Modern history

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Report from Fort Mandan

March 22–April 6, 1805

New life was stirring. On the first day of spring, it rained—the first rain since fall. The river ice began to break up. Ducks, swans, and geese sometimes seemed to fill the sky. The Indians set fire to the dry grass to encourage new grass to come up, for the benefit of their horses and to attract the buffalo.

By the end of March, the ice was coming down in great chunks, along with drowned buffalo who had been on the ice when it gave way. “I observed extrodanary dexterity of the Indians in jumping from one Cake of ice to another,” Clark wrote on the 30th, “for the purpose of Catching the buffalow as they float down.”

The joy of spring was everywhere, and doubly welcome by the men of the expedition, who had just survived the coldest winter any of them had ever known. They worked with enthusiasm, eager to get going again. Teams of men were repairing the boat, while others were building canoes, packing, making moccasins, making jerky, pumping the bellows. They sang as they worked.

In the five months between May and October 1804, the captains and their men had traveled more miles than many of their contemporaries would do in a lifetime. In the five months between November 1804 and April 1805, they had stayed in one place. The anticipation of getting going on the river again was so keen it was almost unbearable.

On the last day of March, Clark wrote, “All the party in high Spirits, but fiew nights pass without a Dance. Possessing perfect harmony and good understanding towards each other. Generally healthy except venerials complains which is verry Commion. . . .”

On April 5, the keelboat and the two pirogues that had come down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi and Missouri to Fort Mandan, along with six new canoes, were put into the water. They would be packed the next day, then set off on April 7, the keelboat headed downstream for St. Louis while the two pirogues and the lighter and more maneuverable canoes headed upstream, where the river would gradually become shallower and swifter.

As the men went about their work, the captains wrote. So much writing did they do that Clark complained he had no time to write his family. Lewis managed to work in a letter to his mother, but most of it was unoriginal—he just copied passages from his report to Jefferson.

The captains worked with passion and dedication. For several weeks, Lewis did nothing but write, eat, and sleep. There was so much to say. He felt he needed to justify the expedition. He wanted to please Jefferson, to be able to report that they had discovered what he had hoped they would, to answer his questions, to promote his program for the development of Louisiana.

Even more, the captains wanted to be accurate in all their observations. They were men of the Enlightenment, dedicated to collecting facts and then putting the new knowledge to work for the good of mankind. So, in addition to describing the geography, the soils, the minerals, the climate, they had the responsibility of describing the tribes, and of making recommendations on the economic future of Louisiana. They needed to make available in permanent form as much as they could of what they had learned.

Lewis was determined to get these jobs done and done right. In his mind, everything that had happened since Jefferson put him in command was preliminary to the expedition, which was only now about to begin. On April 7, the Corps of Discovery would set out into territory no white man had entered. Thus far, as Gary Moulton writes, “All the men’s efforts had been directed to reaching a point where other whites had ventured before them, on a route already mapped.”1

But although the expedition had yet to do any exploring, the captains had managed to pick up a tremendous amount of new information on Upper Louisiana—its flora and fauna, its climate and fertility, its peoples and their wars and their economies. Put together correctly, and properly organized and labeled, all this information would constitute the first systematic survey of the trans-Mississippi West, and would thus provide an invaluable contribution to the world’s knowledge—and equally invaluable to the United States government and American businessmen, frontier farmers, fur traders, and adventurers.

The captains collected information in two basic ways. First and foremost, from their own observations. Second, by making local inquiry. They asked questions about the surrounding country of every Indian and white trader they met. These information-gathering sessions sometimes lasted a full day, occasionally even longer.

Jefferson had a passion for Indian language, believing he would be able to trace the Indians’ origins by discovering the basis of their language. So the gathering of vocabularies was an important charge on the captains. They put a major effort into attempting to render words from various Indian languages into an English spelling.

MacKenzie was present once to see the captains at work on their vocabularies. The language being recorded was Hidatsa. A native speaker would say a word to Sacagawea, who would pass it on in Hidatsa to Charbonneau, who would pass it on in French to Jessaume, who would translate it into English for the captains. MacKenzie thought Jessaume’s English ranged somewhere between inadequate and nonexistent, magnifying the chances for error.

