Lewis & Clark among the Indians 1. The Voyage Begins

James P. Ronda© 1984University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London
"In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and
conciliatory manner which their own conduct will permit."
Thomas Jefferson, "Instructions to Lewis, June, 1803"

The Indian relations of the Lewis and Clark expedition began long before the explorers nosed their boats into the Missouri current and headed upriver. Thomas Jefferson knew that as his explorers moved over the visible world of rivers, mountains, and plains, they would also pass through a more important world—a sometimes invisible universe of Indian politics and European rivalries. He grasped what so often escaped others, that the American West was a crowded wilderness. Although nudged by reading Alexander Mackenzie, Jefferson did not need the dour Scot to tell him that lands from St. Louis to the great western sea were neither empty nor unclaimed. The political and economic face of the land had already been transformed by a generation of intense competition between tribal peoples and agents of Spain, France, and Great Britain. The president understood at least the outlines and implications of that struggle and the place of a latecoming American republic in it. If the Lewis and Clark expedition was to be successful, whether for science, commerce, or statecraft, it would need to navigate through troubled Indian waters.

From the beginning, Jefferson sought to fashion an expedition capable of gathering valuable information about western Indians while living at peace with them. That search became plain as he drafted instructions for his young secretary, Meriwether Lewis. The president loved questionnaires. He used them to explore new areas of knowledge and then to organize what he had learned. Jefferson's only published book, Notes on Virginia, was written in response to a questionnaire from the French diplomat and scientist François Barbé-Marbois and retained the question-and-answer form in its chapters. [1] Jefferson's instructions to Lewis were a series of interlocking questions ranging from mineralogy to medicine. The ethnographic queries covered nearly every aspect of Indian life, including languages, customs, occupations, diseases, and morals.

Where did those very precise questions come from? The traditional answer has been that the Indian objectives pursued by Lewis and Clark reflected Jefferson's lifelong fascination with native American cultures. But there was more than one mind and one set of motives behind the expedition's Indian questions and its general policy toward native people. Early in 1803 Jefferson began to write friends both in and out of government asking their aid and advice for his western enterprise. In February he wrote three prominent Philadelphia scientists, Caspar Wistar, Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, and Dr. Benjamin Rush, asking each to prepare some thoughts "in the lines of botany, zoology, or of Indian history which you think most worthy of inquiry and observation." [2]

Even before his consultants submitted their questions, Jefferson began to prepare a preliminary draft of the instructions. By mid-April 1803 he was ready to circulate it among certain cabinet members for their responses. The remarks of Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin focused on western geography and the future expansion of the United States. Later in his career Gallatin made a major contribution in collecting and systematizing Indian material in his "Synopsis of the Indian Tribes." But just how much he had to do with framing the expedition's Indian questions remains unclear. [3] On the other hand, the reply from Attorney General Levi Lincoln clearly influenced Jefferson's thinking. This important member of Jefferson's official family has not received much attention from students of western exploration. Lincoln, an able New England lawyer and a skillful Republican politician, understood that the expedition served many purposes. Lincoln's April 17 letter to Jefferson suggests that the early draft of instructions he saw contained very little about Indians. To remedy this deficiency, Lincoln urged Jefferson to include questions about tribal religions, native legal practice, concepts of property ownership, and Indian medical procedures. Although Jefferson was acquainted with smallpox inoculation, it appears that Lincoln was the first to suggest that Lewis take some cowpox matter along to administer to the Indians. If they were to have extensive contact with whites, they needed to be protected against smallpox. Dead Indians could not participate in an American trade network and dying natives could only blame the explorers for spreading disease. The attorney general's suggestions were of major importance, although he made them more out of political expediency than scientific curiosity. Lincoln was very sensitive to Federalist opposition to the journey, and indeed to any American westward expansion. He realized that the administration would need to justify the expedition on the high ground of science if it failed. [4]

Levi Lincoln's helpful comments sharpened Jefferson's focus on Indians. That focus was further enlarged and refined in May 1803 when Benjamin Rush gave Lewis a detailed list of ethnographic queries. In 1774 Rush had presented a long paper before the American Philosophical Society titled "Natural History of Medicine among the Indians of North America." That discourse presented his thoughts on all physical aspects of Indian life from diet and hygiene to sexual performance and pregnancy. [5] The same wide range of interests was evident in a list Rush prepared for the expedition. That document was divided into three sections, with medical concerns predictably taking first place. Under the heading "Physical history & medicine," Rush proposed twenty separate questions. He asked the explorers to record Indian eating, sleeping, and bathing habits as well as native diseases and remedies. The Philadelphia savant wanted to know when Indians married, how long children were breast fed, and how long they lived. Rush even urged Lewis to find time to check Indian pulse rates morning, noon, and night both before and after they ate.

Rush's interests went well beyond medicine, encompassing Indian customs and values as well. The second part of Rush's list included four questions touching on crime, suicide, and intoxication. His third section probed native American worship practices, sacred objects, and burial rituals. Like so many other European and American scientists, Rush was fascinated by Indian religions. Moreover, he believed, as did many of his contemporaries, that studies of Indian languages and religious ceremonies might prove or disprove a very old and persistent notion about the origin of native people. A widespread academic theory held that Indians might constitute one of the lost tribes of the children of Israel. If the Mandans were misplaced Welshmen, as so many thought, why not see if there were any Jewish Indians in the West? [6]

By June 1803 Jefferson had before him all the suggestions from fellow scientists and government officials. He also had delivered in January the confidential message to Congress that justified the expedition on grounds of extending the Indian trade. He could draw on instructions written for the abortive Michaux expedition a decade before. [7] Sometime during June, Jefferson synthesized these documents into a final draft of instructions for the expedition—instructions that now contained detailed questions in seventeen areas of Indian life and culture. Those questions covered everything from language and law to trade and technology. The explorers were to record what Indians wore, what they ate, how they made a living, and what they believed in. In short, Jefferson told Lewis: "You will therefore endeavor to make yourself acquainted as far as a diligent pursuit of your journey shall admit, with the names of the nations & their numbers." [8]

Jefferson's reasons for converting two army officers and at least some of their companions into ethnographers were central to the many purposes of the journey. One of those aims linked exploration and business enterprise to national expansion. Finding the passage to the Pacific was supposed to yield financial rewards. "The commerce," wrote Jefferson, "which may be carried on with the people inhabiting the line you will pursue, renders a knolege of those people important." [9] The president did not fully understand the complex character of trade systems already functioning on the northern plains and in the Pacific Northwest. But he was intent on expanding American commercial influence. Jefferson knew that fur traders and other eager entrepreneurs needed to know about future markets and sources of supply. He envisioned western America as a vast trade empire to rival a similar system already being forged by agents of the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. If the United States was to compete in the great western space race, Indians needed to be wooed away from John Bull's Canadian traders and written into the ledger books of Uncle Sam's St. Louis merchants.

But there was something else behind Jefferson's requirement that the Lewis and Clark expedition be an ethnographic enterprise—something beyond sea otters and beaver pelts. Lewis and Clark were to gather material for another empire—the empire of the mind, the kingdom of knowledge. Like his friends at the American Philosophical Society, Jefferson wanted the expedition to make a lasting contribution toward the scientific understanding of North America. That was what he meant when he described the venture as a "literary expedition." The knowledge was not to be gathered by the explorers for its own sake, however, but in the service of government and commerce.

Finally, and not to be overlooked, there was Jefferson's vision of the future of the American republic. He believed that accurate information about Indians was essential in order to shape a peaceful environment for both peoples. The desire for fact to replace speculation about native Americans was nothing new in Jefferson's mind. From boyhood he had had a passionate interest in things Indian. "In the early part of my life," he wrote, "I was very familiar with the Indians, and acquired impressions of attachment and commiseration for them which have never been obliterated." [10] Jefferson's fascination with Indian life and lore was part boyish curiosity and part scientific enquiry, all bound up in the optimistic notion that if native Americans surrendered their traditional "savage" ways and adopted a white "civilized" life, both peoples could enjoy the continent in peace. "Acuiqre what knolege you can of [their] state of morality, religion & information" was the way Jefferson put it to Lewis. [11] It was a Jeffersonian fundamental that if the two peoples knew each other more fully, each would treat the other with respect and consideration. Ethnography could make federal policy better informed and hence more humane. With an optimism based more on Enlightenment faith than American reality, Jefferson assumed that a benevolent government would use such information to civilize and Christianize Indians. Whether or not native people would welcome the spiritual and cultural blessings of European civilization was, of course, the unasked question.

