Lewis & Clark thought it went well with the Arikara. Did it?

October 12, 1804

On this day Merriweather Lewis and William Clark concluded the nation’s first official encounter with the Arikara.  It  seemed to end cordially but may have sown seeds of conflict that spiraled into war two decades later.   

Captains William Clark, left, and Merriweather Lewis

Camped in present-day Campbell, County, in northern South Dakota, the explorers enjoyed a warm reception from the small tribe along the upper Missouri River.  Moving freely around the villages, they shared meals and exchanged gifts.  Increased trade with Americans, however, eventually caused tensions with the neighboring Mandan and hostility with the traders.

Clark’s journal entry for the day described the Arikara  as “industrious rais[ing] great quantities of corn, beans, simlins [squash] &ce., also tobacco for the men to smoke.”

The Corps had passed numerous deserted villages in their progress north.  French-Canadian fur trader Antoine-Pierre Tabeau  had lived among the Arikara for more than a decade and estimated the number of fighting-age males at the time at just 600.   Less than a century earlier the population was estimated at more than 30,000 before being decimated by a serious of smallpox epidemics in the 1780s and 90s.   As a result the survivors had continually been pushed north by the more aggressive Lakota, forcing them to consolidate to just four villages.

Reconstruction of an Arikara lodge

Arikara lodges consisted of large octagonal structures 30 to 40 feet wide, covered with earth and poles. This type of construction, novel to Corps members, caught the fancy of Patrick Gass who had been a carpenter before joining the expedition.  

French voyageurs like Tabeau had traded with the Arikara since the mid-1700s.  But by the time of the Louisiana Purchase, a significant trading alliance had been forged with the British.  Described as peaceful and “desiring peace with all nations” by Clark, he also noted that fear of the powerful Sioux “keep them in perpetual dread.”

Much of the discussion with Lewis and Clark centered on the future of trade with America.  Signaling their good intentions, Clark noted that the chiefs gave the expedition “gifts of corn amounting to some 20 bushels, leggings, a twist of tobacco and “seeds of two kinds of tobacco.”  In turn the chiefs were given “some sugar, a little salt, and a sun glass.”

 The decision to follow Lewis and Clark’s suggestion and send a delegation to meet with President Thomas Jefferson, however, ended badly.  Chief Ankedoucharo became ill and died while in Washington, fueling suspicions of foul play and mistrust among the other delegates that would last decades.  

Lewis and Clark, however, had no notion their visit would have negative consequences.   They proceeded north, accompanied by an Arikara leader, convinced they would should make a similar “good peace” with the much  larger Mandan tribe upriver.

Leaving at 2 p.m. that day Clark said “we set out, the inhabitants of two villages viewing us from the banks.  We proceeded on about 9 -1/2 miles and camped on the S.S. of some woods.”

Reconstruction of Fort Mandan

The Mandan were equally hospitable, so much so that Lewis and Clark elected to stay the winter, establishing Fort Mandan, North Dakota.  It was a seminal decision as it was there they met Shoshone guide, Sacagawea, instrumental in the expedition’s success.  

The  Corps’ “good peace” blew up in 1823 when competing fur interests touched off hostilities among the tribes.  An attack on 70 American trappers near present-day Mobridge, South Dakota, prompted the so-called Arikara War.  Fourteen trappers were killed and ten were wounded including “Lord Grizzly” himself, Hugh Glass. (Right)  

The nearly invincible Glass, in fact, was  finally killed by the Arikara a decade later.   In 1833, he and two other trappers were ambushed, killed and scalped by the “Rees” along the Yellowstone River.   It was left to Indian agent, John F. A. Sanford, (left) to give the bad news to the tribe’s old friend, William Clark, then superintendent of Indian Affairs. “They scalped them and left part of the Scalps of each tied to poles on the grounds of the murder,” Sanford wrote.

The unfortunate Sanford played a peripheral role in yet another historic event.  Related by marriage to the man who owned the slave, Dred Scott, he was named as a defendant in the famous Dred Scott v. Sandford (sic) Supreme Court case  in 1857.   He died in a mental institution that same year.

Failing crops and deteriorating relationships with the Mandan forced the Arikara to move to central Nebraska a few years later.  Their hostile history, however, made them suspect as neighbors to the Pawnee and Ponca.

Another 60 years of negotiations, broken treaties and constant pressure from the Lakota convinced the Arikara their best coarse was to settle their differences with the Mandan and Hidatsa.   Becoming part of the Three Affiliated Tribes, they were permanently settled  on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. 

Garrison Dam and Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota

But once again, commerce did them no favors.  The creation of Garrison Dam in the late 1940s eventually covered a sixth of the tribal lands, virtually erasing much of the three tribes’ traditional agricultural farming and ranching economy.  Lewis and Clark would not have predicted the rather bad end of their “good peace.”    

Fort Mandan Historic Site and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Washburn, N.D. provide a look back into the winter of 1804-05 for the men of the Corps of Discovery.  The original fort was destroyed by fire before Lewis and Clark returned in 1806 but this faithful reconstruction which includes the fully furnished quarters is just minutes away from its historic location.  

In addition, the newly remodeled interpretive center (above) features artifacts from the Lewis and Clark journey plus new exhibits on North Dakota’s early history.  Fort Mandan is open 9 to 5 daily from April through October and closed November through March. 

The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is open daily from 9 to 5 during the summer and closed Sundays from October through March.  Admission is $7.50, $5 with North Dakota State Park Pass and includes both Fort Mandan and the interpretive center.  For more information go to fortmandan.com, call (701) 462-8535, e-mail lcic@nd.gov or write  Interpretive Center, PO Box 708, Washburn, ND 58577-0708.

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.