August 1 was Clark’s thirty-fourth birthday. To mark the occasion, “I order’d a Saddle of fat Vennison, an Elk fleece & a Bevertail to be cooked and a Desert of Cheries, Plumbs, Raspberries, Currents and grapes of a Supr. quallity.” Taking note of the flora and fauna in this wonderland the expedition was entering, Clark noted, “What a field for a Botents [botanist] and a natirless [naturalist].”
No American, not even the professional naturalists such as John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson, had ever seen anything to surpass it.1 Lewis was fully aware of the magnitude of the discoveries and greatly excited by the opportunity to be the one to note and describe plants and animals new to science. He spent hours examining and describing his finds. On August 5, for example, he killed a bull snake. He measured its length from nose to tail (five feet two inches), its “circumpherence” (four and a half inches), the number of scuta on its belly (221) and tail (53), its color, spots, and other distinctive markings.
That afternoon, he killed two aquatic birds he had previously observed but been unable to obtain. They were least terns. He used a thousand words to describe the specimens, including weight (an ounce and a half), length (seven and a half inches), markings, and so on. He recorded, “The tail has eleven feathers the outer of which are an inch longer than those in the center gradually tapering inwards. . . . the largest or outer feather is 23/4” that of the shortest 13/4”. . . . This bird is very noysey when flying which it dose exttreemly swift. . . . It has two notes one like the squaking of a small pig only on reather a high kee, the other kit’-tee’,-kit’tee’ as near as letters can express the sound.”
As the men laboriously moved the keelboat upriver, Lewis, in the cabin, weighed and measured and examined and recorded. He took his responsibilities seriously, but he had a lot of fun doing it, and he had a never-flagging sense of wonder and delight at seeing something new.
On August 8, one of the bowmen called back to Lewis, who was working in the cabin. The captain looked up to see a blanket of white coming down the river. He went to the bow to stare down into the water. The keelboat and the white whatever-it-was came together. On close examination it turned out to be a sea of white feathers, over three miles long and seventy yards wide.
The boat rounded a bend. Ahead was a large sandbar at the foot of a small island. It was entirely covered with white pelicans, preening themselves in their summer molt. To Lewis, the number of birds was “in credible; they apeared to cover several acres of ground.” The mosquitoes were so thick that he could not keep them out of his eyes to take an aimed shot, so he fired his rifle at random into the mass and collected a specimen, which he then weighed, measured, and described. He was astonished to find that the pouch could hold five gallons of water.
The white pelican was not new to science. Lewis had not seen one before, but he knew enough about it to call it a “bird of clime” that wintered “on the coast of Floriday and the borders of the Gulph of mexico.” That knowledge came from book learning; he had never been to Florida or the Gulf of Mexico.
On August 12, at 5:00 p.m., what Clark called a “Prarie Wolf’ appeared on the bank and barked at the passing keelboat. The captains had not previously seen this animal, or read anything about it, so they went ashore to collect a specimen. But, Clark sadly noted, “we could not git him.”
The animal was a coyote. Lewis and Clark were the first Americans to see one. The captains set a precedent; millions of Americans who came after have also failed in their attempt to kill the coyote.
On August 18, while waiting for an Indian delegation to approach, Lewis took twelve soldiers to a fishing pond used by the Otoes. The party caught 490 catfish and upward of three hundred fish of nine other species.
Beyond flora and fauna, Lewis studied and described the soil and minerals of the area. He was not so good a mineralogist as a botanist. One mineral experiment almost cost him his life. On August 22, along with some copperas and alum he found a substance that appeared to be arsenic or cobalt. Clark recorded, “Capt. Lewis in proveing the quality of those minerals was near poisoning himself by the fumes & taste” of the unknown substance. Lewis took some of Rush’s pills to “work off the effects of the Arsenic.”
By August 23, the expedition was almost at the ninety-eighth meridan, the generally agreed-upon eastern border of the Great Plains of North America. The sense of being in a Garden of Eden was strong. There were fat deer and elk and beaver and other species in numbers scarcely conceivable. That afternoon, Lewis sent Private Joseph Field on a hunt. A few hours later, Field came rushing down the bluff to the bank and hollered out to the boat to come ashore. When it did, he breathlessly announced that he had killed a buffalo.
