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Lewis & Clark: Cowboys

President Jefferson’s explorers proved to be excellent
stockmen. They nonchalantly constructed riding equipment
out of makeshift materials in the middle of nowhere.
By Clay S. Jenkinson

Lewis and Clark are usually seen as explorers and scientists, and sometimes even as exemplars of Jeffersonian Enlightenment, but they are almost never viewed from the perspective of the cowboy and ranch history of the American West..

Lewis and Clark were not herdsmen, but they spent a fair amount of time examining the habits of the wild herds they encountered in the Louisiana Territory. They observed buffalo, antelope, deer, bighorn sheep, elk, and other ungulates. They sized up the grasslands of the West with the discerning eye of men who know how to read a landscape. And it can be argued–without much exaggeration–that they participated in the first roundup, the first rodeo, and the first gunfight in the history of the American West.

The Corps of Discovery did not start out with any horses. It was a water journey. At a time when rivers were the roads of America, Meriwether Lewis naturally conceived his Voyage of Western Discovery as a river adventure. President Jefferson had instructed him not merely to cross the continent by any convenient means, but to ascend the Missouri River to its source, to discover “the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.” Lewis’s party of about 45 men (Sacagawea came later) would make their way up the “heretofore deemed endless Missouri River” in a flotilla consisting of a 55-foot keelboat (barge) and two flat-bottomed pirogues.

Even so, most of the men of the Expedition were more at home on the back of a horse than on the back of a wave. Several Expedition members could not swim. Lewis and Clark hired professional French boatmen in St. Louis to push their flotilla up the Missouri River. It was a three-mile-per-hour world. The horse was to John Colter and George Shannon what an automobile is to us. It was inevitable that the Industrial Revolution would explain its engineering miracles by estimating the equivalent “horsepower.” Even the bookish and urbane Thomas Jefferson practically lived on his horse. Every man of the Expedition was surely as at home on a horse as any cowboy of our time. Near the Great Falls of the Missouri River, Meriwether Lewis wore a backpack for the first time in his life. He was 31 years old. Up till that moment in a faraway wilderness he had always let a horse (or indeed a slave) carry his burdens.

The Cowless West
Difficult as it is to imagine today, Lewis and Clark did not see any cattle from the time they left the last suburbs of St. Louis in May of 1804 until the moment of their return in September of 1806. The Indians of the American West had themselves domesticated only one creature, the dog. They had acquired the already-tamed horse from European colonists and conquistadors, and had soon mastered horsecraft, but there had been no native horses in America at the time of Columbus.

There wasn’t a single cow between La Charette near the mouth of the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean. Small herds could be found in Spanish America–California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, perhaps even Colorado–at the time of Lewis and Clark. That means that the present states of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon were “cattle free in 1803.” The grasses of the Great Plains were all being ingested of course (nature abhors a grazing vacuum), but the browsers were not Herefords, Charolais, Angus, and Longhorns, but rather elk, deer, antelope, and above all buffalo. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 30 and 60 million buffalo were grazing the plains of America during the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson. When Lewis and Clark arrived there in 1805, Montana was an American garden of Eden. The journals of Lewis and Clark brim with a sense of wonder.

“game is very abundant we can scarcely cast our eyes in any direction without perceiving deer Elk Buffaloe or Antelopes.” (Lewis, April 29, 1805)

“the country in every derection around us was one vast plain in which innumerable herds of Buffalow were seen attended by their shepperds the wolves; the solatary antelope which now had their young were distributed over it’s face; some herds of Elk were also seen.” (Lewis, June 3, 1805)

“a rich fertile and one of the most beatifully picteresque countries that I ever beheld, through the wide expanse of which, innumerable herds of living anamals are seen, it’s borders garnished with one continued garden of roses.” (Lewis, June 8, 1805)

Near the Great Falls of the Missouri, Lewis wrote, “the missouri bottoms on both sides of the river were crouded with buffaloe I sincerely belieif that there were not less than 10 thousand buffaloe within circle of 2 miles arround that place.” (July 11, 1806) All one can say to this is, “Ah to have seen Montana in 1806!”

