If there ever was a time in which the Lewis and Clark Expedition bore some resemblance to a bunch of guys out on a long camping trip, it was in the first part of October 1804.
Fall on the Missouri River in the Dakotas was a delight. On a cloudless day—and many were, in the first three weeks that October—the Great Plains of North America stretched out beyond the horizon under an infinity of bright-blue sky. The sun had gone past the equinox and was dropping lower in the sky each day, so the shadows were growing longer. On the Plains, the hills and bluffs, their grasses turned a golden brown, gleamed in the sunlight, or threw off long shadows up and down the valleys, creating a masterpiece of light and shade.
Nights were coming on sooner and lasting longer. They brought frost, which meant no more mosquitoes. The men built the fires up a little higher than in September, and gathered closer around as they talked about what they had done and seen that day and what they expected tomorrow. In the first two weeks of the month, the days started off cool but by midmorning the temperature was perfect and stayed so until an hour before sunset.
The great mammals of the Plains were gathering into herds. Many of them, including elk, pronghorn, and buffalo, began their mass migration to their wintering grounds. Sooner or later on their trek, most of the herds had to cross the river, thereby creating one of nature’s greatest scenes.IOverhead, Canada geese, snow geese, brants, swans, mallards, and a variety of other ducks were on the move, honking and quacking as they descended the river. The fowl and mammals were in prime condition, which meant that the buffalo ribs, the venison haunches, the beaver tails, the mallard breasts all dripped fat into the fire as they were turned on the spit, causing a sizzle and a smell that sharpened already keen appetites.
For Meriwether Lewis it was a magical time. He spent most of it exploring, walking on shore, venturing out into the interior, catching up with the boat at night. Sometimes he went alone, save for his dog, Seaman; at other times he took a small party with him. He was a great walker, with long legs and a purposeful stride, capable of covering thirty miles in a day on the Plains. As he walked, he was constantly at full alert, his eyes sweeping across the horizon, then coming down with complete concentration on a stone or a plant or an animal den at his feet. He carried his field journal so that he could note down new plants, animals, minerals, the general lay of the land, the apparent fertility of the soil, the types and numbers of game animals around him, and more.
He wore moccasins of doubled-up buffalo hide, pants made of broadcloth, a fringed deerskin jacket, and a three-cornered leather hat. He carried a compass, a knife, a pistol, a powder horn and balls, some jerky, and his notebook in his knapsack. He had his rifle in one hand and his espontoon in the other. He was an excellent marksman, his skill even greater thanks to the espontoon—a sort of pike, about six feet in length, with a wooden shaft and a metal blade. It was a medieval weapon still in use as a symbol of authority for infantry officers in the U.S. Army, carried by Lewis because it was a most useful implement. Aside from being a walking stick and a weapon of last resort, the espontoon had a crosswise attachment at shoulder height that served as a rifle rest. Given the weight of his rifle, more than eight pounds, and the length of the barrel, more than four feet, he needed a support.
Lewis always had his rifle primed, with the bullet, wadding, and powder charge set in place, so that when he saw a target he had only to set his espontoon vertically on the ground, measure out the powder for the pan, swing his rifle up to the rifle rest, slip in his flint, bring the hammer to full cock, aim, and fire. If the target was within a hundred yards and bigger than a mouse, he usually got it.
He didn’t always have to shoot to collect a specimen. On October 16, he glanced down and saw at his feet a sleeping bird. He didn’t know the species but recorded that it was of the goatsucker family. He picked it up; it was alive but appeared to be in something approaching a dormant state. Lewis brought it back to the boat; two days later, when the morning temperature was thirty degrees, the bird could scarcely move. “I run my penknife into it’s body under the wing and completely distroyed it’s lungs and heart,” Lewis reported, “yet it lived upwards of two hours. This fanominon I could not accouunt for unless it proceeded from the want of circulation of the blood.II
A few days later, on October 20, in the vicinity of present Fort Lincoln State Park, across the river from Bismarck, North Dakota, Private Cruzatte was the first to encounter a grizzly bear, called a white bear by the Americans. They had heard about the grizzly, and knew the Indians were afraid of the bear, which according to rumor was gigantic in size (Clark had recently seen a footprint and pronounced it by far the biggest he had ever seen) and ferocious in behavior. The men of the expedition, naturally, were eager to get a look and a shot at it. Cruzatte was the lucky one—except, as Lewis dryly recorded in his field notes, “he wounded him, but being alarmed at the formidable appearance of the bear he left his tomahalk and gun.”