The buffalo was the quintessential animal of the North American continent, the symbol of the Great Plains, more than any other animal save the beaver the magnet that drew men to the West. It was not new to science, but of the men of the expedition only the French voyagers had previously seen one. Lewis immediately detailed twelve men to accompany him to the site of the kill to bring the carcass back to the river. That night, for the first time, the party dined on buffalo hump, buffalo tongue, buffalo steaks. Next to the tail of the beaver, buffalo hump and tongue at once became the meat of choice.
In the Garden of Eden, man had but to reach out for his food. So too on the Great Plains, as Clark’s birthday menu demonstrated. But this Garden of Eden was also a potential battlefield populated by numerous Indian tribes containing thousands of warriors. As a result, in addition to being a fabulous field for the botanist and naturalist, the Plains were also a challenging field for the soldier, the peacemaker, the ethnologist, and the businessman.
These tribes were virtually unknown except to a handful of British and French fur traders. There were many stories and rumors about them, most of all the Sioux, but little solid fact.
Jefferson and Lewis had talked at length about these tribes, on the basis of near-complete ignorance. They speculated that the lost tribe of Israel could be out there on the Plains, but it was more likely, in their minds, that the Mandans were a wandering tribe of Welshmen.2 Because they subscribed to such odd ideas, Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis on how to deal with the tribes were, in most particulars, hopelessly naive and impossible to carry out. For example, Jefferson assumed that, although the Sioux were said to be the fiercest and greatest of the tribes, they were “very desirous of being on the most friendly terms with us.” That bit of wishful thinking led to Jefferson’s direct order to Lewis. “On that nation,” he commanded, referring to the Sioux, “we wish most particulary to make a favorable impression.”3
In general, Jefferson wanted Lewis to inform the tribes that the new father intended to embrace them into a commercial system that would benefit all involved, and that to make this happen the new father wished them to make peace with one another. Lewis’s objectives, as given to him by Jefferson, were to establish American sovereignty, peace, and a trading empire in which the warriors would put down their weapons and take up traps.
Jefferson recognized that the possibility of resistance to this program existed, meaning there was a possibility that the Sioux, or some other, unknown tribe, would attempt to stop the expedition. Jefferson knew too that Lewis was, like other army officers of his day, extremely sensitive to perceived threats or slights, and he had reason to suspect that Lewis inclined more toward rashness than prudence. That was why Jefferson specifically ordered Lewis to avoid a fight if at all possible.
This brought back some realism to the commander-in-chief’s orders. Relations with the Indians were important, establishing commercial ties with them was desirable, but the sine qua non of the expedition was to get to the Pacific and return with as much information as possible. Put more bluntly, Lewis’s first objective was to get through, and whatever he had to sacrifice to do it would be sacrificed. That was why the standard of discipline was so high, why there was a cannon on a swivel on the bow of the keelboat, and blunderbusses on the stern and on the canoes. Jefferson, Lewis, Clark, everyone involved hoped to God that they would not be needed, but all were prepared to use them if necessary.
To avoid fighting and to promote commerce, Lewis had made a major effort to select gifts for the Indians. In Philadelphia in the spring of 1803 and in St. Louis in the winter of 1803–4, he had purchased beads, brass buttons, tomahawks, axes, moccasin awls, scissors, mirrors, and other wonders of the early industrial revolution, along with tobacco, vermilion face paint, and whiskey. On Jefferson’s direct orders, he had lugged along two corn grinders, presumably to teach the tribes how to make grits.4
Lewis and Clark scholar James Ronda puts perspective on the Indian policy of the expedition: “These 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. . . . 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.”5
The most desired items of all were rifles, balls, and powder. Most of the Indian-held guns on the Plains were cheap British shotguns. Lewis wanted to show the overall excellence of the American arms industry, but because of the bulk he could not carry along free samples. He could demonstrate what his men could do with a Kentucky long rifle, but he could only promise, not deliver, similar weapons for the Indians.
The presents, trade goods, certificates, medals, and the rest were packed into twenty-one bags, each containing a variety of items and each marked for one of the various tribes Lewis expected to encounter before going into winter camp. They began with the Poncas and Omahas, tribes of the lower Missouri, and went on to the Mandans. Five bales were stuffed with goods for the tribes beyond the Mandans.
Thus armed with his orders, guns, and goods, Lewis set out to meet the Indians of the Great Plains.
