Lewis & Clark among the Indians Preface

James P. Ronda© 1984University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

The Lewis and Clark expedition has long symbolized the westering impulse in American life. No other exploring party has so fully captured the imagination of ordinary citizens or the attention of scholars. In ways that defy rational explanation, the picture of Lewis and Clark struggling up the Missouri and across the mountains to the great western sea continues to stir our national consciousness. Books, highway markers, museum displays, and a foundation dedicated to preserving the Lewis and Clark trail all bear witness to a fascination that time has only deepened.

Over the generations since the expedition returned from the Pacific, its achievement and significance for America heading west have undergone constant reappraisal. From an early emphasis on the journey as an epic of physical endurance and courage, Lewis and Clark have emerged in this century as pioneer western naturalists, cartographers, and diplomats. Thomas Jefferson, the man William Clark once called "that great Chaructor the Main Spring" of the expedition, would have heartily endorsed an evaluation of the Corps of Discovery that included sharp minds as well as strong bodies. And Jefferson would have reminded us that his explorers were part of that long encounter between Euro-Americans and native Americans. In its daily affairs and official actions, the expedition passed through, changed, and was in turn changed by countless native lives.

In the simplest terms, this book is about what happens when people from different cultural persuasions meet and deal with each other. The Lewis and Clark expedition was an integral and symbolic part of what James Axtell has aptly called "the American encounter." Nearly two and a half years of almost constant contact between explorers and Indians illuminate the larger and longer series of cultural relationships that began centuries before on the margins of the continent. This book is not a retelling of the familiar Lewis and Clark adventure. That story has been told with grace and skill by Bernard DeVoto and in the magnificent photographs of Ingvard Eide and David Muench. But readers will find moments of high drama not previously well known or clearly understood. This book is not an attempt to dress up exploration history with feathers and paint to satisfy current political needs. Nor is it a stitching together of capsule tribal histories and ethnographies. Finally, readers need not expect a catalog of every ethnographic observation recorded in the journals of the expedition.

What this book does offer is something new for the history of exploration in general and Lewis and Clark literature in particular—a full-scale contact study of the official and personal relations between the explorers and the Indians. In 1952, Bernard De Voto wrote that "a dismaying amount of our history has been written without regard to the Indians." While much has changed since then, the history of exploration remains largely the story of the explorers themselves. Lewis and Clark among the Indians is an effort to meet DeVoto's challenge by looking at the very explorers he wrote about with such passion and perception. Lewis and Clark were indeed what William Goetzmann has labeled them, "diplomats in buckskin," but they and their party amounted to something more as well. The Corps of Discovery was a human community living in the midst of other human communities. The word among in the title was chosen to suggest that sense of living together. The daily dealings of Indians and explorers touched the full range of action and emotion. What is treated in these pages runs the gamut from high policy to personal liaisons, from the careful collection of ethnographic data to the sharing of food and songs around a blazing fire.

Every historian must first come to terms with his sources. Because the thoughts and actions of men like Weuche, Yelleppit, and Coboway are as central to the story of the expedition as the plans and designs of the explorers themselves, it is important to note the evidence and method used in this study. Donald Jackson once described Lewis and Clark as "the writingest explorers of their time." Lewis, Clark, Sergeants John Ordway, Charles Floyd, and Patrick Gass, and Private Joseph Whitehouse all wrote long, often perceptive passages in their diaries about native people. Despite the kinds of obvious cultural biases that scholars have long since learned to deal with in documentary analysis, the Lewis and Clark records provide a store of information about Indians unequaled in the literature of exploration. When joined to other contemporary evidence produced by the likes of David Thompson, Alexander Henry the Younger, Pierre-Antoine Tabeau, and Prince Maxmilian of Wied, the historical record is rich indeed. But by itself that written documentary record cannot fully explain the intricate patterns of encounter that bound Indians and explorers together. To that evidence this study brings the findings of anthropology and archaeology. Site reports and culture element distributions are used here not as fashionable window dressing but as a vital means to give depth and meaning to the behavior of native people. Tribal history is here meant to suggest context in human action. Ethnohistory has been usefully defined by Mildred Wedel and Raymond DeMallie as the critical examination of written evidence in the light of anthropological perspectives. This book is exploration ethnohistory, a deliberate effort to probe the complexity of Indian-white encounters in North America by examining a memorable venture that has come to represent the westward movement.

The Lewis and Clark drama had actors drawn from both sides of the cultural divide. As Lewis and Clark were important players with powerful lines, so too were Black Buffalo, Cameahwait, and the Nez Perce woman Watkuweis. If the expedition was what the western photographer Ingvard Eide called it, "the American odyssey," then all the argonauts—those who ventured to the sea and those who watched in wonder—must have their voices heard. The Lewis and Clark expedition has come to mean something special if indefinable in our national history. All the participants in that odyssey require their measure so that the story of the expedition and the nation not be half-told. This book is about that measure and those voices.