Stolen Horses

A late-afternoon rainstorm on July 25, and abundant grass along the temporarily flooded banks of present-day Fly Creek, prompted him to camp there for the night, Sergeant Pryor later explained to his captain. The next morning, the horses were gone. All of them.1

Unmistakable evidence showed that Indians had come within 300 feet of their camp. Pryor and his three men followed the departing hoofprints for five miles. When the tracks split and went in two different directions, Pryor pursued the larger party another five miles before giving up. The three soldiers returned to their camp, shouldered their packs, and headed toward the river, which they reached at Pompy's Tower. There they killed a bison and built two small skin boats "in the form and shape of the mandans & Ricares." But Pryor's "chapter of accidents" was not full yet. Deep in the night of the 26th a wolf bit one of his hands and then turned on Windsor. Shannon shot the vicious canid. The bite of any animal, particularly a wild omnivore, is subject to infection, and the possibility of rabies must have crossed Pryor's mind for a few days, but by the time he and his three-man detail caught up with Clark on August 8, the wound was almost healed.

Crow Indian Horse Culture

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.2 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.3 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.4

It all adds up.

  • 1. This particular run of bad luck began three days after Clark and his contingent left Travelers' Rest on July 3 with fifty head of horses. They awakened on July 7 at their camp in the Western part of the Big Hole Valley to find that nine of their best mounts were gone. Circumstantial evidence pointed toward unidentifiable Indian thieves, but that concern was dispelled when Sgt. Ordway found them and returned with them two days later. There were no more problems, horse-wise at least, until the night of July 20, when twenty-four more horses were spirited away. This time, Clark suspected the Crow Indians (See also Clark's Speech to the Crow Indians.) Meanwhile, seven of the seventeen horses Lewis had taken back to the Great Falls were stolen on July 12; he suspected Salish buffalo hunters.
  • 2. 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.
  • 3. 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.
  • 4. Robert H. Lowie, The Crow Indians (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1935), 216, 228.