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Theodore Roosevelt

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The Far West

The Far West, the West beyond the Mississippi, had been thrust on Jefferson, and given to the nation, by the rapid growth of the Old West, the West that lay between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi.

The actual title to the new territory had been acquired by the United States Government, acting for the whole nation. It remained to explore the territory thus newly added to the national domain. The Government did not yet know exactly what it had acquired, for the land was not only unmapped but unexplored. Nobody could tell what were the boundary lines which divided it from British America on the north and Mexico on the south, for nobody knew much of the country through which these lines ran; of most of it, indeed, nobody knew anything. On the new maps the country now showed as part of the United States; but the Indians who alone inhabited it were as little affected by the transfer as was the game they hunted.

Need for its Exploration

Even the Northwestern portion of the land definitely ceded to the United States by Great Britain in Jay's treaty was still left in actual possession of the Indian tribes, while the few whites who lived among them were traders owing allegiance to the British Government. The head-waters of the Mississippi and the beautiful country lying round them were known only in a vague way; and it was necessary to explore and formally take possession of this land of lakes, glades, and forests.

Beyond the Mississippi all that was really well known was the territory in the immediate neighbourhood of the little French villages near the mouth of the Missouri. The creole traders of these villages, and an occasional venturous American, had gone up the Mississippi to the country of the Sioux and the Mandans, where they had trapped and hunted and traded for furs with the Indians. At the northern most points that they reached they occasionally encountered traders who had travelled south or southwesterly from the wintry regions where the British fur companies reigned supreme. The headwaters of the Missouri were absolutely unknown; nobody had penetrated the great plains, the vast seas of grass through which the Platte, the Little Missouri, and the Yellowstone ran. What lay beyond them, and between them and the Pacific, was not even guessed at. The Rocky Mountains were not known to exist, so far as the territory newly acquired by the United States was concerned, although under the name of "Stonies" their northern extensions in British America were already down on some maps.

The National Government Undertakes the Work

The West had passed beyond its first stage of uncontrolled individualism. Neither exploring nor fighting was thenceforth to be the work only of the individual settlers. The National Government was making its weight felt more and more in the West, because the West was itself becoming more and more an important integral portion of the Union. The work of exploring these new lands fell, not to the wild hunters and trappers, such as those who had first explored Kentucky and Tennessee, but to officers of the United States army, leading parties of United States soldiers, in pursuance of the command of the Government or of its representatives. The earliest and most important expeditions of Americans into the unknown country which the nation had just purchased were led by young officers of the regular army.

Jefferson Entitled to the Credit

The first of these expeditions was planned by Jefferson himself and authorised by Congress. Nominally its purpose was in part to find out the most advantageous places for the establishment of trading stations with the Indian tribes over which our government had acquired the titular suzerainty; but in reality it was purely a voyage of exploration, planned with intent to ascend the Missouri to its head, and thence to cross the continent to the Pacific. The explorers were carefully instructed to report upon the geography, physical characteristics, and zoology of the region traversed, as well as upon its wild human denizens. Jefferson was fond of science, and in appreciation of the desirability of non-remunerative scientific observation and investigation he stood honorably distinguished among the public men of the day. To him justly belongs the credit of originating this first exploring expedition ever undertaken by the United States Government.

Lewis and Clark Chosen

The two officers chosen to carry through the work belonged to families already honorably distinguished for service on the Western border. One was Captain Meriwether Lewis, representatives of whose family had served so prominently in Dunmore's war; the other was Lieutenant (by courtesy Captain) William Clark, a younger brother of George Rogers Clark. [Footnote: He had already served as captain in the army; see Coues' edition of the "History of the Expedition," lxxi.] Clark had served with credit through Wayne's campaigns, and had taken part in the victory of the Fallen Timbers. [Footnote: See his letters, quoted in Chap. II. There is a good deal of hitherto unused material about him in the Draper MSS.] Lewis had seen his first service when he enlisted as a private in the forces which were marshalled to put down the whisky insurrection. Later he served under Clark in Wayne's army. He had also been President Jefferson's private secretary.

