Journals of Exploration (1804–05)
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
President Jefferson in his inaugural address spoke of Americans "possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation." Such a conclusion, or rather, such hyperbole, was due to the expansiveness of the land then claimed by the United States as well as of Jefferson's vision. In this Jefferson echoed the American people, for many still believed that it would take generations to settle the territory out to the Mississippi and some had already come to contemplate expansion to the Pacific Ocean. Given the development of such a mental map—as well as the threat to national interests and security should France occupy the interior of the continent—Jefferson's decision to acquire the Louisiana Territory was a reasonable one. Even before the purchase was complete, Jefferson authorized an expedition to explore the northwestern frontier. This was due to simple curiosity—a desire to know who and what was out there—as well as a need to know what the United States was acquiring. He appointed Meriwether Lewis, a captain in the regular army who had extensive frontier experience as well as an avid interest in nature, and William Clark, a former lieutenant in the army who also was fascinated with nature and was now recommissioned, as commanders of the "Corps of Discovery." Jefferson gave them a multifaceted mission: they were to inform the natives of the government's acquisition, establish friendly relations with them, and record their languages and ways; they were to make topographical and horticultural studies; and, if possible, they were to find a viable trade route through the new territory. The expedition of forty to fifty men (of which only some were to go out to the Pacific) set out from the St. Louis area in May 1804. They traveled up the Missouri to Mandan territory in what is now North Dakota with the intention of wintering there before the permanent party continued west in the spring.

*   *   *

 31st of October, 1804
A fine morning. The chief of the Mandans sent a second chief to invite us to his lodge to receive some corn and hear what he had to say. I walked down and, with great ceremony, was seated on a robe by the side of the chief. He threw a handsome robe over me, and after smoking the pipe with several old men around, the chief spoke:

Said he believed what we had told them, and that peace would be general, which not only gave him satisfaction but all his people: they could now hunt without fear, and their women could work in the fields without looking every moment for the enemy; and put off their moccasins at night. [Sign of peace: undress.] As to the Arikaras, we will show you that we wish peace with all, and do not make war on any without cause. That chief—pointing to the second—and some brave men will accompany the Arikara chief now with you to his village and nation, to smoke with that people. When you came up, the Indians in the neighboring villages, as well as those out hunting, when they heard of you, had great expectations of receiving presents. Those hunting, immediately on hearing, returned to the village; and all were disappointed, and some dissatisfied. As to himself, he was not much so; but his village was. He would go and see his Great Father, &c.

He had put before me two of the steel traps which were robbed from the French a short time ago, and about twelve bushels of corn, which were brought and put before me by the women of the village. After the chief finished and smoked in great ceremony, I answered the speech, which satisfied them very much, and returned to the boat. Met the principal chief of the third village, and the Little Crow, both of whom I invited into the cabin, and smoked and talked with for about one hour.

Soon after those chiefs left us, the grand chief of the Mandans came, dressed in the clothes we had given, with his two small sons, and requested to see the men dance, which they very readily gratified him in. . . .
 1st of November, 1804

The wind hard from the N.W. Mr. McCracken, a trader, set out at 7 o'clock, to the fort on the Assiniboine. By him sent a letter (enclosing a copy of the British Minister's protection) to the principal agent of the Company.

At about 10 o'clock, the chiefs of the lower village came, and after a short time informed us they wished we would call at their village and take some corn; that they would make peace with the Arikaras; they never made war against them but after the Arikaras killed their chiefs. They killed them like birds, and were tired of killing them, and would send a chief and some brave men to the Arikaras to smoke with that people.

*   *   *

 2nd November, 1804
This morning at daylight, I went down the river with my men, to look for a proper place to winter. Proceeded down the river three miles, and found a place well supplied with wood, and returned. Captain Lewis went to the village to hear what they had to say, and I fell down, and formed a camp, near where a small camp of Indians were hunting. Cut down the trees around our camp. In the evening, Captain Lewis returned with a present of 11 bushels of corn. Our Arikara chief set out, accompanied by one chief of Mandans and several brave men of Minnetarees and Mandans. He called for some small article which we had promised, but as I could not understand him, he could not get it. [Afterward he did get it.] The wind from the S.E. A fine day. Many Indians to view us today.

*   *   *

 4th November, 1804
A fine morning. We continued to cut down trees and raise our houses. A Mr. Charbonneau1 interpreter for the Gros Ventre nation, came to see us, and informed that he came down with several Indians from a hunting expedition up the river, to hear what we had told the Indians in council. This man wished to hire as an interpreter. The wind rose this evening from the east, and clouded up. Great numbers of Indians pass, hunting, and some on the return.

