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Lewis & Clark, Part II:

High noon in Montana, July 26, 1806, with Meriwether Lewis and the Blackfoot.

By Clay S. Jenkinson

One of the leaders of President Thomas Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery, Meriwether Lewis, participated in the first gunfight in the American West. In fact, his encounter with a party of eight young Blackfoot men in late July of 1806 may be seen as the very model of the gunfights that every American has read in western literature or seen in movies or on television.

On the return journey through Montana in 1806, Lewis and Clark split up. Clark led one group down the Yellowstone; Lewis took a smaller group to the Great Falls of the Missouri. The plan was to reconvene at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers just inside what is now North Dakota. They planned to meet in early August 1806.

Once he got back to the Great Falls, Meriwether Lewis divided his party again. Sergeant Patrick Gass and five men were instructed to open the caches that had been prepared the previous July, and portage what remained of the expedition’s baggage 18 miles around the five falls of the Missouri River. Lewis and three of his most trusted men, Joseph and Reubin Fields, and the indispensable George Drouillard, would strike out on horseback for the upper Marias in hope of driving back the Canadian border. The United States was entitled to the entire watershed of the Missouri River. Lewis hoped that the Marias had a northerly source.

On July 27, 1806, Meriwether Lewis squared off against his enemy on the plains of Montana. He was dangerously undermanned. Only three of the 33 members of the Corps were with him in the heart of Blackfoot country. Even though his hand-picked band were amongst the ablest men of the Expedition, the party of four was not enough to intimidate the Indians. Suddenly there were eight young men on the ridge, with many more Blackfoot nearby. Lewis felt he had no choice but to meet the warriors for a parley. Drouillard was a master of sign language and interpreted while Captain Lewis delivered a scaled-down version of his Jeffersonian peace speech and distributed a few diplomatic gifts. The two parties decided that the safest thing would be to spend the night in the same camp.

The tension around the campfire can only be imagined. The American party was outnumbered—and they must each have wondered just how many more braves were within striking distance. The Blackfoot were outgunned—but think what a triumph it would be to bring the strangers’ great weapons back to the village! The Americans had been warned by the Hidatsa and the Shoshone to fear the Blackfoot. A few days earlier Lewis had characterized them as “a viciouis lawless and reather abandoned set of wretches.” (July 17, 1806). The Blackfoot must have wondered just what these well-armed pale strangers were up to wandering through Blackfoot country and talking about a Great Father who lived where the sun rose.

Eventually everyone settled down to sleep. Lewis took the first watch. Then he roused Reubin Fields. “This being done I feel into a profound sleep and did not wake until the noise of the men and indians awoke me a little after light in the morning.”

At some point Reubin Fields’ brother Joseph had been awakened to take the watch. Apparently he let down his guard just enough at first daylight to give the Blackfoot the opportunity they sought. According to Lewis, Joseph Fields “carelessly laid his gun down behind him near where his brother was sleeping.” One of the Indians seized their rifles as two others grabbed the rifles of Lewis and Drouillard. The brothers ran down the men who were running away with their guns and Reubin... “as he seized his gun stabed the indian to the heart with his knife. the fellow ran about 15 steps and fell dead.”

At dawn on July 27, 1806, Meriwether Lewis woke up to the words “Damn you let go my gun,” shouted by Drouillard “in a scuffle with the indian for his gun.” Drouillard was able to wrench his rifle out of the hands of the Blackfoot man. Lewis immediately searched for his own rifle. It was gone. He therefore “drew a pistol from my holster” and ran after the man who was making off with it. When it became clear that Lewis was about to shoot him, the Blackfoot man “droped the gun and walked slowly off.”

The Americans had all recovered their weapons and one Blackfoot man was dead. No shots had been fired. Captain Lewis refused the request of his crew that they be allowed to kill the rest of the assailants. Roused though he surely was, Meriwether Lewis remembered that he was a Jeffersonian ambassador in the West, not an Indian killer.

