“A KNOWLEDGE OF THESE PEOPLE”
They had soldiered together, and they were nominally co-captains of the Corps of Discovery, but Meriwether Lewis and William Clark could hardly have been more contrasting personalities. The redheaded Clark was the elder by four years. He was an experienced frontiersman and Indian fighter, with a talent for mapmaking and navigation, a natural command of men, and an open, genial character. Lewis was a child of privilege, scion of one of the first families of Virginia, and personal secretary to the president, whom he regarded as a virtual father figure. But there was an awkward formality about Lewis, and he had a “martial temper.” Above all he was a manic depressive, veering wildly from limitless excitement to dark feelings of impotence and failure that would eventually lead him to suicide. The episodes of euphoria sometimes made him reckless, and on the homeward leg of the journey, in the summer of 1806, he made a critical misjudgment, ignoring the warnings of people to whom he should have paid close attention.
In the matter of their contact with Indians, Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis and Clark1 had been detailed and explicit. The president wrote, “The commerce which may be carried on with the people inhabiting the line you will pursue, renders a knoledge of these people important.” What that meant in practice was that Lewis and Clark were to acquaint themselves with the names and numbers of the tribes they encountered; their languages, occupations, and peculiarities of law and custom; their characteristic diseases and remedies; how they dressed and what they ate; the extent of each tribe’s territory; and the state of intertribal relations. Jefferson continued, “Considering the interest which every nation has in extending & strengthening the authority of reason & justice among the people around them, it will be useful to acquire what knowledge you can of the state of morality, religion & information among them, as it may better enable those who endeavor to civilize & instruct them.”
The president was clear that violence was to be avoided wherever possible: “In all your intercourse with the natives treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit.” If the explorers ran into an overwhelming display of hostile force, they should retreat. This was a matter of simple pragmatism. Engagement would risk, at the very least, loss of the data collected by the expedition, while turning back to give a full reporting of the number and disposition of hostiles would allow future explorers to return with the proper amount of hardware.
This is not to say that Lewis and Clark went ill-equipped. On the contrary, they carried the largest arsenal that had ever been seen west of the Missouri. The threat of violence was implicit in the act of exploration, and certainly in Jefferson’s intent to civilize. The Corps of Discovery was a military expedition, under military discipline. The explorers were uninvited guests in an unknown land, and any tribe they encountered was assumed to be hostile until proven otherwise. To a belligerent tribe seeking dominance over its neighbors, what greater temptation than the rifles, powder horns, bullet molds, gunsmith’s tools, knives, and tomahawks that Lewis had commissioned from the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry? The basic truth about weaponry is that it is an enticement to violence as well as a safeguard against it. Or put another way, Lewis and Clark, and many subsequent explorations of the West, proved Chekhov’s first iron law of theater: Hang a pistol on the wall in the first act, and it is sure to be fired before the final curtain.
Miraculously, however, it took more than two years for the point to be proved. In the meantime, there were incidents and near-incidents. As the expedition labored upstream on the Missouri in September 1804, a group of Teton Sioux chiefs, after downing a glass or two, or three, of whiskey on the explorers’ keelboat, expressed their dissatisfaction with Lewis’s gifts of peace medals, coats, and hats, and refused to be put ashore without more, while warriors milled around on the bank with their bows strung. Lewis ordered the boat’s swivel gun loaded with musket balls and held a lighted taper over the fuse until they dispersed. Three days later, there was a second, similar episode, this time because a gift of tobacco was considered insultingly meager. But on both occasions the offended chiefs backed down, the warriors put away their arrows, and the fuse of the swivel gun remained unlit.2
Lewis’s temper almost got the better of him nineteen months later, as the party headed back up the Columbia from the Pacific and spent several days in the country of the Chinooks. The captain had mixed feelings about these people. On one hand he was disdainful of their general demeanor (“low and ill-shaped … badly clad and illy made”). On the other, he had to acknowledge that they were peaceable sorts (“the greatest harmoney appears to exist among them”). But the Chinooks were inveterate petty thieves, and that drove Lewis to distraction. They stole an ax; they stole a lump of lead; they tried to steal a tomahawk from Private John Colter, who was not a man to trifle with; they stole Lewis’s black dog, Seaman, which almost pushed him over the edge. It was not clear whether the thieves intended to eat the dog, as many tribes did.
