[This is the second installment of a somewhat lengthy academic type essay.]
You can begin at Introduction and Parts 1-3 here.
You can begin at Introduction and Parts 1-3 here.
IV. The Sioux
One of the most famous passages in the Journals of Lewis and Clark is their meeting the Teton Sioux in late September, 1804. Stephen Ambrose devotes a full chapter to this one month. The Corps of Discovery had been traveling the Missouri River upstream for five month and were near entering the territory that would become known as South Dakota. Sioux is the European name for the Lakota or Dakota tribes. On September 24, expedition member John Colter was out hunting when five Sioux warriors stole his horse, the only horse the expedition owned at the time. Clark met the warriors and arranged to meet with their chiefs.
After decades of meeting with Native American tribes, Europeans and Americans understood the habitual rituals and protocols. Gifts were exchanged, the peace pipe was smoked and passed around, speeches were made. In the journals, Clark and Lewis are pretty clear that they regarded such rituals as essential, yet empty exercises. They felt that the gifts they offered were, in many cases, valueless trinkets. In some cases, the chiefs they met with, perhaps, felt the same. On September 25, without an adequate interpreter, Lewis was unable to make his usual speech, and afterward, the three visiting chiefs appeared to desire something more from the meeting. Clark invited the men onto one of the boats and shared whiskey with them. When the chiefs demanded more, Clark eventually had to forcefully begin to escort the chiefs off the boat. The warriors on shore then took hold of the boats. Clark drew his sword. Lewis manned a gun and the rest of the crew raised theirs. The Sioux warriors pulled their bows.. It was a dangerous stand-off. Eventually, Clark was able to reason with the head chief and violence was averted. As Clark writes, “I felt myself warm and spoke in positive terms” (Lewis and Clark 71).
Relations with the Sioux continued to be strained. Many meetings were held, speeches made, gift exchanged. Native American wives danced, brandishing scalps, in celebration of their husbands’ bravery. Wives were offered for the night, but Lewis and Clark refused the gesture. After about a week, the expedition continued on, again not without an incident in which the Captains had to entreat the chiefs to exert some influence over their warriors. Clark, this time, was ready to fire, but Lewis offered more tobacco as gifts, and the Sioux relented. Ambrose concludes, “Given the hot tempers on both sides, it was just as well. No matter how long Lewis and Clark stayed with the Sioux, they were not going to make them into friends except by giving more than they could afford” (175). Lewis and Clark had avoided gunfire and had gotten past the Sioux encampment, but the Sioux were not friends and were “capable of blocking any later expeditions and in a rage at the Americans” (175). Clark is clear in his assessment. In his report on the Native American tribes, which he sent to Jefferson the following spring, he writes that the Sioux 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” (qtd in Jones 134).
Lewis and Clark’s week of danger among the Sioux re-enforce, therefore, certain fears and expectations that Americans had and have about Native Americans. Emerging from the Ohio River Valley with the prejudices and memory of the conflicts developed there, men such as Clark were more often surprised when relationships with Native Americans went peacefully.
However, it is important to note that the Sioux were unusual among the Northern Plains Indians. Many tribes co-operated peacefully with the advancing White settlers, but history, which, to be written for fun and profit, needs heroes and villains. Richard White points out that “The exaggerated focus on the heroic resistance of certain plains tribes to white incursions” obscures the fact that “Indians on the plains had fought each other long before Whites came and that intertribal warfare remained very significant until late in the nineteenth century” (320). White even postulates that for northern and central plains Indians the invasion of the Sioux tribes was a more important development than the migration of Whites from the east (320).
With guns and horses, the nomadic Sioux became the dominant hunting force from the Rockies, eastward. In the eighteenth century. When the French and Spanish traders moved in, they attempted to replace the Sioux as intermediaries in the economic chain. “For the French and the Spanish, therefore, successful commerce on the Missouri necessarily meant the destruction of the old Sioux trading patterns (324). They tried but never succeeded. More important, it turns out, was the fact that the Sioux, because they were migratory, and did not establish permanent settlements like the Mandans, experienced the devastation of epidemic diseases to lesser degrees. By the mid-nineteen century, there simply were more Sioux than members of other tribes. In this way, they were able to dominate other tribes and to resist the American army for a longer period.
