Horse Thievery

masthead saying 'We Proceeded On'

Reprinted from We Proceeded On1

Grazing Horses on Alice Creek

Three horses eating green grass

©2015 by Kris Townsend, used with permission.

Lewis led a group on horseback through this valley before climbing present Lewis and Clark Pass, on the back to the Great Falls of the Missouri.

—Kristopher Townsend, ed.

Once east of the Continental Divide, the party was acutely vulnerable to native theft and piracy. But strangely enough, security measures (such as picketing, hobbling, night sentinels, etc.) became lax and indifferent. The captains proclaimed firm resolve for heightened security, but alongside their rhetoric disastrous thefts occurred. Three conspicuous examples follow.

Capt. Clark to the Yellowstone

Homeward bound for the Yellowstone route, Clark with 49 horses on July 5, 1806 observed "fresh sign of 2 horses and a fire burning on the side of the road" which he presumed was evidence of native spies nearby. The very next day he discovered that nine of "the most valuable horses we had" had been stolen during the night. Closing the barn door, so to speak, after this loss, he directed that "the rambling horses should be hobbled and the sentinel to examine the horses after the moon rose." But again a few days later Clark noted further smoke signals, on July 18 and 19, which appeared again to be a possible hostile warning. He woke up two days later to news that "Half of our horses were absent." Once more, ex post facto, he wrote "I deturmined to have the ballance of the horses guarded . . . ." Having thus lost at least 29 horses to thieves, just when ready to resume river travel, he placed the remaining horses in custody of Sgt. Pryor and three companions to take them overland to the Mandan, intending them to be traded there for the further needs of the Corps on the final homeward leg.

Sgt. Pryor to the Mandan

Despite the warning lessons with Clark, Pryor's security was similarly deficient. On the second night after leaving Clark, all of his horses were stolen. Pryor reported having discovered tracks of the thieves within 100 paces of his camp! Clark's contingent thus became utterly destitute: "we have now no article of Merchandize, nor horses to purchase with."

Capt. Lewis to the Great Falls

Lewis also, on his separate mission toward the Great Falls and the upper Marias River, was aware of the presence of nearby raiding parties. He noted on July 6, 1806 that his party was "much on our guard both day and night." But the guard was not good enough. On the morning of July 12th, he learned that "ten of our best horses were absent," three of which were recovered. Drouillard, perhaps the most versatile and valuable member of the party, was absent three days searching for the missing horses. Lewis became deeply anxious over his possible ill fate, thinking a grizzly had killed him. When Drouillard finally had safely rejoined the party, Lewis wrote: "I felt so perfectly satisfied that I thought but little of the horses although they were seven of the best I had . . . ."

This theft resulted in a reduction of the planned Marias scouting party—with extremely dangerous consequences erupting in the Blackfeet confrontation just two weeks later.2

During these few weeks of July practically the entire stock had been stolen away. How to account for this hemorrhaging? Was it failure of military discipline in maintaining security? Or lack of know-how in controlling restive animals? Or simply professional expertise of the thieves?3 These losses, seemingly due to negligence, must have been devastating to the captains—finding their vital investment, so laboriously and expensively acquired, suddenly disappear in the night.

  • 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. The author is indebted to Arlen Large for citing the serious operational consequences of this theft. In letter to the editor dated June 7, 1994, Large noted that Lewis "originally had planned to take six men with him on his reconnaissance of the Marias. With the loss of . . . horses from his herd he had to cut this escort back to three. Would the Blackfeet later have dared to mess with seven soldiers, including the leader, as they tried to do with just four?"
  • 3. See Vernam, 210-11 for discussion of horse stealing as "the highlight of Indian existence" which "must not be judged by the precept of the white man's Eighth Commandment . . . . success depended on skill, bravery, and physical prowess, being commonly rated a higher honor than killing an enemy."