Cruzatte returned to the scene an hour or so later to retrieve his tomahawk and rifle. “Soon after he shot a buffaloe cow,” Lewis wrote, and “broke her thy, the cow pursued him he conceal himself in a small raviene.” The little incident highlighted a major problem for the hunters. After they had fired their rifles, they were nearly helpless until they reloaded.
Beginning in October, as the expedition made its way through present northern South Dakota, it passed numerous abandoned villages, composed of earth-lodge dwellings and cultivated fields. Some of the fields, although unattended, still had squash and corn growing in them. These had once been home to the mighty Arikara tribe. About thirty thousand persons strong in the year the United States won its independence, the tribe had been reduced by smallpox epidemics in the 1780s to not much more than one-fifth that size. Another epidemic swept through in 1803–4, devastating the tribe. What had been eighteen villages the previous year had been reduced to three by the time Lewis arrived.2
On October 8, the keelboat passed a three-mile-long island, near the mouth of the Grand River, home to the three villages of living Arikaras, about two thousand Indians all together. The island was one large garden, growing beans, corn, and squash. Arikaras lined the banks, watching the boat progress to the head of the island and then watching the men make camp on the starboard side. Lewis selected two voyagers who spoke the Arikara language and two soldiers, took a pirogue, and paddled across to meet the Indians on the island. Clark stayed in camp, posting guards on shore and sentinels on the boat and canoes, with “all things arranged both for Peace or War.”
Lewis obviously did not know what kind of reception he was going to get, but he did have expectations. From what he knew, or thought he knew, the Arikaras were farmers oppressed by the Sioux. The reality was that the Sioux brought trade goods to exchange for Arikara crops in a mutually beneficial relationship. He knew the Arikaras were at war with the Mandans. He believed that they were the key to American diplomatic endeavors on the Missouri, because in Lewis’s view, if the Arikaras could be broken away from the Sioux and if they made peace with the Mandans, the whole balance of power on the river would shift. The Sioux would be isolated and then frozen out of the coming American trade empire.
James Ronda comments that Lewis and Clark shared “a naive optimism typical of so much Euro-American frontier diplomacy. [They] believed they could easily reshape upper Missouri realities to fit their expectations. . . . [But] to the surprise of the explorer-diplomats, virtually all Indian parties proved resistant to change and suspicious of American motives.”3
So Lewis had cause for high hope as well as for apprehension as he paddled across to the island, and, finally, cause for relief as he received a warm welcome from the Arikaras. Best of all was meeting Joseph Gravelines, a trader who had been living with the Arikaras for thirteen years. He was an invaluable source of information on the upper-Missouri country, and his command of English, French, Sioux, and Arikara made it possible for Lewis to communicate swiftly and accurately with the Arikara. A large part of the problems with the Sioux had been the result of inadequate, incomplete, incompetent translation. With Gravelines’s help, Lewis could expect to do much better with the Arikaras.
Lewis pumped Gravelines for two or three hours, then asked him to bring a delegation to the expedition’s camp in the morning for a council and hired him as interpreter.
In the morning, the wind was kicking up waves in the river higher than Clark had ever seen them. He was astonished to see bull boats brought to the bank—boats made each of a single buffalo hide stretched over a bowl-shaped willow frame—and five or six men get in, with three squaws to paddle them. The Indian women pushed off and despite the waves and wind crossed the river “quite uncomposed.” They brought with them some chiefs, some warriors, and Pierre-Antoine Tabeau, the trader with another of the island villages.
Tabeau had been born near Montreal and educated in Quebec. In 1776, he had gone west as an engagé in the fur trade. He had lived in Illinois, then Missouri, and finally with the Arikaras. He too was an outstanding translator (Arikara, English, French, Sioux) and source of information. But even the best translators could not overcome the difficulties of the wind, which was whipping up sand and making a roar. The council was put off till the next day.
