Markets and Mandans

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Figure 3

"Mandan Village"

Karl Bodmer (1809-1893)

Historic paining of Mandan crossing the Missouri River in bull boats

Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Plate 49 from Prince Maximilian of Wied, Travels to the Interior of North America, 1843-44

Figure 4

"Interior of the Hut of a Mandan Chief"

Karl Bodmer

Historic painting of the interior of an earthen lodge

Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Plate 19 from Prince Maximilian of Wied, Travels to the Interior of North America, 1843-44

There's another legacy document that I want to point to which comes in the so-called Mandan Miscellany. During the winter at Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark wrote the only true government report that they would ever write. It's really a fascinating document. Unfortunately, it has been almost completely ignored in the Lewis and Clark literature. It deserves intense study because it is a quintessential Jeffersonian document. It consists of charts of rivers; an estimate of "Eastern Indians" in which they name the tribe, then the names the tribe is known by among other tribes and by white people nearby; they talk about where the best possible trade mart or fort sites would be located; what that tribe can produce by way of pelts or other commodities that white people might want; what their exchange rate is. It's a fascinating chart that Lewis and Clark put together over the course of the winter at Fort Mandan. Basically it's a perfect Jeffersonian document—Jefferson loved nothing so much as a big chart. If Jefferson could've lived to see Excel, he would've been in heaven because he just loved to gather and enter data and sort it out and see how it all fits. Jefferson was an admirer of FranAcis Bacon, who advocated the patient gathering of data, then careful sorting, before any attempt at synthesis was made. Jefferson's chosen agents of discovery, Lewis and Clark, made this immense chart. It's really one of the great documents of Lewis and Clark.

They're basically saying, here is a list of the Indians and here's how we're going to build our economy by knowing what they have (in surplus) and what they want and where they want to trade and how they name themselves and who their enemies are and what rivers they're on and so on. Unfortunately that document can never be reproduced properly. It always appears in a corrupt form in Lewis and Clark books because when it is turned to print it becomes too unwieldy to be displayed as a chart; and when it's not a chart, when the information is spread across more than sixty pages in a text, it makes much less sense. One of the things in this very important interim report, the Mandan Miscellany, is a small chart produced by William Clark, which lists the places where military fortifications are going to have to be built on the upper Missouri in order to fulfill America's geopolitical plans. Clark is creating a display of "The Number of Officers & Men for to protect the Indian trade and Keep the Savages in peace with the U.S. and each other . . . if Soldiers act as Boatmen & Soldiers." Clark's view is not that the United States can simply send out entrepreneurial fur traders, to fan out across the country, and that they will thereby achieve economic success. Clark's view is if the United States wants to compete successfully in the fur trade, it will have to engage in an occupation of the Upper Missouri. He says the number of officers and men required for this occupation will be at least 700 at 12 locations. There's a Lewis and Clark legacy that we don't hear much about, and yet the pragmatic Clark would have regarded this as absolutely essential to any realistic plan for safe trade in the region. You can read the late Stephen Ambrose's magisterial Undaunted Courage, you don't hear about the post-expeditionary occupation plan that Clark has in mind for this. I find that it to be a really interesting and really chilling document.

Here's another one. This is from November 18th, 1804. They've now built Fort Mandan; it's not quite done yet, but it's substantially built and they're trying to make contact with the leaders—at least as they understand the concept of leader—of the five villages. There are two Mandan and three Hidatsa villages in the vicinity of the mouth of the Knife River. That's something of an oversimplification, but it's an oversimplification we can live with. Three Hidatsa, two Mandan. The Hidatsa are farther away, the Mandan are closer to the Fort. The Hidatsa are more skeptical of Lewis and Clark; the Mandan are more friendly. In fact, from a kind of modern anachronistic point of view, the Mandan engaged in a marketing campaign to get the outfitting contract with Lewis and Clark that winter. The Mandan said "why don't you put your fort here where we can supply you easily?" Sheheke-shote's famous, "if we eat you Shall eat, if we Starve you must Starve also," is as much an economic pronouncement as a gesture of Mandan hospitality. The Hidatsa were somewhat resentful that the Mandan had trumped them in their economic negotiations with the newcomers. It is clear that the Mandan were determined to win the trade contract to supply corn and other produce in exchange for whatever was in those boats. Lewis and Clark then called their compound Fort Mandan because of its proximity to the two Mandan, not the three Hidatsa, villages. If they had found a better fort site—and they were looking for one, they swept the river for twenty miles—they might have built Fort Hidatsa not Fort Mandan. That small geographic decision might have changed the future of the Northern Plains, because the Hidatsa remained skeptical about Lewis and Clark, thwarted their diplomatic initiatives, and continued to wage war on their western enemies, principally the Shoshone. The Hidatsa were much more powerful than the Mandan, and they mattered more on the contested plains west of the five villages. The Hidatsa never really came around; the Mandan did.

