and elk, whose presence could not always be depended on, became the main source of food. The Indian passengers fussed; the children cried. But by September 9, "My worthy friend Cap Lewis has entirely recovered ... can walk and run nearly as well as ever he could." [15]

As they neared and then passed the mouth of the Platte, they encountered increasing numbers of traders whom they hungrily asked for news of the outside world. On September 12, at about the point where the city of St. Joseph, Missouri, now stands they met a party of old friends. Joe Gravelines was one; Pierre Dorion, the Sioux interpreter whom they had commissioned to take some Yankton Sioux, Omaha, Oto, and Missouri chiefs to St. Louis and Washington, was another. The third was Robert McClellan, an army scout who had gained a deserved reputation for derring-do during the Indian wars in the Ohio country. [*] The three were associated in a common project that spelled one more defeat for Lewis and Clark.

Gravelines told the story. After a debilitating illness and fits of indecision in St. Louis, the missing Arikara chief had gone to Washington with twenty-seven other Indians, traveling by rented horse, boat, and stagecoach. No, those others had not been the Otos, Missouris, Omahas, and Yankton Sioux Dorion had collected for the trip. Dorion's Indians, stranded in red tape, some of them ill, and all of them bored, had finally left St. Louis for home. Better if the Arikara had followed suit. He died during the Washington jaunt. Worried about the repercussions this might have on the tribe, Jefferson had sent Gravelines back up the river with a letter of condolence to the tribe and three hundred dollars' worth of presents for the chief's family and influential friends. Dorion had been hired to help Gravelines pass the unruly Teton Sioux and, if possible, recruit new chiefs to replace those who had dropped out in 1805. McClellan was going along with a few soldiers as bodyguard. He was instructed to search for some trace of the Lewis and Clark expedition, of whom nothing had been heard for more than a year. [16]

The newly found captains had no way of foreseeing, of course, how these frayed Indian junkets they had been instrumental in launching would come back to haunt them. After spending the night with their friends, the Corps rose early, downed a dram McClellan provided for everyone—they had been dry for a long, long time—and set out a little after sunrise, pummeled by headwinds as they worked through an "eme[n]city of Snags" and sawyers. More traders hailed them and, learning who they were, offered the soldiers all the liquor they could drink, which was considerable. Hunting grew poor. Soon they had no food other than a few "buiskits" and papaws they gathered in the hot bottomlands. Then only papaws remained. Never mind: home was close: "the party appear perfectly contented, and tell us they can live very well on papaws."

Endless sun glare on water: on September 20, three of the crew were unable to row "from the state of their eyes." Accordingly the captains abandoned the double canoe Clark had built on the River Rochejhone and put the three ailing members in other dugouts. Their companions, "being extreemly anxious to get down ply their oars very well." As they neared La Charette, westernmost village on the Missouri River, "we saw cows on the bank [plain, ordinary, wonderful cows] which caused a shout to be raised for joy." Springing to their oars, they soon reached the village itself and swung in beside five trading barges tied to the bank. Because the men were in the army still, they requested permission to fire a three-round salute, with cheers. Granted. Villagers poured to the docks, dumbfounded. Back from the Pacific! "every person, both French and americans seem to express great pleasure at our return"—but not so much pleasure that the tavernkeeper neglected to charge eight dollars, in cash, for two gallons of whiskey the captains bought for the men. An imposition, Clark grumbled to his diary.

Because another rain threatened, the citizens opened their doors to the soldiers. Lewis and Clark accepted the invitation of two Scotch traders, James Reed and Ramsay Crooks, who later became field manager of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, to share dinner with them and sleep in their tent. [17]

Clark does not say so, but there must have been endless questions. Places that before had been names too dim even to picture—upper Missouri, Yellowstone, Great Falls, Rockies, Columbia—what were they like? What of their plants and animals? Their people?

The rain thrummed on the canvas. The candle guttered. Those sky-filling peaks, snowy even in the summer, the buffalo herds, trees so big it was an affront to the listeners to expect them to believe what they heard, Indians skimming the stormy seas in a way to put white boatmen to shame—how was it possible to make them comprehend?

But somehow, and very soon, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were going to have to find ways to tell President Jefferson and the American Philosophical Society, and, indeed, the whole nation just what was out there in the West.


1. I assume and perhaps oversimplify the steps by which the captains arrived at this idea. But since they do not say how the notion developed, "educated guesswork" seems to be the only substitute. (back)
2. Jackson, Letters, 214n, 220–21. Nasatir, Before Lewis and Clark , 112–14. (back)
3. Jackson, Letters, 309–13. (back)
4. V, 260. Clark's journal says his party traveled 4 miles before camping. His "Course Distance" gives 6 miles. He estimates the distance from Three Forks to the Yellowstone as 48 miles. It is about 40. Throughout the Yellowstone exploration Clark overestimated distances, sometimes by as much as one hundred percent. (V, 262, 264; Brown, 35.) (back)
5. V, 290. (back)
6. V, 272–76. (back)
7. V, 325–26. (back)
8. Bakeless, Lewis and Clark , 349–50. (back)
9. V, 299–301. (back)
10. Clark tucks into the middle of his diary entry for August 10 an exact copy of the description of a "singular cherry," with which the wounded Lewis, lying on his stomach, closed his entry of August 12. Although the wording is definitely Lewis's, my hunch is that Clark spotted the plant ("I found a Sepies of Cherry ..." he wrote) and took along a sprig to show his friend. Later, while bringing his notes up to date, he borrowed Lewis's botanical description of what was Clark's discovery. (V, 243–44, 328.) (back)
11. The councils: V, 338–46; Biddle, III, 775–81; Ronda, 244–48. Clark's interest in Charbonneau's family: V, 344; Jackson, Letters, 315–16. (back)
12. V, 348–49. (back)
13. V, 349–57. (back)
14. V, 365–68. (back)
15. V, 380. (back)
16. V, 382–83. Jackson, Letters, 242–43, 261. Lavender, Fist, 64, 72. (back)
17. V, 389–90. Lavender, Fist, 78, 80. (back)
*. Robert McClellan first heard of the Columbia from the captains that September, as did Ramsay Crooks, a young Scot whom they would meet a week later at La Charette. In 1811 both Crooks and McClellan went to the Columbia on a nearly disastrous trip with a group of overland Astorians. (back)