Blackfoot Chief by Karl Bodmer


Witness Post: Blood in the Water


Only one person died…at least that is what the journals of Lewis & Clark led us to believe. The year was 1804. The dead man was Charles Floyd, a Sargent in the US Army. It is hard to know for certain, but it was reported that Floyd died of bilious chorlick, more commonly known as a ruptured appendix. Floyd’s grave site sits on a bluff overlooking the present day Sioux City, Iowa. What is missing from this picture is the full story. Floyd’s is the only recorded death of a member of the expedition; however, for full disclosure there were lots of near misses and stories of two other men who died. Both deaths were caused by officers in the Corps of Discovery. The names of the deceased and the details of exactly what happened to these men have been extinguished from most US history books. Their bodies were quickly covered in dirt and marked with a coin. The men had died in hand-to-hand combat while fighting the white invaders of their prized hunting grounds. Some say the Indians were murdered. Among the questions remaining: “What really happened?” And “Why don’t we know more about the deaths of these men?”


What Really Happened


Historical Account:[1] In March, 1806, Captains Lewis and Clark agreed to the democratic vote to take the Corps of Discovery back to St. Louis, Missouri, after a long winter at Fort Clatsop on the Pacific Coast. They had boiled water for salt, gathered wild game, and left the damp Northwest. They wanted to put some miles between themselves and the rain and mosquitoes that plagued the Corps. The trip upriver and over the various falls on the Columbia was arduous and took several months.

On July 3, 1806, before crossing the Continental Divide, the Corps of Discovery split into two teams, one led by each Captain. Clark’s team continued on the Bitterroot River near Gibbons Pass. He had 20 members of the Corps and 50 horses with him. The team with Lewis and three others headed to the north, exploring for the tributary of the Marias River. If successful, Lewis’ party could have extended the territory claimed in the Louisiana Purchase to a more normal natural northern boundary. Accompanying Capt. Lewis were George Drouillard, and brothers Joseph and Reuben Field. 

That day the Lewis met a party of eight Indian men on horseback. Lewis thought the Indians were from the more-friendly Minnetare Indian tribe, but he was wrong. The Indians were Blackfeet.[2] During discussions, hand gestures, and gifts of medals and flags, the Indians realized that everything Lewis was proposing (peaceful trading with the Nez Perce and Shoshone Indians, both fierce enemies of the Blackfeet) was against their own best interests.


 blackfoot_on_horsebackBlackfoot Warrior on Horseback, by Karl Bodmer


During the night, the Blackfeet braves crept into their camp and tried to steal the Lewis team’s rifles. In the hand to hand combat that ensued, Reuben Fields stabbed a Blackfeet Indian, named Side Hill Calf, killing him on the spot. Lewis gave chase after another Blackfeet Indian and was able to retrieve his rifle only to turn around and see their horses being stolen by the deceptive Blackfeet. Lewis chased the horse thieves up a ravine and shot another Blackfeet warrior in the belly; he died instantly. The rest of the Indians scattered. Lewis, Drouillard, and the Field brothers were angry and tired, yet they feared for their lives. Lewis left a Jefferson medal around the neck of the man he had killed so “that they might know who we were.” The Lewis party quickly gathered their belongings and fled over 100 miles in a single day, and then proceeded another twenty miles before they dared to set camp again.[3]


 jeff medal

Lewis left a medal around the dead Blackfeet man’s neck

–“that they might know who we were.”


Meanwhile, Capt. Clark and his team had entered Crow Nation territory, which had its own perils. In the middle of the night, half (25) of Clark’s horses mysteriously disappeared. Despite a night watch, not a single Crow Indian had been heard or seen.  


Poor Eyesight

The Lewis and Clark parties stayed many miles apart and separated until August 11th when their parties reached the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Missouri Rivers. A few weeks prior to the reunion, the Clark party went on a hunting trip for wild game. One of Clark’s fellow hunters, Pierre Cruzatte, who was blind in one eye and nearsighted in the other, apparently mistook Capt. Lewis for an elk and fired a shot, injuring Lewis with a gunshot wound in the butt. Cruzatte’s bullet spun Lewis around and sliced a three inch gash out of Lewis’ hip. The injury was not serious, but Lewis spent the better part of three days lying face down in the canoe to recover. For the rest of the trip home to St. Louis Cruzatte denied firing the shot.[4]


Once the two teams were reunited, the Corps of Discovery was able to return to their home fort in six weeks via the Missouri River. They reached St. Louis on September 23, 1806.


 two_medicine_lewis_clarkTwo Medicine River in northern Montana, site of Lewis’ deadly encounter with the Blackfeet.

Courtesy of http://lewisandclarktrailwatch.blogspot.com/.


Two Medicine Fight


Meriwether Lewis’ misadventure with the Blackfeet Indians marked the first time blood was shed and men died in a battle between a western tribe and representatives of the US Government. This incident has come to be known as the “Two Medicine Fight,” which is named after the place where the deaths occurred. The deaths have often been cited as the cause of the Blackfeet’s subsequent hostile acts toward Americans, including the death of George Droulliard at Three Forks in 1810, four years after the Fight.