All the tribes of the lower Missouri had been out hunting buffalo as the expedition made its way west and north. It did not encounter a single Indian from St. Charles to past the Platte River. Then, at sunset on August 2, a party of Otos and a few Missouris arrived at camp, accompanied by a French trader and translator. After an exchange of greetings, the captains gave the Indians some tobacco, twisted together into what was called a carrot after its shape, and some pork, flour, and meal. “In return,” Clark noted, “they Sent us Water millions [watermelons].”
The Indians said their band of combined Otoes and Missouris numbered 250. They were a farming as well as a hunting people, with semipermanent towns. The captains invited them to a council the next day, at their campsite, which they called Council Bluff (across and downriver from present Council Bluffs, Iowa). Clark recorded that he and Lewis also “put every man on his Guard & ready for any thing.” The night was a restless one, marked by tension and anticipation instead of sleep.
In the morning, the expedition had its first meeting with Indians. Going into it, as James Ronda points out, the captains had expectations and actions that were deeply rooted in the history of white-red relations in North America, directly linked to generations of forest diplomats. They were preparing for exactly the kind of ritual Clark had seen at the council negotiating the Treaty of Greenville with General Anthony Wayne in 1795.6
On Friday morning, August 3, 1804, fog hung over the river. As he waited for it to lift and the Indians to come to the council, Lewis wrote out a long speech he intended to make. Clark supervised the preparation of the gifts. The voyagers opened bale number thirty and took out red leggings, fancy dress coats, and blue blankets, along with flags and medals. The sergeants put their squads through a close-order drill, then had some of the men use the mainsail to erect an awning to shield the diplomats from the August sun, while others put in place a flagstaff and ran the Stars and Stripes up it.
By 9:00 a.m., the sun had burned off the fog. An hour later, the Indian delegation arrived. The main chief of the Otos, Little Thief, was away hunting, but six or seven lesser chiefs were present. They joined the captains under the awning. Clark and Lewis were in full-dress uniform, complete with cocked hats. The sergeants put the men through a dress parade and passed in review. This must have been the first time the Otos had seen men march in step, turn as if one, shoulder arms in unison, fire a volley on command, and all the rest that goes into a well-run drill. But how the review impressed the Indians, no member of the expedition thought to record.
Lewis then stood to deliver his speech. It was some twenty-five hundred words, so it took him at least half an hour to deliver it, and the translator at least as long to put it into the Oto language. How accurately it was being translated, Lewis of course had no way to judge. Nor could he tell how much of what he was saying the Indians could understand, or how much of what they understood they accepted.
Lewis opened by advising the warriors to be wise and look to the true interests of their people. “Children,” he continued, as Clark recorded his speech, “we have been sent by the great Chief of the Seventeen great nations of America to inform you . . . that a great council was lately held between this great chief and your old fathers the French and Spaniards.” There it was decided that the Missouri River country now belonged to the United States, so that all those who lived in that country, whether white or red, “are bound to obey the commands of their great Chief the President who is now your only great father.”
In a long, convoluted paragraph, Lewis told the Otos that the French and Spanish were gone “beyond the great lake towards the rising Sun, from whence they never intend returning to visit their former red children.”
“Children,” Lewis went on, the president was now “your only father; he is the only friend to whom you can now look for protection, or from whom you can ask favours, or receive good counciles, and he will take care to serve you, & not deceive you.”
After giving out the good news about this wonderful new father the Otos had suddenly acquired, Lewis tried to explain the purposes of the expedition. No easy task, since the only white men the Plains Indians had ever seen were traders, whose purpose was obviously to do business. The expedition had more goods than any trader any Indian of the Plains had ever seen—yet the captains did not wish to trade. What on earth were they going to do with all those goods? The Indians had to wonder.
“Children,” Lewis explained, the great chief “has sent us out to clear the road, remove every obstruction, and to make it the road of peace between himself and his red children residing there, to enquire into the Nature of their wants.” When the expedition returned home, Lewis would tell the president what the Otos wanted, and the president would see that those wants were satisfied.
Lewis and Clark were advance men and traveling salesmen, in short, representing American business and the American people, whose numbers and skills were all but unlimited. In the seventeen great nations of America, Lewis declared, “cities are as numerous as the stars of the heavens.”
