Modern history

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Lewis as Ethnographer: The Shoshones

If the Shoshones were fascinated by the men and equipment of the expedition, Lewis was no less fascinated by them. The first Indians he had seen since the Mandans, they were about as close to being untouched by contact with white men as it was possible for any tribe to be at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Cameahwait’s people had perhaps seen a Spaniard or two; they had some trade goods of European manufacture, not much; they had three indifferent rifles.

The biggest change the white man effected among the Shoshones was the introduction of horses, brought to the New World by the Spanish. Next came rifles, provided by the English and French to their trading partners on the Plains, the Blackfeet, Hidatsas, and some others. As Cameahwait so movingly noted, the arms trade with the enemies of the Shoshones put his people at a terrible disadvantage and regulated their lives. They had to sneak onto the Plains, make their hunt as fast as possible, and retreat into their mountain hideaway, or, as Lewis put it, “alternately obtaining their food at the risk of their lives and retiring to the mountains.”

The civilized world knew nothing about the Shoshones. In describing them, Lewis was breaking entirely new scientific ground. His account, written during his stay at Camp Fortunate, is therefore invaluable as the first description ever of a Rocky Mountain tribe, in an almost precontact stage.

Lewis’s ethnography, if not up to the standards of academic ethnographers of the late twentieth century, was wide-ranging. His curiosity, his catholic interests, and his responsibility for reporting to Jefferson on the tribes he met combined to create an informative, invaluable, and altogether enchanting picture of Cameahwait’s people. Lewis covered their appearance, personal characteristics, customs, population, clothing, health, economy, the relations between the sexes, and politics. The richness of detail can only be hinted at here; interested readers are urged to go to the original journals for the full account.

The Shoshones were “deminutive in stature, thick ankles, crooked legs, thick flat feet and in short but illy formed, at least much more so in general than any nation of Indians I ever saw.” Their complexion was darker than that of the Hidatsas or the Mandans. As a consequence of the losses they had suffered in the spring to the Blackfeet, men and women alike had their hair cut at the neck: “This constitutes their cerimony of morning for their deceased relations.” Cameahwait had his hair cut close all over his head.

As to their demeanor, “notwithstanding their extreem poverty they are not only cheerfull but even gay, fond of gaudy dress and amusements; like most other Indians they are great egotists and frequently boast of heroic acts which they never performed.” They loved to gamble. “They are frank, communicative, fair in dealing, generous with the little they possess, extreemly honest, and by no means beggarly.”

Cameahwait’s band numbered about one hundred warriors, three hundred women and children. There were few old people among them, and so far as Lewis could tell the elderly were not treated with much tenderness or respect. As to relations between the sexes, “the man is the sole propryetor of his wives and daughters, and can barter or dispose of either as he thinks proper.” Most men had two or three wives, usually purchased as infant girls for horses or mules. At age thirteen or fourteen, the girls were surrendered to their “soverign lord and husband.”

Sacagawea had been thus disposed of before she was taken prisoner, and her betrothed was still alive and living with this band. He was in his thirties and had two other wives. He claimed Sacagawea as his wife “but said that as she had had a child by another man, who was Charbono, that he did not want her.”

That was lucky, because Sacagawea was accompanying the expedition to the Pacific. Neither Captain Lewis nor Captain Clark ever thought to discuss the matter in his journal, so it is unclear whether she chose to leave her people after a reunion of less than a month, or Charbonneau forced her to come along. Since she had never been in the territory they were entering, and so could recognize no landmarks, and since her linguistic abilities would be of little help with the Nez Percé or any other tribe west of the mountains, the captains had no pressing need to bring her along. One would like to think that the question whether she should stay with the expedition never came up, that she was by now so integral a member of the party that it was taken for granted that she would remain with it.

