Traveling along the Missouri River in 1796

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Traveling along the Missouri River in 1796, trader James McKay learned of
local Indians’ problems with infectious diseases and remarked that “of all those
Scourges and Plagues, the most Terrible is the Small Pox, truly they are attacked
of it but very rarely, but when it does visit them, it Strikes them with a Mortality
as frightful as Universal.”1 By the time that McKay made this observation, that
“scourge” had reduced the northern Great Plains Native population to a shadow
of its former self. The primary catalyst for this decline was the epidemic of
1775–82, which touched most of North America. When that outbreak swept
through the northern Plains for eighteen months from 1780 to 1782, approximately forty percent of the region’s Native population perished.2 Such great losses
disrupted economic, political, and social activities, thereby causing tremendous
upheaval among Native groups. It was therefore little wonder that, when explorer
Charles Mackenzie visited a Mandan village in 1804, a chief lamented that “[t]he
Adam Hodge is a doctoral student in the Department of History at the University of NebraskaLincoln. He would like to thank Kevin Adams, Lesley J. Gordon, Kim M. Gruenwald, Leonne
M. Hudson, Kellie Buford, Gregory R. Jones, Andrew Tremel, and the anonymous readers for
their invaluable comments.
1. James McKay, “Captain McKay’s Journal,” in Abraham P. Nasatir, ed., Before Lewis and
Clark: Documents Illustrating the History of the Missouri, 1785–1804, vol. 2, Lincoln, NE:
U. of Nebraska P., 1990, 490–5: 494.
2. Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82, New York:
Hill & Wang, 2001, 3, 272, 274. Loretta Fowler, “The Great Plains from the Arrival of the
Horse to 1885,” in Bruce G. Trigger and Wilcomb E. Washburn, eds, The Cambridge History
of the Native Peoples of the Americas: North America, vol. 1, part II, Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1996, 1–56: 20–1; Colin G. Calloway, ed., Our Hearts Fell to the Ground: Plains Indians
Views of How the West Was Lost, Boston, MA: St. Martin’s, 1996, 40.
© 2010 Phi Alpha Theta
white people came, they brought with them some goods: but they brought the
small pox . . . the Indians are diminished, and they are no longer happy.”3
The 1780–82 smallpox epidemic, the first known outbreak of that deadly
European-introduced virus to scour the entirety of the northern Great Plains, was
a pivotal event in that region’s history. The vast changes resulting from this
epidemic are perhaps most visible when one examines how the ravages of smallpox altered balances of power between Native groups. In particular, the smallpox
epidemic of 1780–82 marked a turning point in the struggles between westwardexpanding Sioux groups and the semisedentary tribes that lived along the upper
Missouri in present-day North and South Dakota, the Mandans, Hidatsas, and
Arikaras. By causing much greater population losses and discord among the
semisedentary villagers than the more mobile Sioux peoples, this outbreak enabled
western Sioux groups to become the most influential Native power on the northeastern Plains by the time that the United States purchased that region in 1803.
The 1780–82 epidemic, therefore, helped to shape the northern Plains into the
land that agents of the United States government explored and conquered during
the nineteenth century by bringing some Native peoples to the forefront while
marginalizing others.
Historians have considered the effects of smallpox and other pathogens on the
balance of power between northern Plains Native groups, but they typically place
greater emphasis on the influence of two other products of European colonialism,
the horse and the gun. Frank Raymond Secoy, for instance, traces how the
concurrent spread of horses (from the Southwest) and guns (from the Northeast)
across the Plains during the eighteenth century revolutionized Native warfare and
empowered some tribes while weakening others.4 While Secoy’s analysis does not
consider infectious diseases, Anthony McGinnis provides readers with a look at
how smallpox epidemics, including that of 1780–82, complemented the horse and
gun as agents of change.5 Nevertheless, the effects of pathogens on Native societies
and warfare remain at the periphery of McGinnis’ narrative. Colin G. Calloway’s
recent history of the Native American West, as well as Elizabeth A. Fenn’s study
of the entire 1775–82 smallpox epidemic, highlight the impact of the 1780–82
3. Charles Mackenzie, “Charles Mackenzie’s Narratives,” in W. Raymond Wood and Thomas D.
Thiessen, eds., Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains: Canadian Traders Among the Mandan
and Hidatsa Indians, 1738–1818, Norman, OK: Oklahoma UP, 1985, 221–96: 234.
4. Frank Raymond Secoy, Changing Military Patterns on the Great Plains, Seattle, WA: U. of
Washington P., 1953.
5. Anthony McGinnis, Counting Coup and Cutting Horses: Intertribal Warfare on the Northern
Plains, 1738–1889, Evergreen, CO: Cordillera Press, 1990.
outbreak on the northern Plains, by discussing Indian population losses, demographic shifts, and changes in regional power dynamics.6 Although both treatments offer little more than a brief overview of that epidemic within the context
of a much larger story, they draw attention to a much overlooked subject and lay
a foundation for a future in-depth examination to build upon.
