Lewis & Clark among the Indians 2. The Teton Confrontation

James P. Ronda© 1984University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London
"These are the vilest miscreants of the savage race, and must ever remain the
pirates of the Missouri, until such measures are pursued, by our government, as
will make them feel a dependence on its will for their supply of merchandise."
William Clark, 1804

On August 30, 1806, as the homeward-bound Lewis and Clark expedition swept down the Missouri near present-day Yankton, South Dakota, the explorers caught sight of more than one hundred well-armed Indians lining the northeast river bank. Salutes of greeting were fired by both parties as the expedition pulled up its canoes on the southwest bank. But the initial welcome vanished when Clark discovered that the Indians were Brulé Sioux of Black Buffalo's band. [1] The captain had hoped the Indians were Poncas, Omahas, or perhaps Yankton Sioux . But once their Brulé identity was known, he turned on them with his own brand of invective.

Taking instructions from Clark, the interpreter René Jusseaume shouted across the river that the Sioux were "bad people" and that "if any [came] near our camp we should kill them certainly." In a second barrage, Clark had Jusseaume tell the Brulés that future traders would be "sufficiently strong to whip any vilenous party who dare[d] to oppose them." As a parting shot, Clark notified the Sioux that the Americans had given guns, ammunition, and even a cannon to the Mandans and Hidatsas—weapons that would surely be turned against Brulé raiders. While most of the Indians retreated in the face of Clark's bombast, several warriors remained on a hill, hooting, jeering, and proclaiming their readiness to kill the Americans.

Toward sunset, one man, probably Chief Black Buffalo, came to the water's edge and invited the expedition to come across. Untongarabar, or Black Bull Buffalo, is known in more recent literature as Black Bull. Lewis and Clark consistently called him Black Buffalo. He remained a powerful force in Brulé politics and Missouri River trade until his death in July 1813. When Clark ignored his request, the Indian returned to the top of the hill and angrily struck the ground three times with his gun. "This I am informed," wrote Clark drily, "is a great oath among the Indians." [2]

The expedition's members did not sleep well that night. Wet sand, gusty winds, and an exposed campsite made them uncomfortable. Perhaps the unsettling jeers and curses of the Sioux moved the captains and their men to recall another and even more disagreeable clash just two years earlier with Black Buffalo and other Brulé chiefs. A close look at that tense 1804 encounter can reveal much about Lewis and Clark's relations with the Indians as well as the larger history of Upper Missouri Indian-white contact.

On the evening of September 23, 1804, as the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition rested at their camp just below the mouth of the Bad River, three Sioux boys swam across the Missouri to greet the explorers. The boys came from Teton Sioux villages along the Bad River, opposite present-day Pierre, South Dakota. From the very beginning of their enterprise, the captains had known they would have to face the feisty Tetons. Their reputation for harrassing traders, pilfering merchandise, and demanding large gifts was well known among St. Louis merchants. Jean Baptiste Truteau, whose party had been stopped by the Tetons in 1794, warned that "all voyageurs who undertake to gain access to the nations of the Upper Missouri ought to avoid meeting this tribe, as much for the safety of their goods as for their lives even." Lewis and Clark's conversations in St. Louis with Manuel Lisa, Antoine Soulard, the Chouteaus, and especially James Mackay, had made them aware of the risks in meeting the Tetons. The expedition's chance encounter with Regis Loisel, a trader just back from the Sioux country, had added to their information. [3] Now the Sioux boys told of two villages upriver. The captains, anxious to begin the talks, told the boys that their chiefs were invited to a conference the following day. [4]

After breaking camp on Monday morning, September 24, the expeditions began serious preparations for the long-anticipated parley. Knowing that the Brulé chiefs would require substantial gifts for themselves and their people, the captains worked through their bales of trade goods to find suitable presents. Among the items selected for the chiefs were flags, medals, and a red military coat and cocked hat. Also prepared for general distribution were knives, small metal and fabric goods, and a large amount of tobacco. Because their St. Louis contacts had warned them about the often violent tactics used by the Tetons to control river traffic, the expedition was armed with more than gifts. Clark cryptically recorded that he and Lewis "prepared all things for action in case of necessity."

That "necessity" seemed to come closer in the afternoon when John Colter, who had been on shore hunting, reported that one of their horses had been stolen by some Teton warriors. No sooner had Colter made his report than five Indians appeared on shore. The expedition's flotilla, now near the mouth of the Bad River, anchored in the Missouri while the captains tried to talk with these Sioux . Lewis and Clark felt certain that they were the horse thieves and, employing an old ruse, told them the horse was intended for their chief. The American accusations and the fact that neither group understood the other made the meeting confusing and potentially dangerous. After the Indians left, the expedition made its way to an anchorage opposite the mouth of the Bad River. An island in the Bad was selected as the place for negotiations the following day.

