At the Mandan villages again. Big White accompanies the explorers. Colter remains in the wilderness. His subsequent discovery of the Yellowstone Park. Parting with the faithful squaw. Descending the river. The arrival at St. Louis. The news in Washington. The later life of Lewis and Clark.

Since it was near the Mandan villages that the explorers had passed their first winter, they felt comparatively at home. But they learned that their constant admonitions to keep the peace had not been followed by the neighbors of the Mandans, the Minnetarees, who also were asked to a grand council. There had been fights with Arikaras and Sioux, and the explorers were obliged to try the part of peacemakers again.

One of the main objects of the council was to persuade some chiefs to accompany the explorers to Washington to see the Great Father, as they called the President. This was very desirable, because the sight of the white people and their cities would impress the Indians and tend to make them more docile. But the Minnetaree chief excused himself on the plea that he was afraid of being killed by the Sioux, which was simply a pretext to avoid a journey that he did not care to make. The Indians were probably suspicious and preferred their own life to that of the white men. But at last Shahakas (Big White), a Mandan chief, agreed to go to Washington.1

A Mandan Chief

The party were now well on their way home, but the fascination of the wilderness was so strong that one of the men, John Colter, a most skillful hunter, applied for permission to leave the expedition and join some trappers who were going up the river. He had been away many years from the frontiers, but just as he was approaching civilization he turned his back upon it, preferring the wild life of the plains and mountains.2 His choice brought him a permanent place in the history of the West. The next year he became the discoverer of the natural wonders now included in the Yellowstone National Park.

As none of the Minnetarees would accompany the explorers to Washington, Chaboneau the interpreter, with his wife Sacajawea and their child, decided to remain here. "This man has been very serviceable to us," says the journal, "and his wife particularly useful among the Shoshonees. Indeed, she has borne with a patience truly admirable the fatigues of so long a route, incumbered with the charge of an infant, who is even now only nineteen months old. We therefore paid him his wages, amounting to five hundred dollars and thirty-three cents, including the price of a horse and a lodge purchased of him." With this we see the last of this devoted and courageous woman.

It was time to start. Big White, unconscious of the many adventures before him, parted with his friends and the weeping squaws. The whole village crowded about the explorers and assured them that they would remember their words and obey the Great Father and keep the peace, except when attacked by the Sioux, and on August 17 they started down the river on the last long stretch of their homeward journey.

These friendly relations offer a sharp contrast to the hostile attitude of the early Spanish explorers in the south.

Presently they met Arikaras and Cheyennes, with whom they held councils, but these were brief for they wished to press on, and on the 25th they made forty-eight miles with the oars. Their meeting with a band of Teton-Sioux was less pacific. These treacherous savages were forbidden to come to the camp, and the men were kept under arms.

When they encountered traders ascending the river they learned news of the civilized world. General James Wilkinson, afterwards notorious from charges of bribery, and of complicity with the treason of which Aaron Burr was accused, had been made governor of Louisiana territory.3 In the diary of Sergeant Gass there is a reference to the death of Alexander Hamilton, who had been killed by Burr at Weehawken, opposite New York, on July 11, 1804, more than two years before. Nothing could more vividly bring out the long and remote isolation of these explorers than the sergeant’s prompt note of this belated piece of news: "Mr. Burr & Genl. Hambleton fought a Duel, the latter was killed."

After passing the mouth of the Platte they encountered Gravelines, the interpreter whom they had sent from Fort Mandan in 1805 to convey an Ankara chief (who died in Washington), their reports, and some specimens of natural history to the capital.

On they went, passing through the country of the Kansas Indians without any of the hostilities which they were prepared to meet. They encountered more traders and learned that the general opinion in the United States was that they were lost. Even in this last stretch of the long journey they suffered from scanty supplies, and the journal notes the gathering of pawpaw fruit for food.

On the 20th, near the mouth of the Gasconade, above St. Louis, they saw some cows feeding, "and the whole party almost involuntarily raised a shout of joy at seeing this image of civilization and domestic life."

At the French village of La Charette the inhabitants and traders "were all equally surprised and pleased at our arrival, for they had long since abandoned all hopes of ever seeing us return."

On the 21st the village of St.Charles turned out to welcome them. The next day they passed with an encampment of troops at Coldwater Creek, and then, on "Tuesday [September] 23, descended the Mississippi and round to St. Louis, where we arrived at twelve o’clock, and having fired a salute went on shore and received the heartiest and most hospitable welcome from the whole village."

They had successfully completed the greatest of American explorations, a wilderness journey covering eight thousand miles and lasting for two years and four months.4

Captain Lewis at once sent letters to President Jefferson announcing his return, which took nearly a month to reach Washington. Jefferson’s reply, dated October 20, expressed his "unspeakable joy " at the news, the first that had reached him since Gravelines brought their message from the Mandan villages in 1805.