Ethnographical research was neither the prime nor the sole duty of the expedition. Jefferson wanted his explorers to take their scientific tasks seriously as they collected information and artifacts, but he had much more in mind. As representatives of the United States, Lewis and Clark were expected to pursue the Indian policy goals of the republic. By 1803 those goals for the tribes east of the Mississippi were quite clear. Reflecting long colonial experience, federal Indian policy sought to acquire native lands at low cost while urging tribal people to shuck off hunting and breechcloths for plows and trousers. Couched in the language of Christian philanthropy, Jeffersonian Indian policy pursued national expansion with single-minded zeal. But in the West of the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson was less certain of both policy and strategy. Those new lands were for traders, not white settlers. They might even provide refuge for native people dispossessed by the farming frontier.

Jefferson's different approaches to tribes east and west of the Mississippi are plain in the language he used in addressing delegations from the various regions. In speaking to eastern delegations the president always coupled his program for civilization with land acquisition. To western delegations, including those organized by Lewis and Clark, trade was the prime focus. When Jefferson drafted instructions for Lewis in 1803, negotiations with France were underway but the outcome was yet unclear. For that reason the diplomatic objectives enumerated in the directions for Lewis focused on trade while tactfully ignoring questions of power and sovereignty. The expedition was ordered to acquaint Indians with "the position, extent, character, peaceable and commercial disposition of the United States, and of our dispositions to a commercial intercourse with them." The factory system, a chain of government trading posts, had been an integral part of American policy since the mid-1780s. Jefferson knew that attractive goods and suitable post locations were essential in the face of powerful British competition. For that reason Lewis was told to confer with Indians on "the points most convenient as mutual emporiums" as well as "the articles of most desirable interchange for them and us." [12]

Jefferson expected that Lewis and Clark would hold frequent conferences with Indians. But he also knew that the rigorous demands of travel made extensive talks impossible. Therefore Lewis was instructed to organize delegations of chiefs and elders to be sent to Washington. Just as colonial Indian agents once sent Mohawks and Cherokees to London, Jefferson assumed that Omahas and Sioux in the Federal City would be properly impressed with the wealth and power of the new nation. And in an afterthought whose origins looked back to the earliest days of Indian-European encounter, the president hoped the expedition might find some young Indians willing to be "brought up with us, and taught such arts as may be useful to them." It was a dream that had haunted missionary and bureaucrat alike—native children gladly leaving their parents to embrace new fathers.

The creation of Indian delegations and a search for good trade sites were as close as Jefferson got in June 1803 to giving his explorers explicitly imperial and political directives. Although his commitment to an expanding nation was already plain, Jefferson was not about to give Lewis and Clark instructions that violated territorial bounds as they existed before the Louisiana Purchase. The spread of American commercial influence would be quite sufficient. But once the purchase was diplomatic reality, announcing American sovereignty to native people became a vital part of the expedition's Indian policy. Parts of Jefferson's January 22, 1804, letter to Lewis can be seen as an appendix to the original instructions. Lewis and Clark were now formally to extend American power up the Missouri and toward the mountains. Jefferson's own words indicate how much the diplomatic role of the expedition had expanded since the summer of 1803:

Being now become sovereigns of the country, without however any diminution of the Indian rights of occupancy we are authorized to propose to them in direct terms the institution of commerce with them. It will now be proper you should inform those through whose country you will pass, or whom you may meet, that their late fathers the Spaniards have agreed to withdraw all their troops from all the waters and country of the Mississippi and Missouri, that they have surrendered to us all their subjects Spanish and French settled there, and all their posts and lands: that henceforward we become their fathers and friends, and that we shall endeavor that they shall have no cause to lament the change.

In that same letter Jefferson gave Lewis the only order specifically naming a tribe and the policy to be pursued with it. The president drew on sources that included Jonathan Carver's Travels through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768 (1778) and Alexander Mackenzie's Voyages . . . to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans (1801). More immediate information came from St. Louis contacts. Jefferson recognized the central role played by Sioux Indians in Missouri Valley trade and politics. He did not know the full complexity of the system that bound together British traders, Sioux hunters, and village farmers, nor did he realize just how far west Sioux power had expanded. But the president did know that a Sioux blockade on the Missouri could strangle an American fur trade empire based in St. Louis. "On that nation," he commanded Lewis, "we wish most particularly to make a favorable impression, because of their immense power." Jefferson's claim that the Sioux bands were "very desirous of being on the most friendly terms with us" was mostly wishful thinking. But that exercise in hope ultimately pointed the expedition toward what proved a nearly fatal confrontation with the Brulé Sioux. [13]

The expedition's success ultimately depended on friendly relations with the Indians. Jefferson was not about to unleash undisciplined adventurers to ride roughshod over them. Hostility between explorers and Indians could only endanger lives and weaken American influence. Jefferson knew firsthand what historian Charles Royster has written about American army officers in the late eighteenth century. Those men "saw threats and slights everywhere and reacted with fury." [14] Fear of overreaction, especially on the part of Meriwether Lewis, was also on Levi Lincoln's mind when he counseled Jefferson to avoid instructions that might lead the young officer to risk his life unnecessarily. "From my ideas of Capt. Lewis," wrote Lincoln, "he will be much more likely, in case of difficulty, to push too far, than to recede too soon" Jefferson saw the wisdom in Lincoln's comments and changed the sentence in the instructions that once contained the phrase "certain destruction" to read instead "we value too much the lives of our citizens to offer them to probable destruction." [15] Jefferson had shown considerable wisdom in making the exploration a military affair with proper organization and discipline. But he did not want the bumps and bruises of wilderness travel and encounters with strangers to provoke fatal overreaction. "In all your intercourse with the natives treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will permit." That advice was not intended to understate the potential dangers or deny the expedition the ability to defend itself. Jefferson understood the hazards. What he feared was that after months of hardship and frustration, some small incident might touch off a sudden burst of violence. Lewis and Clark were not to court self-destruction nor were they to wreak destruction on others. Survival would mean at least partial success; a glorious but futile death whether by accident or at the hands of an unknown foe would spell real failure.

Colonial experience taught that fruitful diplomacy and peaceful relations with native people required the exchange of gifts at each meeting. French and English forest diplomats learned that lesson early and did their best to offer goods of substance and quality. While some Europeans may have perceived those gifts as bribes to ensure compliance with treaty terms, heaps of blankets, pots, and guns meant something else to the Indians. In the act of reciprocal gift giving, different peoples symbolized their concern for each other. Neglecting to give gifts meant failure to "brighten the chain of friendship" that bound Europeans and Indians together. Giving and receiving soothed hurt feelings and reestablished broken relations. By the time Jefferson created the Corps of Discovery, gifts were a recognized part of the protocol of Indian diplomacy. To venture up the Missouri without a carefully selected store of goods was to challenge foolishly the river gods.

Lewis knew the gift-giving tradition and early in 1803 made note of funds to be set aside for presents for the Indians. In his initial tally of expedition costs, Lewis allocated $696 for trade goods. [16] Once in Philadelphia early in May 1803, he set about the task of locating and purchasing a wide variety of goods. In notes made on what might be obtained as trade items, Lewis demonstrated a sure grasp of frontier economics. Blue glass beads headed his list of most sought-after objects. It is probable that Lewis learned from sources in the Pacific Northwest fur trade that those beads were "far more valued than the white beads of the same manufacture and answer[ed] all the purposes of money." Second on his list were common brass buttons, which the same sources may have told him were "more valued than any thing except beads." The explorer was also determined to find red-handled knives of the sort used by North West Company traders. Axes, tomahawks, moccasin awls, and camp kettles rounded out Lewis's catalog of high priorities. In addition to those items, Lewis planned to purchase substantial quantities of wampum, tobacco, and textiles. Vermilion face paint, one hundred cheap rings with glass stones, and a number of pairs of scissors completed his stock of essentials. [17]

Using the services of Israel Whelan, purveyor of public supplies, and General William Irvine, superintendent of the Schuylkill Arsenel, Lewis was able to amass a substantial outfit of Indian goods. From merchants in and around Philadelphia came everything from 4,600 sewing needles and 500 brooches to 8 brass kettles and 2,800 fishhooks. There were stocks of hawks bells, thimbles, ruffled shirts, and eleven dozen of those red-handled knives. Lewis was to discover only later that there were not nearly enough blue beads or brass buttons, an oversight that cost the expedition dearly among the Nez Perce and Chinookan Indians. And at Jefferson's direct command there were two corn grinders. They were there, one might guess, for use in teaching native farmers how to make pone and grits. [18]

