Thomas Jefferson gave Captain Meriwether Lewis these instructions regarding the Indians the expedition would encounter:
"You will endeavor to make yourself acquainted as far as a diligent pursuit of your journey shall admit, with names of the nation & their number."
The leaders of the Corps of Discovery were thus tasked as ethnographers, entrusted with preparing the ground for the traders and trappers who would follow. However the president was also fully aware that conflict was possible, and reminded Lewis that his chief responsibility was to bring the mission back safely, and not risk its destruction.
Jefferson gave instructions regarding one tribe only, the Teton Sioux, whom we know as the Lakota:
"On that nation we wish most particularly to make a favorable impression, because of their immense power . . .(the Sioux) are desirous of being on the most friendly terms with us. . ."
Jefferson had heard the stories of the Teton Sioux’s great power. Able to line both sides of the river with warriors armed with bows and trade muskets, they were able to virtually halt French and Spanish traders on the river unless the proper “toll” was paid.
By the end of August 1804, the Corps of discovery sailed, rowed, poled and dragged their little flotilla up the Missouri River. The Corps met with many Indian tribes: the Omaha and Otoes, the Kansas and Yankton Sioux. Each meeting seemed to take on the same form. The men of the Corps would dress in their finest uniforms and parade under the American flag. The Captains would honor the local leaders and promise what would come-trade goods and the protection of the United States. All that was asked was peaceful relations as white flooded across their hunting lands (oops, that’s me being cynical.)
Then the Corps would show off their power-musket displays, Lewis would fire his air rifle, they would demonstrate burning glasses, and fire the keelboat’s swivel. Finally the Corps would offer presents of tobacco, kettles, peace medals, and flags, occasionally a little whiskey, while the Indians pleaded their poverty.
In what is now Cedar County, Nebraska on August 30, 1804, they met with the Yankton Sioux, and Ar Ca We Char Che, a chief among this tribe, spoke of the other Sioux bands, they could be persuaded to peace:
"But I fear those nations above [upriver] will not open their ears, and you cannot I fear open them . . ."
The Corps’ encounter with the Lakota began on September 23rd near the present location of Pierre, S.D. Two small boys brought word to the captains that about 80 lodges were located a short distance up river. The following day began inauspiciously when Pvt. John Colter brought word that a band of Sioux had stolen one of the two horses used by the expedition. This word arrived as Lewis and Clark prepared to meet with the Sioux leaders. They sent word to the Sioux that this meeting would not occur until the horse was returned. A Sioux leader, Buffalo Medicine, invoking the rule of plausible deniability, knew nothing about the horse.
The crisis broke the next day. Lewis and Clark were visited by the Sioux leaders where they offered them whiskey and other presents. Clark stated that they also showed ‘many curiosities.” The Sioux became “troublesome” as they either became drunk or feigned drunkenness and demanded more presents. Both banks of the Missouri were crowded with Sioux, including many warriors. The captains refused further gifts and took the Sioux leaders, Black Buffalo and the Partisan to shore in a pirogue. Clark, with only a small escort, was quickly surrounded, and Black Buffalo took hold of the pirogue’s painter rope. Clark wrote:
"Stateing he hand not recved presents Sufficient from us, his justures were of Such a personal nature I feldt my Self Compelled to Draw my Sword, [NB: and made a Signal to the boat to prepar for action] at this motion Capt. Lewis ordered all under arms in the boat, those with me also Showed a Disposition to Defend themselves and me, the grand Chief then took hold of the roop & ordered the young warrers away, I felt my Self warm and Spoke in verry positive terms."
Black Buffalo finally did avoid a disastrous conflict, but the following two days of contact between the Sioux and the Corps were surrounded by mutual distrust and enmity. On the 28th, they attempted to take their leave, but found themselves surrounded by 200-300 warriors whose leaders demanded more presents. With considerable chest thumping by both sides the three vessels finally made their way upriver toward the Mandan villages, near today’s Bismarck, N.D.
The conflict with the Sioux did not end there. On February 14th Lewis sent four men with two horses and sleighs out into the frigid weather to bring in meat cached by hunters. They were surrounded by 106 Sioux warriors that took their horses. The next day Clark took a party of twelve men on foot in pursuit of the Sioux. However, with their day’s head start, Clark had little hope of catching them. Instead he found the place where the meat was burned. The party returned on the 21st with two sleighs of meat, but the pursuit was fruitless.
A week later a French trader made his way to Fort Mandan with word that the Sioux threatened war against the Mandan and the Arikara, whom the Corps had visited earlier. Sgt. John Ordway wrote in his journal:
". . .they Say if they catch any more of us they will kill us for they think we are bad medicine and Say that we must be killed . . ."
Though the Corps and the Sioux never did come to serious conflict, their encounters were ever unfriendly. The Sioux viewed the Corps of Discovery as a direct challenge to their pre-eminence over Missouri River traffic. Their promise of extending their protection to other tribes such as the Omahas, the Mandans, Hidatsas and Arikaras threatened their standing as the most powerful tribe on the plains. Though the Corps managed to avoid further conflict with the Sioux on the return journey, the chemistry on the plains was already shaken. The Arikaras were allied with the Lakota and had attacked the Mandans. Previously peacefully disposed toward the whites, the death of their leader while he was visiting Jefferson in Washington D.C. turned them against the Americans. As the Corps raced down the River toward St. Louis and home they passed the Sioux camp. Clark stopped and met with three young warriors on an island near shore:
"This Chief I knew very well to be the one we had seen with his band at Teton river which band had attempted to detain us in the fall of 1804 as we assended this river and with whome we wer near comeing to blows. I told those Indians that they had been deef to our councils and ill treated us as we assended this river two years past, that they had abused all the whites who had visited them since. I believed them to be bad people & Should not Suffer them to cross to the Side on which the party lay, and directed them to return with their band to their Camp, that if any of them come near our camp we Should kill them certainly. . . after we passd. him he returned on the top of the hill and gave 3 Strokes with the gun [NB?: on the earth—this is swearing by the earth] he had in his hand this I am informed is a great oath among the indians"
Though the expedition avoided conflict with the Sioux, it is clear the latter regarded the Corps as the first of many whites who might upset the power structure on the plains, one the Sioux dominated. The subsequent harassment and threats throughout the Mandan winter was a clear indication that the tensions between the Corps and the Sioux were high, and could have erupted into warfare. Despite their caution Lewis and Clark were ready to fight. Ahhh, the makings of a scenario