First Across the Continent
From the Lower to the Upper River
The party finally set sail up the Missouri River on Monday, May 21, 1804, but made only a few miles, owing to head winds. Four days later they camped near the last white settlement on the Missouri,-La Charrette, a little village of seven poor houses. Here lived Daniel Boone, the famous Kentucky backwoodsman, then nearly seventy years old, but still vigorous, erect, and strong of limb. Here and above this place the explorers began to meet with unfamiliar Indian tribes and names. For example, they met two canoes loaded with furs "from the Mahar nation." The writer of the Lewis and Clark journal, upon whose notes we rely for our story, made many slips of this sort. By "Mahars" we must understand that the Omahas were meant. We shall come across other such instances in which the strangers mistook the pronunciation of Indian names. For example, Kansas was by them misspelled as "Canseze" and "Canzan;" and there appear some thirteen or fourteen different spellings of Sioux, of which one of the most far-fetched is "Scouex."
The explorers were now in a country unknown to them and almost unknown to any white man. On the thirty-first of May, a messenger came down the Grand Osage River bringing a letter from a person who wrote that the Indians, having been notified that the country had been ceded to the Americans, burned the letter containing the tidings, refusing to believe the report. The Osage Indians, through whose territory they were now passing, were among the largest and finest-formed red men of the West. Their name came from the river along which they warred and hunted, but their proper title, as they called themselves, was "the Wabashas," and from them, in later years, we derive the familiar name of Wabash. A curious tradition of this people, according to the journal of Lewis and Clark, is that the founder of the nation was a snail, passing a quiet existence along the banks of the Osage, till a high flood swept him down to the Missouri, and left him exposed on the shore. The heat of the sun at length ripened him into a man; but with the change of his nature he had not forgotten his native seats on the Osage, towards which he immediately bent his way. He was, however, soon overtaken by hunger and fatigue, when happily, the Great Spirit appeared, and, giving him a bow and arrow, showed him how to kill and cook deer, and cover himself with the skin. He then proceeded to his original residence; but as he approached the river he was met by a beaver, who inquired haughtily who he was, and by what authority he came to disturb his possession. The Osage answered that the river was his own, for he had once lived on its borders. As they stood disputing, the daughter of the beaver came, and having, by her entreaties, reconciled her father to this young stranger, it was proposed that the Osage should marry the young beaver, and share with her family the enjoyment of the river. The Osage readily consented, and from this happy union there soon came the village and the nation of the Wabasha, or Osages, who have ever since preserved a pious reverence for their ancestors, abstaining from the chase of the beaver, because in killing that animal they killed a brother of the Osage. Of late years, however, since the trade with the whites has rendered beaver-skins more valuable, the sanctity of these maternal relatives has been visibly reduced, and the poor animals have lost all the privileges of kindred.
Game was abundant all along the river as the explorers sailed up the stream. Their hunters killed numbers of deer, and at the mouth of Big Good Woman Creek, which empties into the Missouri near the present town of Franklin, Howard County, three bears were brought into the camp. Here, too, they began to find salt springs, or "salt licks," to which many wild animals resorted for salt, of which they were very fond. Saline County, Missouri, perpetuates the name given to the region by Lewis and Clark. Traces of buffalo were also found here, and occasional wandering traders told them that the Indians had begun to hunt the buffalo now that the grass had become abundant enough to attract this big game from regions lying further south.
By the tenth of June the party had entered the country of the Ayauway nation. This was an easy way of spelling the word now familiar to us as "Iowa." But before that spelling was reached, it was Ayaway, Ayahwa, Iawai, Iaway, and so on. The remnants of this once powerful tribe now number scarcely two hundred persons. In Lewis and Clark's time, they were a large nation, with several hundred warriors, and were constantly at war with their neighbors. Game here grew still more abundant, and in addition to deer and bear the hunters brought in a raccoon. One of these hunters brought into camp a wild tale of a snake which, he said, "made a guttural noise like a turkey." One of the French voyageurs confirmed this story; but the croaking snake was never found and identified.