All of the gifts stowed in the expedition's luggage for transport to St. Louis had a purpose beyond diplomatic protocol. Those items, everything from ivory combs to calico shirts, represented what the United States offered to potential trading partners. As Jefferson repeated to every delegation of western Indians, Americans sought commerce, not land. Lewis and Clark were on the road to show American wares. The expedition was the mercantile and hardware display case for a trade empire on the move. Moccasin awls and brass kettles were as much symbols of American power as the medals and flags destined for headmen and warriors. Few of those manufactured products were new to Indians, but the promise of regular supplies and fair prices was bound to have some result. The Industrial Revolution had come to the Missouri Valley half a century before and it was equally well established on the Northwest coast. But Lewis and Clark, surrounded by bright mirrors and yards of red flannel, offered more than goods. They proposed membership in a system with well-established posts and dependable delivery schedules. And always in the background, visible but rarely mentioned, were guns and ammunition. Lewis and Clark did not carry a special supply of weapons to offer for trade or as gifts, but they were not reluctant to promise firearms to potential customers and allies. Although Jefferson and his explorers honestly pursued intertribal peace as a requisite to trade, arming friends seemed equally reasonable. What all those gifts represented was, in fact, the fundamental element in Jefferson's western Indian policy. Trade and diplomacy, commerce and sovereignty were all parts of the engine that drove American expansion and guided the Lewis and Clark expedition.

On a snowy day at the end of December 1803, William Clark moved into his hut at what has come to be known as Camp Dubois. Situated on Wood River across the Mississippi from St. Louis in present-day Illinois, the camp provided the Corps of Discovery with a convenient place to prepare for the first season of exploration. The winter of 1803–1804 at Camp Dubois was more than a time to fit an odd lot of soldiers and frontiersmen to the discipline Lewis and Clark believed essential for the expedition's success. The Wood River interlude allowed explorers time to gather and evaluate a large amount of information about the Missouri River Indians. That material, coming from St. Louis sources and from Jefferson himself constituted a crash course in Middle and Upper Missouri tribes: their numbers, locations, and possible reactions to the expedition.

No other city could have provided Jefferson's explorers with such a range and quality of information about the Indians. The currents of the Mississippi and Missouri brought to St. Louis not only pelts and skins but a vast store of knowledge and lore about the natives. Traders, merchants, government officers, and rough handed engagés all had experience that could prepare Lewis and Clark for their Indian duties. The explorers needed to enter quickly that St. Louis world and tap its resources. That meant cultivating a friendly relationship with the brothers Chouteau, Jean Pierre and René Auguste, who had come to dominate the Indian trade around St. Louis and were anxious to expand their influence under the new American regime. The Chouteaus and their circle of friends and relatives quickly sought out the explorers. Social calls at Pierre's house combined good food, friendly company, and valuable information. Clark went so far as to boast that the Chouteau house became a virtual Corps of Discovery outpost during the winter. [19]

The Chouteau connection brought Lewis and Clark into contact with the city's best-informed merchants. There was so much information available that Lewis found it necessary to draft a form letter to give the data some structure. As he explained to Jefferson, "I have proposed many quiries under sundry heads to the best informed persons I have met with at St. Louis and within the vicinity of that place; these gentlemen have promised me answers in due time." A list of questions Lewis sent to René Auguste Chouteau early in January 1804 indicates the range of information the explorer was seeking. While most of the questions referred to white settlers and their current economic and political situation, there was room to comment on Indians and trade matters. [20]

Because the Chouteaus made themselves so available and accommodating to Lewis and Clark, there has been a tendency to overlook others who provided vital and perhaps more relevant Indian information. Chief among those were John Hay and James Mackay. Hay, United States postmaster at Cahokia, was an experienced Indian trader on the Mississippi. He also spoke French, and when Lewis visited St. Louis commandant Carlos Dehault Delassus, Hay and his fellow trader Nicholas Jarrot went along to interpret. Even more important, Hay provided the link to James Mackay. Mackay was perhaps the most widely traveled of the many traders Lewis and Clark met during the Camp Dubois winter. During the 1780s, Mackay explored the Assiniboine and Mouse rivers and visited the Mandan villages, along with North West Company employees from Fort Esperance on the Qu'Appelle River. By the mid-1790s the Scot had switched his political loyalties and was employed by the St. Louis-based and Spanish-controlled Missouri Company. When he met Clark early in 1804, Mackay had already ascended the Missouri River as far as the Omaha Indians in what is now Dakota County, Nebraska. Even more important, he had sent his Welsh lieutenant, John Evans, to the Mandans and had entertained notions of sending Evans across the mountains to the Pacific. Mackay's call at Camp Dubois on January 10, 1804, brought a lifetime of information on native people and Indian-white relations on the northern plains. Although Clark did not record what passed between the two explorers, there can be little doubt that their conversation was enlivened by Mackay's rich supply of experiences with the Indians. [21]

Lewis and Clark recognized that men like Hay, Mackay, and the Chouteaus could offer invaluable information. But there were other sources of information in St. Louis, men of the river perhaps less literate but with more immediate experience among Indians. Lewis and Clark needed that sort of firsthand knowledge. While the captains could question their own engagés, some of whom had logged considerable river time, there were others beyond easy reach. As Lewis explained it to Jefferson, "Some of the traders of this country from their continued intercourse with the Indians, possess with more accuracy many interesting particulars in relation to that people, than persons in a higher sphere of life." The problem was that those men lacked "both leasure and abilities to give this information in any satisfactory manner in detail." Determined to get that material, Lewis hit upon the idea of drawing "a form of paper containing 13 or 14 columns," each headed with a different topic relating to native people. Lewis had already circulated such forms by late December 1803 and felt certain that his plan would yield important data. The questionnaires may have proved successful, but unfortunately, neither blank forms nor completed ones have survived. [22]

Lewis and Clark got more than talk from their St. Louis contacts. Friendly meetings brought maps and journals produced by earlier expeditions up the Missouri. Of all the written material the explorers were able to study, none was more valuable for its Indian content than the journals and notes produced by James Mackay and John Evans. In a letter to Jefferson, Lewis reported that he had obtained Evans and Mackay's journal material dating from 1795 to 1797. Those entries, written in French, were being translated by the ever-useful John Hay. [23] No explorer destined for the northern plains could miss the import of those documents. Taken together, the Evans-Mackay file made several major points. There was the prospect of a rich trade to be exploited among both villagers and nomads. But success in that trade hinged on a reliable system with dependable Indian partners. Lewis and Clark could not have missed Evans and Mackay's singling out of the Mandans as the Indians most helpful to traders. "The Mandaines," wrote James Mackay, "as well all other nations that inhabit to their West, near the Rocky Mountains, are in general people as good as they are mild who lay a great value on the friendship of the Whites." The Evans-Mackay material also revealed the extent of international competition for trade on the Missouri. French, Spanish, and English interests were already on the river, and reading Evans and Mackay reminded the explorers that their diplomacy would be for high stakes. Mackay's observation that courting the Mandans could "put a Stop to the unjust progress of the English" was written for Spanish eyes, but its meaning was not lost on the Americans. [24] Finally, the Evans-Mackay journals brought home how much Indian opposition might be provoked by an American trade empire based in St. Louis. The Omahas, Arikaras, and some of the Sioux bands had already made life miserable for traders bound upriver. Lewis and Clark would have to deal with Indians who assumed it was their right to collect tolls on the Missouri highway.

The Evans and Mackay materials were of such great importance that Lewis and Clark probably took along Hay's translation of Mackay's journal. It is more certain that a second document from Mackay made the transcontinental passage. Sometime during the winter at Camp Dubois Mackay's "Notes on Indian Tribes" came into the possession of the expedition. That twelve-page report summarized the trader's early experiences with the Piegans and his 1787 visit to the Mandans . In the "Notes" Mackay offered a blend of current opinion on the origin and condition of the Indians and his own observations of their ways. He had something chatty to say on everything from religion to burials. Most important for the expedition's purposes, the trader made astute comments on the lives of the Missouri River villagers. Drawing on his own visit to the Mandans and Evans's experiences with the Arikaras and Mandans , Mackay briefly described the construction of earth lodges, the layout of towns, and the yearly patterns of farming and hunting. Mackay's "Notes" was yet another text in Lewis and Clark's education. [25]

The last piece of written material on Indian subjects had a St. Louis source but came to Lewis and Clark from Jefferson. In his November 16 letter to Lewis, the president sent along extracts from the Missouri River trade journal attributed to Jean Baptiste Truteau. Working for the Company of Explorers of the Upper Missouri, Truteau traded upriver as far as the Arikaras from 1794 to 1796. What Jefferson sent was a compilation of the tribes living along the Missouri and its tributaries. By studying the list, Lewis and Clark could gain further information about their numbers and locations. Many tribes that figured in the expedition's future were briefly noted in the journal. Those included the Otos, Omahas, the Sioux bands, Arikaras, and Mandans . Although the extracts did not plainly spell out the complex relations between those groups, Lewis and Clark were at least beginning to fix peoples and places in the mental geography of the expedition. [26]

Establishing hunting territories and village locations in their minds was made easier by several important maps Lewis and Clark examined during the winter at Camp Dubois. When Clark gathered and compared maps, he was primarily in search of information to guide the expedition over the best route to the Pacific. But Clark, who emerged as the expedition's cartographer, could not have missed the substantial body of Indian data contained in many of the maps he studied. Three maps in particular held valuable information on village sites and native populations. Those maps gave visual expression to the written material coming into Lewis and Clark's hands.