Later Monday evening, after the event of the stolen horse seemed less confusing and threatening, Lewis went to the island for a preliminary smoke with the Brulé chiefs. They promised to return the missing horse and proclaimed their readiness for serious talk the next day. Once back on the keelboat, Lewis seemed relieved to report "all well" with the Sioux . [5]

Monday night was a time for Lewis and Clark to consider the intricate diplomacy of the coming days. Jefferson's general instructions emphasized intertribal peace, trade contacts, American sovereignty, and the collection of ethnological material. But he had a special interest in the Sioux . Of all the Indians east of the mountains known to whites, it was the Sioux that the president singled out for the explorers' particular attention. Jefferson's concern with the Sioux was based on his appraisal of both their military strength and their economic potential. The martial power of the Sioux nation on both sides of the Missouri was well known. Jefferson was equally sensitive to the economic possibilities and imperial rivalries present in any Sioux -American negotiations. The journal by Truteau that Jefferson sent to Lewis in November 1803 revealed those elements. Truteau described the Sioux as "the greatest beaver hunters," whose pelts were worth "double the Canadian for the fineness of [their] fur and parchment." [6] Here was a grand opportunity for American enterprise. Profits from the Sioux fur trade would be an early vindication of the Louisiana Purchase. But, as Truteau had observed, the Sioux trade was firmly in the hands of the North West Company and its posts on the Des Moines and St. Peters rivers. If American sovereignty and commerce were to triumph, the Sioux would have to abandon John Bull for dealings with Uncle Sam.

Jefferson hoped Lewis and Clark might begin to lure the Sioux into the American orbit. But that would be no easy task. As he admitted to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, the United States was "miserably weak" in its newly gained western lands. In an important letter to Lewis, Jefferson urged the explorers to pay close attention to the Sioux . "On that nation," wrote the president, "we wish more particularly to make a friendly impression, because of their immense power, and because we learn they are very desirous of being on the most friendly terms with us." [7] Jefferson engaged in wishful thinking when he wrote that the Sioux were looking for American friendship, but he was closer to the mark in noting "their immense power." Lewis and Clark would have to confront that power, convince the Indians that St. Louis merchants did not endanger the Sioux role in Upper Missouri trade, and persuade Teton trappers and hunters to bring their pelts and skins to American posts. The captains would have to deal with Indian leaders who clearly understood tribal needs and had both the diplomatic skill and the military force to command attention. With its tangle of economic, military, and imperial interests, the Teton Sioux negotiation was perhaps the most demanding piece of Indian diplomacy assigned to Lewis and Clark.

If the captains spent Monday night discussing the diplomacy for the next day, then surely men like Black Buffalo, the Partisan, and Buffalo Medicine did the same. For the Brulé bands and their leaders, the political and economic stakes were very high. In the intricate trade network of the Upper Missouri, the Teton Sioux played a dangerous and precarious game. Teton Sioux of the Brulé, Oglala, a Miniconjou bands traditionally traveled each year to a trade fair known as the Dakota Rendezvous, held on the James River in east-central South Dakota. There the Tetons met Sisseton and Yankton Sioux who had obtained manufactured goods from North West Company posts on the Des Moines and St. Peters rivers. The Teton bands used those goods and buffalo robes in their agricultural trade with the Arikara village farmers. With Teton population growing, a secure food supply was essential. So long as the Tetons could control the flow of European goods to the villagers, the Sioux position would be reasonably strong. But if the villagers gained easy direct access to St. Louis traders, the role of the Tetons as brokers and middle-men would be lost. These commercial considerations required the Tetons to, at most, blockade the Missouri River or, at least, exact considerable tribute from traders coming upriver. The well-armed Lewis and Clark expedition, representing St. Louis interests and determined to make direct contact with the Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa villages, was an intrusion that could not be ignored. [8]

But there was more than economic position at stake for the Brulé leaders. As Lewis and Clark would soon discover, they were about to enter the tangled web of band factional politics. In Brulé politics the leading players were Black Buffalo, Buffalo Medicine, and Tortohongar, known to the whites as the Partisan. Black Buffalo, chief of the largest Brulé band, was described by Tabeau as a man "of good character, although angry and fierce in his fits of passion." His authority and prestige had been challenged long before the advent of Lewis and Clark by the Partisan, chief of the second-ranked Brulé band. Tabeau, whose trade goods had been ransacked by the Partisan and some of his men, described this Teton as "a true Proteus, who is seen in the selfsame day faint-hearted and bold, audacious and fearful, proud and servile, conciliator and firebrand." [9] The role of Buffalo Medicine remains unclear; he was called by Lewis and Clark the "3rd chief" in the power struggle between Black Buffalo and the Partisan. That struggle for leadership often had unforeseen consequences. When Black Buffalo engineered a temporary peace with his Ponca and Omaha neighbors in 1803, the Partisan undercut the effort by organizing a horse-stealing raid on the Poncas. In retaliation, Ponca warriors stole nine Sioux horses and attacked a Brulé village. But the village they raided was Black Buffalo's and the peace was broken. [10] Now, as the negotiations with Lewis and Clark were about to begin, both Black Buffalo and the Partisan looked to use the talks to increase their own prestige. Playing to the Indian galleries, each chief would try to outdo the other in zealous defense of Sioux privilege.