The purpose of this examination, then, is to deepen and enrich the historiography of the northern Great Plains by placing infectious diseases at the center of
the narrative. But by doing so, this essay does not challenge the fact that the
integration of horses and guns into Plains societies had a dramatic effect on Native
warfare patterns and balances of power. Rather, it asserts that “Old World”
diseases must be considered alongside those other colonial products as an agent of
vast, if destructive, change on the northern Plains. Clearly, horses and guns helped
to determine the course of northern Plains history before 1780, and then continued to do so afterward, but evidence suggests that pathogens, especially smallpox,
were just as influential.
To support this argument, this study examines how the smallpox epidemic of
1780–82 affected intertribal relations on the northeastern Plains, between western
Sioux groups and the semisedentary villagers, the Mandans, Hidatsas, and
Arikaras. Scholars point out that smallpox depopulation among the villagers of
the upper Missouri played a pivotal role in Sioux expansion, but their brief
treatments obscure the complexity of post-epidemic intertribal relationships on
the northern Great Plains.7 The decline of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara
populations does not fully explain shifts in the balance of power, as the historical
record suggests that economic, political, and social stresses beset the efforts of the
semisedentary villagers to resist Sioux encroachment. These pressures, coupled
with what was nothing less than a demographic catastrophe, forged the northeastern Plains that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark visited during the first
decade of the nineteenth century and set the gears in motion for the western Sioux
to eventually become the most powerful Native people on the entire northern
6. Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and
Clark, Lincoln, NE: U. of Nebraska P., 2003; Fenn, Pox Americana.
7. Donald J. Lehmer, “Epidemics Among the Indians of the Upper Missouri,” in W. Raymond
Wood, The Selected Writings of Donald J. Lehmer, Lincoln, NE: J&L Reprint Co., 1977,
105–11; Richard White, “The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in
the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” The Journal of American History 2, 1978, 319–43;
Fenn, Pox Americana; Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count; Jeffrey Ostler, The Plains
Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee, Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 2004, 23.
The following analysis is organized into four parts. The first shows how Sioux
domination of the northern Plains was far from inevitable by examining how
horses and guns fueled the early stages of western Sioux expansion, but did not
enable those peoples to overpower the semisedentary villagers who stood in their
way. Consequently, a fragile balance of power stood in place when smallpox
struck in 1780. Part two then discusses how the “uneven” impact of that epidemic
across northern Plains populations, particularly among the western Sioux bands,
Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras, broke this stalemate. The third and fourth
parts highlight the underlying stresses that further stimulated Sioux expansion.
Part three reveals how the ravages of smallpox made semisedentary villagers into
“refugees” by compelling them to consolidate and relocate their villages in an
effort to withstand intensified Sioux pressure. It is here that the political and social
trauma generated by the 1780–82 epidemic becomes clear, as conflicts stemmed
from efforts to coalesce the bands that composed individual tribes, as well as to
unite different tribes. Finally, the fourth part examines the economic and military
dimensions of smallpox depopulation among the villagers to explain why the
French-Canadian trader Pierre Antoine Tabeau remarked that the Arikaras were
enmeshed in “the slavery of the Sioux.”8
This general story is not unique to the northeastern Great Plains. Alfred W.
Crosby and David E. Stannard conclude the arrival of Old World pathogens in the
“New World” decimated Native populations and thereby fueled European colonialism.9 Yet, the ecological or biological conquest of the Americas did not always
immediately involve or benefit European powers. As many scholars point out,
smallpox and other diseases profoundly influenced balances of power among
Native groups throughout North America.
The works of James H. Merrell and Paul Kelton examine how smallpox
depopulation went hand in hand with trade and warfare to weaken some Native
groups and empower others in the colonial Southeast.10 Merrell’s research on
the Piedmont region reveals how visitations of smallpox and other Old-World
8. Pierre Antoine Tabeau, Tabeau’s Narrative of Loisel’s Expedition to the Upper Missouri,
Annie Heloise Abel, trans. Rose Abel Wright, Norman, OK: Oklahoma UP, 1939, 1968, 128.
9. Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900,
New York: Cambridge UP, 1986; Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and
Cultural Consequences of 1492, Second ed., Westport, CT: Praeger, 1972, 2003; David E.
Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.
10. James H. Merrell, The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European
Contact through the Era of Removal, New York: Norton, 1989; Paul Kelton, Epidemics and
Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492–1714, Lincoln, NE: U.
of Nebraska P., 2007.
diseases decimated individual tribes throughout the Piedmont, forcing them to
join one another and eventually become identified as the Catawba. Even though
those tribes united, their weakened state made them prey to their stronger enemies
and the balance of power in the colonial Southeast shifted. Kelton’s study of the
colonial Southeast as a whole illustrates how the economic development of that
region, fueled by the Native slave trade, acted synergistically with warfare and
infectious diseases to produce considerable refugee settlements and thereby alter
existing balances of power.
A rich body of scholarship demonstrates how smallpox epidemics sparked
similar changes in the Great Lakes region. Richard White discusses how the
deadly combination of Iroquois attacks and smallpox epidemics displaced many
Native peoples, such as Fox, Sauk, and Potawatomis, from their traditional
homelands, compelling them to take refuge among other war- and disease-stricken
tribes.11 Consequently, the Great Lakes region “became a hodgepodge of peoples,
with several groups often occupying a single village” as various tribes endeavored
to protect themselves from their common enemies.12 Yet, schisms produced by the
merging of Native groups often complicated such efforts and sometimes even led
to bloodshed. The works of Daniel K. Richter highlight similar trends, but also
reveal how they surfaced in the colonial Northeast, where, for instance,
Wampanoags seized the opportunity to drive disease-weakened Narragansetts
from their territory.13 At the same time, groups elsewhere such as the Creeks,
Cherokees, and Wyandots came into existence only after diseases and persistent
enemy attacks made the integration of allied groups a necessity. Nevertheless, such
mergers did not prevent these peoples’ rivals from harassing them and, in the
process, reconfiguring balances of power.