On another occasion, MacKenzie wrote: “I was present when vocabularies were being made of the Mandans; the two Frenchmen [Charbonneau and Jessaume] had warm disputes upon the meaning of every word that was taken down by the captains. As the Indians could not well comprehend the intention of recording their words, they concluded that the Americans had a wicked design upon their country.”2 Despite the difficulties, Lewis kept at it. He put in immense amounts of time on the task. Whether he found the work interesting, or thought it important, cannot be said. It sufficed that Mr. Jefferson wanted it done.

Lewis was relatively uninterested in Indian mythology or spiritual life, but he was a skilled observer of some parts of Indian culture, especially how things were done. One of his contributions, for example, was a graphic and precise description of glass-bead-making among the Arikaras. As the expedition prepared to depart for the mountains, the captains purchased a buffalo-skin tepee to provide shelter for themselves, Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and Pomp. Lewis described it in his journal entry of April 7, 1805, in what James Ronda characterized as “one of the best descriptions yet drafted of that distinctive plains dwelling.”3

In addition to their written descriptions, the captains gathered such objects as Arikara corn, tobacco seeds, mineral and botanical specimens, along with artifacts from Indian life, including bows, clothing, and painted robes, to be sent to Jefferson. Altogether, the amount of information they gathered, organized, and presented in a systematic fashion to Jefferson—and, beyond him, to the scientific world—was enough to justify the expedition, even if it made not a single further contribution.

The model for Lewis and Clark’s report was Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Like that work, written a quarter-century earlier, Lewis’s description of Upper Louisiana was part guidebook, part travelogue, part boosterlike promotion, part text to accompany the master map. Adding in Clark’s contributions, the final report from Fort Mandan totaled something close to forty-five thousand words, almost book-length (Jefferson’s Notes ran to some eighty thousand words).

Like Jefferson, Lewis began with a detailed account of the waterways, or, as he put it, “A Summary view of the rivers and Creeks, which discharge themselves into the Missouri . . . from the junction of that river with the Mississippi, to Fort Mandan.”4 As Jefferson had done for Virginia, Lewis described not only the tributaries but the people living along the rivers, whether the French at St. Charles, or the Otos, or the Sioux. He included information on the local economy, the soil, mineral deposits, climate, and more.

The report combined the captains’ actual observations of the various rivers flowing into the Missouri with information received from traders and Indians about the upper reaches of those streams and their own principal tributaries. For example, Lewis saw only the mouth of the Platte River, but he described it up to its head in the mountains. From what he had been told, he said, the Platte ran “through immence level and fertile plains and meadows, in which, no timber is to be seen except on it’s own borders.” He named five major tributaries of the Platte, discussed the mineral deposits in its drainage, the soil, the people—Otos and Missouris—and more. Naturally, the farther west Lewis’s report ventured, the more speculative it became. His conjecture about the Platte’s relationship to Santa Fe and to the Black Hills was purely imaginative and badly wrong.

Lewis expected that Jefferson would have his work printed and distributed as a report to Congress, and he knew something about the audience for the work, so on occasion he sounded like a promoter writing a broadside: “This river [the Muddy, in eastern Missouri] waters a most delightfull country; the land lies well for cultivation, and is fertile in the extreem . . . covered with lofty and excellent timber, and supplyed with an abundance of fine bould springs of limestone water.” The Grand River, farther west, was also prime farm country. “The lands are extreemly fertile; consisting of a happy mixtuure of praries and groves, exhibiting one of the most beautifull and picteresk seens that I ever beheld.”

Enthusiastic as he was in his report about the lower-Missouri country—he made it sound almost like heaven—he actually was holding back his emotions. In his letter to his mother, dated March 21, 1804, he allowed himself to rhapsodize about the country, writing not so much as son to mother as Virginia planter to Virginia planter. “This immence river so far as we have yet ascended,” he wrote, “waters one of the farest portions of the globe, nor do I believe that there is in the universe a similar extent of country, equally fertile, well watered, and intersected by suuch a number of navigable streams.” He added, “I had been led to believe that the open prarie contry was barren, steril and sandy; but on the contrary I found it fertile in the extreem, the soil being from one to 20 feet in debth, consisting of a fine black loam [that produces] a luxuriant growth of grass and other vegitables.”

