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Estimate of Western Indians

Western Indians

Image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, and Valerie-Anne Lutz, Assistant Manuscripts Librarian and Registrar.

American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

At Fort Clatsop during the winter of 1806, the captains compiled an "Estimate of the Western Indians" occupying the region between the Rockies and the Pacific Coast. It listed only the names of 83 tribes and bands, along with their places of residence at that time, the numbers of houses or lodges and the probable number of "souls" in each. The absence of Indian informants as intelligent and forthcoming as Sheheke and Black Cat, or traders as widely experienced as Hugh Heney, Charles Mackay, or Pierre Chouteau, who were available to them at Kaskaskia, St. Louis and Fort Mandan, undoubtedly discouraged the captains from trying to construct as elaborate a table as they had produced for their Estimate of Eastern Indians.

Biddle included a narrative version of only the Western estimate in his 1814 paraphrase of the captains' journals, perhaps because the Eastern one had already been widely circulated. Clark's final map (1814), showed the areas occupied by 30 of the tribes and bands from the Western estimate.

Items "N" and "O" on the list of queries covered the kinds of "peltries & Robes" which the tribes had supplied to traders, and the "defferant kinds of Pelteres, Furs, Robes Meat Greece & Horses" which each could supply. The next question, "P," asked for "The place at which it would be mutually advantageous to form the principal establishment in order to Supply the Several nations with Merchindize." Questions "Q" and "R" addressed intertribal issues: "The Names of the Nations with whome they are at War," and "The names of the Nations with whome they maintain a friendly alliance, or with whome they may be united by intercourse or marriage." The last item, "S," consisted of the captains' responses to questions that had been addressed to Secretary of War Dearborn in the original manuscript. Each was a narrative summary, probably written by Lewis, of the tribe's status in terms of up to nine points. Each began with a capsule characterization of the tribe, from the most admirable (the Mandans: "the most friendly, well disposed Indians inhabiting the Missouri. . . . brave, humane and hospitable.") to the least (the Sioux: "These are the vilest miscreants of the savage race, and must ever remain the pirates of the Missouri, until such measures are pursued, by our government, as will make them feel a dependence on its will for their supply of merchandise.")

Jefferson submitted the "Estimate of Eastern Indians" to Congress with his annual report on February 19, 1806, summarizing it in his address as "a statistical view, procured & forwarded by [Lewis], of the Indian nations inhabiting the territory of Louisiana & the countries adjacent to it's Northern & Western borders of their commerce, & of other interesting circumstances respecting them."1

In addition to the "Estimate of Eastern Indians," the 1806 Message from the President opened with the President's Message, followed by Jefferson's "Extract of a letter from Captain Meriwether Lewis to the President of the United States, dated Fort Mandan, April 17th, 1805." Then came the "Estimate of Eastern Indians." The rest of the report consisted of documents representing two other expeditions that Jefferson had instigated, of portions of the Louisiana Purchase. One was the three-month-long exploration of the Washita River by William Dunbar and George Hunter that began on October 16, 1804, and concluded with their return to Natchez, Mississippi, on January 26, 1805. The other consisted of reports from Dr. John Sibley, whom Jefferson had appointed as Indian Agent in the Southern Red River country.

Without accompanying maps to lend geographical relevance to their contents, the Estimates of Eastern and Western Indians qualified as purely "literary" documents. As such, they at least satisfied the public's thirst for news of the expedition. At most, they provided serious and attentive Americans with ostensibly useful information that was impressive in its scope, serious in its method and purpose, and fascinating in its details about the human textures and dimensions of the land beyond the Mississippi.

1. Jackson, Letters, 2:298-300.