Reading the Range
Lewis and Clark never speculated about the grazing potential of the American West. At a time when most farms were essentially subsistence cells rather than market production units, when fresh meat could only be preserved for a very short time, and when the largest city west of Pittsburgh was the Mandan-Hidatsa settlement on the upper Missouri (north of Bismarck), the idea of raising herds of cattle for faraway markets would not have occurred to Lewis and Clark. Eager as he had been to acquire what he called “an empire for liberty” from Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson did not expect the trans-Mississippi West to be settled until some far distant future. In fact, for a time he intended to designate all of upper Louisiana as a permanent (or semi-permanent) Indian reservation.

Lewis and Clark had an eye for the economic potential of the Louisiana Territory, but it was the beaver trade that they had in mind, not ranching. In his first post-Expedition report to President Jefferson, Lewis can hardly contain himself: “The Missouri and all it’s branches from the Chyenne upwards about more in beaver and Common Otter, than any other streams on earth, particularly that proportion of them lying within the Rocky Mountains.”

Lewis and Clark could not prophesy the future cattle industry of the American West, but they were keen observers of the landscape of the continent. It is possible to learn a great deal about the western range in the pages of their remarkable journals. They rightly sensed, for example, that the Platte River was the line of demarcation between the tall grass prairies of America and the short grass plains. Above the Platte, the horizons began to widen, the skies opened, the trees receded, and the grass grew shorter. Above the Platte, they began to encounter the characteristic creatures of the Great Plains: buffalo, antelope, jackrabbits, mule deer, prairie dogs. At that time even grizzly bears were diffused over the entire plains ecosystem.

Lewis and Clark noticed that the Dakotas and Montana were characterized by endless short grass plains (“like a well shaved bowling green,” Meriwether Lewis wrote), with virtually no timber except along the streams. With a kind of astonishment, William Clark wrote, “If all the timber which is on Stone Creek [today’s Vermillion River, at the bottom of South Dakota] was on 100 acres it would no be thickly timbered.” The treelessness of the Great Plains was very disturbing to men who had spent their lives in the vast forests of the humid lands east of the Mississippi River. Lewis speculated that the great fires of the West, many set by Indians to spur grass growth, made it impossible for trees to survive in open country. The whimsical Thomas Jefferson, who never traveled farther than 50 miles west of his birthplace in Virginia, speculated that the soils were simply too fertile to support trees!

Lewis and Clark also discovered that the springs and creeks of North Dakota and eastern Montana were usually alkaline, that the plains of that sub-region were frequently punctuated by alkaline scours, and that drinking the surface waters of the western plains had a strong purgative effect on the iron constitutions of their men.

They also discovered that the watersheds east of the Continental Divide constituted immensely better grazing country than all of the lands of the Pacific slope. The lower Columbia basin, Lewis noted, was too densely forested to support herds, the Columbia plain was too severe a desert, and even the Bitterroots were largely void of game. The men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition ate sumptuously in the Missouri River watershed, but their hunger was never completely satisfied west of the Bitterroot Mountains. Delayed by snow on the return journey, Meriwether Lewis lamented, “This is unwelcome intelligence to men confined to a diet of horsebeef or roots, and who are as anxious as we are to return to the fat plains of the Missouri and thence to our native homes.”

Lewis and Clark also learned something of the damage grazing animals can do to rangeland. Where the grass has “been trodden by the buffaloe when wet [it] has now become as firm as a brickbat and stands in innumerable little points quite as formidable to our horses feet as the gravel,” Lewis wrote in Montana. The captains were not ecologically sophisticated enough to know that the prickly pears that plagued them in the Great Falls region were a sign that the grasslands had been stressed by the overgrazing of immense bison herds, but they were unmistakably annoyed by the prickly pear’s ability to bloody their feet. Lewis numbers the prickly pear along with mosquitoes and gnats in what he calls “our trio of pests.”