Early on the morning of September 25, the expedition established a council place on a sandbar in the Bad River. A canvas awning was put in place and a flagstaff raised. By ten o'clock a large number of Indians began to gather along both river banks. About eleven o'clock Black Buffalo, the Partisan, and Buffalo Medicine appeared. Hoping to begin the conference on a generous note, the captains offered the chiefs and thirty Brulé warriors something to eat. Not to be outdone, the chiefs gave the expedition several hundred pounds of fat buffalo meat. Clark responded by offering the Sioux some pork. Both sides had now shown the required hospitality and it was time at last to talk. To their chagrin, the Americans discovered they lacked an interpreter skillful enough for this demanding task. The translator Pierre Dorion had remained with the Yankton Sioux to promote peace between that tribe and the Omahas. Clark unhappily noted, "We feel much at a loss for want of an interpreter." The diplomats would have to rely on "the old frenchman" Pierre Cruzatte, who Clark admitted, could "speak but little." [11]

At noon both sides seemed ready to settle in for the speechmaking. After the usual mandatory smoking, Lewis stood to make a short speech made shorter for want of an interpreter. No journalist recorded Lewis's words, but it is likely that at this early stage the captain spoke in no more than generalities. The speech probably followed the pattern established in earlier conferences with other tribes in which the explorer-diplomats touched on issues of intertribal peace, trade and American sovereignty. [12]

When Lewis's speech ended, the expedition put on its "traveling medicine show"—a demonstration of martial power and Western technology. This display, with its aim to impress the Indians with American might, had been successfully staged earlier for the Otos, Missouris, and Yankton Sioux . [13] The performance began with a military parade by uniformed troops marching under the colors of the republic. As the parade ended, Lewis and Clark sought to keep the military splendor and political significance of the moment alive by handing out gifts to the Brulé chiefs. Recognizing Black Buffalo as the leading chief present, the captains gave him a medal, a red military coat, and a cocked hat. In their rush to gain approval from Black Buffalo, the Americans evidently slighted the Partisan. Lewis and Clark may have been insensitive to the nuances of rank and precedence in Teton politics, but by trying to make Black Buffalo a client chief they were simply following long-established diplomatic practice. From the time of earliest contact, European and later American government officials had always sought one Indian chief or headman, thinking he could both speak for and command the entire tribe. But neglecting the Partisan was a serious oversight, one that was sure to spark trouble in the coming days.

While the last presents were being distributed, the carefully orchestrated show was interrupted. The Brulé chiefs began to complain that the gifts were inadequate, as they had done to earlier traders. They demanded the expedition either stop its upriver progress and remain with them or at least leave a gift-laden pirogue behind as tribute. [14] While the captains must have known that such demands would eventually be made, they seemed unprepared that afternoon to deal with them directly. The niceties of diplomacy and the presence of many armed Teton warriors called for other measures. Lewis and Clark tried to divert Brulé attention by going on with the military hardware display. Lewis went through his now-familiar airgun demonstration, charging and firing it several times. Evidently unimpressed, Black Buffalo and the other chiefs continued to press their demands. Again hoping to divert the insistent chiefs, the captains offered to take them and some of their soldiers on the keelboat. Once on board, the Indians were shown "such curiossities as was strange to them." One Brulé warrior was given a government certificate proclaiming him "the friend and ally of the said states" and urging all citizens to treat him "in the most friendly manner." [15] Adding to the general milling about on the keelboat was the decision to break out some trade whiskey. Each chief was given one-fourth glass, "which [he] appeared to be very fond of." Clark observed that the Indians "sucked the bottle after it was out. "Amid this confusion the Partisan made his move both to frighten the Americans and to impress bankside Indian spectators. Feigning drunkenness as a cover "for his racially intentions," the Partisan became "troublesome." Fearing a bloody melee, Lewis and Clark struggled to get the chiefs back on shore. Those efforts were resisted, and it was only "with great relectiance" that the chiefs and their men boarded the pirogue for shore. Although the Partisan seemed intent on using the presence of the expedition as a means to advance his own power, Clark returned to land "with a view of reconsileing those men to us."

When the pirogue landed, an already difficult situation became potentially explosive. Three young Brulés, who may have belonged to the Partisan's retinue, seized the pirogue's bow cable. At the same moment, another warrior locked his arms around the pirogue's short mast. As the pirogue was being temporarily hijacked, the Partisan moved directly against Clark. The chief spoke roughly to Clark, staggered up against him, and told him that the expedition could not advance. The Partisan's actions were designed to test Clark, to make him weaken and back down as had previous white visitors. Given the presence of so many women and children, the Partisan had no intention of starting a shooting spree. Clark must have sensed the limits of the situation. His response to the jostling and "insolent jestures" was equally firm. Clark drew his sword and at the same time alerted Lewis and the keelboat crew for action. Lewis ordered the swivel guns readied while expeditionary soldiers around Clark prepared their weapons for firing. Then, as quickly as the Partisan had created the tension, Black Buffalo eased it. Obviously fearing heavy casualities if fighting erupted, Black Buffalo took the pirogue's cable and forcefully ordered the Brulé warriors away from the boat.