What the Americans were doing, Lewis went on, was untainted by any base or self-serving motive. The great chief “has commanded us his war chiefs to undertake this long journey, which we have so far accomplished with great labour and much expence, in order to council with yourselves and his other red-children on the troubled waters, to give you his good advice; to point out to you the road in which you must walk to obtain happiness.”
As a good father, the president told his children how to behave. They should not block or obstruct in any way the passage of any boat carrying white men, ever. They should make peace with all their neighbors.
Now came the threats. Lewis told the Otos that they must avoid the council of bad men “lest by one false step you should bring upon your nation the displeasure of your great father, who could consume you as the fire consumes the grass of the plains.” The Great Father, “if you displease him,” would stop all traders from coming up the river.
Do as we say, in other words, or no white man will come to you again, ever. That was an extreme threat, strange as it sounds to modern ears. Without contact with European trade goods, the Otos would suffer a severe setback in their living conditions and would be seriously vulnerable to their neighbors who had access to guns and powder.
But if the Otos did as Lewis advised them, he would see that a trading post was set up at the mouth of the Platte, where they could bring their furs to trade for “a store of goods in such quantities as will be equal to your necessities.” Meanwhile, their old traders, whether French or British, could stay among them as long as they acknowledged the supremacy of the United States and gave good council. In short, after all that talk, Lewis told the Otos that nothing would be changing in the next year or two.
Next came an even bigger embarrassment. Because the expedition had such a long journey ahead of it, and therefore had to carry so many provisions, there were very few presents for the Otos.7
That was a flat ending. How Lewis’s first oratorical experience went over with his audience cannot be said, although Private Gass recorded in his journal that the announcement about a new father was “well received.”8 Clark claimed, “Those people express great Satisfaction at the Speech Delivered,” but he also noted that Lewis’s speech consisted primarily of “Some advice to them and Directions how They were to Conduct themselves,” words that would have served well as the title for the speech.
When Lewis concluded, the captains distributed presents. They weren’t much. Each chief received a breech clout, a bit of paint, and a small medal with the new father’s likeness on it or a comb.
The Oto chiefs spoke next. According to Sergeant Ordway, they were “very sensible,” but Clark was unimpressed. In his opinion, “They are no Oreters.” Still, they managed to make their point. The Oto chiefs acknowledged that they had heard what Lewis said, promised to follow his good advice, said they were happy that their new father could be depended on, and concluded by requesting some powder and whiskey.
Lewis was eager to please, because he wanted Little Thief and some other chiefs to go to Washington in the spring to meet the new father, so he met the request, providing a canister of powder, fifty balls, and a bottle of whiskey. He also shot off his air gun, to the astonishment of the Indians. He ended the council by giving the copy of his speech to one of the chiefs, to take back to Little Thief, along with a request that Little Thief come to the river to council.
The Indians departed, the expedition proceeded on. At camp that night, on a sandy point on the larboard side, the mosquitoes were excessively troublesome. Private Moses B. Reed told the captains that he had left his knife back at the council site. They gave him permission to go retrieve it—a simple act that illustrated how valuable knives were on the frontier.
Jefferson Peace Medal, of the type the captains handed out to various chiefs. The one pictured here is a mint specimen cast in 1801, now in the museum of the American Numismatic Society. (National Park Service)
Three days later, Reed had not returned. The captains talked it over and concluded that he had deserted. They selected a four-man detail, headed by Drouillard, to seek, find, and bring back “the Deserter reid with order if he did not give up Peaceibly to put him to Death; &c.”
The orders were clear and logical, and met the situation perfectly. By making the orders a matter of record, the captains absolved Drouillard and the others in the event they had to kill Reed, and took the responsibility for his death onto themselves. The orders also highlighted the fact that the expedition was in a potential war zone and every rifle and paddle was needed.
The captains also instructed Drouillard to attempt to find Little Thief and bring him to camp on the river.
Drouillard was gone ten days. The captains moved upstream. By August 17, they were near present-day Sioux City, Iowa. Toward dusk, Private Francis Labiche, one of Drouillard’s party, came into the camp. He reported success: Drouillard was bringing in Reed and also a delegation of chiefs from the Otos, including Little Thief. They would arrive in the morning.
When Drouillard came up at about 10:00 a.m. on August 18, the captains gave the Otos something to eat, then turned to the business immediately at hand, the trial of Private Reed.
