Beelingo.com

Lewis and Clark: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

 

CHAPTER V

WITH THE SIOUX

Toward the end of August the party reached the Sioux country. Some of the tribes of this nation were known to be friendly toward the whites, while others had acquired a manner overbearing and insolent, inspired by the inferior numbers of the traders who had visited them in the past, and by the subservient attitude which these had assumed. From such tribes there was good reason to anticipate opposition, or even open hostility. But the specific nature of their mission made the officers desirous of a personal meeting with all tribes, irrespective of their past reputation. There is a saying familiar to Western folk: "Show an Indian that you are afraid of him, and he will give you reason for fear." The travelers were not afraid. They adopted the custom of the traders and set fire to the dry grasses of the prairie, intending that the smoke should notify the Indians of their approach and summon them to the river. Shortly before this they had encountered upon the river one Pierre Dorion, a half-breed son of the notable Old Dorion, whose fame is celebrated in Irving's "Astoria." This man was then on his way to St. Louis, but was persuaded to return with the expedition to his home among the Sioux, there to act as interpreter and intermediary, in which service he proved useful.

Relations with the Sioux began on the 29th of August. The meeting was attended with elaborate ceremonies. One of the non-commissioned officers was dispatched with Dorion to a village twelve miles distant from the camp, taking presents of tobacco, corn, and cooking utensils. In view of the later history of the Sioux, and because of the intrinsic charm of the narrative, the story of this encounter is quoted at length from Mr. Biddle's well-edited version:—

"August 29th.... Sergeant Pryor reported that on reaching their village, he was met by a party with a buffalo-robe, on which they desired to carry their visitors,—an honor which they declined, informing the Indians that they were not the commanders of the boats. As a great mark of respect, they were then presented with a fat dog, already cooked, of which they partook heartily, and found it well flavored....

"August 30th.... We prepared a speech and some presents, and then sent for the chiefs and warriors, whom we received, at twelve o'clock, under a large oak tree, near which the flag of the United States was flying. Captain Lewis delivered a speech, with the usual advice and counsel for their future conduct. We acknowledged their chiefs, by giving to the grand chief a flag, a medal, a certificate, and a string of wampum; to which we added a chief's coat—that is, a richly laced uniform of the United States Artillery corps, with a cocked hat and red feather. One second chief and three inferior ones were made or recognized by medals, a suitable present of tobacco, and articles of clothing. We smoked the pipe of peace, and the chiefs retired to a bower formed of bushes by their young men, where they divided among one another the presents, smoked, eat, and held a council on the answer which they were to make us to-morrow. The young people exercised their bows and arrows in shooting at marks for beads, which we distributed to their best marksmen. In the evening the whole party danced until a late hour, and, in the course of their amusement, we threw among them some knives, tobacco, bells, tape, and binding, with which they were much pleased....

"August 31st. In the morning, after breakfast, the chiefs met and sat down in a row, with pipes of peace highly ornamented; all pointed toward the seats intended for Captains Lewis and Clark. When they arrived and were seated, the grand chief, whose Indian name Weucha is in English Shake Hand, and in French is called Le Liberateur (The Deliverer), rose and spoke at some length, approving what we had said, and promising to follow our advice. 'I see before me,' said he, 'my Great Father's two sons. You see me and the rest of our chiefs and warriors. We are very poor; we have neither powder, nor ball, nor knives; and our women and children at the village have no clothes. I wish that as my brothers have given me a flag and a medal, they would give something to those poor people, or let them stop and trade with the first boat which comes up the river. I will bring chiefs of the Pawnees and Mahas together, and make peace between them; but it is better that I should do it than my Great Father's sons, for they will listen to me more readily. I will also take some chiefs to your country in the Spring; but before that time I cannot leave home. I went formerly to the English, and they gave me a medal and some clothes; when I went to the Spanish, they gave me a medal, but nothing to keep it from my skin; but now you give me a medal and clothes. But still we are poor; and I wish, brothers, that you would give us something for our squaws.'

... "They promised to make peace with the Otoes and Missouris, the only nations with whom they are now at war. All these harangues concluded by describing the distress of the nation; they begged us to have pity on them; to send them traders; they wanted powder and ball, and seemed anxious that we should supply them with some of their Great Father's milk, the name by which they distinguished ardent spirits."

These were the Yanktons, one of the important tribes of the great Sioux nation. The Yanktons have always been known to the whites as a people of distinction, shrewd, artful, good hunters, good fighters, and altogether quite able to take care of themselves. In their inmost hearts, they were vain of their prestige amongst their inferior neighbors; nor did they really acknowledge the superiority of the whites. Their speeches must be taken as declarations of momentary policy, and not of fixed principles. Further, they did not express the thought of the tribe as a whole, but only the inclinations of those chiefs who were for the time in authority, and whose word was for that time the tribal law. The bearing of the Yanktons, as of almost every other Indian tribe, has been modified or altogether changed, time and again, under the will of successive chiefs.

