Promises to Keep

" . . . who lin'd himself with hope,
Eating the air on promise of supply."

August 15 of 1805 dawned clear but unseasonably cold—their thermometer read only 43° by sunrise, but would rise to 74° by four in the afternoon—auguring a bright day for the hoped-for consummation of the explorers' crucial needs and goals. A number of Shoshone men and women had already agreed to help portage all of the expedition's gear over the divide from Camp Fortunate, but around midmorning, when it came time to saddle up and go to meet Clark and the rest of the party at "the forks of Jefferson's river," they stubbornly refused to budge. A few troublemakers raised their voices in a warning to the rest that these strangers were in league with the Pah-kees, 1 and were going to decoy them into an ambush, and kill them all. Lewis was alarmed: "I readily perceived," he wrote, "that our situation was not entirely free from danger as the transision from suspicion to the confermation of the fact would not be very difficult in the minds of these ignorant people who have been accustomed from their infancy to view every stranger as an enimy."


Tuning up his rhetorical harp—to anticipate the metaphor that Lewis himself invoked—he commenced to strum upon the feelings of his audience, playing to both their eyes and their ears. He embellished George Drouillard's "common language of jesticulation or signs" with exaggerated inflections of his own voice, choreographing them with his own emphatic body language, and adding a repertoire of facial expressions to confirm his credibility. He seized their attention with a few restrained dissonances, pretending to have been insulted by their accusation, and pompously declaring that "among whitemen it was considered disgracefull to lye or entrap an enimy by falsehood." He quickly swung into a finger-shaking threat: "if they continued to think thus meanly of us . . . they might rely on it that no whitmen would ever come to trade with them or bring them arms and amunition." With a scowl he segued into a dissonant tremolo to mock their cowardly outlook, and resolved it with a bold challenge directed toward the few among them who might not be afraid to die, if it came to that. Changing his tone again, he soothed them with a cheerful variation on a theme he had already introduced—the prospect of meeting the expedition's canoes "loaded with provisions and merchandize." That was enough to inspire Chief Cameahwait2 to announce to his people that he, for one, was not afraid to die, and would follow this white man beyond the gap. Triumphantly, Lewis rhapsodized to his journal: "I . . . found that I had touched him on the right string; to doubt the bravery of a savage is at once to put him on his metal [mettle, "courage"]."3

Imps of Saturn?

At first glance, a reader broadly acquainted with classic literature might insist that Lewis really meant to say "imps of Satan," which by 1800 had been a common figure of speech for several hundred years. In either case, the keyword in the expression is the epithet "Imp," which initially was an agricultural term meaning "young shoot" or "graft," but by the late 15th century it shifted slightly to denote "offspring," or "child," and by the mid-1500s, paired with "Satan" or some well-worn synonym such as "serpent," "devil," "hell," or "Acheron" (a Greek name for hell), evolved into the more or less derogatory "little devil."4

In that form the expression appeared in works by Rabelais (1564), John Bunyan (1658), the American poet Henry Kirk White (1806), and many others up to the present, including Hugh B. Cave (in his short story, "Imp of Satan," 1935) and Stephen King (in The Stand, 1978). It was applied to wicked persons, petty miscreants, or mean-spirited evildoers, but it also was used by good-natured parents (perhaps by a very young Meriwether's own mother) in the mock scolding of scampish little children, to whose mercurial behavior the grownup Lewis likened that of the erratic Shoshones.5

But at no time or place in the whole history of the expression has "imp" been used in reference to the pagan Roman god of harvests, Saturn. So why did it spring to Lewis's mind? It would be easy to dismiss the question by suggesting mischance: "He meant to say Satan, but he simply stumbled, and a misspelled "Saturn" is where he landed." Or perhaps he had always misunderstood the traditional "imps of Satan," just as he troped Lord Chesterfield's phrase "a chapter of accidents" from its author's intended "lucky hits," into the opposite sense, "misfortunes." But "satturn" was neither a casual error nor a misunderstanding, but a deliberate revision of the old expression; a serious, thoughtful bit of wordplay that he devised sometime after August 15 (assuming, as his journal entry for that date suggests, that he was in no mood for play of any kind).

To begin with, Lewis's double /t/ at the end of the first syllable indicates that the vowel should be pronounced as a short /a/, as in "sat." Furthermore /urn/, as in "turn" would have been a very surprising way for him to misspell the second syllable of Satan.6 Finally, Lewis emphasized the specific meaning he had in mind for "imps" by modifying it with the adjective "surly"–meaning "morose, sour, crabbed, rough, uncivil," which was its current definition according to Webster (1806). It also evoked the description of the old Roman god of agriculture's personality as "grave, dull, heavy, melancholy"—in a word, saturnine7

One question remains: Why did he take the trouble to revise that traditional, by-then clichéd expression? Only one answer seems clear: "imps of Satan" was too loaded with Christian imagery, and too much history within European-American literary traditions to be suitable to the situation at hand.8

At half past twelve, to the tears and lamentations of a few old women who feared for the lives of their warriors, Lewis and Cameahwait set out for Fortunate Camp accompanied by six or eight undaunted warriors. Soon another ten or twelve caught up with them, and more were on their way. By the time the party passed the site of his camp of the 13th it appeared to Lewis that he had with him all the men of the village, and a number of the women as well—including a pregnant one who was to give birth en route. He reflected upon the significance of their sudden change of heart. "[T]his may serve in some measure to ilustrate the capricious disposition of those people who never act but from the impulse of the moment.    they were now very cheerfull and gay, and two hours ago they looked as sirly as so many imps of satturn." (See adjacent sidebar.)

