Read Chapter IV - Novel Experiences among the Indians of First Across the Continent, free online book, by Noah Brooks, on

About this time (the nineteenth and twentieth of August), the explorers lost by death the only member of their party who did not survive the journey. Floyd River, which flows into the Upper Missouri, in the northwest corner of Iowa, still marks the last resting-place of Sergeant Charles Floyd, who died there of bilious colic and was buried by his comrades near the mouth of the stream. Near here was a quarry of red pipestone, dear to the Indian fancy as a mine of material for their pipes; traces of this deposit still remain. So fond of this red rock were the Indians that when they went there to get the stuff, even lifelong and vindictive enemies declared a truce while they gathered the material, and savage hostile tribes suspended their wars for a time.

On the north side of the Missouri, at a point in what is now known as Clay County, South Dakota, Captains Lewis and Clark, with ten men, turned aside to see a great natural curiosity, known to the Indians as the Hill of Little Devils. The hill is a singular mound in the midst of a flat prairie, three hundred yards long, sixty or seventy yards wide, and about seventy feet high. The top is a smooth level plain. The journal says: -

“The Indians have made it a great article of their superstition: it is called the Mountain of Little People, or Little Spirits; and they believe that it is the abode of little devils, in the human form, of about eighteen inches high, and with remarkably large heads; they are armed with sharp arrows, with which they are very skilful, and are always on the watch to kill those who should have the hardihood to approach their residence. The tradition is, that many have suffered from these little evil spirits, and, among others, three Maha Indians fell a sacrifice to them a few years since. This has inspired all the neighboring nations, Sioux, Mahas, and Ottoes, with such terror, that no consideration could tempt them to visit the hill. We saw none of these wicked little spirits, nor any place for them, except some small holes scattered over the top; we were happy enough to escape their vengeance, though we remained some time on the mound to enjoy the delightful prospect of the plain, which spreads itself out till the eye rests upon the northwest hills at a great distance, and those of the northeast, still farther off, enlivened by large herds of buffalo feeding at a distance.”

The present residents of the region, South Dakota, have preserved the Indian tradition, and Spirit Mound may be seen on modern maps of that country.

Passing on their way up the Missouri, the explorers found several kinds of delicious wild plums and vast quantities of grapes; and here, too, they passed the mouth of the Yankton River, now known as the Dakota, at the mouth of which is the modern city of Yankton, South Dakota. The Yankton-Sioux Indians, numbering about one thousand people, inhabited this part of the country, and near here the white men were met by a large band of these Sioux who had come in at the invitation of Lewis and Clark. The messengers from the white men reported that they had been well received by the Indians, who, as a mark of respect, presented their visitors with “a fat dog, already cooked, of which they partook heartily and found it well-flavored.” From this time, according to the journal, the explorers tasted occasionally of roast dog, and later on they adopted this dish as a regular feature of their bill-of-fare. They do tell us, however, that they had some difficulty in getting used to so novel an article of food.

The Sioux and the white men held a grand council under an oak-tree, from the top of which was flying the American flag. The head chief was presented with a gold-laced uniform of the United States artillery, a cocked hat and red feather. The lesser chiefs were also presented with suitable gifts of lesser value. Various festivities followed the conference. Next day another powwow was held at which the head chief, Weucha, or Shake Hand, said: -

“’I see before me my great father’s two sons. You see me and the rest of our chiefs and warriors. We are very poor; we have neither powder, nor ball, nor knives; and our women and children at the village have no clothes. I wish that, as my brothers have given me a flag and a medal, they would give something to those poor people, or let them stop and trade with the first boat which comes up the river. I will bring the chiefs of the Pawnees and Mahas together, and make peace between them; but it is better that I should do it than my great father’s sons, for they will listen to me more readily. I will also take some chiefs to your country in the spring; but before that time I cannot leave home. I went formerly to the English, and they gave me a medal and some clothes: when I went to the Spaniards they gave me a medal, but nothing to keep it from my skin: but now you give me a medal and clothes. But still we are poor; and I wish, brothers, you would give us something for our squaws.’”

When he sat down, Mahtoree, or White Crane, rose:

“‘I have listened,’ said he, ’to what our father’s words were yesterday; and I am to-day glad to see how you have dressed our old chief. I am a young man, and do not wish to take much; my fathers have made me a chief; I had much sense before, but now I think I have more than ever. What the old chief has declared I will confirm, and do whatever he and you please; but I wish that you would take pity on us, for we are very poor.’

