A Very Grand Plan

On November 29 Larocque visited the Americans' still-unfinished Fort Mandan, ostensibly in search of Charbonneau, whom the captains had agreed to let the Canadian hire for a while. He was "very politely received by Captain Lewis and Clarke."1 But rumors had outpaced him, and cordiality was tainted by suspicion on the Americans' part. (Or was it just the older Americans' reluctance to place much faith in a callow young man of twenty winters on his first big assignment in the fur trade?) Larocque recalled:

Just as I arrived, they were despatching a man for me, having heard that I intended giving flags and medals to the Indians, which they forbid me from giving in the name of the United States, saying that the Government looked upon those things as the sacred emblems of the attachment of the Indians to their country. As I had neither flags nor medals, I ran no risk of disobeying those orders, of which I assured them.

Lewis, still on the defensive, summoned Charbonneau and gave him permission to work for Larocque temporarily, but warned him not to say anything that might prejudice the Indians toward the United States or its citizens, even if Larocque ordered him to—which, Lewis said to the latter, "we are very far from thinking you would."

Lewis's Anglophobia was obvious, and Larocque's companion, Charles McKenzie, took note of it. Early the following spring, McKenzie remarked in his journal that although the captains always cheerfully treated them with civility and kindness, it was nevertheless clear that "Captain Lewis could not make himself agreeable to us—he could speak fluently and learnedly on all subjects, but his inveterate disposition against the British stained, at least in our eyes, all his eloquence." Clark was equally well informed, McKenzie recalled, "but his conversation was always pleasant, for he seemed to dislike giving offence unnecessarily."

The expedition had been mounted by the United States government, Lewis explained, "for the purpose of exploring the North West countries to the Pacific Ocean, so as to settle the boundary line between the British and the American territories." They showed him their passports and letters of recommendation from the French, Spanish, and British ministers to the U.S., attesting that the captains' voyage was "purely scientific and literary, and in no way concerning trade."

Then, according to Larocque's recollection, the captains clearly spelled out Jefferson's policies to their Canadian visitor, assuring him that "it was not the policy of the United States to restrain commerce, and fetter it as was the case when Louisiana belonged to the Spanish." Nor, they said, would any trader be required to buy a government permit, as the Spanish demanded, since exclusive rights would not be granted. "Every one will be free to trade after his own manner," he heard them say.

In short, concluded Larocque, "during the time I was there a very grand plan was schemed, but its being realized is more than I can tell, although the Captains say they are well assured it will."2

1. Fort Mandan was declared finished on December 24, according to Sergeant Patrick Gass. See also on this website the map create by the Captains after their visit from Larocque and other North West Company traders in Route to the Assiniboine River.

2. W. Raymond Wood and Thomas D. Thiessen, eds., Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains: Canadian Traders Among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738–1818 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 138–40.