But the drama wasn't over yet. Clark and his men weren't at Camp Fortunate when the Shoshones got there, so Lewis had to improvise some more tricks to keep the Indians from turning around and going home to pack for their annual hunting trip in buffalo country.

Reality Check

Cameahwait and his people had to wait fifteen years before a major trading party arrived, and then it was led by Donald MacKenzie of the North West Company in Montreal, followed three years later by Finan McDonald (1782 -1851) of the Hudson's Bay Company. Both events, of course, would have deeply embarrassed the Anglophobic Meriwether Lewis. Not until 1832, twenty-seven years after the Corps of Discovery's departure, would American commerce reach the remote upper Salmon River canyon in the persons of Captain Benjamin Bonneville (1796–1878) and his brigade of trappers and traders. For a decade or so the Shoshones, who had meanwhile joined forces with the Bannacks for defense against Blackfeet depredations, thrived to some extent on the intermittent benefits of white resources.

The Western fur trade ended in the mid-1840s, however, and the old roads through the Rockies passed them by many miles to the north and south. Although by that time the Blackfeet were no longer a threat to their security, the Shoshone confederation was left without regular resupply of the powder and lead its hunters had come to rely on.

In 1855 a band of Mormon missionaries built a settlement in the vicinity of the place where Lewis first met the Shoshones, and named it after King Limhi of the Book of Mosiah. The Shoshones initially looked forward to the benefits of the white man's amenities, and especially his agriculture, but within three years internecine strife among the region's tribes and bands, combined with Federal resistance to the ambitions of Mormons throughout the West, led to the missionaries' departure by 1858, leaving only their settlement's name on the valley, river, mountains and (in 1869) county, and the local Shoshone tribe, respelled Lemhi.

Soon the Shoshones were reduced to abject poverty, so severe that they were obliged to travel to Fort Owen in the Bitterroot Valley, a hundred miles to the north, just to beg for food. Despite his best intentions, the trading post's proprietor, Major John Owen, was powerless to provide as much help as the starving suppliants clearly needed. By 1862-63 the sudden rise of Bannack City among the placer mines on Grasshopper Creek seemed to offer them new hope, but that was all in vain, for the settlement, which was soon designated the capitol of Montana Territory, had other business on its collective mind.

The brightest prospect for a secure and prosperous future dawned in 1868, when Chief Tendoy led negotiations toward a treaty between the United States and a total of five or six hundred Shoshone, Bannock, and Sheepeater men. The tribes were to receive $30,000 immediately, $20,000 the second year of the treaty, and $12,000 per year for the next 18 years. Furthermore, the Federal government was to provide some important resource persons to ensure prosperity and permanent integration into white culture—a farmer, a physician, a blacksmith, a carpenter, and engineer, a school and schoolteachers, and an interpreter.

Congressional Contumely

Regretably, the price Chief Tendoy's people had to pay in return was the cloud that was to darken their horizons from that day to this. Congress was toying with them. Article Two of the treaty stated that the "Indians agree to surrender title to all lands they have heretofore possessed or occupied," and Article Three defined new boundaries: "United States sets apart two townships of land on north fork of the Salmon River . . . for use and occupation of the tribes." A township is a measurement of land equal to 36 square miles; 72 square miles are hardly sufficient for agricultural subsistence by so many families in those narrow valleys where much land is not tillable, owing to its aridity and steepness. Article Four stipulated that "Indians agree to remain within their own country," adding with shallow charity, "except for purposes of trade or social intercourse." Article Five threatened, "If the tribes violate these agreements, United States may withhold any or all of the annuities."

Chief Tendoy of the Shoshones


Photo of Chief Tendoy

Idaho State Historical Society No. 154-A

Sacagawea's people had no opportunity to reap any of the benefits Lewis promised. They waited in vain for the guarantees of the treaty they later signed. They never received the tools with which they might try to make do within a reservation of only 72 square miles. They never even gained the strength that would have enabled them to violate any of those final "agreements." The United States Senate simply failed to ratify the treaty. Many Lemhi Shohones still live, essentially landless, in their ancestral Lemhi Valley. Legally, they belong to the 850-square-mile Fort Hall Indian Reservation, located some 200 miles to the south, between Blackfoot and Pocatello, Idaho. That is small comfort. They are still waiting. Still waiting for the spirit of those two-hundred-year-old promises of Meriwether Lewis to bear their first fruits.9

