Horse Trading: The Prices Paid

masthead saying 'We Proceeded On'

Reprinted from We Proceeded On1

Shoshone Saddle

Drawing of a saddle with a high horn on its front and back

From Glenn R. Vernam, Man on Horseback (1964), used with permission.

Crow Saddle (top)
Mandan Saddle (bottom)

Two saddles with wood sides

From Glenn R. Vernam, Man on Horseback (1964), used with permission.

Rawhide Stirrup
Mandan Saddle (bottom)


Photo ©2013 by Kris Townsend, used with permission.

When making their purchases, the captains generally recorded the prices paid for their animals. These prices varied considerably at different stages of the journey.

Wilderness v. Frontier Prices

From the Shoshones, the captains had acquired animals of varying quality for merchandise valued at around $6.00 per head on average. This was a remarkably good price when compared with what Lewis had earlier observed on the lower Missouri domestic frontier. Recall that on his way to St. Louis from the East Lewis had visited Louis Lorimier, the well-known horseman at Cape Girardeau. There, he wrote on November 23, 1803, that among the "uncivilized backwoodsmen" in that area "the circulating medium is principally Horses . . . for 50 to $200." This contrast between the wilderness prices and the frontier prices was blithely exaggerated when Lewis wrote up his commentary on the horse market while at Fort Clatsop on the Pacific. On February 15, 1806, deflating the $6.00 prices paid to the Shoshones, he stated that "an eligant horse may be purchased of the natives for a few beads and other paltry trinkets which in the U.States would not cost more than two dollars."

On the return journey, however, when the captains desperately needed horses to maneuver back up to Nez Perce country, they had to bargain with the unfriendly Eneshers and Skillutes. These groups either refused to sell or charged "extravagant prices"—double the prices paid to the Shoshones and the Flatheads; and this at a time when the corps ultimately needed twice the number of horses used while westbound, and was also nearly impoverished in the number of trade goods with which to bargain. "Two handkerchiefs would now contain all the articles of merchandize which we possess," Lewis recorded March 16, 1806 at [Fort] Clatsop.

A Capital Investment

Thus practically destitute, the captains then seem pitiful in their bargaining—reduced to offering their personal, "last resort" property: Clark ponied up his own blanket, coat, sword, and plume; Lewis, his dirk. They were literally trading the shirts off their own backs, but to no avail. "I used every artifice decent & even false Statements to enduce those pore devils to sell me horses," Clark said. "I could not precure a Single horse of those people . . . at any price." The captains then had no more to deal with than their bare hands for trade purposes.

But their manual skills finally did prove more effective than merchandise. Clark had achieved a reputation as a physician among the natives as he dressed sores, relieved back pains, and gave small things to a chief's children. In due course the medical practice produced horses when other stock in trade had been spurned or bargained away.

By May 1806 when the corps reunited with the Nez Perces, practically the entire capital of the expedition had been invested in horses, a seemingly risky commitment when the party was still thousands of miles from home and not yet over the mountains. Moreover, this investment would erode. Horses had become the "life blood" of the Expedition, and were subject to debilitating losses.

Horse Buyer's Guide & Price Index2
Date Seller Price Paid
August 18, 1805 Shoshone 3 "very good horses . . . uniform coat, pair ofleggings, a few handkerchiefs, three knives, and some other small articles . . . about 20 $ in the U. States."
August 19, 1805 Shoshones "A good mule cannot be obtained for less than three and sometimes four horses and the most indifferent are rated at two horses. their mules generally are the finest I ever saw without any comparison."
August 22, 1805 Shoshones 5 "good horses" @ "six dollars a peice in merchandize"
August 24, 1805 Shoshones 3 horses; for each: "an ax, a knife, handkerchief and a little paint;" 1 mule; same as above plus "another knife, shirt, handkerchief & pair of legings" (price was double that for a horse)
October 23, 1805 Chinooks for "this butiful one" Lewis gave "our smallest canoe" plus "a Hatchet & few trinkets"
April 18, 1806 Skillutes
4 horses @ double price paid to Shoshones and Flatheads.
2 horses, as payment for medical treatment (and massage) of Chief's wife, trinkets to children; 1 horse for "a large kittle." 4 horses for "two of our kettles."
April 20, 1806 Eneshers Clark offered "a blue robe, callico shirt, a handkerchief, 5 parcels of paint, a Knife, a wampom moon, 4 braces of ribin, a piece of Brass and about 6 braces of yellow beeds, also my large blue blanket for one, my Coat Sword & Plume none of which seem to entice these people."
April 23, 1806 ? Charbonneau bought one horse for a "Shirt & 2 lether Sutes of his wife."
April 28, 1806 Wahhowpuns 1 white horse "very elegant" Chief Yellepit wanted a kettle. Instead Clark gave his "Swoard, & 100 balls & powder & Some Small articles."
April 29, 1806 Wahhowpuns 2 horses, Lewis gave medals, sundry articles & "one of my case pistols and several hundred rounds of ammunition."
May 5, 1806 ? 1 "eligant grey mare" for a phial of eye water and opening an abscess.
  • 1. Robert R. Hunt, "Hoofbeats & Nightmares: A Horse Chronicle of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Parts I and II," We Proceeded On, Volume 20, No. 4 (November 1994) and Volume 21, No 1 (February 1995), the quarterly journal of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Editorial additions include page titles, side headings, and graphics to assist the web-based reader. The original printed format is provided at and
  • 2. How many 1993 U.S. dollars would be required to equal one 1805 dollar in purchasing power? An "impressionistic" comparison can be calculated from tables published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, Consumer Price Indexes (CPI). Applying the suggested formula for calculating Index changes, $861 .50 on average in 1993 would be required for the "equivalent" of one dollar in 1805, measuring "average change in prices over time in a fixed market basket of goods and services" for all urban consumers (obviously quite distinct from frontier exchanges). See Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Sept. 1975) with BLS CPI dated 1/13/94 for All Urban Consumers 1913–1993.