Native Peoples

Drawing of Lewis and Clark conferring with Native Americans

The Lewis and Clark Expedition set out with several goals when it left the St. Louis area in 1804. One of these was to conduct diplomacy with and gather information about the various nations of Indians they would encounter on their journey. During the course of the expedition, contact was made with at least 55 different native cultural groups. Other groups, such as the Crow (Absaroke), almost certainly saw the explorers without the explorers ever seeing them. Some groups were encountered only through individual members, while others were met with in formal councils. Still others participated in the expedition by literally saving its members from starving and losing their way as they crossed the continent. Some, like the Lakota and Blackfeet, had hostile encounters with the Corps, while others, like the Mandan, Hidatsa and Nez Perce, forged friendships and alliances whose written descriptions in the journals still resonate with good will after 200 years. Lastly, the expedition itself was staffed with at least six people who were all or part Indian. George Droulliard, one of the most essential members of the Corps, was half Shawnee, while Pierre Cruzatte and Francois Labiche were half Omaha. Although little is known of Jean Baptiste Lepage, he was also almost certainly part Indian, as were most of the French engages who helped pole and haul the boats up the Missouri in 1804. Lastly, Sacagawea and her baby boy Jean Baptiste, Lemhi Shoshone by birth and Hidatsa by adoption and clan, added important insights into Indian cultures and the comprehension of Native American humanity, humor and devotion to creator and family that the expedition members might never have understood otherwise.

From the outset of the expedition, the mission of the Corps of Discovery in regard to Indian peoples was of paramount importance. President Jefferson "sold" the idea to Congress on the strength of this part of the mission, and in his instructions to Meriwether Lewis of June 20, 1803, wrote:

"The commerce which may be carried on with the people inhabiting the line you will pursue, renders a knolege of those people important. You will therefore endeavor to make yourself acquainted, as far as a diligent pursuit of your journey shall admit, with the names of the nations & their numbers;

the extent & limits of their possessions;
their relations with other tribes of nations;
their language, traditions, monuments;
their ordinary occupations in agriculture, fishing, hunting, war, arts,& the implements for these;
their food, clothing, & domestic accomodations;
the diseases prevalent among them, & the remedies they use;
moral & physical circumstances which distinguish them from the tribes we know;
peculiarities in their laws, customs & dispositions;
and articles of commerce they may need or furnish, & to what extent.

"And, considering the interest which every nation has in extending & strengthening the authority of reason & justice among the people around them, it will be useful to acquire what knolege you can of the state of morality, religion, & information among them; as it may better enable those who may endeavor to civilize & instruct them, to adapt their measures to the existing notions & practices of those on whom they are to operate. . .

"In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of it's innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the U.S.[,] of our wish to be neighborly, friendly & useful to them, & of our dispositions to a commercial intercourse with them; confer with them on the points most convenient as mutual emporiums, and the articles of most desireable interchange for them & us. If a few of their influential chiefs, within practicable distance, wish to visit us, arrange such a visit with them and furnish them with authority to call on our officers, on their entering the U.S. to have them conveyed to this place at the public expence. If any of them should wish to have some of their young people brought up with us, & taught such arts as may be useful to them, we will receive, instruct & take care of them. Such a mission, whether of influential chiefs, or of young people, would give some security to your own party. Carry with you some matter of the kinepox; inform those of them with whom you may be, of it's efficacy as a preservative from the smallpox; & instruct & encourage them in the use of it. This may be especially done wherever you winter.

"As it is impossible for us to foresee in what manner you will be recieved by those people, whether with hospitality or hostility, so is it impossible to prescribe the exact degree of perseverance with which you are to pursue your journey. We value too much the lives of citizens to offer them to probable destruction. Your numbers will be sufficient to secure you against the unauthorised opposition of individuals or of small parties: but if a superior force, authorised, or not authorised, by a nation, should be arrayed against your further passage, and inflexibly determined to arrest it, you must decline it's farther pursuit, and return. In the loss of yourselves, we should lose also the information you will have acquired. By returning safely with that, you may enable us to renew the essay with better calculated means. To your own discretion therefore must be left the degree of danger you may risk, and the point at which you should decline, only saying we wish you to err on the side of your safety, and to bring back your party safe even if it be with less information."

In order to negotiate intelligently with the Indian tribes and their leaders along the route, Lewis received a "crash course" in diplomacy and about the known Indian cultural groups from Dr. Benjamin Rush and others in Philadelphia. Lewis also knew that gift giving and trade were important parts of most known Indian cultures, and that he would have to have trade goods along for diplomacy and for acquiring needed goods and food along the route (most tribal people didn't accept cash in 1804)!

In addition, Lewis brought along peace medals. Produced by the U.S. Government in silver for presentation to Native American chiefs, peace medals are a fascinating yet little-known aspect of American history. They were an integral part of the government's relations with Native Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the time, these medals represented a covenant between nations, and were valued equally by tribal people who had had contact with Euro-Americans and by the governments of Britain, Spain, France and the United States, each of which issued them. Lewis and Clark took along three large medals with an image of President Jefferson on them, 13 middle sized Jefferson medals, 16 small Jefferson medals, and 55 of the "season medals" struck during the presidency of George Washington. The season medals were smaller in size than the smallest Jefferson medal. Although Lewis and Clark were faithful about writing in their journals, they rarely recorded the size and type of each medal specifically enough for us to be sure exactly which medals were given out on which days to which tribes. They stated in their journals that they gave out all the medals they brought along except one large Jefferson medal. On May 11, 1806, Lewis noted: "Those with the likeness of Mr. Jefferson have all been disposed of except one of the largest size which we reserve for some great Chief on the Yellow rock river." Clark did not encounter any Indians along the Yellowstone, and this medal may have returned to St. Louis with the party


Last updated: April 10, 2015

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