What hopes rose in the hearts of Cameahwait's people during the weeks and months following the glowing promises Meriwether Lewis voiced in August of 1805? What hopes did the young leader himself hold? That soon, given the assurances of those first white men they had come to admire and respect, they would have guns? That then, at long last, they could move back to buffalo country for good, and eat as their enemies did, and no longer be forced to cower in that inhospitable hideaway in the Rockies, living like the bears—as Cameahwait expressed it—on fish, roots and berries? And as time passed and the Shoshones' memories of those assurances outlasted those of the assurers, what bitterness was brewed out of shattered hopes and confirmed suspicions. How many humiliations did noble Cameahwait himself have to endure? How could he have borne the anguish his own spirit suffered?10

One more question abides. Did Lewis's memory of his own guileful conduct before Cameahwait and his people—that betrayal of his own heartfelt values to which he rededicated himself in his birthday meditation of August 18—eat at Lewis's conscience? Was this part of whatever it was that ultimately drew him down into the harsh, arid valley of despair, and so deep into the heart of darkness that he could see no light? Did Meriwether Lewis's ghost at that instant humble itself before the disillusioned shade of a once proud, now forever embittered, Cameahwait?

Originally funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities

  • 1. The Pah-kees, or Fall Indians, were also called "Gros Ventres ("Big Bellies") of the Prairies" by French-Canadian traders. Lewis and Clark knew them as Hidatsas, or Minitares of Fort de Prairie. One of their three villages near the mouth of the Knife River in North Dakota was Metaharta, where Sacagawea was taken after her abduction by the Minitares around 1800 from her family's camp at the Three Forks of the Missouri River.
  • 2. Idaho Yesterdays, 2 (Summer 1958), 7. Another recent authority, Sven Liljeblad, maintains that Lewis's Cameahwait was properly kee miawailt, meaning "he does not walk," and his Too-et'-te-con'-e should be tuu'edikandi, "black weapon owner." On August seventeenth the Shoshone chief cordially exchanged names with Captain Clark, who claimed he was thereafter called Ka-me-ah-wah by the Shoshones. Rees believed Clark was called Kim-ah-pawn, also meaning "come and smoke." Moulton, 5:86n, 116-17n. John E. Rees, "The Shoshoni Contribution to Lewis and Clark." Idaho Yesterdays, Vol. 2 (Summer 1958): 2-13. Lewis added one more point (on August 24) that accounted for the confusion: "[T]hese people have many names in the course of their lives, particularly if they become distinguished characters."
  • 3. Nicholas Biddle's re-phrasing of this memorable declaration was somewhat less cogent than the original: "To doubt the courage of an Indian is to touch the tenderest string of his mind, and the surest way to rouse him to any dangerous achievement." The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. Elliott Coues, 3 vols. (New York: Dover, 1893), 2:499.
  • 4. Oxford English Dictionary Online, also Online Etymology Dictionary at (retrieved 12 March 2013). Noah Webster (1806) defined "imp" in both the new and the old sense: "an offspring, puny devil, shoot, graft." In 1895 the American philologist Charles P.G. Scott (1853-1936) traced the origins and usages of 94 synonyms for "imps of the devil" and nearly 50 synonyms for the Devil himself, in "The Devil and His Imps: An Etymological Inquisition," Transactions of the American Philological Association (1869-1896), VOL. 26, 1895, 79-146. Internet Archive, at (Retrieved 3 March 2013). "Anyone who knows," Scott wrote in his opening apologia, "in what a desperate state of etymology the Devil and his Imps hav[e] been weltering these many generations, must applaud even the feeblest attempt to mitigate their forlorn condition."
  • 5. The phrase "imps of Satturn" has not been published at any time before or since Lewis penned it in his journal, and only once since then in the singular voice: In the December 28, 1918 issue of the American theater magazine, The Billboard, was a classified advertisement for a stage production titled The Imp of Saturn, describing it as "a refined show for refined people." However, those countless "Imps of Satan" are today more numerous than ever before. They appeared in about 120,000 Google results as of the present date (3/31/13), and the singular "imp of Satan" rang up about 184,000 web pages. In contrast, a Google search on "imps of Saturn" produced only 16 results, 9 of which, including this page, contain direct quotes from Lewis's journal entry for 15 August 1805. The rest contribute little or nothing to the history of the persistent three-word phrase.
  • 6. Alan Hartley, personal communication, 16 July 2005.
  • 7. Consistent with worldwide diplomatic protocol in their days, and perhaps reflecting the paternalistic hierarchy of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, both Lewis and Clark formally addressed tribal members collectively as "children" of the "great white father."
  • 8. See Sgt. Ordway's journal entry for 24 August 1804, in which he writes of "a verry high hill called The Hills of the little Christian Devils," then deletes "Christian." No other use of that word occurs in the journals.
  • 9. Brigham D. Madsen, The Lemhi: Sacajawea's People (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers Ltd., 1980), 11-55.
  • 10. The preceding summary is intended merely to introduce the larger story of the Sacagawea's people. A full account of their bitter history, and of the new hope spawned by the bicentennial observance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, is best told by members of the Lemhi-Shoshone Tribe. See "The Lemhi-Shoshone Tribes" at