Modern history

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

The Marias Exploration

July 3–July 28, 1806

On the morning of July 3, Lewis wrote, “I took leave of my worthy friend and companion Capt. Clark and the party that accompanyed him.” As the captains and men shook hands and said their goodbyes, there must have been a question in every man’s mind—I wonder if I’ll ever see you again.

The proposed rendezvous at the Missouri-Yellowstone junction was a full five hundred miles east of Traveler’s Rest, as the crow flies. Clark’s proposed route would cover nearly a thousand miles, Lewis’s nearly eight hundred.

Both captains would be in country they had not seen before, facing they knew not what dangers from the weather, the terrain, and the natives. Except for their rifles, scientific instruments, and journals, the men were no better equipped than the Indians, and none of the five detachments of the Corps of Discovery would have enough firepower to drive off a determined attack from even a moderate-sized war party. But such confident travelers had the captains become that what they said to each other as they parted was, See you at the junction in five or six weeks.

Whether their confidence in themselves and their men had swelled past all reason, was theirs to discover. That Lewis felt at least a tinge of apprehension is clear from his comment on the parting: “I could not avoid feeling much concern on this occasion although I hoped this seperation was only momentary.”

Lewis, nine men, five Nez Percé guides, and seventeen horses set out northward, down the Bitterroot River. At ten miles, they crossed the river by raft and continued their march eastward along today’s Clark Fork River to within a couple of miles of today’s Missoula, Montana.

At sunset, they made camp. Hunters brought in three deer, which Lewis split with the Indians. He tried to persuade them to stay with his party until they got over the Continental Divide and down to the falls of the Missouri, but they said he didn’t need them: the road was such a well-beaten track even a white man couldn’t miss the way. Besides, they were afraid of meeting with a Hidatsa raiding party.

Just before lying down on his elk skin, Lewis ordered the hunters to turn out early in the morning to kill some meat for the guides, “whom I was unwilling to leave without giving them a good supply of provisions after their having been so obliging as to conduct us through those tremendious mountains.”

They parted at noon the following day, July 4. Independence Day drew no comment from Lewis, no mention of the men firing their rifles. If anything, it was a sad day, the last contact with the Nez Percé, among whom the party had been living for two months.

The Nez Percé had seen the white soldiers hungry and fed them; seen them cold and provided fuel; seen them without horses and put them on mounts; seen them confused and provided good advice; seen them make fools of themselves trying to cross mountains ten feet deep in snow and not snickered; seen them lost and guided them. They had ridden together, eaten together, slept together, played together, and crossed the Lolo Trail together. Although they could communicate only with the sign language, they had an abundance of shared experiences that drew them together. They had managed to cross communication and cultural barriers to become genuine friends.

“These affectionate people our guides betrayed every emmotion of unfeigned regret at seperating from us,” Lewis wrote. The Nez Percé could not hide their anxiety about their new friends: “They said that they were confidint that the PahkeesI . . . would cut us off.”

As the Indians set off to the north, Lewis and his men headed east. They passed through present-day Missoula, up today’s Broadway Street across the river from the University of Montana. At five miles, they came to today’s Blackfoot River, called River of the Road to Buffalo by the Nez Percé, coming in from the east, and headed up it, through a heavily timbered country of high and rocky mountains. The next day, they made thirty-one miles.

The place they camped that night had been a Hidatsa war-party camp a couple of months earlier. On July 6, the Indian sign included fresh tracks along the trail. Lewis was concerned: “They have a large pasel of horses,” he commented. He expected to meet with either the Hidatsas or another hunting party at any time, so he and the men were “much on our guard both day and night.”

His luck held. There were no encounters with Indians, friendly or hostile. His trip up the Blackfoot River, through one of the most beautiful valleys in Montana, was happily uneventful. What caught Lewis’s eye was “much sign of beaver in this extensive bottom.”

On July 7, the party turned in a more northerly direction to follow the Nez Percé trail up today’s Alice Creek. There were many beaver dams, many deer. Reubin Field wounded a moose. “My dog much worried,” Lewis wrote, without giving any detail but apparently referring to the wounded moose. At about eleven miles, the creek was not much more than a trickle, coming from a spring on the side of a low, untimbered mountain. The trail wound up the north side of the creek, then switched back a couple of times before disappearing over the top of the pass.II

The party wound its way up the gentle slope. At the top, it reached “the dividing ridge betwen the waters of the Columbia and Missouri rivers.” To the east, Lewis could see Square Butte, near the falls of the Missouri, not far from where he stood. The Great Plains of North America stretched out in front of him, apparently without limit, under an infinity of bright-blue sky. He took a step—and he was back in U.S. territory.