Lewis noted, with disapproval, that the Shoshones “treat their women but with little rispect, and compel them to perform every species of drudgery. They collect the wild fruits and roots, attend to the horses or assist in that duty, cook dreess the skins and make all their apparal, collect wood and make their fires, arrange and form their lodges, and when they travel pack the horses and take charge of all the baggage; in short the man dose little else except attend his horses hunt and fish.”

Lewis failed to note that the warriors had to be always prepared to defend the village, which required them to be constantly on the alert, with their hands free. He did point out that each man had his best war horse tied to a stake near his lodge at night.

“The man considers himself degraded if he is compelled to walk any distance,” Lewis noted. He did not add that in this they were very like Virginia gentlemen. The literal translation of Cameahwait, as best Lewis could make it out, was “One Who Never Walks.”

“The chastity of their women is not held in high estimation,” Lewis wrote. The men would barter their wives’ services for a night or longer, if the reward was sufficient, “tho’ they are not so importunate that we should caress their women as the siouxs were and some of their women appear to be held more sacred than in any nation we have seen.” Lewis ordered his men to give the Shoshone braves “no cause of jealousy” by having sexual relationships with their women without the husbands’ knowledge and consent. To prevent such affairs altogether, he recognized, would be “impossible to effect, particularly on the part of our young men whom some months abstanence have made very polite to those tawney damsels.”

Knowing that the Shoshones had no contact with whites, Lewis wrote that “I was anxious to learn whether these people had the venerial.” His purpose was immediate—he had the health of his men in mind—but also scholarly. One of the oldest questions in medical history, still a subject of debate today, was whether syphilis originated in the Americas and spread to Europe after 1492, or was native to Europe and spread to the North American Indians by Europeans.

Through Sacagawea, Lewis made inquiries as to the presence of venereal disease among the Shoshones. He learned that it was a problem, “but I could not learn their remedy; they most usually die with it’s effects.” As far as he was concerned, “this seems a strong proof that these disorders bothe gonaroehah and Louis venerae are native disorders of America.”I

But it was not conclusive, as Lewis realized, because the Shoshones had suffered much from the smallpox, “which is known to be imported,” so they must have contracted it from other tribes that did have intercourse with white men. They might have contracted venereal disease in the same manner. Still, the Shoshones were “so much detached from all communication with the whites that I think it most probable that those disorders are original with them.”

One part of Shoshone culture Lewis could observe and describe without having to go through a translation chain or Drouillard’s sign language was clothing and general appearance. He wrote at great length about the Shoshone shirts, leggings, robes, chemises, and other items, about their use of seashells, beads, arm bands, leather collars, porcupine quills dyed various colors, earrings, and so forth.

Lewis pronounced the tippet of the Shoshones “the most elegant peice of Indian dress I ever saw.” It was a sort of cloak made of dressed otter skin to which 100 to 250 rolls of ermine skin were attached. Cameahwait gave him one, which he prized.II Footwear could also be ornamental. “Some of the dressy young men,” Lewis noted, “orniment the tops of their mockersons with the skins of polecats [skunks] and trale the tail of that animal on the ground at their heels as they walk.”

For all that he wrote on clothing and customs, Lewis was most interested in Shoshone economics and politics. Here his goal was specific, to integrate the tribe into the trading empire the United States was going to create in Louisiana and beyond the mountains. The first requirement was a general peace along the Missouri River and in the mountains, but of course the Shoshones needed no prodding in that direction. They were victims, not aggressors.

What the Shoshones could contribute to the overall goal was ermine, otter, and other exotic skins of the mountain animals—if they could be taught to trap, and if they could be made dependent on a steady flow of the white man’s goods. The Shoshones were so desperately poor that they had almost no economy to speak of. In the spring and summer, they lived on salmon; in the fall and winter, on buffalo.

That they could successfully hunt buffalo was thanks to their horses, the sole source of wealth among them. Having few to no rifles, without horses they would have been indifferent hunters at best. On August 23, Lewis watched a dozen young warriors pursuing mule deer from horseback. The chase covered four miles and “was really entertaining.”

