Corpse of Discovery
President Jefferson had been secretly planning this mission across the territory since before the Louisianna Purchase. As an anti-federalist, Jefferson was conflicted about using the U.S. Federal Government to send an expedition like this. Jefferson was an educated intellectual of a kind not seen today, and Lewis was similar to him in this regard. Meriwether Lewis was his Cheif Aid. Jefferson charged him with commanding the expedition. Jefferson sent him to Philidelphia to prepare for the journey. Jefferson was well aware of Lewis’s unique strengths. He was curious about the world like a renaissance alchemist. He was educated in biological sciences, mathematics, cartography, and literature. Lewis must have also been aware that this kind of American Renaissance Man of Letters would be lacking in certain abilities that would be needed in his dangerous mission. Lewis recruited his old army Captain, William Clark. Veiwed through a modern context, the language with which Lewis describes Clark makes them sound like lovers. In truth, their mutual affectionate respect came from the differing abilities and strengths they saw in each other. Lewis was also called a skilled outdoorsman, and Clark an expert mapmaker. So the dichotomy of “Man of the pen/Man of the sword”, often advanced is an oversimplification.
The story of the Corps of Discovery has been retold for two hundred years. The best telling of their journey can be found in their journals, which they kept dry and organised. The two men’s journals cooberate the strange events of their journey. The differences in how they describe events give clues about each man’s character.
In May of 1804, The Corps of Discovery finally got underway. There was no ceremonial fanfare, because no one could be sure that they would all survive, or what the geopolitical effects of their findings might be. The most telling and flavorful parts of this story are the small events that are usually omitted for the sake of simplification.
My favorite part of the journals deals with their discovery of uniquely American animals, and their first truly dangerous meeting with Natives, in September of their first year. It shows how their celebrated heroism didn’t keep them from showing the stupidity, cruelty, or blatant bigotry common in their time.
Up until July, they had been drinking, hunting, riding rivers, and generally having as good a time as they could without losing military dicipline. In August, a man had died. He didn’t die of any dramatic expected danger, but his death must have been sobering to the party.
In August, they had been meeting with local Sioux tribes. They prepared gifts and speeches, delicately declaring some kind of U.S. soveriegnty. I find it curious that the gifts were seen by Lewis and Clark as acceptance of legal declarations that the Cheifs may or may not have understood. Among the Northwest Coastal peoples, acceptance of a gift may suggest acceptance of a pact, but this was not the case with most Plains Tribes. The gifts were vital because they signaled peaceful intentions. Plains, and Northeast peoples would often present gifts or small trades on first meeting with anyone they didn’t want to go to war with immediately. These Sioux peoples had seen white traders and tanners for a long time, and generally didn’t see them as a threat, but the Corps of Discovery was fully armed and very military looking. The fact that they couldn’t have beaten most the tribes they met with seems to have escaped Lewis and Clark. When local Sioux Chiefs didn’t kill them, this was misenterpreted as recognition of authority. A baby was born when they were with these tribes, and Lewis is said to have wrapped him in an American flag and dramatically declared him an American. If any natives rolled their eyes or vomitted at this occasion, I can’t find report of it.
In their dealing with these tribes, Lewis and Clark heard about very recent wars. They talk about a small group of elite veterans that quietly kept to themselves. They were like Sioux berzerkers. They vowed to never turn back from anything ever. Lewis and Clark marvel in the journals that one of these men had walked directly into a hole in the ice and drowned, because it was in his way. They say that anyone could have easily walked around the hole, but their strict warrior ethos wouldn’t allow it. The 4 out of 22 berzerkers that had survived a bloody battle with the Crow, had only lived because their friends had dragged them off the battlefield.
From these tribes, Lewis and Clark learned about the huge and diverse population around them. They realised that each small group was sovereign unto themselves, and that there were far more of these groups than they had anticipated. In trying to learn about language similarities among Sioux tribes, Lewis learned that there where over 25 local nations of 2000-3000 men each. Among these nations, only a small number were currently not at war with each other. If I were in The Corps’ situation, I wouldn’t have been carrying guns or dressing in military uniforms.