Their Party

The young officers started on their trip accompanied by twenty-seven men who intended to make the whole journey. Of this number one, the interpreter and incidentally the best hunter of the party, was a half-breed; two were French voyageurs; one was a negro servant of Clark; nine were volunteers from Kentucky; and fourteen were regular soldiers. All, however, except the black slave, were enlisted in the army before starting, so that they might be kept under regular discipline. In addition to these twenty-seven men there were seven soldiers and nine voyageurs who started only to go to the Mandan villages on the Missouri, where the party intended to spend the first winter. They embarked in three large boats, abundantly supplied with arms, powder, and lead, clothing, gifts for the Indians, and provisions.

The starting point was St. Louis, which had only just been surrendered to the United States Government by the Spaniards, without any French intermediaries. The explorers pushed off in May, 1804, and soon began stemming the strong current of the muddy Missouri, to whose unknown sources they intended to ascend. For two or three weeks they occasionally passed farms and hamlets. The most important of the little towns was St. Charles, where the people were all Creoles; the explorers in their journal commented upon the good temper and vivacity of these _habitants_, but dwelt on the shiftlessness they displayed and their readiness to sink back towards savagery, although they were brave and hardy enough. The next most considerable town was peopled mainly by Americans, who had already begun to make numerous settlements in the new land. The last squalid little village they passed claimed as one of its occasional residents old Daniel Boone himself.

After leaving the final straggling log cabins of the settled country, the explorers, with sails and paddles, made their way through what is now the State of Missouri. They lived well, for their hunters killed many deer and wild turkey and some black bear and beaver, and there was an abundance of breeding water fowl. Here and there were Indian encampments, but not many, for the tribes had gone westward to the great plains of what is now Kansas to hunt the buffalo. Already buffalo and elk were scarce in Missouri, and the party did not begin to find them in any numbers until they reached the neighborhood of what is now southern Nebraska.

They Reached the Great Plains

From there onwards the game was found in vast herds and the party began to come upon those characteristic animals of the Great Plains which were as yet unknown to white men of our race. The buffalo and the elk had once ranged eastward to the Alleghanies and were familiar to early wanderers through the wooded wilderness; but in no part of the east had their numbers ever remotely approached the astounding multitudes in which they were found on the Great Plains. The curious prong-buck or prong-horned antelope was unknown east of the Great Plains. So was the blacktail, or mule deer, which our adventurers began to find here and there as they gradually worked their way northwestward. So were the coyotes, whose uncanny wailing after nightfall varied the sinister baying of the gray wolves; so were many of the smaller animals, notably the prairie dogs, whose populous villages awakened the lively curiosity of Lewis and Clark.

Good Qualities of Lewis and Clark

In their note-books the two captains faithfully described all these new animals and all the strange sights they saw. They were men with no pretensions to scientific learning, but they were singularly close and accurate observers and truthful narrators. Very rarely have any similar explorers described so faithfully not only the physical features but the animals and plants of a newly discovered land. Their narrative was not published until some years later, and then it was badly edited, notable the purely scientific portion; yet it remains the best example of what such a narrative should be. Few explorers who did and saw so much that was absolutely new have written of their deeds with such quiet absence of boastfulness, and have drawn their descriptions with such complete freedom from exaggeration.

Their Dealings with the Indians

Moreover, what was of even greater importance, the two young captains possessed in perfection the qualities necessary to pilot such an expedition through unknown lands and among savage tribes. They kept good discipline among the men; they never hesitated to punish severely any wrong-doer; but they were never over-severe; and as they did their full part of the work, and ran all the risks and suffered all the hardship exactly like the other members of the expedition, they were regarded by their followers with devoted affection, and were served with loyalty and cheerfulness. In dealing with the Indians they showed good humor and common-sense mingled with ceaseless vigilance and unbending resolution. Only men who possessed their tact and daring could have piloted the party safely among the warlike tribes they encountered. Any act of weakness or timidity on the one hand, or of harshness or cruelty on the other, would have been fatal to the expedition; but they were careful to treat the tribes well and to try to secure their good-will, while at the same time putting an immediate stop to any insolence or outrage. Several times they were in much jeopardy when they reached the land of the Dakotas and passed among the various ferocious tribes whom they knew, and whom we yet know, as the Sioux. The French traders frequently came up river to the country of the Sioux, who often maltreated and robbed them. In consequence Lewis and Clark found that the Sioux were inclined to regard the whites as people whom they could safely oppress. The resolute bearing of the new-comers soon taught them that they were in error, and after a little hesitation the various tribes in each case became friendly.

