I am reading through James Ronda’s Lewis and Clark Among the Indians (first published in 1984) and was reminded of how we saw ourselves politically in the early days of the Republic. This was well before the War to restore the Union and the Gettysburg Address, before the consolidation of power that comes with mass industrialism, and before the United States took a singular verb.

Part of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s task was to encourage (and threaten) the various Indian tribes they met in this newly acquired American territory to turn away from their existing sources of trade goods and look to sources based out of St. Louis. After the politeness of a lot of pipe smoking and the distribution of gifts, the Americans typically made a speech. They pressed for peace and told the tribes along the Missouri that their Spanish and French fathers were gone, and that these old fathers were to be replaced with a new father, “the great chief of the seventeen nations.”

Imagine thinking of Mr. Obama or Mr. Bush as “the great chief of fifty nations.” One can’t. But at Fort Mandan, one could.

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Katherine Dalton has worked as a magazine editor, freelance feature writer and book editor.  She started in journalism in college, working at The Yale Literary Magazine during most of its controversial few years as a national magazine of opinion based at Yale.  She then worked briefly at Harper's magazine in New York, and more extensively at Chronicles magazine in Illinois, where she was a contributing editor for many years.  She has has written for various publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the University Bookman, and was a contributor to Wendell Berry: Life and Work and Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto.  She lives in her native Kentucky.


  1. Like that hint of perfume of a well loved lady lingering long after her departure, we can sense something of the republic we once were here and there . . .

  2. Getting people to think that way about a “chief” was an act of subjugation. Most Americans of the time wouldn’t buy it – they had just fought a war to rid themselves of a great chief – but they’d be glad if the people they were conquering would think that way.

  3. Mr. Sabin,

    Much of the smallpox-in-a-blanket tale was concocted by Professor Ward Churchill. There are letters among British commanders that in a certain historical context such action was contemplated, and there is evidence that it “might” have been carried out in a local area, although it is circumstantial. There is a lot more evidence about the nationalist Andrew Jackson who betrayed his Indian friends and marched Indians on the Trail of Tears to their “promised land;” and there is compelling evidence of what scorched-earth Sherman and his sidekicks such as Custer did to the Plains Indians, killing their food sources, murdering them and herding the rest onto reservations.

  4. Mr. Gorentz,

    The worldview of the French Jacobins had not yet beset most Americans. Lewis and Clark seemed to be men who understood that they lived out a political culture which had its antecedents in Celtic/Roman/Saxon/Norman Britain and that in their particular political culture the role of “chiefs” had diminished; however, they were neither naive enough or ideological enough to believe that this unique British/American idiom of Western culture could apply to peoples of a divergent culture with different antecedents and needs. The Indians were still a “chief” culture and would have had no reference point for the alien culture coming up the Missouri. Lewis and Clark addressed them in the context of the Indian culture, i.e. in their words and references they went native to talk to the natives.

  5. Mrs. Dalton,

    I notice in your quote that that Lewis and Clark said, “the great chief of the seventeen nations.” Today, one would have to say of Bush or Obama, “the leader of the centralized and cosolidated Hobbesian state which pays lip service to utter subordinate political divisions which it still calls ‘states’ rather than what they are, namely mere political subdivisions of a massive bureaucracy.” Give me a “chief” any day of the week.

  6. Mr. Peters,

    I am not as familiar with what was happening with the Mandan Indians as with the Algonquian-language people in the Great Lakes region. In my part of the continent (and I think others) the Euro-American idea of a chief was very different from the Native ideas. A Native leader around here (okema, ogamek (plural), okemos (diminutive, where a nasalized “n” before the s doesn’t make it into the English renditions) was a local, household leader – village leader. Occasionally a woman would be enough of a leader to sign treaties, too. But usually they were men. An ogema’s authority rested on his ability to persuade and to do things for his people. Some ogamek were more influential than others. The Americans didn’t like such a distributed system of authority. They preferred a single leader who could speak for many, who could then be cajoled or co-opted into signing away land, etc. They sometimes tried imposing their own ideas of a leader onto the local peoples, creating what are sometimes derisively called medal chiefs. A compliant man would be given a medal by the Americans, along with material goods which the man could then distribute among his own people and gain a certain amount of grudgingly half-acknowledged authority. (Some who weren’t so complaint also got those medals, but Americans tried their best to pick leaders for the native people. Sometimes they overplayed their hand. William Henry Harrison was a real klutz at this business, e.g. in 1804 and 1809. Later on, negotiators like Lewis Cass were a lot smoother about it, as well as more devious.)