Shortly after noon, the hunters came in with two deer and three pronghorns. To Lewis’s surprise, there was no division of the meat among the hunters. Instead, the families of the men who had made the kill took it all. “This is not customary among the nations of Indians with whom I have hitherto been acquainted,” Lewis wrote. “I asked Cameahwait the reason why the hunters did not divide the meat; he said that meat was so scarce with them that the men who killed it reserved it for themselves and their own families.”

Their implements for preparing food and eating were primitive. They had neither ax nor hatchet to cut wood; they used stone or elk horn. Their utensils consisted of earthen jars and buffalo-horn spoons. Lewis did an inventory of the metal objects possessed by Cameahwait’s people: “a few indifferent knives, a few brass kettles, some arm bands of iron and brass, a few buttons, worn as ornaments in their hair, a spear or two of a foot in length and some iron and brass arrow points which they informed me they obtained in exchange for horses from the Crow or Rocky Mountains Indians.” Any people so primitive that they were forced to trade horses for a few metal arrowheads obviously needed to get into a more extensive trading system.

What the Shoshones valued above all else, and depended on absolutely, was the bravery of their young men. Their childrearing system was designed to produce brave warriors. “They seldom correct their children,” Lewis wrote, “particularly the boys who soon became masters of their own acts. They give as a reason that it cows and breaks the Sperit of the boy to whip him, and that he never recovers his independence of mind after he is grown.”

In politics, they followed not the oldest or wisest or the best talker, but the bravest man. They had customs, but no laws or regulations. “Each individual man is his own soveriegn master,” Lewis wrote, “and acts from the dictates of his own mind.”

From this fact sprang the principle of political leadership: “The authority of the Cheif [is] nothing more than mere admonition supported by the influence which the propiety of his own examplery conduct may have acquired him in the minds of the individuals who compose the band, the title of cheif is not hereditary, nor can I learn that there is any cerimony of instalment, or other epoh in the life of a Cheif from which his title as such can be dated, in fact every man is a chief, but all have not an equal influence on the minds of the other members of the community, and he who happens to enjoy the greatest share of confidence is the principal Chief.”

Since bravery was the primary virtue, no man could become eminent among the Shoshones “who has not at some period of his life given proofs of his possessing [it].” There could be no prominence without some warlike achievement, a principle basic to the entire structure of Shoshone politics.

These observations led Lewis to an insight into the problems the Americans were going to have in integrating not just the language but all the Indians west of the Mississippi River into their trading empire. He recalled the day at Fort Mandan when he was explaining to the Hidatsa chiefs the advantages that would flow to them from a general state of peace among the nations of the Missouri. The old men agreed with him, but only because they “had already geathered their havest of larals, and having forceably felt in many instances some of those inconveniences attending a state of war.” But a young warrior put to Lewis a question that Lewis could not answer: “[He] asked me if they were in a state of peace with all their neighbours what the nation would do for Cheifs?”

The warrior went on to make a fundamental point: “The chiefs were now oald and must shortly die and the nation could not exist without chiefs.”

In two sentences, the Hidatsa brave had exposed the hopelessness of the American policy of inducing the Missouri River and Rocky Mountain Indians to become trappers and traders. They would have to be conquered and cowed before they could be made to abandon war. Jefferson’s dream of establishing through persuasion and trade a peaceable kingdom among the western Indians was as much an illusion as his dream of an all-water route to the Pacific.

This was a great disappointment, but it could not be helped. It was characteristic of the men of the Enlightenment to face facts. Lewis’s ethnology helped establish the facts. It was therefore a great contribution to general knowledge—exactly the kind of contribution Lewis berated himself for not making in his thirty-first-birthday musings.


ILues venera is Latin for “syphilis.” Gonorrhea was often confused with syphilis at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but Lewis here made a clear distinction. (Moulton, ed., Journals, vol. 5, p. 125.)

II. In 1807, the artist Charles B. J. Févret de Saint-Mémin painted Lewis wearing the robe. See illustration on here.

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