*   *   *

 12th November, 1804
A very cold night. Early this morning, The Big White, principal chief of the lower village of the Mandans, came down. He packed about 100 pounds of fine meat on his squaw for us. We made some small presents to the squaw and child, gave a small ax with which she was much pleased. Three men sick with the [blank in MS.]. Several. Wind changeable. Very cold evening. Freezing all day. Some ice on the edges of the river.

Swans passing to the south. The hunters we sent down the river to hunt have not returned.

The Mandans speak a language peculiar to themselves, very much [blank in MS.]. They can raise about 350 men; the Wetersoons or Mahas, 80; and the Big Bellies, or Minnetarees, about 600 or 650 men. The Mandans and Sioux have the same word for water. The Big Bellies or Minnetarees and Raven [Wetersoon, as also the Crow or Raven] Indians speak nearly the same language, and the presumption is they were originally the same nation. The Raven Indians have 400 lodges and about 1,200 men, and follow the buffalo, or hunt for their subsistence in the plains, and on the Coôte Noire and Rocky Mountains, and are at war with the Sioux and Snake Indians. The Big Bellies and Wetersoons are at war with the Snake Indians and Sioux, and were at war with the Arikaras until we made peace a few days past. The Mandans are at war with all who make war [on them—at present with the Sioux] only, and wish to be at peace with all nations. Seldom the aggressors.

*   *   *

 22nd November, 1804
A fine morning. Dispatched a pirogue and 5 men under the direction of Sergeant Pryor, to the second village, for 100 bushels of corn in ears, which Mr. Jussome let us have. [Did not get more than 30 bushels.] I was alarmed about 10 o'clock by the sentinel, who informed that an Indian was about to kill his wife, in the interpreter's fire [i.e., lodge] about 60 yards below the works. I went down and spoke to the fellow about the rash act he was likely to commit, and forbade any act of the kind near the Fort.

Some misunderstanding took place between this man and his wife, about 8 days ago, and she came to this place, and continued with the squaws of the interpreters. [He might lawfully have killed her for running away.] Two days ago, he returned to the village. In the evening of the same day, she came to the interpreter's fire, apparently much beaten and stabbed in 3 places. We directed that no man of this party have any intercourse with this woman under the penalty of punishment. He, the husband, observed that one of our sergeants slept with his wife, and if he wanted her he would give her to him.

We directed the sergeant (Ordway) to give the man some articles, at which time I told the Indian that I believed not one man of the party had touched his wife except the one he had given the use of her for a night, in his own bed;2 no man of the party should touch his squaw, or the wife of any Indian, nor did I believe they touched a woman if they knew her to be the wife of another man, and advised him to take his squaw home and live happily togetherin future. At this time the grand chief of the nation arrived, and lectured him, and they both went off, apparently dissatisfied.

*   *   *

 30th of November, 1804
This morning at 8 o'clock, an Indian called from the other side, and informed that he had something of consequence to communicate. We sent a pirogue for him, and he informed us as follows: "Five men of the Mandan nation, out hunting in a S.W. direction about eight leagues, were surprised by a large party of Sioux and Pawnees. One man was killed and two wounded with arrows, and 9 horses taken; 4 of the Wetersoon nation were missing, and they expected to be attacked by the Sioux, &c." We thought it well to show a disposition to aid and assist them against their enemies, particularly those who came in opposition to our councils. And I determined to go to the town with some men and, if the Sioux were coming to attack the nation, to collect the warriors from each village and meet them. Those ideas were also those of Captain Lewis.

I crossed the river in about an hour after the arrival of the Indian express with 23 men including the interpreters, and flanked the town and came up on the back part. The Indians, not expecting to receive such strong aid in so short a time, were much surprised, and a little alarmed at the formidable appearance of my party. The principal chiefs met me some distance from the town (say 200 yards) and invited me in to town. I ordered my party into different lodges, &c. I explained to the nation the cause of my coming in this formidable manner to their town was to assist and chastise the enemies of our dutiful children. I requested the grand chief to repeat the circumstances as they happened, which he did, as was mentioned by the express in the morning.

I then informed them that if they would assemble their warriors and those of the different towns, I would go to meet the army of Sioux, &c., and chastise them for taking the blood of our dutiful children, &c. After a conversation of a few minutes among themselves, one chief—The Big Man, a Cheyenne—said they now saw that what we had told them was the truth: that when we expected the enemies of their nation were coming to attack them, or had spilled their blood, we were ready to protect them, and kill those who would not listen to our good talk. His people had listened to what we had told them, and fearlessly went out to hunt in small parties believing themselves to be safe from the other nations, and were killed by the Pawnees and Sioux.

"I knew," said he, "that the Pawnees were liars, and told the old chief who came with you (to confirm a peace with us) that his people were liars and bad men, and that we killed them like the buffalo—when we pleased. We had made peace several times and your nation has always commenced the war. We do not want to kill you, and will not suffer you to kill us or steal our horses. We will make peace with you as our two fathers have directed, and they shall see that we will not be the aggressors. But we fear the Arikaras will not be at peace long. My father, those are the words I spoke to the Arikaras in your presence. You see they have not opened their ears to your good counsels, but have spilled our blood.