The descent was easy, through hills and hollows. The men could talk only of buffalo, but none were encountered, although tantalizing signs were all about them. The next day, the party crossed the Dearborn River and closed on the Medicine (today’s Sun) River, where they camped.

On July 9, Joseph Field killed a fat buffalo. “We halted to dine,” Lewis wrote. Once they got some roasts going, it commenced to drizzle. That settled it. “I concluded to remain all day,” Lewis wrote, and added by way of explanation, “we feasted on the buffaloe.” He and the men were “much rejoiced at finding ourselves in the plains of the Missouri which abound with game.”

They surely did. On July 10, the hunters killed five deer, three elk, and a bear. They saw herds of buffalo farther down the river. The bellowing of the bulls through the night (it was mating season) kept them awake. It was “one continual roar,” so loud it frightened the horses. There were “vast assemblages of wolves,” herds of elk.

Lewis and his men had thought they knew how much they missed the Plains, but found out they had underestimated. Fresh roasted buffalo hump and tongue tasted even better than they had remembered.

Lewis was on his way home, with great discoveries made, and discoveries yet to be made. His stomach was full as it hadn’t been since he had left the buffalo country the previous July. He was in a fine, mellow mood, as he showed in the morning, when he began his journal with a charming tribute to the Great Plains of Montana: “The morning was fair and the plains looked beatifull. the grass much improved by the late rain. the air was pleasant and a vast assemblage of little birds which croud to the groves on the river sung most enchantingly.”

On the march that day, headed down the Sun River to the Missouri, the party went through “a level beautifull and extensive high plain covered with immence hirds of buffaloe. . . . I sincerely belief that there were not less than 10 thousand buffaloe within a circle of 2 miles.” The buffalo provided not only meat but also coverings for boats. Lewis had eleven of them shot and willow sticks collected to make bull boats, one in the Mandan fashion, the other “on a plan of our own,” (otherwise unexplained) for crossing the Missouri to the cache on the east bank.

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In the morning, terrible news. The men sent to round up the horses returned to report that seven of the seventeen were missing. Lewis immediately suspected a hunting party had stolen them. He sent Drouillard to search for them, although what he thought Drouillard could do if he caught up with the thieves he did not say. In fact, the order was a mistake, both because of Drouillard’s obvious helplessness in the face of twenty or thirty mounted warriors, and because it deprived Lewis of his sole means of communication with other Indians, should they be encountered.

After Drouillard rode off, the horses swam across the river, the bull boats were paddled over, and camp was set up on the site they had occupied during the great portage of 1805. The cache was opened; high water during the spring runoff had gotten into it; Lewis’s plant specimens were all lost, but fortunately the papers and maps were okay.

The loss of the specimens was a terrible blow. They had been collected painstakingly, labeled, carefully dried (requiring daily attention) and preserved. Paul Russell Cutright writes, “Such losses were more than minor catastrophes, resulting as they did in the defeat of prime scientific objectives and the complete vitiation of weeks and months of dedicated effort and inquiry.”1

That night, Lewis found that he had forgotten something else about life on the Missouri River. “Musquetoes excessively troublesome,” he wrote, “insomuch that without the protection of my musquetoe bier I should have found it impossible to wright a moment.”

On July 14, Lewis had the men prepare the baggage for the upcoming portage. He sent his trunks containing his papers and journals to one of the islands, to be put on a scaffold in thick brush, and covered with skins. “I take this precaution,” he explained, “lest some indians may visit the men I leave here before the arrival of the main party and rob them.”

In the aftermath of losing nearly half of his horses to a roving band of warriors, he was beginning to fear that perhaps he was dividing the Corps of Discovery in too many parts. But his fear was not so strong as to cause him to call off his exploration of the Marias, even though the loss of the horses meant he had to reduce the size of his party from six to three men. At least that would leave six men at the falls, perhaps enough for self-defense.

