STARTING FOR THE WILDERNESS
Trappers and Indians. Across Missouri. The first sight of buffalo. Turning northward. A council with the Indians near Council Bluffs. An odd way of fishing. A country full of game.
On May 14, 1804, the travelers left their camp at the mouth of the Wood (now the Du Bois) River near St. Louis.
The route before them was up the Missouri and the Yellowstone on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, over the mountains and down Lewis’s River (now known as Salmon River), the Clearwater, and the Columbia on the western side. The country which they were to pass through has since been divided into Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. The total length of the journey was to be some eight thousand miles. It was to last from May, 1804, to September, 1806. From April, 1805, to August, 1806, they were to be wholly shut off from the civilized world.
It was not until four o’clock in the afternoon of the 14th that they finished their packing and pushed off their boats, and they had made only four miles when night forced them to land for the first camp of the journey near Cold Water Creek, just above Bellefontaine.
At St. Charles, which bears the same name to-day, they were overtaken on May 21 by Captain Lewis, who had been detained at St. Louis, and that afternoon they started on in the face of wind and rain.
A few days later they met some canoes laden with furs obtained among the "Mahar," or Omaha, Indians. These meetings are of interest because the trappers and the fur traders were the real pioneers of the far West. Their work was the chief industry of that great region for the first forty years of the last century.
On June 1 the expedition camped at the mouth of the Osage River, named from the Osage Indians. The Dakotan name of these Indians was the Wabashas, from which comes the name Wabash. They believed themselves descended from a snail and a beaver, and for a long time they held the beaver sacred. But the demand for furs proved stronger than the tradition, and in spite of relationship the beavers suffered from the fur hunters.
Another camp was made at Moreau Creek, a little below the present Jefferson City. French fur traders were met, and at Little Manitou Creek (now Moniteau Creek in Missouri geographies) the explorers saw a strange figure resembling "the bust of a man with the horns of a stag," which had been painted by the Indians on a projecting rock.
As they went on they entered the country of the Ayauway Indians, which was one of the many ways of spelling Iowas. Here they found deer and bears, and one of the hunters brought in a remarkable story of a small lake where "he heard a snake making a guttural noise like a turkey." The venison which the hunters obtained was frequently "jerked" for preservation; that is, it was cut into ribbons and dried in the sun.
The expedition had now advanced some two hundred and sixty miles up the Missouri, to a point between Saline and Carroll counties, which lies not far from the center of the state of Missouri. Continuing a journey which for the time was comparatively uneventful, they crossed the state of Missouri on their steady way up the river, and on June 26 they reached the mouth of the Kansas River, which flows easterly through the state of Kansas. Here they found a village of Kansas Indians, most of whom were away on the plains "hunting for buffalo, which our hunters have seen for the first time."
This home of buffalo hunters at the mouth of the Kansas River has now given place to Kansas City, Missouri, and Wyandotte, Kansas.
At this point the Missouri turns northwesterly on the ascent, and the explorers were on a straighter course to their destination. On the left, ascending, are now the Kansas counties of Leavenworth, Atchison, and Doniphan, and on the right the Missouri counties of Platte, Buchanan, Andrew, and Holt; while above Kansas City they passed the sites of the future cities of Leavenworth. Atchison, and St. Joseph. Nearly all the points mentioned in their narrative have been identified, but it will be more interesting to follow the story of their adventures than to go far into geographical details.
By the middle of July they had reached Nebraska and Iowa. The hunters found deer and wild geese, one boat was nearly wrecked on a sand bar in a storm, and there was some illness which was thought to be due to their drinking the muddy river water. On July 21 they reached the mouth of the great Platte River, where at night many wolves were seen and heard.
Some ten miles above the Platte River the explorers camped on the east side of the Missouri, probably about ten miles below the present cities of Council Bluffs and Omaha. There they dried their provisions and prepared letters to be sent to the President when the chance came. The hunters saw deer and turkeys; there were many wild grapes, and one man caught a white catfish.
Messengers were sent to ask the Pawnee Indians to visit them, but the Indians were away hunting the buffalo. A few days later, however, after the explorers had advanced further northward, they succeeded in reaching them, and their first formal council with them was held on August 3. Some fourteen Ottoe (or Otto) and Missouri Indians were assembled under an awning formed of the mainsail. They were informed that the United States now ruled the country and promised them protection. The chiefs expressed their joy and asked to be commended to the Great Father (the President). They requested that arms be given them and that they be protected from their enemies, the Omahas, which was promised. Then followed a distribution of presents, medals, paint, garters, and cloth ornaments, with a canister of powder and a bottle of whisky, — the last certainly an unfortunate gift. Then the explorers fired their air gun, which astonished the Indians greatly, and this ended the ceremonies of the first council.
The name of the city of Council Bluffs comes from this meeting, but the actual council was held on the west side of the river and several miles above the city.
A few days later the travelers saw a large mound with a pole fixed in the center, on a sandstone bluff, and learned that it was the grave of a chief named Blackbird, who died of smallpox, from which the tribe had suffered seriously. Blackbird was described by another traveler as a chief whose fame was due largely to the fact that he had obtained from a trader some arsenic, which he used to poison rivals and enemies.
While the party were camping and waiting for a council with the "Mahar" (Omaha) Indians, an odd form of fishing was practiced. Some of the men made a drag of willows and bark and swept the creek hard by, catching hundreds of pike, bass, fish resembling salmon trout, red horse, buffalo fish, rockfish, perch, and catfish.
The Ottoe Indians of the first council then reappeared with others. They were asked to explain their trouble with the Omahas, which proved to be due to their desire to avenge the death of their brethren of the Missouris, who had been killed by the Omahas while attempting to steal horses. The only result of this conference was the distribution of more presents, since no Omahas had come, and a peace could not be arranged without them.
A little below Sioux City the first death occurred in the expedition. Sergeant Charles Floyd died of colic and was buried on a bluff about a mile below Floyd’s River. Patrick Gass, who kept a journal of the expedition on his own account which was afterwards published, was elected sergeant in Floyd’s place. Not far from this spot they learned that there was a quarry of red pipestone highly prized by the Indians for pipes.
The abundance of game which was then found in Nebraska, Iowa, and elsewhere along the route, is indicated by the record of August 23. "On the north side [this is properly the east side of the river] is an extensive and delightful prairie, which we called Buffalo prairie, from our having here killed our first buffalo. Two elk swam the river to-day and were fired at, but escaped; a deer was killed from the boat; one beaver was killed, and several prairie-wolves were seen."
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© 2001, Lynn Waterman