The court-martial was formed; the charges were read. Reed confessed that he had deserted and stolen a public rifle, shot pouch, powder, and balls. He requested that the captains be as lenient with him as their oaths would allow. His manly behavior seemed to soften the captains; at least they didn’t have him shot. Clark recorded that “we only Sentenced him to run the Gantlet four times through the Party & that each man with 9 Swichies Should punish him.” That amounted to about five hundred lashes, well laid on. In addition, Reed was discharged from the permanent party. He had to give up his rifle and the privilege of standing guard. He would work with and be treated as if he were one of the voyagers, and would be sent back to St. Louis in the spring.
When these results were explained to Little Thief, he and the others “petitioned for Pardin for this man.” Clark and Lewis explained to the chiefs the necessity for the beating. They must have been persuasive, for Clark recorded that the chiefs “were all Satisfied with the propriety of the Sentence & was witness to the punishment.”
That evening, after eating, the expedition managed to rid itself of the bad taste from the day’s principal event. It was Captain Lewis’s thirtieth birthday. To celebrate, an extra dram of whiskey per man went round, and the fiddle came out, and the men danced about the campfire till nearly midnight.
In the morning, breakfast. Clark was astonished when one of the chiefs, Big Horse, showed up naked, to emphasize his poverty. After they had eaten, the awning went up and a council was held. Apparently Lewis read his speech, from the copy already held by Little Thief. The chief then asked the captains to act as honest brokers and negotiate a peace between the Otos and the Omahas. Lewis explained that, since the Omahas were out hunting and the expedition must press on, it would be impossible for him to arrange a peace.
Then the chiefs spoke. Big Horse pointed out the obvious, that he had come to the camp naked, and expressed his fear that he would return home naked. Peace was all very well, he said, but if there were peace where would the young men go to get their goods? If the captains wanted the Otos at peace, Big Horse pointed out, he could arrange it as long as he had something to give to his young men at home. Whiskey would be the most effective peacemaker.
The captains were not going to give Big Horse or any other Indian a barrel of whiskey. They did hand out tobacco, paint, and beads. These gifts made little impression on the chiefs or their warriors. The captains then tried handing around printed certificates proclaiming the bearer to be a “friend and ally” of the United States. These trifles did not answer either; one disgusted warrior disdainfully handed back his certificate. The captains, angered by this disrespect toward an official document, rebuked the man “very roughly.”
There were bad feelings all around. To dissipate them and to impress the Indians with their powers, the captains gave the chiefs and warriors a dram of whiskey each and brought out their magic show, including the air gun, a magnifying glass that could concentrate the sun’s rays to start a fire in a bit of dry grass, the telescope, and other items.
But the Otos had not come to be awed; they had come for goods. They had imagined wonderful giveaways of valuable items from the apparently endless supply on the keelboat, and what they got was some tobacco and a piece of paper. They went away unhappy. Still, Little Thief indicated that he would go to Washington in the spring, so Lewis’s and Clark’s first venture as frontier diplomats had some success.
The Otos were a tribe that had once been mighty but were now greatly reduced by the smallpox. Woefully inferior to the Sioux, in morale as well as numbers, they were not the Indians to try to use force to make the captains hand out the goods. With the Sioux, just upriver, things might well be different.
Sergeant Charles Floyd had been desperately ill the past few days. Lewis had diagnosed his disease as “Biliose Chorlick,” or bilious colic, and had nothing effective to treat it with—but, then, neither did Dr. Rush back in Philadelphia.9 On August 20, Floyd died, most likely from peritonitis resulting from an infected appendix that had perforated or ruptured.
Sergeant Floyd was the first U.S. soldier to die west of the Mississippi. The expedition carried his body to a high round hill overlooking an unnamed river. The captains had him buried with all the honors of war and fixed a red-cedar post over the grave with his name and title and the date. Captain Lewis read the funeral service over him. Clark provided a fitting epitaph in his journal: “This Man at all times gave us proofs of his firmness and Deturmined resolution to doe Service to his Countrey and honor to himself.” The captains concluded the proceedings by naming the river Floyds River and the bluff Sergeant Floyds Bluff.
Two days and forty-one miles later, the captains ordered an election for Floyd’s replacement. Private Patrick Gass got nineteen votes, while Privates William Bratton and George Gibson split the remainder. This was the first election ever held west of the Mississippi.