One of the Chinook chiefs apologized. He tried to explain the problem of tribal authority; there were limits to the discipline a chief could impose, and there was not much he could do if a few hotheaded young men yielded to temptation. Lewis had to understand that the village as a whole wanted peace. But Lewis didn’t really understand, and few whites would. Friendly and/or powerless chiefs, and young warriors who saw theft and violence as a display of valor and a source of prestige: This would be a running theme for the rest of the century and the root of one violent confrontation after another.
As if to underline the chief’s point, the thieving continued. Tomahawks and knives went missing in the night. Lewis threatened beatings. A saddle disappeared, and a buffalo robe. Then he caught a man red-handed, as he tried to liberate an iron socket from a discarded canoe pole. He flew into a rage and told the village that “I would shoot the first of them that attempted to steal an article from us.” He went beyond this to the threat of collective punishment, informing the Chinooks “that I had it in my power at that moment to kill them all and set fire to their houses.” But then he summoned all his self-control, no doubt contemplating the political consequences of acting out his threat, and the Corps of Discovery moved on toward the territory of a tribe about whom Lewis felt differently.3
Lewis and his companions got on well with many of the tribes, to be fair. As Clark noted in his journal, “A cuirous custom … is to give handsome squars to those whom they wish to show more acknowledgments to.” The men of the corps, he reported in March 1805, were “generally healthy except Venerials Complaints which is verry Common amongst the natives and the men Catch it from them.”4
The explorers had a mutual love affair with the Mandans, whose amiable welcome made their villages a favored stopover for generations of European and American adventurers on the upper Missouri. Lewis liked the Arikara, too, and the Clatsops. He found the Wallawallas “the most hospitable, honest, and sincere people that we have met with in our voyage.”5 The Flatheads were friendly. The Shoshone were “frank, communicative, fair in dealing, generous with the little they possess, extreemly honest, and by no means beggarly.”6 And of course there was Sacagawea, herself a Shoshone, freed from slavery among the Hidatsa.
But no tribe stood in quite such high regard as the Nez Perce. There is disagreement about how the tribe acquired its odd name. Some of them appear to have indeed pierced their noses and ornamented them with dentalium shells, which they acquired in trade with the tribes of the Pacific Coast. Other authorities say the name is a mistranslation of sign language. The Plains tribes indicated the Nez Perce by passing the index finger over the nose with a slashing motion; this was a sign of bravery, denoting people who did not flinch even if an arrow came that close.
Lewis and Clark also attested to this bravery, but they spoke too of the gentleness of the Nez Perce men, as well as the intelligence and attractiveness of the women. The explorers found the Nez Perce to be proud, dignified, reserved, slow to anger, attentive to personal cleanliness. Their language contained no profanity. They were orators, who settled their disputes by a prolonged search for consensus. The tribe was famous for its horse breeding and its horsemanship.
There were perhaps four thousand Nez Perce when the Corps of Discovery encountered them, divided into a number of small, autonomous bands. The men hunted and fished for salmon and cutthroat trout; the women gathered berries and dug camas roots, which they pounded into flour for bread that gave Lewis chronic gas and diarrhea. Buffalo were gone from the plateau country west of the Rockies by the time the expedition arrived, so the Nez Perce crossed the mountains each summer to hunt the great herds on the plains of what is now Montana. It is this knowledge of the high passes that explains the tribe’s warm relationship with Lewis and Clark. The Nez Perce knew the way across the Continental Divide, and they knew the dangers that lurked on the other side. Captain Lewis took their advice on the first count, and ignored it on the second.