The attention of the expedition was not wholly engrossed with the Indians. From day to day the journals are filled with careful and valuable notes upon the natural history and physical geography of the land, about which nothing had as yet been written. Under the date of September 7th there occurs a good description of the prairie-dog; and on the 17th the antelope of the Western plains was described. Both of these animals were then unknown to science.

September 25th the party walked close to the edge of catastrophe, when they met with another tribe of the Sioux,—the Tetons. This was the first occasion for an exhibition of the fighting temper of the men. In describing the encounter, Captain Clark's journal is as usual picturesque and graphic:—

"Envited the Chiefs on board to show them our boat & such curiossities as was strange to them, we gave them ¼ a glass of whiskey which they appeared to be verry fond of, sucked the bottle after it was out & soon began to be troublesom, one the 2d chief assumeing Drunkness, as a Cloaki for his rascally intentions. I went with those chiefs (which left the boat with great reluctiance) to shore with a view of reconseleing those men to us, as soon as I landed the Perogue three of their young men seased the cable of the Perogue, the chiefs soldr. Huged the mast, and the 2d chief was verry insolent both in words & justures declareing I should not go on, stateing he had not received presents sufficient from us, his justures were of such a personal nature I felt myself compeled to Draw my sword, at this motion Capt. Lewis ordered all under arms in the boat, those with me also showed a disposition to Defend themselves and me, the grand chief then took hold of the roap & ordered the young warrers away, I felt myself warm & spoke in very positive terms. We proceeded about 1 mile & anchored out off a willow Island placed a guard on shore to protect the Cooks & a guard in the boat, fastened the Perogues to the boat, I call this Island Bad Humered Island as we were in a bad humer."

The journals for the next day say:—

"Our conduct yesterday seemed to have inspired the Indians with fear of us, and as we were desirous of cultivating their acquaintance, we complied with their wish that we should give them an opportunity of treating us well, and also suffer their squaws and children to see us and our boat, which would be perfectly new to them. Accordingly ... we came to on the south side, where a crowd of men, women and children were waiting to receive us. Captain Lewis went on shore and remained several hours; and observing that their disposition was friendly, we resolved to remain during the night for a dance, which they were preparing for us."

The two officers were received on shore by ten well-dressed young men, who took them up in a decorated robe and carried them in state to the council-house. There the pipe of peace was smoked, a ceremonious dog-feast was prepared; the chieftains delivered themselves of speeches, divided between fawning adulation and flamboyant boasting; and then came a sort of state ball, which continued until midnight. The next morning the travelers were suffered to proceed.

That was a notable encounter. The Tetons have always been counted among the most irresponsible villains of their race, treacherous by first impulse, murderous by strongest inclination, thievish according to opportunity, combining the effrontery of Italian beggars with the boldness begotten by their own sanguinary history. Yet this determined little band faced them in the heart of their own land, and overawed them.

For many days thereafter, parties of the Tetons appeared from time to time upon the river banks, following the boats, begging, threatening, doing everything in their power to harass the advance. No doubt they had already repented of their brief show of decency, and would have made an open demonstration had they dared. Through those days the men generally encamped upon islands or sand-bars in mid-stream, deeming it wise to avoid further contact with the tribe. It was a decided relief to get beyond their territory.

On October 10th they reached the land of the Ricaras, a tribe whose conduct, in all domestic and foreign relations, was in striking contrast to that of the Sioux, and indeed almost unique. The Ricaras could not be induced to drink whiskey!

Soon after the arrival at the Ricara villages, one of the privates was tried by court-martial for some act of insubordination, and was sentenced to be publicly whipped. The execution of the sentence "affected the Indian chief very sensibly, for he cried aloud during the punishment." When the matter was explained to him, "he acknowledged that examples were necessary, and that he himself had given them by punishing with death; but his nation never whipped even children from their birth." Universal sobriety, and compassionate tears from the eyes of a warrior! Surely, that tribe was curious.

By the last of October the travelers came to the camps of the Mandans and Minnetarees, 1600 miles from St. Louis; and there, being warned by the calendar and by cold, they prepared to take up winter quarters. Their first care was to find a suitable place for building log cabins and fortifications. With this work the men were engaged until November 20th, when Fort Mandan was completed and occupied.

Meanwhile, the officers had sought to extend acquaintance among the Indians, and to establish confidence and bring them into sympathy with the new conditions of government. So far as pledges were concerned, they were fairly successful; the Indians received them hospitably.

The Mandans had once been a powerful nation, living in numerous villages down the river; but continued wars with the Sioux, coupled with sad ravages of the small-pox, had reduced them to an insignificant number, and compelled them to remove out of easy reach of their strongest enemies. When Lewis and Clark came upon them, they formed only a trifling souvenir of their past grandeur; they had then but two poor villages at this remote site, where they lived in a precarious hand-to-mouth fashion, having no allies but a small force of Minnetarees near by.