    So when American negotiators spoke of the chief of the seventeen fires, they were trying to impose a notion of chief-ship on a people who had quite a different concept of chief. The two sides in these negotiations probably never did completely understand each other, but they gained some clues as time went on.

    The Americans – even those who were adopting a strong Republican ideology — were more of a hierarchical, authoritarian society than that of the Native peoples. Keep in mind that Lewis and Clark were political appointees of a guy who had just won a bitterly contested election over the nature of political authority in America. But even at that, their culture was far removed from the individualistic, communitarian, egalitarian world of the indigenous peoples.

    In the end, the centralized, authoritarian culture won out, only to be supplanted by a more centralized, authoritarian culture less than a century later as part of the industrialization of America. That culture is now almost completely supplanted by an even more centralized, hierarchical, and authoritarian culture now. I am of course speaking of the welfare-police state and the Democrat left, who are doing the same thing to the tea parties, using many of the same techniques, that the Americans of the 19th century did to conquer the native peoples.

    There are many examples of this sort of cultural displacement all through human history. It didn’t always work out *exactly* this way, of course. There are enough variations on the theme and exceptions to make it all interesting.

  7. So , Mr. Peters, an extinct tribe is not proper evidence enough? Churchill is a grandstanding bore to a degree but the historical record is not particularly murky. Smallpox laden blankets were delivered to natives, period. I don’t know how bringing Jackson and Sherman into this discussion is at all elucidating beyond a certain betrayel of sentiments on your part.

    To suggest that Lewis and Clark “went native” is to delve into the realm of profound malarky. Lewis and Clark, no matter how conversant in frontier culture, were hardly “native” once they started up the Missouri River. They carried cannon and used them ferchrissakes.

    • Mr. Sabin,

      I don’t entirely agree with Mr Peters’s take on this subject, but no, an extinct tribe is not evidence of how it went extinct. Nor is a house fire evidence of how the fire started.

      The person who did advocate sending smallpox laden blankets among Indians is Gen Jeffrey Amherst. It’s possible that some of the soldiers at Fort Pitt (not Fort Mandan) responded to his recommendation in 1963, but the evidence that this caused smallpox is pretty murky. Matthew C. Ward analyzed this possibility in his article, “The Microbes of War: The British Army and Epidemic Disease among the Ohio Indians, 1758-1765,” which is part of an edited volume published in 2001: “The Sixty Years’ War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814.” He thinks the infected blanket method would not have been a very reliable or efficient way of spreading smallpox at that particular place and time. However, he does make a good case for the British army itself serving as a vector for disease epidemics that ravaged both the Native and the Euro-American settler populations at the end of the Seven Years War. And he talks about factors that made the effect even worse among the Native populations than among the Euro-American settlers.

      I don’t know if Ward’s paper is generally considered the last word on the topic, but in looking around in the past half hour I haven’t found anyone who has contested it. I am chagrined to say that although it was published in 2001, and the edited volume is on topics that have interested me since several years before that, I didn’t read it until a month or so ago. So I can’t claim to be up-to-date on the topic.

      I don’t think Mr. Peters is suggesting that Lewis and Clark went native. I think he is just talking about their attempt to find a vocabulary with which to deal with them. Not that I entirely agree with his characterization of what happened.

      I will point out that I am usually suspicious of attempts to demonize the bad guys of history, including characters like Amherst, Hitler, and Stalin. In doing so we tend to distance ourselves from our own complicity in other acts of cultural destruction that we tend to partake of even now, or in acts by which we otherwise make the world a place in which people like Amherst, Hitler, and Stalin have room to operate.

      I’m currently trying to learn more about Gen. John Pope, who is best known for losing at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run. Pres. Lincoln immediately replaced him and sent him to Minnesota to deal with what earlier generations called the 1862 Sioux Uprising. Pope for a time advocated extermination of the Dakota people, and would have hanged all 300 warriors who were captured if Lincoln hadn’t pardoned most of them. (I went to high school my freshman year with descendants of those who had been put on trial, but didn’t know anything about that at the time.) Pope had genocidal intentions at first, and later advocated what he thought were more humanitarian intentions for them. He’s even listed as one of the “humanitarian generals” in a paper that was written by one of his biographers. But based on my reading so far, I think he was humanitarian only in the sense that ObamaCare is humanitarian. I.e. he wanted control, thought the army could do a better job of managing Indians than the Indian department did, wanted them restricted to approved health plans, oops, I mean reservations, then wondered why they were starving, etc. He wanted to civilize them, and used some of the same rhetoric we hear now about how ObamaCare is supposed to be a civilizing influence on America. Pope was a military guy who responded to political pressure, and was much involved in the whole sordid tale that began in Minnesota in 1862 and ended at Wounded Knee, even though he was not directly responsible for the atrocities.