Among the maps that the explorers looked at was one Lewis described as "a general map of Uper Louisiana." It had been drawn by Antoine Soulard, surveyor general of Spanish Louisiana. Soulard prepared the Spanish version in 1794–95 at the direction of Governor Carondelet to guide the explorations of Jean Baptiste Truteau. Sometime after the journeys of Mackay and Evans, Soulard drafted versions of the map with English and French legends. It was the English version, entitled "A Topographical Sketch of the Missouri and Upper Mississippi Exhibiting the Various Nations and Tribes who inhabit the Country," that now came into Clark's possession. Soulard's map demonstrated with remarkable accuracy the locations of western Indians at the end of the eighteenth century. Along the Missouri and its tributaries Soulard placed the Oto, Pawnee , and Omaha peoples. Using simple circle and triangle symbols, the surveyor general noted Arikara and Mandan villages and the territories of nomadic Sioux , Cheyennes , and Assiniboins. Farther north Soulard sites the Blackfeet and Chipewyans. The Crow and Snakes ( Shoshonis ) marked the western limit of St. Louis knowledge. Looking at Soulard's map must have been a reassuring experience for the explorers: it showed the headwaters of the Missouri within easy travel to what Soulard labeled "Oregan or R. of the West." Indians that Lewis and Clark had heard about from St. Louis traders were on the map and in the expected places. This was not a map to chart a daily course on the river, but it did offer the sort of overview of the tribes that the explorers would need for much of their diplomacy. And because such diplomacy was closely linked to trade, Soulard's careful delineation of trade routes was a valuable bonus. [27]

Lewis and Clark certainly could have extracted a good deal of ethnographic information from the map. But at its best Soulard's creation did not reflect the kinds of immediate river and Indian contact the explorers sought. That sort of information could come only from maps drawn by James Mackay and John Evans. After Clark wrote to Indiana territorial governor William Henry Harrison seeking his help in locating accurate western maps, Harrison sent Mackay's chart of the Missouri from St. Charles to the Mandan villages. While having a far narrower range than the Soulard map, Mackay's work did offer a precise, firsthand view of tribes and villages along the river. Mackay's sequence of Indian sites on the Missouri was essentially correct, but his location of the Mandan villages at longitude 110° west put those earth lodges some four hundred miles farther west than they actually were. Whatever its geographical misconceptions, the Mackay map brought Lewis and Clark another step closer to knowing what Indians were around the next bend in the river. [28]

The Mackay map was an important addition to the expedition's understanding of the plains landscape and its people. But a map made by John Evans became what one recent scholar has called a major "road map" for the expedition for no less than seven hundred miles. [29] The Evans map of the Missouri River consisted of seven sheets depicting the course of the river and the location of the Omaha, Ponca, Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa villages. Those places along the river frequented by Sioux bands were also noted. By examining the Evans map along with the ones by Soulard and Mackay, Lewis and Clark could know with some certainty what Indian would be encountered next. The Evans map was taken on the voyage and became an invaluable tool for both navigation and diplomacy. All these maps completed what might be termed the expedition's academic education in the Indian geography of the Missouri Valley. The maps, journals, and river talk could not lessen the shock of encounter that lay ahead, but they might at least give the explorers a sense of the predictable in an uncertain land.

The first test of that education came even before leaving Camp Dubois. The Indian presents so carefully purchased in Philadelphia needed to be organized in some logical order. It made good sense to package trade goods, medals, flags, and fancy dress uniforms in the order in which they were to be distributed. Here again John Hay proved indispensable. As an experienced trader he knew the finer points of packaging and merchandising. It was probably Hay who suggested putting a variety of gifts into bags protected by waterproof fabric. Those bags were first divided into two general groups, one for the Indians on the river up to the Mandans and a second set for "foreign nations." All told, there were to be twenty-one bags of Indian goods. As Hay worked on packing in late April 1804, the explorers showed that they had learned their lessons well. Bundles were made up for the Otos, Poncas, and Omahas. Knowing the great power of Omaha leaders like the late Chief Blackbird, they set aside a separate part of one bag for the leading Omaha chief. That bag had everything from a pair of scarlet leggings to a military officer's coat and American flag. There were similar bags for the Arikaras and Mandans . For those Indians beyond the Mandans there were five bales stuffed with peace medals, fancy handkerchiefs, hat bands, and mirrors. [30] The careful order in which those bales were packed annd numbered testified to how much Lewis and Clark had learned during the months at Camp Dubois. On paper, at least, they knew the human contours of the land ahead. Those neatly tied packages should have been reassuring. But Clark was not confident. Just one day before leaving Camp Dubois he looked at the presents and thought they were "not as much as I think necessary for the multitude of Indians thro which we must pass on our road across the Continent." [31]

As the Lewis and Clark flotilla—keelboat and pirogues—rocked against the river current, it represented months of careful preparation. Armed with calico shirts, peace medals, and blank vocabulary sheets, the expedition seemed ready to carry out its many Indian missions. But there was still one unanswered question, one nagging doubt that no talk, map, or journal could resolve. How would the explorers cope with the inevitable tensions hidden in dozens of encounters with the Indians? Clark had long recognized the dangers. While working out travel schedules, he admitted that the accuracy of those time tables depended on "the probability of an oppisition from roving parties of Bad Indians which it is probable may be on the R[iver]." [32] Unchecked emotions, moments of fury from either Indians or explorers, could cost lives and destroy the expedition. Perhaps the greatest uncharted space ahead was a human space.

Into that emptiness went men of diverse backgrounds and unknown temperaments. Young frontiersmen recruited by Clark might have been crack shots, but would memories of Indian warfare on the dark and bloody ground of Kentucky boil up whenever they saw Indians? The expedition matched young privates like George Shannon with old hands Hugh Hall and the Field brothers Joseph and Reuben. St. Louis engagés added river wisdom and colorful songs to the Corps. Among them François Labiche and Pierre Cruzatte stood out for their two winters spent at the mouth of the Nodaway River some 450 miles up the Missouri. Towering over them all as a frontiersman was George Drouillard. Born of French and Shawnee parents, he had spent years in the Illinois country. Woodsman, tracker, adept at sign language, Drouillard emerged as the expedition's chief hunter and scout. Young John Colter could not have had a better teacher. New Hampshire-born John Ordway quickly caught the captains' attention and became the Corps of Discovery's sergeant major. And there was York, Clark's slave, whose blackness would fascinate and frighten so many Indians.

Finally, there were the captains themselves. Despite Jefferson's assertion that Lewis was chosen for his "familiarity with the Indian character," the young officer had neither fought Indians nor lived with them. [33] He spoke no Indian languages. Jefferson's library might have been filled with books about Indians, but there is no direct evidence that Lewis read any of those volumes. His contacts with Benjamin Rush and other Philadelphia students of native cultures were all too brief. In fact, Lewis's frontier experience was limited to travel in the Ohio country on missions for army paymasters and recruiters. Those journeys gave Lewis firsthand knowledge of the officer corps—one of the reasons Jefferson selected him as private secretary—but they did not fit him to negotiate with confident chiefs and experienced warriors. Clark's life as soldier and surveyor did bring him into direct contact with Indians. Unlike many in his position, he had become an acute observer of native life and a confidant of chiefs and warriors—both ethnographer and diplomat. In ways that are beyond easy explanation, he enjoyed the company of Indians. Throughout his life Clark courted them, smoked with them, and shared food and stories with them. But this personal history was just a beginning. The expedition was to challenge each man in ways yet unimagined. Surveying their untested crew and themselves, Lewis and Clark could only hope that the patience, skill, and courage of some would sustain all until the Corps of Discovery found its own soul.

