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COLTER AND DROUILLARD: CONTINENTAL CROSSING
On March 9 and 10, 1804, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, United States Army, witnessed ceremonies that signaled the onset of their nation's expansion beyond the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. The rites took place in St. Louis, the bustling little riverfront community where the flag of Spain flew from a staff in front of the seat of government for Upper Louisiana. Most of the town's citizens were French, still loyal to their heritage forty years after the mother country relinquished her American empire. In a sudden and bewildering sequence of international power plays, however, Spain sold Louisiana back to France, and Napoleon promptly sold it to the fledgling United States.
While a detachment of United States soldiers presented arms, Captain Amos Stoddard officiated on behalf of both France and the United States. On March 9, in front of Government House, the Spanish crown's banner came down and the French republic's went up. As a concession to the patriotic sensibilities of the townspeople, Stoddard allowed the tricolor to remain aloft overnight. The next day, near noon, it descended the staff, and the Stars and Stripes was hoisted. Stoddard and the Spanish officials inscribed their signatures on the formal documents of cession. So, as witness, did Captain Lewis. In addition to his commission in the army, he had recently held the post of private secretary to the president of the United States.
The command of Lewis and Clark, already called the "Corps of Discovery," lay inwinter camp on the east bank of the Mississippi opposite the mouth of the Missouri River. Since November 1803, at dank Camp Dubois, the two captains had filled out their ranks to more than forty men and labored to equip and train them for a journey across the continent.
At Camp Dubois, two members of the Corps of Discovery had already shown singular potential, one for undisciplined rowdyism, the other for staunch dependability. One was a newly enlisted soldier, John Colter, the other a mixed-blood civilian, George Drouillard.
John Colter joined the army at Maysville, Kentucky, as Lewis piloted a keelboat with a dozen men down the Ohio River in the autumn of 1803. A robust man in his late twenties, Colter claimed the rudiments of literacy and the skills of hunter and woodsman. During the tedious winter at Camp Dubois, he drew deeply enough from the whiskey jug to give his superiors more than his share of disciplinary troubles.
About the same age as Colter, George Drouillard was the offspring of a French Canadian father and a Shawnee Indian mother. Like Colter, he exhibited enough learning to qualify as literate, but to Lewis and Clark his critical value lay in his mastery of the Indian sign language and his awesome performance as a hunter. He was vigorous, decisive, courageous, resourceful, and completely reliable.
When the keelboat and two pirogues (large dugout canoes with flat bottoms) of the expedition shoved off from the Illinois shore on May 14, 1804, Colter and Drouillard were already accomplished outdoorsmen. In the next two years, as the Corps of Discovery crossed the continent to the Pacific and then trekked and boated back to St. Louis, both would learn and grow. Colter matured and quit misbehaving. Drouillard rose to top rank in the esteem of Lewis, who called him "this excellent man" and invariably chose him for special missions.
Early in 1801, even before his inauguration as third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson had invited Captain Lewis, twenty-seven and thus roughly the age of Colter and Drouillard, to join his household as private secretary. Seven years of military service had equipped Lewis with knowledge in two realms with which the president had to deal. One was the frontier West, already drawing Americans across the Appalachian Mountains and down the great valleys descending to the Mississippi River; Jefferson himself had never traveled far beyond Virginia's Blue Ridge. The other was knowledge of the regular army, an institution for which Jefferson, steeped in the militia tradition, had little sympathy.
In earlier years, Jefferson had shown interest in the remote reaches of North America and had even participated in abortive attempts to have them explored. He did not, however, select Lewis with the intention of sending him to explore the Far West. For nearly two years, neither Lewis nor Jefferson gave much attention to that West. For them, West meant the Trans-Appalachian West.
What turned Jefferson's attention once more to the Far West was the publication in London in 1801 of Alexander Mackenzie's Voyages from Montreal. In 1789 the North West Company's veteran fur trader, seeking a way across the continent, had descended the river that took his name and found himself at the Arctic Ocean rather than the Pacific. In 1793 he had tried again and this time surmounted the great mountain barrier to the head of a river that flowed toward the Pacific. He did not explore it but struck directly to the coast.
