Read Chapter VI - Winter among the Mandans of First Across the Continent, free online book, by Noah Brooks, on

Before finally selecting the spot on which to build their winter quarters, Lewis and Clark held councils with the chiefs of the tribes who were to be their neighbors during the cold season. These were Mandans, Annahaways, and Minnetarees, tribes living peacefully in the same region of country. The principal Mandan chief was Black Cat; White Buffalo Robe Unfolded represented the Annahaways, and the Minnetaree chief was Black Moccasin. This last-named chief could not come to the council, but was represented by Caltahcota, or Cherry on a Bush. The palaver being over, presents were distributed. The account says: -

“One chief of each town was acknowledged by a gift of a flag, a medal with the likeness of the President of the United States, a uniform coat, hat and feather. To the second chiefs we gave a medal representing some domestic animals and a loom for weaving; to the third chiefs, medals with the impressions of a farmer sowing grain. A variety of other presents were distributed, but none seemed to give them more satisfaction than an iron corn-mill which we gave to the Mandans. . . .

“In the evening the prairie took fire, either by accident or design, and burned with great fury, the whole plain being enveloped in flames. So rapid was its progress that a man and a woman were burned to death before they could reach a place of safety; another man, with his wife and child, were much burned, and several other persons narrowly escaped destruction. Among the rest, a boy of the half white breed escaped unhurt in the midst of the flames; his safety was ascribed to the great medicine spirit, who had preserved him on account of his being white. But a much more natural cause was the presence of mind of his mother, who, seeing no hopes of carrying off her son, threw him on the ground, and, covering him with the fresh hide of a buffalo, escaped herself from the flames. As soon as the fire had passed, she returned and found him untouched, the skin having prevented the flame from reaching the grass on which he lay.”

Next day, says the journal, -

“We were visited by two persons from the lower village: one, the Big White, the chief of the village; the other, the Chayenne, called the Big Man: they had been hunting, and did not return yesterday early enough to attend the council. At their request we repeated part of our speech of yesterday, and put the medal round the neck of the chief. Captain Clark took a pirogue and went up the river in search of a good wintering-place, and returned after going seven miles to the lower point of an island on the north side, about one mile in length. He found the banks on the north side high, with coal occasionally, and the country fine on all sides; but the want of wood, and the scarcity of game up the river, induced us to decide on fixing ourselves lower down during the winter. In the evening our men danced among themselves, to the great amusement of the Indians.”

It may be said here that the incident of a life saved from fire by a raw-hide, originally related by Lewis and Clark, is the foundation of a great many similar stories of adventures among the Indians. Usually, however, it is a wise and well-seasoned white trapper who saves his life by this device.

Having found a good site for their winter camp, the explorers now built a number of huts, which they called Fort Mandan. The place was on the north bank of the Missouri River, in what is now McLean County, North Dakota, about sixteen hundred miles up the river from St. Louis, and seven or eight miles below the mouth of Big Knife River. On the opposite bank, years later, the United States built a military post known as Fort Clark, which may be found on some of the present-day maps. The huts were built of logs, and were arranged in two rows, four rooms in each hut, the whole number being placed in the form of an angle, with a stockade, or picket, across the two outer ends of the angle, in which was a gate, kept locked at night. The roofs of the huts slanted upward from the inner side of the rows, making the outer side of each hut eighteen feet high; and the lofts of these were made warm and comfortable with dry grass mixed with clay, Here they were continually visited during the winter by Indians from all the region around. Here, too, they secured the services of an interpreter, one Chaboneau, who continued with them to the end. This man’s wife, Sacajawea, whose Indian name was translated “Bird Woman,” had been captured from the Snake Indians and sold to Chaboneau, who married her. She was “a good creature, of a mild and gentle disposition, greatly attached to the whites.” In the expedition she proved herself more valuable to the explorers than her husband, and Lewis and Clark always speak of her in terms of respect and admiration.

It should not be understood that all the interpreters employed by white men on such expeditions wholly knew the spoken language of the tribes among whom they travelled. To some extent they relied upon the universal language of signs to make themselves understood, and this method of talking is known to all sorts and kinds of Indians. Thus, two fingers of the right hand placed astraddle the wrist of the left hand signifies a man on horseback; and the number of men on horseback is quickly added by holding up the requisite number of fingers. Sleep is described by gently inclining the head on the hand, and the number of “sleeps,” or nights, is indicated by the fingers. Killed, or dead, is described by closed eyes and a sudden fall of the head on the talker’s chest; and so on, an easily understood gesture, with a few Indian words, being sufficient to tell a long story very clearly.

