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Lewis and Clark: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

 

CHAPTER IV

THE START

As it was first organized, the party consisted of twenty-nine members,—the two officers, nine young Kentuckians, fourteen soldiers of the regular army who had volunteered to accompany the expedition, two French watermen, an interpreter and hunter, and a negro servant of Captain Clark. At St. Louis there were sixteen additional recruits,—an Indian hunter and interpreter, and fifteen boatmen, who were to go as far as the villages of the Mandan Nation. This brought the total to forty-five.

A broadly inclusive statement must suffice to characterize the non-commissioned men. They were brave, sturdy, able; amenable to discipline, yet full of original resource; ideal subordinates, yet almost every one fitted by nature for command, if occasion should arise. They proved themselves equal to all emergencies. At least five of these men kept journals, and no better index to their character need be asked than that afforded by the manuscript records. If ever there was temptation to color and adorn a narrative with the stuff that makes travelers' tales attractive, it was here; yet in none of the journals is there to be found a departure from plain, simple truth-telling. Their matter-of-fact tone would render them almost commonplace, if the reader did not take pains to remember what it all meant. Nowhere is there anything like posing for effect; the nearest approach to it is in the initial entry in the diary of that excellent Irishman, Private Patrick Gass,—and parts of this have been branded as apocryphal, the interpolation of an enthusiastic editor:—

"On Monday, 14 of May, 1804, we left our establishment at the mouth of the River du Bois, or Wood River, a small river which falls into the Mississippi, on the east side, a mile below the Missouri, and having crossed the Mississippi proceeded up the Missouri on our intended voyage of discovery, under the command of Captain Clarke. Captain Lewis was to join us in two or three days on our passage.... The expedition was embarked on board a batteau and two periogues. The day was showery, and in the evening we encamped on the north bank, six miles up the river. Here we had leisure to reflect on our situation, and the nature of our engagements: and as we had all entered this service as volunteers, to consider how far we stood pledged for the success of an expedition which the government had projected; and which had been undertaken for the benefit and at the expence of the Union: of course of much interest and high expectation.

"The best authenticated accounts informed us that we were to pass through a country possessed by numerous, powerful, and warlike nations of savages, of gigantic stature, fierce, treacherous, and cruel; and particularly hostile to white men. And fame had united with tradition in opposing mountains to our course, which human enterprize and exertion would attempt in vain to pass. The determined and resolute character, however, of the corps, and the confidence which pervaded all ranks dispelled every emotion of fear and anxiety for the present; while a sense of duty, and of the honor which would attend the completion of the object of the expedition; a wish to gratify the expectations of the government, and of our fellow-citizens, with the feelings which novelty and discovery invariably inspire, seemed to insure to us ample support in our future toils, suffering, and danger."

In Captain Clark's journal there is nothing of this sort. The opening entry is a bare memorandum of latitude and longitude, a note as to the appearance of the river banks, and a statement of the number of miles covered during the day,—a memorable achievement in modesty.

Of the boats in which the party was embarked, the batteau was a keel-vessel fifty-five feet in length, carrying a large square sail, and manned by twenty-two oars. In the bow and stern, ten-foot decks formed forecastle and cabin; and in the middle part were lockers, whose tops could be raised to form a line of breastworks along either gunwale, in case of attack from Indians. The "periogues" were open boats, manned by six and seven oars. Besides these conveyances for the men and baggage, horses were led along the banks of the river, to be used by the hunters in their daily occupations and for service in emergency. The officers had observed the wise rule of travelers, and had sought to simplify their equipment to the last degree.

The name of Lower Missouri attached to that part of the river between its mouth and the entrance of the Platte. Over so much of the route the expedition passed quietly. A few notes from the journals will suffice to show the nature of the daily labors.

May 16th the party stopped at the village of St. Charles, a typical French settlement of the frontier, twenty-one miles above St. Louis; and under that date occurs this admirable note:—

"The inhabitants, about 450 in number, are chiefly descendants from the French of Canada. In their manners they unite all the careless gayety and amiable hospitality of the best times of France. Yet, like most of their countrymen in America, they are but little qualified for the rude life of the frontier,—not that they are without talent, for they possess much natural genius and vivacity; not that they are destitute of enterprise, for their hunting excursions are long, laborious, and hazardous; but their exertions are all desultory; their industry is without system and without perseverance. The surrounding country, therefore, though rich, is not generally well cultivated; the inhabitants chiefly subsist by hunting and trade with the Indians, and confine their culture to gardening, in which they excel."