The "road across the Continent" began in mid-May 1804 as the expedition steadily left behind the familiar sights of Camp Dubois and St. Louis. In the days that followed there was time for a green crew to learn the dangers of falling banks, swirling currents, and hidden sawyers that could rip and overturn a craft. Those first weeks on the river brought reminders that the fur trade already reached far up the Missouri. The explorers saw rafts and canoes filled with furs from the Omaha and Pawnee villages. River traffic also brought the expedition some valuable information. Late in May, around the isolated village of La Charette, the explorers met Régis Loisel. A prominent member of the Missouri Fur Company, he was on his way back downriver after establishing a post to garner the Sioux and Arikara trade. The experienced Loisel gave Lewis and Clark "a good Deel of information" about Indian relations far up the Missouri. He may well have urged the explorers to obtain additional aid from his partners Pierre Antoine Tabeau and Joseph Garreau at their Cedar Island post. [34]

Early in June there was another fortunate meeting, this time with an Indian language interpreter. The expedition was not well prepared to deal with translation problems, especially those involving important conferences with the Sioux . Pierre Cruzatte knew a few words and phrases and there were Drouillard's signs. Coming upon another St. Louis-bound party of traders, the captains met Pierre Dorion. The Frenchman had spent some twenty years with the Yankton Sioux and their neighbors. He was just the sort of agent Lewis and Clark needed to interpret at crucial conferences and to organize important delegations. Dorion was promptly hired with the understanding that he would remain with the Yanktons to promote the expedition's Indian policy. [35]

By the last days of July the expedition had passed the mouth of the Platte River, known to old river hands as the dividing line between the lower Missouri and the middle reach of the river. Mosquitoes, gnats, and a prairie landscape were all unmistakable signs of the expedition's progress. Information gathered at St. Louis and the words of engagés told Lewis and Clark to prepare for their first meetings with Indians. Along these parts of the river the explorers expected to see Oto, Missouri, Omaha, Ponca, and perhaps Pawnee Indians. On July 20, camped above present-day Nebraska City, Nebraska, Clark speculated that from his location a man could walk in two days to the Pawnees on the Platte and in one day to the Otos. Those Indians ought to be close at hand. Perhaps it was Labiche or Cruzatte who told Clark that at this time of year most river folk left their villages to hunt buffalo. Those hunts threatened to scuttle expedition diplomacy even before it was launched. [36]

Two days later, some ten miles above the Platte, Lewis and Clark settled into a place on the Iowa side of the Missouri with the delightful name of Camp White Catfish. From that spot the explorers planned to send out parties to invite Indians for formal talks. On July 23 George Drouillard and Pierre Cruzatte were given parcels of tobacco and ordered to find the Otos and Pawnees . Some signs, undisclosed in expeditionary records, suggested that at least a few river Indians had returned from hunting to obtain additional corn supplies. Taking this as a hopeful sign, Lewis and Clark confidently raised a flagstaff and waited anxiously for their native guests. Those preparations ended suddenly two days later when Drouillard and Cruzatte returned with unwelcome news. They had quickly found the major Oto town but it was quite empty. There were some traces of a small Indian party in the area, but neither scout could locate it. Disappointed and concerned, Lewis and Clark decided to press upriver in the hope that they might still come upon some Indians. [37]

The expedition's fortunes took a change for the better on July 28 when Drouillard happened on a Missouri Indian. Once back at the expedition's camp, the Indian revealed that his own band was quite small, no more than twenty lodges. Their numbers now seriously depleted by smallpox, the surviving Missouris lived with the Otos. The main body of Otos was still out hunting. Acting on that information, the captains sent the engagé La Liberté, who could speak the Oto language, back with the Indian to deliver a formal council invitation. The expedition planned to continue upriver and the Otos could find them farther along. At the end of July, in bottomland on the west bank of the river at what became Fort Atkinson, Nebraska, the expedition once again halted and waited for the Indians. [38]

After two days of patient waiting, Lewis and Clark were plainly worried. They knew it might take some time for "much scatred" hunters to be located and to make their way to the river. Nonetheless, Clark could not help admitting, "We fear Something amiss with our messenger or them." The captains sent out another man to hurry La Liberté and the Otos. [39] All that worry vanished at sunset on August 2 when a party of Otos and Missouris appeared at the Council Bluff camp. Along with them was a trader whose name Clark rendered as Fairfong, although he has never been properly identified. Fairfong knew the Otos and had their trust. The leading Oto and Missouri chiefs, Little Thief and Big Horse, were not with the delegation but Lewis and Clark were gratified to see six headmen. At dusk the explorers arranged a hasty greeting, sent gifts of roasted meat, and asked the Indians to attend a council the next day. [40]

As fog hung in the river bottoms on Friday morning, August 3, Lewis and Clark set about preparing for their first conference with the Indians. What the explorers did that morning linked them to generations of forest diplomats. The form and substance were dictated by common expectations resulting from years of woodland encounters. It was the sort of ritual Clark had seen at the council negotiating the Treaty of Greenville with General Anthony Wayne in 1795. If the subsequent history of the expedition is any guide, Lewis spent those early hours finishing his draft of a long speech proclaiming American sovereignty and the coming of new traders. Clark may well have spent the same time supervising the preparation of gifts. Opening bale number thirty, the men took out red leggings, fancy dress coats, and blue blankets. Setting aside flags and medals, they carefully packed the trade goods in individual bundles whose size and quality were determined by the rank of each chief. A special package was made up for the absent chief Little Thief. Although gifts and speeches had long been part of any Indian meeting, warriors and soldiers always made it a point to show military prowess as well. Lewis and Clark were determined to impress every Indian they met with the power of the young republic. Sergeants Ordway, Floyd, and Pryor must have been busy that morning readying their squads for a formal dress parade. At the same time, other men were detailed to convert the keelboat's main sail into a temporary awning to shield the diplomats from the August sun. A flag and flagstaff completed the setting. What would become routine in the months ahead was still new and fresh, and there must have been an electric excitement in camp as the Corps of Discovery waited for the Indians to arrive.

At midmorning the Oto and Missouri delegation, with trader Fairfong in tow, assembled under the sailcloth awning to watch something like a Lewis and Clark Medicine Show. At the command, the expedition's troops shouldered arms, dressed right, and passed in review. Lewis then stepped forward to deliver a long speech summarizing federal Indian policy. Because its language and themes were to be repeated many times in the coming months, the speech is worth careful attention.

Lewis began with the grand announcement of American sovereignty over the newly purchased lands. The Otos and Missouris were told bluntly that their Spanish and French fathers had retreated beyond the eastern sea and would never return. In their place was a new father, the "great chief of the Seventeen nations," and it was his will that all would "now form one common family with us." Explaining the nature of the expedition's mission always proved a difficult task; the first time Lewis tried it the best he could do was declare that the explorers were on the river "to clear the road, remove every obstruction, and make it a road of peace." Just who was to mark out that "road of peace" and where it might lead were matters Lewis addressed next. Urging the Indians to "shut [their] ears to the councils of Bad birds," the diplomat insisted that the new American father and his sons would bring peace and prosperity to "red children on the troubled waters." Those "red children" were required to make peace with their neighbors and trade with St. Louis merchants. If those words were heeded, advised Lewis, traders would come, a post would be built near the mouth of the Platte, and the Indians would "obtain goods on much better terms than . . . before." But Lewis's words had the edge of threat as well. If river Indians ignored American orders and followed the "bad birds," trade would be cut off and there would be much suffering.

Lewis concluded with what he saw as a crucial test of native willingness to accept the new order. He urged Oto and Missouri chiefs to form a delegation to visit the great Washington chief. Those delegates could see for themselves both the wealth of the American nation and the contentment of Indians already living under the federal father. And if they submitted to the great chief, those in the delegation would be showerd with gifts and honors. Declaring that the traders of yesterday were gone, Lewis held out Jefferson and the American nation as "the only friend to whom you can now look for protection." [41]

Because chiefs like Little Thief and Big Horse were not in camp, the responses offered by those Indians who were present did not capture much of the expedition's attention. But what fragments are in the record remain important to gauge early native reaction to Lewis and Clark. Patrick Gass, soon to become a sergeant after the untimely death of Charles Floyd, said that the Indians were "well pleased" with the change in government. But that supposed pleasure at seeing new fathers was not widely felt by tribes along the lower river. Generated by news of the Louisiana Purchase, rumors had been flying for months that the Americans would radically change trading rules. In December 1804 a fearful Osage came to Camp Dubois filled with stories from an English trader who alleged that once the Americans had the country, trade would be disrupted. [42] The reaction of some Osages on the Arkansas River was even more forceful. When a Chouteau agent announced the purchase, his letter was seized and burned, "the Indians not believing that the Americans had possession of the Countrey." [43] Some Otos and their neighbors, who got goods from traders of various nationalities, may well have shared those concerns. The delegates at Council Bluff did nothing so dramatic, but they may have wondered about the economic consequences of new flags and medals hearing unfamiliar faces. In fact, what the chiefs did talk about was trade. The Otos and their neighbors wanted a dependable source of goods. After years of spotty contact with English and French traders, the Indians were intent on finding and joining a reliable system. Complaining that Spanish and French traders "never gave them as much as a knife for nothing," it was plain that the Otos and Missouris hoped the Americans would be more generous. Although Clark was unimpressed with the replies, calling the chiefs "no oreters," Ordway found the speeches "very sensable."