Drouillard didn’t come in that day, which worried Lewis. Nor did he return the following day. Lewis began to fear that a grizzly had killed him. He explained his reasoning: “I knew that if he met with a bear in the plains even he would attack him. and that if any accedent should happen to seperate him from his horse in that situation the chances in favour of his being killed would be as 9 to 10.”

At 1:00 p.m., July 15, Drouillard returned. He reported that he had searched for two days before discovering where the thieves had run the stolen horses over the Dearborn River. He pursued their tracks, but they had a two-day start, so he gave it up. He figured the strength of the party at fifteen lodges.

Lewis assumed it was a hunting party, looking for buffalo. He had seen that day how much roving it took to find the herds; there was not a buffalo in sight, where the previous day they covered the earth. Such huge herds had to keep moving to find grass, which meant that those who hunted them had to keep moving. Which meant that the Corps of Discovery had been exceedingly lucky the previous year to have avoided all contact with the natives until they got to the Shoshone village.

With Drouillard returned, Lewis was ready to set out in the morning for the Marias exploration. He had selected Drouillard and the Field brothers. He would take six horses, leaving two of the best and two of the worst with the party at the falls, to assist in the portage. He closed his journal, “The musquetoes continue to infest us in such manner that we can scarcely exist. . . . my dog even howls with the torture he experiences. . . . they are almost insupportable.”

On July 16, the exploring party set out, stopping first at the falls where Lewis made a drawing. Then it was out of the river valley and up onto the high plains. To Lewis’s eye, the plains “have somewhat the appearance of an ocean, not a tree nor a shrub to be seen.” He was back in wonderland. “The whole face of the country as far as the eye can reach looks like a well shaved bowlinggreen, in which immence and numerous herds of buffaloe were seen feeding attended by their scarcely less numerous sheepherds the Wolves.”

The enchantment of the place did not prevent Lewis from worrying. His expressed desire to meet the Blackfeet had given way to fear. When he was planning this exploration, he had hoped to have with him some leading Nez Percé men, so that he could make a peace between the Nez Percé and the Blackfeet. That motive was now gone. Further, he had planned to explore with a party of seven; now he was down to four. Finally, what the Nez Percé said about the Blackfeet—“they are a vicious lawless and reather an abandoned set of wretches”—had its effect on Lewis. His conclusion: “I wish to avoid an interview with them if possible,” because he had no doubt that “finding us weak should they happen to be numerous [the Blackfeet] wil most probably attempt to rob us of our arms and baggage.” He vowed to “take every possible precaution to avoid them if possible.”

The ride through wonderland continued. On July 18, “we passed immence herds of buffaloe. . . . in short for about 12 miles it appeared as one herd only the whole plains being covered with them.” Indians never left his mind. At camp that night, on the Marias River, he noted: “I keep a strict lookout every night. I take my tour of watch with the men.”

For three more days, Lewis followed the Marias upstream. On the afternoon of July 21, the river forked into two branches, today’s Cut Bank Creek coming from the north and Two Medicine River flowing from the south. Since Lewis’s whole purpose was to find the northernmost branch of the Marias, he did not hesitate to follow up Cut Bank Creek. But because the Marias had been leading him on an almost straight westward route, he confessed that “the most northern point . . . I now fear will not be as far north as I wished and expected.”

On Tuesday, July 22, Lewis got to within twenty miles of the Rocky Mountains, in sight of the Continental Divide in today’s Glacier National Park. About twenty miles northwest of the modern town of Cut Bank, he set up camp “in a beautifull and extensive bottom of the river,” in a clump of large cottonwoods. From the bluff overhanging the bottom, Lewis could see where the creek came out of the mountains, and it was southwest, not northwest, of his position. He had reached the northernmost point of Cut Bank Creek.

He decided to stay there for a couple of days, to rest the men and horses and to make celestial observations. “I now have lost all hope of the waters of this river ever extending to N Latitude 50 degrees,” he admitted, but he was not one to give up easily: “I still hope and think it more than probable that both white earth river and milk river extend as far north as latd. 50 degrees.”

Arlen Large explains his methods and results:

Lewis measured the sun’s noon altitude on July 23, getting a raw octant reading of 62 degrees 00’ 00”. He didn’t record any conversion of that suspiciously round number into a latitude. Using an 1806 Nautical Almanac and Lewis’s usual method of computation, that octant reading would have produced a latitude of 48 degrees, 10’, or some 30’ too far south.