It would be difficult to find a juster or more accurate characterization of the French as pioneers. Although in the early days of settlement along the Mississippi and its tributaries they outnumbered the people of other nations, they made no deep impression. They got along admirably while they were sustained by the tonic-stimulus of excitement and variety; but when that was removed, they found the conquest of even the richest of lands too dull for their tastes. Lacking stability of nature, they could not achieve solid results in prosaic labor. They did not so much as lay a foundation for the serious builders of after years.

May 22d, in camp on Good Man's River, the party made its first trade with Indians. Some Kickapoos were engaged to procure provisions; they brought in four deer, and were given in return two quarts of whiskey, which they considered ample requital.

"May 25th.... Stopped for the night at the entrance of a creek on the north side, called by the French La Charette, ten miles from our last camp, and a little above a small village of the same name. It consists of seven small houses, and as many poor families, who have fixed themselves here for the convenience of trade. They form the last establishment of whites on the Missouri."

La Charette was one of the earliest colonies, and famous as the far western home of Daniel Boone. There that immortal frontiersman passed the last years of his life, in the sweet luxury of quiet and freedom; and there he died in the year 1820.

Throughout those first weeks the journals breathe content. Every man was abundantly pleased with his work and his lot; game was plentiful, in great variety; the difficulties to be overcome were no more than those attending the navigation of a swift and turbulent river, whose erratic channel was filled with sand-bars and dead timber. The travelers were enjoying a typical prairie season of the lower altitudes, which makes an ideal setting for outdoor life. Here and there they came in contact with friendly bands of Indians; occasionally they encountered boats upon the river, manned by traders, who were drifting with the current to St. Louis, bearing the plunder of a season's traffic. Upon the banks of the stream were many tokens of the inconstancy of purpose of the border life,—abandoned sites of Indian villages and deserted fortifications that had been erected by traders to serve for temporary convenience and protection. Nowhere was there a sign of the American interpretation of the word "enterprise."

On June 26th they reached the mouth of the Kansas River, now marked by Kansas City. There they camped for two days; there they fell in with the Kansas Indians, with whom they held a pacific conference; and there the hunters met for the first time with buffalo. Forty-three days had been consumed in crossing what is now the State of Missouri.

July 26th camp was made at the mouth of the Platte River, six hundred miles from St. Louis, where the town of Plattsmouth, Neb., stands; and that date marked a radical change in the duties and conduct of the expedition. The disposition of the Indians of the Lower Missouri was already pretty well known, so that no time had been spent in establishing relations with them. They were still mostly unspoiled savages, to be sure; but they were acquainted with the appearance of the whites, at least, and their bearing toward traders and colonists had been for the most part decent. But the situation upon the Upper Missouri was altogether different. Although the problem might not be definitely stated, because many of its factors were unknown, it could be foreseen that a solution would tax the genius of civilization. The dominant nations of the plains Indians—those whose numerical strength and war-like character made them feared by their neighbors—had their domain above the Platte. The Sioux in particular had a mighty reputation, established by treachery and ferocity in war. Their history recorded a constant succession of cruel wars, most of which had had no justification save in arrogance and bloody-mindedness. They did not want to live at peace; for peace signified to them a state of craven inanition. The mission of Lewis and Clark was directed pointedly against that manner of behavior; they were not only to secure themselves against hostility, but were also to endeavor to reconcile the warring tribes and nations to one another. That was an undertaking calling for a high degree of tact and courage.

From a camp a few miles above the Platte, where the party remained for several days, messengers were sent to the villages of the Pawnees and Otoes, fifty miles to the westward, bearing gifts, with an invitation to a council. Through wars and other disasters, the Otoes were then much reduced in numbers, as in almost every item of the savage code of efficiency and independence. In their weakened state they had formed an alliance with the Pawnees,—a primitive adaptation of the idea of a protectorate. The Pawnees had considerable strength, and they were in character much above the Indian average, living in permanent villages, where they sustained themselves by cultivating cornfields and hunting the buffalo.

After carefully reconnoitring the lower Platte valley and the surrounding country, the expedition passed onward, traveling slowly to allow the Indians to overtake them. On the 27th they passed the present site of Omaha; and on the 30th encamped at a point twelve or fifteen miles to the north. It was this camp, pitched where the village of Calhoun, Neb., now stands, that received the name of Council Bluff, which was later appropriated by an Iowa town. Here, on August 2d, appeared a small band of Otoes and Missouris, with a Frenchman who resided among them. Presents were exchanged, and the officers requested a council upon the following morning.

