'Presentation' Flags

Figure 7

Detail from Sauk and Fox Indians

by Carl Bodmer (1809-1893)1

sauk and fox indians in robes

Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Bodmer has pictured these Indians wrapped in their robes or capes. Some or the tribes they had met were taller than others, but a cloak 6 feet by 5 feet would have fit anyone, more or less. If the Corps' "large flag" measured only 45 square feet, those "robes" could have been no larger than scarves or small shawls. We are left with another apparently unanswerable question.

Several vexillologists, citing the document mentioned above, have speculated that Lewis and Clark might have carried some "Indian presentation flags" with seventeen stripes, plus the Great Seal in the canton with seventeen stars either surrounding the eagle or inside the Glory.2 If the explorers did carry any flags featuring the Great Seal, they could have used them as illustrations from which to spin a rich story of the origins and ideals of the United States of America. The image of an eagle would certainly have held an immediate appeal for Plains Indians. However, before the expedition got very far up the Missouri the captains might have been embarrassed to discover that the natives were not impressed, since the bald eagle, which was the only species known to inhabitants of the Eastern Seaboard, was not the bird that Indians west of the Mississippi regarded most highly. Their totem was the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos, "eagle of gold"). The depiction of the bald eagle might have conveyed the wrong message, and word would have gotten around. But the known records of the expedition contain no mention of any such reactions from the Indians, either in the journalists' words or in the transcripts of Indian remarks to the captains. Nor is there to be found any hint of a flag containing the bald eagle, nor any references to the pictographic stories inherent in the Great Seal.

In their speeches to Indian leaders Lewis and Clark repeatedly referred to the "Seventeen great Nations of America" that were symbolized by the flags they presented. Indians certainly could count, and there is no evidence that any of the recipients complained of a discrepancy between the number of "nations" and the number of stars. Therefore we may reasonably surmise that Lewis and Clark carried 17-star/17-stripe flags, but that the principal elements of the Great Seal were not to be seen on any of them.

No one knows how many flags the Corps of Discovery carried, or what their dimensions were. It is clear, however, that they had at least one large company banner—judging from their thirteen references to "our flag" or "the large flag"—which they hoisted in lieu of a garrison flag over their major camps and council sites. At each of the Indian councils the captains typically used sails from one or more of their boats to erect a bower or awning, and a wind-screen, and flew their large flag nearby.

When a journalist informs us that the large flag was "hoisted on a pole" or "on a high flag Staff," we may wonder how high the pole was, for that might roughly suggest the dimensions of the flag: The higher pole the larger the flag, or vice versa. One of the setting poles they carried to assist in propelling the barge, the pirogues and the canoes, would have made the handiest flagpole. According to Lewis, those poles were seldom more than 25 feet long, which would have allowed a flag with hoist and fly dimensions totaling about 20 feet—say, 8 by 12 feet, maximum.3 Two ties at the hoist would have made a halyard unnecessary.

At the captains' council with five Yankton Sioux headmen in late August of 1804, one of the five chiefs of the Yankton Sioux headmen from the scorching late-August sun. But one of the chiefs, Arcawecharchi, or Half Man, assumed that this was the flag the white men were giving his people. With the assistance of one of the interpreters, Clark transcribed the chief's expression of thanks: "I am glad my Grand father4 . . . has given us a flag large and handsom the Shade of which we can Sit under." If Half Man was speaking literally, he leaves us wondering how many men his "we" included. Finally, on March 16, 1806, a week before leaving Fort Clatsop, Lewis described their plight regarding trade goods: A few of handfuls of small items, six blue robes and one red one, a few "old cloaths" trimmed with ribbon, and "five robes made of our large flag."5 If each of those robes was 6 by 5, or 30 square feet, their large flag would have to have been 10 by 15 feet, or 150 square feet, in order to produce five scarves or shawls somewhat shy of the proportions of a robe (Figure 7). Could their large flag have been the seventeen-stripe banner of "6 yards hoist by 12 yards fly" (18 by 36 feet) that the Philadelphia seamstress Ann Hoskins spec'd in an undated memo believed to belong to the 1802-1812 period? Perhaps so, but it would have required a flagstaff reaching at least 54 feet into the air, and securing the pole in the ground to withstand the force of gusty prairie winds on such a large flag would have been a challenging, time-consuming task.6