William Clark’s repugnance toward the Sioux is not simply, then, a reaction to what he considered rude behaviors. The Sioux were not the typical Native American tribe with a history of sustaining relationships with Europeans. They were, instead, the dominate tribe in the region. Their power was at the time increasing. There was no need for peace with the thirty-plus Americans and Frenchmen who were traveling up the Missouri. That Clark and Lewis escaped with their lives may be accounted for by luck as much as by show of strength or diplomatic skills.
V. Lewis and Clark and the Failure to Find a Northwest Passage
The story of the Lewis and Clark expedition following their brief time with the Sioux is well known and well documented. In the fall, they made their way to the Village of the Mandans in what is today southern North Dakota. The Mandans had been trading with Europeans for decades, and welcomed the Americans. Lewis and Clark and their men spent the winter with them, employed Toussaint Charbonneau as guide and he insisted that his pregnant wife Sacagawea come along. Sacagawea turned out to be instrumental to the completion of the expedition as she was able to guide the expedition to the land of her people, the Shoshone in the Rocky Mountains (she having been captured and taken from her people as a very young girl). With the help of the Shoshone, the expedition traversed the Rocky Mountains, spent a little time in a place named Traveler’s Rest, near present day Missoula, made it to the Columbia River, and then to the Pacific Ocean, where they met other friendly tribes, the Clatsops and the Chinooks. There, they weathered another winter near present-day Astoria, Oregon, at a place they named Fort Clatsop. Returning, they met with the Nez Perce, stayed with them until they could cross the Western Rockies, rested again at Traveler’s Rest. Then Lewis and Clark split their men, and traveled separately, Lewis to the north and Clark to the south to present day Yellowstone River. Lewis ran into trouble with the Crow, while Clark traveled the Yellowstone River, rested at a place now called Pompey’s Pillar, and finally met up with a wounded (accidentally by his own man) Lewis. I mention all these place names because today each of them have become tourist destinations along a well advertised Lewis and Clark Trail sponsored by the National Park Association and other state local park organizations. Lewis and Clark are heralded all across the west from St. Louis, Missouri, to Astoria, Oregon.
The irony, of course, is that they failed to accomplish Thomas Jefferson’s primary charge: to find a water route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Certainly, there was none to be found. Still, they were glad to be back. The day they arrived, after storing their belongings, Lewis and Clark stayed at Pierre Chouteau’s home. That evening they dined with Auguste Chouteau, and the following night with Pierre (Christian 147). Two days after the expedition returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806, over two years after it had departed, the city leaders held a celebration dinner. However, because St. Louis did not have a newspaper, news of event did not spread quickly. In fact, only one newspaper even reported the celebration, that of The Western World in Frankfort, Kentucky, on October 11, 1806 (Rhoda 203).
So locally, the return of the expedition was important commercial news. While much of the territory that Lewis and Clark had traveled was known and well documented by the French, “they had not yet tried to establish permanent sites north of the Platte” (Christian 148). In addition, the Chouteaus had a new competitor, Manuel Lisa, who was beginning to plan an expedition of his own, intent on building forts up the Missouri to the Yellowstone River. Among the toasts that The Western World reported were those to “The Missouri Expedition—May the knowledge of the newly explored regions of the West, be the least benefit that we may derive from this painful and perilous expedition,” “The Commerce of the United States—The basis for the political elevation of America,” and “Agriculture and Industry—The famer is the best support of government” (Rhoda, “St. Louis,” (205). In St. Louis, at least, all eyes were on the future and the future lay west.