Councils with the Indians

With all the Indian tribes the two explorers held councils, and distributed presents, especially medals, among the head chiefs and warriors, informing them of the transfer of the territory from Spain to the United States and warning them that henceforth they must look to the President as their protector, and not to the King, whether of England or of Spain. The Indians all professed much satisfaction at the change, which of course they did not in the least understand, and for which they cared nothing. This easy acquiescence gave much groundless satisfaction to Lewis and Clark, who further, in a spirit of philanthropy, strove to make each tribe swear peace with its neighbors. After some hesitation the tribe usually consented to this also, and the explorers, greatly gratified, passed on. It is needless to say that as soon as they had disappeared the tribes promptly went to war again; and that in reality the Indians had only the vaguest idea as to what was meant by the ceremonies, and the hoisting of the American Flag. The wonder is that Clark, who had already had some experience with Indians, should have supposed that the councils, advice, and proclamations would have any effect of the kind hoped for upon these wild savages. However, together with the love of natural science inculcated by the fashionable philosophy of the day, they also possessed the much less admirable, though entirely amiable, theory of universal and unintelligent philanthropy which was embodied in this philosophy. A very curious feature of our dealings with the Indians, not only in the days of Lewis and Clark, but since, has been the combination of extreme and indeed foolish benevolence of purpose on the part of the Government, with, on the part of the settlers, a brutality of action which this benevolent purpose could in no wise check or restrain.

 They Winter at the Mandan Villages

As the fall weather grew cold the party reached the Mandan village, where they halted and went into camp for the winter, building huts and a stout blockade, which they christened Fort Mandan. Traders from St. Louis and also British traders from the North reached these villages, and the inhabitants were accustomed to dealing with the whites. Throughout the winter the party was well treated by the Indians, and kept in good health and spirits; the journals frequently mention the fondness the men showed for dancing, although without partners of the opposite sex. Yet they suffered much from the extreme cold, and at times from hunger, for it was hard to hunt in the winter weather, and the game was thin and poor. Generally game could be killed in a day's hunt from the fort; but occasionally small parties of hunters went off for a trip of several days, and returned laden with meat; in one case they killed thirty-two deer, eleven elk, and a buffalo; in another forty deer, sixteen elk, and three buffalo; thirty-six deer and fourteen elk, etc., etc. The buffalo remaining in the neighborhood during the winter were mostly old bulls, too lean to eat; and as the snows came on most of the antelope left for the rugged country farther west, swimming the Missouri in great bands. Before the bitter weather began the explorers were much interested by the methods of the Indians in hunting, especially when they surrounded and slaughtered bands of buffalo on horseback; and by the curious pens, with huge V-shaped wings, into which they drove antelope.

They Start Westward in the Spring

In the spring of 1805, Lewis and Clark again started westward, first sending down-stream ten of their companions, to carry home the notes of their trip so far, and a few valuable specimens. The party that started westward numbered thirty-two adults, all told; for one sergeant had died, and two or three persons had volunteered at the Mandan villages, including a rather worthless French "squaw-man," with an intelligent Indian wife, whose baby was but a few weeks old.

From this point onwards, when they began to travel west instead of north, the explorers were in a country where no white man had ever trod. It was not the first time the continent had been crossed. The Spaniards had crossed and recrossed it, for two centuries, farther south. In British America Mackenzie had already penetrated to the Pacific, while Hearne had made a far more noteworthy and difficult trip than Mackenzie, when he wandered over the terrible desolation of the Barren Grounds, which lie under the Arctic circle. But no man had ever crossed or explored that part of the continent which the United States had just acquired; a part far better fitted to be the home of our stock than the regions to the north or south. It was the explorations of Lewis and Clark, and not those of Mackenzie on the north or of the Spaniards in the south, which were to bear fruit, because they pointed the way to the tens of thousands of settlers who were to come after them, and who were to build thriving commonwealths in the lonely wilderness which they had traversed.