On the twenty-fourth of June the explorers halted to prepare some of the meat which their hunters brought in. Numerous herds of deer were feeding on the abundant grass and young willows that grew along the river banks. The meat, cut in small strips, or ribbons, was dried quickly in the hot sun. This was called "jirked" meat. Later on the word was corrupted into "jerked," and "jerked beef" is not unknown at the present day. The verb "jerk" is corrupted from the Chilian word, charqui, meaning sun-dried meat; but it is not easy to explain how the Chilian word got into the Northwest.
As the season advanced, the party found many delicious wild fruits, such as currants, plums, raspberries, wild apples, and vast quantities of mulberries. Wild turkeys were also found in large numbers, and the party had evidently entered a land of plenty. Wild geese were abundant, and numerous tracks of elk were seen. But we may as well say here that the, so-called elk of the Northwest is not the elk of ancient Europe; a more correct and distinctive name for this animal is wapiti, the name given the animal by the Indians. The European elk more closely resembles the American moose. Its antlers are flat, low, and palmated like our moose; whereas the antlers of the American elk, so-called, are long, high, and round-shaped with many sharp points or tines. The mouth of the great Platte River was reached on the twenty-first of July. This famous stream was then regarded as a sort of boundary line between the known and unknown regions. As mariners crossing the equator require all their comrades, who have not been "over the line" to submit to lathering and shaving, so the Western voyageurs merrily compelled their mates to submit to similar horse-play. The great river was also the mark above which explorers entered upon what was called the Upper Missouri.
The expedition was now advancing into a region inhabited by several wandering tribes of Indians, chief of which were the Ottoes, Missouris, and Pawnees. It was determined, therefore, to call a council of some of the chiefs of these bands and make terms of peace with them. After some delay, the messengers sent out to them brought in fourteen representative Indians, to whom the white men made presents of roast meat, pork, flour, and corn-meal, in return for which their visitors brought them quantities of delicious watermelons. "Next day, August 3," says the journal, "the Indians, with their six chiefs, were all assembled under an awning formed with the mainsail, in presence of all our party, paraded for the occasion. A speech was then made, announcing to them the change in the government, our promises of protection, and advice as to their future conduct. All the six chiefs replied to our speech, each in his turn, according to rank. They expressed their joy at the change in the government; their hopes that we would recommend them to their Great Father (the president), that they might obtain trade and necessaries: they wanted arms as well for hunting as for defence, and asked our mediation between them and the Mahas, with whom they are now at war. We promised to do so, and wished some of them to accompany us to that nation, which they declined, for fear of being killed by them. We then proceeded to distribute our presents. The grand chief of the nation not being of the party, we sent him a flag, a medal, and some ornaments for clothing. To the six chiefs who were present, we gave a medal of the second grade to one Ottoe chief and one Missouri chief; a medal of the third grade to two inferior chiefs of each nation; the customary mode of recognizing a chief being to place a medal round his neck, which is considered among his tribe as a proof of his consideration abroad. Each of these medals was accompanied by a present of paint, garters, and cloth ornaments of dress; and to this we added a canister of powder, a bottle of whiskey, and a few presents to the whole, which appeared to make them perfectly satisfied. The air-gun, too, was fired, and astonished them greatly. The absent grand chief was an Ottoe, named Weahrushhah, which, in English, degenerates into Little Thief. The two principal chieftains present were Shongotongo, or Big Horse, and Wethea, or Hospitality; also Shosguscan, or White Horse, an Ottoe; the first an Ottoe, the second a Missouri. The incidents just related induced us to give to this place the name of the Council Bluffs: the situation of it is exceedingly favorable for a fort and trading factory, as the soil is well calculated for bricks, and there is an abundance of wood in the neighborhood, and the air being pure and healthy."