In her article, “The Press Response to the Corps of Discovery: The Making of Heroes in an Egalitarian Age,” Betty Houchin Winfield examines the various reports in the nation’s newspapers of the expedition’s completion. Winfield’s primary goal is to examine how heroes are created and described in a society: “[T]his study examines the print media coverage for descriptions of the Corps members and in particular seeks the references to these generally agreed-upon heroic attributes.” At the time, news was difficult to come by. Newspapers were relatively expensive and scarce, there being about 250 papers in the nation and the vast majority of those were weeklies. The reportage concerning the expedition was based partially upon the letter that Lewis wrote President Jefferson in which he acknowledged that no water passage to the Pacific existed but also envisioned, with government assistance, great fur trade and established routes of travel (Ambrose 410-11). Mostly newspaper reports grew from a letter that Clark sent his brother George Rogers Clark. Because Lewis was the better writer and because they knew that this letter would receive wide distribution, Lewis composed the letter, which Clark rewrote and signed. Winfield points out that while they did not use the term “hero” in the letter for themselves or for their crew, they did describe their adventure in such language and detail that heroic qualities were often emphasized. Describing Clark’s letter as a prototypical press release, Winfield describes how the original framing was repeated in subsequent reports: “These repeated news accounts also republished the Palladium's introduction, emphasizing the Corps attributes: ‘we are persuaded all think and feel alike, on the courage, perseverance and prudent deportment displayed by this adventurous party.’”
Ambrose’s evaluation of the letter and its content is political and practical. Comparing Clark’s public letter to Lewis’ official report to Jefferson, Ambrose notes the addition of “considerable details on some of the difficulties and risk involved” (412). Clark’s letter includes “tremendous mountains and terrible portages and turbulent rapids and near-starvation and various Indian encounters” (412). These would capture the public’s imagination and thirst for more information—Lewis and Clark already planned to publish their journals. The details would also yank on Congress’s purse strings—they needed to repay themselves and their crew for their time and efforts.
They were soon successful in the second goal. Success in the first goal of publishing their journals was, perhaps, never achieved. Lewis, whose job it was to prepare their journals for the publisher, apparently never did much work toward that goal and this failure may have figured into his suicide. With Clark’s supervision, an abridged version of the journals were eventually published in 1814, in a relatively small printing of under 1500 copies, edited by Nicholas Biddle. According to Donald Jackson, “The so-called Biddle narrative was considered by Jefferson to be only a stopgap publication.” Eventually, the journals were published but not until 1904, as Jackson points out, “exactly a century after the exploring party pushed westward from St. Louis toward the Pacific.”
VI. Colter, Drouillard, and the Fur Trade
Not all the members of the Corps of Discovery made the journey to the Pacific Ocean and back to St. Louis. One member, Charles Floyd died, probably from appendicitis, in the third month out, August, 1804. Two members were tried in courts martial and sent back after the winter with the Mandans, in April, 1805, along with a corporal, several privates, and French boatmen, who were in charge of returning reports, maps, and specimens of flora and fauna that Lewis and Clark had prepared. On the return trip, in 1806, Toussaint Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and their son Jean Baptist remained at their home with the Mandans. In addition, John Colter, one of the Corps most trusted men, joined two trappers, with special permission from his Captains, to return to the mountains and begin a career as a trapper.
On the journey from Fort Clatsop to St. Louis, the expedition halted for a few days near Missoula, at a location they called “Traveler’s Rest.” Then on July 3, 1806, Lewis and Clark separated and divided their company. Clark and several men traveled south toward what is now Yellowstone National Park, found the Yellowstone River and explored along it. Lewis, John Colter, and others went north. On August 11, 1806, one of his men while hunting accidentally shot Lewis, but at this point, he continued hurrying down the Yellowstone searching for Clark. On the morning of the twelfth, Lewis found the camp of two men, Joseph Dixon and Forest Hancock, who told him that they had met Clark only the day before, also traveling downstream. Dixon and Hancock told Lewis “they had left the Illinois in the summer of 1804, since which time they had been ascending the Missouri, hunting and trapping, that they had been robbed by the Indians” (Lewis and Clark, Bakeless, 356). The previous year, Dixon had been wounded by a Sioux warrior, but had recovered well.