“Another chief, called Pawnawneahpahbe, then said:

“’I am a young man, and know but little; I cannot speak well, but I have listened to what you have told the old chief, and will do whatever you agree.’

“The same sentiments were then repeated by Aweawechache.

“We were surprised,” the journal says, “at finding that the first of these titles means Struck by the Pawnee, and was occasioned by some blow which the chief had received in battle from one of the Pawnee tribe. The second is in English Half Man, which seemed a singular name for a warrior, till it was explained to have its origin, probably, in the modesty of the chief, who, on being told of his exploits, would say, ‘I am no warrior, I am only half a man.’ The other chiefs spoke very little; but after they had finished, one of the warriors delivered a speech, in which he declared he would support them. They promised to make peace with the Ottoes and Missouris, the only nations with whom they are at war. All these harangues concluded by describing the distress of the nation: they begged us to have pity on them; to send them traders; that they wanted powder and ball; and seemed anxious that we should supply them with some of their great father’s milk, the name by which they distinguish ardent spirits. We gave some tobacco to each of the chiefs, and a certificate to two of the warriors who attended the chief We prevailed on M. Durion (interpreter) to remain here, and accompany as many of the Sioux chiefs as he could collect to the seat of government. We also gave his son a flag, some clothes, and provisions, with directions to bring about a peace between the surrounding tribes, and to convey some of their chiefs to see the President.

“The Indians who have just left us are the Yanktons, a tribe of the great nation of Sioux. These Yanktons are about two hundred men in number, and inhabit the Jacques, Des Moines, and Sioux Rivers. In person they are stout, well proportioned, and have a certain air of dignity and boldness. In their dress they differ nothing from the other bands of the nation whom we met afterwards.”

Of the Sioux let us say here, there are many bands, or subdivisions. Some writers make eighteen of these principal branches. But the first importance is given to the Sioux proper, or Dakotas. The name Sioux is one of reproach, given by their enemies, and signifies snake; whereas Dakota means friend or ally. The Lewis and Clark journal says of the Yankton-Sioux: -

“What struck us most was an institution peculiar to them and to the Kite (Crow) Indians further to the westward, from whom it is said to have been copied. It is an association of the most active and brave young men, who are bound to each other by attachment, secured by a vow, never to retreat before any danger, or give way to their enemies. In war they go forward without sheltering themselves behind trees, or aiding their natural valor by any artifice. Their punctilious determination not to be turned from their course became heroic, or ridiculous, a short time since, when the Yanktons were crossing the Missouri on the ice. A hole lay immediately in their course, which might easily have been avoided by going around. This the foremost of the band disdained to do, but went straight forward and was lost. The others would have followed his example, but were forcibly prevented by the rest of the tribe. These young men sit, camp, and dance together, distinct from the rest of the nation; they are generally about thirty or thirty-five years old, and such is the deference paid to courage that their seats in council are superior to those of the chiefs and their persons more respected. But, as may be supposed, such indiscreet bravery will soon diminish the numbers of those who practise it; so that the band is now reduced to four warriors, who were among our visitors. These were the remains of twenty-two who composed the society not long ago; but, in a battle with the Kite (Crow) Indians of the Black Mountains, eighteen of them were killed, and these four were dragged from the field by their companions.”

Just above the site of the city of Yankton, and near what is still known as Bon Homme Island, Captain Clark explored a singular earth formation in a bend of the river. This had all the appearance of an ancient fortification, stretching across the bend and furnished with redoubts and other features of a great fort. In the journal is given a glowing account of the work and an elaborate map of the same. Modern research, however, has proved that this strange arrangement of walls and parapets is only a series of sand ridges formed by the currents of the river and driftings of sand. Many of these so-called earthworks are situated on the west bank of the Upper Missouri, in North Dakota and South Dakota.