Jefferson read Mackenzie's book at his Monticello mountaintop in the summer of 1802. Mackenzie's geography, lacking a final water link to the Pacific, interested Jefferson less than the challenge Mackenzie posed for his own nation: to discover the continental passage, colonize the Pacific Coast and tap its fur resources, and establish commerce with the Orient. That, Thomas Jefferson believed, ought to be done by the United States, not Great Britain.
Jefferson's vision of the United States as an agrarian republic numbered him among the earliest of the young nation's expansionists. An increasing population of small farmers moving west would ensure agrarian supremacy, he believed, but it depended on a constant supply of arable land. At first, Jefferson foresaw one or more new republics beyond the Mississippi, but they would be American in population, institutions, and affinity for the mother country. Later, his views edged ever closer to the idea of a single continental nation. A major purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition, therefore, was to beat the British to the Pacific—to match the transcontinental feat of Alexander Mackenzie and counter the design that he urged on his countrymen.
By the end of 1802, the president had sounded out a suspicious Spanish envoy in Washington about a scientific expedition into Spanish Louisiana and had sought congressional authority. By the spring of 1803, Congress having assented, he had commissioned his private secretary to organize such an expedition.
To help lead it, Lewis called on an old army comrade. Younger brother of George Rogers Clark of Revolutionary War fame, redheaded William Clark was a veteran frontiersman and Indian fighter, four years older than Lewis, less learned but more open and jovial. He had left the army to manage the family's Kentucky lands.
Although the venture that Jefferson and Lewis began planning late in 1802 would trespass on Spanish territory, at first it had nothing to do with the Louisiana Purchase, which Jefferson's emissaries were simultaneously negotiating. The diplomatic exchanges with France over Louisiana centered on the traditional friction with Spain over New Orleans. The aim was not the acquisition of a huge western territory but free access to the port of New Orleans and thus the free navigation of the Mississippi River on which the economy of Trans-Appalachian America depended. The sudden and unexpected offer of all Louisiana (whatever that might be) presented an opportunity of momentous potential. To his lasting credit, Jefferson seized it. Thus, he did not buy Louisiana and send Lewis and Clark to explore it. By the time of the purchase, he had already determined on the expedition, secured congressional authorization, and selected the personnel. Fortuitously, they ended up exploring American territory rather than Spanish or French.
The fantasy that represented conceptions of the West in 1803 provided the ethereal foundation on which Jefferson constructed his written instructions to Lewis. The president's image of the western half of the continent, representing the best thought of the time, dramatizes how much had to be learned before the United States could become a continental nation.
an elevated plateau. The mountains assumed varying shapes on the maps, but in most they were shown as a single ridge, either in north and south configurations or in an unbroken range extending from the far north to the Spanish possessions. In most too they appeared but a short distance from the Pacific, which greatly narrowed the continent's true width. Wherever placed, in nearly all calculations the western mountains rose no more than about three thousand feet from their base and could not compare in height or complexity with the Blue Ridge of Virginia.
Jefferson's instructions to Lewis touched on many topics: mapping, relations with the Indian tribes, collection of information and specimens in all the branches of natural science, agricultural suitability, fur and other resources. Their essence, however, contemplated commerce with the Orient and drew on his distorted notion of continental geography. A single sentence etched his dream and revealed a preconception that Father Marquette, 130 years earlier, would have understood: "The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregan, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce."
Through the vast fantasyland that the Far West formed in the learned mind of 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition blazed a narrow corridor of geographical reality. The two captains discovered the true character of the Missouri's headwaters, so different from the prevailing notion. They learned the magnitude and complexity of the northern Rockies. They dashed forever the idea of navigation to the Pacific by way of the Missouri (although Clark clung to a vague hope of some alternative). They revealed a continent much wider than anyone supposed. This and much more to revise the conventional understanding they reported to Thomas Jefferson on their return in 1806.
