Estimate of Eastern Indians

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Intelligence gathering

Estimate of Eastern Indians (detail)

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Eastern Indians

American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

In Clark's spreadsheet there are 14 more columns to the right of this detail, and 40 more lines below it. The overall dimensions of the seven sheets of letter paper pasted together are approximately 35" by 28".4

At Fort Clatsop during the winter of 1804–05, in compliance with the President's orders, the captains developed a "List of the Names of the different Nations & Tribes of Indians Inhabiting the Countrey on the Missourie and its Waters." It was a prodigious task, involving the reiteration of 19 questions to Indian informants and Euro-American traders concerning some 72 tribes known or believed to reside within the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase, including 19 southern tribes, that were characterized by from 4 to 7 points. While they discussed many of the tribes and bands in fuller detail elsewhere in the journals, a few were mentioned only in this chart, which is commonly referred to as the "Estimate of the Eastern Indians"—meaning east of the Rocky Mountains.

The captains carried out their research through a two-way chain of interpreters—English-to-French-to-Indian language, or perhaps English-to-Drouillard's-signing-to-Indian language. Sometimes the linguistic chain would have to be extended to five links each way. Other communication problems complicated the process. Some of these were obvious, such as the differences between Indian and Euro-American conventions for defining time and distance. Others were more likely obscure, such as personal, political, or cultural prejudices based on long-established friendships or enmities, which could have stimulated boastful pride in relating friendly associations, or delight in sharing gossip. On the other hand, the seeming impertinence of the interrogators' queries might have aroused suspicion of their motives, or disgust over their impertinence. In most instances there was no way to cross-check the answers they believed they heard. (For a modern example: in some parts of the West, it is still considered bad manners to ask a farmer or rancher how many acres are in his spread.) They met only a few of the tabulated tribes face-to-face, so most of the information had to come second- or third-hand from willing, congenial traders, or from trustworthy Indian authorities.1

The young United States had institutionalized the collection of intelligence with the Second Continental Congress's creation of the Committee of Secret Correspondence for the purpose, as George Washington expressed it, of obtaining "Intelligence of the Enemy's situation & numbers."2 However, although Lewis and Clark fully expected to encounter armed resistance en route up the lower Missouri, if not all along their route, they were determined to triumph by reasonable diplomacy, demonstrations of the power of civilized technology, and the promise of free trade, but not by threats of punitive retaliation. There would be no need of secrecy, no call for clandestine operations. Those ciphers Jefferson had prepared for Lewis had been intended to keep sensitive details from the administration's more powerful enemies among the Federalists. After the consummation of the Louisiana Purchase, justifications for the expedition were no longer important—although Lewis continued to worry about it, perhaps until the very end of the journey—and secrecy was unnecessary.

The result was, as James Ronda has described it, "a kind of statistical geography," which proved to be "a limited but practical document for government agents and fur traders."3 To any other nation, at any other time, it would have qualified as "intelligence"—useful information.


First on the list was the tribe's name, "as usally Spelt and pronounc'd" in English, and second, their own name for themselves. These were written with great care, and as much precision as their informant's diction plus their own aural acuity would allow. As Nicholas Biddle noted during one of his conversations with Clark in 1810, "In taking vocabularies great object was to make every letter sound."5 No doubt it took considerable practice to get the process refined. Reading now those many hyphenated Indian names in the journals, one can imagine the interviewer repeating a name over and over, slower and slower, rehearsing sounds for which no conventional English symbols exist, and making on-the-fly compromises.6 We can see him searching both the interviewee's and the interpreter's expressions at every step as he speaks and writes, until he recognizes approval. One can hear him finally reading back the name—fluently, without the hyphens—to the smiles and nods of all concerned. One can imagine that Clark was probably the better of the two captains at this, accustomed as he was to listening to sounds of words to divine their spelling.

Third, the nicknames by which contemporary Canadian traders knew them; fourth, the language family or dialect they spoke. In practical terms, these four questions were census elements of the overall demographic objective of the Estimate. From a strictly scientific perspective, however, interest in Indian languages, specifically comparative linguistics, on the part of Jefferson, Benjamin Smith Barton, and others among their circle both in the U.S. and in Europe was part of the ongoing debate between deists and strict Biblical Christians concerning the ages of the human races.7 Jefferson had already hypothesized that the American aborigines might be the oldest on earth, "perhaps not less than many people give to the age of the earth."8

More demographics followed: The number of villages comprising each nation, plus the number of tents or lodges in each, with the total number of "souls" per tribe, which came to approximately 65,000, not including ten nations for whom no numbers were given, other than an occasional "verry noumerous." The "Darcotar or Sioux nation" was shown to consist of twelve major bands.