When they left these tribes, they were concerned that they had left a kettle behind. This makes me think that they didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. They write about plentiful catfish, and a cliff where a White Bear had been killed.
The entries of Clark in early September are mostly full of good mapping data. Lewis records the same, but with more references to new flora and fauna. They describe black-tailed deer, “clift goats” and an animal that is probably a pronghorn. My dog and I discovered these creatures ourselves in an expedition across the wastes of Wyoming (We named them “interlopes”), and I can say that they are truly surreal animals. To come upon one in the wild, having never seen one, is enjoyably strange. They also describe what sounds like a ratsnake or kingsnake, until Clark says “the tale terminates in a sharp point like the substance of a cock’s spur— “. This description of a snake unknown to modern science sounds a lot like the mythical hoopsnake, which has a sharp stinger on it’s tail. There is frequent mention of “numerous buffalo”. They were seeing a lot of biodiversity that is long gone today. Around the 7th, Lewis starts talking about prairie dogs. He liked them a lot, but had no problem killing them. These marmots, common in the midwest, are like a smaller, lighter colored breed of the rockchucks of Spokane. They live in much larger numbers, and were completely new to the Corps. Among the prairie dog entries, Clark says “It is Said that a kind of Lizard also a Snake reside with those animals”. This makes me think of the glass snake, a kind of legless skink. I wonder where he heard about them from. On one occasion, Lewis is delighted to have killed a cottonwood tree and a young porcupine in one shot. He describes the porcupine in detail. “Wolves of the small kind” are clearly coyotes. The “polecat” they describe could be any mustelid, since the use of polecat to mean skunk is a more modern slang. I’m very curious what a “balk” is. Lewis guesses that they all eat squirrels. They killed several new kinds of deer, wolves (which were apparently plentiful back then), coyotes, magpies, ravens, and hoped to kill a white turkey they had heard about. The numerous buffalo and other new creatures they found were slaughtered thoughtlessly.
They describe an igneous rock formation that spews molasses. I have seen similar things in nature, but I think they must have been very hungry, to say that this geological formation tasted like molasses. I wonder about their outdoorsmanship. It was said to be cold on this mid-September leg of the journey. A man they sent ahead with horses went 12 days without provisions. He ran out of ball shot, then ate berries and killed a rabbit by shooting a stick out of his gun. I wonder how hungry they were, if they could kill two buffalo to make rain tarps, and only eat the tongues and marrow. It sounds to me like they were eating a lot of meat and berries, but deficient in some vitamin or mineral.
After about a month of killing everything in sight and complaining of hunger and mosquitos, they came into a region of Lakotah peoples culturally similar to the ones they met before. They where seeing more and more signs of population. Some curious native boys wandered up to them one day, swam across the creek, and told them about a settlement of 140 Teton lodges nearby. It sounds like a diplomatic, friendly warning to me, but the Corps gave the boys tobacco and told them they would be happy to meet with their Chief the next day. They named the river Teton. The name comes from the Lhakota word for prairie dwellers, titonuan. I find it comical that early whites identified this word with the French word for breasts.
Clark went and passed the pipe with them, and they had another ceremonious “You are now Americans” speech in the morning. They expected a repeat of their late August meeting, but the dialect of these people was very hard for their interpreter to understand. It is hard to know what was said. I imagine it was like speaking bad Vietnamese to a Chinese person, on the assumption that all Asians are the same. They made the usual gifts, but this was a much larger nation. They had had less contact with whites, and things got out of hand.