On October 10, Tabeau came over first. He warned the captains that there was some jealousy among the chiefs of the three villages. Then the chiefs themselves, and some of their warriors, came to the council. After smoking and an exchange of small presents, Lewis stood and began speaking, with Gravelines interpreting. It was his basic Indian speech, according to Clark providing the Indians with “good counsel,” which was to accept American sovereignty, to make peace with the Mandans, to shun the Sioux, and to trade with American merchants. If they did as told, they would be protected by their new father, the chief of the seventeen great nations of America.
When Lewis finished, a detail fired three shots from the bow swivel gun. When the smoke cleared and the Indians recovered from their astonishment at the first cannon they had ever seen or heard, the captains brought out gift bale number fifteen, marked and prepared for the Arikaras’ use months before at Wood River. There was vermilion paint, pewter looking glasses, four hundred needles, broadcloth, beads, combs, razors, nine pairs of scissors, knives, tomahawks, and more. (It is something of a puzzle why they were not so generous with the Sioux.)
No whiskey. The captains offered it, but the Arikaras not only said no thanks, they shamed Lewis and Clark by remarking that “they were surprised that their father should present to them a liquor which would make them act like fools.”
For the chiefs there were military coats, cocked hats, medals, and American flags. Despite Tabeau’s warning, the captains made Crow at Rest the first chief, on their unshakable assumption that every tribe had to have a single leader. They made Hawk’s Feather and Chief Hay, leaders of the other two villages, as second chiefs. After the presents, Lewis shot off his air gun, to the by-now customary astonishment of the Indians. The council broke up, the chiefs promising to consult with their warriors and respond to Lewis’s words the following morning.
That afternoon, the men visited the villages. York was a sensation. His size was impressive enough, but the Arikaras had never seen a black man and couldn’t make out if he was man, beast, or spirit being. York played with the children, roaring at them, chasing them between lodges, bellowing that he was a wild beast caught and tamed by Captain Clark. The captains finally told him to stop, because “he Carried on the joke and made himself more turibal than we wished him to doe.”
The soldiers, meanwhile, enjoyed the favors of the Arikara women, often encouraged to do so by the husbands, who believed that they would catch some of the power of the white men from such intercourse, transmitted to them through their wives. One warrior invited York to his lodge, offered him his wife, and guarded the entrance during the act. York was said to be “the big Medison.” Whether the Indians got white or black power from the intercourse cannot be said, but what they had gotten for sure from their hospitality to previous white traders was venereal disease, which was rampant in the villages and passed on to the men of the expedition.
Still, Sergeant Gass pronounced the Arikara squaws to be “the most cleanly Indians I have ever seen . . . handsome . . . the best looking Indians I have ever seen.” Sergeant Ordway agreed, noting that “some of their women are very handsome and clean.”4 Clark called the Arikara “Durtey, Kind, pore, & extravigent pursessing national pride. Not beggarley.” They brought corn and squash and other welcome vegetables to the expedition, and quantities of a bean the Indians acquired by digging in the underground storage bins of the meadow mice. Clark called the bean “large and well flavoured and very nurishing.” It was said that the Indians always left some other food in the place of that they had robbed from the mice.
The following day, October 11, Crow at Rest arrived to make his answer to Lewis’s proposals. He said his heart was glad to have a new father, that the road was open to the expedition and would always be open. “Can you think any one Dare put their hands on your rope of your boat[?] No! Not one dare.” He asked the captains to make a peace between his people and the Mandans.
The other two chiefs had not come into council, apparently put off by not having been made first chief, so the next day the captains went looking for them. They found Chief Hay first, surrounded by his warriors. After Lewis reminded the chief of “the magnitude and power of our country,” Hay gave his own speech. He said his people had no hostility toward the whites, that he hoped the captains would help make a peace with the Mandans, that he might be willing to go to Washington to meet with President Jefferson in the spring, and other welcome words. But he concluded with a request that the captains were in no position to grant: “After you Set out,” Hay said, “many nations in the open plains may Come to make war against us, we wish you to Stop their guns & provent it if possible. Finished.”
Then it was on foot to the third village, where Hawk’s Feather was chief. He too was ready with his reply to the American proposals. He too was thinking about a trip to Washington. He promised not to make war but said that he would believe a Mandan-Arikara peace only when he saw it with his own eyes. He gave two blunt warnings, “Mabie we [Arikara chiefs] will not tell the trooth,” and “the Indians above [the Mandans] will not believe your word” about peace with the Arikaras.