Military strength

From the standpoint of military intelligence, however, the critical question was "G," the "Number of Warriours" in each tribe or nation. That total, to which the numerous tribes of the Sioux nation contributed the largest number, came to 17,660, not including the fighting forces of the eleven tribes—some of them marked "very noumerous"—for which the captains were unable to obtain specific estimates. In contrast, owing to Jefferson's conservative economics of national defense, all the U.S. could field in 1802 was a standing army of about 3,300 men, already widely deployed among a number of isolated outposts, such as those along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. That disparity confirmed the wisdom of Jefferson's insistence on peaceful means to earn the loyalties of the Western nations.

In the spring of 1810 he told Nicholas Biddle "Calculate one warrior in the rovers of the plains [for every] four women & children. On both sides of Rock Mountains & in the mountains—below Columbia falls not so numerous say 3-1/2."9

Commercial potential

Commercial parameters were taken up next. "The names of the Christian Nations or the Companies with whome they Maintain their Commerce and Traffick" was followed by "The places at which the Traffick is usially Carried on." The northern tribes, such as the Mandans, Hidatsas, Blackfeet, and Assiniboines dealt with the British through the North West and Hudson's Bay companies; those to the south of the Missouri River, including the Pawnees, Crows, and Shoshones, dealt with traders licensed by the government of New Spain. The places of business were varied in situation and character. Many were said to trade at their respective villages; some traveled to Indian hubs at the confluences of rivers such as the mouth of the Knife at the Missouri; others traded at moving venues such as hunting camps; a few were centered on established American trading posts at St. Louis, or British houses on the St. Peters (Minnesota) River, the Qu'apelle, or the Assiniboin River in Canada, and at other rendezvous points at the mouths or forks of certain rivers. The Shoshones were reported to have traveled to "New Mexico" to carry on trade with Spanish merchants.

The next two questions followed logically upon the previous two: "k. The estimated Amount of Merchindize in Dollars at the St. Louis . . . prices for their Anual Consumption," and "l. The estimated amount of their returns, in Dollars, at the St. Louis . . . prices." Here the captains' experiences in dealings with tribes east of the Mississippi must have served them well. Beyond that, their discussions with Canadian traders at Fort Mandan must have been particularly informative. No doubt it was Lewis who wrote the following explanation of their calculations:

The sums stated under . . . "L" are the amounts of merchandise annual furnished the several nations of Indians, including all incidental expenses of transportation, &c. incurred by the merchants which generally averages about one third of the whole amount. The merchandize is estimated at an advance of 125 per cent. on the sterling cost.10 It appears to me that the amount of merchandise which the Indians have been in the habit of receiving annually, is the best standard by which to regulate the quantities necessary for them in the first instance; they will always consume as much merchandize as they can pay for, and those with whom a regular trade has been carried on have generally received that quantity.

The amount of their returns stated under and opposite "M" are estimated by the peltry standard of St. Louis, which is 40 cents per pound for deer skins.

According to this formula, for example, the captains estimated that the Grand Osage Indians would annually consume $15,000 worth of merchandise, and would provide $20,000 worth of peltries and hides. The standard of value the captains cited, $0.40 per pound of deer skins, would have been roughly equal to $6.64 in 2004, according to the Consumer Price Index.11 Lewis added a remark indicating that this category of their reconnaissance was conditional: "These establishments are not mentioned as being thought important at present in a governmental point of view."