A tense political negotiation in a small boat full of drunk, armed men and a bad translator seemed like a good idea to Lewis and Clark. The Corps decided to invite the chiefs on to the boats and impress them by having drinks and bragging about their technology. This plan failed to smooth the tension. The solemn and dignified leader, Black Buffalow, along with his entourage, apparently became winos after a few drinks. Clark says that one of the Chief’s men was pretending to be drunker than he was, to excuse his awful behavior. The natives weren’t the only ones who drank too much. One of the soldiers was hugging the mast. The natives started yelling and making threatening gestures. The translator understood that the drunk chief wanted more gifts as a toll of passage. Clark said something meant to assure the chief that the Corps wanted peace with the Tetons. I humorously imagine that the translator expressed this as Lewis’s wish to touch breasts. The chief became enraged, and started hurling personal insults. Clark got scared and drew his sword. Lewis beat the call to arms, and suddenly hundreds of armed men were pointing weapons at each other. The chief sent all the kids home. This is a clear war signal from a confident leader with superior numbers. The Corps made ready to leave in a hurry, but Black Buffalow was litterally holding their towrope. Clark said something like “everybody just be cool, we don’t want a fight.” Black Buffalow let the rope go and Clark offered a handshake. A handshake means different things in different cultures. I’m guessing that this generous offer of peace probably came across like me high-fiveing the Queen Mum. Black Buffalow flatly refused to shake hands. The Corps left nervously while the chiefs whispered to each other about diplomacy. A little ways down the river, the Chiefs showed up again, this time without pointing drawn arrows at the Corps. The natives had decided to make nice.
The treatment the natives showed the Corps after this sounds carefully calculated to me. First, the tribe lined the banks of the river with thousands of people, who welcomed the Corps with menacing stares. The chiefs made this show of huge numbers sound welcoming and peaceful by saying the women and children wanted to see the boats. Next, they were invited into the encampment. It was organised in a huge circle, and sounds quite grandiose for a nomadic town, in the journals. Clark was taken alone for many hours, and shown a group of 48 captives from a recent battle like it was no big deal. These captives were said to be survivors from a much larger battle with a tribe called Maka. The Corps were told to stay one night only, so the tribe could “show thier good will”. Well dressed men carried Lewis and Clark on a decorated buffalo blanket and put them down at a pipe cerimony of almost 100 neatly organised men. After all this show of power, one of the chiefs or elders made a ceremonius speech asking for pity(?) and kind treatment. There was a huge party, with war dances, Teton hotties with scalps, Spanish flags, pemmican and dog, and lots of smoking. The next day, the chiefs made it sound like the other 80% of their population was on their way back home, and that the Corps should stay one more night to meet them. The Corps was giving small bags of corn and medals as gifts, while the natives were giving huge feasts and offering free wives. Clark was seriously offered a young bride as an apology for the tribe’s previous rudeness. The journals of Lewis and Clark make it sound like the two cultures understood the interaction very differently. When the Corps finally left, one of the smaller boats tripped an anchorline and snapped it. Clark had to land and jump out with many men right as the natives were waving goodbye. Strung arrows came out again. Clark assured them that they just stopped to fix the anchor. One the Corp’s men arrived that night. He spoke the same language as the 48 “Maha” captives. The captives told him that the Tetons had plans to rob the Corps of Discovery while they were leaving. The Corps was trapped into staying and partying. They didn’t sleep well that night. The next night they slipped away quietly, leaving their lost anchor somewhere in the sand. After this, they sailed down the wider bit of the Teton and were surprised at the huge populations there. They were scared to stop with these people again, and had to refuse all the invitations to trade and lodging. I suspect that this is what Black Buffalo wanted.
I think the tribe in this story pulled some good diplomacy. They had made a show of their numbers, military might, and prosperity while pretending not to. This was a political move that apparently went over the heads of Lewis and Clark. For the large Teton Lhakota tribe living there, this political show was a preferable alternative to blatant aggression.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition wasn’t a grand, heroic undertaking to open the arms of America to the new lands. It also wasn’t a nihilistic mission by drunk bigots with guns, to trash the countryside. The truth is somewhere in between. They did the best they could with what they had. I’m very glad that they kept such good records. From these records, we can get a first hand view of what they saw and did. It’s a good story.