West of the Mississippi River, epidemic diseases also affected intertribal relationships. In the Arkansas Valley, as Kathleen DuVal points out, outbreaks of
pathogens such as smallpox caused some chiefdoms to collapse and others to
relocate.14 Pekka Hämäläinen stresses that infectious disease outbreaks were part
11. Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes
Region, 1650–1815, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.
12. Ibid., 14.
13. Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the
Era of European Colonization, Chapel Hill, NC: U. of North Carolina P., 1992; Daniel K.
Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, Cambridge,
MA: Harvard UP, 2001.
14. Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent,
Philadelphia, PA: U. of Pennsylvania P., 2006.
of the reason that Comanches were able to expand their hegemony in the Southwest and on the southern Plains during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as
the Apaches and their other rivals endured economic and political collapses in the
wake of devastating epidemics.15 The parallels between Hämäläinen’s findings and
those of this study are heightened by the fact that the Apaches were a semisedentary people who lost power to the mobile bison-hunting Comanches. While
Kathleen L. Hull’s work on Native California emphasizes how Euroamerican
colonial endeavors profited from deadly pathogens ravaging the Yosemite Indians,
it does point out that depopulation likely caused “[s]hifts in external relations,”
as disease-stricken tribes relocated and competed with one another for resources.16
The above discussion allows this study to be considered within its larger
context, the general Native American experience with infectious disease epidemics
which accompanied European colonialism. At the same time, the fact that Old
World diseases had a similar effect on intertribal relationships throughout the
diverse landscape of colonial America reinforces the point that pathogens must be
considered alongside horses and guns as major influences on the history of the
northern Plains. So, what follows is essentially a microcosm of a larger story. But
the narrow focus of this study, on the decline of three Indian societies and the rise
of another on the northeastern Plains, provides an in-depth look at the complex
processes at work behind Native power struggles and the ways that smallpox
affected the course of a region’s history.
One final note is necessary regarding the sources that inform this study. The
following analysis utilizes a pool of documents produced by British, French, and
American explorers and traders. Where possible, Native sources, such as winter
counts, are consulted, but the dearth of such records necessitates a reliance upon
the journals and narratives of Euroamerican visitors to the northern Plains. These
documents, written in many cases by men who were deeply interested in the
indigenous cultures that they encountered, contain passages that capture some
essence of the Native voice, but explorers and traders carried preconceptions
about Indians with them onto the Plains, in addition to a vastly different culture,
both of which compromise the accuracy and adequacy of their descriptions of
Natives and their words. The following pages are therefore informed by a careful
and critical consideration of those sources.
15. Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire, New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2008.
16. Kathleen L. Hull, Pestilence and Persistence: Yosemite Indian Demography and Culture in
Colonial California, Berkeley, CA: U. of California P., 2009.
That Sioux peoples would become the most dominant Natives on the northeastern Plains by the early nineteenth century, and on the northern Plains as a
whole in the following decades, was hardly inexorable. Throughout much of the
eighteenth century, as Sioux groups migrated westward onto the Plains, they lived
in the shadows of the powerful semisedentary tribes that inhabited the upper
Missouri, the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. With further Sioux expansion
virtually blocked, they and the non-Sioux villagers engaged in an ambiguous
blend of trade and warfare, maintaining a precarious balance of power that
endured until smallpox struck in 1780.
Relations between Sioux groups and the semisedentary villagers commenced
during the early eighteenth century. Pushed from the upper Mississippi River
region by their Cree, Assiniboine, and Ojibwa enemies, as well as pulled by the
prospects offered by the bison-rich Plains, three of the four main branches of the
Sioux, the Lakota, Yankton, and Yanktonai, migrated onto the eastern Plains
during the late 1600s and into the 1700s while the fourth, the Santee or Dakota,
remained in present-day Minnesota. Organized into bands, political bodies reinforced by kinship ties (i.e., Oglalas, Hunkpapas, etc.), and further divided into
smaller groups that rarely united with one another, Lakota Sioux peoples reached
the Missouri River Valley by the late 1730s and were soon followed by their
Yankton and Yanktonai kin. Western Sioux groups, supplied with firearms by
their eastern kin who had access to French and English fur traders, were among
the first Natives to carry guns onto the Plains. The military advantages afforded
by the gun could only go so far, however, for Sioux bands as yet had few horses
and were outnumbered by the vast Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara populations
living along the upper Missouri. Before the 1780–82 smallpox epidemic, the
Mandans and Hidatsas each numbered approximately 9,000 people inhabiting
about thirteen villages in total, while the Arikaras had an estimated population of
24,000 distributed throughout at least eighteen villages. Historian George E.