A few days later, the party saw a species of animal which they described as “goats,” - very fleet, with short pronged horns inclining backward, and with grayish hair, marked with white on the rump. This creature, however, was the American antelope, then unknown to science, and first described by Lewis and Clark. While visiting a strange dome-shaped mountain, “resembling a cupola,” and now known as “the Tower,” the explorers found the abode of another animal, heretofore unknown to them. “About four acres of ground,” says the journal, “was covered with small holes.” The account continues: “These are the residence of a little animal, called by the French petit chien (little dog), which sit erect near the mouth, and make a whistling noise, but, when alarmed, take refuge in their holes. In order to bring them out we poured into one of the holes five barrels of water without filling it, but we dislodged and caught the owner. After digging down another of the holes for six feet, we found, on running a pole into it, that we had not yet dug half-way to the bottom: we discovered, however, two frogs in the hole, and near it we killed a dark rattlesnake, which had swallowed a small prairie dog. We were also informed, though we never witnessed the fact, that a sort of lizard and a snake live habitually with these animals. The petit chien are justly named, as they resemble a small dog in some particulars, although they have also some points of similarity to the squirrel. The head resembles the squirrel in every respect, except that the ear is shorter; the tail like that of the ground squirrel; the toe nails are long, the fur is fine, and the long hair is gray.”

Great confusion has been caused in the minds of readers on account of there being another burrowing animal, called by Lewis and Clark “the burrowing squirrel,” which resembles the petit chien in some respects. But the little animal described here is now well known as the prairie-dog, - an unfortunate and misleading name. It is in no sense a species of dog. The creature commonly weighs about three pounds, and its note resembles that of a toy-dog. It is a species of marmot; it subsists on grass roots and other vegetable products; its flesh is delicate and, when fat, of good flavor. The writer of these lines, when crossing the great plains, in early times, found the “prairie-dogs” excellent eating, but difficult to kill; they are expert at diving into their holes at the slightest signal of danger.

The following days they saw large herds of buffalo, and the copses of timber appeared to contain elk and deer, “just below Cedar Island,” adds the journal, “on a hill to the south, is the backbone of a fish, forty-five feet long, tapering towards the tail, and in a perfect state of petrifaction, fragments of which were collected and sent to Washington.” This was not a fish, but the fossil remains of a reptile of one of the earliest geological periods. Here, too, the party saw immense herds of buffalo, thousands in number, some of which they killed for their meat and skins. They also saw elk, deer, turkeys, grouse, beaver, and prairie-dogs. The journal bitterly complains of the “moschetoes,” which were very troublesome. As mosquitoes we now know them.

Oddly enough, the journal sometimes speaks of goats and sometimes of antelopes, and the same animal is described in both instances. Here is a good story of the fleetness of the beautiful creature: -

“Of all the animals we had seen, the antelope seems to possess the most wonderful fleetness. Shy and timorous, they generally repose only on the ridges, which command a view of all the approaches of an enemy: the acuteness of their sight distinguishes the most distant danger; the delicate sensibility of their smell defeats the precautions of concealment; and, when alarmed, their rapid career seems more like the flight of birds than the movements of a quadruped. After many unsuccessful attempts, Captain Lewis at last, by winding around the ridges, approached a party of seven, which were on an eminence towards which the wind was unfortunately blowing. The only male of the party frequently encircled the summit of the hill, as if to announce any danger to the females, which formed a group at the top. Although they did not see Captain Lewis, the smell alarmed them, and they fled when he was at the distance of two hundred yards: he immediately ran to the spot where they had been; a ravine concealed them from him; but the next moment they appeared on a second ridge, at the distance of three miles. He doubted whether they could be the same; but their number, and the extreme rapidity with which they continued their course, convinced him that they must have gone with a speed equal to that of the most distinguished race-horse. Among our acquisitions to-day were a mule-deer, a magpie, a common deer, and buffalo: Captain Lewis also saw a hare, and killed a rattlesnake near the burrows of the barking squirrels.”

By “barking squirrels” the reader must understand that the animal better known as the prairie-dog is meant; and the mule-deer, as the explorers called it, was not a hybrid, but a deer with very long ears, better known afterwards as the black-tailed deer.

At the Big Bend of the Missouri, in the heart of what is now South Dakota, while camped on a sand-bar, the explorers had a startling experience. “Shortly after midnight,” says the journal, “the sleepers were startled by the sergeant on guard crying out that the sand-bar was sinking, and the alarm was timely given; for scarcely had they got off with the boats before the bank under which they had been lying fell in; and by the time the opposite shore was reached, the ground on which they had been encamped sunk also. A man who was sent to step off the distance across the head of the bend, made it but two thousand yards, while its circuit is thirty miles.”

The next day, three Sioux boys swam the river and told them that two parties of their nation, one of eighty lodges, and one of sixty lodges, were camped up the river, waiting to have a palaver with the white explorers. These were Teton Sioux, and the river named for them still bears that title.