Lewis and Clark discovered here a species of ermine before unknown to science. They called it “a weasel, perfectly white except at the extremity of the tail, which was black.” This animal, highly prized on account of its pretty fur, was not scientifically described until as late as 1829. It is a species of stoat.

The wars of some of the Indian tribes gave Lewis and Clark much trouble and uneasiness. The Sioux were at war with the Minnetarees (Gros Ventres, or Big Bellies); and the Assiniboins, who lived further to the north, continually harassed the Sioux and the Mandans, treating these as the latter did the Rickarees. The white chiefs had their hands full all winter while trying to preserve peace among these quarrelsome and thieving tribes, their favorite game being to steal each other’s horses. The Indian method of caring for their horses in the cold winter was to let them shift for themselves during the day, and to take them into their own lodges at night where they were fed with the juicy, brittle twigs of the cottonwood tree. With this spare fodder the animals thrive and keep their coats fine and glossy.

Late in November, a collision between the Sioux and the Mandans became almost certain, in consequence of the Sioux having attacked a small hunting party of the Mandans, killing one, wounding two, and capturing nine horses. Captain Clark mustered and armed twenty-four of his men, crossed over into the Mandan village and offered to lead the Indians against their enemies. The offer was declined on account of the deep snows which prevented a march; but the incident made friends for white men, and the tidings of it had a wholesome effect on the other tribes.

“The whole religion of the Mandans,” like that of many other savage tribes, says the journal, “consists in the belief of one Great Spirit presiding over their destinies. This Being must be in the nature of a good genius, since it is associated with the healing art, and ’great spirit’ is synonymous with ‘great medicine,’ a name applied to everything which they do not comprehend. Each individual selects for himself the particular object of his devotion, which is termed his medicine, and is either some invisible being, or more commonly some animal, which thenceforward becomes his protector or his intercessor with the Great Spirit, to propitiate whom every attention is lavished and every personal consideration is sacrificed. ’I was lately owner of seventeen horses,’ said a Mandan to us one day, ’but I have offered them all up to my medicine and am now poor.’ He had in reality taken all his wealth, his horses, into the plain, and, turning them loose, committed them to the care of his medicine and abandoned them forever. The horses, less religious, took care of themselves, and the pious votary travelled home on foot.”

To this day, all the Northwest Indians speak of anything that is highly useful or influential as “great medicine.”

One cold December day, a Mandan chief invited the explorers to join them in a grand buffalo hunt. The journal adds: -

“Captain Clark with fifteen men went out and found the Indians engaged in killing buffalo. The hunters, mounted on horseback and armed with bows and arrows, encircle the herd and gradually drive them into a plain or an open place fit for the movements of horse; they then ride in among them, and singling out a buffalo, a female being preferred, go as close as possible and wound her with arrows till they think they have given the mortal stroke; when they pursue another, till the quiver is exhausted. If, which rarely happens, the wounded buffalo attacks the hunter, he evades his blow by the agility of his horse, which is trained for the combat with great dexterity. When they have killed the requisite number they collect their game, and the squaws and attendants come up from the rear and skin and dress the animals. Captain Clark killed ten buffalo, of which five only were brought to the fort; the rest, which could not be conveyed home, being seized by the Indians, among whom the custom is that whenever a buffalo is found dead without an arrow or any particular mark, he is the property of the finder; so that often a hunter secures scarcely any of the game he kills, if the arrow happens to fall off.”

The weather now became excessively cold, the mercury often going thirty-two degrees below zero. Notwithstanding this, however, the Indians kept up their outdoor sports, one favorite game of which resembled billiards. But instead of a table, the players had an open flooring, about fifty yards long, and the balls were rings of stone, shot along the flooring by means of sticks like billiard-cues. The white men had their sports, and they forbade the Indians to visit them on Christmas Day, as this was one of their “great medicine days.” The American flag was hoisted on the fort and saluted with a volley of musketry. The men danced among themselves; their best provisions were brought out and “the day passed,” says the journal, “in great festivity.”

The party also celebrated New Years Day by similar festivities. Sixteen of the men were given leave to go up to the first Mandan village with their musical instruments, where they delighted the whole tribe with their dances, one of the French voyageurs being especially applauded when he danced on his hands with his head downwards. The dancers and musicians were presented with several buffalo-robes and a large quantity of Indian corn. The cold grew more intense, and on the tenth of the month the mercury stood at forty degrees below zero. Some of the men were badly frost-bitten, and a young Indian, about thirteen years old, who had been lost in the snows, came into the fort. The journal says: -

“His father, who came last night to inquire after him very anxiously, had sent him in the afternoon to the fort; he was overtaken by the night, and was obliged to sleep on the snow with no covering except a pair of antelope-skin moccasins and leggins, and a buffalo-robe. His feet being frozen, we put them into cold water, and gave him every attention in our power. About the same time an Indian who had also been missing returned to the fort. Although his dress was very thin, and he had slept on the snow without a fire, he had not suffered the slightest inconvenience. We have indeed observed that these Indians support the rigors of the season in a way which we had hitherto thought impossible. A more pleasing reflection occurred at seeing the warm interest which the situation of these two persons had excited in the village. The boy had been a prisoner, and adopted from charity; yet the distress of the father proved that he felt for him the tenderest affection. The man was a person of no distinction, yet the whole village was full of anxiety for his safety; and, when they came to us, borrowed a sleigh to bring them home with ease if they had survived, or to carry their bodies if they had perished. . . .

