Corn Mills and Canadians

Page 2 of 5

Topical summary: Economic and political relationships – Canadian versus American policies – Mandan view of the corn mill – Mercantilism, a Lewis and Clark legacy


Fortunately, while Lewis and Clark were in North Dakota that year, Canadians were there too, from the Northwest Company and the Hudson's Bay Company. They were moving back and forth between the Canadian trade forts on the Assiniboine River and the Mandan and Hidatsa villages. Unlike Lewis and Clark, who built a fortified compound outside of the Mandan and Hidatsa world, the Canadians embedded themselves individually in the villages. They would go stay with families.

The Mandan and the Hidatsa had a very interesting economic adoption system in which they would temporarily adopt a visitor, even one from an enemy tribe, as a family relative. That would give the stranger a kind of passport to trade safely within the Mandan and the Hidatsa world. The Canadians would embed themselves in the village, while Lewis and Clark held themselves apart, even aloof. They wanted to keep a distance from village life. It was a very different experience for the Canadians than for Lewis and Clark. The two white groups did not like each other very much. The Canadians were upset that the Americans were shoving their weight around, because Lewis and Clark immediately called the Canadians in and said, in effect, "You can trade here, even though it's now our territory, but you cannot proselytize. You cannot give Indians sovereignty tokens. You cannot bad mouth the United States. No flags. No peace medals. No coins with George III on them. You can trade kettles and beads but don't issue sovereignty tokens of any sort." And the Canadians said,"Okay, we'll abide by your rules. We weren't issuing sovereignty tokens anyway." The historical evidence proves that the Canadian traders were undermining American sovereignty among the Mandan and Hisatsa, partly because the issues that were implicit in the Treaty of 1783 had not been fully cleared up either by the Jay Treaty (1794) or the Louisiana Purchase; and partly because the Canadians were not willing to abandon their lucrative trade relations with the earth-lodge peoples. Those trade relations were inextricably linked to sovereignty tokens and other "gifts" that bore nationalistic significance.

There's another legacy consideration. The Canadians knew all they had to do was wait – the pushy representatives of the United States would soon leave. The Canadians knew that the Americans were making big claims about the St. Louis trade corridor, but they would soon be heading west towards the Pacific, and it was unlikely that American traders from St. Louis would be visiting the villages anytime soon. The Canadians were pretty sure they could maintain their trade monopoly on the Upper Missouri, at least for the next few years. So the Canadians made a show of complying with the expedition's firm sovereignty demands because they knew it was in their interest to avoid an international incident, and they rightly calculated that Lewis and Clark were transients. Basically, all of the peoples that Lewis and Clark met banked on the fact that they were transients and therefore they didn't have to take them too seriously.

Here's the journal of Alexander Henry, a Canadian, and kind of a grumpy one, who was a frequent visitor to the Mandan-Hidatsa villages. In 1806, two years after the captains bestowed the corn mill on the Mandan people, Henry wrote, "I saw the remains of an excellent large corn mill, which the foolish fellows had demolished on purpose to barb their arrows and other similar uses. The largest piece of it which they could not break nor work up into any weapon they have now fixed to a wooden handle and make use of it to pound marrow bones to make grease." This is a great moment in the Lewis and Clark story. It's a great legacy moment because of course Lewis and Clark had handed over this symbolic agrarian corn mill with a Jeffersonian legacy in mind. They didn't know how the story would come out, and they would not have appreciated how the Mandan responded to their generosity. Alexander Henry provided a thoroughly Eurocentric analysis, and he probably spoke for Lewis and Clark: These Mandans are fools. They've broken this wonderful device – this civilizational device – to make arrow points.

Figure 2

Two 18th-Century Portable Corn Mills

A Gift from the President

In addition to the portable hand-operated corn mill Lewis took along for the company's use, at President Jefferson's suggestion he bought two more to give away to Indians. The captains presented one of them to the Mandans (see Figure 2). What became of the other two is still unknown.

Aside from what they were made of (steel and cast iron), their weights (the company's mill weighed 20 pounds, the gift mills about 25 pounds each), and their costs ($9 to $10 each), there appears to be no hope of determining exactly what the three mills looked like. The two examples pictured above are from the great Encyclopédie edited between 1751 and 1780 by two Frenchmen, Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert.]

