Dakota Datebook

Lewis and Clark Move In

Thursday, November 20, 2003

On this date in 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition moved into their winter camp on the upper Missouri River, 14 miles west of where Washburn now stands. One of President Jefferson’s missions was to make contact with Native American tribes along the way, and to tell the Knife River Indians, in particular, that “their late fathers, the Spaniards,” had surrendered their territory and that (quote) “Henceforward we become (your) fathers and friends.”

In honor of their friendly new neighbors, the expedition’s winter camp was named Fort Mandan. Construction of the fort began November 3rd and required two weeks of intense work in very cold weather. By the time they were done, more than a foot of snow was on the ground and ice was floating in the river.

Jefferson chose 29 year-old Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead the expedition, describing him as “brave, prudent, habituated to the woods, & familiar with Indian manners and character. He is not regularly educated, but he possesses a great mass of accurate observation on all the subjects of nature which present themselves here, & will therefore readily select those only in his new route which shall be new.”

A collapsible boat was being constructed for the journey, but it was about a month behind schedule. So it was that two days before the delayed start date of August 31st, Lewis received word from his 33 year-old friend, William Clark – a straight-talking, six-foot redhead – who agreed to go along on the expedition. The eternal link of Lewis and Clark possibly wouldn’t have happened if the boat-builder had finished his job on time.

Clark was a war veteran, like Lewis, and was comfortable with roughing it, and both men were described as brave and courageous. The 40 men they employed were strong young bachelors, and their cargo included scientific tools, arms, camping equipment, medicine, food and 20 gallons of whiskey. They also had 21 bales of presents for the Indians, including tools, brass kettles, needles, and fishhooks. Lewis proved his resourcefulness by storing 176 pounds of gunpowder in 52 waterproof lead canisters that could later be melted and molded into rifle balls.

There was another member of the expedition who isn’t readily known… a 150 pound black Newfoundland named Seaman that Lewis bought in Pittsburgh. Seaman made the entire 8,000-mile trip to the Pacific Ocean and back and had to endure the same cold, the same bad food, the same danger, and the same mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas as the rest of the crew.

Indians were impressed with Seaman in the same way that Lewis and Clark were when they saw first antelope and buffalo. People offered to trade fur pelts for him, but Lewis wouldn’t give him up. Then, one night, the dog was kidnapped.

In his book, “Undaunted Courage,” Stephen Ambrose wrote, “In the evening, three Indians stole Lewis’s dog, Seaman, which sent him into a rage. He called three men and snapped out orders to follow and find those thieves, and ‘if they made the least resistance or difficulty in surrendering the dog, to fire on them.’ When the thieves realized they were being pursued, they let Seaman go and fled. Lewis may have been ready to kill to get Seaman back, but the Indians were not ready to die for the dog.”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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