The most daunting moment of the outward journey occurred in September 1805 when the captains contemplated the sheer granite wall of the Bitterroots. “The most terrible mountains I ever beheld,” remarked Sergeant Patrick Gass.7 The Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean lay somewhere on the far side. They bought some fresh horses from a friendly band of Flatheads. With the help of the expedition’s translator, George Drouillard (Drewyer, for the most part, in Lewis’s journals, or sometimes Drulyard), son of a French-Canadian father and a Shawnee mother, Lewis constructed a summary Flathead vocabulary. The tribe spoke in a guttural fashion that led Lewis to think they might be the descendants of Prince Madoc and a wandering band of Welshmen. Jefferson subscribed to the theory that such a tribe was out there, somewhere in the Western wilds.
The Corps of Discovery had better horses now, but the “emince Dificuelt Knobs” remained to be conquered. On Lolo Creek, at a campground they called Travelers’ Rest, a group of hunters went out to supplement the party’s dwindling rations as it prepared for the crossing. John Colter, the soldier who would later withhold his tomahawk from the larcenous Chinooks, brought back three Indians who said they lived on the other side of the mountains. They were Nez Perce, and they indicated a trail across the divide that would take the explorers to their villages in six days. It took eleven in reality, and they were the worst days of the whole trip, beset by snowdrifts, hailstorms, dysentery, fallen timber, the eating of a colt when the rest of the food ran out, and the loss of Clark’s writing desk when a packhorse fell forty feet down a precipice.
The elderly chief of the Nez Perce villages was Twisted Hair, a “Chearfull man with apparent Siencerity.” He offered hospitality, traded food for trinkets, knives, and tobacco, and allowed the men to lie up for more than a week while Clark treated their intestinal troubles with salt pills and other emetics. Clark wrote that his modest doctoring abilities “raised my reputation and gives those nativs an exolted oppinion of my skill as a phisician.” Most important, the Nez Perce made no move to relieve the ailing and vulnerable explorers of their weapons, despite having no more than a couple of defective rifles with which to defend themselves against hostile tribes.
In early May 1806, Lewis and Clark were back from the western sea, and as they prepared to recross the Bitterroots the friendship between the whites and the Nez Perce was cemented. It would endure for more than half a century until it was finally betrayed by settlers, soldiers, and the lust for gold.
While the Nez Perce had declined the opportunity to steal the explorers’ guns, they had no objection to being armed as part of a larger geopolitical compact. Lewis laid this out in the stump speech he gave to all the tribes, sweetened by the medals and the flags and the trade trinkets. The Nez Perce would accept an American-dominated system of trading posts and agree to live in peace with their neighbors; in exchange they would be given a guarantee of security, with guns and ammunition to protect themselves. The Nez Perce pointed out only one flaw with this scheme, but it was a serious one. The Blackfeet would never stand for it.
Violent resistance was built into that tribe’s creation myth, and they were well supplied with weapons from traders in the British possessions to the north. When Napi, Old Man, was done with fashioning the prairies, the mountains, and the forests, he marked the ground and told the Blackfeet, “This is your land. It is full of animals and other things which I have given you. Let no other people come into it. When others cross the line, take your bows and arrows, your lances and your battle axes, and keep them out. If they remain, trouble will come.”8
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The Corps of Discovery’s second crossing of the mountains was no easier than the first. By early June the captains were eager to be on the move, but the Nez Perce pointed up at the peaks, observing that the winter snowfall had been prodigious, and counseled a few more weeks of patience. Clark was inclined to heed their advice. “I Shudder with the expectation with great dificuelties in passing these Mountains,” he wrote.9 Lewis was having none of it; he pronounced this a “delightfull season for travelling” and decided they should proceed without a guide. He was wrong on both counts. The snow turned out to be fifteen feet deep, and there was no grass for the horses. For the first time in two years the explorers were forced to retrace their steps. Lewis sent Drouillard back to the Nez Perce villages for help and the captains cooled their heels in camp for a week. Clark seems to have found a silver lining in the “great dificuelties” of the crossing, since a child with reddish hair, who later became a familiar figure to Montana settlers, was born about nine months later, the outcome of Clark’s dalliance with a Nez Perce woman.