 Wonderful Hunting Grounds

From the Little Missouri on to the head of the Missouri proper the explorers passed through a region where they saw few traces of Indians. It literally swarmed with game, for it was one of the finest hunting grounds in all the world. [Footnote: It so continued for three quarters of a century. Until after 1880 the region around the Little Missouri was essentially unchanged from what is was in the days of Lewis and Clark; game swarmed, and the few white hunters and trappers who followed the buffalo, the elk, and the beaver, were still at times in conflict with hunting parties from various Indian tribes. While ranching in this region I myself killed every kind of game encountered by Lewis and Clark.] There were great numbers of sage fowl, sharp-tailed prairie fowl, and ducks of all kinds; and swans, and tall white cranes; and geese, which nested in the tops of the cottonwood trees. But the hunters paid no heed to birds, when surrounded by such teeming myriads of big game. Buffalo, elk, and antelope, whitetail and blacktail deer, and bighorn sheep swarmed in extraordinary abundance throughout the lands watered by the upper Missouri and the Yellowstone; in their journals the explorers dwell continually on the innumerable herds they encountered while on these plains, both when travelling up-stream and again the following year when they were returning. The antelopes were sometimes quite shy; so were the bighorn; though on occasions both kinds seemed to lose their wariness, and in one instance the journal specifies the fact that, at the mouth of the Yellowstone, the deer were somewhat shy, while the antelope, like the elk and buffalo, paid no heed to the men whatever. Ordinarily all the kinds of game were very tame. Sometimes one of the many herds of elk that lay boldly, even at midday, on the sandbars, or on the brush-covered points, would wait until the explorers were within twenty yards of them before starting. The buffalo would scarcely move out of the path at all, and the bulls sometimes, even when unmolested, threatened to assail the hunters. Once, on the return voyage, when Clark was descending the Yellowstone River, a vast herd of buffalo, swimming and wading, plowed its way across the stream where it was a mile broad, in a column so thick that the explorers had to draw up on shore and wait for an hour, until it passed by, before continuing their journey. Two or three times the expedition was thus brought to a halt; and as the buffalo were so plentiful, and so easy to kill, and as their flesh was very good, they were the mainstay for the explorers' table. Both going and returning this wonderful hunting country was a place of plenty. The party of course lived almost exclusively on meat, and they needed much; for, when they could get it, they consumed either a buffalo, or an elk and a deer, or four deer, every day.

First Encounters with the Grizzly Bear

There was one kind of game which they at times found altogether too familiar. This was the grizzly bear, which they were the first white men to discover. They called it indifferently the grizzly, gray, brown, and even white bear, to distinguish it from its smaller, glossy, black-coated brother with which they were familiar in the Eastern woods. They found that the Indians greatly feared these bears, and after their first encounters they themselves treated them with much respect. The grizzly was then the burly lord of the Western prairie, dreaded by all other game, and usually shunned even by the Indians. In consequence it was very bold and savage. Again and again these huge bears attacked the explorers of their own accord, when neither molested nor threatened. They galloped after the hunters when they met them on horseback even in the open; and they attacked them just as freely when they found them on foot. To go through the brush was dangerous; again and again one or another of the party was charged and forced to take to a tree, at the foot of which the bear sometimes mounted guard for hours before going off. When wounded the beasts fought with desperate courage, and showed astonishing tenacity of life, charging any number of assailants, and succumbing but slowly even to mortal wounds. In one case a bear that was on shore actually plunged into the water and swam out to attack one of the canoes as it passed. However, by this time all of the party had become good hunters, expert in the use of their rifles, and they killed great numbers of their ursine foes.

Other Brute Enemies

Nor were the bears their only brute enemies. The rattlesnakes were often troublesome. Unlike the bears, the wolves were generally timid, and preyed only on the swarming game: but one night a wolf crept into camp and seized a sleeper by the hand; when driven off he jumped upon another man, and was shot by a third. A less intentional assault was committed by a buffalo bull which one night blundered past the fires, narrowly escaped trampling on the sleepers, and had the whole camp in an uproar before it rushed off into the darkness. When hunted the buffalo occasionally charged; but there was not much danger in their chase.