In the continental crossing of Lewis and Clark, both John Colter and George Drouillard ranged widely as hunters, and both frequently received special assignments. For all Colter's feats, however, it was Drouillard whose talents proved most in demand and in the end most important to the success of the expedition.
The most prolific and dependable of all the hunters, Drouillard per formed prodigies of hunting. Grizzly bears seemed to offer a personal challenge. Huge, belligerent, swift, deadly, and exceptionally hard to kill, they roamed the plains and mountains in large numbers and posed a constant danger to the corps. Confronting a grizzly, Drouillard behaved as aggressively as the beast itself, rushing to the attack despite the risk or the state of his weaponry.
One such example occurred late in June 1805. After wintering with the Mandan Indians, the leaders had sent the keelboat back downriver and early in April embarked upstream in two pirogues and six smaller dugout canoes. Two months later, the Great Falls of the Missouri forced a laborious portage of nearly a month's duration through a country teeming with grizzlies.
On the evening of June 27, Drouillard and Joseph Field came in with nine elk and three bears. One of the bears was huge, "as large as a common ox," with hind feet nearly a foot long ("exclusive of the tallons") and seven inches wide. In later years even the most experienced trapper shrank from entering a thicket thought to harbor a grizzly. But Drouillard and Field had followed bear tracks into a brushy river bottom. Climbing a tree (which grizzlies could not do), they edged out on a limb about twenty feet above the ground. Then they gave a "hoop," and the bear, quietly hidden in the foliage, dashed toward the noise, paused immediately beneath the tree to look around, and fell with a bullet in the head from Drouillard's rifle.
Although he brought in literally tons of meat for the sustenance of the corps, Drouillard's pivotal role lay not in hunting but in the duty for which he had been hired—Indian interpreter. As the corps neared the Rocky Mountains in the summer of 1805, his proficiency with the sign language became indispensable.
As the Missouri plunged over the Great Falls and, farther up, snaked ever more narrowly among mountain chasms, the Jeffersonian image of a great river navigable to its source dissolved. At the Three Forks of the Missouri—the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin—the corps turned west, up the Jefferson toward looming mountains that hardly resembled Virginia's Blue Ridge. Clearly, canoes could not go much farther. Progress now depended on transferring men and equipage to horseback, and that in turn depended on finding Indians who would part with horses.
Scarcely less important, the captains needed to tap into the geographical knowledge of resident Indians about the lay of the mountains and rivers, especially how to find the westward-flowing stream that would carry them down to the ocean.
The corps had passed the winter of 1804-05 with the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, who dwelt in earth lodges along the Missouri River. From the Hidatsas they had learned much, for alone of the village tribe they raided westward as far as the Rocky Mountains. The Hidatsas told of the Shoshones, people who harvested salmon from the mountain streams in the summer and in the fall moved east to the plains to hunt buffalo. With the corps traveled Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife and infant son. A resident trader with the Hidatsas, he had bought the young woman, Sacagawea, from these people, who had captured her five years earlier in a raid against her Shoshone band. With summer swiftly waning, Lewis and Clark searched ever more urgently for Shoshones who could furnish horses and geographical guidance.
Drouillard and two others formed the advance party that under Lewis at last made contact. As they searched, they became the first known Americans to cross the Continental Divide—at Lemhi Pass in the Beaverhead Mountains. Beyond, in the Lemhi River valley, they found the Shoshone village of Chief Cameahwait, who turned out, when the entire corps had been reunited, to be the brother of Sacagawea. She helped with communication, but awkwardly at best; she translated her brother's words from Shoshone to Hidatsa, her husband translated Hidatsa to French, and another rendered the French into English. Here and later, therefore, Drouillard's sign language came into play as a supplementary if not a better means of interpretation.
