When Pryor finally caught up with Clark's party, Clark was scarcely able to hide his despair over the loss of all of their horses. The Corps of Discovery was bankrupt. The Indians had stolen his credit card. For one thing, their diet of fresh meat was nutritionally inadequate, and Clark had counted on using some of those horses to solve that problem when they reached the Mandan villages. Though none of the Corps would have been able to explain what was ailing them, their bodies were aching for the vitamins (A and C) and minerals (especially calcium and iron) in vegetables. Clark therefore gave the hunters an urgent assignment. "My object is to precure as many Skins as possible for the purpose of purchaseing Corn and Beans of the Mandans," he groaned. "As we have now no article of Merchindize nor horses to purchase with, our only resort is Skins which those people were very fond the winter we were Stationed near them."

Worse yet, on the eleventh Clark met "two men from the illinoies," traders Joseph Dixon and Forrest Hancock, who told him the middle Missouri was aflame with warfare—Mandans, Hidatsas, Arikaras, Assiniboines, Teton Sioux, Blackfeet—and both British and American traders were being threatened, robbed, wounded, even killed. Forget about Heney and the grand plan. They would be lucky to get through the field of combat with their lives.

On August 12, Lewis, still in pain from the wound Cruzatte's misdirected rifle ball had made in his derriere on the previous day, suffered further from the news of Pryor's misfortune, which he read in the note Clark had left at his campsite of the previous day. "This I fear, puts an end to our prospects of obtaining the Sioux Cheifs to accompany us," he lamented. There wasn't enough time left in the season to connect with Heney, much less for Heney to negotiate arrangements with the Teton Sioux for one or more of their headmen to consider traveling to that unknown land where the "great white chief" dwelled. The only recourse was to initiate a new and simpler plan: take back any Indian chief they could persuade to go.

All the members of the Corps of Discovery were finally reunited at noon on the twelfth near Shell Creek, 142 miles downriver from the mouth of the Yellowstone, when Lewis and his contingent "hove in Sight with the party which went by way of the Missouri." They were back among the Mandans and Hidatsas on the fourteenth, where Posecopsahe (Black Cat), Sheheke (Coyote, or "Big White") and several other chiefs tried to outdo one another in expressing their hospitality with gifts of corn—more, finally, than the Corps could carry away. The captains were dismayed, however, to learn that the peace Sheheke had brokered with the Arikaras had reverted to warfare, and that the Sioux were still in command of the lower Missouri.

There was a noisy argument among several of the chiefs over who would accompany Lewis and Clark back East—or rather, who had the courage to defy the Sioux gatekeepers downriver. The issue was settled by the resident trader, interpreter and able mediator René Jusseaume. Sheheke of the Mandans would go if Jusseaume would go too, and each could take his wife and children. It was late in the afternoon of August 17 when Clark went to Sheheke's lodge, to find him "Sorounded by his friends. The men were Setting in a circle smokeing, and the womin Crying." The captains shared a pipeful of tobacco with the "Grand Cheifs of all the Villages," listened to the Mandans' declarations of peace and friendship, and put eighteen miles behind them before making camp. Four days later they met two traders who passed on some more unwelcome news. The Arikara chief, Piahito ("Eagle's Feather"), also known as Arketarnashar ("Chief of the Town"), who had been a friend and peacemaker in the captains' behalf the previous spring, was dead. He had sailed east on the returning keelboat in the spring of 1805, proceeded on to visit President Jefferson at Washington City, and succumbed there to a fatal illness.1 Lewis and Clark had narrowly escaped the retribution of an outraged Arikara community.

Despite the contrarieties of wind and weather, hunger and exhaustion, and a short, bitter exchange of mutual defiance with the Sioux, the men plied their oars with zest, averaging forty miles per day—up to ten times faster than on their upriver trip in 1804. With excitement mounting as the end of the trail drew ever nearer, which of them would have given a thought to the question of getting Sheheke and Jusseaume safely home again?

  • 1. Piahito—"an interesting character," Henry Dearborn had observed—died on April 7, 1806. On the eleventh Jefferson addressed his condolences to the Arikaras: "On his return to this place he was taken sick; every thing we could do to help him was done; but it pleased the great Spirit to take him from among us. We buried him among our own deceased friends & relatives, we shed many tears over his grave, and we now mingle our afflictions with yours on the loss of this beloved chief. But death must happen to all men; and his time was come."
    Secretary of War Henry Dearborn made arrangements to return Piahito's peace medal and other personal effects to his son, along with "something like a commission to him of a Chief." Two or three hundred dollars' worth of gifts were sent to Piahito's wife and children. Needless to say, the words and gifts had little effect, and the Arikaras held the Americans responsible. Jackson, Letters, 1:303, 305–06.
    Of the forty or so Poncas, Omahas, Otos, Iowas, Pawnees, Osages and Missouris who went east that spring, six or seven died there, in addition to Piahito. Jackson, Letters, 2:743.