One of the chiefs—unnamed—was willing to find out. He agreed to go on board and make the trip to the Mandans, to talk in council sponsored by the American peacekeeping delegation.
On October 13, Clark and Lewis were confronted with a severe disciplinary problem. Former Private Moses Reed, the erstwhile deserter, was a grousing, malcontented soldier who wanted to poison the mind of at least one member of the expedition. Anyone who has ever been in the army knows Reed’s type. For some time past, he had been picking on Private John Newman, agitating him about those blankety-blank captains and how unfair they were and how arbitrary and worse.
Newman succumbed to the poison. He lashed out at the captains, who had him and Reed arrested. Reed was beyond their power to punish, but Newman was subject to the articles of war. The captains convened a court-martial, with Clark as president (“without giveing his opinion”) and Sgt. Ordway head of the court.
Lewis read the charge, that Newman had “uttered repeated expressions of a highly criminal and mutinous nature; the same having a tendency not only to distroy every principle of military discipline, but also to alienate the affections of the individuals composing this Detachment to their officers, and disaffect them to the service for which they have been so sacredly and solemnly engaged.”
Newman pled, “Not Guilty!”
Evidence was presented; Newman made his defense.
Whatever Newman said, his peers rejected. The ten men on the court “are unanimously of opinion that the prisonar John Newman is guilty of every part of the charge exhibited against him.”
The sentence was seventy-five lashes on the bare back and “to be discarded from the perminent party engaged for North Western discovery.” Not dismissed, not discharged, but discarded.
The captains approved the sentence and set noon the next day for the lashing. They further ordered that Newman join the Frenchmen in the canoes as a laboring hand.
On October 14, the keelboat set out early. At noon, it came to on the starboard side in order to carry out Newman’s lashing. The Arikara chief with the boat watched the preparations. He was “allarmed verry much.” When the whipping actually began, the chief “Cried aloud.”
Clark explained the cause of the punishment. The chief, he recorded, “also thought exampls were necessary, & that he himself had made them by Death, but his nation never whiped even their Children.”
By October 24, the expedition was well north of present Bismarck and approaching the Mandan villages. The captains knew from their research in St. Louis and from Mr. Gravelines that the Mandans (and their neighbors and allies the Hidatsas) were the center of the Northern Plains trade, attracting Indians from vast distances. At trading time, in the late summer, the river villages were crowded with Crows, Assiniboines, Cheyennes, Kiowas, Arapahoes, along with whites from the North West Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and St. Louis businessmen.
Nowhere else could one see at a single glance the diversity and colorful life style of the Indians of the Plains. There were Spanish horses and mules to buy and sell, fancy Cheyenne leather clothing, English trade guns, baskets of produce, meat products, furs of all kinds, musical instruments, blankets, dressed buffalo hides, painted buffalo hides. During the fair, there was dancing until well into the night, and much visiting back and forth, and competition between the boys. It was a grand time in the five villages.
George Catlin, Distant View of Mandan Village (1832). (National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C./Art Resource, N.Y.)
George Catlin, Black Moccasin (1832). This Minitari chief was more than one hundred years old when Catlin portrayed him. This is one of the few drawings made from life of an Indian who knew Lewis and Clark. (National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C./Art Resource, N.Y.)
There were two Mandan villages. The lower one, on the west bank, was led by Big White and his second chief, Little Raven. Farther upriver, on the east bank, was the second village, led by Black Cat, with Raven Man Chief as his second-in-command. On the Knife River, coming in from the west, there were three Hidatsa villages. One of these, forty lodges strong, was led by Black Moccasin. Another, with over 130 earth lodges, had 450 warriors who were led by Le Borgne, or One Eye, a military chieftain of great reputation. The Mandans hunted buffalo on horseback, but they did not ride out on war parties ranging to the Rocky Mountains, whereas the Hidatsas rode the whole way to the snow-covered peaks to make raids and capture horses and slaves.5
As it moved north, the expedition began seeing Mandan villages, but they were abandoned, because the tribe had been decimated by smallpox. As the expedition passed the mouth of the Heart River, center of the old Mandan homeland, the men saw a Mandan sun-dance post standing forlorn on the prairie, a silent witness to the past. In the earth lodges, the Americans found scattered bones of men and animals.