Early in 1807 the two leaders went to Washington, where they met with a most enthusiastic reception. Congress voted fifteen hundred acres of public land to Lewis and a thousand to Clark. It is characteristic that Lewis did not wish to receive more land than Clark. The officers were voted double pay, and each of the other members of the expedition received three hundred acres of land.5

In telling the story of this wonderful journey it has not been desirable to give the elaborate results of the minute observations made by the explorers. In addition to the many notes upon Indians, soil, flora, and fauna in the narrative, the journals are accompanied by a long appendix. This contains tables and notes giving the names and estimated number of the Indian tribes, daily records of weather and wind, notes upon the rivers, and careful memoranda regarding soil, vegetation, and animals. These observations and the careful surveys and maps testify to the thoroughness and knowledge with which the explorers did their work, just as the story which we have followed shows their ingenuity and perseverance, their tact in dealing with obstacles, and their courage in the face of danger. The journey which they made is one of the world’s greatest explorations, and its story has become a classic among the travel tales of history.

1 Lewis and Clark promised Big White a safe return, and he did return finally, after some curious adventures described in Chittenden’s "History of the American Fur Trade." In 1807, after his visit to Washington, an expedition was organized at St. Louis to escort Big White, his interpreter, their wives and two children, back to the Mandan villages. It was commanded by Pryor, who had been promoted to the rank of ensign for his services in the Lewis and Clark expedition. Evidently his loss of the horses was not charged against him. But when the party reached the Arikaras, these Indians demanded goods, and also the surrender of Big White. Pryor refused to give him up. A battle followed and several were killed and wounded on each side. The party were finally obliged to return, and Big White was carried back to St. Louis. In 1809 Captain Lewis, then governor of upper Louisiana, or Missouri territory, made a contract in behalf of the United States with the newly organized Missouri Fur Company for the return of Big White under pain of forfeiture of three thousand dollars. This time the effort was successful, and the much-suffering Big White was restored to his friends and home, after an absence of three years. For this it was agreed that the company should receive seven thousand dollars, which made Big White a costly visitor for the government.
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2 For Colter this was the beginning of years of strange adventures. In the winter of 1806—1807 he camped in the valley of the Yellowstone River. When returning in the spring of 1807 he met a party directed by Manuel Lisa, the famous fur trader, and turned back to the wilderness a second time. He was sent on a long and perilous journey across the Wind River Mountains and the Teton Range to confer with the Blackfoot nation. But he became involved in an Indian war and was obliged to fight with the Crows against the Blackfeet. In endeavoring to regain Lisa’s party he crossed the Yellowstone National Park alone and saw the geysers. This was a wonderful journey in its extent and its discoveries. The next spring, 1808, he started again for the Blackfeet. His companion was killed. He was captured, stripped naked, and turned loose to run for his life before a multitude of yelling warriors. He ran until the blood burst from his nose and mouth. He outstripped all the Indians save one. That one he killed, and with a last effort ran on to the river, where he dived under fallen logs. There he hid, while the Indians searched above him, "screeching and yelling like so many devils," until at night he swam down the river and made his way naked and half-starved to Lisa’s fort. In 1809 he descended the Missouri to St. Louis, three thousand miles alone. He met Clark and aided him in the preparation of his map, upon which Clark traced Colter's route. The last days of the discoverer of the Yellowstone Park were passed peacefully on a farm above La Charette Creek near St. Louis, where he died, probably in 1813.
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3 Wilkinson’s escapes from convictions by courts-martial failed to clear his character.
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4 Great as this journey was, it has sometimes been subject to misconceptions. "First across the Continent" is the title chosen by Mr. Noah Brooks for his narrative of Lewis and Clark. They were not the first. Cabeza de Vaca crossed the continent on the south nearly three hundred years before. Coronado and De Soto between them practically traversed the continent. Of the explorers in British North America on the north, two are preeminent, Samuel Hearne and Alexander Mackenzie. In 1771—l772 Hearne gained the distinction of being the first white man to reach Lake Athabasca and the Coppermine River, which he followed to the Arctic Ocean. He proved that the belief in a northwest passage from Hudson Bay to the Pacific was unfounded, although the tradition lingered even after his journey. In 1793 a more famous explorer, Alexander Mackenzie, made a successful expedition westward from Lake Athabasca. He passed through the mountains and descended the Fraser River in British Columbia to the sea. This was the first journey across the continent, with the exception of Cabeza de Vaca’s flight far to the south. It might well be called a "Northwest Passage by land," to apply a phrase used by a later traveler.
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5 Captain Lewis was appointed governor of Louisiana territory in 1807 and resigned from the army. Captain Clark was appointed general of the militia of the territory and Indian agent.

The whole Purchase had been divided into the territory of Orleans, representing roughly the present state of Louisiana, and Louisiana territory, which was all the rest north of the state.

Captain Lewis’s end was a sad one. On a journey to Washington in 1809 he stayed for the night at a rough wayside inn near Memphis, Tennessee. In the morning he was found dead, probably by his own hand, for he was subject to attacks of great depression.

Captain Clark was offered a commission as brigadier general in the War of 1812 with the command held by the unsuccessful General Hull on the northwestern frontier, but he declined to serve. In 1813 President Madison appointed him governor of Missouri territory, as upper Louisiana was then called. He served until Missouri became a state in 1821, when he was a candidate for governor, but was defeated. In 1822 President Monroe made him superintendent of Indian affairs, an office which he filled successfully until his death at St. Louis in 1838.
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Part 3

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© 2001, Lynn Waterman