Eventually Drouillard returned with three young men who agreed to see them safely across. The plan was for the expedition to split into two groups when it got back to Travelers’ Rest, the first time it had ever risked such a step, and to reassemble about six weeks later at the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Missouri. Clark would take one group and head down the Yellowstone. Lewis, with the rest of the party, would follow the Nez Perce trail along the Blackfoot River and into the buffalo country. Once they reached the Great Falls of the Missouri, the Lewis party would subdivide again. One group would stay on the big river to dig up a large cache of supplies the explorers had left there the previous year and prepare for Clark’s portage around the falls. Lewis, with half a dozen volunteers, would explore “at every hazard” the Marias River, which entered the Missouri from the northwest. Lewis named it for his cousin, Maria Wood. Originally, then, it was Maria’s River, but the apostrophe fell away with time.
Clark’s route was longer than Lewis’s but easier, and he made steady, uneventful progress, up the Bitterroot and over the divide, across the broad, lovely valley of the upper Big Hole with the Beaverhead peaks to his right, until he found himself back at Camp Fortunate, where Sacagawea had been ecstatically reunited with her fellow Shoshone the previous summer. From there, northeast along the Jefferson River to the Three Forks, and thence eastward across the fertile valley of the Gallatin, through a twisting gap in the mountains that would later be called the Bozeman Pass, until he finally struck the Yellowstone near the site of the present-day town of Livingston, where the river makes a big ninety degree turn to the east.
It seems strange that a man with Clark’s instincts would disregard three separate opportunities to explore the sources of the Madison, the Gallatin, and the Yellowstone itself. Strange stories were already in circulation about the spectacular landscapes and bizarre natural phenomena in the high country where the three rivers had their origins. Fur traders in St. Louis had heard tales of spouts of boiling water in the area as early as 1803.10 Clark wrote in his journal that the Yellowstone had “a considerable fall” high in the mountains, but then crossed out the reference with an enigmatic “no.” At the big bend, the river emerges from the corridor of Paradise Valley as a broad, leisurely riffle, flanked by the peaks of the Absarokas and the Gallatin Range. It offers no particular deterrent at that point to the explorer. Early in the trip, the Hidatsa had told Lewis and Clark that the Yellowstone was navigable almost to its source, which was roughly accurate, give or take fifty miles. So was Clark tempted? Apparently not. His journal notes only that, “The Roche [the Roche Jaune, that is, or Yellow Stone] passes out of a high rugid mountain covered with snow.”
It is irresistible to speculate about what might have happened if Lewis and Clark had left St. Louis a couple of years later than they did. That would have given them time to be apprised of a curious report that was submitted to Jefferson in October 1805 by General James Wilkinson, “the admirable trumpeter,” military governor of Louisiana Territory. In this the general informed the president that he had “a Savage delineation on a Buffaloe Pelt, of the Missouri & its South Western Branches.… among things a little incredible, a volcano is distinctly described on Yellow Stone River.”11 Jefferson, after all, had particularly ordered the captains, as part of their inventory of Louisiana’s geological and mineral resources, to be alert to any signs of volcanic activity. The temptation to pursue such a fantastic story would surely have been powerful.
Three years after the Corps of Discovery returned home, William Clark had collated even more fragments of information and hearsay about the mysterious upper Yellowstone. In about 1809, he added to his notes, “At the head of this river the nativs give an account that there is frequently herd a loud noise, like Thunder, which makes the earth Tremble, they State that they seldom go there because their children Cannot sleep—and Conceive it possessed of spirits, who were averse that men Should be near them.”12 Merely a footnote, but the first recorded entry in a durable canard: that Indians were driven by fear or superstition to avoid the upper Yellowstone.
In July 1806, however, no matter how strong the temptation, a ninety degree diversion to the south simply did not figure in Clark’s plans. Everything was for eastward, to the rendezvous with Lewis, and home before winter.
Copyright © 2012 by George Black