Of course the reader will recognize, in the name given to this place by Lewis and Clark, the flourishing modern city of Council Bluffs, Iowa. Nevertheless, as a matter of fact, the council took place on the Nebraskan or western side of the river, and the meeting-place was at some distance above the site of the present city of Council Bluffs.
Above Council Bluffs the explorers found the banks of the river to be high and bluffy, and on one of the highlands which they passed they saw the burial-place of Blackbird, one of the great men of the Mahars, or Omahas, who had died of small-pox. A mound, twelve feet in diameter and six feet high, had been raised over the grave, and on a tall pole at the summit the party fixed a flag of red, white, and blue. The place was regarded as sacred by the Omahas, who kept the dead chieftain well supplied with provisions. The small-pox had caused great mortality among the Indians; and a few years before the white men's visit, when the fell disease had destroyed four hundred men, with a due proportion of women and children, the survivors burned their village and fled.
"They had been a military and powerful people; but when these warriors saw their strength wasting before a malady which they could not resist, their frenzy was extreme; they burned their village, and many of them put to death their wives and children, to save them from so cruel an affliction, and that all might go together to some better country."
In Omaha, or Mahar Creek, the explorers made their first experiment in dragging the stream for fish. With a drag of willows, loaded with stones, they succeeded in catching a great variety of fine fish, over three hundred at one haul, and eight hundred at another. These were pike, bass, salmon-trout, catfish, buffalo fish, perch, and a species of shrimp, all of which proved an acceptable addition to their usual flesh bill-of-fare.
Desiring to call in some of the surrounding Indian tribes, they here set fire to the dry prairie grass, that being the customary signal for a meeting of different bands of roving peoples. In the afternoon of August 18, a party of Ottoes, headed by Little Thief and Big Horse, came in, with six other chiefs and a French interpreter. The journal says:-
"We met them under a shade, and after they had finished a repast with which we supplied them, we inquired into the origin of the war between them and the Mahas, which they related with great frankness. It seems that two of the Missouris went to the Mahas to steal horses, but were detected and killed; the Ottoes and Missouris thought themselves bound to avenge their companions, and the whole nations were at last obliged to share in the dispute. They are also in fear of a war from the Pawnees, whose village they entered this summer, while the inhabitants were hunting, and stole their corn. This ingenuous confession did not make us the less desirous of negotiating a peace for them; but no Indians have as yet been attracted by our fire. The evening was closed by a dance; and the next day, the chiefs and warriors being assembled at ten o'clock, we explained the speech we had already sent from the Council Bluffs, and renewed our advice. They all replied in turn, and the presents were then distributed. We exchanged the small medal we had formerly given to the Big Horse for one of the same size with that of Little Thief: we also gave a small medal to a third chief, and a kind of certificate or letter of acknowledgment to five of the warriors expressive of our favor and their good intentions. One of them, dissatisfied, returned us the certificate; but the chief, fearful of our being offended, begged that it might be restored to him; this we declined, and rebuked them severely for having in view mere traffic instead of peace with their neighbors. This displeased them at first; but they at length all petitioned that it should be given to the warrior, who then came forward and made an apology to us; we then delivered it to the chief to be given to the most worthy, and he bestowed it on the same warrior, whose name was Great Blue Eyes. After a more substantial present of small articles and tobacco, the council was ended with a dram to the Indians. In the evening we exhibited different objects of curiosity, and particularly the air-gun, which gave them great surprise. Those people are almost naked, having no covering except a sort of breech-cloth round the middle, with a loose blanket or buffalo robe, painted, thrown over them. The names of these warriors, besides those already mentioned, were Karkapaha, or Crow's Head, and Nenasawa, or Black Cat, Missouris; and Sananona, or Iron Eyes, Neswaunja, or Big Ox, Stageaunja, or Big Blue Eyes, and Wasashaco, or Brave Man, all Ottoes."