1804 - Lewis and Clark set off from St. Louis

        On May 21, 1804, Lewis and Clark depart from St. Charles, Missouri, and begin the upstream struggle against the big muddy - the Missouri River.

         As the Corps of Discovery pressed north and west, ever deeper into the welter of shifting intertribal antipathies on the upper Missouri, they understood little of its complexity or the history of the alliances between tribes and competing enterprises.  Like earlier 'peace commissions' of LaVerendrey, Truteau, and Evans that tried to forge peace with quill and parchment, they failed utterly at peacemaking.  In fact, for the most part the Indians viewed their efforts at peace-making as a farce.

  • June 26 -  Reach the Kansas river
  • July 27 - reach modern day Omaha
  • October 20, 1804, Lewis and an Arikara guide visit the abandoned On-A-Slant village, at the Heart River, where the 1781 small pox epidemic decimated the tribe.  Skulls and bones were still piled in corners of the village as a testament to the horror that had visited this once thriving trading center.  (click here for a video of On-A-Slant) The Corps of Discovery camped a mile upstream from the village and encountered its first grizzly bear.
  • October 24 - the expedition was well north of present Bismarck.
  • October 27 - arrived at the Mandan Villages on the Knife River, welcomed by the legendary Mandan chief, Black Cat.  Had they arrived a few months earlier, the explorers would have found the villages full of trading visitors; Crow, Assiniboines, Cheyennes and Kiowas, along with white traders from the North West company, the Hudson's Bay Company, and businessmen from St. Louis looking to open the way west.

Click here for more on Lewis and Clark

Clarks Sketch

          Lewis and Clark were quick to recognize the Mandan to be crafty and shrewd traders. During the trading fairs of late summer the dancing, feasting and celebrations would go one through the night, and the trade goods brought here by the various tribes made it a Walmart of the plains, where they would find furs of all kinds, meat products, baskets of produce, musical instruments and blankets, tanned buffalo hides and leather goods of all kinds. This was a festive time of celebration in the five villages of Mandan and Hidatsa.

         There were two Mandan and three Hidatsa villages at the Knife River. A large village on the west bank was led by Big White and Little Raven, and the second upriver village was led by Black Cat and Raven Man Chief.

click here for more

         The three Hidatsa villages were located a stones throw away, straddling the Knife River.  Between them, there were 230 lodges, each housing twenty-five to forty people. Lewis and Clark estimated that the Hidatsa and Mandan could raise thirteen hundred warriors, so they were predisposed to caution before they felt certain of the peaceable nature of their hosts.  The Hidasta were accustomed to riding off on war parties that took them away from home for months at a time, while the Mandan tended to hunt closer to their home villages.