The day ended with more gifts—powder, whiskey, face paint, and fancy garters—and ceremony. Peace medals were distributed and Lewis gave the first of many airgun demonstrations. That silent weapon was impressive, but promises of trade meant more to the assembled Indians. And if the explorers could negotiate a peace between the feuding Otos and Omahas, that would surely add to American prestige. The Indians were both cautious and interested and Lewis and Clark finished the meeting with a sense of achievement. Although Little Thief and Big Horse had not spoken, the captains were confident that the wisdom of American policy, the lure of St. Louis trade, and the force of federal arms would prevail. [44]

Several days later Lewis and Clark followed up what they viewed as an initial diplomatic success by sending a copy of Lewis's speech and a parcel of gifts to Little Thief. That an equally suitable gift and a medal of proper grade were not sent to the Missouri chief Big Horse was an oversight due to the hurry to press upriver. The party transporting the goods was instructed to ask the Otos to send a delegation toward the Omaha village, there to cement good relations. By August 12 the expedition had passed the hilltop grave of the mighty Omaha chief Blackbird near present-day Macy, Nebraska, and expected to meet his successors at any moment. While the main body of the expedition stopped to prepare for an Omaha council, Ordway was sent to find the Indians. At Omaha Creek near present-day Homer, Nebraska, Ordway and his squad walked into the empty village of Tonwantonga. In the 1790s, during the years of Blackbird's leadership, the earth lodge village had held over one thousand Omahas. But the smallpox epidemic of 1800–1801 had dramatically reduced those numbers. Tonwantonga was vacant now as the Omahas were on the plains hunting buffalo. Although the Omahas were less powerful in the face of mounting Sioux influence, their absence from home was a major disappointment. Any hope of negotiating an Oto-Omaha peace and bringing the Omahas into the St. Louis trade system now seemed remote. Equally worrisome was the continued absence of the Oto and Missouri chiefs and the expedition party sent to find them. [45]

At least some of those problems were resolved on August 17. By this time the party had moved further up the Missouri, edging toward modern-day Sioux City, Iowa. Toward evening François Labiche came into camp; he had been with the group sent to find the Otos and track down a deserter, Moses Reed. He reported that the rest of the party, including Reed and the chiefs Little Thief and Big Horse, would arrive the next day. Labiche further explained that the Indians were intent on making peace with the Omahas. "As the Omahas are not at home," sourly wrote William Clark, "this great Object cannot be accomplished at the time." The explorers could only hope that this would not deter the Otos from accepting American proposals. [46]

On the following afternoon both the deserter and the chiefs came to camp. Making some shade near the keelboat, the captains briefly entertained the Indians before moving on to more immediate business—the trial of Moses Reed. As Little Thief and the rest watched intently, Reed was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to run the gauntlet four times. Shocked by this spectacle of public punishment and humiliation, the chiefs asked that Reed be pardoned. Had it not been for the need to establish firm discipline early in the voyage, Lewis and Clark might have sought to satisfy the visitors by granting their request. But it was not to be, and after they carefully explained the reasons for such punishment, the whole unhappy affair was done.

Even if the Omahas could not be part of the coming council, Lewis and Clark were anxious to know the reasons for trouble between those Indians and the Otos. Little Thief and Big Horse found no reason to conceal causes for the tensions. The chiefs promptly gave a quick lecture on the river realities of raid and truce. If the Americans expected Oto-Omaha conflict to turn on high policy disputes that could be settled by formal treaty, they were sorely mistaken. What unfolded was the tale of a horse-stealing raid by two Missouri warriors against the Omahas. The adventure had gone awry and in the fighting that followed, both men had been killed. Their deaths demanded retaliation. The Otos and Missouris also had stormy relations with the Pawnees . The chiefs admitted that theft of Pawnee corn while those people were off buffalo hunting was sufficient reason to fear revenge. What Little Thief recited were the common clashes that shaped prairie life. None of that denied the issues of trade and the struggles of the Otos, Omahas, and Sioux to secure that trade. But the Oto chief was offering a vision of the oridinary, the kind of affairs that Lewis and Clark had neither the time nor the talent to understand and control. The explorers listened but did not seem to comprehend. They were already prisoners of grand but ill-conceived designs to reshape Missouri Valley Indian politics and economics to the requirements of American policy and commerce. The realities of personal insult and family revenge must have seemed petty by comparison. Yet those were the human passions that outlived all official plans from any new father. Even so, that evening, as everyone enjoyed a dance and an extra gill of whiskey to celebrate Lewis's birthday, problems personal and national seemed far away. [47]

How different the Indian and expedition agendas were became plain the next day. Assembled under a shade awning, chiefs and warriors listened as Lewis again explained American plans for intertribal peace and trade from St. Louis. Only bits and pieces of the replies from Little Thief and Big Horse have survived, but what was recorded strongly suggests Indian expectations that did not match American designs. Little Thief agreed that peace would benefit all. He said that the Otos had always been friendly with white traders, whether they were English or French. What counted, so argued the chief, was not nationality but the price and quality of trade goods. Lewis and Clark could not have been pleased to learn that along the river the Stars and Stripes meant no more than the Union Jack or the Spanish ensign. Adding demand to insult, Little Thief wanted generous gifts from the hand of the new father. Big Horse added to the growing confusion by insisting that without "a spoonful of your milk"—a polite way to ask for alcohol—his younger warriors could not be restrained from attacking the Pawnees and Omahas. Whiskey for peace was not the price the expedition was prepared to pay, nor was it diplomacy on the level of virtue expected by Jefferson. And hard on this demand came a call from Little Thief for a delegation led by the trader Fairfong and François Labiche to make peace with the Pawnees . When this request was flatly rejected, all talk ended in sullen silence.

Uncertain of their next move and fearing that the whole conference might dissolve in confusion, the captains decided that gifts, medals, and certificates of good behavior might appease the Indians. Parcels of tobacco, beads, and face paint were quickly distributed. Medals and certificates went to warriors like Big Axe and Black Cat. But those well-intentioned items sparked fresh misunderstanding. When the explorers had prepared bundles of trade goods and medals for chiefs who had not attended the August 3 gathering, they had not realized the approximate equality of status between Little Thief and Big Horse. The Missouri chief had been sent a medal of lesser grade, and he now required one fitting his position. No sooner had that been accomplished than there was trouble in the ranks of the warriors. These men had expected substantial gifts and had received pieces of printed paper instead. No matter that the document proclaimed each Indian a "friend and ally" of the United States. One plainly disgusted warrior named Big Blue Eyes made it clear what he wanted and abruptly handed back the certificate. Some moments later the Oto had second thoughts and asked that it be returned. Angered at what seemed a lack of respect for official documents, Lewis and Clark refused and "rebuked them very roughly for having in object goods and not peace with their neighbors." Those pointed words may have been an accurate estimate of Oto and Missouri priorities, but they were hardly salve for bruised feelings. Little Thief finally put the matter to rest and asked that Big Blue Eyes be restored to the expedition's good graces. Not so quick to forgive, the explorers handed the paper to Little Thief, saying that he could present it to the offending warrior.

