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Historical Background

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Lewis and Clark
Historical Background

August 2 - August 17 1804

The first Indian council

At sunset on August 2 a party of Otos and a few Missouris as well as a trader named "Mr. Fairfong"—minus La Liberté—arrived at camp. Six were chiefs, but not principal chiefs. The two captains, exchanging gifts with them, asked them and other representatives of their tribes to attend a council the next day. The expedition was also put on the alert, for it was learned that the Otos and Missouris numbered about 250 men, about a third of whom were Missouris.

The council began right after breakfast under an awning formed by a sail. First came a "parade" by the soldiers, equipped with all their weaponry, that was probably designed to demonstrate U.S. military prowess. Lewis, or possibly Clark, then delivered a long speech explaining the changes in government of the area from Spain to France to the United States, of which the Indians probably understood little; describing the desire of the new Great White Father to learn more about his Indian children and how he could best cultivate their friendship and protect them; stressing his desire for peace among the various tribes; advising the Otos and Missouris on how to conduct themselves; and explaining the purpose of the expedition.

The chiefs, in their speeches, approved the sentiments that had been expounded, promised to pursue the advice proferred, and expressed happiness to find that they could rely on the Great Father. The peace pipe was smoked. The captains distributed gifts, including flags, medals, clothing, ammunition, and a bottle of whisky. The principal chiefs, including those who were absent, were awarded printed certificates from the U.S. Government in which Lewis and Clark had filled in the names of the chiefs and tribes. These certificates attested to their status as leaders and guaranteed their protection by the United States, whose sovereignty over them was affirmed. The Indians were intrigued with Lewis' demonstration of his air gun.

THIS council set the pattern for many more that were to follow all the way to the Pacific and back. They all usually were amicable; included a parade; speeches by Lewis or Clark and the chiefs; smoking the pipe; awarding of medals and certificates to the Indians; the exchanging of gifts; and, to awe the natives, a technological display, involving such items as the air gun, magnet, spyglass, compass, and watch. The outstanding characteristic of these councils was the sincere recognition accorded by Lewis and Clark to the dignity of the Indians—a trait that was to be sorely lacking on the part of many later U.S. officials.

Desertion of La Liberté and Reed

On August 3, upon the conclusion of the council with the Otos and Missouris, the expedition pushed on upriver. En route the next day, Private Reed received permission to return to the last camp to find his knife, which he said he had left behind. This was likely a pretext, for it soon became apparent he had deserted—a cardinal offense. Still missing, too, was La Liberté, who had never come back from his mission to the Otos.

On August 7, by which time neither had reappeared, Lewis dispatched Drouillard, Reuben Field, Bratton, and Labiche to the Oto villages to apprehend them. Drouillard had authority to kill Reed if he did not return peaceably. He also was to invite some of the Oto chiefs to accompany the expedition in the hope that Lewis and Clark might help them make peace with the Sioux and Omahas. The latter, who lived just north of the Otos, had long plundered or levied tribute on Spanish and French traders from St. Louis and were considered to be treacherous.

Blackbird Hill
Blackbird Hill in 1832, when it was still a landmark and the river bluffs and surrounding scenery had changed little from the days of Lewis and Clark. Chief Blackbird's grave marker may be seen on top of the hill, which is now obscured by dense brush and timber. The river has also moved a couple of miles to the east. (Oil by Catlin. Smithsonian Institution.)

Visiting Chief Blackbird's grave

The main body continued slowly onward. But it saw scant trace of the Omahas, who had been decimated by a smallpox epidemic in 1800 and their population reduced from about 700 to 300. On the 11th, however, Lewis and Clark and 10 men visited the grave of the notorious Omaha Chief Blackbird. On a high bluff along the river near present Macy, Nebr., it afforded a view of the wandering Missouri for 60 to 70 miles. The chief, feared by all the tribes in the area, had won ascendancy over them by his possession of arsenic, which he had apparently looted or obtained in tribute from the traders and used to threaten his enemies.

When Blackbird had died in the 1800 epidemic, his followers buried him, according to his wishes, sitting erect on a horse on top of a high hill overlooking the Missouri so that he might "watch" the traders as they ascended it. His grave was marked by a turfed mound of earth about 12 feet in diameter and 6 feet high on the top center of which was an 8-foot-high pole, to which were attached all the scalps the chief had taken. The visitors affixed to it a white flag bound with red, white, and blue.

As the main body moved forward, search parties were unable to contact the Omahas but found some traces of Sioux camps. Lewis and Clark set the prairie on fire, the usual signal, to lure any members of either tribe who were near, but none responded.

Last Updated: 22-Feb-2004