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Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

Ambrose, Stephen E. | Touchstone, 1996


pp. 161 - 162

Lewis and Clark, moving north on and alongside the Mississippi River, entered Sioux Country near today’s Yankton, S.D. Jefferson had warned Lewis that the Sioux had turned back previous white men trying to enter their territory. But Lewis was determined. He met with a few of the Yanktons and invited them to a council. The explorers noted that the plains nearby were thick with game. The Yanktons entered the council in “full regalia” and cooked “a fat dog” for their visitors. The white men, too, wore their dress uniforms and ran up the flag. Lewis gave his standard Indian Speech about the Indians’ new great white father in the East and about how if they only did what he said they would prosper through new trade options and in other ways. “When [Lewis] finished, the chiefs said they would respond in the morning—obviously they would need time to confer on this business of accepting a new father and becoming part of a new trade system. Lewis recognized that patience was not just a virtue in dealing with Indians, it was a necessity, and handed out medals to five chiefs. He pronounced a chief named Weuche the first chief—by what authority, on what basis, cannot be said—and gave him a red-laced military coat, a military cocked hat, and an American flag.

Lewis did all this with the utmost seriousness. It never occurred to him that his actions might be characterized as patronizing, dictatorial, ridiculous, and highly dangerous. . . To make one chief the big chief was to meddle in intertribal politics about which he knew nothing. In general, it would be impossible to say which side was more ignorant of the other.”

p. 178

Lewis and Clark often encountered various tribes in an area that had a complex history with each other. For example, in the Fall of 1804 in what is now northern South Dakota, they entered an area dominated by the Arikara Mandan and Sioux tribes. Meriwether Lewis believed “that the Arikaras were farmers oppressed by the Sioux. The reality was that the Sioux brought trade goods to exchange for Arikara crops in a mutually beneficial relationship. He knew the Arikaras were at war with the Mandans. He believed that [the Mandans] were the key to American diplomatic endeavors on the Missouri, because in Lewis’s view, if the Arikaras could be broken away from the Sioux and if they made peace with the Mandans, the whole balance of power on the Missouri would shift. The Sioux would be isolate and frozen out of the coming American trade empire.

James Ronda comments that Lewis and Clark shared ‘a naïve optimism typical of so much Euro-American frontier diplomacy. [They] believed they could easily reshape upper Missouri realities to fit their expectations. . . . [But] to the surprise of the explorer-diplomats, virtually all Indian parties proved resistant to change and suspicious of American motives.’”