Taken in sum, the scattered comments in the journals constitute a highly accurate reading of the landscape of the American West. Without intending to do so, Lewis and Clark provided evaluations of the grazing potential of the country through which they passed that have stood the test of time.

From the time they left Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805, Lewis and Clark knew that they would need horses to portage their baggage over the Bitterroot Mountains. Their Hidatsa hosts told them that a tribe called the Shoshone lived near the source of the Missouri River, and that they possessed an abundance of horses. Lewis and Clark determined to make contact with these Indians, if possible, and they hired Sacagawea (a Shoshone teenager who had been absorbed by the Hidatsa tribe) to interpret for them when the moment came. When they finally made contact with them in mid-August 1806, the Shoshone proved to be skittish and rather niggardly with their horses. They were a hungry, insecure, refugee people, driven into the recesses of the Bitterroot Mountains by their more aggressive plains neighbors the Blackfeet (whom they called the Pahkees). It was only with great difficulty, repeated expressions of good will, and of course Sacagawea, that Lewis and Clark were able to obtain 29 horses from their Shoshone hosts. However, the Shoshone had traded only their worst mounts. Clark summed up the Expedition’s herd: “nearly all Sore backs several Pore, & young.”

Once they had obtained horses from the Shoshone and (later) the Flatheads, Lewis and Clark proved to be excellent stockmen. They had no difficulty herding, branding, and castrating their horses, and they nonchalantly constructed riding equipment out of makeshift materials in the middle of nowhere.

Lewis and Clark carried no saddles up the Missouri River in the spring of 1804. When the moment came in the Bitterroot Mountains, they fashioned saddles out of rawhide, planks from storage boxes, and sawed portions of oars from the boats. (Aug. 20, 1805) Later, they attempted to obtain “goats hair to stuff the pads of our Saddles.” (May 30, 1806) Presumably this meant the hair of the bighorn sheep or the mountain goat. Captain Lewis had learned the hard way the difficulties of riding bareback on Indian ponies. On August 16, 1805, he attempted to ride double at breakneck speed with a Shoshone man to reach a deer kill. “as I was without tirrups and an Indian behind me the jostling was disagreeable I therefore reigned up my horse and forbid the indian to whip him who had given him the lash at every jum for a mile...the fellow was so uneasy that he left me the horse dismounted and ran on foot at full speed, I am confident a mile.”

Members of the Corps of Discovery also crafted saddlepacks to transport their luggage over the Bitterroot Mountains. And they managed for the most part to keep their precious herd together overnight in a wilderness so inhospitable that the horses were prone to wander long distances in search of fodder and pools of water. When near starvation forced them to butcher several of the colts they had purchased, they did so with palpable sorrow, and they named the site Colt-killed Creek.

Lewis in particular was a serious student of horseflesh. He paid the Shoshone Indians the highest of compliments: “most of them are fine horses. indeed many of them would make a figure on the South side of the James River or the land of fine horses.” (August 14, 1805) Of the Nez Perce Appaloosas, Lewis wrote, “several of those horses would be thought fleet in the U States.” And Lewis was the first of many Americans to observe two characteristics of Indian ponies: first, that although the Indians treat their horses with great severity and ride them very hard, it doesn’t seem to have any long-term negative effects; second, that Indian horses appear to be able to survive for long periods on very scant rations of food.

With his usual foresight, Lewis had had made (presumably at Harper’s Ferry) a brand with which to mark out the horses he purchased from the Indians of the West. Even before he encountered the Indian cavaliers of the upper Louisiana country, he understood that the only sure way to prevent disputes about ownership was to brand his herd. Actually there may have been two brands amongst the Expedition’s baggage, one for horses and one for marking trees along the trail.

