State of Indian Affairs in the West

Baltimore Sun – St. Louis, Missouri

by Roman Ramsey – October 24, 1807

I had the pleasure of being able to sit down with Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark after their two year long exploration of the West with their Corps of Discovery, as ordered by Thomas Jefferson, to learn about their encounters with the savages. I traveled to St. Louis to meet the revolutionary men, in the well-lit parlor of Captain Clark’s farmhouse while his wife, Mrs. Julia Clark, served us coffee and biscuits.  I sat down for a long interview, to hear the story of Captains Lewis and Clark’s adventure west and their interactions with the Indians. Through their time, they came to encounter or learn of many tribes across the West.

Captains Lewis and Clark’s first formal meeting with the western Indians took place on August 3rd, 1804, with the Missouri and Oto Indians. The Missouri Indians had recently been hit by an epidemic of smallpox and the remaining survivors had been incorporated into the nearby Oto tribe, with a combined population of 250. When a group of 6 Oto chiefs and their warriors arrived at the campsite, Clark wrote in his journal that he and Lewis “Shook hands and gave them Some Tobacco & Provisions, they Sent us Water Millions” while making plans to hold a meeting the following day. The meeting consisted of traditional displays of decorum and Captain Lewis graciously enlightened the savages to their good fortune of being the children of the new great father that is the the United States government and their representatives, who will give the opportunity for trade and protection. By the end of August, 1804, the Corps had met the Yankton Sioux Indians and Captain Lewis delivered another speech to the leaders. William Clark noted in his journal thevillages of teepees where the Sioux lived. The meeting consisted of Sioux displays of their skills with a bow and arrow and ceremonial dances. While the communication was considered unsuccessful due to the fact that the savages wanted to trade for alcohol and guns, the next morning the chiefs returned with the news that they “Should make peace with their neighbours the Zottous, & Missouris, as for the Mahars and them are at peace with each other” and that “the head Chief We-ucha and four or five more of their nation Should go to visit the Seat of Government … [to] See their Great Father the presidant & receive his Counsel,” as stated by Sergeant John Ordway in his journal.

On October 8, 1804, Lewis and Clark came across the “Ricara villages” and on the 9th, tobacco was traded and plans were made for a meeting the next day. The following day, the Corps delivered a speech to that given to the Sioux and Ottoes. The leaders of the Corps and the leaders of the savages continued to meet for several more days, trading information about the land and food resources, including types of  “Corn & Beans, a large well flavoured Been which they rob the Mice of in the Plains and is verry nurishing,” as stated by Clark in his journal. During the same fall, Lewis and Clark met the Mandans, and the Hidatsas to the northwest, and became aware of tensions about trading between the Americans, the Mandans, and the Assiniboine.

On November 4, 1804, while stationed in the Mandan villages for the winter, Lewis and Clark met a Frenchman named Chabonah, who spoke the Big Belley language, and his two squaws. Chabonah agreed to “go on with [them] and take one of his wives to interpet the Snake language”. This woman was known as Sacagawea. Clark told me, “I didn’t expect her to be such a essential part of our exploration, but she contributed her knowledge of the land and native tribes during crucial moments”. While traveling down a river, the canoe holding valuable supplies nearly capsized but, as Lewis wrote in his journal, Sacagawea, with fortitude and resolution, “caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard”. However, the Indian woman’s greatest accomplishment occurred when, on August 13, 1805, Lewis and three other men encountered a few Shoshone women gathering food and were taken back to the Shoshone camp. The Corps were the first white people ever seen by Shoshones, but with Sacagawea’s translation from Shoshone, her native language, to English the expedition was soon welcomed into the tribe. Clark wrote that during one council, “[Sacagawea] came into the tent, sat down, and was beginning to interpret, when in the person of Cameahwait she recognized her brother; she instantly jumped up and ran and embraced him, throwing over him her blanket and weeping profusely”. As a result of this reunion, the Shoshone tribe gifted horses and supplies to the expedition that Lewis says, “were crucial to the crossing from the mountain ranges to the coast”.

While crossing the Bitterroot mountains in September 1805, Lewis and Clark came upon “a part of the〈Flat head〉 nation of 33 Lodges about 80 men 400 Total and at least 500 horses” in the words of Captain Clark. The natives received the white men with great enthusiasm, despite the fact that the majority of the Nez Perce men were out on a hunting expedition. These people also gave horses to our brave explorers, some of their fine spotted ponies called Appaloosas. In October 1805, the expedition met the Walla Walla Indians while sprinting their final leg to the Pacific Ocean. A captured Shoshone woman servant translated Walla Walla to Shoshone, and Sacagawea translated to English for the Captains. Once more, presents, horses, and supplies were exchanged between the two groups. The expedition also met the Wishram Indians in their villages called Nixluidix. They inhabited wooden longhouses by a river that ran to the ocean and lived by salmon fishing, catching unimaginable mountains of fish, enough to feed an army. While building Fort Clatsop to prepare for the northwest winter, Chief Coboway of the Clatsop Indians, representing the 400 members who inhabited 3 villages along the coast, met Lewis and Clark on December 15, 1805. The friendship between the two groups showed little conflict and Fort Clatsop was left to Coboway at the departure of the expedition. In January, 1806 the Clatsop Indians informed Lewis and Clark about a whale that had washed up on the beach to the south, but the Tillamooks had already found and taken it apart. The groups exchanged oil and blubber for trade goods.

In July, 1806, Lewis and Clark came upon eight warriors of the Blackfeet nation, who spent the night in their campground. After the communication of the wishes of the United States government and the mention that the Shoshone and Nez Perce, the Blackfeet’s enemies, had agreed to the peace treaty and trade options, the people of the Blackfeet decided that the Americans posed a threat. Captain Lewis and Private Reuben Field each killed a warrior. According to Lewis’s journal, the Indians woke up on the morning of the 27th and tried to grab the guns of several members of the expedition before “R Fields … seized his gun stabed the indian to the heart with his knife” (CITE). As the Indians were leaving the campsite on their horses, Captain Lewis’s horse was being cut out of the herd and taken away. Lewis warned the man that he “would shoot them if they did not give [him] [his] horse and raised [his] gun, one of them jumped behind a rock and spoke to the other who turned around and stoped at the distance of 30 steps from [Lewis] and [he] shot him through the belly”. This was the first bloodshed between the western Indians and representatives of the United States. The Blackfeet Indians have continued to show hostility towards the government and American plans to move west.

At the end of their journey, Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis for what has been the past year. The French trader Chabonah and his wife, Sacagawea, stayed in Hidatsa homeland. It is without a doubt the Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark are the bravest men of our time, for exploring the uncharted west and risking their lives in encounters with the Indians.

Works Cited:

“Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <http://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/index.html>.

“Lewis and Clark. Native Americans.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/lewisandclark/native/index.html>.

Sonneborn, Liz. “Sacajawea.” A to Z of American Indian Women, Revised Edition, A to Z of Women. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.aspItemID=WE52&iPin=AIW129&SingleRecord=True (accessed November 5, 2013).

Woodger, Elin, and Brandon Toropov. “Sacajawea.” Encyclopedia of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2004. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.aspItemID=WE52&iPin=ELCE0283&SingleRecord=True (accessed November 5, 2013).

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