Hyde estimates that, as of 1760, the Arikara population was equal to that of the
entire Sioux Nation, comprising the Lakotas, Yanktons, and Yanktonais, as well
as the Dakotas.17
17. George E. Hyde, Red Cloud’s Folk: A History of the Oglala Sioux Indians, Norman, OK: U.
of Oklahoma P., 1957, 16–19; Calloway, One Vast Winter Count, 419, 421; White,
“Winning of the West,” 323–4; Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de la Verendrye, Journals and
Letters of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de la Verendrye and his Sons, trans. Lawrence J.
Burpee, New York: Greenwood Press, 1968, 321; Fowler, “Great Plains,” 16.
Settled in stationary villages established on bluffs overlooking the Missouri and
surrounded by fortifications comprised of a combination of trenches and “a kind
of stockade, principally made of driftwood,” the numerous Arikaras, Mandans,
and Hidatsas had little trouble warding off early Sioux incursions.18 The defensive
works surrounding one Mandan village so impressed the French explorer Verendrye that he remarked that “[t]heir fortification, indeed, has nothing savage about
it.”19 These semisedentary peoples subsisted by cultivating corn, squash, and other
crops, conducting communal bison hunts, and trading surplus produce to neighboring bison-hunting groups for additional meat and hides. Located at an advantageous geographic position, the upper Missouri villages were the axis of a vast
indigenous trade network that reached far beyond the northern Plains, into the
Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, the Great Lakes, and the Southeast. Through this system, the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras obtained
Euroamerican firearms from Crees and Assiniboines from the northeast, while
Crows and others from the south and west supplied another coveted commodity,
horses. During most of the eighteenth century, then, the prosperous semisedentary
villagers stood in the way of Sioux expansion.20
The upper Missouri villagers, however, offered no united front against Sioux
invaders. Although the Mandans and Hidatsas maintained a longstanding alliance, conflict marked those tribes’ relations with the Arikaras, who lived downstream. For centuries, dating at least as far back as the twelfth century A.D.,
peoples who eventually became known as the Arikaras were enemies of those who
entered the historical record as the Mandans and Hidatsas. These rival tribes
employed similar means of subsistence and occasionally traded goods with one
another, but their exchanges were generally military in nature. This long history
of hostile relations proved problematic as the shadow of Sioux expansion
stretched over the Plains, especially after the 1780–82 smallpox epidemic.21
18. Alexander Henry and David Thompson, New Light on the Early History of the Greater
Northwest: The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry and David Thompson, ed. Elliot
Coues, vol. 1, New York: F.P. Harper, 1897, 362.
19. Verendrye, Journals, 340.
20. Roy W. Meyer, The Village Indians of the Upper Missouri: The Mandans, Hidatsas, and
Arikaras, Lincoln, NE: U. of Nebraska P., 1977, 15–16; John C. Ewers, Indian Life on the
Upper Missouri, Norman, OK: U. of Oklahoma P., 1968, 20–3; Calloway, One Vast Winter
Count, 12–13, 410; Fowler, “Great Plains,” 3–4; Donald J. Lehmer, “The Other Side of the
Fur Trade,” in W. Raymond Wood, The Selected Writings of Donald J. Lehmer, Lincoln, NE:
J&L Reprint Co., 1977, 91–104: 91, 95, 99; Fenn, Pox Americana, 201.
21. Meyer, Village Indians, 5–9; Douglas B. Bamforth, “Indigenous People, Indigenous Violence:
Precontact Warfare on the North American Great Plains,” Man 1, 1994, 95–115: 102–13.
Because the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras wielded considerable military
strength, early Sioux-villager relations consisted of a complex mixture of trade
and warfare. Sioux war parties often raided the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras
in an effort to procure material goods and whittle away at their manpower. At the
same time, the Missouri villagers dispatched war parties to avenge Sioux provocations and capture guns. While hostility more often than not marked Sioux
bands’ relations with the Mandans and Hidatsas, some Sioux, particularly Lakota
groups, conducted trade with Arikaras when they were not at war. Through their
trade with Arikaras, Sioux bands obtained many of their horses and made a
transition to equestrian bison-hunting and warfare during the eighteenth century.
In fact, a portion of the Oglala Sioux band resided in an Arikara village before
1780 and attempted to become a horticultural people. Most Sioux groups,
however, continued to live in small, mobile camps that relied upon game rather
than produce for survival. This way of life proved invaluable when smallpox
reached the Plains.22
After midcentury, as more Sioux peoples migrated onto the Plains and acquired
greater numbers of horses and guns through trading and raiding, they developed
a formidable style of equestrian warfare. This development encouraged Sioux
groups to pursue their expansionist aims more aggressively, and they became
increasingly hostile toward the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. Although
Lakota bands continued to utilize an ambiguous blend of trade and warfare in
their relations with the villagers, the Yanktons and Yanktonais were relentless in
their attacks. In response to this pressure, the Mandans moved their villages closer
to those of their Hidatsa allies for the sake of mutual defense. Sometimes, Arikara
warriors joined Sioux war parties that set out against the Mandans and Hidatsas,
hoping to gain the upper hand in that ancient rivalry.23
By the mid-1760s, though, the tide of Sioux expansion ground to a halt. The
outcome of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 forced French traders out of present-day
Canada, thereby briefly crippling the fur trade and reducing the flow of guns and
ammunition onto the Plains. More Sioux peoples continued to move westward,
for the adventurer Jonathan Carver reported in the late 1760s that, of the eleven
22. Ronald T. McCoy, “Winter Count: The Teton Chronicles to 1799,” unpubl. Ph.D. diss.,
Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University, 1983, 6–7; White, “Winning of the West,”
322–4; Fowler, “Great Plains,” 5, 16; Calloway, One Vast Winter Count, 309; Hyde, Red
Cloud’s Folk, 14, 18; Fenn, Pox Americana, 201.