On the 24th, the captains met their first live Mandans, Chief Big White and a twenty-five-man hunting party. With Gravelines at his side, Lewis introduced Big White to the Arikara chief with “great Cordiallity & Sermony.” They smoked a pipe. Lewis, Gravelines, and the Arikara chief accompanied Big White to his village. Peace between the Arikaras and the Mandans seemed possible. The captains were off to a good start with the Indians who would be their neighbors for the winter.
But even with all the good indications about relations with the Mandans, the captains were cautious. On October 26, the expedition was in camp just below the first Mandan village. Indians were all about them. Clark wrote, “Many men women & Children flocked down to See us.” The captains discussed the situation and “Deturmined that both would not leave the boat at the Same time untill we Knew the Deposition of the Nativs.” Lewis walked to the village with Big White and Gravelines, while Clark stayed on the boat and saw to security. There were over four thousand Indians in the five villages, about thirteen hundred of them warriors. Should they so choose, they could quite obviously overwhelm the Corps of Discovery. They would not so choose so long as the expedition could make it clear that the Indians would suffer grievously if they attacked, both in lives lost and future trade relations destroyed.
Fortunately, the Mandans understood all this and were friendly. Lewis received a warm welcome in Big White’s village and was able to extend an invitation to the chiefs of all five villages to come to the expedition’s camp for a council. Meanwhile, a trader from the second Mandan village, named René Jessaume, paid a visit to Clark. Jessaume had been living with the Mandans for fifteen years and participated fully in their ceremonial and social life. He had married a Mandan woman and was raising a family in the village. He claimed he had been a spy for General George Rogers Clark during the revolution, but apparently William Clark did not believe him; in any case, he wrote of Jessaume, “Well to give my ideas as to the impression this man makes on me is a Cunin artfull an insoncear.” But he was also useful, as interpreter and source of information, so Clark hired him on.
Relations with the Mandans continued to be excellent. The Indians were delighted that the expedition would spend the next five months as their neighbor.
On October 28, Black Cat, Lewis, Clark, and Jessaume walked up the river for some distance, looking for a place to build a fort for the winter—the Americans needed good trees and lots of them, and plenty of game. The country they examined that day would not answer.
On October 29, the first formal council was held. Lewis gave his basic Indian speech. To Clark’s dismay, “the old Chief was restless before the Speech was half ended.” Another chief “rebuked him for his uneasiness at Such a time.” When Lewis finished, Clark introduced the Arikara chief, who smoked with the Mandans. Various promises were made, but Clark complained that the talk was “not much to the purpose,” because “those nations know nothing of reagular Councils, and know not how to proceed in them, they are restless &c.” Lewis was so busy with the Indians that he forgot to wind his chronometer, but he did find time to take a meridian altitude of the sun with his sextant, for latitude.
On the morning of the last day of October, Black Cat invited Clark to his lodge to “here what he had to Say.” Since the captains regarded Black Cat as the first chief of all the Mandans, Clark readily went. Black Cat told Clark that it would fill his heart with joy if there could be a peace between the Arikaras and the Mandans, because if there were Mandan men could hunt without fear “and our womin Can work in the fields without looking every moment for the enimey.”
Then came a rebuke: “When the Indians heard of your Coming up they all Came in from hunting to See, they expected Great presents. They were disapointed, and Some Dessatisfied.” As for Black Cat, however, he was “not so much So but his Village was.” Still, he would go to meet his Great Father in Washington in the spring.
Lewis, meanwhile, played host to Hugh McCracken, a British trader with the North West Company, who had just made a nine-day, 150-mile overland trip from the Assiniboine River post of the company.
McCracken was a regular in the village, as were other traders from the North West Company and its rival, the Hudson’s Bay Company. The British in Canada were the primary suppliers of manufactured goods to the Mandans. This was a situation Lewis intended to change. His policy, Jefferson’s policy, was to isolate the Sioux, open the river from St. Louis to the Mandans, and establish an American trading monopoly at this great emporium of the Northern Great Plains. But Lewis knew that he needed to be patient. Although he had the legal authority to throw the British traders out of Upper Louisiana, he didn’t have the physical force to do so, not when the Indians outnumbered his party by fifty warriors to every soldier. He wouldn’t have kicked the British traders out anyway, because they were providing a critically necessary service to the Indians that the Americans were not yet ready to replace.