The Scourge of Mosquitoes

All these larger foes paled into insignificance compared with the mosquitos. There are very few places on earth where these pests are so formidable as in the bottom lands of the Missouri, and for weeks and even months they made the lives of our explorers a torture. No other danger, whether from hunger or cold, Indians or wild beasts, was so dreaded by the explorers as these tiny scourges.

Pleasant Life in the Plains Country

In the Plains country the life of the explorers was very pleasant save only for the mosquitos and the incessant clouds of driving sand along the river bottoms. On their journey west through these true happy hunting grounds they did not meet with any Indians, and their encounters with the bears were only just sufficiently dangerous to add excitement to their life. Once or twice they were in peril from cloud bursts, and they were lamed by the cactus spines on the prairie, and by the stones and sand of the river bed while dragging the boats against the current; but all these trials, labors, and risks were only enough to give zest to their exploration of the unknown land. At the Great Falls of the Missouri they halted, and were enraptured with their beauty and majesty; and here, as everywhere, they found the game so abundant that they lived in plenty. As they journeyed up-stream through the bright summer weather, though they worked hard, it was work of a kind which was but a long holiday. At nightfall they camped by the boats on the river bank. Each day some of the party spent in hunting, either along the river bottoms through the groves of cottonwoods with shimmering, rustling leaves, or away from the river where the sunny prairies stretched into seas of brown grass, or where groups of rugged hills stood, fantastic in color and outline, and with stunted pines growing on the sides of their steep ravines. The only real suffering was that which occasionally befell someone who got lost, and was out for days at a time, until he exhausted all his powder and lead before finding the party.

Crossing the Mountains

Fall had nearly come when they reached the head-waters of the Missouri. The end of the holiday-time was at hand, for they had before them the labor of crossing the great mountains so as to strike the head-waters of the Columbia. Their success at this point depended somewhat upon the Indian wife of the Frenchman who had joined them at Mandan. She had been captured from one of the Rocky Mountains tribes and they relied on her as interpreter. Partly through her aid, and partly by their own exertions, they were able to find, and make friends with, a band of wandering Shoshones, from whom they got horses. Having cached their boats and most of their goods they started westward through the forest-clad passes of the Rockies; before this they had wandered and explored in several directions through the mountains and the foot-hills. The open country had been left behind, and with it the time of plenty. In the mountain forests the game was far less abundant than on the plains and far harder to kill; though on the tops of the high peaks there was one new game animal, the white antelope-goat, which they did not see, though the Indians brought them hides. The work was hard, and the party suffered much from toil and hunger, living largely on their horses, before they struck one of the tributaries of the Snake sufficiently low down to enable them once more to go by boat.

The Indians they Met

They now met many Indians of various tribes, all of them very different from the Indians of the Western Plains. At this time the Indians both east and west of the Rockies, already owned numbers of horses. Although they had a few guns, they relied mainly on the spears and tomahawks, and bows and arrows with which they had warred and hunted from time immemorial; for only the tribes on the outer edges had come in contact with the whites, whether with occasional French and English traders who brought them goods, or with the mixed bloods of the northern Spanish settlements, upon which they raided. Around the mouth of the Columbia, however, the Indians knew a good deal about the whites; the river had been discovered by Captain Gray of Boston thirteen years before, and ships came there continually, while some of the Indian tribes were occasionally visited by traders from the British fur companies.

With one or two of these tribes the explorers had some difficulty, and owed their safety to their unceasing vigilance, and to the prompt decision with which they gave the Indians to understand that they would tolerate no bad treatment; while yet themselves refraining carefully from committing any wrong. By most of the tribes they were well received, and obtained from them not only information of the route, but also a welcome supply of food. At first they rather shrank from eating the dogs which formed the favorite dish of the Indians; but after a while they grew quite reconciled to dog's flesh; and in their journals noted that they preferred it to lean elk and deer meat, and were much more healthy while eating it.