23. Secoy, Changing Military Patterns, 73–4; Hyde, Red Cloud’s Folk, 14; Fowler, “Great
Plains,” 16; Meyer, Village Indians, 26; Calloway, One Vast Winter Count, 309; White,
“Winning of the West,” 323.
total Sioux bands in America, eight lived on the Plains.24 The Mandans, Hidatsas,
and Arikaras, however, still outnumbered them, possessed greater numbers of
horses, and inhabited defensively imposing villages. It was little wonder, then,
that, regarding the Mandans, William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark
expedition remarked that before 1780, “all the nations… [were afraid] of
them.”25 On the eve of the 1780–82 smallpox epidemic, intertribal relations on
the northeastern Plains between the western Sioux and the semisedentary villagers
were at an impasse and a fragile balance of power stood in place.
During 1779 and 1780, Native groups engaged in warfare and trade facilitated
the spread of smallpox from Mexico to the northern Great Plains. It appears that
Comanche war parties contracted the virus when they raided infected Mexican
settlements in the Southwest, and then transmitted it to their Shoshone relatives
through commercial exchanges. Shoshones then carried smallpox onto the northwestern Plains and passed it on to their trading partners, as well as their enemies
in war. Since the incubation period of the disease typically ranged from ten to
fourteen days, infected Natives could travel long distances and unknowingly
spread it to unsuspecting neighbors before any symptoms of illness emerged.
Consequently, smallpox quickly engulfed the entirety of the northern Plains,
decimating Indian societies that not only lacked immunity to the virus, but had
little or no concept of disease contagion.26 As Tabeau remarked, “among the Sioux
and still more among the Ricaras, there prevails no natural sickness, as all sickness
is either the result of the vengeance of some angry spirit or a succession of evil
deeds of a magician.”27 That Native Americans generally attributed the diffusion
of an illness to the work of spirits rather than a biological process prevented them
from limiting its spread.
24. Jonathan Carver, Travels through the Interior Parts of North America, in the Years 1766,
1767, and 1768, Minneapolis, MN: Ross and Haines, 1956, 59–60; White, “Winning of the
West,” 323–4; Hyde, Red Cloud’s Folk, 17–19; Fowler, “Great Plains,” 16.
25. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,
1804–1806, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, vol. 1, New York: Antiquarian Press, 1959, 220.
26. David Thompson, David Thompson’s Narrative, 1784–1812, Richard Glover, Toronto: The
Champlain Society, 1962, 49; Fenn, Pox Americana, 15–18, 213–14; Lehmer, “Epidemics,”
106; George E. Hyde, Indians of the High Plains: From the Prehistoric Period to the Coming
of Europeans, Norman, OK: U. of Oklahoma P., 1959, 164; Calloway, One Vast Winter
Count, 416, 419; Crosby, Columbian Exchange, 46; Fenn, Pox Americana, 220–1.
27. Tabeau, Narrative, 183–4.
As a result of this extreme biological and cultural susceptibility, no northern
Plains tribe escaped the smallpox epidemic of 1780–82 unscathed. The Shoshones,
as well as their Blackfoot enemies (who first contracted the disease when they
raided a smallpox-stricken Shoshone camp), lost between one-third and one-half
of their numbers. The Crows, another northwestern Plains people, sustained
comparable losses after they traded horses with an infected Shoshone group. Crees
and Assiniboines, who lived on the far northeastern Plains and in the parklands
along the Saskatchewan River, also witnessed upwards of one-third of their people
perish after one of their war parties attacked a contaminated Mandan or Hidatsa
The tribes that linked those of the northwestern and northeastern Plains, the
Missouri villagers, suffered by far the greatest losses during the 1780–82 smallpox
epidemic. When smallpox reached their stationary, densely populated villages,
probably through trading parties from the western Plains, an estimated seventy to
eighty percent of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara populations perished.29 Early
in the nineteenth century, North West Company trader Alexander Henry learned
that prior to the 1780–82 epidemic, the Hidatsas inhabited some 900 lodges, but,
at the time of his visit, they occupied but 130.30 At about the same time, Tabeau
reported that the Arikaras, who once fielded more than four thousand warriors,
now had approximately five hundred.31 Highlighting a similar collapse among the
Mandans, Clark noted that those people once maintained seven large villages,
but after smallpox struck, they consolidated their surviving population into two
28. Thompson, Narrative, 92, 245–6; Henry and Thompson, New Light, vol. 2, 530; Colin G.
Calloway, “Snake Frontiers: The Eastern Shoshones in the Eighteenth Century,” Annals of
Wyoming 3, 1991, 82–92: 88–9; Frederick E. Hoxie, Parading through History: The Making
of the Crow Nation in America, 1805–1935, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995, 75; Calloway, One Vast Winter Count, 419–21; William W. Warren, History of the Ojibway People,
St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1984, 261; Wagner E. Stearn and Allen E.