I think it’s very possible he didn’t compute a latitude here because he wasn’t carrying an 1806 almanac; my surmise is that the expedition’s three almanacs covered 1803, 1804 and 1805 only. His conclusion that Cut Bank Creek didn’t reach as high as 50 degrees probably was based on dead reckoning. Using as a benchmark the previous year’s calculation of 47 degrees, 25’ 17” as the latitude of the Marias-Missouri junction, he could have seen from his compass courses and distances on the way to Cut Bank Creek that it was well short of the 170-odd miles needed to reach the 50th parallel.2

What Lewis needed to know was the time, and that he got from his equal altitudes of the sun. He set his chronometer at high noon. If he could make a sextant measurement of a daytime sun-moon distance, he could figure the time in Greenwich. Then he would know his longitude.

The following day, Drouillard returned from a scouting mission to report that there was much sign of Indians in the area. Lewis’s attempts to make his observations were frustrated by cloud cover, both that day and the next—and the next. The men went out to hunt, without success—a sure sign Indians had been hunting in the area in considerable numbers. The men reported various signs of Indians, some of them large campsites with many, many horses. “We consider ourselves extreemly fortunate in not having met with these people,” Lewis wrote.

He decided he would leave in the morning, July 26, unless the sun came out so that he could make observations. He was “apprehensive that I shall not reach the United States within this season unless I make every exertion in my power which I shall certainly not omit.”

The morning of Saturday, July 26, was cloudy. Lewis waited until 9:00 a.m. before giving up, “which I do with much reluctance.” He had the horses caught, and “we set out biding a lasting adieu to this place which I now call camp disappointment.” The party rode south, toward Two Medicine River, which it struck around midday. After eating and grazing the horses, the party resumed its march, with Drouillard ahead in the river bottom, hunting. As the hills closed in on the south bank of the river, Lewis and the Field brothers ascended them to the high plain above, while Drouillard continued to ride down the valley.

When Lewis got to the top and looked about, he was alarmed to see, at the distance of a mile or so, a herd of thirty horses. He brought out his telescope and discovered several Indians sitting their horses, staring intently into the valley. Lewis surmised they were watching Drouillard.

“This was a very unpleasant sight,” Lewis admitted. If there were as many Indians as there were horses, which he assumed would be the case, he was overwhelmingly outnumbered. He thought they were Atsinas or Blackfeet; in either case, “from their known character I expected that we were to have some difficulty with them.” He thought of flight and immediately gave it up. To run was to invite pursuit, and the Indians’ horses looked better than his. Further, if he and the Field brothers ran, Drouillard “would most probably fall a sacrefice.”

Lewis resolved “to make the best of our situation.” He ordered Joseph Field to display the flag which Lewis had brought for just this purpose. When it was unfurled, the party advanced slowly on the Indians, who were running about “in a very confused manner as if much allarmed.”

Suddenly a single Indian broke out of the milling pack and whipped his horse full-speed toward the party. He was probably on a dare, trying to count coup. Lewis dismounted and stood, waiting for the onrushing horse and rider. The Indian was disarmed by Lewis’s reaction. He halted, some hundred yards from the party. Lewis held out his hand. The Indian wheeled his horse around, gave it the whip, and galloped back to his companions.

Lewis could count them by now; there were eight teen-age boys and young men. He suspected there were others hidden behind the bluffs, for there were several other horses saddled. He ordered the Field brothers to advance with him, slowly.

His heart pounded. His life and the lives of his men were at stake. So were his papers, dearer to him even than his life.

He told the Field brothers that, no matter how many Indians there were, he was resolved to resist “to the last extremity prefering death to . . . being deprived of my papers instruments and gun.” He hoped they would form the same resolution. When they nodded a grim-faced assent, Lewis told them to be alert and on their guard.

James Ronda writes that Lewis’s words were “filled with more swagger than wisdom.”3 There is a bit of mellow-drama in this mutual pledge to fight to the last breath. And asking the Field brothers to swear was hardly necessary—it was not as if they had a lot of choice. If the Indians wanted to fight, there would be a fight.

