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Chapter 10 Let’s Play Lewis & Clark! Strange Visions of Nature and History at the Bicentennial Mark Spence The middle weeks of October can be a cruel time of year in the Dakotas. It is not uncommon to experience four seasons in a day, when a mild afternoon can give way to cold rain and a bone-chilling night. Travelers in the open must contend with the blasting winds of the Great Plains, which swing wildly about the compass as continental weather patterns shift between the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic. Gray skies from the north become more prevalent with each passing day, however, and early morning frosts settle into the dry grasses and put an urgency to the winter preparations of all living things. For the Sahnish (Arikara), Mandan, and Hidatsa villagers who lived along the upper Missouri River in the early nineteenth century, the short autumn season was a time for brief hunts, final harvests, and preparations for the move to more sheltered dwelling sites. This time also marked the end of the business season for nonresident traders from St. Louis, who left in early fall before the river level dropped to its lowest ebb and the water turned frigid. How strange it must have seemed, then, for a group of nearly forty men and three watercraft to arrive from the south in the fall of 1804.1 For the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, “strange” was probably too mild a word. Something with more sinister connotations might have better described their predicament, as weather and the Missouri River seemed to conspire against their efforts at every turn. On the morning of 5 October, just a day after passing into the territory of the Sahnish, they were surprised to awake beneath a white frost. The following day, shallow water and a cold north wind forced expedition members to drop sail and drag their fifty-five-foot single masted keelboat across sandbars and gravel shoals. William Clark described these efforts in brief but telling fashion: “we have been obgd [obliged] to hunt a Chanl. for Some time past the river be219 ing devided in many places in a great number of Chanels” (3:147).2 Their struggles soon brought them to a principal village of the Sahnish, the southernmost of the three horticultural groups that lived and farmed along the upper Missouri River, and “Great numbers of Spectators” gathered along the river to watch and comment on the expedition (3:151). The diplomatic goals of Lewis and Clark and the ritual hospitality of the Sahnish allowed for a brief respite from the challenges of river travel, but the winds of the Northern Plains still found a way to stymie the expedition: the first official meeting with village leaders was postponed because, in Clark’s words, it was too “windey rainey . . . and Cold” (3:155).3 A few consecutive days of fair weather seemed to bode well for the expedition , and after several meetings with different village leaders the selfdescribed Corps of Discovery renewed its daily struggle against shallow currents and variable winds. Its number was increased by the addition of a Sahnish leader named Piahito (Eagle Feather) and his retinue, who agreed to accompany the captains upriver for a series of meetings with the Mandan and Hidatsa. For several days they passed smaller Sahnish settlements and encountered returning parties of hunters. According to the observations of a French trader who lived among the Sahnish and served the expedition as a translator, all marveled at the keelboat and the strange instruments it carried as “supernatural and powerful.”4 For Piahito at least, the most peculiar aspect of the expedition and its members was manifest not so much in their tools as their behavior. A day after the Sahnish leader was brought on board, the captains initiated a court-martial of Private John Newman. Charged with “having uttered repeated expressions of a highly criminal and mutinous nature,” Newman was sentenced to seventy-five lashes on his bare back (3:170). As the punishment was being delivered, Piahito cried out in alarm and apparently tried to halt the whipping. Corporal punishment in public was completely foreign to the peoples of the upper Missouri, and he protested that no one ever whipped another person for any reason. Clark “explained the Cause of the punishment and the necessity,” which he believed was sufficiently convincing to his guest, but it is impossible to assess how much was understood between these two...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780520937147
Related ISBN
9780520238220
MARC Record
OCLC
55749588
Pages
298
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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