Now Lewis and his men turned their adrenaline-heightened attention to their horses, which the seven remaining Blackfoot were attempting to drive off. Lewis wrote, “I pursued the man who had taken my gun [now recovered] who with another was driving off a part of the horses which were to the left of the camp.” When Captain Lewis realized that the Blackfoot were about to disappear into the safety of a ravine, he took his stand. “being nearly out of breath I could pursue no further, I called to them as I had done several times before that I would shoot them if they did not give me my horse.” Lewis was shouting his demands in English, of course, and his antagonists were Blackfoot Indians. Just how he expected them to understand this ultimatum is unclear, though undoubtedly they had a general sense of his meaning.

What followed is the stuff of “The Virginian” or “Gunsmoke.” I quote the rest of the story in Lewis’s immortal, and misspelled, prose:

“[I] raised my gun.
one of them jumped behind a rock and spoke to the other who turned around and stoped at the distance of 30 steps from me.

I shot him through the belly.

he fell to his knees and on his wright elbow from which position he partly raised himself
and fired at me

and turning himself about crawled in behind a rock which was a few feet from him.
He overshot me;

being bearheaded I felt the wind of his bullet very distinctly.”

The Blackfoot gunslinger was dead. By now all of the Expedition’s guns and most of its horses had been recovered. It was time to depart before the six surviving warriors had time to regroup. Captain Lewis wisely threw their four shields and two bows and quivers of arrows “and sundry other articles” onto the campfire. He was destroying their ability to strike back, at least in the short term. Indignantly, he “retook the flagg” he had given the Blackfoot as a token of American good will. But like a character out of a spaghetti western he “left the [official U.S. peace] medal about the neck of the dead man that they might be informed who we were.”

Lewis on the Morias by Olaf Selzer ©Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK
Lewis’s encounter with the Blackfoot occurred near the Two Medicine River, a tributary of the Marias in northwestern Montana. This oil painting of “Lewis on the Marias” is by Olaf Seltzer © Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Okla. Reprinted with permission.

This was a gesture born of testosterone, but not of good sense. Meriwether Lewis was an official representative of the government of the United States and President Jefferson’s handpicked emissary to the Blackfoot. Lewis could further no known American diplomatic objective by advertising to the Blackfoot his act of hostility against their young warriors in their national territory. But hubris has always been a part of the cowboy code.

Just after this historic gunfight, Lewis and his three men engaged in what must be considered one of the most heroic rides in the history of the American West. They were scared. They had just killed two Blackfoot men in the heart of Blackfoot territory. They were dangerously undermanned. There was virtually no possibility that they would be able to explain to a Blackfoot posse that they had acted in self-defense and even if that were linguistically possible, the code of lex talionis meant that they would almost certainly have to fight for their lives.

Captain Lewis was well aware of the gravity of the moment. He and his companions were about to make a forced march to the Missouri River.

“I encouraged them by telling them that our own lives as well as those of our friends and fellow travelers depended on our exertions at this moment,” he wrote. “I now told them that it was my determination that if we were attacked in the plains on our way to the point that the bridles of the horses should be tied together and we would stand and defend them, or sell our lives as dear as we could.”

So they rode like the wind, 120 miles in a little more than 24 hours between early morning on July 27, 1806 and the morning of July 28. “I was so soar from my ride,” Lewis wrote, “I could scarcely stand, and the men complained of being in a similar situation.”

When they at last arrived at the confluence of the Missouri and Marias Rivers, they experienced one of the great moments of serendipity in American history. Sergeant Gass’s float party was just at that moment arriving at the same place. As they rode down to the river Lewis and his men heard gunshots. “we quickly repared to this joyfull sound and on arriving at the bank of the river had the unspeakable satisfaction to see our canoes coming down.” Now the Corps of Discovery had enough men and firepower to repel anything but a massive attack by the Blackfoot.

