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Makers of American history: The Lewis & Clark exploring expedition, 1804-06

by Graeme Mercer Adam


Interest will doubtless be taken by the reader in what we have now to relate of the numbers composing the Expedition, and the functions which each section of the party were engaged to perform. All told, the Expedition consisted of forty-five members, though but two-thirds of this number were expected to accompany the dual-leaders throughout—the other third, chiefly boatmen got together at St. Louis, being engaged to go with the mission as far only as the villages of the Mandan Nation. Besides the two commanding officers, the party embraced nine hardy young Kentuckians, more or less accustomed to frontier and woodland life; fourteen soldiers of the regular army who had volunteered their services; fifteen boatmen; two Indian hunters and interpreters; two French voyageurs; and a negro valet and servitor pf Captain Clark. Carefully selected, and wellhandled and led, the Expedition had in it the promise of effecting the great and beneficent purpose for which it had been got together and enrolled. It set off, at first rather inauspiciously, in the teeth of a head-wind, on Monday, the 21st of May, 1804, and, four days later, in its ascent of the Lower Missouri waters, it reached La Charette, almost the last white settlement in the region, and the humble home of Daniel Boone, the renowned backwoodsman of Kentucky. On the way hither, the boats of the party, comprising a long-keeled bateau, manned by twenty-two oars, and several " pirogues," or open boats, propelled by six oars, encountered little of interest, save the vessels of some fur traders loaded with peltry, whose prows were set down stream in the direction of St. Louis, the chief entrepot of the region. On the river's banks, they passed a few scattered clearings of French woodsmen and hunters, who eked out an indifferent living by the poor products of their little farm plots. Now and then, they also met a few Indians, of the Kickapoo and Kansas tribes, with whom they did a little bartering, procuring several deer or an occasional buffalo for the questionable equivalent of a quart or two of whiskey.

So far as they had gone, game, it will be seen, was abundant, bears also being met with as well as moose and buffalo, besides wild turkeys and geese; while the Expedition found plenty in the way of fruitrelish to tickle the palate, including wild currants, mulberries, plums, and raspberries. The gathering of these delicacies by the river's banks, and an occasional halt to prepare supplies of jerked beef for future contingencies, when provisions by the way would be scarce, served to enliven the journey and occupy the men's minds so that they should not, by anticipation, worry themselves over the coming perils of the way. Towards the close of June, a month and a half after they had set out, the party reached the mouth of the Kansas River, where Kansas City now stands, and here the leaders held a friendly pow-wow with the Indians of the vicinity. A month later, the mouth of the Platte River was come to, six hundred miles above St. Louis, and at this point was reached what the party were aware was the dividing line which marked the known from the unknown. Henceforth, solitude lay before them, save for its Indian contingent of Missouris, Ottoes, and Pawnees, who sparsely people the region. At this place, the commanders of the Expedition deemed it proper, before committing their party to the unknown perils of the district embraced in the Upper Missouri waters, to call a council of the native tribes and their chiefs, that they might inform them of the pacific purposes of the Expedition, and, if possible, allay hostility at the threshold of their wild domain. At the bidding of messengers sent out to summon the tribes, fourteen representative Indians put in an appearance at the white men's camp, bringing with them presents of delicious watermelons, in return for which they were regaled with overflowing platters of roast-beef and pork, temptingly set before them, in addition to a goodly supply of flour and corn-meal. Here, in the " Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition," is the account placed on record (August 3rd) of the conference, on the site of what has since been known as Council Bluffs, Iowa:

" This morning the Indians, with their six chiefs, were all assembled under an awning formed with the mainsail, in presence of all our party, paraded for the occasion. A speech was then made announcing to them the change in the government (from France to the United States), our promise of protection, and advice as to their future conduct. All the six chiefs replied to our speech, each in his turn, according to rank. They expressed their joy at the change in the government; their hopes that we would recommend them to their Great Father (the President), that they might obtain trade and necessaries; they wanted arms as well for hunting as for defence, and asked our mediations between them and the Mahars ( ? Omahas), with whom they are now at war. We promised to do so, and wished some of them to accompany us to that nation, which they declined, for fear of being killed by them. We then proceeded to distribute our presents. The grand chief of the nation not being of the party, we sent him a flag, a medal, and some ornaments for clothing. To the six chiefs who were present, we gave a medal of the second grade to one Ottoe chief and one Missouri chief; a medal of the third grade to two inferior chiefs of each nation—the customary mode of recognizing a chief being to place a medal round his neck, which is considered among his tribe as a proof of his consideration abroad. Each of these medals was accompanied by a present of paint, garters, and cloth ornaments of dress; and to these we added a canister of powder, a bottle of whiskey, and a few presents to the whole, which appeared to make them perfectly satisfied. The air-gun, too, was fired and

astonished them greatly "

Leaving the vicinity of Council Bluffs, near where the friendly pow-wow took place, the Expedition leaders, later on in the month (August, 1804), had a conference with other Indian chiefs (Ottoes) of the region. Much the same ceremony was gone through with, and the tribe was made acquainted, as the Missouris and Pawnees had been, with the new possessors of the territory, in the persons of its explorer-representatives. The accustomed gifts were distributed to the chiefs, and a favorable impression was left upon them of the considerateness and friendly attitude of their new masters. At this period (August 19), the Expedition lost by death, after a few days' illness, one of its non-commissioned officers, Sergeant Charles Floyd, in memory of whom a stream that flowed into the Upper Missouri close by which the sergeant died was named. His vacant post was filled by a popular member from the rank and file of the expeditionary corps, Patrick Gass, who got his triple stripes by the votes of his comrades. This democratic mode of filling a vacancy was creditable to the tact of the commanders of the Expedition, and conducive to the engendering of a healthy esprit de corps among its members. The circumstance indicates the hearty good feeling that pervaded all ranks, so far on in the journey, as it also manifests their loyal interest in the objects of the Expedition and their common desire that it should be abundantly successful.



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