Agent Peter Ronan's home
Village of St. Ignatius, in the Mission Valley of Northwestern Montana
Photo by F. Jay Haynes, courtesy of the MOntana Historical Society. F. Jay Haines collection. H-2007
The mountains beyond are part of the Mission Range.
Peter Ronan was the U.S. Government's representative, or Indian agent, on the Flathead (then called the Jocko) Reservation in northwestern Montana from 1877 to 1893. Most agents were political appointees, often unqualified as managers, and lacking appreciation for Indian beliefs and traditions. Ronan was an exception. He was patient, humble, and sensitive to the plight of the Salish, the Kootenais, and the Pend d'Oreilles. He tried very hard to uphold their rights in the face of overwhelming pressures from white settlers, entrepreneurs, and his own Federal government.
Peter Ronan's History of the Flathead Indians, Their Wars and Hunts, 1813-1890, is a detailed and sensitive record of those peoples' lives during their long transition from independent, sovereign nations in the era of Lewis and Clark, to a condition of total dependence upon a duplicitous and overbearing EuroAmerican culture.
Here, he recounts a story of the meeting of the Salish people with the Corps of Discovery, at Ross Hole, on September 4–5, 1805 after the Corps' descent from the Bitterroot Divide.
The new state of Montana [admitted in 1889], as well as the United States government, should not forget that they owe a debt of gratitude to the Flathead Indians for the friendly welcome extended to the early explorers and pioneers of this country, which is attested to be Lewis and Clarke [sic] in their official reports to President Jefferson and published so widely both in America and Europe. Captains Clarke and Lewis, with their followers . . . were the first white men the Flathead Indians ever beheld.
At the date of this writing, May 1890, there still lives at S. Ignatius mission, on the Flathead reservation, an old Indian woman named Ochanee, who distinctly remembers, and relates in the Indian language the advent of those two great captains, with their followers, into the Flathead camp in the Bitter Root valley, and the great astonishment it created among the Indians.
The explorers crossed over the Big Hole Mountains [Bitterroot Mountains] and arrived at the Flathead camp in the Bitter Root valley in the year 1804 . Ochanee claims to have been about 13 years of age at that date. She is a lively old woman, and still has all of her mental faculties, and can describe camps, scenes and events which are vividly portrayed in the published reports of Lewis and Clark descriptive of the Flathead and Nez Perce Indians, who were then hunting and camping together.
During the stay of the explorers in the Flathead camp Captain Clarke took unto himself a Flathead woman. One son was the result of this union, and he was baptised after the missionaries came to Bitter Root valley [in 1850] and named Peter Clarke. This halfbreed lived to a ripe age, and was well known to many of Montana's early settlers. He died about six years ago [c. 1884] and left a son, who was christened at St. Mary's Mission to the name of Zachariah, and pronounced Sacalee by the Indians. The latter has a son three years of age, whom it is claimed by the Indians, in direct descent, to be the great grandson of the renowned Captain Clarke.1
As striking as this account is, it is important to understand that there is no evidence that either of the officers, or any other member of the Corps of Discovery, was ever guilty of rape. On the contrary, there were many instances of native men offering their daughters, even their wives, to their white visitors for consensual sex, without any hint of salacity or moral turpitude but rather in the expectation of infusing the tribe with the blood of power and strength. Ochanee's statement that Captain Clark "took unto himself" a Flathead woman was a common Biblical euphemism for "slept with" or "had sex with." Furthermore, we are told that on more than a few occasions the women as well as their male guardians were genuinely offended, even highly insulted when the captains declined the offers, which according to the journals they did without exception. At the same time, the captains frequently, if tacitly, allowed the enlisted men to accept those offers at will, even at the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
Thus it is conceivable that all reports of Lewis and Clark themselves fathering offspring among the natives were merely selfish or political gestures aimed to gain prestige within the tribe or even beyond, when the sire in reality was a common soldier of low standing in white culture. On the other hand, the endurance of some claims throughout two or more successive generations, even without corroboration from Lewis or Clark, seem to lend the story the weight of truth. For another example, see William Clark's Nez Perce Son.
1. Peter Ronan, History of the Flathead Indians, Their Wars and Hunts, 1813-1890 (1890, reprint, Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1965), 44.