Figure 3

Artifact believed to be a part of the corn mill
that Lewis and Clark gave to the Mandans

This object was recovered by archaeologists in 1950 from the site of one of the Mandan villages (see Figure 1). It is thought to have been the revolving core or "runner" with its teeth either filed or rusted off. The head end, at left, shows evidence of having been worked on with a hammer, perhaps in a Mandan's effort to make it into a more practical object.

Well, what if we reverse the lens on this story as James Rhonda wants us to do. Do you think the Mandan knew how to grind corn? Well of course! They had been grinding corn on the Great Plains for hundreds of years. They had mortars and pestles that were perfectly crafted for the milling they engaged in on a nearly daily basis. Corn grinding they have native technology to accomplish. At the same time, they're metal-starved. They were a people without metallurgy who craved any piece of metal they could get their hands on. They wanted axes and grinders with which to process buffalo robes, and of course they wanted knives and arrow points. They didn't need an agricultural instrument; they wanted that metal for more important strategic uses. And so they quite intelligently broke it up, and the only piece they couldn't break up they found another use for – to pound grease. So they actually provided what might be called "value added" to the corn mill. Poor Henry couldn't see it, but it was a perfectly appropriate thing for the Mandan to have done.

The physical legacy of this little parable, the handle of the corn mill, the thing the Mandan couldn't break up, almost certainly now rests in the vaults of the Fort Mandan Interpretive Center north of Bismarck, North Dakota. The curators at Fort Mandan have what they are quite certain is that piece. That lasted; the rest of the metal is gone.

Another way to look at this whole question of legacy is to ask: What did Lewis and Clark think their legacy would be? When they got back to St. Louis on September 23, 1806, what did they see as their legacy? They wrote letters, each of them. Lewis wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, an official letter from an army captain to his boss, to the commander in chief, a protégé to his mentor; and Clark wrote a letter to his brother Jonathan. Both of those letters are fascinating documents. Most of what they wrote in these letters has nothing to do with Indians whatsoever. What they wrote about is the river infrastructure of the American Northwest. Both of them spent the majority of their time saying, "We've essentially done what you asked us to do. We've found the best water connection between St. Louis and the Pacific." They both admit that the route they established is not perfect, there is that 340-mile portage, 120 nearly impenetrable, with 60 miles of mountain terrain covered with eternal snow. "And by the way, the Rockies are not as low as the Appalachians, Mr. Jefferson." But they make the best of it; especially Lewis who is just desperate to say, "It doesn't really look the way you might've hoped, there's no Cumberland Gap, but we can make it work. We can buy horses from the Indians. Cheap!"

In those first letters, Lewis and Clark spend a lot of time on trail issues and they spend a lot of time on the commercial possibilities of Upper Louisiana. Lewis particularly says, "Alright, now that we've opened it, I'm here to tell you that there's an infinite number of beaver out there, and those beaver are going to be harvested by the British Empire and its commercial subsidiaries, unless we take charge of this and engage in fundamental economic competition with the British. This will require government grants." So he's telling Jefferson, the strict constructionist, the penny-pinching Jefferson, that if we're going to get into the fur trade – which we should – our government is going to have to subsidize it. We're going to have to return to a mercantilist economy if we're going to compete with the British. That's the main business of these initial letters to the white community back home. At no point, in these preliminary reports, did they say, let me describe the complexity of Native American culture, or the potential sovereignty questions that we are going to face, or the potential resistance that we are going to meet as we develop the wilderness. They do acknowledge that to get started in the fur trade, the United States is going to have to pacify the lower Missouri tribes, particularly the Sioux.

Unfortunately, the captains do not go into detail about the legacies that we would find most interesting. They thought their legacy was that they had opened the road to the commercial extraction of the American Northwest and the American competitiveness against particularly Great Britain. They had mapped the landscape where all this would take place. They had made significant scientific discoveries. They had filled in the blank spaces on the map. They were bringing back specimens.

But of the legacy that we of the bicentennial might hope that they would consider for themselves, there's almost no word whatsoever in this set of letters. In fact, the sense you get from Lewis and Clark is that Indians are not much more than a challenging, an intriguing impediment to the commercial future of the Northwest. In other words, they were not thinking what we would think – what's going to be the relationship between these two very different peoples? How are white-Indian relations in the American West going to get worked out? For Lewis and Clark it was simple: We'll need them in the fur trade and we're going to have to chasten a few of them if we expect this to work.