Surrounded by warriors with their bows strung and arrows out of quivers, the American captain and the Brulé chief now faced each other. The pointed and angry words they exchanged, passed through a very inadequate interpreter, reveal much about expedition-Indian relations and Teton Sioux policy. Clark told Black Buffalo that the expedition "must and would go on." To emphasize that determination, he told the Indians that his men "were not squaws, but warriors." Rising to this rhetorical challenge, Black Buffalo declared that "he had warriors too and if we were to go on they would follow us and kill and take the whole of us by degrees." Angered by the threats, Clark "felt My Self warm and Spoke in verry positive terms." Those terms included a reminder that the expedition was sent by the Chief of the Seventeen Fires, whose warriors could be summoned in a moment to punish the Sioux . And in a burst of temper, Clark boasted that he had "more medicine on board his boat than would kill twenty such nations in one day." [16]

The verbal sparring might have continued a bit longer except for the arrival of a canoe filled with twelve American soldiers "ready for any event." Most of the Indian warriors retreated and Clark was now left alone with the chiefs and a core of Brulé soldiers. Black Buffalo, still holding the pirogue's cable, asked if the women and children might see the keelboat and its curiosities. This was an easy request to grant, one that might allow both sides to emerge with honor and prestige intact. Clark agreed and Black Buffalo dropped the cable. Determined to have the last word, the chief declared that "he was sorry to have us go for his women and children were naked and poor and wished to get some goods, but he did not think we were merchants, nor that we were loaded with goods, but he was sorry to have us leave so soon." As Clark and his men stood by the pirogue, the chiefs walked down the bank for a private council. After waiting some time, Clark approached the chiefs and offered to shake hands. The captain was rebuffed and took that as a signal that discussions were over for the day.

As Clark and his party paddled back to the keelboat, Black Buffalo made one last demand. He and two of his warriors waded out ten feet from shore and asked to be taken on the keelboat. That night, as the Brulé chief and his men slept on a board, Clark wrote simply of the day: "Their treatment to me was verry rough and I think justified roughness on my part." Clark neglected to add that their diplomacy was being drawn off course and onto the single point of continued upriver progress. The roughness of the day was hardly what Jefferson had in mind by "a friendly impression." The initiative was clearly in Brulé hands. All Lewis and Clark could do was react and hope to escape unscathed. And as an indication of the apprehensive mood felt throughout the expedition, the island named "Good humored" was changed to "Bad humored island as we were in a bad humor." [17]

The tensions of the previous day were not repeated on Wednesday, September 26. With Black Buffalo and his soldiers still on board, the keelboat sailed about five miles upriver. The shore was lined with Sioux spectators closely watching the progress of the chiefs and the explorers. Clark noted that "these people Shew great anxiety." With the failure of the bluff-and-bluster tactics the day before and the expedition now moving upriver, perhaps many Sioux feared they had lost the battle of wits and wills. Hoping to keep the expedition a bit longer, Black Buffalo asked the captains to land near his village so his women and children might visit the boat. Lewis and Clark agreed, perhaps feeling that more time with the Tetons might produce a change in the diplomatic climate. [18]

Anchoring the keelboat about one hundred yards from shore, the captains divided their forces. Lewis accompanied Black Buffalo to the Brulé village while Clark remained on board. The Brulé chief "appeared disposed to make up and be friendly." The Sioux village the expedition saw that day must have been an impressive sight. Ordway, one of the expedition's most careful observers, wrote: "Their lodge [village] is very handsome in a circle and about 100 cabbins in nomber and all white, made of buffalo hides dressed white. One large one in the center, the lodge for the war dances." [19] Ordway and Gass estimated that with about ten persons in each tepee the total village population was eight or nine hundred persons. Gass thought that two-thirds of the Sioux in the village were women and children. [20]

As the morning slipped away and no word came from Lewis, those on the keelboat "became uneasy for fear of Deception." After about three hours, Clark sent Gass to find Lewis. Gass reported back that Lewis was well and that the Sioux were preparing a feast and dance to honor the Americans. That news was a clear indication of a shift in Brulé tactics. If the whites could not be easily bluffed, they might be flattered and impressed by a show of Sioux hospitality and military prowess. It was Black Buffalo's turn to demonstrate "medicine" as the Americans had done earlier. Throughout the afternoon many Brulé folk made "frequent selicitiations" for the expedition to remain one night longer so that they could "Show their good disposition towards us." Once the captains agreed, they were carried with much ceremony on white buffalo robes to the great council lodge.

The scene that night in the Brulé village made a lasting impression on many members of the expedition. Fires glowed through translucent tepees as women prepared vast quantities of food for the feast. Slabs of buffalo meat roasted over hot coals. In a circle inside the council lodge were seated some seventy elders and prominent warriors. The Americans were placed next to Black Buffalo. Directly in front of the chiefs a six-foot sacred circle had been cleared for holy pipes, pipe stands, and medicine bundles. American and Spanish flags were also displayed in the circle. Lewis and Clark noticed the Spanish ensign but decided to ignore it. There is no evidence to suggest that the Tetons recognized the sovereignty of either Spain or the United States. The flag may have been used simply for colorful decoration.