"August 3d. This morning the Indians, with their six chiefs, were all assembled under an awning formed with the mainsail, in presence of all our party, paraded for the occasion. A speech was then made announcing to them the change in the government, our promise of protection, and advice as to their future conduct. All the six chiefs replied to our speech, each in his turn, according to rank. They expressed their joy at the change in the government; their hopes that we would recommend them to their Great Father (the President), that they might obtain trade and necessaries; they wanted arms as well for hunting as for defense, and asked our mediations between them and the Mahas, with whom they are now at war. We promised to do so, and wished some of them to accompany us to that nation, which they declined, for fear of being killed by them. We then proceeded to distribute our presents. The grand chief of the nation not being of the party, we sent him a flag, a medal, and some ornaments for clothing. To the six chiefs who were present, we gave a medal of the second grade to one Otoe chief and one Missouri chief; a medal of the third grade to two inferior chiefs of each nation—the customary mode of recognizing a chief being to place a medal round his neck, which is considered among his tribe as a proof of his consideration abroad. Each of these medals was accompanied by a present of paint, garters, and cloth ornaments of dress; and to these we added a canister of powder, a bottle of whiskey, and a few presents to the whole, which appeared to make them perfectly satisfied. The air-gun, too, was fired, and astonished them greatly...."

This was the first important conference with the natives. If it was not rich in results, it served at least the temporary purpose of putting these allied tribes in a good humor by satisfying their sense of their own dignity. Nothing more was to be expected. It is well to say outright, as a commentary upon all meetings such as this, that no council with Indians, however ceremonious or solemn, has results more permanent than those which attend the purely diplomatic relations of civilized nations.

In all our intercourse with the Indians, from the very beginning, too much stress has been laid upon the importance and the binding obligation of formal pow-wows. We have been unduly conscious of our own cunning, while undervaluing the craft that is native to all wild peoples; we have too often lost sight of the one really imperative element in any compact that is to be effective and enduring,—mutuality of honorable purpose. Most men, whether civilized or savage, can appreciate honest motives and behavior; and so can they detect dishonest wiles and artifices. Lewis and Clark knew well enough what was before them. The Indians' past experience with the light-minded French and the evil-minded Spanish adventurers of the border had left a deep impression; it had made them wary, if not distrustful, of white men's protestations. This impression was not to be removed by merely sitting around in a circle and making speeches; it could only be removed by long and intimate association in the affairs of actual life. If the whites meant well, they would do well, argued the Indians. To do well was a matter of time. The most that Lewis and Clark hoped for was to establish peace with the natives, to prepare the way for confidence and trust. Meanwhile they knew that they would need to be constantly upon their guard.

On August 19th one of the non-commissioned officers, Sergeant Charles Floyd, was taken ill, and on the next day he died. This was the only death to occur in the party throughout the course of the expedition.

The entries in Captain Clark's journals for those two days are thoroughly characteristic of him:—

"August 19.... Serjeant loyd is taken verry bad all at once with a Biliose Chorlick we attempt to reliev him without success as yet, he gets worse and we are much allarmed at his situation, all attention to him...."

"August 20.... Sergeant Floyd much weaker and no better.... Died with a great deel of composure, before his death he said to me 'I am going away I want you to write me a letter.' We buried him on the top of the bluff one-half mile below a small river to which we gave his name, he was buried with the Honors of War much lamented, a seeder post with the Name Sergt. C. Floyd died here 20th August, 1804, was fixed at the head of his grave—This man at all times gave us proofs of his firmness and Determined resolution to doe service to his countrey and honor to himself after paying all the honor to our Decesed brother we camped in the mouth of floyds river about thirty yards wide, a butifull evening."

Upon the death of Floyd, Private Patrick Gass was made a sergeant,—a wise choice, determined by the votes of the men.

Besides the death of Floyd, but one other incident occurred in the twenty-eight months to affect the integrity of the corps. A man had deserted on August 4th; two weeks later he had been recaptured; and for the 28th there is this entry in Captain Clark's journal:—

"Proceeded to the trial of Reed, he confessed that he 'deserted & Stold a public Rifle shot-pouch Powder & Ball' and requested we would be as favorable to him as we could consistently with our Oathes—which we were and only sentenced him to run the gantlet four times through the Party and that each man with 9 switchies should punish him & for him not to be considered in future as one of the Party."

So stanch were the men in their allegiance, and so trustworthy in the performance of their duties, that in only one other place in all the journals is there mention of an act of discipline.


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