This was the pickle Lewis’s leadership had brought them to. Four men alone (and one of them separated from the rest) in the heart of Blackfoot country had run into a roving band of young Indian braves. Two parties of armed young men, each suspicious of the other, were attempting to occupy the same space at the same time. That always meant trouble.

The red war party outnumbered the white war party by at least two to one, and possibly much more. The natives figured to have reinforcements close at hand; the whites had no reinforcements within two hundred miles.

It was Lewis’s fault. He was the one who had dreamed up this exploration, the one who had decided to make it with a party of four only, the one who had delayed two full days at Camp Disappointment even though he knew that every additional hour in Blackfoot country raised the risks of an unwelcome encounter and that Clark would soon be waiting for him at the Yellowstone, and even though he wanted to get back to St. Louis as soon as possible.

But there were positive possibilities in the situation. If a friendly—or at least a nonviolent—initial contact could be made, Lewis would have a chance to bring these Indians into the American trading empire. That would justify the risks he had taken.

When he got to within a hundred yards of the Indians, Lewis had the Field brothers stop while he advanced singly to meet an Indian who had ridden out ahead of his group. The two men met and cautiously shook hands; then both passed on to shake hands with the others in their respective parties.

Lewis dismounted. So did the Indians, who asked for pipes and smoke. Using his limited sign-language skills, Lewis told them that the pipe was with his hunter—down below, in the valley. He proposed that an Indian ride down with Reubin Field to find Drouillard and bring him back. This was done.

Lewis asked who they were. He thought they replied that they were Atsinas, a tribe known to Lewis as “the Minnetares of the North.” Actually, they were Piegans, members of one of the three main divisions of the Blackfeet.

Lewis asked who was the chief; three men stepped forward. Lewis thought they were too young and too many to be chiefs, but he also thought it best to please them. He handed out a medal, a flag, and a handkerchief.

By now Lewis had concluded that there were no more than eight Blackfeet in the immediate area, and he was “convinced that we could mannage that number should they attempt any hostile measures.”

The late-July sun was starting to sink in the west. Lewis proposed that they camp together. That was agreed to. On the way down the steep bluff, they picked up Drouillard, Field, and the Indian. They came to a delightful spot on a bend in the river, a bowl-shaped bottomland with three large cottonwoods in the center and excellent grass. The Blackfeet made a rough dome with willow branches, threw some dressed buffalo skins over it, and invited the whites to join them in the shelter. Drouillard and Lewis accepted; the Field brothers lay near the fire in front of the shelter.

Lewis went to work. With Drouillard flashing the signs, he asked question after question.

The Blackfeet said they were part of a large band that was one day’s march away, near the foot of the mountains. They said there was a whiteman in their band. Another large band of their nation was hunting buffalo on its way to the mouth of Maria’s River where it would be in a few days.

Lewis had no way to judge how much of this was meant to intimidate him, how much was true. If it was all true, it meant he was in the middle of the Blackfeet nation, and that a Canadian trader was living with one band, which meant that they surely had many firearms. This group of eight had two muskets.

Lewis asked about the trading patterns of the Blackfeet. The boys informed him that they rode six days’ easy march to reach a British post on the North Saskatchewan River, and that from the traders there “they obtain arms amunition sperituous liquor blankets &c in exchange for wolves and some beaver skins.”

This was unwelcome news. It reinforced Jefferson’s worst fears: that agents of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company were firmly entrenched on the Northern Plains, and were rapidly extending their monopoly.

But it gave Lewis an opportunity, which he characteristically seized. He told the Blackfeet in great detail how much better a deal they would get from the Americans, once the Americans arrived on the high plains. He gave his peace speech. He said he had come from the rising sun and gone to where the sun set and had made peace between warring nations on both sides of the mountains. He said he had come to their country to invite the Blackfeet to join the American empire. To all of this, as he understood them, “they readily gave their assent.”

The braves were willing to talk the sign language as long as the smoking continued. They were extremely fond of tobacco, so Lewis “plyed them with the pipe untill late at night.” He let them know he had reinforcements in the area, a party of soldiers he would be meeting at the mouth of the Marias. He asked them to send two messengers to the nearby bands of Blackfeet to ask them to meet in three days at the mouth of the Marias River, for a council about peace and trade. Perhaps a few chiefs would be willing to accompany the expedition to St. Louis and go on to visit their new father in Washington.

