The kindness of strangers

American Indians gave key assistance
to Lewis and Clark on their journey
Sunday, May 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:15 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Lewis and Clark journey was deeply influenced by native tribes living in the American wilderness. Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation says, “The North American people shared their unique knowledge of people in the land — helping (Lewis and Clark) map the lands around them, providing horses, and providing valuable knowledge about food preservation and ways to survive.”

Bob Moore, a historian at the Museum of Westward Expansion, says Lewis and Clark didn’t have a clue how lucky they were until the expedition was over.

“Lewis and Clark didn’t always realize the full value in the aid they received,” Moore says. “Many historians believe it was only after their journey that Lewis and Clark were able to really appreciate the Native Americans’ help.”

Mankiller urged today’s people not to forget the American Indians who helped Lewis and Clark:

“As Americans prepare to celebrate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, I want them to reflect on the indigenous people Lewis and Clark encountered on the journey. Not as icons or objects of curiosity, but as real people.”

Shoshone: Finding the way

The birth tribe of Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indians owned many horses in the west. After learning that her brother, Chimwait, was the tribe leader, Sacagawea was able to persuade the Shoshone of the expedition’s need for horses to make the treacherous climb through the mountains.

The Shoshone offered horses and a guide named Old Toby to lead the expedition through the Bitterroot Mountains. A member of the Nez Perce tribe, Old Toby helped the explorers find food and soften quarrels with other American Indians.

Nez Perce: Building a canoe

The Nez Perce may have been the most hospitable tribe the Corps of Discovery encountered during the expedition. After hearing that the explorers were coming, the Nez Perce prepared to feed and shelter the exhausted group. They also taught the explorers how to make dugout canoes for the upcoming river segment of their journey and looked after their horses until their return the next spring.

Specifically, Watkuweis, a female member of the Nez Perce tribe who had once lived with white traders in Canada, urged her tribe to do “no hurt” to Lewis and Clark and their people. They welcomed the explorers with hospitality.

Mandans and Hidatsa: Kindness

The Mandan and Hidatsa tribes were the powerful and sophisticated traders of the northern Great Plains, and passed a great deal of information on to the explorers about upcoming tribes that Lewis and Clark would encounter. The tribes also opened their land freely to Lewis and Clark and invited them to build their 1804 to 1805 winter garrison near their village.

The Hidatsas also provided the corps with a number of benefits, including crucial information about the route ahead. They also indirectly introduced Lewis and Clark to the French trader Toussaint Charbonneau, and his wife, Sacagawea.

Clatsops: Gift giving

As Lewis and Clark neared the Columbia River, they came upon a tribe that lived in plank houses and traveled in large, graceful canoes. They were the Clatsops, and they offered the explorers gifts and women. But Lewis and Clark refused both, which insulted the Clatsops. All was forgiven as they traded goods and trinkets for a place to build their third winter encampment.

At the expedition’s departure from Fort Clatsop on March 22, 1806, Lewis wrote in his journal that the Clatsop tribe “has been much more kind (and) hospitable to us than any other Indian tribe in this neighbourhood.”

Arikaras: New faces

Clark’s slave, named York, fascinated many of the tribes the expedition encountered. The Arikaras had never seen a black man. York played with the children and told them he was a wild creature who had been captured and tamed by Capt. Clark. The adults were so astonished by his presence that they believed he had special spiritual powers. Because of this and his impressive size, they nicknamed him Big Medicine.

Clothing, horses, food and shelter were all offered to Lewis and Clark during their times of need from the hands of strangers.

“Without such tribes as the Nez Perce and the Mandans, Lewis and Clark and their crew would not have survived the treacherous journey,” Moore says. “The Native Americans fueled their journey.”

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