Stearn, The Effect of Smallpox on the Destiny of the Amerindian, Boston, MA: Bruce
Humphries, 1945, 48–9.
29. Lehmer, “Epidemics,” 107; Lehmer, “Other Side,” 100; Calloway, One Vast Winter Count,
419; W. Raymond Wood and Thomas D. Thiessen, Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains:
Canadian Traders Among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738–1818, Norman, OK: U.
of Oklahoma P., 1985, 6; Henry F. Dobyns, “Native American Trade Centers as Contagious
Disease Foci,” in John W. Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker, Disease and Demography in the
Americas, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, 215–22: 215; Fenn, Pox
Americana, 216–17.
30. Henry and Thompson, New Light, vol. 1, 348.
31. Tabeau, Narrative, 123–4.
32. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 5, 347.
On the other hand, mobile bison-hunting peoples, such as western Sioux
groups, lost relatively few people. Since they lived in smaller groups that met with
one another infrequently, smallpox nearly wiped out some entire camps while
others evaded the disease altogether. Furthermore, when a disease struck, Sioux
groups, not tied to a particular locale by subsistence needs, could diffuse in an
effort to minimize its spread and mortality. Winter counts, Native picture records
that note the most significant event each year for an individual group, indicate that
several Sioux groups contracted the virus between 1780 and 1782.33 Of the seven
western Sioux winter counts which report that smallpox “used them up,” six note
that the epidemic raged during consecutive years. The lack of winter count records
for every Sioux band, however, as well as concrete figures regarding population
losses, obscure the extent of Sioux mortality during the 1780–82 epidemic. In
addition to their mobility and organization into small groups, western Sioux also
had previous contact with Euroamerican diseases while living to the east. They
therefore had a better idea how to react when smallpox appeared among them
than did the semisedentary villagers. Consequently, as historian Richard White
points out, “[Sioux] losses were slight when compared to those of the Arikaras,
Mandans, and Hidatsas.”34
So, by the time the 1780–82 smallpox epidemic completed its circuit of the
northern Great Plains, it had not only vastly reduced the region’s total Native
population, but it caused much greater losses among the upper Missouri villagers than their Sioux antagonists. Such tremendous losses severely crippled the
military strength of the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras as the Sioux resumed
their westward push after 1782. Although the depopulation of the semisedentary
villages tipped the balance of power in favor of western Sioux groups, the fallout
of the epidemic further disoriented the villagers, thereby stimulating Sioux
In the aftermath of the smallpox epidemic of 1780–82, as Sioux pressure
resumed, the remaining semisedentary villagers addressed their newfound vulnerability. Ultimately, they adopted two measures to ensure their survival. First, the
Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras each consolidated their own villages, meshing
the remnants of many weakened settlements into a few stronger ones. The
33. Linea Sundstrom, “Smallpox Used Them Up: References to Epidemic Disease in Northern
Plains Winter Counts, 1714–1920,” Ethnohistory 2, 1997, 305–43: 314; McCoy, “Winter
Count,” 217–24; Garrick Mallery, Picture-Writing of the American Indians, vol. 1, 308, vol.
2, 589; White, “Winning of the West,” 325; Fenn, Pox Americana, 217–19.
34. White, “Winning of the West,” 325.
formation of such “refugee camps,” as W. Raymond Wood and Thomas D.
Thiessen refer to them, enabled the villagers to better protect their surviving
populations.35 Tabeau wrote that the Arikaras once filled eighteen large villages,
but consolidated into three “mediocre” ones following the 1780–82 epidemic.36
The observations of Missouri Company trader Jean Baptiste Truteau paint an
even bleaker picture, as he learned that the Arikaras once “counted thirtytwo populous villages, now depopulated and almost entirely destroyed by the
smallpox . . . [a] few families only, from each of these villages, escaped; these
united and formed the two villages now here, which are situated about half a
mile apart.”37 Although the Mandans occupied six or seven villages prior to
1780, explorer James McKay reported that, as of 1787, they lived in three
while Lewis and Clark found them inhabiting only two in 1806.38 Likewise, the
Hidatsas consolidated the remains of their approximately six villages into two
This merging of villages, however, generated considerable tension threatening
tribal unity and therefore enabled Sioux groups to carry out their expansionist
aims in the face of often divided opposition. Among the Arikaras, for instance,
conflicts arose from social and political disruptions produced by the coalescence
of “ten different tribes and of as many chiefs without counting an infinity of
others who have remained, after the disaster, captains without companies.”40
Consequently, Tabeau noted that the Arikaras shared no single dialect and that
there existed a “division of spirit” which was “baneful to them.”41 The desire for
power among the many chiefs produced discord and precluded consensus
regarding group actions. On some occasions, factionalism led to some bands
splintering. For instance, Truteau learned that just before his arrival, a pair of
Arikara chiefs, envious of two others’ influence, led their clans away, one to live
35. Wood and Thiessen, Early Fur Trade, 8.
36. Tabeau, Narrative, 123–4.
37. Jean Baptiste Truteau, “Journal of Truteau on the Missouri River, 1794–1795,” in Abraham
P. Nasatir, Before Lewis and Clark: Documents Illustrating the History of the Missouri,
1785–1804, vol. 1, Lincoln, NE: U. of Nebraska P., 1990, 269–311: 299.