The diplomacy of the evening began when a Brulé elder stood "and Spoke aproveing what we had done." Because the captains still lacked a reliable Sioux interpreter, they were uncertain about much of what the old man said. The import of his speech seemed to be that the Brulé bands were poor and that the expedition should trade with them, not the upriver tribes. No journalist recorded the American reply, but the explorers probably repeated their usual formula about peace with other tribes and the need for the expedition to press on. The concern for intertribal peace was a cornerstone in Jefferson's Indian policy and also reflected the needs of the St. Louis merchants. Because Lewis and Clark had learned earlier in the day that there were many Omaha prisoners in the Brulé villages, the Americans saw this as an opportunity to promote Teton-Omaha peace. Clark called upon Black Buffalo to free the Omaha captives. Black Buffalo's attempt at peacemaking with the Omahas had been disrupted by the Partisan in 1803, and there was little reason to think the chief would release valuable prisoners just to gratify what must have seemed the whim of a distant chief.

The council reached its dramatic climax when Black Buffalo "rose with great state" to address the gathering. Again hindered by the lack of a skilled interpreter, Lewis and Clark understood little of what the chief said. Clark recorded in his journal that the chief spoke "to the same purpose" as did the Brulé elder. It seems clear that Black Buffalo was employing his oratorical talents to further the fundamental Teton Sioux aim—to keep the expedition from opening direct trade with the Arikaras and other Upper Missouri village people. His speech finished, Black Buffalo took up the most holy of the pipes and pointed it in each of the cardinal directions. Before lighting the pipe, he offered a prayer. Still holding the pipe, the chief took some tender dog meat and made a "Sacrefise to the flag." These solemnities over, the pipe was passed around the circle for all to smoke.

Food was next on the evening agenda. The captains and their men were presented with all the Sioux delicacies, including platters of roast dog, buffalo, pemmican, and prairie turnips. [21] The whole assembly ate and smoked with an air of conviviality until dusk. At nightfall a large fire was made in the center of the village to light the way for musicians and dancers. Ten male musicians entered first. Their instruments were of two kinds: a tambourine-like instrument made by stretching a skin over a willow hoop, and various rattles made by tying deer and antelope hooves on a long stick. Clark noted that the rattles made a "gingling noise." As the men began to sing and play, women "highly Deckerated in their way" came forward and began to dance in time to the rhythm. In this war dance the women displayed scalps and other war trophies belonging to their male relatives. That night such a display was surely aimed at impressing Lewis and Clark with Brulé military might. One young man moved away from the players and toward the spectators. In a high singing voice he recounted the daring exploits of band members in combat with their enemies. His words were picked up by the performers behind him and repeated to add power to the whole spectacle. [22] Throughout the evening members of the expedition rewarded the singers and dancers with tobacco. When one warrior thought he had not received his proper due, he broke one drum, threw two more in the fire, and angrily left the dance line. The two drums were hastily retrieved from the fire and the dancing continued. [23] The entertainment, "done with great Chearfullness," went on until midnight. Ordway found the music "delightful," but by midnight Lewis and Clark were plainly weary. Tactfully, they suggested to the chiefs that everyone must now be tired. Taking the hint, the chiefs ended the festivities and returned with the captains to spend the night on the keelboat. [24]

As Lewis and Clark left the Brulé village, they were offered young women as bed partners. For the Sioux , the proposal combined hospitality and diplomacy. Clark understood the meaning of the offer, writing later that "a curious custom with the Souix as well as the rickeres [Arikaras] is to give handsom squars to those whome they wish to Show some acknowledgments to." Repeating the offer the following night, the Indians made clear to Clark that the woman stood for the whole band. He was urged "to take her and not dispise them." Although fully aware of the symbolic significance of sexual intercourse with the proffered woman, Clark dismissed her. That rejection must have bewildered the Brulés and surely did not foster the friendship and trust Jefferson was seeking. [25]

The late night entertainment was unquestionably a great emotional release from the tensions of earlier days, but Clark reported that at least he did not sleep well. On Thursday morning, September 27, both the captains and the chiefs were up early. Black Buffalo and the Partisan were given, or rather they simply appropriated, the blankets they had slept on. After breakfast Lewis and the chiefs went on shore "as a verry large part of their nation was comeing in" to see the expedition. Clark remained on the keelboat, where he wrote a letter to Pierre Dorion and prepared a medal and some certificates for Lewis to use later in the day.

About midafternoon Lewis, accompanied by Black Buffalo, the Partisan, and the "considerable man" Warchapa, returned to the keelboat. After about half an hour, the captains evidently thought it best that all return to the Sioux village. When Clark began to suggest they go ashore, the chiefs showed "great reluctiance" to leave. That reluctance finally overcome, Clark first visited the Partisan's lodge. A crowd gathered outside the tepee as the American and the Brulé spoke "on various subjects." Continuing his round of courtesy calls, Clark stopped at the lodge of a Brulé elder and then moved on to Black Buffalo's tepee. From there Clark was conducted to a gathering of Teton elders. Toward evening Lewis arrived in the village and both captains enjoyed a display of the same dancing and ceremony as the previous night. And once again, on the way back to the keelboat, they were offered Sioux women. As before, the offer was rejected.

Tired by a full day of talking and visiting, the American party, along with the Partisan and one of his soldiers, made their way on the white pirogue back to the keelboat. The evening stillness was shattered when some clumsy steering caused the pirogue to slam broadside against the keelboat's anchor cable. The cable broke and both vessels began to swing dangerously. Clark at once shouted at his men to get their oars in order to prevent further damage to either vessel. His shouting and the general bustle of men moving quickly in the darkness frightened the Sioux . An alarm ran through the village as Black Buffalo spread the word that an Omaha attack was at hand. Within ten minutes the chief and two hundred armed men prepared for combat were on the river bank. After about half an hour, most of the warriors made their way back to the village. However, some sixty remained on watch throughout the night.