McCracken was setting off on his return journey the next day, November 1, so Lewis seized the opportunity to establish contact with the British merchants in Canada and explain the new situation to them. While Clark talked to Black Cat, Lewis wrote a letter to McCracken’s boss. He started off with a bit of a fib: “We have been sent by the government for the purpose of exploring the river Missouri, and the western parts of the continent, with a view to the promotion of general science.” He added that his party had no intention of disrupting the trade relationship that existed, as long as the British acknowledged American sovereignty. Then, as a man who was about to go into a five-month winter camp surrounded by Indians and only Captain Clark to talk to as an equal, Lewis put in a heartfelt line: “As individuals, we feel everey disposition to cultivate the friendship of all well-disposed persons.” More specifically, he said he would be grateful in the extreme for any “hints in relation to the geography of the country, its productions, etc. which you might conceive of utility to mankind.” In short, he invited British traders to come on down for a visit.6
The British took him up on it. A number of them paid a call, including François-Antoine Larocque and Charles MacKenzie. Each man left a journal record of his visit. Larocque was twenty years old. Born in Quebec, he was educated in the United States. He wrote that he “was very politely received by Captains Lewis and Clarke and passed the night with them. Just as I arrived, they were dispatching a man for me, having heard that I intended giving flags and medals which they forbid me from giving in the name of the United States. . . . As I had neither flags nor medals, I ran no risk of disobeying those orders, of which I assured them.”
Lewis told Larocque that “the object of our voyage is purely scientific and literary, and in no way concerns trade.”
Lewis liked the young Canadian and “pressed me to remain a couple of days” for company. Larocque did. His compass was not working; the glass was broken and the needle would not point due north. He reported, “Capt. Lewis fixed my compass very well, which took him a whole day.”
Larocque was out for adventure and recognized opportunity when he saw it. From his first meeting with the captains, he begged to be allowed to accompany them to the Pacific and back. But the captains were not about to give a clerk in the North West Company a free look at the commercial possibilities in the region and said no.7
MacKenzie’s journal entries provide a sharp image of the American captains and the British traders lounging around a table in the captains’ quarters, talking about a wide range of subjects. MacKenzie wrote, “Mr. Larocque and I having nothing very particular claiming attention, we lived contentedly and became intimate with the gentlemen of the American expedition, who on all occasions seemed happy to see us, and always treated us with civility and kindness.”
But some subjects brought out Lewis’s Anglophobia. MacKenzie wrote: “It is true, Captain Lewis could not make himself agreeable to us. He could speak fluently and learnedly on all subjects, but his inveterate disposition against the British stained, at least in our eyes, all his eloquence.”8
The captains’ quarters were in Fort Mandan, which was located on the north bank of the Missouri, some seven miles below the mouth of the Knife and directly opposite the lower Mandan village.III Work on it had begun on November 3. Private Joseph Whitehouse recorded in his journal that “all the men at Camp Ocepied their time dilligenently in Building their huts and got them Made comfertable to live in.”9 That same day, Lewis paid off in cash the Frenchmen who had paddled the pirogues upriver. Some of them built a pirogue and returned to St. Louis before the river froze; others stayed to spend the winter with the Indians and return in the spring with Corporal Warfington and the keelboat. Jessaume and his squaw moved into camp, providing instant translation capacity.
The fort consisted of two rows of huts, set at an angle, with a palisade on the river side, a gate and a sentry post, plus the swivel gun mounted. The outer walls were eighteen feet high. In the event of an Indian attack, it would answer, at least for a while. Larocque observed, “The fort is made so strong as to be almost cannon-ball proof.”10
From the beginning of the work, Indians crossed the river to observe, mingle, and trade with the soldiers. Other visitors also came. On November 4, Clark recorded that “a french man by Name Chabonah . . . visit us, he wished to hire & informed us his 2 Squars were Snake Indians.”
His name was Toussaint Charbonneau. A French Canadian, about forty-five years old, he had once worked for the North West Company but was now living among the Hidatsas as an independent trader. His squaws, or “wives,” were Shoshones, or Snakes, from a band that lived in the Rocky Mountains at the headwaters of the Missouri. They were teen-agers who had been captured by a Hidatsa raiding party four years earlier at the place where three rivers came together to form the Missouri, called the Three Forks. Charbonneau had won them in a bet with the warriors who had captured them.