On August 26, Lewis issued general orders appointing Patrick Gass to the rank of “Sergeant in the corps of volunteers for North Western Discovery,” the first time he used such a phrase. He praised Gass for his previous faithful service and concluded, “The commanding officers are still further confirmed in the high opinion they had previously formed of the capacity, deligence and integrety of Sergt. Gass, from the wish expressed by a large majority of his comrades for his appointment as Sergeant.”
That same day, Private George Shannon, youngest member of the party, failed to come up after a day of hunting. Nor did he report in the next day, or the day after. The captains grew concerned, not about desertion—evidently Shannon gave them no uneasiness on that score—but about possible Indian trouble, or a hunting accident. They sent Private John Colter out looking for Shannon, but he had no luck. They sent Drouillard to look, but, after searching through the night of August 26–27, he too reported failure.
Reed dismissed in disgrace. Sergeant Floyd dead. Shannon missing. The expedition was almost 10 percent reduced in fighting strength as it moved toward the heart of Sioux territory.
But hope rather than fear was the main emotion felt by the captains as they entered Sioux country. This was the one tribe singled out for specific mention by Jefferson in his orders. It controlled the river, and had turned back previous traders coming up from St. Louis, and it was the largest of the tribes. Lewis hoped to make the Sioux the centerpiece of the vast American trading empire he was trying to establish, and he thought this was such a good deal for the Sioux that they couldn’t say no.
On August 27, as the keelboat approached today’s Yankton, South Dakota, old Dorion informed the captains that they were now in the territory of the Yankton Sioux, with whom he had lived for many years. Lewis ordered the prairie set afire as a signal to the Yanktons, inviting them to a council. A few hours later, as the boat passed the mouth of the James River, a teen-age Yankton boy swam out to one of the pirogues. He gestured that he wished to talk.
The expedition put ashore. Two more teen-agers appeared. Through Mr. Dorion, they said a large band of Yanktons were camped nearby. The captains delegated Sergeant Pryor, a voyager, and Mr. Dorion to go to the camp and invite the chiefs to come to council at Calumet Bluffs, near present Gavins Point Dam, on the Nebraska side.
On August 29, the expedition was in camp at Calumet Bluffs. As they waited for the Yanktons to come to council, they worked. Tracks along the riverbank had led Lewis to conclude that Shannon was ahead of them but thinking himself behind—so Shannon was pressing on to catch up to the expedition that was behind him. Lewis detailed a soldier to go look for Shannon. Reflecting his worry, Lewis told the private to take along some extra rations for Shannon, who might well be starving. He was not considered to be one of the expedition’s better hunters.
Captain Clark put some men to work making a tow rope of elk skin, then sat at his field desk, dipped his quill into the inkstand, and began to write some remarks for the Yanktons. At 4:00 p.m., Mr. Dorion showed up on the opposite bank, at the head of a party of some seventy Yankton warriors. The Indians went into camp, while Dorion and Sergeant Pryor crossed over on a canoe sent by the captains.
Pryor reported that the Yanktons were extremely friendly, had even tried to carry him into their camp on a painted buffalo robe, thinking he was the leader of the expedition. He said the camp “was handsum made of Buffalow Skins Painted different Colour, all compact & handSomly arranged, their Camps formed of a Conic form Containing about 12 or 15 persons each and 40 in number.”
Sergeant Pryor had just become the first American to describe the classic Plains tepee.
The Yanktons had cooked a fat dog for a feast; Pryor “thought it good & well flavored.” They had provided him with a “Snug aptmt for to lodge.” The Plains through which he had marched, Pryor said, were “covered with game.”
The captains had presents packed into one of the canoes to send over to the Yanktons. They put in tobacco, corn, and some iron kettles and told Pryor and Dorion to ask the Indians to cross over in the morning for a council.
At 10:00 a.m., the captains sent a canoe to bring over the Indians. They had signified the importance of this first meeting with one of the Sioux bands by putting on their dress uniforms and putting up a flagstaff, near a large oak, running up the flag, and firing the bow swivel gun.
The Yanktons had a sense of drama too. They were in full regalia. As they came up from the riverbank, the chiefs were preceded by four musicians, singing and playing as they made their way to the flagstaff. The soldiers made ritual payments of tobacco to the musicians; the conferees shook hands and sat down.