Both Lewis and Clark believed that the sudden appearance of so many warriors was a "signal of their intentions (which was to Stop our proceeding on our journey and if Possible rob us.)" [26] This harsh view of Brulé motives was not shared by others in the expedition. Sergeants Ordway and Gass and Private Whitehouse emphasized both the fear of Omaha attack and the genuine desire of the Sioux to help the endangered vessels. [27] In light of Brulé activities before Lewis and Clark's coming, Black Buffalo's fear of Omaha attack was well grounded. In early September, some two weeks before the expedition arrived, a Brulé war party had raided an Omaha village, burning forty lodges and killing more than seventy-five of the tribe. There were now some forty-eight Omaha prisoners in the two Brulé villages along the Bad River. [28] In the cycle of raid and reprisal, Black Buffalo had every reason to think the confusion in the night was due to something more than a broken cable and a missing anchor.

But the Americans also had reason to worry that night. Although Clark stressed the sudden arrival of Sioux warriors as cause for alarm, it was probably intelligence brought to the captains by Pierre Cruzatte that put the expedition on its guard throughout the night. On Wednesday, September 26, Cruzatte had been given some trade goods as presents for the Omaha prisoners. Now, in return, the prisoners told the interpreter that Lewis and Clark "were to be stoped." The value of that information gathered from Indians who saw the Teton Sioux as enemies is now hard to judge. Certainly it fit the overall evaluation of Sioux behavior held by the expedition. Clark's tense lines "we Shew as little signs of a Knowledge of their intentions as possible, all prepared on board for any thing which might happen, we kept a Strong guard all night in the boat, no Sleep" betray both fear of Sioux military power and an exaggerated readiness to fight. [29]

Lewis and Clark and their men had now been with the Teton Sioux for three days. Those were days filled with isolated moments of trouble and misunderstanding and long periods of friendly visiting and good company. The expedition gathered some important ethnographic data, tried to make its point about American sovereignty, and even practiced, albeit with dubious success, some intertribal peace-making. But on the crucial issue of trade—safe passage up the Missouri for fur traders and St. Louis merchants—there had been little or no progress. The expedition planned to spend the rest of the year at the Mandan villages; with winter coming, it was now time to move on. That determination to press upriver collided with the equal determination of the Brulé chiefs both to advance their own prestige and to defend Teton Sioux economic interests. In the eyes of men like Black Buffalo and the Partisan, the continued presence of the American expedition posed something of a dilemma and an embarrassment. Both men needed to act forcefully to vindicate personal claims to power. Teton bands had come to expect their headmen to obtain gifts from river traders. A chief who could not deliver was bound to have his authority openly questioned. At the same time, faced with a well-armed party under strong leadership, the chiefs feared pressing their demands too far. If there was a bloody incident and Indian casualties were high, the chiefs would surely lose influence. Pressure tactics that proved effective in intimidating poorly armed traders who needed Sioux cooperation would not work against a military expedition whose goals went far beyond the ledger book. It was against this background of cross purposes, face saving, and Lewis and Clark's determination to leave the Bad River that the last day of the Teton Sioux confrontation was played out.

Much of Friday morning was spent in a fruitless search for the keelboat anchor. By midmorning, when the work parties took breakfast, nearly all the Brulés lined the river bank. As the captains were about to order the sail hoisted, Black Buffalo and the other chiefs appeared. Once on board, the Brulé leaders began their now-familiar demand that the expedition remain with them. Ordway noted that the warriors on the bank were well armed with guns, spears, "a kind of cutlashes," and bows with metal-tipped arrows. [30] Anxious to leave, the crew made preparations to cast off the bowline. At that moment several of the Partisan's warriors took hold of the cable. Clark, who was inside the cabin with Black Buffalo, saw what happened and complained to the chief. Evidently fearing that the seizure of the cable spelled the beginning of very serious trouble, and perhaps resenting the role of the Partisan in the affair, the Brulé chief hurried forward to assure Lewis that the warriors simply wanted tobacco. Lewis, weary of the constant demands for gifts, refused to give them anything. He ordered all hands ready for departure, had the sail hoisted, and detailed one man to untie the bow cable.

At this critical moment several things happened at once. The bow cable, first untied by a crewman, was again fastened by several of the Partisan's warriors. At the same time, the Partisan himself demanded a flag and some tobacco. Lewis angrily ordered all Indians off the boat while Clark threw a carrot of tobacco on the bank. Clark then took the firing taper for the port swivel gun in his hand and "spoke so as to touch his [Black Buffalo's] pride." Clark did not record the sarcasm in his journal but years later told Nicholas Biddle, "I threw him tobacco saying to the chief you have told us you are a great man—have influence—take this tobacco and shew us your influence by taking the rope from your men and letting go without coming to hostilities." [31] Clark also had a "rangleing" exchange with the Partisan. Violence seemed seconds away. Warriors hurried women and children from the bank. But it was Black Buffalo who finally calmed the situation. He promised the expedition safe conduct if tobacco, always a ceremonial tribute, was given to the warriors holding the cable. Lewis and Clark balked at the demand, saying that they "did not mean to be trifled with." Seeing the captains hesitate, Black Buffalo sarcastically observed that "he was mad too, to see us stand so much for one carrot of tobacco." Lewis tossed the tobacco to the Indians and Black Buffalo jerked the cable from their hands. At that moment the Teton confrontation was over. [32]