This meeting is important for two reasons. First, the timelines indicate that Dixon and Hancock, as two individual trappers, had followed along in the tracks of Lewis and Clark for almost their entire journey. Lewis and Clark may have traveled across the Rockies, but independent trappers were on their heels east of the Rockies. Second, John Colter met these men, there with Lewis, and saw his future. Dixon and Hancock traveled with the expedition to the Mandan village, resupplied, and when the Corps of Discovery departed to St, Louis on August 17, they and John Colter headed back up the Missouri and then up the Yellowstone. John Coulter’s biographer, Burton Harris, weighs various accounts of his subject and discounts Nicholas Biddle’s portrayal of him as a man “weaned from the habits of civilized life” (Biddle, qtd in Harris 36). In addition, that did not appear to be Lewis and Clark’s assessment, who arranged for Coulter’s discharge date to be the same as all their men’s. They wished Colter success, and most likely viewed Coulter’s choice to leave the expedition at that time as an attempt to apply his hard-earned expertise in an intriguing business opportunity.
Apparently, not all proceeded as hoped. The following year after a winter in the Rockies, Colter separated from Dixon and Hancock. On his return trip down the Platt River, where it joined the Missouri, he found three of his former Corps colleagues, including George Drouillard. It was 1807, and already new expeditions were heading into the Rockies hunting for furs, especially beaver. Manuel Lisa from St. Louis funded this expedition. Colter joined the Lisa group and worked from Fort Raymond, one of a series of Forts that Lisa planned to build to support his business operations.
Lisa assigned Droulliard and Colter the job of venturing deeper into Native American lands to inform the tribes that Lisa’s operation was now functioning and that he wished to form business partnerships with them. Both Coulter’s and Droulliard’s travels have become the stuff of myth, as much as has the travels of Lewis and Clark. Since Colter made three trips, and Droulliard one (he traveled with Lisa to St. Louis during Coulter’s latter two trips), we will focus on Colter. His first exploration took him 500 miles on foot to Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons, Jackson Lake, Yellowstone Lake, and other parts of current Yellowstone National Park, including the thermal called “Coulter’s Hell.” On the second venture, he traveled the Yellowstone and Gallatin Rivers, joined a tribe of Flathead Indians and was wounded in a fight pitting Flatheads and Crow against the Blackfeet. Next, on a beaver hunt, he and another Lewis and Clark veteran, John Potts had a gun fight with the Blackfeet, Potts was killed and slaughtered, and Colter was forced to run for his life. Naked and afraid, he killed one pursuing Blackfoot, hid from the others, and then walked, barefoot, 200 miles in eleven days back to Fort Raymond (Utley 15-17).
Hostilities with the Blackfeet continued. Fort Raymond was abandoned and closed, then reopened. A new fort was built at Three Forks. Hunting there was good and safe for a time. Eventually, however, Droulliard was killed and mutilated. That was enough for Colter. He traveled back to St. Louis with a letter from the commander of Three Forks for Pierre Chouteau stating that this area of the country was rich in beaver, but that the Blackfeet had to be subdued in some manner for the venture to be successful (Utley 18-19). It was 1810, only four years after Lewis and Clark’s expedition had returned to St. Louis. Everyone knew that riches were waiting for the right people.
One of those people was John Jacob Astor. Unlike Lisa Manuel and the Chouteaus, Astor was not focusing on the local. Like Jefferson, Astor had his sights on the Pacific Ocean and a fur trading empire that stretched the continent and served both Europe and China. Like Jefferson, Astor had been watching the Canadian explorations of Alexander Mackenzie, who had traveled the breadth of continent north of the 49th Parallel, and he observed the success of Hudson Bay Company. In 1808 he was ready to compete with his Pacific Fur Company, and by 1811, his men would undertake the second expedition across the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. Within a couple of years, the town of Astoria, Oregon, would be founded at the mouth of the Columbia, within miles of Fort Clatsop, and the famous South Pass of the Oregon Trail would be “discovered.” The West was open.
Go to Part VII
Go to Part VII