An Interview with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
Expedition Leaders Happy To See Spring
Fort Mandan, April 1805
Lewis and Clark are preparing to head up river after spending the winter at Fort Mandan among the native people of the Missouri River Valley. They have consented to answer a few questions before they push on west.
Would you describe your winter quarters?
This place, which we call Fort Mandan, is situated on a point of low ground, on the north side of the Missouri, covered with tall and heavy cottonwood. The works consist of two rows of huts or sheds forming an angle where they join each other. Each row contains four rooms of 14 feet square and 7 feet high, with plank ceiling, and the roof slanting so as to form a loft above the rooms. The highest part of the fort is 18 feet from the ground. The backs of the huts form a wall of that height, and opposite there is an area of two rooms for stores and provisions.
As far away from home as you are, how did you celebrate traditional holidays like Christmas and New Year’s Day?
We were awakened before day by a discharge of three platoons from the party. We had told the Indians not to visit us, as it was one of our great medicine days. The men remained at home and amused themselves in various ways, particularly with dancing, in which they take great pleasure. The American flag was hoisted for the first time in the fort; the best provisions we had were brought out, and this, with a little brandy, enabled them to pass the day in great festivity. The new year was welcomed by two shots from the swivel and a round of small arms. In the morning we permitted 16 men with their music to go up to the first village. They delighted the whole tribe with their dances, particularly with the movements of one of the Frenchmen, who danced on his head. In return the natives presented the dancers with several buffalo robes and quantities of corn. We were desirous of showing this attention to the village because they did not think we regarded them highly enough. As a result, they compared us unfavorably with the northern traders.
How cold did it get during the winter?
On January 10, 1805, I [Clark] wrote in my journal, “Last night was exceedingly cold. The mercury this morning stood at 40 degrees below zero, which is 72 degrees below freezing point. We had one man out last night who returned about 8 o’clock this morning. The Indians of the lower village turned out to hunt for a man and a boy who had not returned from the hunt of yesterday, and borrowed a sleigh to bring them in, expecting to find them frozen to death. About 10 o’clock, the boy – about 13 years of age – came to the Fort with his feet frozen. He had lain out last night without fire, with only a buffalo robe to cover him. The dress which he wore was a pair of antelope leggings, which is very thin, and moccasins. We had his feet put in cold water, and they (the feet) are coming to. Soon after the arrival of the boy, a man came in who had also stayed out without fire, and very thinly clothed. This man was not in the least injured. Customs, and the habits of these people, have inured them to bear more cold than I thought it possible for man to endure.
What else was unusual about your winter at Fort Mandan?
One night, one of the men awakened to see a northern light, but not red, and appeared to darken and sometimes nearly obscured, and open. It was of various shapes and considerable space. Many times it appeared in light streaks, and at other times a great space light, and containing floating columns, which appeared to approach each other and retreat, leaving the lighter space at no time of the same appearance.
You were visited by the one-eyed chief whom they call Le Borgne. Would you tell us about that interesting visit?
He was received with much attention. Two guns were fired in honor of his arrival. The curiosities were exhibited to him, and as he said that he had not received the presents which we had sent to him on his arrival, we again gave him a flag, a medal, shirt, arm braces, and the presents usual on such occasions. He was much pleased. In the course of the conversation, the chief observed that some foolish young men of his nation had told him there was a person among us who was quite black, and he wished to know if it could be true. We assured him that it was true, and sent for York. Le Borgne was very much surprised at his appearance, examined him closely, and spit on his finger and rubbed the skin in order to wash off the paint. Only when York uncovered his head and showed his short hair was Le Borgne persuaded that he was not a painted white man.
Note: The answers to the questions above are the actual words from the Journals of Lewis and Clark.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.