Back where the rivers merged Lewis simply abandoned what was left of his horse herd. We “striped [stripped] our horses and gave them a final discharge.” All of the expedition’s once-proud horse herd was now gone. Many had been stolen (mostly by the Crow, perhaps a few by the Shoshone). For some number of years after 1806 there were horses in Montana either wild or in Indian herds that bore the brand of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Perhaps they were prized by the Blackfoot, Crow, and Shoshone for the strange “medicine” markings on their flanks. What a pity that there is no genetic descent of acquired characteristics! There are surely horses in the American West today that trace their lineage to the mounts that Lewis and Clark obtained with such great cost and difficulty in the Bitterroot country in 1805 and 1806.

The gunfight with the Blackfoot marks the second time that Meriwether Lewis was almost struck by a bullet in the Louisiana Territory. He had nearly been shot by one of his men earlier in the voyage. On the third occasion, which would follow 15 days after the skirmish with the Blackfoot, he would not be so lucky. While hunting on a willow island with his finest waterman Pierre Cruzatte on August 11, 1806, Captain Lewis was accidentally shot in the buttocks by a .54 caliber ball. He survived, but Cruzatte’s errant bullet produced a wound that was painful, temporarily debilitating, and extremely humiliating. Meriwether Lewis’s career as a cowboy ended as a victim of friendly fire.

In the course of their immense journey, in the 28 months of their struggle against the wilderness, after near-starvation, standoffs with Indians, roundups and rodeos, gunfights and journal entries written with cold fingers in the flickering light of the campfire, the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition had somehow come to see tame, domestic cows as the symbol of “civilization.” Just three days before the Corps of Discovery ended its journey in St. Louis, Clark reports that the men encountered cattle for the first time in more than two years. “we saw some cows on the bank which was a joyfull Sight to the party and caused a Shout to be raised for joy.”

They were home.

In the last month of their journey in the early autumn of 1806, Lewis and Clark encountered a score of fresh adventures on their way up the Missouri River to trap beaver and trade with Indians. Jefferson’s emissaries had opened the door to the American West. The beaver rush was on. The West was about to change forever. And it would not be long before cattle began to ascend the “heretofore deemed endless Missouri” and transform the American Eden into one of the principal cattle ranges of the world.

That future for the American West Meriwether Lewis and William Clark could not possibly anticipate.

Editor’s Note: In the Summer 2001 issue of RANGE, humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson examined the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s reaction to the Great Plains grasslands they traversed in the Dakotas and Montana, and their management of the small horse herd they obtained from the Shoshone, Flathead, and Nez Perce Indians. Jenkinson showed that, although Lewis and Clark considered themselves primarily watermen, they were keen observers of what would later become one of the greatest cattle ranges of the world, and they understood a good deal about the carrying capacity of the American West.
“Lewis and Clark: Gunfighters” is Part II of II. “Lewis and Clark: Cowboys” appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of RANGE.

Clay Jenkinson is a Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark scholar who lives in Reno, Nev. He grew up in a cattle and oil town near the Little Missouri River in southwestern North Dakota. He is the author of the just-published book, “The Character of Meriwether Lewis: ‘Completely Metamorphosed’ in the American West.” His book on the decline of rural life on the Great Plains will be published later this year. For more information consult his websites: <> which includes a day by day “you are there” update on the Lewis and Clark Expedition or <>.

A Note on Quotations: Lewis and Clark were notoriously bad spellers. Jenkinson has quoted their colorful prose verbatim, warts and all, from the new 13-volume definitive edition of the “Journals of Lewis and Clark,” edited by Gary Moulton of the University of Nebraska.

Further Reading: The best one-volume study of Lewis and Clark is Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.” For the Native American point of view see James Ronda’s superb “Lewis and Clark Among the Indians.” For environmental, botanical, and zoological analysis see Raymond Darwin Burroughs, “The Natural History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” John Logan Allen’s “Passage Through the Garden: Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest,” and Paul Russell Cutright’s “Lewis and Clark: Pioneering Naturalists.” For the intricacies of the personality of Meriwether Lewis, see Clay Jenkinson’s “The Character of Meriwether Lewis: ‘Completely Metamorphosed’ in the American West.”

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