Signal and Signature Flags

View from Blackbird's Grave

painting of men on a high hill above a winding river. There is a flag at the top of the hill.

Painting created by Split Rock Studios and previously on display at Sioux City Mall, owned by SDG Macerich Properties, L.P. The original paintings in this series are now curated by the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.
Photo by Kris Townsend 2010.

In addition to the various American flags, the Corps used two other kinds. Clark's entry for August 11, 1804, tells us that morning he and Lewis, with ten of their men, climbed to the summit of the bluff overlooking the Missouri where Black Bird, an Omaha chief, had been buried 4 years before. On his grave, a mound of earth about twelve feet in diameter and six feet high, they erected an eight-foot pole on which they hoisted a white flage bound with red Blue & white." Its pure white expanse respectfully acknowledged that Black Bird had been a peace-loving chief, while its tricolored edging discreetly stated that his grave, and the homeland of his people, were now on American soil.

On the thirteenth, according to Private Whitehouse's journal, they "Sent a Serjt. & 4 Men with a white flagg, to the [Omaha] Village to invite them to Come to a treaty, but the[y] found no Indians at the Village."

They also carried one or more red flags. Late in September, as the climax of their crucial encounter with the Teton1 Sioux approached, the captains dispatched a messenger to the Sioux with an explanation of "the Cause of our hoisting the red flag undr. the white, if they were for peace Stay at home & do as we had Derected them, if the[y] were for war [or] were Deturmined to Stop us we were ready to defend our Selves." Three days later, on September 31, "the Indians assembled on S. Shore hoisted a white flag. we then took down our red flag. directly after they hoisted another. We then took them to be our friends." Apparently the captains' diplomacy had succeeded. For the present, at least, the crisis was over.

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

  • 1. The ethnonym Teton (tee-tahn) was a transliteration of a Dakotan (Siouan) word meaning "plains." It bears no connection with its homonym, the common western placename Teton—French for "breast"—as in "Grand Teton," the highest peak (13,770 feet) in the Teton Range of mountains in the northwest corner of Wyoming. Nor does it denote the Teton Buttes (4452 ft), nor Teton Peak (8399 ft) at the headwaters of the river itself now known as the Teton, which Clark named the Tanzey. William Bright, "A Glossary of Native American Toponyms and Ethnonyms from the Lewis and Clark Journals," Names, Vol. 52, No. 3 (September 2004), 163-237, s.v. "Teton."