The Plains were not quite Eden, however; the absence of timber was a serious drawback, for it was almost unimaginable for any American in 1805 to live in a country without plenty of lumber and fuel. Indeed, in the eastern third of the United States, too much timber was the problem.5

In his report to Jefferson, Lewis took note of all the things that would spring to the mind of a frontier farmer hankering to move into Upper Louisiana. He pointed out “several rappids well situated for water-works”; he warned against areas that had tolerably fertile soil but no timber. Lewis was an advance man for the American fur trappers and traders as well as farmers. He noted the furs available and scouted likely spots for trading posts.

One of Lewis’s responsibilities was to make recommendations on how to drive the British away from the Missouri so that American companies could take over the fur trade. His analysis of the economic-political situation on the river led him directly to his conclusion and recommendation.

“I am perfectly convinced that untill such measures are taken by our government as will effectually prohibit all intercourse or traffic with the Sioux” and the British fur companies, he reported to Jefferson, “the Citizens of the United States can never enjoy, but partially, those important advantages which the navigation of the Missouri now presents.” He recommended establishing garrisons in places where the soldiers could stop the British from coming into Dakota from Canada or across today’s Minnesota. If trade between the British and the Sioux was prohibited for a few years, he wrote, “the Sioux will be made to feel their dependance on the will of our government for their supplies of merchandize, and in the course of two or three years, they may most probably be reduced to order without the necessity of bloodshed.” Given what happened in Sioux-American relations over the following seventy-one years, that was a hopelessly optimistic prediction.

Much of the report was a business prospectus, with the emphasis on the Indian as customer and supplier. In a separate section, written in Clark’s hand but the product of both men’s labor, entitled “Estimate of the Eastern Indians,”6 the captains described no fewer than seventy-two different tribes and bands, with at least some information on where they lived, how they lived, who they were at war with, their numbers, their dwellings, and more. Of course the captains could only describe a few tribes from firsthand knowledge, but they made clear where their information was word-of-mouth.

Those they knew they did not hesitate to characterize, often in a heartfelt fashion. They wrote of their friends the Mandans, “These are the most friendly, well disposed Indians inhabiting the Missouri. They are brave, humane and hospitable.” Of the Teton Sioux, the opposite: “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.”

Of the tribes living along the route they intended to follow, they wrote of the mountain-dwelling Flatheads: “They are a timid, inoffensive, and defenceless people. They are said to possess an abundance of horses.”

Of the Shoshones, the captains’ information indicated that they traded with the Spanish, who refused to give them firearms. Consequently, although the Shoshones were a very numerous and well-disposed people, “All the nations on the Missouries below make war on them & Steal their horses.”

Of the Nez Percé: “Still less is known of these people, or their country. The water courses on which they reside, are supposed to be branches of the Columbia river.”

Along with the written report, the captains sent back to Jefferson 108 botanical specimens, to add to the collections at the American Philosophical Society, all properly labeled as to where and when collected, and described. The first was “a species of Cress, taken at St. Louis May 10th 1804. It is common in the open growns on the Mississippi bottomes, appears in the uncultivated parts of the lots gardens and orchards, the seed come to maturity by the 10th of May in most instances.”

If medicinal properties were claimed for a plant, Lewis mentioned them. If the claim touched a common medical problem back in the States, Lewis emphasized it, none more so than a root known by the name of “white wood of the prairie” which was said to be sovereign for the bite of a mad wolf or a mad dog, and for the bite of the rattlesnake. Rabies and snakebite were common dangers in the early nineteenth century, so a cure was such an exciting prospect that Lewis made the root of the white wood the subject of a separate letter to Jefferson, in which he detailed how to prepare it as a poultice, how to apply it, and so forth. He concluded: “I have sent herewith a few pounds of this root, in order that experiments may be made by some skilfull person under the direction of the pilosophical society of Philadelphia.”7

It was probably the purple coneflower, which was widely used by the Indians as an antidote for snakebite. Jefferson sent the root along to a doctor to experiment with it.8

Lewis also sent to Jefferson sixty-eight mineral specimens, all labeled as to where and when collected. He included such items as “sand of the Missouri,” “one pint of Missouri water,” “pebbles common to the Missouri,” lead ore, quartz, Glauber salts, alum, pyrites, lime, lava and pumice stone, and fossils.