From a strategic point of view, Lewis and Clark ought to have spent more time working on the Hidatsa who were actually a more aggressive tribe who traveled more, who had more power, and who were the link with the Canadians. When the Canadians came down to the Knife River villages from the Winnipeg area they had to go through the Hidatsa world to get to the Mandan. And the Hidatsa made sure that they didn't go around, that whatever trade occurred was mediated by way of the Hidatsa world.

Here's what happened on November 18th. The leader of the larger of the two Mandan villages was a man named Black Cat, Posecopsahe. We don't really know whether he was the grand chief of the Mandan or not. Such terms don't really apply well to native cultures, but Lewis and Clark regarded him as the principal chief of the Mandan world. Posecopsahe visited Fort Mandan, which was still under construction. Lewis was not keeping a journal during this period. Here's what Clark wrote. It's just fascinating. "Cold morning. Some wind. The Black Cat chief of the Mandans came to see us. He made great inquiries respecting our fashions." Now fashion doesn't mean clothing necessarily, it means culture style or customs. "He also stated the situation of their nation. He mentioned that a council had been held the day before, and it was thought advisable to put up with the recent insults of the Assiniboines and the Cristanos, until they were convinced that what had been told them by us was true."

Lewis and Clark were essentially saying, "You don't have to put up with the insults of the Cree or the Assiniboine any longer because America's here and we're going to make things safe for you. Break your ties with them." At the time of the expedition's visit, the Mandan had trade ties with the Assiniboine and the Cree, tribes that were physically located between the earthlodge villages and the trade forts on the Assiniboine River, but they were bullied by these nations. The Mandan put up with the abuse because the existing trade network, however unpleasant, nevertheless delivered kettles, and blankets, and knives. Lewis and Clark were saying, "Why should you put up with these insults now that we can supply you, not from Winnipeg, but from St. Louis? So just cut your ties with these bad Indians, and throw your lot with us." Black Cat replies, "Well, we had a council, and we've decided it's advisable to put up with the recent insults of the Assiniboines and the Cristanos until we are convinced that what has promised us by you true." Well, just what had Lewis and Clark promised?

They said if you break those ties and agree to an exclusive trade contract with us, we'll supply you all the things you need. Black Cat continues: "Well, Mr. Evans deceived us, and you might also." In other words, the last guy who came from St Louis and talked this way—Welshman John Evans traveling under a Spanish passport in 1794—had said much the same thing. He said, "We'll be back. The Spanish trade network from St. Louis will supply the Mandan, not the British" yet he had left and never come back. And that, said Black Cat to William Clark, was ten years ago. In other words, "How do we know you're ever coming back? We'd better keep this imperfect trade situation going with the Canadians through the intermediary tribes because the last guy who made big promises disappeared and nobody came in his wake." He promised to return, Evans did, and to furnish the village tribes with guns and ammunition, and he didn't. Here's Clark's response to Black Cat's challenge: "We advise them to remain at peace. And that they may depend on getting supplies through the channel of the Missouri from St Louis," but it required time to put the trade in operation. I wonder how much time Clark thought that was going to take. It didn't really happen until 1820. So from 1804 until 1820, at a time when lifetime expectancy in the Hidatsa-Mandan world was about thirty years, the Americans disappeared, just as Black Cat predicted, and didn't come back.

So who's right here? Black Cat was a very shrewd leader. He was thinking, "I have to protect our access to industrial goods, and all this talk . . . I want to see the legacy of this talk, 'cause talk is cheap'." This episode is just really fascinating, I think.