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8.4-8.5.5 Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition

Describes a tense confrontation between members of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Sioux (Teton Sioux, or Lakota), along the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota.
Lewis, Meriwether & Clark

September 25, 1804 and September 26, 1804 entries, University of Nebraska Press/University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries-Electronic Text Center, The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition,

In the fall of 1804, as the Lewis & Clark Expedition traveled up the Missouri River, they had a tense encounter with the Teton Sioux (also called the Lakota) in present-day South Dakota. The Lakota sought to control, and to profit from, trade and traffic along the Missouri River through their territory. Lewis and Clark knew that the cooperation of all the Sioux would be vital to future trade between Americans and Indians farther up the Missouri River — which was one of the long-term goals of their expedition.


Lewis and Clark and their men did not speak the Lakota language, so they had to communicate with simple phrases and sign language. The Indians were unimpressed with the gifts that Lewis and Clark distributed. Next, the Americans offered the assembled Lakota a tour of their boats and a display of their various weapons. Then, aboard their large keelboat, Clark gave the Sioux leaders shots of whiskey. One of the younger Native leaders, whom Lewis and Clark called The Partisan, pretended to be drunk and became argumentative. After Clark transported the Indians back to shore, The Partisan tried to seize one of Lewis and Clark’s smaller boats (a pirogue, or large canoe), and demanded more gifts before the Americans be allowed to proceed upriver. When both sides were ready to fire upon one another — the Lakota with their bows and arrows, the Americans with their guns — the quick, cool-headed intervention of the senior chief, Black Buffalo, defused the situation. 


From what you read here, what events/factors led to this tense standoff?

Why did this situation nearly result in a bloody battle?

What do you think this episode shows about Lewis and Clark’s relations with Native Americans? What did each side have to gain — or lose — in initial encounters such as this, when the Americans met unfamiliar Indian tribes for the first time?


When the Lewis & Clark Expedition met the Teton Sioux in the fall of 1804, the Americans prepared their usual council with Native leaders, and positioned their keelboat offshore with its large “swivel gun” pointing defensively toward land. One major flaw with this meeting was a lack of good communication between the two sides. Lewis and Clark soon discovered that none of the men in their party knew passable Lakota. This problem complicated their efforts at diplomacy. Instead of Lewis giving his usual “Indian speech” proclaiming US sovereignty over the land and asking for peaceful coexistence, the Americans were only able to communicate in short phrases and sign language. 


After the tense standoff described in the excerpt, the quick thinking of the senior chief, Black Buffalo, defused a potentially deadly episode. He seized the bowline from The Partisan — a hot-headed younger Indian leader eager to prove himself and dispute Black Buffalo’s leadership — and separated the angry men. Likely, Black Buffalo understood the value of amicable relations with the Americans and the negative consequences of a bloody skirmish. The stakes for both sides were high. With one volley of gunshots from the Americans and the death of Lakota warriors — or Lewis and Clark being killed or incapacitated — the expedition could have been turned back, forced to retreat downriver. 


The next day, September 26, the Lakota tried to smooth over relations by inviting the Americans to their nearby village for a formal council and a dance. Clark’s journal records the formalities that took place: the Americans and Indian leaders smoked a “pipe of peace” and enjoyed a feast including “Some of the most Delicate parts of the Dog,” followed by a dance, in which musicians played tambourines and costumed women danced a “war Dance . . . with Great Chearfullness.”


This was the most fraught encounter with Native Americans of the entire Lewis & Clark Expedition, with one exception. In July 1806, as Lewis and a party of the Corps of Discovery returned eastward through Montana, they killed two Blackfeet warriors who were attempting to steal the Americans’ guns. Perhaps what is most notable here is how peaceful, overall, relations between Lewis and Clark and Native Americans remained during the two-year expedition. The Americans sought to assert their presence in — and sovereignty over — Indian country. For their part, Native Americans still possessed significant power and were trying to calibrate their position vis-à-vis the newcomers and their traditional allies and foes.


William Clark, September 25, 1804
a fair Morning the wind from the S. E. raised a Flagg Staff and formed an [awning] & Shade on a Sand bar in the Mouth of Teton R [or Bad River] to Council under, the greater portion of the party to Continue on board— about 11 oClock the 1st & 2d Chief arrived, we gave them to eat; they gave us Some meat, (we discover our interpeter do not Speak the language well) at 12 oClock the Councill Commenced & after Smokeing agreeable to the usial custom [Lewis] Delivered a written Speech to them… all party Paraded, gave a Medal to the grand Chief[s] ... we invited those Chiefs & a Soldier on board our boat, and Showed them many Curiossites, which they were much Surprised, we gave they ½ a wine glass of whiskey [then] they took up an empty bottle, [smelled] it, and… Soon began to be troublesom[,] the 2d Chief [The Partisan] effecting Drunkness as a Cloak for his vilenous intintious (as I found after wards,)[.]
as Soon as I landed 3 of their young men [seized] the Cable of the Perogue, one Soldiar [hugged] the mast… and the 2d Chief was exceedingly insolent both in words and justures to me declareing I Should no go off, Saying he had not recived presents Suffient from us— I attempted to passify 〈him〉 but it had a contrary effect for his insults became So personal and his intentions evident to do me injurey, I Drew my Sword and ordered all hands under arms [,] at this motion [Captain Lewis] ordered all in the boat under arms, the fiew men that was with me haveing previously taken up their guns with a full deturmination to defend me if possible— The grand Chief [Black Buffalo] then took hold of the Cable & Sent all the young men off, the Soldier got out of the perogue and the 2nd Chief walked off to the Party at about 20 yards back, all of which had their bows Strung & guns Cocked— ...I again offered my hand to the 1st Chief who refused it— (all this time the Indians were pointing their arrows blank)— I proceeded to the perogue and pushed off and had not proceeded far before the 1st & 3r Chief & 2 principal men walked into the water and requested to go on board, I took them in and we proceeded on abot a Mile, and anchored near a Small Island, I call this Island Bad humered [humored] Island as we were in a bad [humor].