When the rest of Clark's contingent took to the canoes again at Camp Fortunate, Pryor and six privates had successfully driven forty-one horses all the way to the Three Forks, and thence up the Gallatin River and over Bozeman Pass to the Yellowstone Valley, apparently without any trouble. Then, smoke on the horizon on July 18. Twenty-four horses stolen on the twentieth. Seventeen taken on the twenty-fifth. It is conceivable that Indians had been dogging their tracks ever since Clark reached the Yellowstone on the fifteenth. Maybe before that. It's possible too—perhaps probable—that the Crows knew who the white interlopers were when they saw them. They may have realized their moment had come when they saw the strangers begin cutting trees and carving canoes. Or was it pure coincidence?
But how could the Crows have pulled off this caper? Had the seasoned but weary and homesick soldiers, though acutely aware of the dangers they faced every moment of every day, thoughtlessly relaxed their military discipline? Literally let their guard down? The very idea is both uncharitable and illogical, given the plentiful evidence that the Corps of Discovery always operated according to military procedures.
It wouldn't have mattered in any case, for "getting" horses—not stealing them, mind you—was one of the four obligatory honors, or araxtsi', to be attained by any Plains Indian man aspiring to chieftainship. The first was coup, which was to strike an enemy a non-lethal blow and escape without receiving one. The second was to snatch a bow or gun from the hands of an opponent without injury to oneself.1 The third was to become a pipe-owner or raid planner. An araxtsi'wice, or "honor owner."
The fourth kind of araxtsi' was gained by taking a picketed or otherwise closely guarded horse without being caught. Any great Plains Indian warrior had to become adept at that. So there was nothing extraordinary about one or more men creeping to within a hundred paces—about 300 feet—of Pryor's camp and make off with twenty-four ponies.2 Indeed, that may be why some Crow people today won't brag about taking the expedition's horses. It was "too easy." Those young men could bring it off because they knew horses. Horses were extensions of their very selves. That's partly why the Crows didn't eat horseflesh.
Moreover, horses were the coin of the realm—"dollars" to the Crows, as to most other Plains Indians. Need was not an issue, but ostentatious wealth was. It was an Indian version of the capitalistic principle a 19th century critic would apply to a white American value: "conspicuous consumption," the accumulation of money for its own sake.3
It all adds up.
1. Consider George Drouillard's experience on August 22, 1805, in Shoshone Cove. Nothing personal, mind you, just a candidate for chieftainship, maybe, trying to capture an honor. He failed, of course, for Drouillard managed to empty the pan of his rifle before the Indian got it away from him, then chased his attacker and wrenched it from the culprit's hands. Drouillard himself seized the knapsack of edible roots the Indian left on the ground, a real coup considering the Shoshones' state of near-starvation.
2. Lewis and Clark had observed that the Mandans and Hidatsas put their best horses in their earthen lodges at night, perhaps partly against the prowess and determination of Assiniboine, Arikara and Sioux araxtsi'wice. See Lewis's entry for February 12, 1805.
3. Robert H. Lowie, The Crow Indians (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1935), 216, 228.