Lewis concluded by asking the other six warriors to accompany him to the mouth of the Marias, and promised them ten horses and some tobacco if they would do these things.

“To this proposition they made no reply,” Lewis recorded.

Lewis had just made a serious political mistake. He had told these youngsters that he had organized their traditional enemies—the Nez Percé, the Shoshones, others—into an American-led alliance. Worse, he had indicated that the Americans intended to supply these enemies with rifles. The Blackfoot monopoly on firearms, based on their exclusive access to British suppliers, would be broken.

As James Ronda puts it, “the clash of empires had come to the Blackfeet.” After more than twenty years of being the bully boys of the high-plains country, they were being challenged, as were their British friends.4

Lewis took the first watch. He wrote in his journal, two thousand words about the day. He covered it from start to finish, with frequent interruptions to the narrative. In one paragraph he compared the quality of water in Cut Bank Creek and Two Medicine River. He made an astute ecological observation, here in the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains was the only place that the three major cottonwood species grew together.

Mainly, though, he described what had happened in an after-action report. At half past eleven, he roused Reubin Field. He ordered Field to watch the movements of the Indians and if one of them left camp to awake the party, lest the Indians attempt to steal the detachment’s horses. Then he lay down and immediately fell into a profound sleep.

“Damn you! Let go my gun!”

Drouillard’s shout woke Lewis. It was a few moments past first light. Lewis jumped up. He saw Drouillard scuffling with an Indian over a rifle. Lewis reached for his rifle but found it gone. He drew his horse pistol from its holster, looked up, and saw a second Indian running off with his rifle. Lewis ran at him and signaled to him when he turned that he would either lay down that rifle or get shot.

As the Indian started to lay the rifle down, the Field brothers came running up, in a state of the highest excitement. They aimed their rifles at the Indian, but, before they could shoot, Lewis called out to stop them: the Indian was complying with his order.

Drouillard came up, breathless and excited, asking permission to kill the Indian. Lewis forbade it. The party had recovered its rifles, the Indians were falling back.

What happened? Lewis demanded.

The explanation came in a rush of words. Joseph Field had carelessly laid down his rifle beside his sleeping brother at absolutely the worst possible moment, first light. A watching Indian had seized his opportunity to grab it and Reubin Field’s rifle and run off.

At the same instant, Drouillard said, he woke to see two Indians stealing his rifle and Lewis’s. He chased the Indian, caught him, and took back his own rifle, while Lewis was recovering his.

The Field brothers, meanwhile, had dashed after the Indian carrying off their rifles. At fifty yards, they caught him and wrestled the rifles out of his hands. Reubin pulled his knife and plunged it into the young warrior’s heart. The Indian, Field later said, “drew but one breath and the wind of his breath followed the knife and he fell dead.”

But Lewis didn’t have an opportunity to hear this report, because, before the brothers finished, he noticed that the Indians were attempting to drive off his horses.

Lewis called out orders: Shoot those Indians if they try to steal our horses! The Field brothers ran after the main party of Indians, who were driving four of their horses up the river. Lewis ran after two men who were driving off the remainder of the horses, including Lewis’s.

He sprinted for some three hundred yards, at which point the Indians had reached the almost vertical bluff. They hid in a niche, a sort of alcove, in the bluff, driving the horses before them.

Lewis, breathless, could pursue no farther. He shouted to them, as he had done several times already, that he would shoot them if they did not give back his horse.

How much if any of this the Blackfeet understood cannot be said. What happened was that an Indian jumped behind a rock and said something to his companion. That man was armed, with a British musket loader. He turned toward Lewis.

Lewis brought his rifle to his shoulder, aimed, and fired. He shot the warrior through the belly.

But the Blackfoot was not finished. He raised himself to his knee, took a quick aim, and fired at Lewis.

“Being bearheaded,” as Lewis commented, “I felt the wind of his bullet very distinctly.”

Since there were two Indians—one badly wounded—and they were armed and behind good shelters, and he wanted to get out of there, and his shot pouch was back at camp so he could not reload, Lewis decided to retreat. He made his way back to camp.

There he told Drouillard to run and call the Field brothers back: they had enough horses. Drouillard tried, but they were too far away to hear. Lewis and Drouillard went to work saddling the horses. The Field brothers returned with four of the party’s original horses. Lewis cast his eye over the herd and selected four Indian horses and three of his original bunch.

