Pryor's Second Mission

Pryor's odyssey was not yet over. On March 9, 1807 Henry Dearborn, Jefferson's Secretary of War, sent William Clark instructions to see to it that Sheheke and his family were escorted back to their home "by as safe and Speedy conveyance as practicable." He authorized a small force—one sergeant and ten privates, with the option to add from two to six recruits—to be commanded by Nathaniel Pryor, who had recently been promoted to the rank of ensign (second lieutenant). He also authorized a draft for $400 from the War Department for presents to Sheheke's people, plus whatever was "indispensibly neccessary in fitting out the party for the Voyage." Finally, he authorized Clark to grant a two-year monopoly to trade on the Missouri River from the Arikara towns on up, to any merchants or traders who would agree to accompany Pryor's detachment, and to furnish them with powder and ball for each man. He closed by promising Clark $1,500 per year as the new Agent of Indian Affairs in the Territory of Louisiana.1

Clark promptly replied to Dearborn on May 18 that he had completed all arrangements as instructed, and that Pryor would set out that very evening with fourteen soldiers and an interpreter, plus a trading party of twenty-two under the command of Auguste Pierre Chouteau (1786–1838). A frenzy of commercial activity had begun that season, he remarked, with three American companies going up the Missouri, and a group of British traders coming down from Canada, all bound for "the head of the Missouri"—presumably the vicinity of the Knife River towns. He added that Pierre Dorion,2 whom the trader and interpreter General Wilkinson had appointed Indian subagent for the Missouri, had arrived in St. Louis with fifteen Sioux, but that after three days of deliberation the Indians had decided not to proceed on to Washington City to visit the President.3

That letter could not have reached Dearborn before Clark dispatched another, on June 1. The group of Sioux, escorted by a lieutenant and seven enlisted men, had already headed homeward on a government boat, evidently satisfied with the presents and treatment they had received. Clark proceeded to explain the plan for Sheheke's return.

Five months later, on October 16, Ensign Pryor submitted a 2,200-word report explaining the "untoward circumstances" that led to the failure of his second mission. To begin with, he had been met by a force of about 650 Arikara and Sioux Indians all armed with guns and "additional warlike weapons." He learned that Manuel Lisa—bound for the Bighorn River on the Yellowstone, with Lewis and Clark veteran John Colter in his party—had passed through some time earlier, and had surrendered some guns and ammunition to the Arikaras. Lisa, perhaps to deflect an immediate attack on his own party, had told the Indians Pryor was coming upriver with Sheheke, and that one of Pryor's two boats would stop and trade with the Arikaras.5 Pryor was also warned that the Indians had decided to murder the Mandan chief, so he secured Sheheke in the cabin of the keelboat, and prepared his men for action.

He then tried to persuade "the Arikara,'" thirty-five-year-old head chief, Grey Eyes, to let him pass. "We are not strangers to you," he reminded the chief. "On a former occasion you extended to Louis & Clark the hand of friendship." He hung a peace medal around the chief's neck, promised to stop at the upper village to visit with the other chiefs, and proceeded on. The Indians waved Pryor on, but stopped Chouteau's keelboat, which contained merchandise and had no soldiers on board to defend it. Confidently, Choteau and a few of his traders stepped ashore to talk.

Grey Eyes defiantly threw his medal on the ground. One of Chouteau's men was struck with the butt of a gun. A pitched battle erupted. Pryor and Choteau headed their boats downstream in retreat under a hail of bullets from both sides of the river. The battle was abruptly suspended after about an hour when a Sioux leader was killed. Pryor's detachment suffered three wounded (including George Shannon, whose left leg later had to be amputated), while Chouteau's party counted four dead and six wounded. "This miscarriage," Pryor lamented, "is a most unhappy affair."6

Pryor offered to escort Sheheke overland, skirting the combative Arikaras, since his village, Matootonha (or Mitutanka) was only about three days march upriver. However, the chief declined because René Jusseaume, his interpreter, had been badly wounded, and because he was unwilling to risk the safety of their wives and children. He preferred to return to St. Louis where, according to Frederick Bates, he had been "made to believe that he is the 'Brother' and not the 'Son' of the President."7

Pryor concluded that if his opinion were asked concerning the optimum force needed to escort this unhappy chief home, he would say at least 400 men, but "surely it is possible that even one thousand men might fail in the attempt."

Reviewed by Albert Furtwangler

1. Jackson, Letters, 2:382–83.

2. Pierre Dorion, Sr. (ca.1750–1810) continued upriver with Pryor after dropping off the Sioux in his party. He had worked for Lewis and Clark in their dealings with the Sioux, and also was to accompany Pierre Chouteau on the 1809 expedition to take Sheheke home.

3. Jackson, Letters, 2:411–12

4. Ibid., 2:414.

5. Ibid., 2:432–37. Richard Oglesby, Manuel Lisa and the Opening of the Missouri Fur Trade (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), 48–50.

6. Jackson, Letters, 2:432–38. Grey Eyes' son was killed in 1823, in a fight with Missouri Fur Company traders. A few months later the Arikaras retaliated by attacking William Ashley's fur brigade, killing Corps-of-Discovery veteran John Collins. Before the year was out, Grey Eyes himself was killed in a bombardment of his village by U.S. Army artillery under Colonel Henry Leavenworth. Moulton, Journals, 8:316–17n.

7. Ibid., 2:438n. Frederick Bates (1777–1825) became secretary of the Territory of Louisiana in 1807, and was acting governor during Lewis's frequent absences from his office.