From the Shoshones the corps finally obtained horses. From the Shoshones too, and later from the neighboring Flatheads, Lewis and Clark gained important information about the mountain barrier they confronted. With Drouillard facilitating the exchange, the chiefs constructed relief maps on the ground, piling dirt to represent mountains and gouging troughs with sticks to represent rivers.
A major task assigned Lewis and Clark by Thomas Jefferson was diplomatic. The captains told the Shoshone and Flathead chiefs, as they told the leaders of all the tribes they met, that the Great Father of the whites desired peace with and among all tribes. In return, he would send men among them with goods to trade, including guns and ammunition.
Thus innocently did Lewis and Clark trigger a quake whose tremors would shake and reorder the Indian world and its relationship to the white world. Shoshones and Flatheads, virtually without firearms, suffered grievously from Blackfeet and Hidatsas equipped with muskets by British traders. More than the traditional hospitality of these friendly people motivated their helpful reception of the American explorers. They wanted guns and ammunition to even the odds of war.
The terrain maps of the Indians, copied on paper by the captains, proved discouraging and ominous. A reconnaissance down the Salmon River disclosed impassable gorges and raging cataracts. Instead, with a Shoshone guide, the corps struck directly north and crossed to the head of the Bitterroot River. Still bearing north, near its mouth the horsemen finally turned west and traced Lolo Creek to Lolo Pass, portal through the lofty Bitterroot Mountains. Lashed by a snowstorm and freezing cold, subsisting on weakened horses, the expedition threaded a tangle of descending ridges and at last, on September 20, emerged on the Weippe Prairie.
Here the exhausted and ragged travelers came to a river on which canoes could be floated, and here they met still another Indian tribe of which the Shoshones and Flatheads had told, the Nez Perces. With Drouillard signing, the chiefs sketched maps on deerskin that laid out the route to the ocean. The river at Weippe Prairie was the Clearwater, whose snowmelt flowed into the Snake and the Columbia and finally into the Pacific.
For the Corps of Discovery, the Clearwater marked the end of the portage between the heads of the Missouri and the River of the West. So beguilingly short in conventional thought, it had drawn the explorers into a harrowing monthlong journey across nearly four hundred miles of some of the most rugged mountains in North America.
To the Nez Perces, Drouillard assisting, Lewis and Clark made the usual speeches about peace and trade. Like their neighbors, the Nez Perces badly needed a source of guns and ammunition, and the captains' words found receptive ears. Like their neighbors too, the Nez Perces were naturally friendly people, to Lewis and Clark the most appealing of all the tribes they dealt with.
Following an awful winter at Fort Clatsop, a log shelter near the mouth of the Columbia River, the spring of 1806 found the Corps of Discovery back among the Nez Perces, eastbound for home. Again Drouillard's talents were called on, as the explorers impatiently waited for melting snow to unclog the Lolo Trail across the Bitterroot Mountains. A Shoshone lad turned up among the Nez Perces, and he made possible another chain of oral communication through Sacagawea and Charbonneau: from Salish (the Nez Perce language) to Shoshone to Hidatsa to French and finally to English. Again, however, Drouillard surely employed the sign language to speed words and meaning through this cumbersome system. Once more the talk was about peace and trade, especially guns and ammunition.
During the winter at Fort Clatsop, Lewis and Clark had settled on a plan for the homeward journey. After crossing the Bitterroot Mountains, the corps would divide. Clark would take part up the Bitterroot River, retracing the outbound trail. From the Three Forks of the Missouri he would cross to the Yellowstone and explore that river to its mouth. With the rest of the men, Lewis would strike directly east, up the Blackfoot River. The previous September, the Shoshone guide had said there was a shorter way across the Continental Divide to the Missouri, and the Nez Perces had confirmed that the Blackfoot, together with the Lolo Trail, was their own yearly route to the buffalo range. If true, it cut six hundred difficult miles from the explorers' westbound route. Lewis also wanted to investigate the Marias River, which he thought reached far enough north to tap the rich beaver country of the South Saskatchewan and possibly influence the fixing of a boundary between British and American territory. Lewis and Clark would reunite at the mouth of the Yellowstone for the final descent of the Missouri to St. Louis.