38. McKay, “Journal,” 492; Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 5, 347; Lewis and Clark,
Original Journals, vol. 6, 90.
39. McGinnis, Counting Coup, 19, 21; Wood and Thiessen, Early Fur Trade, 8; John Taylor,
“Sociocultural Effects of Epidemics on the Northern Plains: 1734–1850,” The Western
Canadian Journal of Anthropology 4, 1977, 55–81: 60; Fowler, “Great Plains,” 21.
40. Tabeau, Narrative, 124.
41. Tabeau, Narrative, 126.
with the Mandans, the other downstream to join the Mahas on the central
Occasionally, this strife caused even greater problems by causing conflict
between neighboring tribes. As Truteau observed, factionalism among the
Arikaras sometimes “[gave] young men the occasion to make trouble and attack
nations, which otherwise would wish for peace and union.”43 These outbursts
resulted in more enemies for the Arikaras and, consequently, increased warfare.
For instance, Tabeau learned of an incident that nearly shattered peace talks
between the Arikaras on one side, and the Mandans and Hidatsas on the other. As
the Mandans extended an offer of peace to the Arikaras, one band of the latter,
named the Laocatas, stole some Mandan horses in an effort to demonstrate its
“independence.” Despite this act of aggression, the Mandans did not withdraw
their peace proposal. Nevertheless, the other nine Arikara bands threatened to
destroy the Laocatas for their treachery.44
Such episodes contributed to an atmosphere of deep distrust and hostility
between the Mandans and Hidatsas on one side, and the Arikaras on the other.
For instance, when Henry visited the Mandans in 1806, he watched as the
arrival of some Arikara peace emissaries caused a “great uproar.”45 During the
previous spring, Henry learned, some Arikaras accompanied a Sioux war party
that killed five Mandans. The Mandans and Hidatsas retaliated by killing a few
Arikaras, but swore further revenge, as Henry wrote that, “both the Mandanes
and [Hidatsas] were determined to exterminate every [Arikara] they could find,
and lay their villages even with the ground.”46 Now, even though the Arikaras
sought to end the quarrel, the wary Mandans and Hidatsas distrusted their
representatives and treated them coldly. Although the Mandans and Arikaras
made peace and lived together sometime between 1782 and 1806, by the time
Henry visited the upper Missouri they were again the “most inveterate
enemies.”47 With the villagers divided, the Sioux found it easier to overpower
each group piecemeal.
42. Truteau, “Journal,” 299; Tabeau, Narrative, 126; Lehmer, “Epidemics,” 108; White,
“Winning of the West,” 325.
43. Truteau, “Journal,” 299.
44. Tabeau, Narrative, 127–9.
45. Henry and Thompson, New Light, vol. 1, 333–4.
46. Ibid.
47. Ibid., 330.
The second means of addressing smallpox depopulation and Sioux incursions,
taken by the Mandans and Arikaras, was to relocate their villages in an effort to
escape their Sioux enemies. The most visible example of such a migration was that
of the Mandans, who retreated up the Missouri from the Heart River country
during the 1780s and 1790s, leaving behind a series of abandoned villages for
explorers to find. As Lewis and Clark observed, “after [the Mandans] were reduced
the Seaux and other Indians waged war, and killed a great many, and they moved
up the Missourie, those Indians Still continued to wage war, and they moved Still
higher.”48 By 1804, the Mandan and Hidatsa villages sat less than five miles from
one another in the Knife River country.49 When they visited one Mandan village,
Lewis and Clark discovered why its close proximity to the Hidatsas was necessary,
for despite consolidation, “this village is small and contains but fiew inhabitants.”50
On the other hand, evidence suggests that the Hidatsas did not move downstream
to meet the advance of their allies. As Lewis and Clark noted, “their tradition relates
that they have always resided at their present villages.”51 Evidently, the Hidatsas
suffered relatively less from the epidemic than the Mandans and, in all probability,
they already inhabited a strong defensive position by 1780.
Nevertheless, living so close to one another generated occasional conflict
between the Mandans and Hidatsas. Henry observed that as a result of their greater
numbers, the Hidatsas often imposed their will upon their weaker allies and “this
causes continued jealousy, and one day may break out in war… [o]pen rapture
has, in fact, frequently been imminent, though by the interference of persons of consideration it has thus far been prevented, but seldom without bloodshed, and perhaps a death or two on each side.”52 Thus, arrangements made by the villagers in an
attempt to offset the devastating impact of the 1780–82 smallpox epidemic stressed
not only the ambiguous relations between the Mandan-Hidatsa alliance and
Arikaras, but also the longstanding friendship between the Mandans and Hidatsas.
Downstream from the deserted Mandan villages, Lewis and Clark discovered
a similar succession of abandoned Arikara settlements. The explorers reported
that “[t]he remains of the villages are to be seen on many parts of the Missouri,
48. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 6, 220.
49. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 1, 200–5; Henry and Thompson, New Light, vol.
