Lewis & Clark, Judgment & the Course of U.S. History

“The expedition proceeded in the morning past a two-mile island where Colter, with the last horse belonging to the expedition, had camped for the night and killed four elk.  He had hung them on trees along the shore.  Lewis sent a pirogue to pick up the meat.  As it was being loaded, Colter ran up the bank to shout that Indians had stolen his horse.  Soon after, the captains saw five Indians on the bank.  They anchored the keelboat and “Spoke to them,” either through signs flashed by Drouillard or by using “the old frenchman,” Pierre Cruzatte,who could speak a bit of Sioux, as interpreter.

The captains were stern.  They said they came as friends, but were ready to fight if need be, and warned that “they were not afraid of any Indians.” They told a little lie, saying that the stolen horse had been sent by the new father of the red children as a present for the chief of the Tetons.  They said they would not speak to any Tetons until the horse was returned.

The expedition arrived at the mouth of the next river, at the site of present Pierre, South Dakota, late in the afternoon.  As a defensive precaution, the party anchored the keelboat off the mouth of the river.  The captains put the party on full alert, with one-third ashore on guard, the other two=thirds camping on board the boat and pirogues.

In the morning, the captains raised the flagstaff, set up the awning, and prepared for a council, taking the precaution to leave a majority of the party on board, with the keelboat anchored seventy yards off shore so that its swivel gun commanded the site.  At 11:00 a.m., three chiefs and many warriors came in, bearing large quantities of buffalo meat as a gift.  The captains offered some pork.  Then it was time to talk.

To their dismay,  the captains quickly discovered that Cruzatte could not speak the language beyond some simple words.  Nor could Drouillard convey via the sign language the relatively complex thoughts and proposals Lewis was making in his basic Indian speech.  Recognizing the difficulty, Lewis cut the speech short and began putting on the traveling medicine show.  It started with a close-order drill by uniformed troops marching under the colors of the republic.  Then came the air gun, magnifying glass, and the rest.  Finally, Lewis handed out medals and gifts to the chiefs.  He designated Black Buffalo as the leading chief present and gave him a medal, a red military coat, and a cocked hat.  The other two chiefs, named the Partisan and Buffalo Medicine, got medals.  As far as the captains were concerned, they had completed their part.

That’s all? the Tetons demanded, unbelieving.  Some worthless medals and a silly hat?

Sensing the discontent, especially from Black Buffalo’s rivals the Partisan and Buffalo Medicine, the captains invited the chiefs on board the keelboat, where they gave each a quarter-glass of whiskey.  The chiefs were “exceedingly fond of it, they took up an empt bottle, Smelted it, and made maney simple jestures and Soon began to be troublesom.”

Clark detailed a party of seven men to help him put the chiefs ashore.  The chiefs resisted and had to be forced into the canoe.  When it landed, three warriors seized the bowline while another hugged the mast. The Partisan “pretended drunkeness &. staggered up against us, Declaring I should not go on, Stateing he had not recved presents Suffient from us.”  His insults became personal.  He demanded a canoe load of presents before he would allow the expedition to go on.

Clark would take no more.  He drew his sword and ordered all hands under arms.  On the keelboat, Lewis ordered the men to prepare for action.  The swivel gun was loaded with sixteen musket balls; the blunderbusses were loaded with buckshot; the men threw up their lockers as breastworks, loaded their rifles, and prepared to fire.

Up the bank, twenty yards from Clark and the pirogue, some warriors saw Lewis preparing the swivel gun and began to back away, but others strung their bows and took out their arrows from their quivers, or began to cock their shotguns.

It was a dramatic moment.  Had Lewis cried “Fire!” and touched his lighted taper to the fuse of the swivel gun, the whole history of North American might have changed.  Here is one possible scenario:

The cannon roared, spitting out sixteen musket balls.  The blunderbusses roared, spitting out buckshot.  The muskets roared, spitting out aimed lead bullets.  Sioux warriors were mowed down in the dozens.

But there were still hundreds of warriors on the bank, and even as the smoke lifted they filled the air with arrows, and kept them coming, for they could reload and fire at a much faster pace than the American soldiers.  Lewis and Clark, prime targets, went down.  With the captains incapacitated or dead, Sergeant Ordway rallied the survivors, got into the keelboat, pushed off and retreated downriver.

In short, had that cannon fired, there might have been no Lewis and Clark Expedition.  The exploration of the Missouri River country and Oregon would have had to be done by others, at a later time.

Meanwhile, the Sioux would have been implacable enemies of the Americans, and in possession of the biggest arsenal on the Great Plains.  For some time to come, they would have had the numbers and the weapons to turn back any expedition the United States cold send up the Missouri.  They would have increased their trade with the British North West Company coming out of Canada.  In the War of 1812, they would have been British allies, perhaps strong enough to wrest Upper Louisiana away from the Americans and make it a part of Canada.  Improbable, certainly.  Impossible, almost certainly.  Still…

Aside from the possible long-range consequences, the confrontation on the riverbank was threatening to make it impossible for Lewis to carry out his orders with regard to the Sioux: to make a good impression on them and make them into friends of the United States.  This was the moment Jefferson had had in mind when he told Lewis in his formal orders to exercise caution.”

Excerpted from Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose

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