The plants and minerals were part of a larger shipment to Jefferson that included skeletons of a male and female pronghorn, the horns of two mule deer, insects and mice, skins of various animals, including a marten and a white weasel that came from beyond the mountains via the trade route, and more. There were live animals too, new to science: four magpies, a prairie dog, and a prairie grouse hen (only one magpie and the prairie dog reached Jefferson alive).

Included also in the shipment was Clark’s map of the United States west of the Mississippi River. It was a masterpiece of the cartographers art, and an invaluable contribution to knowledge. From St. Louis to Fort Mandan, Clark got it exactly right along the Missouri. His map became a bit sketchier as it moved west, naturally, because his depictions of the various tributaries was based on hearsay, often from people who did not claim to be eyewitnesses but knew someone who had been there. Lewis explained Clark’s method: he would compare one Indian’s description with another’s, questioning them separately and at different times, and questioning as many as possible. Only when there was agreement on placement, distance, mountain passes, and so forth was the information put on Clark’s map and into Lewis’s report.

For all their concern with getting the specimens ready for shipment and with making their report and the map as complete as possible, in the first two weeks of spring what was uppermost in the captains’ minds was what lay ahead. They pumped the Mandans, who never ventured very far west and thus could tell them little, and the Hidatsas, whose war parties ranged to the mountains and who thus could tell them a lot.

From the Hidatsas, Lewis had learned the names of rivers coming into the Missouri, and their connections with one another. He commented on his source: “I conceive [the Hidatsas] are entitled to some confidence.”

Lewis expected to find, at 117 miles upriver from Fort Mandan, the White Earth River coming in on the north side. The prospect excited him greatly, because if the White Earth came in from as far north as the Indians indicated, it would mean that the boundary between Canada and the United States might be moved north by as much as a full degree of latitude, something Jefferson very much hoped for.

Three miles above the mouth of the White Earth, the Indians told Lewis he would come to the greatest of all the tributaries of the Missouri, the Yellowstone. The Hidatsas said that the Yellowstone “waters one of the fairest portions of Louisiana, a country not yet hunted, and abounding in animals of the fur kind.” They thought the river navigable “at all seasons of the year for boats and perogues to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, near which place, it is said to be not more than 20 miles distant from the three forks of the Missouri.”

The obvious importance of the Yellowstone led Lewis to recommend that the government build a trading post at the junction with the Missouri. It would “afford to our citizens the benefit of a most lucrative fur trade [and] might be made to hold in check the views of the British N. West Company,” whose intention was “to panopolize” the Missouri River fur-trade business. “If this powerfull and ambitious company are suffered uninterruptedly to prosecute their trade,” Lewis warned, the British might someday use their influence with the natives to block all American navigation on the Missouri.

Some 150 miles upstream from the mouth of the Yellowstone would come “The River Which Scolds at All Others,” falling in on the north side. Then the Musselshell from the south. Another 120 miles and the expedition would be at the falls of the Missouri, “discribed by the Indians as a most tremendious Cataract. They state that the nois it makes can be heard at a great distance. . . . They also state that there is a fine open plain on the N. side of the falls, through which, canoes and baggage may be readily transported. this portage they assert is not greater than a half a mile.”

Some fifteen miles beyond the falls, the Medicine River would fall in on the north side. Another sixty miles and the expedition would enter the first connected chain of the mountains. After another seventy-five miles, the Missouri would divide into three nearly equal branches, at the place called Three Forks, where Sacagawea had been captured some five years earlier. The most northern of the three rivers “is navigable to the foot of a chain of high mountains, being the ridge which divides the waters of the Atlantic from those of the Pacific ocean. The Indians assert that they can pass in half a day from the foot of this mountain on it’s East side to a large river which washes it’s Western base.”

How Jefferson must have loved reading that line. The singular objective of the expedition was about to be realized.

The Divide was as far as the Hidatsas ever ventured. Lewis noted that “we have therefore been unable to acquire any information further West than the view from the top of these mountains.”

But what the Hidatsas said they saw from the top of the mountain was exactly what Lewis and Jefferson hoped for and expected: “The Indians inform us that the country on the Western side of this river consists of open & level plains like those they themselves inhabit.” The Flathead and Shoshone tribes lived on a river in that country. Their principal food was fish. “This river we suppose to be the S. fork of the Columbia,” Lewis wrote, “and the fish the Salmon, with which we are informed the Columbia river abounds. This river is said to be rapid but as far as the Indian informants are acquainted with it is not intercepted with shoals.”