"Two Arikaras, whom we sent home this day, for fear of our people's killing them in their grief, informed us when they came here several days ago, that two towns of the Arikaras were making their moccasins, and that we had best take care of our horses, &c. Numbers of Sioux were in their towns and, they believed, not well disposed toward us. Four of the Wetersoons are now absent. They were to have been back in 16 days; they have been out 24. We fear they have fallen. My father, the snow is deep and it is cold. Our horses cannot travel through the plains. Those people who have spilt our blood have gone back. If you will go with us in the spring after the snow goes off, we will raise the warriors of all the towns and nations around about us, and go with you."

I told this nation that we should be always willing and ready to defend them from the insults of any nation who would dare to come to do them injury, during the time we remained in their neighborhood, and requested that they would inform us of any party who might at any time be discovered by their patrols or scouts. I was sorry that the snow in the plains had fallen so deep since the murder of the young chief by the Sioux as prevented their horses from traveling. I wished to meet those Sioux and all others who will not open their ears, but make war on our dutiful children, and let you see that the warriors of your Great Father will chastise the enemies of his dutiful children the Mandans, Wetersoons, and Minnetarees, who have opened their ears to his advice. You say that the Pawnees or Arikaras were with the Sioux. Some bad men may have been with the Sioux. You know there are bad men in all nations. Do not get mad with the Arikaras until we know if those bad men are countenanced by their nation, and we are convinced those people do not intend to follow our counsels. You know that the Sioux have great influence over the Arikaras, and perhaps have led some of them astray. You know that the Arikaras are dependent on the Sioux for their guns, powder, and ball; and it was policy in them to keep on as good terms as possible with the Sioux until they had some other means of getting those articles, &c. You know yourselves that you are compelled to put up with little insults from the Crees and Assiniboines (or Stone Indians) because if you go to war with those people, they will prevent the traders in the north from bringing you guns, powder, and ball, and by that means distress you very much. But when you will have certain supplies from your Great American Father of all those articles, you will not suffer any nation to insult you, &c.

After about two hours' conversation on various subjects, all of which tended toward their situation, &c., I informed them I should return to the Fort. The chief said they all thanked me very much for the fatherly protection which I showed toward them; that the village had been crying all the night and day for the death of the brave young man who fell, but now they would wipe away their tears and rejoice in their father's protection, and cry no more.

I then paraded and crossed the river on the ice, and came down on the north side. The snow so deep, it was very fatiguing. Arrived at the Fort after night, gave a little taffee3 [dram] to my party. A cold night. The river rose to its former height. The chief frequently thanked me for coming to protect them; and the whole village appeared thankful for that measure.

 1st of December, 1804
Wind from the N.W. All hands engaged in getting pickets, &c. At 10 o'clock, the half-brother of the man who was killed came and informed us that, after my departure last night, six Chiens [Cheyennes]—so called by the French—or Sharha Indians, had arrived with a pipe, and said that their nation was at one day's march and intended to come and trade, &c. Three Pawnees had also arrived from the nation. Their nation was then within 3 days' march, and were coming on to trade with us. Three Pawnees accompanied these Cheyennes. The Mandans call all Arikaras Pawnees; they don't use the name of Arikaras, but the Arikaras call themselves Arikaras. The Mandans apprehended danger from the Sharhas, as they were at peace with the Sioux; and wished to kill them and the Arikaras (or Pawnees), but the chiefs informed the nation it was our wish that they should not be hurt and forbid their being killed, &c. We gave a little tobacco, &c., and this man departed, well satisfied with our counsels and advice to him.

In the evening a Mr. G. Henderson arrived, in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company, sent to trade with the Gros Ventres, or Big Bellies, so called by the French traders.

*   *   *

 7th of December, 1804
A very cold day. Wind from the N.W. The Big White, grand chief of the first village, came and informed us that a large drove of buffalo was near, and his people were waiting for us to join them in a chase. Captain Lewis took 15 men and went out and joined the Indians who were, at the time he got up, killing the buffalo, on horseback with arrows, clothed. This man was not in the least injured. Customs, and the habits of those people, have inured them to bear more cold than I thought it possible for man to endure. Sent out 3 men to hunt elk, below, about 7 miles.