The captains eagerly accepted Charbonneau’s offer to sign on as interpreter, not so much for his own sake as because his wives could speak the language of a mountain tribe. The wives could talk to Charbonneau in Hidatsa; he could then talk in French to Drouillard, who could pass it on to the captains in English. From their difficulties with the Sioux, the captains knew how hard it was to communicate with the Indians without a translator. So on the spot they signed up Charbonneau and one of his wives “to go on with us.” He chose Sacagawea, who was about fifteen years old and six months pregnant.
MacKenzie got to know Charbonneau and was not much impressed. He noted that translation was more an art form than scientific at Fort Mandan. “Sacagawea spoke a little Hidatsa,” he wrote, “in which she had to converse with her husband, who was a Canadian and did not understand English. A mulatto [Jessaume], who spoke bad French and worse English, served as interpreter to the Captains, so that a single word to be understood by the party required to pass from the natives to the woman, from the woman to the husband, from the husband to the mulatto, from the mulatto to the captains.”
That might not have been so bad, except that Charbonneau and Jessaume argued about the meaning of every French word they used.11
Another visitor was Big White, the enormously fat, light-skinned Mandan chief.IV On November 12, Clark recorded that “Big White Came Down, he packd about 100 W. of fine meet on his Squar for us,” meaning his wife carried the hundred-pound load. Clark gave her some trinkets and a small ax for her labor.
On November 20, warriors from Black Cat’s village came to inform the captains that the American peace policy was in danger. Two Arikara delegates who had gone to the Sioux with a peace offer had been roughed up, had their horses taken from them, and been generally made to realize how angry the Sioux were that the Arikaras had arranged through Clark and Lewis for a peace with the Mandans.
There were other meddlers, including the Mandans, who had filled the ears of the Hidatsas with lies. The Mandans had an obvious interest in keeping the Hidatsas away from Fort Mandan and thus having a monopoly on trade with the expedition, so they told the Hidatsas that the Americans had joined with the Sioux and intended to make war on the Hidatsas. They offered as proof such facts as Jessaume’s moving into the fort, the strength of the fort, the constant presence of a sentry, and other military preparations.
Lewis realized how dangerous it was for the Americans to have the Hidatsas believing such things, so he reacted immediately. He set out on horseback for the Hidatsa villages, accompanied by Jessaume and Charbonneau as translators, to make the rounds of the principal men and assure them of the falsity of the Mandan stories.
But he was rebuffed. Later that day, he saw MacKenzie. “He observed to me,” MacKenzie wrote, “that he was not very graciously received. ‘I sent ahead,’ said he, ‘to inform Horned Weasel [the Hidatsa chief] that I intended to take up my quarters at his lodge, he returned for an answer that “he was not at home.” This conduct surprised me, it being common only among your English Lords, not to be “at home” when they did not wish to see strangers, but as I had felt no inclination of entering any house after being told the landlord would not be “at home”, I looked out for another lodging, which I readily found.’ ”12
In the morning, Lewis and his men returned to Fort Mandan, accompanied by two lesser Hidatsa chiefs. From them, Lewis extracted a promise not to wage war on the Shoshones and Blackfeet, who resided north of the Shoshones, on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. The promise was worthless; a day or two later, the leader of the Wolves, a society of young Hidatsa warriors, took a party of fifty on a raid into Blackfoot territory.