But Fate had managed the matter very well, no doubt, in depriving these people of effective strength in war; for at this time the head chief of the Minnetaree villages was a man who, given opportunity, would have made the river run red with the blood of his enemies. This was Le Borgne, a one-eyed old despot, of surpassing cruelty and bloodthirstiness, whose very name, even in his present position, would compel a shiver of apprehension. A chief such as he, at the head of forces matched to his ferocious desires, would have changed the history of the Upper Missouri. As it was, he spent most of his villainous instincts for his own private amusement,—occasionally slaughtering one of his warriors who had given him displeasure, or butchering a couple of his wives whose society had grown irksome; and between times he leered with his solitary evil eye upon the traders, contriving ways for getting whiskey with which to bait his passions. The British traders of the Hudson Bay and Northwest companies had long before secured a strong foothold in this territory, and had sought by every means to monopolize the traffic. The ubiquitous French were there also, domiciled in the villages, and some of them had taken squaws to wife. With schooling from such as these, old Le Borgne had cut his wisdom teeth; he had made himself master of many low tricks and subtleties practiced by white traders and vagabonds; he was as skillful as the best of them in making promises, and as skillful as the worst in breaking them. He was a scamp, and a blackguard.

Lewis and Clark succeeded directly in effecting a treaty of peace between the Mandans and Ricaras, and among other small tribes of the region round about; but they were powerless in trying to reconcile these people to the Sioux, who were the bogie-men of the plains, and who conducted themselves in every affair of peace or war with the arrogance of incontestable power. Not death itself could extinguish the hatred that was felt for them by the weaker tribes, compelled to skulk and tremble.

Early in November the officers received a visit from two squaws, who had been taken prisoners by the Mandans, many years before, in a war with the Snake Indians of the Rocky Mountains. One of these squaws was named Sacajawea, the "Bird Woman"; she had been but a child at the time of her capture, when she had been taken to the Mandan villages and there sold to a Frenchman, known as Chaboneau, who kept her until she reached womanhood and then married her. She was destined to play a considerable part in the later work of the expedition, and to lend to it one of its few elements of true romance.

The winter was passed busily, but for the most part quietly. The men suffered no serious deprivation. Game was abundant; and one member of the party, who was a good amateur blacksmith, set up a small forge, where he turned out a variety of tools, implements, and trinkets, which were traded to the Indians for corn. Everything went well. The officers were as busy as the men, and their occupations were varied and vital.

They found difficulty in getting credit for the news they bore that the government of the United States was to be thereafter in fact as well as in name the controlling agency in administering the affairs of the territory and in regulating trade. To make the Indian mind ready to receive this lesson, it was first necessary to correct the evils bred by the earlier short-sighted rule of the Spanish, and to uproot a strong predisposition in favor of the British traders. The Hudson Bay Company had been in existence since 1670, and the Northwest Company since 1787; and they were not inclined to surrender their control of trade without a struggle.

Aside from this task, the two youthful men-of-all-work were continually engaged in gathering material for a report upon the ethnology of the Upper Missouri and the plains. They have left to us a remarkably acute and accurate monograph upon the subject, which shows that they were even then alive to most of the questions likely to arise in the process of reducing the land to order. The data thus collected were entered at length in the journals; and a fair copy of these was made, for transmittal to Washington in the spring. There were maps to be drawn, too; and a mass of interesting objects was gathered to illustrate the natural history of the route. This material had to be cleaned, prepared, assorted and catalogued, and packed for shipment, to accompany the report and illuminate its story, so that Mr. Jefferson might have a full understanding of what had been accomplished during the first year. The five months spent at Fort Mandan did not drag. The best part of the winter's work lay in the attitude which was taken in dealing with the Indians. In every particular of behavior, the strictest integrity was observed. An Indian is as ready as any one to recognize genuineness. Before springtime, the Mandans and Minnetarees knew that they had found friends.

In March the men began boat-building, preparatory to resuming their journey. The batteau was too cumbrous for use toward the head waters of the Missouri, and it was to be sent back to St. Louis. To take its place, canoes were fashioned from green cottonwood planks. Cottonwood lumber is full of whims and caprices,—bending, twisting, cracking like brown paper, so as to be wholly unfit for ordinary carpentry; but there was no other material available. Six canoes were made to hang together somehow; and in these ramshackle structures, together with the two periogues, the party covered more than a thousand miles of the roughest water of the Missouri. Annoyance was to be expected. The boats were continually splitting, opening at the seams, filling, and swamping, so that much time was lost in stopping to make repairs and to dry the water-soaked cargoes. This was merely an inconvenience, not an obstacle.


1 of 2
2 of 2