As the men arranged saddles and the placement of the baggage on the packhorses, Lewis started burning the articles the Indians had left behind. Onto the fire went four shields, two bows, two quivers of arrows, sundry other articles. Only the musket the warriors had abandoned and the flag Lewis had given an Indian the previous evening escaped the fire; those he took with him.

Enraged at the Indian treachery, he left the medal he had given out at last night’s campfire hanging around the neck of the dead Indian, “that they might be informed who we were.” But, excited as he was, Lewis wasn’t about to take a scalp, though he did cut off the amulets from the shields before throwing the shields on the fire, and put them in his pack as a war souvenir.

An after-action analysis of Lewis’s first-ever Indian fight indicates that he and his men made many mistakes. The first and most important was Joseph Field’s. It was inexcusable for the sentinel ever to lay down his rifle, immeasurably more so when in the presence of young Indians. One would have thought that, after two years in the wilderness, Lewis would have had that pounded into the head of every enlisted man.

Lewis’s failure to give orders that he and the other sleeping men should be woken at first light was a grave error. It was his clear duty and responsibility to be up, alert, and in full command at this most dangerous moment in the day.

Once awake, he made a number of snap judgments, some of them showing restraint and good sense, others demonstrating his sometimes impetuous nature. His first order was exactly right—get the rifles back. However dangerous it might be to chase an Indian carrying a rifle, those rifles were indispensable.

His second order, forbidding the Field brothers and Drouillard to kill a retreating Indian who had laid down the stolen rifle, was also exactly right. Next to getting the rifles back and not losing the horses, avoiding bloodshed was clearly Lewis’s first responsibility—and of course it was his commander-in-chief’s direct order. (At this time in the fight, Lewis did not yet know that Private Field had stabbed an Indian to death.)

When the Blackfeet started running off the horses, they were again attempting to steal what was indispensable to life on the Plains. It is not so clear this time, however, that Lewis’s immediate order to chase the Indians and get those horses back was necessary. There were forty horses in the bottom, milling about in little groups. The thieves were never going to get them together into a herd and drive it off; while they were gathering horses, Lewis could have had his men doing the same. He later admitted that the Indian horse he took “carried me very well in short much better than my own would have done and leaves me with but little reason to complain of the robery.” But at the time, he didn’t feel that way at all.

He held the campsite, which contained all the equipment from both parties. The Indians were in full retreat. Lewis might have decided, Let’s get some horses for ourselves, and let the Blackfeet go and get out of here.

Instead, he ordered pursuit. The Field brothers took off after the main party, which had crossed the river; Lewis was fortunate that the young men, with their adrenaline pumping, didn’t kill one or two more warriors.

His decision to leave the campsite himself to pursue two Indians leading away one of his horses and three or four of theirs was questionable. He left his command post and exposed himself to harm for what was not indispensable. But his blood was up—three hundred yards is a long way to sprint when wearing tight leather leggings and carrying a rifle—over the thieving Indians.

Whether he had to shoot the warrior or not is unclear. Lewis’s narrative of this fight is one of his best pieces of writing, with lots of drama and detail. One detail we don’t get, however: what was the Indian doing just before Lewis shot him? Lewis does not say. If he was taking aim at Lewis, obviously Lewis had to fire. But if his musket wasn’t at his shoulder, Lewis should not have fired.

Another missing detail: sometime before he fired his rifle, Lewis fired his pistol, but he does not say when. It seems most likely that he fired at the backs of the Indians as they were driving the horses toward the bluff.

Another blunder: leaving the medal “that they might be informed who we were” was an act of taunting and boasting that put into serious jeopardy the entire American-empire scheme Lewis was concocting. To turn the most powerful tribe on the upper Missouri into enemies of the United States was Lewis’s biggest mistake.

Lewis made no analysis of his actions. He was content to describe them, with his characteristic honesty. He wasn’t in the habit of justifying his decisions, although he usually explained his reasons for them.

In this case, the only thing he felt needed explaining was why he didn’t have his shot pouch with him when he fired. He was very defensive about this, almost as if he felt it was the only thing he had done wrong and he wanted to make sure everyone understood it couldn’t have been helped (because he had no time to return to camp after recovering his rifle before he started chasing the Indians driving off the horses).