      I’m learning about this so I can write up one little 60-mile bike ride I took in Minnesota last September, starting at what used to be my favorite swimming beach in the 60s, a half mile from our house. Pope had been there on an exploring expedition in 1849, and described the place in his report. The description still fits. My bike ride that day also took me to the site of Fort Juelson, a settler fort that had been built in response to Custer’s defeat in 1876. And it took me near my Minnesota high school to the farm of Charles Brandborg, who ran for Governor of Minnesota, twice, on the Socialist ticket. I already wrote about him in Fourth of July in Henning, but this year spent a couple days at the Minnesota Historical Society archives to learn more, and then went out for another bike ride to get more photos.

      And yes, that story is also connected to the John Pope story. John Pope’s 1849 exploring expedition produced some recommendations for railroad routes. Railroads were later built along the routes he recommended, including the one that went through Henning. Farmers like Brandborg then had issues with monopolistic railroads in the latter part of the 19th century.

      BTW, in case anyone actually reads what I post and is suspicious about all the tales about my high school days now that I’ve told about three different high schools I attended in Nebraska and Minnesota, please know that I attended only three high schools. I won’t be introducing yet a fourth one. An advantage of having attended that many is that it connects me to more historical stories. (However, I also attended 3 other schools in grades 1-8, and didn’t even attend kindergarten.) There are also other advantages to having attended so many schools, as well as disadvantages.

  8. Gorentz,
    Amherst’s use of the tool of genocide was learned from a previous hundred years of contact resulting in asymmetrical demise. Originally, just a few Irish and Portuguese fisherman could kill hundreds in casual contact. This went on for decades.I do not call in question the motives in their time…I do, however, question the revisionism that it might never have happened.

    A family in Deerfield, Mass. finding their kin tomahawked and their fathers, mothers, sons and daughters carried off to Canada in the winter cannot be blamed for certain feelings of revenge.

    But always, we find this sort of thing revolving around global power politics.This is the real sin, compounded by revisionist efforts.

  9. Mr. Peters,

    One thing that has puzzled me is why the virgin soil epidemics that wiped out major portions of indigenous populations in our part of North America and in New England didn’t arrive before around 1600, given that Portugese fishermen were making frequent trips to North America even before 1500. The issue was probably addressed long before I started to wonder about it, though. Some of Bill Cronon’s students may have done work on topics like this.

  10. Mr. Gorentz,

    There is a big gap between Portugese sailors who might or might not have carried smallpox and other European diseases fishing the coastal waters and the permanent settlement of North America in the 1600’s. Mass migration of one people into the territory of other peoples has always brought alien diseases which often ravaged the natives. This is nothing new, and does not prove that smallpox was weaponized on a massive scale.

    • Mr. Peters,

      The answer probably lies somewhere in the differences you describe; however it would be interesting to know more precisely.

      The Portuguese weren’t just fishing in the coastal waters. They were also drying their fish on Newfoundland and interacting with native peoples. But perhaps no self-respecting virus would want to be caught dead crossing over to a cold place like Laborador, much less be willing to travel further south from there. Or maybe the Portuguese fishermen were a healthy lot who didn’t carry diseases with them. I don’t know.

      It’s also interesting that the disease epidemics spread by De Soto during his 1540 expedition didn’t spread further across the continent. I suppose diseases that wouldn’t travel north from Georgia wouldn’t travel south from Newfoundland and Laborador, either.

      Population density and dispersal would also make a difference in how epidemics would spread. But then I would wonder about some of the higher estimates that some people have made for the size and density of indigenous populations before Columbus.

  11. Mr. Sabin,

    Give to me the historical evidence outside discussions among a few British officers that blankets laden with disease were purposely distributed to Indians; and if you can show that evidence, show that it happened on a massive scale of politically planned genocide by British, French, Spanish, Dutch or United States authorities, particularly in relation to the Lewis and Clark Expedition which was the original topic of discussion. “Revisionist efforts” usually means that someone is challenging the ideological prejudice of someone else. It is a dog that simply does not hunt.

  12. I wonder if any state sees itself as a nation – even remotely. My sense of our internal geography is a borderless constellation of cities connected by interstates and airports; and that sense of the world is spreading across continents.
    I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed so I don’t know my opinion means much, but I am continually disappointed by Thomas Friedman’s books; thing is, in an important sense the world is not getting flat, our comprehension and understanding is becoming shallow.

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