Lewis and Clark reach the Pacific Coast

They reached the rain-shrouded forests of the coast before cold weather set in, and there they passed the winter; suffering somewhat from the weather, and now and then from hunger, though the hunters generally killed plenty of elk, and deer of a new kind, the blacktail of the Columbia.

They Start Eastward Again

In March, 1806, they started eastward to retrace their steps. At first they did not live well, for it was before the time when the salmon came up-stream, and game was not common. When they reached the snow-covered mountains there came another period of toil and starvation, and they were glad indeed when they emerged once more on the happy hunting-grounds of the Great Plains. They found their caches undisturbed. Early in July they separated for a time, Clark descending the Yellowstone and Lewis the Missouri, until they met at the junction of the two rivers. The party which went down the Yellowstone at one time split into two, Clark taking command of one division, and a sergeant of the other; they built their own canoes, some of them made out of hollowed trees, while the others were bull boats, made of buffalo hides stretched on a frame. As before they revelled in the abundance of the game. They marvelled at the incredible numbers of the buffalo whose incessant bellowing at this season filled the air with one continuous roar, which terrified their horses; they were astonished at the abundance and tameness of the elk; they fought their old enemies the grizzly bears; and they saw and noted many strange and wonderful beasts and birds.

The Adventure of Lewis and the Indians

To Lewis there befell other adventures. Once, while he was out with three men, a party of eight Blackfoot warriors joined them and suddenly made a treacherous attack upon them and strove to carry off their guns and horses. But the wilderness veterans sprang to arms with a readiness that had become second nature. One of them killed an Indian with a knife thrust; Lewis himself shot another Indian, and the remaining six fled, carrying with them one of Lewis' horses, but losing four of their own, which the whites captured. This was the beginning of the long series of bloody skirmishes between the Blackfeet and the Rocky Mountain explorers and trappers. Clark, at about the same time, suffered at the hands of the Crows, who stole a number of his horses.

He is Shot by one of his Own Party

None of the party were hurt by the Indians, but some time after the skirmish with the Blackfeet Lewis was accidentally shot by one of the Frenchmen of the party and suffered much from the wound. Near the mouth of the Yellowstone Clark joined him, and the reunited company floated down the Missouri. Before they reached the Mandan villages they encountered two white men, the first strangers of their own color the party had seen for a year and a half. These were two American hunters named Dickson and Hancock, who were going up to trap the head-waters of the Missouri on their own account. They had come from the Illinois country a year before, to hunt and trap; they had been plundered, and one of them wounded, in an encounter with the fierce Sioux, but were undauntedly pushing forwards into the unknown wilderness towards the mountains.

They Meet Two Hunters

These two hardy and daring adventurers formed the little vanguard of the bands of hunters and trappers, the famous Rocky Mountain men, who were to roam hither and hither across great West in lawless freedom for the next three quarters of a century. They accompanied the party back to the Mandan village; there one of the soldiers joined them, a man name Colter, so fascinated by the life of the wilderness that he was not willing to leave it, even for a moment's glimpse of the civilization, from which he had been so long exiled. [Footnote: For Colter, and the first explorers of this region, see "The Yellowstone National Park," by Captain H. M. Chittenden.] The three turned their canoe up-stream, while Lewis and Clark and the rest of the party drifted down past the Sioux.

They Return to St. Louis

The further voyage of the explorers was uneventful. They had difficulties with the Sioux of course, but they held them at bay. They killed game in abundance, and went down-stream as fast as sails, oars, and current could carry them. In September they reached St. Louis and forwarded to Jefferson an account of what they had done.

After-Careers of Lewis and Clark

They had done a great deed, for they had opened the door into the heart of the far West. Close on their tracks followed the hunters, trappers, and fur traders who themselves made ready the way for the settlers whose descendants were to possess the land. As for the two leaders of the explorers, Lewis was made Governor of Louisiana Territory, and a couple of years afterwards died, as was supposed, by his own hand, in a squalid log cabin on the Chickasaw trace--though it was never certain that he had not been murdered. Clark was afterwards Governor of the territory, when its name had been changed to Missouri, and he also served honorably as Indian agent. But neither of them did anything further of note; nor indeed was it necessary, for they had performed a feat which will always give them a place on the honor roll of American worthies.