Lewis and Clark had expected the Indians' quick acceptance of American policies. All the gifts and military show were aimed at producing that result. On the other hand, the Otos and Missouris imagined wonderful giveaways of valuable goods from what seemed an endless supply on the keelboat. Little Thief and the other chiefs knew that their influence was in decline as Sioux and upriver villagers garnered a steadily larger share of the trade. Each expected too much from the other, and the day seemed to be ending in squabble and petty dispute. Trying to conclude the conference on a positive note, the explorers initiated a second round of gifts. Whiskey, keelboat curiosities like the ever impressive magnet and telescope, and an airgun show ended the council. Or at least Lewis and Clark thought that the gathering was finished. Discontented with skimpy presents, many Indians remained in camp asking for whiskey and trade items. What had been planned as an impressive day of solemn talk and American power tailed off in misunderstanding and confusion. Lewis and Clark were not about to alter either their goals or their tactics, but what happened in the Oto-Missouri talks should have been a warning of difficulties ahead. [48]

The meetings with the Oto and Missouri Indians were the first tests of the expedition's diplomatic skill. They were also a time to learn patience in the face of those who found the explorers' proposals either incomprehensible or confusing. Those August councils produced mixed results. Lewis and Clark might announce American sovereignty and assert that trade contacts were established, that sites were marked for future posts, and that intertribal peace was being promoted. The Corps of Discovery might be learning to live with the Indians. But a closer look makes those assertions appear less substantial. The Otos and their neighbors wanted trade. With what nation and under whose flag mattered not at all. Promises of peace with nearby Indians, no matter how honestly made, bound no one. As the expedition made its way up the Missouri and into Yankton Sioux territory, Lewis and Clark could realistically claim little success. They were now entering a plains world infinitely more complex than any they had encountered on the lower river.

On August 27, as the expedition passed the mouth of the James River, an Indian boy swam out to hail one of the pirogues. When the Americans pulled their boats on shore, two more Indian youths appeared. These Indians—two Yanktons and an Omaha—told Lewis and Clark that there was a large Yankton camp not far up the James. Eager to talk with these Indians, the captains sent Pierre Dorion and Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor to the Sioux village. Toward evening Pryor and Dorion reached the Yankton camp and received an enthusiastic welcome. Following tradition, the Yanktons wanted to carry Pryor into camp on a buffalo robe. It was to be more than a ride; it was a sign of honor and distinction. But the sergeant hastily declined, explaining that he was not the owner of the great boat now on the river. The Yanktons were not to be denied, however, and Pryor and Dorion were treated to a feast of fat dog, yet another sign of special attention. [49]

The warm greeting extended to Pryor mirrored the Yankton's eagerness to talk with Lewis and Clark. All of this was genuine hospitality and something more. What lay behind the offered buffalo robe procession and dog dinner were Yankton concerns about their own role in a rapidly changing plains world. The Yanktons did trade to the east with North West Company posts and had occasional visits from St. Louis merchants, but they needed a place in some dependable commercial system. They also needed protection from their more aggressive neighbors the Tetons. When Dorion, now joined by his son Pierre, and Pryor brought the Yankton delegation to the Missouri shore opposite Calumet Bluff, both the Indians and the explorers anticipated a successful meeting.

The morning of August 30 found the Corps of Discovery camped at Calumet Bluff on the west side of the river at the site of today's Gavins Point Dam. As the sun burned off an early fog, the explorers busied themselves with council preparations. What had been done for the Otos and Missouris was now readied for the Yanktons. Even before breakfast, some inquisitive Yanktons swam the river to watch the mysterious doings of the bearded strangers. At 9:00 A.M. Lewis and Clark were ready to begin their first conference with the Sioux . While the Oto and Missouri meetings were important as first forays in frontier diplomacy, the explorers knew that talks with any Sioux group would be of lasting significance. If the American fur trade empire was to move from the realm of Jefferson's imagination to commercial reality, Sioux cooperation and participation were essential. Knowing all that, Lewis and Clark dispatched a pirogue across the river to begin the proceedings.

If the stakes were high for American diplomacy in the new West, they were equally high for the Yanktons. Chiefs like Weuche and White Crane made that plain as they entered the precincts of Calumet Bluff in high ceremony. The whole Yankton delegation was preceded by four musicians, singing and playing as they paraded through the camp. That sense of drama was heightened when the captains ordered the bow swivel gun on the keelboat fired. Ritual payments of tobacco were made to the musicians; the conferees shook hands and then sat down to hear Lewis present the American proposals. His speech, translated by Pierre Dorion, Sr., lasted until late in the afternoon. The expedition's records do not contain a full text of the speech, but some clues in Ordway's journal suggest that it focused on peace with the Otos and Missouris and on arranging a major delegation of chiefs from several Sioux bands. Probably, Lewis proclaimed American sovereignty and promised reliable trade from St. Louis. When the speech ended, Lewis and Clark handed out medals to five of the Yankton chiefs. Weuche, sometimes known as La Liberator or the Handshake, was pronounced first chief and given a red-laced coat, military cocked hat, and American flag. The Indians retreated to the shade of some cottonwoods and divided the presents.

The Lewis and Clark expedition came to the northern plains as outsiders, but that night the explorers became part of a prairie community. In the late afternoon they provided beads as prizes when Yankton boys showed their skill with bow and arrow. At dark a crackling fire was built in the center of camp. Into the firelight came men in gaudy paint to dance and sing of their great feats in battle and the chase. Music came from a drum whose deerskin head was a gift from Lewis. While drummers beat out a powerful rhythm, other Indians kept time with deer hoof rattles. Later, Ordway recalled the vivid sights and sounds of that Calumet Bluff spectacle. "It always began with a houp and hollow and ended with the same, and in the intervales one of the warriors at a time would rise with his weapon and speak of what he had done in his day and what warlike actions he had done. This they call merit. They would confess how many horses they had Stole." Perhaps instructed by Dorion and his son, members of the expedition threw the dancers gifts of tobacco, knives, and hawks bells. For the Corps of Discovery, this would be a night to remember when times were harder and there was less to celebrate. [50]

Lewis and Clark were beginning to learn that the protocol of Indian diplomacy required time for chiefs and elders to hammer out replies to any proposal. But Weuche and his fellow Yanktons had no desire to keep the Americans waiting. Very early on the morning of August 31, the Indian delegation returned with their answers. That there were several responses and not one common reply from the Yanktons was another part of Lewis and Clark's education in native political realities. Weuche wasted no time revealing what was uppermost in his mind. Reliable trade connections were essential for the survival of the Yanktons. The chief reported that he and his warriors lacked both firearms and ammunition. Their women and children were destitute. Weuche wanted immediate relief, a request he thought not unreasonable in view of the riches of the keelboat. As an alternative, the chief suggested that his warriors be permitted to stop the next trade boat from St. Louis and help themselves to whatever was necessary.

But economics was not the only item on Weuche's agenda. As an astute plains politician, he quickly recognized that close ties to the new father would both protect and enhance the Yanktons' influence. Weuche cleverly offered his services to organize a large delegation from many bands the following spring. While not denying that men like Pierre Dorion and his son would be useful in that effort, the chief made it clear that ultimate success hinged on his good offices. And as for intertribal peace, Weuche again suggested that affairs be left in his hands. Explaining that other Indians "would hear him better," the chief assured Lewis and Clark that he could be trusted as a faithful intermediary. Finally, Weuche brought his comments full circle by returning to the trade issue. This time the chief took careful note of the international nature of the plains economy. Weuche reported that he had already held English and Spanish medals. But, he pointedly complained, the Yanktons needed more than bits of bronze and silver to fend off poverty. At this point, Lewis and Clark may well have become worried by constant references to trade goods. They had already chastised one Oto for paying undue attention to knives and beads. If the friendly Yanktons thought the expedition was really a trading venture, then less hospitable Indians farther upriver might stop and plunder the Americans. At the end of Weuche's talk and before the other chiefs began to speak, Lewis again attempted to explain the nature of their mission. He insisted that the explorers were not traders but had come only to open the road for others. He assured the Yanktons that honest traders with quality goods were not far behind. But the concept of exploration as a national undertaking had no precedent in tribal life. A keelboat filled with what seemed an endless store of goods only served to confuse the question.

Although the nature and purpose of the expedition was no clearer in Yankton minds, other chiefs like White Crane and Half Man needed to be heard. Their replies generally followed a common pattern. All agreed that trade and peace were worthy objectives. Of all the Yanktons who spoke during the day, none offered more important advice than Half Man. The chief made the expected promises, declaring his interest in peace with the Otos and a desire to see the great Washington chief. But at the end of his remarks, Half Man added a prophetic warning. "I fear," he said, "those nations above will not open their ears, and you cannot I fear open them." [51]

Half Man's dark words were hard to take seriously in an atmosphere of friendship and productive negotiation. The day ended with yet another show of airgun firepower and keelboat curiosities. Gifts of corn and tobacco to the Yanktons seemed to seal agreements while Dorion's plans to remain with them augured well for the organization of delegations. On the surface, at least, the council was a grand success. Here were Sioux headmen and warriors who welcomed the Americans and gladly joined the new trade system. The expedition's diplomacy appeared to have come of age. To that achievement was added the collection of important ethnographic information. [52] Just as significant, the expedition had enjoyed good relations with a powerful people. Worries about "the nations above" were easily discounted in the glow of proceedings at Calumet Bluff. Lewis and Clark were so confident of continued success in dealing with the Sioux that they did not think twice about leaving behind the only skilled interpreter. That the expedition's fortunes were about to slide into a morass of angry words and hostile gestures seemed remote. For now there were new plains sights to capture the explorers' attention. Again finding the Missouri channel, Lewis and Clark moved deeper into an Indian world that would both baffle and challenge the Corps of Discovery.