Western trade network

During the winter of 1804-05 Clark acquired enough information about the Indian population as well as the geography of the lower Missouri and upper Mississippi River basins to project a series of 12 trading establishments to serve those two regions. It was the logical extension of the answers to question "O" in the Estimate. Clark listed "The Number of Officers & Men for to protect the Indian trade and Keep the Savages in peace with the U.S. and each other," even though he had not yet seen most of the locations. One at the mouth of the "Rochejone" (Yellowstone) River would be manned by a company of 63 men: 1 Indian agent, 1 captain, 1 lieutenant, 1 ensign, 1 sergeant major, 4 interpreters, 3 sergeants, 3 corporals, 3 musicians (drummers and fifers) and 45 privates. A "fort" at the Falls of the Missouri would require only 38 men: 1 lieutenant, 1 sergeant major, 2 interpreters, 2 sergeants, 1 corporal, 1 musician (drummer) and 30 privates.12 Fifteen tribes, Clark calculated, would be served at the mouth of the Yellowstone; four would trade at the Falls.

By the third of August, however, Clark had changed his mind on one point, abandoning the idea of positioning one trading center at the Falls of the Missouri in favor of the mouth of Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone. To an establishment there, he was convinced,

the Shoshones both within and West of the Rocky Mountains would willingly resort for the purposes of trade as they would in a great measure be reli[e]ved from the fear of being attacked by their enimies the blackfoot Indians and Minnetares of fort de Prarie [Atsinas], which would most probably happen were they to visit any establishment which could be conveniently formed on the Missouri. I have no doubt but the same regard to personal safety would also induce many numerous nations inhabiting the Columbia and Lewis's river West of the mountains to visit this establishment in preference to that at the entrance of Maria's river, particularly during the first years of those Western establishments. the Crow Indians, Paunch Indians Castahanah's and others East of the mountains and south of this place would also visit this establishment; it may therefore be looked to as one of the most important establishments of the western fur trade. at the entrance of Clark's fork there is a sufficiency of timber to support an establishment, an advantage that no position possesses from thence to the Rocky Mountains.

Within but a few years that proposal also proved to have been a serious error in judgment. Manuel Lisa, of the St. Louis Fur Company, and one of the first St. Louis entrepreneurs to benefit from the jawbone journals repeated by the men of the Corps, particularly the stories of the abundance of beaver on the Yellowstone River. In 1807 Lisa built a short-lived trading post at the mouth of the Big Horn, and moved his traplines to the Three Forks of the Missouri in 1809, but was driven out by the Blackfeet within a few months. The highlight of all the futile early efforts to take beaver from the middle Yellowstone and the Three Forks was John Colter's historic 250-mile dash for his life from Blackfeet warriors. Clark himself saw to the building of the first trading post on his own list, Fort Osage near present-day Sibley, Missouri, in 1808; marginally successful in the long run, it was in operation only until 1827.

1. James Ronda, Lewis & Clark Among the Indians, 1984; Bicentennial edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 114-15. At Fort Mandan, the captains were suspicious of the real motives of François Larocque, of the British North West Company, who wanted to join the American expedition.

2. Intelligence in the War of Independence, Accessed December 28, 2006.

3. Ronda, LCAI 126. James Ronda, "Lewis & Clark and Enlightenment Ethnography," in William F Willingham and Leonoor Swets Ingraham, eds., Enlightenment Science in the Pacific Northwest: The Lewis and Clark Expedition (Portland, Oregon: Lewis and Clark College, 1984), 5-17.

4. Moulton, Journals, 3:386-450.

5. During his consultations with William Clark in the spring of 1810, in preparation for writing his paraphrase of the two captains' journals. Jackson, Letters, 1:62.

6. Abbreviated examples of the treatments of just one vowel were provided in the printed document, essentially as follows:

- over a, denotes that a sounds as in caught, taught, &c.
â denotes that it sounds as in dart, part, &c.
a, without notation has its primitive sound as in ray, hay, &c. except only when it is followed by r or w, in which case it sounds as â.
, set underneath denotes a small pause, the word being divided by it into two parts.

These diacritical marks were used infrequently in the Estimate; they appear more often in the captains' daily journals.

7. John C. Greene, American Science in the Age of Jefferson (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1984), 376-408.

8. Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 19 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-[1997]), 10:240.

9. Jackson, Letters, 2:503.

10. Sterling here refers to the value of the dollar as established by the Mint Act of 1792, based on specific weights and purities of silver and gold. In practice, monetary exchange values during the early 19th century still varied somewhat from one region or market area to another. Thus the wisdom of specifying "on the sterling cost."

11. Samuel H. Williamson, "What is its Relative Value?" Economic History Services, December 14, 2005, Accessed February 18, 2006.

12. Moulton, Journals, 3:479-80.