Clark's Speech to the Crow Indians

Damn! Those horses were the very last "dollars" he had in his pocket, and they were part of a plan. A politically significant plan. A crucial plan. Clark surely suffered some sleepless hours, fretting over this turn of events, plotting how he'd cuss 'em out if he ever met 'em. Meanwhile, he thought about the speech that he and Lewis had drafted before they separated at Travelers' Rest, which Clark would polish off with a few important additions around July 23. He hoped to deliver it to the Crows as soon as he met them face to face: a friendly greeting, a veiled accusation, a stern warning, a pledge of friendship, and a sincere invitation.1

While holding their attention with his eyes and some emphatic, admonishing, kindly one-handed gestures, he would have read it aloud in English. Deliberately, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase. At climactic points, word by word. It would be a spellbinder. Gibson, who apparently claimed to have had experience in Plains Indian sign language, might have had enough of a vocabulary—Drewyer was with Lewis's contingent up on the Marias River—to convey it directly to the assembled Crows though his jesticulations. If not, then undoubtedly François Labiche would stand beside the captain, listening closely, searching through his memory for the French equivalent of every word, every idea. Labiche would convey it in French to Charbonneau, who was familiar with the Crows' Missouri Valley dialect of the Siouan tongue, and who might have addressed their listeners directly, or perhaps—although this seems doubtful—he would have discussed his choices of Hidatsa translations with Sacagawea, who had lived with the Hidatsas for four years, and may have been more articulate in the Crows' language than her husband. In that case she could have been the final link in the chain of communication. One cannot help but wonder how Labiche, Charbonneau or Sacagawea transmitted the several subtler Lewisian expressions, such as "Benevolent, just, wise & bountifull," "Consult together," or "within practicable distance," but most of the rest of Clark's harangue would have been very thought-provoking in any language.

Clark begins with a crisp invocation:

Children. The Great Spirit has given a fair and bright day for us to meet together in his View, that he may inspect us in this, all we say and do.

(Amen, brother!)

He then proceeds, punctuating his discourse again and again with that formal salutation, a civility as necessary but faintly aimless as "ladies and gentlemen" or "dear sir." "Children!" he says again, and proceeds to clarify the relationship that is to be the basis of an international friendship:

I take you all by the hand as the children of your Great father the president of the U. States of America who is the great chief of all the white people towards the riseing sun.

He summarizes his credentials and his mission, and acknowledges his co-captain:

Children. This Great Chief who is Benevolent, just, wise & bountifull has sent me and one other of his chiefs (who is at this time in the country of the Blackfoot Indians) to all his read . . .

(Listen to his Virginia-via-Kentucky accent. He spells out his pronunciation of red in two syllables–"RAY-ud.")

. . . his read children on the Missouri and its waters quite to the great lake of the West where the land ends and the sun sets on the face of the great water, to know their wants and inform him of them on our return.
Children. We have been to the great lake of the west and are now on our return to my country. I have seen all my read children quite to that great lake and talked with them, and taken them by the hand in the name of their great father the Great Chief of all the white people.

Let's get personal. He levels the playing field, invites a little empathy. We're all travelers:

I have come across over high mountains and bad road to this river to see [you]. I have come down the river from the foot of the great snowey mountain to see you, and have looked in every derection for you, without seeing you untill now.

Let me get to the point.

He disarms his listeners with just a hint of a smile. Lowers his voice. Shrinks his profile. Leans toward them in a gesture of confidentiality:

I heard from . . . my horses who complained to me of your people haveing taken 24 of their cummerads.

Can Labiche translate his mood into French? Will Charbonneau or Sacagawea? Will anybody get the joke? Never mind. Drop the subject and go on:

The object of my comeing to see you is not to do you injurey but to do you good. The Great Chief of all the white people who has more goods at his command than could be piled up in the circle of your camp, wishing that all his read children should be happy, has sent me here to know your wants that he may supply them.

President Jefferson's instructions to the captains have spelled out his declared policies and objectives that Lewis and Clark are to foster wherever they go, whoever they talk to, so keep those orders in mind: "In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of it's innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the U.S., of our wish to be neighborly, friendly & useful to them, & of our dispositions to a commercial intercourse with them; confer with them on the points most convenient as mutual emporiums, and the articles of most desireable interchange for them & us."2

Clark abbreviates those "commercial dispositions:"

Your great father the Chief of the white people intends to build a house and fill it with such things as you may want and exchange with you for your skins & furs at a very low price. . . .

(Wait! Is that really what he meant to say? His speech, pretty good up to this point, almost trips him up. "A very low price." For "such things as you may want"? Or "for your skins & furs"? How will that come across in translation?) Better fix it on the fly, captain:

. . . & has derected me to enquire of you, at what place would be most convenient for to build this house, and what articles you are in want of that he might send them imediately on my return.

Move on to a little power-diplomacy:

The people in my country is like the grass in your plains, noumerous. They are also rich and bountifull, and love their read brethren who inhabit the waters of the Missoure.

Again, the personal appeal:

I have been out from my country two winters. I am pore, necked, and have nothing to keep off the rain. When I set out from my country I had a plenty but have given it all to my read children whome I have seen on my way to the Great Lake of the West, and have now nothing.

Jefferson's peace plan in a nutshell:

Your Great father the Chief of all the white people has derected me to inform his red children to be at peace with each other, and the white people who may come into your ountry under the protection of the Flag of your great father which you.     those people who may visit you under the protection of that flag are good people and will do you no harm.

One more point regarding our horses those boys stole. He wags a figurative finger.

Your great father has derected me to tell you not to suffer your young and thoughtless men to take the horses or property of your neighbours or the white people, but to trade with them fairly and honestly.

Now let's get down to business!

A few more reassurances, and then to Jefferson's other instruction:

If a few of their influential chiefs, within practicable distance, wish to visit us, arrange such a visit with them, and furnish them with authority to call on our officers, on their entering the U.S., to have them conveyed to this place at the public expence.3
If any one two or 3 of your great chiefs wishes to visit your great father and will go with me, he will send you back next Summer loaded with presents and some goods for the nation. You will then see with your own eyes and here with your own years what the white people can do for you. They do not speak with two tongues nor promis what they can't perform.

(Clark really meant that, and he was soon to deplore the course that history chose.) Meanwhile, he urged his imaginary listeners:

Consult together and give me an answer as soon as possible. Your great father is anxious to here from & see his red children who wish to visit him.

We're outta here:

I cannot stay but must proceed on & inform him &c.

Clark never got the chance to deliver his speech, for the Crows kept to the shadows and the skyline, and they kept their own counsel. Some Crow people still smile at the recollection of that horse incident. "We didn't steal 'em," one told me. "We just . . . took 'em."

But hey, they really missed a good speech, didn't they?

1. This draft probably was written after July 21, 1806, according to Moulton. However, judging from the overall refinement of the spelling, grammar and syntax it clearly resembles Lewis's style. But Lewis was on Cut Bank Creek, approaching the disappointing climax of his exploration of the Marias River. The two men had discussed their conceivable fortunes on their respective detours, and Clark had good reason to expect he would meet the Crows in person. To ad lib a formal speech would be risky. It made good sense to be prepared.

2. Jackson, Letters, I:60.

3. Ibid.