One Indian boy killed, another with a presumably fatal wound. Four whites in the middle of a land with hundreds of Blackfoot warriors who would seek revenge the instant they heard the news. It was imperative that Lewis get himself and his men out of there. Immediately.

Off they rode, up the bluff to “a beatiful level plain,” and on toward the mouth of the Marias. Lewis knew he had to get there as soon as possible “in the hope of meeting with the canoes and party at that place,” because he had no doubt the Blackfoot party would ride at top speed to the nearest band to report. He anticipated that, on hearing the news, a large party of warriors would immediately set out to kill any white men they could find. He feared there was a band of Blackfeet between him and the Marias, a band already headed toward the mouth of the river. If they discovered Sergeant Ordway’s canoe party coming down from the falls, the soldiers would not be alert to their danger and might well be overwhelmed.

The party retreated at a trot, covering about eight miles per hour. Fortunately, recent rains had left “little reservors” scattered about, the prickly pears were few, and there were not many rocks and stones.

They rode through the morning and midday, not stopping until 3:00 p.m., when they “suffered our horses to graze . . . [and] took some refreshment.” They had covered sixty-three miles.

After an hour-and-a-half break, they mounted up and rode off, to cover seventeen more miles by dark. Then they killed a buffalo and ate, mounted up again and set off, this time at a walk.

It was a night to remember. The tension was high, so too the concentration. The setting was magical. The plains were as flat as a bowling green. There were thunderclouds and lightning “on every quarter but that from which the moon gave us light.” Throughout the night, “we continued to pass immence herds of buffaloe.”

At 2:00 a.m. on July 28, Lewis finally ordered a halt. The day had begun for the party at first light, about 3:30 a.m., on July 27. The captain and his men had had an Indian fight to start the day, followed by a hundred-mile ride. “We now turned out our horses,” Lewis concluded his journal description of the day, “and laid ourselves down to rest in the plain very much fatiegued as may be readily conceived.”

Inexcusably and inexplicably, he did not post a sentinel. Lewis slept soundly, but only briefly. He woke at first light, to find he was so stiff he could scarcely stand. He woke the men and told them to saddle up so they could get going. They too complained of stiffness, and asked for more rest. “I encouraged them by telling them that our own lives as well as those of our friends and fellow travellers depended on our exertions at this moment.”

That worked. They came alert, and the march was resumed. As they rode, Lewis exhorted. “I now told them that . . . we must wrisk our lives on this occasion. . . . I told them that it was my determination that if we were attacked in the plains . . . that the bridles of the horses should be tied together and we would stand and defend them, or sell our lives as dear as we could.”

That proved unnecessary. At twelve miles they came to the Missouri, rode down it another eight miles, and “heared the report of several rifles very distinctly. . . . we quickly repared to this joyfull sound and on arriving at the bank of the river had the unspeakable satisfaction to see our canoes coming down.”

Lewis’s party joined Sergeant Ordway’s. The combined force consisted of sixteen men. There were heartfelt greetings, but brief: Lewis explained the need for haste. The men quickly took the baggage from the horses and put it in the canoes, turned the horses loose, and set off.

They went down the river to the mouth of the Marias, where they opened the caches from the previous summer. Some skins and furs were badly damaged, but the gunpowder, corn, flour, pork, and salt were in fairly good order. Back into the canoes—the white pirogue and five small canoes—and downstream as fast as possible. At fifteen miles, Lewis reckoned that they had left the Blackfeet safely behind and made camp—prudently, on the south bank, across the river from any Blackfeet. That night, there was a thunderstorm that lasted for hours. Lewis had no shelter of any kind; he just lay in the water all night.

Lewis’s exploration of the Marias was over. All in all, it had been a big mistake from the start. Many things went wrong, and nothing had been accomplished.


I. The term probably means “enemies,” not a specific tribe (Moulton, ed., Journals, vol. 7, p. 90).

II. The trail is plainly evident today, including travois marks from the thousands of Nez Percé who used it. It can be reached by driving up Alice Creek Road, off Montana Highway 200 some ten miles East of Lincoln, Montana. The pass is called Lewis and Clark Pass (6,284 feet)—somewhat misnamed, since Clark never saw it.

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