With Dorion interpreting, Lewis gave his basic Indian speech. When he finished, the chiefs said they would respond in the morning—obviously they would need time to confer on this business of accepting a new father and becoming part of a new trade system. Lewis recognized that patience was not just a virtue in dealing with Indians, it was a necessity, and handed out medals to five chiefs. He pronounced a chief named Weuche the first chief—by what authority, on what basis, cannot be said—and gave him a red-laced military coat, a military cocked hat, and an American flag.
Lewis did all this with the utmost seriousness. It never occurred to him that his actions might be characterized as patronizing, dictatorial, ridiculous, and highly dangerous. From what he knew from old Dorion, these Yanktons were peaceable, at least compared with their neighbors and relatives, the Teton Sioux, farther upriver. But his idea of how to make them into allies was to give them worthless medals and wardrobe trappings rather than the guns and powder they needed. And to make one chief the big chief was to meddle in intertribal politics about which he knew nothing. In general, it would be impossible to say which side was more ignorant of the other.
The desire for friendship overrode ignorance. The men of the expedition had come to the Northern Plains as outsiders, but as James Ronda writes, “that night the explorers became part of a prairie community.”10 After the council, Indian boys showed off their skill with bows and arrows, to the delight of the soldiers, who handed out prizes of beads. At dusk, three fires were built in the center of camp. Indians in gaudy paint came leaping into the firelight, to sing of their great feats in battle and in the chase. They danced to music coming from deer-hoof rattles and a drum.
Sergeant Ordway recorded that the warriors began “with a houp and hollow and ended with the same.” An individual would sing “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.” At Dorion’s suggestion, the soldiers threw the dancers gifts of tobacco, knives, and bells.
Captain Clark was impressed. “The Souix,” he wrote, “is a Stout bold looking people (the young men hand Som) & well made. The Warriors are Verry much deckerated with Pain Porcupin quils & feathers, large leagins & mockersons, all with buffalow roabs of Different Colours. The Squars wore Peticoats & and a white Buffalow roabes with the black hair turned back over their necks & Sholders.”
That was the first American description of the ceremonial dress of the Plains Indians. The captains were doing pathbreaking ethnology. Clark wrote, “I will here remark a Society which I had never before this day heard was in any nation of Indains.” It was a group of Indian warriors who had taken a vow “never to give back let the danger be what it may.” That refusal to retreat had cost the society dreadfully; in the past year, eighteen of the twenty-two members had been killed. Clark was impressed by the survivors: “They stay by them Selves, fond of mirth and assume a degree of Superiority—Stout likely fellows.”
Ethnology, however, was very much secondary to establishing the American system along the Missouri. What the Indians looked like was entertaining; what the chiefs said about Lewis’s proposals was critical. In the morning, the chiefs gave their reply.
Weuche spoke first. His refrain was, “We are pore and have no powder and ball, our Women has got no cloathes.” But if Mr. Dorion were with him, he would go to Washington in the spring—welcome news.
The other chiefs then spoke. They suffered from stage fright. “I am young and Cant Speek,” Struck by the Pana confessed. “I am a young man and inexperienced, cannot say much,” White Crane Man explained. But they all managed to make it clear that what they wanted was powder and ball, and perhaps some whiskey.
Clark and Lewis could not meet those needs. They could do one thing all the chiefs wanted: leave Mr. Dorion with them for the winter. He could arrange peace with other tribes and organize an expedition of chiefs to go to Washington in the spring. The captains gave each chief a carrot of tobacco and Mr. Dorion a bottle of whiskey, and had the Indians ferried across the river to their camp on the other side. Thus the first encounter with a band of Sioux ended on a hopeful note, despite Yankton disappointment with the presents received.
The last chief to speak, Arcawechar, had also apologized: “I do not Speak verry well, I am a pore man.” But if he did not speak well, he spoke with the voice of a prophet. It was all very well for the Yanktons to open their ears, he said, “and I think our old Friend Mr. Durion can open the ears of the other bands of Soux. But I fear those nations above will not open their ears, and you cannot I fear open them.”
Arcawechar spoke not only prophetically but bluntly. He said the captains had given the Indians five medals. “I wish you to give five kegs of powder with them.”
The captains did not, could not comply. As Arcawechar had warned them, where they were going they would need all their powder.