The Corps also carried an unknown number of smaller flags of at least three different sizes, including the "19 small flaggs" that Lewis sent from St. Louis to Clark at Camp Dubois early in May of 1804. They may have been manufactured from the $33-worth of "flagg stuf" that Lewis secured from governor of Indiana Territory, William Harrison, at Vincennes on the Wabash River.7 The captains distributed them to recognized Indian leaders and to chiefs whom they chose or "made," as tokens of peace and personal friendship, and to represent a bond of union with neighboring tribes and the United States of America. By the time the expedition left Fort Mandan, their inventory of Indian gifts and other supplies on hand at Fort Mandan showed only three of the "2d Sise," and three of the "3d Sise." If the order of sizes used in descriptions of their peace medals applies here as well, the "3d Sise" flags would have been the smallest, but they must have had more than three in reserve. Journal entries indicate that they gave out at least twenty-seven American flags, not including the small ones the captains carried during their respective explorations of the Yellowstone and the upper Marias Rivers in July of 1806, in case they encountered the Crows and the Blackfeet.8

They also spent a few small flags on food and other necessities on their homeward journey. For example, by the time he got back among the Nez Perce in May of 1806, he decided he needed a better mount than he had been riding, so he persuaded Chief Wearkoomt (Flint Necklace; or, "the bighorn Cheif") to trade horses with him, and paid a premium of a small flag, with which the Indian was "much gratifyed."

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program

  • 1. From Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-34 (London: Ackerman & Co, 1843), Vignette 10. A vignette is a borderless picture in which the image shades off irregularly into the color of the paper.
  • 2. Heinz Tschachler, "Sacred Emblems of Attachment: The Lewis & Clark Expedition, American Nationalism, and the Colonization of the West," Raven: A Journal of Vexillology (Trenton, New Jersey: North American Vexillological Association), Vol. 12 (2005), 77-78.
  • 3. By act of Congress on July 7, 1976, Chapter 10 of the United States Code, Section 176 (b), reads: "The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise." No such rule existed in the time of the Expedition, but we may assume that the captains would have expected their flag to fly freely aloft.
  • 4. Half Man's reference to the "Grand father" may have been his actual words or the interpreter's choice, or Clark's. In any case, the Dakotas proved they knew what the white soldiers expected to hear. Indeed, in this instance, the experienced Oto-Missouri diplomats outdid their foreign counterparts with the appropriate counter-address, responding at least thirty times, according to Clark's transcript, with "My Father."
  • 5. In those days it was perfectly acceptable to cut up a flag. The first law to specify guidelines for more respectful treatment of the American flag was passed in 1917, but without any penalties for non-compliance.
  • 6. Letters Received, Coxe-Irvine (circa 1797-1842), Record Group 92, Box 47, National Archives. Cited in Grace Rogers Cooper, Thirteen-Star Flags; Keys to Identification (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973), 15. If the wind were blowing strong enough in the right direction, that flag could be seen, if not recognized, from nearly nine miles away on a flat prairie, which would have been suitable for a permanent fort or trading post, but might seem excessive in the context of an Indian village. In October of 1800 Alexander Henry's carpenter cut an "Oak stick of 55 ft. for a flag-staff" for his Park River post. Elliott Coues, New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest. The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry . . . and of David Thompson, 3 vols. (New York: F. P. Harper, 1897), 1:124.
  • 7. Jackson, Letters, 1:177. Those nineteen flags may have comprised the $33-worth of "flagg stuf" referred to in the memorandum dated February 25, 1804. Moulton, Journals, 2:182. According to Cooper (note 4 above, p. 14), "stuff" would have meant fabric.
  • 8. See also Discovery Path Overviews, Flag Presentations for a summary of flags presented to Indians.