In those moments when Clark was ready to fire, when the Brulé warriors had bows strung, and when the Partisan was shouting defiance, it was Black Buffalo who showed both firmness and the ability to compromise. Perhaps by September 28 the Brulé chief realized that nothing further could be gained by delaying Lewis and Clark. There would be other parties from St. Louis, less well armed, with more goods, and easier to intimidate. Allowing one boat to pass was hardly a defeat. Black Buffalo had obtained ceremonial tribute from the Americans and had lost nothing in the eyes of his own people. But at the beginning of the final day of the confrontation, the political ambitions of the Partisan were as yet unfulfilled. His contest for influence with Black Buffalo still gave him reason to harrass the Americans. The Partisan, described by Buffalo Medicine's son as a "Double Spoken man," seized the initiative that day as one more means to gain precedence over Black Buffalo. [33] The last minutes of the Teton encounter were less a conflict between Indians and American explorers and more a tussle between rival band headmen. In the end it was Black Buffalo who engineered a compromise allowing each party to escape with some dignity intact and without bloodshed.

If Black Buffalo is credited with working to avoid violence, then Lewis and Clark also deserve a share of the glory. They took seriously their instructions from Jefferson to deal with Indians "in a most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit." [34] The captains also understood the flexibility they had as explorers. They could, with enough determination and good fortune, move up the Missouri. Unlike the St. Louis traders, Lewis and Clark did not have to stay with the Sioux , trade with them, and depend on their cooperation. Subsequent St. Louis parties, from Nathaniel Pryor's Sheheke expedition to Wilson Price Hunt's Astorians, would find the Teton Sioux as intransigent as ever.

The memory of the Sioux September was still fresh when Clark, writing from Fort Mandan during the winter of 1804–1805, described the Tetons as "the vilest miscreants of the savage race, and must ever remain the pirates of the Missouri." [35] Clark's harsh words masked a harsher reality. The Sioux talks had failed. The Sioux were no closer to becoming part of the St. Louis trade network. No delegation of Brulé dignitaries was prepared to visit the president. Jefferson's call for Lewis and Clark to make a "friendly impression" on Black Buffalo's folk was lost in a welter of conflicting band and personal quarrels. Lewis admitted as much when he informed Jefferson that Corporal Richard Warfington's return party bound for St. Louis, the spring of 1805 was sure to encounter heavy Sioux fire. Sioux hostility might endanger not only Warfington's men but the keelboat loaded with the expedition's journals, maps, and botanical specimens. The hazard was real enough that Warfington's men "pledged themselves to us that they will not yeald while there is a man of them living." [36] This was hardly the sort of diplomatic conclusion Jefferson sought. At best Lewis and Clark could say their efforts were inconclusive; at worst they may have exacerbated Sioux -American relations.

Nearly 150 years later, Bernard DeVoto voiced what has become historical wisdom about the encounter. DeVoto declared that Lewis and Clark defeated the Tetons, forced them to back down, and made them "women" in the eyes of their neighbors. Heaping abuse on the Sioux , he described Brulé soldiers as "bully boys" engaged in "storm trooper tactics." DeVoto maintained that after being defeated by the no-nonsense firmness of the Americans, the Tetons "were just beggars again." [37] But it was not the Teton Sioux who were defeated. Rather, it was American diplomacy that had been handed a stinging rebuff. As Lewis and Clark recognized in their 1806 letter to the North West Company trader Hugh Heney, the Sioux would always be a barrier to trade on the Upper Missouri "until some effectual measures be taken to render them pacific." [38] They had surely not been rendered "pacific" by three days of playing cat and mouse with Lewis and Clark. In the next two decades, as English traders retreated from the prairies and plains and Sioux population grew, the Teton bands did indeed turn to American merchants. But until that happened, Jefferson's assessment that the United States was "miserably weak" proved a painfully accurate appraisal of northern plains realities. Lewis and Clark had done little to transform those political and economic realities.