 13th of January, 1805
A cold, clear day. Great numbers of Indians move down the river to hunt. Those people kill a number of buffalo near their villages and save a great proportion of the meat. Their custom of making [sharing] this article of life general leaves them more than half of their time without meat. Their corn and beans, &c., they keep for the summer, and as a reserve in case of an attack from the Sioux, of which they are always in dread, and seldom go far to hunt except in large parties. About 1/2 the Mandan nation passed today, to hunt on the river below. They will stay out some days. Mr. Charbonneau, our interpreter, and one man who accompanied him to some lodges of the Minnetarees near the Turtle Hill, returned, both frozen in their faces. Charbonneau informs me that the clerk of the Hudson's Bay Company, with the Minnetarees, has been speaking some few expressions unfavorable toward us, and that it is said the N.W. Company intends building a fort at the Minnetarees. He saw the Grand Chief of the Big Bellies, who spoke slightingly of the Americans, saying if we would give our great flag to him he would come to see us.

*   *   *

 Fort Mandan, April 7th, 1805
Having on this day at 4 p.m. completed every arrangement necessary for our departure, we dismissed the barge and crew, with orders to return without loss of time to St. Louis. A small canoe with two French hunters accompanied the barge. These men had ascended the Missouri with us the last year as engagés. The barge crew consisted of six soldiers and two [blank space in MS.] Frenchmen. Two Frenchmen and an Arikara Indian also take their passage in her as far as the Arikara villages, at which place we expect Mr. Tabeau to embark, with his peltry, who, in that case, will make an addition of two, perhaps four, men to the crew of the barge.

We gave Richard Warfington, a discharged corporal, the charge of the barge and crew, and confided to this care likewise our dispatches to the government, letters to our private friends, and a number of articles to the President of the United States. One of the Frenchmen, by the name of Joseph Gravelines, an honest, discreet man, and an excellent boatman, is employed to conduct the barge as a pilot. We have therefore every hope that the barge and, with her, our dispatches will arrive safe at St. Louis. Mr. Gravelines, who speaks the Arikara language extremely well, has been employed to conduct a few of the Arikara chiefs to the seat of government, who have promised us to descend in the barge to St. Louis with that view.

At the same moment that the barge departed from Fort Mandan, Captain Clark embarked with our party and proceeded up the river. As I had used no exercise for several weeks, I determined to walk on shore as far as our encampment of this evening. Accordingly I continued my walk on the north side of the river about six miles, to the upper village of the Mandans, and called on The Black Cat, or Posecopsehá, the Great Chief of the Mandans. He was not at home. I rested myself a few minutes and, finding that the party had not arrived, I returned about two miles and joined them at their encampment on the N. side of the river opposite the lower Mandan village.

*   *   *

Our party now consisted of the following individuals:

Sergeants: John Ordway
Nathaniel Pryor
Patrick Gass
Privates: William Bratton
John Colter
Reuben Fields
Joseph Fields
John Shields
George Gibson
George Shannon
John Potts
John Collins
Joseph Whitehouse
Richard Windsor
Alexander Willard
Hugh Hall
Silas Goodrich
Robert Frazer
Peter Cruzat
John Baptiste Lepage
Francis Labiche
Hugh McNeil
William Warner
Thomas P. Howard
Peter Wiser
John B. Thompson

Interpreters: George Drouilliard and Toussaint Charbonneau; also a black man by the name of York, servant to Captain Clark; an Indian woman, wife to Charbonneau, with a young child; and a Mandan man who had promised us to accompany us as far as the Snake Indians, with a view to bring about a good understanding and friendly intercourse between that nation and his own, the Minnetarees and Amahamis.

Our vessels consisted of six small canoes and two large pirogues. This little fleet, although not quite so respectable as that of Columbus or Captain Cook, was still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs, and, I daresay, with quite as much anxiety for their safety and preservation. We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trod. The good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessels contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves. However, as the state of mind in which we are, generally gives the coloring to events, when the imagination is suffered to wander into futurity, the picture which now presented itself to me was a most pleasing one.

Entertaining as I do the most confident hope of succeeding on a voyage which had formed a darling project of mine for the last ten years, I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life. The party are in excellent health and spirits, zealously attached to the enterprise, and anxious to proceed. Not a whisper or murmur of discontent to be heard among them, but all act in unison and with the most perfectharmony.

*   *   *

1. "Mr. Charbonneau" was Toussaint Charbonneau, husband of Sacagawea, and of another Shoshone girl as well. [Footnote from Bakeless edition—Ed.] (Return to text)
2. Among these Indians, a husband had the right to give (or sell) his wife's favors to anyone he pleased. Surreptitious adultery was an offense, which the husband might punish, practically as he pleased. But a woman who yielded to another at her husband's order was merely doing her duty as a wife. [Footnote from Bakeless edition—Ed.] (Return to text)
3. A local rum. [Footnote from Bakeless edition—Ed.] (Return to text)
[From John Bakeless, ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark, (New York: Mentor Books, 1964), pp. 98–127. This is a heavily edited, including modern spelling and grammar, version of the Reuben G. Thwaites edition. [Editorial insertions that appear in square brackets are from the Bakeless edition—Ed.]]