B A E       Bureau of American Ethnology

Field Notes.       Osgood, Ernest, S., ed. The Field Notes of Captain William Clark, 1803–1805. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964.

Gass, Journal.       Gass, Patrick. A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery. Edited by David McKeehan. 1807. Reprint, with preface by Earle R. Forrest. Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, 1958.

Ordway, Journal.       Quaife, Milo M., ed. The Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Sergeant John Ordway. Madison: Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1916.

Thw.       Thwaites, Reuben G., ed. The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 8 vols. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1904–1905.

Whitehouse, Journal.       "The Journal of Private Joseph Whitehouse." In Thw. 7:29–190.


1. Donald Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and the Stony Mountains: Exploring the West from Monticello (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), pp. 25–26. (back)
2. Jefferson to Benjamin Smith Barton, February 27, 1803; Jefferson to Caspar Wistar, February 28, 1803; Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, February 28, 1803, Donald Jackson, ed., The Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783–1854, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:16–19. (back)
3. Albert Gallatin to Jefferson, April 13, 1803, ibid. 1:32–34. This judgment must be modified if it can be determined that Gallatin had a major role in formulating some of the Indian questions William Clark copied in a long list sometime early in 1804. See Clark, "List of Questions," ibid. 1:157–61. (back)
4. Levi Lincoln to Jefferson, April 17, 1803, ibdi. 1:35. (back)
5. Benjamin Rush, Medical Inquiries and Observations (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1794), pp. 9–77. See also Stephen J. Kunitz, "Benjamin Rush on Savagism and Progress," Ethnohistory 17 (1970):31–42. (back)
6. Rush, "Questions to Merryweather Lewis before he went up the Missouri, May 17, 1803," Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:50. This list was passed to Jefferson in a letter from Lewis dated May 29, 1803, ibid. 1:52. (back)
7. Jefferson, "Message to Congress—Confidential, January 18, 1803," ibid. 1:10–13; Jefferson to André Michaeu, [sic], April 30, 1793, ibid. 2:669–72, especially p. 670 where the language is clearly influential for the instructions to Lewis. (back)
8. Jefferson, "Instructions to Lewis, June 20, 1803," ibid. 1:62–63. Jefferson's particular concern for Indian languages added a document to the instructions. He had printed for the expedition's use blank vocabulary sheets listing common English words with spaces for Indian equivalents. See Thw. 7:408–9. (back)
9. Jefferson, "Instructions to Lewis," 1:62. (back)
10. Jefferson to John Adams, June 11, 1812, Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters, 2 vols. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 2:307. (back)
11. Jefferson, "Instructions to Lewis," 1:63. (back)
12. Ibid. 1:64. Jeffersonian Indian policy, as distinct from the theories used to rationalize that policy, is skillfully analyzed in Reginald Horsman, Expansion and American Indian Policy, 1783–1812 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1967), chap. 7. Jefferson's own concise statement of federal goals can be found in February 27, 1803, letter to William Henry Harrison, Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. (back)
13. Jefferson to Lewis, January 22, 1804, Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:65–66. (back)
14. Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), p. 93. (back)
15. Lincoln to Jefferson, April 17, 1803, Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:35. (back)
16. Lewis, "Estimate of Expenses," ibid. 1:9. (back)
17. Lewis, "List of Requirements," ibid. 1:72–75. (back)
18. Israel Whelan, "Recapitulation of Purchases by The Purveyor for Capt. Lewis," ibid. 1:94. (back)
19. Clark to George Croghan, May 2, 1804, ibid. 1:178. (back)
20. Lewis to Jefferson, December 28, 1803, ibid. 1:161–62. (back)
21. Field Notes, p. 16. (back)
22. Lewis to Jefferson, December 28, 1803, Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:154. (back)
23. Ibid. 1:155. (back)
24. James Mackay, "Journal," in A. P. Nasatir, ed., Before Lewis and Clark: Documents Illustrating the History of the Missouri, 1785–1804, 2 vols. (St. Louis: St. Louis Historical Documents Foundation, 1952), 2:493–94. (back)
25. James Mackay, "Notes on Indian Tribes," Voorhis Collection, box 4, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis. (back)
26. Jefferson to Lewis, November 16, 1803, Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:138–39. Jefferson did not send direct quotations from the journal but a summary of the major points in Jean Baptiste Truteau's "Description of the Upper Missouri" and his "State of the Indian Nations." See Nasatir, ed., Before Lewis and Clark, 2:376–85. In his January 22, 1804, letter to Lewis, Jefferson enclosed what he described as a full translation of the Truteau journal. (back)
27. Lewis to Jefferson, December 28, 1803, Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:148. The English version of Soulard's map is in Gary E. Moulton, ed., Atlas of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), plate 4. The French version is in Sara J. Tucker and Wayne C. Temple, comps., Atlas: Indian Villages of the Illinois Country (Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1942, 1975), plate 77. The Spanish rendering is in Carl I. Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi West, 5 vols. (San Francisco: Institute of Historical Cartography, 1958–62), 1: plate 235a. Valuable notes on the Soulard map are in John L. Allen, Passage through the Garden: Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975, pp. 148–49; Aubrey Diller, "A New Map of the Missouri drawn in 1795," Imago Mundi 12 (1955):175–80; Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi West, 1:157–60. (back)
28. Allen, Passage through the Garden, pp. 141–42 and fig. 23. (back)
29. W. Raymond Wood, "The John Evans 1796–97 Map of the Missouri River," Great Plains Quarterly 1 (1981):39–53; quoted, 39. (back)
30. Fields Notes, pp. 35–36; Thw. 6:270–77. (back)
31. Thw. 1:16. (back)
32. Field Notes, p. 21. (back)
33. Jefferson to Robert Patterson, March 2, 1803, Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:21. (back)
34. Thw. 1:29. (back)
35. Ordway, Journal, p. 85; Thw. 1:46–47. (back)
36. Thw. 1:86. Indian history and culture for this part of the river is ably treated in R. David Edmunds, The Otoe-Missouria People (Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1976); G. Hubert Smith, "Notes on Omaha Ethnohistory, 1763–1820," Plains Anthropologist 18 (1973):257–70; William Whitman, The Oto, Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, 28 (New York, 1937):1–32. (back)
37. Gass, Journal, p. 26; Thw. 1:88–89. (back)
38. Roy E. Appleman, Lewis and Clark: Historic Places Associated with Their Transcontinental Exploration (Washington, D.C: National Park Service, 1975), pp. 336–37; Ordway, Journal, p. 102; Thw. 1:92–94. (back)
39. Ordway, Journal, p. 104; Thw. 1:96. (back)
40. Ibid. 1:97. (back)
41. "Lewis and Clark to the Oto Indians," Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:203–8. (back)
42. Field Notes, p. 8. (back)
43. Thw. 1:36–37. (back)
44. Field Notes, p. 95; Gass, Journal, p. 30; Ordway, Journal, p. 104; Thw. 1:97–99; Whitehouse, Journal, p. 48. (back)
45. Smith, "Notes on Omaha Ethnohistory," pp. 264–69; Thw. 1:102, 106, 109–10. (back)
46. Ibid. 1:111. (back)
47. Ibid. 1:112; Whitehouse, Journal, p. 50. (back)
48. Field Notes, pp. 109–10; Thw. 1:112–14. (back)
49. Ibid. 1:126, 128. (back)
50. Gass, Journal, p. 37; Ordway, Journal, pp. 119–20; Thw. 1:131. (back)
51. Field Notes, pp. 125–26; Ordway, Journal, pp. 121–23; Thw. 1:131. (back)
52. Although the expedition's attention at Calumet Bluff was focused on questions of diplomacy and progress upriver, William Clark did record valuable data about Yankton life. Clark noted Sioux dress, weapons, and musical instruments. He filled in a vocabulary form and wrote a long description of the important warrior societies that gave shape to the lives of Sioux males. From Pierre Dorion, Clark obtained a useful list of the Sioux bands. See Thw. 1:129–33. (back)