Confirming the Indian report, in six days of easy travel Lewis and his contingent surmounted the Continental Divide and came down to the Missouri to camp at the Great Falls. Then, with only Drouillard and Joseph and Reuben Field, Lewis set forth on horseback for the Marias. By July 25, the men had ascended high enough to see that the river issued from the mountains far south of where Lewis had thought. Next day they turned back for the Missouri, only to meet a group of eight Piegan Blackfeet warriors.
The meeting occurred with so little warning that both sides had to react with wary civility. That night they camped together and in an improvised hide shelter, with Drouillard interpreting, held a council. From what the Indians said, Lewis glimpsed the extent of Blackfeet trade relations with the British. From what Lewis said, repeating the standard speech to western tribes, the Indians extracted an ominous message: the Americans intended to provide guns and ammunition to the Shoshones, Flatheads, and other enemies of the Blackfeet.
Whether that thought or simply temptation motivated what followed, the whites awoke the next morning to find the warriors stealing their rifles. Before the victims had even roused themselves from sleep, the Blackfeet had three rifles and were sprinting for cover. Reuben Field gave chase, overtook one of the Indians, and plunged a knife into his chest. He staggered some fifteen steps and fell dead.
Drouillard, meantime, had pounced on another Piegan. "Damn you, let go of my gun," he shouted as he wrested the weapon free.
His shout awakened Lewis, who joined the pursuit with a pistol, cornered the Indian who had his rifle, and forced him to lay it on the ground. The Field brothers rushed up and wanted to kill the thief, but Lewis refused. He also turned down Drouillard's plea to dispatch the Indian he had subdued.
Now the Piegans tried to make off with the whites' horses. Drouillard and the Field brothers went after one group. Lewis, alone and on foot, pursued two men running off his own horse. Gasping for breath, he came close enough to shout at the Indians and aim his rifle. One turned and pointed his musket at Lewis, who fired. The ball hit the man in the stomach. He fell to his knees, then turned, partly raised on an elbow, and sent a ball at Lewis, who "felt the wind of his bullet very distinctly." The fatally injured warrior crawled behind a rock to join his companion. With his shot pouch back in camp, Lewis prudently withdrew.
The captain and his comrades had decisively routed their assailants, killed two, and recovered their rifles. They had lost two of their six horses but more than made up for them with thirteen horses the Indians had left behind. Hastily, they saddled and packed seven of the best horses and embarked on a forced march to get out of the area as quickly as possible. Before leaving, they burned most of the Indian possessions. At the first meeting, Lewis had given one Indian an American flag and another a medal. Now he retrieved the flag but "left the medal about the neck of the dead man that they might be informed who we were."
Whether or not they needed to be informed, the event marked the first violent encounter between Blackfeet and Americans. There would be many more. Although foreshadowing thirty years of bitter hostility between these adversaries, the clash did not cause it. Lewis helped set the stage by alerting the Blackfeet that white traders would soon be among their enemies with firearms, and that would ultimately prove to be one of the causes. Despite several opportunities in the next three years, however, the Blackfeet did not seek revenge for the bloodshed on the Marias. That would come after events that still lay in the future—events in which, ironically, two of the major players would be George Drouillard and John Colter.
Copyright © 1997 Stephen S. Hall. All rights reserved.
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|10||Bill Sublette: Struggle of the Fur Giants||131|
|11||Warren Ferris: Trapper as Cartographer||149|
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|13||Jim Bridger: End of an Era||173|
|14||Kit Carson: Mapping the Way West||185|
|15||Joe Meek and Doc Newell: Trappers as Colonists||207|
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|17||Kit Carson: The Continent Spanned||241|
|18||Jim Bridger: Filling in the Map||263|