According to historians, claiming that Droulliard’s death was an act of revenge at Three Forks is an oversimplification of a complex set of circumstances.[5] The Blackfeet were an aggressive people. Knowing “the cost” of warfare, they were accustomed to losing men in battle. The insurrection of 1810 was a result of a confluence of several major factors. One factor was the large influx of American trappers who paddled up the Missouri in the years following the Lewis & Clark Expedition. These Mountain Men represented a threat to their military and economic dominance. The Blackfeet had a proud warrior culture and they earned their reputation as fierce fighters feared by even the toughest Mountain Men. The tribe’s success at international trade had whetted their appetite and they wanted to continue in the traditions that they had honed and the dominance they felt they had earned. The Blackfeet would not tolerate the intrusions of these outside forces any longer.


Why don’t we know more about the deaths of these two men?


The episode of the death of the Blackfeet warriors in the Two Medicine Fight is full of paradox. And the stories of the deaths, the quick burials, and the silence on these matters, leaves us perplexed in this day of enlightenment. There was, however, a time in our history when the value of a life WAS measured by the color of one’s skin and the perceived temperament in one’s heart. Thomas Jefferson as well as Lewis and Clark believed these Native Americans and African Americans were savages. Yes, Jefferson had many Virginia plantation slaves whom he apparently honored and loved. (According to DNA evidence, Sally Hemings, his Black slave, became Jefferson’s mistress. bearing several of his children.) The more personal the relationship, the less hard and fast the rules.

It seems that when the whites got to know and trust either a black man (York) or a real live Native American (Sacajawea), they treated the individuals differently than their brothers. They treated the close individuals with dignity and respect. For example Captains Lewis & Clark gave both York and Sacajawea a full vote, when members of the Corps of Discovery were deciding when to leave Fort Clatsop and head back to St. Louis. Meanwhile, though it is not in the public record, members of the Corps of Discovery, even the leaders, may have harbored deep-seeded prejudices against other races. 


It sounds like the people in our voting district who hate all Senators and Congressmen, shouting to “throw out the bums!” But, when it comes time to re-elect their own representatives, they continually return them to public office.

The Blackfeet were a fierce tribe; they were warriors and thieves. Sacajawea, a member of the Blackfeet tribe was nothing like that, right? 


sacajaweaSacajawea and Jean-Baptist Charbonneau


From the records, Sacajawea was a strong-willed woman with a mind of her own. Still she was a cunning interpreter of changing times. Her marriage to Charbonneau was an interesting one for her and for her son, Jean-Baptist, who traveled to Europe later in his life.

Who Died on the Expedition?

If asked the question, “Did anyone die on the Lewis and Clark Expedition?” how would school children and teachers alike answer? I want them to know the whole story and to give an honest answer — not the convenient answer that satisfies the narrow questions of history.

Just as we should ask, “How many died at Little Big Horn?” or “How many died in Viet Nam?” The answer would include all participants who made the ultimate sacrifice — be they white, black, yellow, red or any color in between. The current narrow answers to these questions often reports on those white or American forces who fought and died. Just as in answers to the question “How many died in the Holocaust?”the reply is biased toward the one answering.

In the future such reports must include the complete answer of all who died. We are all humans and deserve to be treated with the same levels of dignity and respect, in life and in death. No matter whose blood is in the water, we should know the full story and re-tell it in extraordinary detail.


[1] http://franceshunter.wordpress.com/2010/03/18/lewis-clark-among-the-blackfeet/  Frances Hunter has written a great segment on the Blackfeet and I recommend that anyone who wants the details of the Blackfeet Indian tribe to read research such as hers in order to get a more complete picture of the circumstances that may have precipitated the death of these two braves.

[2] According to his journals, Meriwether Lewis believed the warriors were Minnetare Indians, but to his surprise they were Piegan Blackfeet. The Indians were equally surprised to find the Americans in their hunting grounds. The Blackfeet controlled most of the vast territory stretching from the North Saskatchewan River (now Canada) to the southern headwaters of the Missouri River.  Their territory extended further southward to the edge of the Rocky Mountains. The Blackfeet were nomadic buffalo hunters, accomplished riders and fierce warriors. By 1806 they had already amassed large horse herds, many of which they had captured in raids upon tribes farther to the south. The Blackfeet also had strong trade relationships with British merchants of the Hudson’s Bay Company, exchanging valuable wolf and beaver pelts for guns, ammunition and alcohol. For twenty years this trade relationship had worked to the Blackfeet’s advantage, enabling them to make war on their neighbors and dominate their Nez Perce and Shoshone rivals.

[3] A full account of the incident is recorded in greater detail, including accounts taken directly from the Journals of Captain Lewis, and can be found in the book Lewis & Clark Among the Indians, by James Ronda, Bison Books, New York, 1984.


[5] Lewis & Clark Among the Indians, by James Ronda, Bison Books, New York, 1984.

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