Henry Meets Chief Le Borgne of the Hidatsa of Knife River Villages
Near the Five Villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa on the Knife River
Alexander Henry has met the Hidatsa chief who thought that Lewis and Clark gave too many speeches when they were here last winter. On a visit to the villages with other North West Company traders, including the son of Charles Chaboillez and others who guided him from the Assiniboine River to the north, Henry is most impressed with the head chief called Le Borgne.
“The man is upward of six feet high, stout but not in the least fat. He has lost the sight of his right eye, but the penetrating look from his left eye . . . makes up for the lost eye . . . ” Henry says that the chief is the oldest of five brothers and appears to be about 45 years of age.
Henry witnessed a peace treaty arranged by Le Borgne with the Cheyenne, a tribe from the west that sometimes go to war with the village native people. Henry was able to visit with the chief at the Cheyenne camp. Le Borgne greeted him warmly and ordered his women to prepare food immediately.
Henry learned much about the nomadic tribes of the west from Le Borgne, who told him that the Cheyenne, the Pawnee and the Arapahoe traded with Spain.
The peace arranged by Le Borgne almost was broken on the same day when a group of Assiniboin, traditional enemies of the Cheyenne, arrived at the camp where the Cheyenne were celebrating with the village people. The Cheyenne wanted to kill the Assiniboin, who demanded protection from their friends, the Mandan and Hidatsa.
Le Borgne managed to get the Assiniboin safely into his tent. The next day, he adopted a Cheyenne son in a ceremony in which he used an American flag given to him by Lewis and Clark the winter before. Even so, the Cheyenne seemed ready to fight as the village people packed up to return to the villages, but Le Borgne simply stood up to them and managed to leave without incident. He told Henry that there were too many women and children with the group to risk a fight, but that he would have fought if necessary.
During his visit, Henry learned from the village people that Lewis and Clark had reached the Pacific and were expected to be in the villages within a month. Henry noted that Le Borgne had at first refused presents offered by the Americans because “they were disgusted at the high-sounding language of the captains. They will not entertain the idea that any race is superior to their own.”
Henry believes that “if the United States ever attempts to reduce the Big Bellies (Hidatsa) by force, they will meet with more resistance than they may be now aware.” Henry found Le Borgne to be a most pleasant man, one who “smiled even when matters did not please him—but it was a ghastly grin.”
Henry also met Rene Jusseaume at the village, where he has lived with his native wife and their children for almost 15 years. “He appears a Christian, but he will try every mean, dirty trick the Mandan have learned from the scoundrels who visit these parts.”
Henry had a successful trip. He was fortunate, he said, to have the services of an old Irishman, Hugh McCracken, who had guided David Thompson to the Mandan. “I found him at the trading post at the Souris and Assiniboine rivers. Thompson had reported him dead, but here he was, alive and ready to show me the way.”
Note: Le Borgne was most skeptical about the American traders, especially Lewis and Clark, who came with little trade goods. Moreover, he found the white visitors far too confident that their way of life was better than his, something he found unacceptable.
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.