So it had always been and apparently would be. The terms “peace” and “war” as understood by the Americans had no meaning to the Indians. Hostilities could break out at any time, for no apparent cause other than the restlessness of the young warriors, spurred by their desire for honor and glory, which could only be won on raids, which always brought on revenge raids, in a regular cycle. The captains were hopelessly naïve on this point. Lewis was sure he had created a peace in the face of overwhelming evidence that his words were carried away by the wind. He told Larocque of his confidence in his “very grand plan,” but Larocque had doubts, and rightly so.13
The truth was right in front of Lewis. He later recorded that, during this meeting with the Hidatsas, “I was pointing out to them the advantages of a state of peace with their neighbours. . . . The Chiefs who had already geathered their harvest of laurels and having forceably felt in many instances some of those inconveniences attending a state of war . . . readily agreed with me.” That was easy enough; old men seldom want war. But “a young fellow . . . asked me if they were in a state of peace with all their neighbours what the nation would do for Chiefs?” The teen-age warrior pointed out that the old chiefs must shortly die “and that the nation could not exist without chiefs,” and the Hidatsas could not choose chiefs without witnessing the achievements of the contending warriors.14
Lewis had other difficulties with the Hidatsas. They may have believed his protestations that the Americans meant them no harm, but they resented the lack of presents, and resented even more what one of them called “the high-sounding language the American captains bestowed upon themselves and their nation, wishing to impress the Indians with an idea that they were great warriors, and a powerful people, who, if exasperated, could crush all the nations of the earth.” Such boasting did not sit well with the proud Hidatsas.15
On the morning of November 30, a Mandan came to the fort with an alarming report. A raiding party of Sioux and Arikaras had attacked five Mandan hunters, killing one, wounding two others, and stealing nine horses. This was dismaying news to the peacemakers, for it indicated that the Arikaras had broken their promise and realigned themselves with the Sioux, and that those old allies were making war against the Mandans. This was welcome news too, however, because it provided the Americans with an opportunity to show their support of the Mandans and to display the kind of firepower they could bring to bear against tribes that displeased them.
The captains acted at once. Lewis took charge at Fort Mandan, while Clark marched across the frozen river at the head of a twenty-one-man detachment of soldiers to come to the aid of the Mandans.
The Mandans were not interested. They told Clark the snow was too deep, and anyway the Sioux had too much of a head start. Then they chastised the Americans for meddling in their affairs. The Mandans had believed Clark and Lewis and had gone out to hunt in small parties, thinking themselves safe, and now look what had happened. One chief said he had always known that the Arikaras were “liers, they were liers.”
Clark was not ready to see the peace policy defeated by one small raid. He again proposed pursuit and was again turned down. Then he made a case for the Arikaras. He admitted that “some bad men [from the Arikaras] may have been with the Scioux [but] you know there is bad men in all nations, do not get mad with the racarees [Arikaras] untill we know if those bad men are Counternoncd. by their nation.”
Clark could talk all he wanted. The Mandans knew what had happened and drew their own conclusions.
Clark and Lewis were meddling in affairs they did not understand, but the Mandans were patient with them. And protective too, although the captains hated to admit it. The expedition ate an enormous amount every day, and more every day as winter came on and it got colder, dipping down below zero frequently. To get through the winter, the Americans were going to need large quantities of Indian corn, beans, and squash, and they were going to have to find a regular supply of meat.
On December 7, a Mandan chief came to the fort to report that there were great numbers of buffalo on the hills a couple of miles or so away from the river. The chief offered horses for the soldiers and asked if the Americans would like to join the Mandans on a hunt.
Lewis gathered a party of fifteen men and, on the borrowed Mandan horses, went out to join the hunt. The Indians as riders put the Americans in the shade, even Americans from Virginia. Riding bareback at breakneck speed chasing the fleeing buffalo, they could guide their horses with their knees, leaving their hands free to shoot their arrows, which they did with such force that often an arrow would go right through the buffalo. Squaws came after, to butcher the animal before the wolves could get to the carcass.
Using rifles, Lewis and his men killed eleven buffalo that day. He enjoyed it so much he stayed out all night, apparently sleeping in a buffalo robe in below-zero weather. The next day, the Americans killed nine more buffalo. They ate only the tongues; the wolves got the rest. “We lived on the fat of the land,” MacKenzie wrote. “Hunting and eating were the order of the day.”16
That day, the temperature went down to forty-five below zero, the coldest it would get all winter. And winter was still thirteen days away.
I. The migration of the great herds is a sight not seen, alas, by any living person for well over a hundred years, but imagined by Charley Russell in his painting When the Land Belonged to God.
II. The bird was the poorwill, a close relative of the whippoorwill. Lewis weighed and described it. Naturalist and Lewis and Clark scholar Raymond Burroughs notes that it was not until the 1940s that zoologists discovered the bird’s tendency to hibernate.1
III. The site was about fourteen miles west of present Washburn, North Dakota. It has been washed away by the river and lies at least partially underwater.
IV. Gary Moulton points out (vol. 3, p. 201, n. 5) that the presence of unusually light-complexioned and fair-haired persons among the Mandans led to speculations about their being the fabled Welsh Indians, or somehow otherwise of European origin. There was nothing to the story.