What had been high expectations now soared, both at Fort Mandan and, some months later, in Washington, when the report arrived and Jefferson read it with what must have been the most intense satisfaction, feeling that, even as he was reading, the all-water route to the Pacific was being found and mapped.

Along with the report, Lewis sent back to St. Louis various letters, dispatches, and copies of the drafts and chits he had signed, what he called “my public accounts.” In a covering letter to Jefferson dated April 7, but almost certainly written the previous day, Lewis confessed to considerable embarrassment about those accounts.9 He had intended to put them in order and have them returned to St. Louis in the fall of 1804, but in the event it turned out that “the provision perogue and her crew could not have been dismissed . . . without evedently in my opinion, hazarding the fate of the enterprise in which I am engaged, and I therefore did not hesitate to prefer the sensure that I may have incurred by the detention of these papers, to that of risking in any degree the success of the expedition.”

Jefferson had instructed Lewis to be diligent about his accounts and to get his drafts back to the War Department with all possible speed. Lewis said his failure to do so had become “a serious source of disquiet and anxiety; and the recollection of your particular charge to me on this subject, has made it still more poignant.”

Clearly, as an army officer, Lewis had made the correct decision. But as the president’s protégé he felt terrible about it, because he hated disappointing Jefferson. Yet, however bad he felt about it, Lewis’s casualness with his accounts and the chits he had signed was becoming habitual.

In the second half of his April 7 letter to Jefferson, Lewis told his commander-in-chief his plans. In the morning, he intended to send the keelboat and pirogues on their way. Accompanying Corporal Warfington would be four privates plus NewmanI and Reed, Mr. Gravelines acting as pilot and interpreter, and four Frenchmen. They were well armed and adequately supplied. “I have but little doubt but they will be fired on by the Siouxs,” Lewis wrote, “but they have pledged themselves to us that they will not yeald while there is a man of them living.”

The expedition’s six canoes and two pirogues were loaded, ready to go. They would shove off the instant Warfington turned the keelboat downstream. Lewis said he intended to leave the two pirogues at the falls of the Missouri. On the far side of the falls he intended to put his iron-frame boat together and cover it with skins.

Freed of the cumbersome keelboat, Lewis said he anticipated traveling at a rate of twenty to twenty-five miles per day until he reached the falls. After that, “any calculation with rispect to our daily progress, can be little more than bare conjecture.” But his hopes were high: “The circumstance of the Snake Indians possessing large quantities of horses, is much in our favour, as by means of horses, the transportation of our baggage will be rendered easy and expeditious over land, from the Missouri to the Columbia river.”

Supplies were adequate, Lewis said, thanks to the skills of the hunters, whose efforts made it possible to live on a diet of meat, thus saving the parched corn, portable soup, flour, and salt pork for the mountains. He put in not a word about Mandan corn, a glaring omission that left Jefferson with the entirely wrong impression that it was possible for white men to winter on the Plains without help from the Indians. Lewis did say that the Indians assured him the country ahead “abounds with a vast quantity of game.”

Lewis predicted that the expedition would reach the Pacific Ocean that summer, then return as far as the head of the Missouri, or perhaps even as far as Fort Mandan, for the winter of 1805–6. He told Jefferson, “You may therefore expect me to meet you at Monachello in September 1806.”

Lewis’s concluding paragraph must be the most optimistic report from the field from an army officer about to set off on a great venture that any commander-in-chief ever received: “I can foresee no material or probable obstruction to our progress, and entertain therefore the most sanguine hopes of complete success. As to myself individually I never enjoyed a more perfect state of good health, than I have since we commenced our voyage. My inestimable friend and companion Capt. Clark has also enjoyed good health generally. At this moment, every individual of the party are in good health, and excellent sperits; zealously attatched to the enterprise, and anxious to proceed; not a whisper of discontent or murmur is to be heard among them; but all in unison, act with the most perfect harmoney. With such men I have everything to hope, and but little to fear.”


I. Newman had conductd himself admirably since his court-martial and discharge. He had volunteered for the toughest jobs and impressed the men so much that they urged Lewis to meet Newman’s request that he be allowed to rejoin the expedition. Although he later had some words of praise for Newman, Lewis would not reinstate him, and he returned to St. Louis with the deserter Reed.

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