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. The Brulé territory at the time of Lewis and Clark was bounded by the North Platte River on the south and somewhat beyond the Missouri River on the east. The northern boundary was between the Bad and Cheyenne rivers. The Brulés hunted as far west as the Black Hills. John C. Ewers, Teton Dakota Ethnology and History (Berkeley, Calif.: Western Museum Laboratories, United States Department of the Interior, 1938), p. 9, map 4; Robin W. Wells, Tribal Distribution Map Series, North America (Toledo: University of Toledo Cartographic Services, n.d.), map for 1760–1810. (back)
2. Ordway, Journal, pp. 394–95; Thw. 5:365–67. (back)
3. Jean Baptiste Truteau, "Journal on the Missouri River, 1794–1795," in Nasatir, ed., Before Lewis and Clark, 1:269; Thw. 1:29. Something of the climate of opinion in St. Louis concerning the Sioux can be seen in: Lewis to Jefferson, December 28, 1803, Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:154–55; Lewis to Auguste Chouteau, January 4, 1804, ibid. 1:161–62; Field Notes, p. 16. (back)
4. Thw. 1:162. (back)
5. Gass, Journal, p. 50; Ordway, Journal, pp. 136–37; Thw. 1:162–63; Whitehouse, Journal, pp. 61–62. (back)
6. Jefferson to Lewis, November 16, 1803, Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:138–39. (back)
7. Jefferson to Robert Smith, July 13, 1804, Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress; Jefferson to Lewis, January 22, 1804, ibid. 1:166. (back)
8. Annie H. Abel, ed., Tabeau's Narrative of Loisel's Expedition to the Upper Missouri (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939), pp. 121–23, 131; John C. Ewers, "The Indian Trade of the Upper Missouri before Lewis and Clark," Missouri Historical Society Bulletin 10 (1954):429–46; Donald Jackson, ed., The Journals of Zebulon Montgomery Pike with Letters and Related Documents, 2 vols. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), 1:213–15, 221; Thw. 1:189, 6:45, 98; Trutueau, "Journal," 1:301–2, 310; W. Raymond Wood, "Contrastive Features of Native North American Trade Systems," University of Oregon Anthropological Papers, No. 4 (Eugene, 1972), pp. 153–69. William Clark's 1810 map contains notations about the location and function of the Dakota Rendezvous. See Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi West, 1: map 291. Lewis's incisive comments, made after the expedition, on the Missouri trade system are in Thw. 6:45–46. (back)
9. Abel, ed., Tabeau's Narrative, pp. 108–9, 111–13. The Partisan may have been present at an Indian council held by Zebulon Pike at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers on September 23, 1805. He was surely at a conference arranged by Manuel Lisa at Prairie du Chien in July 1815. See Jackson, ed., Journals of Zebulon Pike, 1:37–38; Richard E. Oglesby, Manuel Lisa and the Opening of the Missouri Fur Trade (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), p. 157. (back)
10. Richard White, "The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries," Journal of American History 65 (1978): 326. (back)
11. Thw. 1:164. (back)
12. Ibid. 1:129–33. (back)
13. Ibid. 1:112–14, 129–33. (back)
14. For a similar demand see "Report of Clamorgan and Reihle, St. Louis, July 8, 1795," Nasatir, ed., Before Lewis and Clark, 1:340. (back)
15. Thw. 1:113. (back)
16. This arresting claim is not in Clark's journal or in his field notes, but both Gass, Journal, p. 51, and Whitehouse, Journal, p. 63, record it. (back)
17. Field Notes, p. 148; Ordway, Journal, pp. 138–39; Thw. 1:164–65. (back)
18. Elliott Coues (History of the Expedition under the Command of Lewis and Clark, 4 vols. in 3 [1893; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1964], 1:137) notes that many of the Indians present on September 26 were Okandanda or Oglala Teton Sioux. This is possible but not recorded in any of the expedition's journals. The Elliott Coues edition of Nicholas Biddle's 1814 History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark is hereafter cited as Biddle-Coues, History. (back)
19. Ewers, Teton Dakota, pp. 26–28; Ordway, Journal, pp. 139, 141. (back)
20. Gass, Journal, pp. 51–52; Ordway, Journal, pp. 139–40. (back)
21. Paul R. Cutright, Lewis and Clark: Pioneering Naturalists (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1969), p. 91; Ewers, Teton Dakota, pp. 16–18. (back)
22. George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, 2 vols. (1844; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1973), 1:245–46, plate 104; Frances Densmore, Teton Sioux Music, Smithsonian Institution, BAE Bulletin no. 61 (Washington, D.C., 1918), pp. 48–51, plates 38, 39, 46; Ewers, Teton Dakota, p. 65. (back)
23. Ordway, Journal, p. 140. (back)
24. Thw. 1:166–69; Whitehouse, Journal, pp. 63–64. (back)
25. Field Notes, pp. 149–50; Thw. 1:189. (back)
26. Ibid. 1:169–70. (back)
27. Gass, Journal, pp. 52–54; Ordway, Journal, pp. 141–42; Whitehouse, Journal, p. 64. (back)
28. Thw. 1:168. (back)
29. Ibid. 1:169–70. (back)
30. James A. Hanson, Metal Weapons, Tools, and Ornaments of the Teton Dakota Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975), pp. 14–17, 26, 45. (back)
31. "Biddle Notes," Jackson, ed., Letters, 2:518. (back)
32. Gass, Journal, p. 54; Field Notes, p. 151; Ordway, Journal, pp. 142–43; Thw. 1:170–71; Whitehouse, Journal, p. 65. (back)
33. Thw. 1:171. (back)
34. Jefferson, "Instructions to Lewis," 1:64. (back)
35. Thw. 6:98. (back)
36. Lewis to Jefferson, April 7, 1805, Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:233. (back)
37. Bernard De Voto, The Course of Empire (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1952), pp. 445, 448. (back)
38. Clark to Hugh Heney, July 20, 1806, Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:310. This is Clark's copy of a letter that Lewis drafted in early July 1806. (back)