Lewis and Clark branded and castrated their horses among the Nez Perce Indians on May 14, 1806 near Kamiah, Idaho. This may be seen as the first roundup in the white history of northern Louisiana Territory. Even though they were the farthest thing from cultural relativists, Lewis and Clark knew good horsemanship when they saw it, and Lewis reports on May 23, 1806 that the Nez Perce method of castration was superior to his own. Lewis’s men were accustomed to tying off the scrotum after castration. The Nez Perce let the wound bleed freely. “I am convinced that those cut by the Indians will get well much soonest and they do not swell nor appear to suffer as much as those cut in the common way,” Lewis wrote. Later he was even more admiring: “I have no hesitation in declaring my beleif that the indian method of gelding is preferable to that practiced by ourselves.” (June 2, 1806)

Even with their horses clearly branded as property of the United States government, Lewis and Clark had a hard time keeping their herd intact on the return journey through Montana. Some of the herd may simply have wandered off in the relaxed discipline of the homecoming leg of the Expedition. They didn’t really need the horses now that the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers were carrying the Expedition downstream. If some horses merely wandered away, it is more likely that most of the herd dwindled away at the hands of Blackfeet, Shoshone, and especially Crow raiders. Lewis and Clark never actually encountered the Crow (though Clark prepared a long speech to deliver to them), and they could not know that the Crow would become the pre-eminent horse stealers of the American West in the course of the 19th century, but the group–led by Clark–that explored the Yellowstone River in 1806, were dispossessed of their entire horse herd with machine-like efficiency. The culprits were almost certainly the Crow.

The great Lewis and Clark scholar James Ronda insists that horse stealing (so grave an offense in the eyes of white men that Thomas Jefferson’s famous reform legislation to humanize the criminal code and apportion crimes and punishments failed to win approval in the Virginia House of Delegates because it dropped horse stealing as a capital crime) was seen by Indians as a form of playfulness, of cultural exchange, even a kind of respect to the victims. Perhaps, but no white man of Jefferson’s era would agree.

Nez Perce Rodeo
In the spring of 1806, Lewis and Clark conducted what might be called the first rodeo in Idaho history. Because the snows in the Bitterroot Mountains were still impassable, the Expedition had no choice but to linger for several weeks on the western slope waiting for the snow to melt enough to permit them to thread their way through to Montana. The captains were sufficiently Jefferson’s protégés to know that “Of all the cankers of human happiness none corrodes with so silent, yet so baneful an influence, as indolence.... Idleness begets ennui, ennui the hypochondriac, and that a diseased body. No laborious person was ever yet hysterica,” so they organized a series of friendly competitions with the obliging Nez Perce. Sergeant Ordway reports that “three brave men of this tribe painted up three of their horses the best they had & were excelent horses they made a present of them to our officers.” (May 12, 1806)

On May 13 there were horse races, results unreported, except that all of the white men were awed by the agility and speed of the Nez Perce horsemen. On May 12, a shooting match. Like a Homeric hero, Meriwether Lewis won the contest with two hits of a mark at a distance of 220 yards. On June 8, foot races. Drouillard and Reuben Fields proved to be the fastest runners of the Expedition. As usual their Indian competitors are unnamed.

There were, moreover, gambling matches, games of quoits (similar to horseshoes), and dances, some with Indians doing the singing, others with the remarkable Pierre Cruzatte plying his fiddle. On June 8, the expedition members played a game of prisoner’s base–common amongst the children of Virginia.

In the end there was even a fireworks display. The Nez Perce lit a fire as a sign of good luck. “Last evening,” Lewis wrote on June 25, 1806, “the indians entertained us with seting the fir trees on fire.... they are a beatifull object in this situation at night. this exhibition reminded me of a display of fireworks. the natives told us that their object in seting those trees on fire was to bring fair weather for our journey.”

The spring 1806 encampment with the Nez Perce of Idaho proved to be one of the friendliest Indian encounters of the whole adventure. It was a cross between rodeo and prairie Olympics.

If all of this does not exactly make Lewis and Clark cowboys, it certainly makes them interesting to the men and women who work with cattle and horses two centuries after their historic journey. Or to put it another way, although Lewis and Clark were primarily watermen, they were infinitely more at home on horseback than most of today’s cowboys are in canoes and bullboats.

“Lewis and Clark: Cowboys” is Part I of II. “Lewis and Clark: Gunfighters” will appear in the Fall 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: <> 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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