No 28 in a series
On the last day with the Teton Sioux, Lewis and Clark sailed upstream with troublesome Chief Black Buffalo on board. Suddenly, a storm appeared, the river became exceedingly choppy, and for a moment the men feared the keelboat would sink. Panicked, the Teton chieftain begged to be put on shore and after the weather died away the captains obliged Black Buffalo.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, but the threat of a Sioux ambush did not subside for a few more days until the Corps placed more distance between themselves and the Teton nation. Clark noted the crew "prepared ourselves for actions which we expected at any moment."
But the attacks never materialized. It was now late fall 1804 and this part of the trip may have been the most pleasant for the men. They saw herds of elk, pronghorns and buffalo as the herds began to close together in advance of winter. Geese, snow geese and mallards honked overhead as they headed south. Lewis especially enjoyed this period. He walked on shore in his double sole moccasins; his long legs sometimes covered 30 miles per day.
Soon the Corps came in sight of Arikara villages, but they quickly discovered them recently abandoned. The Star-ra-he, as the Arikara Indians called themselves, were under severe pressure. Wedged between the Teton Sioux and the Mandan to the north, the tribe found itself constantly threatened by war parties and ambush. Disease also contributed to the shrinking nation. The Arikara endured two smallpox epidemics in the early 1780s and again in 1801, which decimated the population.
These two factors proved responsible for the chain of abandoned villages Lewis and Clark sailed past. The lodges were the usual upper Missouri River culture of earth over a skeleton of poles and branches, a buffalo skin served as a flap that covered the entrance. Because of the outside threat dirt and log palisades ringed the village surrounded by deep ditches. The Arikara thrived on agriculture and trade corn, beans and squash. Also surrounding the central village were fields of watermelons, pumpkins and Indian tobacco.
As with most of these Indian cultures, the women farmed in the uncertain climate. Despite floods, frosts and lack of summer rainfall, the Arikara grew enough to sustain themselves and the tribes located nearby. The men supplemented the food supply by hunting, especially in the winter and during times of agricultural failure. One observer noted the tribe used the produce to barter for guns, clothes, hats and kettles.
Lewis and Clark stopped at the northern end of the Grand River settlement of the Arikara. Unsure of their reception Lewis led a party to the village, while Clark, not feeling well, remained aboard the keelboat. Lewis discovered Joseph Graveline, a trader who had lived with the Arikara tribe for 18 years. He proved to be a great source of solid information and a superb interpreter, something the captains desperately needed when they tried to negotiate with the Sioux.
Lewis and Clark steeled for their next series of talks with an Indian tribe. Hopefully they would build upon their past experiences to get their message to the chiefs.
Dave Hinze is a professional historian and tour guide.