“January 13. Nearly one half of the Mandan nation passed down the river to hunt for several days. In these excursions, men, women, and children, with their dogs, all leave the village together, and, after discovering a spot convenient for the game, fix their tents; all the family bear their part in the labor, and the game is equally divided among the families of the tribe. When a single hunter returns from the chase with more than is necessary for his own immediate consumption, the neighbors are entitled by custom to a share of it: they do not, however, ask for it, but send a squaw, who, without saying anything, sits down by the door of the lodge till the master understands the hint, and gives her gratuitously a part for her family.”

By the end of January, 1805, the weather had so far moderated that the explorers thought they might cut their boats from the ice in the river and prepare to resume their voyage; but the ice being three feet thick, they made no progress and were obliged to give up the attempt. Their stock of meat was low, although they had had good success when the cold was not too severe to prevent them from hunting deer, elk, and buffalo. The Mandans, who were careless in providing food for future supplies, also suffered for want of meat, sometimes going for days without flesh food. Captain Clark and eighteen men went down the river in search of game. The hunters, after being out nine days, returned and reported that they had killed forty deer, three buffalo, and sixteen elk. But much of the game was lean and poor, and the wolves, who devour everything left out at night, had stolen a quantity of the flesh. Four men, with sleds, were sent out to bring into camp the meat, which had been secured against wolves by being stored in pens. These men were attacked by Sioux, about one hundred in number, who robbed them of their game and two of their three horses. Captain Lewis, with twenty-four men, accompanied by some of the Mandans, set out in pursuit of the marauders. They were unsuccessful, however, but, having found a part of their game untouched, they brought it back, and this, with other game killed after their chase of the Sioux, gave them three thousand pounds of meat; they had killed thirty-six deer, fourteen elk, and one wolf.

By the latter part of February, the party were able to get their boats from the ice. These were dragged ashore, and the work of making them ready for their next voyage was begun. As the ice in the river began to break up, the Mandans had great sport chasing across the floating cakes of ice the buffalo who were tempted over by the appearance of green, growing grass on the other side. The Indians were very expert in their pursuit of the animals, which finally slipped from their insecure footing on the drifting ice, and were killed.

At this point, April 7, 1805, the escorting party, the voyageurs, and one interpreter, returned down the river in their barge. This party consisted of thirteen persons, all told, and to them were intrusted several packages of specimens for President Jefferson, with letters and official reports. The presents for Mr. Jefferson, according to the journal, “consisted of a stuffed male and female antelope, with their skeletons, a weasel, three squirrels from the Rocky Mountains, the skeleton of a prairie wolf, those of a white and gray hare, a male and female blaireau, (badger) or burrowing dog of the prairie, with a skeleton of the female, two burrowing squirrels, a white weasel, and the skin of the louservia (loup-servier, or lynx), the horns of a mountain ram, or big-horn, a pair of large elk horns, the horns and tail of a black-tailed deer, and a variety of skins, such as those of the red fox, white hare, marten, yellow bear, obtained from the Sioux; also a number of articles of Indian dress, among which was a buffalo robe representing a battle fought about eight years since between the Sioux and Ricaras against the Mandans and Minnetarees, in which the combatants are represented on horseback. . . . Such sketches, rude and imperfect as they are, delineate the predominant character of the savage nations. If they are peaceable and inoffensive, the drawings usually consist of local scenery and their favorite diversions. If the band are rude and ferocious, we observe tomahawks, scalping-knives, bows and arrows, and all the engines of destruction. - A Mandan bow, and quiver of arrows; also some Ricara tobacco-seed, and an ear of Mandan corn: to these were added a box of plants, another of insects, and three cases containing a burrowing squirrel, a prairie hen, and four magpies, all alive.” . . .

The articles reached Mr. Jefferson safely and were long on view at his Virginia residence, Monticello. They were subsequently dispersed, and some found their way to Peale’s Museum, Philadelphia. Dr. Cones, the zealous editor of the latest and fullest edition of Lewis and Clark’s narrative, says that some of the specimens of natural history were probably extant in 1893.