1, 323; McKay, “Journal,” 492; White, “Winning of the West,” 325; Ewers, Indian Life, 48;
Meyer, Village Indians, 27.
50. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 1, 208.
51. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 6, 91.
52. Henry and Thompson, New Light, vol. 1, 372.
from the mouth of the [Teton] River to the Mandans.”53 After 1782, the Arikaras
moved northward in order to escape mounting Sioux pressure. As they relocated,
however, they moved into the path of other westward-expanding Sioux groups
and the vicious cycle began anew. When their trade with tribes to the south and
west such as the Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Kiowas faltered during the 1790s
because of their northward migration and problems with the Mandans and
Hidatsas persisted, the Arikaras again moved down the Missouri.54
Although these adaptations hardly slowed the wave of Sioux expansion, they
helped to preserve what remained of the semisedentary villager populations. For
instance, Henry’s Mandan hosts told him of how, sometime during the 1790s, a
Sioux war party cut one of their villages off from the nearby river and opened an
attack on it. Although the Sioux warriors might have been able to overwhelm the
Mandans had they been isolated, the Hidatsas “came to the assistance of their
neighbors, and a severe battle was fought on the level plain between the village
and high bank.”55 The odds thus evened, the battle continued until a group of the
Mandans’ and Hidatsas’ Crow allies arrived and circled around to the flanks and
rear of the Sioux. Faced with this unexpected threat, the Sioux assault collapsed
and the war party retreated from the Missouri.56
Fortunately for Sioux groups, they were not compelled to eliminate the
remaining Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara villages. With the semisedentary villages so vastly reduced in size and number by smallpox, Sioux bands could
simply circumvent them in order to penetrate and, eventually, dominate the
bison-rich lands west of the Missouri. The fallout of that epidemic also forced
Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras to reconsider their approach to military affairs,
as the “uneven” impact of smallpox made it impossible for them to continue to
prosecute warfare, particularly offensive warfare, as they did before. Nevertheless, it remained in the best interests of Sioux groups to maintain a presence along
the Missouri. After 1782, then, Sioux groups tightened their grip on the
53. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 6, 89.
54. Tabeau, Narrative, 130; Henry and Thompson, New Light, vol. 1, 330, 334; Fowler, “Great
Plains,” 16–17; Hyde, Indians of the High Plains, 186–7; Ben Innis, Bloody Knife: Custer’s
Favorite Scout, Richard E. Collin, Bismarck, ND: Smoky Water Press, 1994, 4–5; White,
“Winning of the West,” 325–6.
55. Henry and Thompson, New Light, vol. 1, 361.
56. Ibid., 361–2.
Missouri, subjugating the Mandans, Hidatsas, and, especially, the Arikaras, in an
effort to dominate the growing trade along that waterway. Thus, the smallpox
epidemic of 1780–82 also produced tremendous military and economic hardships
among the semisedentary villagers of the upper Missouri that accelerated the pace
of Sioux expansion.
Their military strength crippled by the 1780–82 smallpox epidemic, the
semisedentary villagers became increasingly oriented toward defensive rather than
offensive warfare. Gone were the days when the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras
routinely launched war parties to harass Sioux camps or avenge a recent attack.
Unable to risk men in combat, the villagers, for the most part, kept them at home
to defend against possible enemy raids.57 The Mandans especially became known
for their aversion to dispatching war parties. As Lewis and Clark observed, “[t]he
Mandans are at war with all who make war [on them, at present with the Seaux],
and wish to be at peace with all nations, Seldom the ogressors.”58 On the other
hand, when the Mandans had to defend themselves, regardless of how badly they
might be outnumbered, Henry wrote, “they scorn to fly, and fight to the last
man.”59 The Hidatsas and Arikaras still sent out some war parties, but their
reduced numbers ensured that these were infrequent and small in size. Nevertheless, they kept a wary eye on their vulnerability by maintaining the defensive
works surrounding their villages and, in the case of the Hidatsas, preserving their
alliance with the Mandans. Such works were, of course, not a new innovation, but
with fewer warriors available to repel Sioux attacks than in the past, they became
increasingly vital.60 As North West Company trader John Macdonell observed of
the Mandans, “[t]hese Indians live in settled villages fortified round about with
Palisades which they seldom ever abandon.”61
As renewed Sioux expansion intensified warfare on the northeastern Plains
after 1782, the semisedentary villagers adopted measures to ensure their safety
while conducting everyday business, such as tending crops and hunting. Their
livelihood already challenged by smallpox depopulation, they understood that
57. McGinnis, Counting Coup, 12.
58. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 1, 220.
59. Henry and Thompson, New Light, vol. 1, 372–3.
60. McKay, “Journal,” 492; Wood and Thiessen, Early Fur Trade, 6–8; McGinnis, Counting
Coup, 15, 21.
61. John Macdonell, “John Macdonell’s ‘The Red River,’” in W. Raymond Wood and Thomas
D. Thiessen, eds, Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains: Canadian Traders Among the
Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738–1818, Norman, OK: Oklahoma UP, 1985, 77–92: 85.
additional losses to opportunistic enemies would further endanger their position.
Tabeau, for one, noted that such caution was necessary, because “[n]either in
any place or at any time do they enjoy perfect security… [n]ear their village or
camp, in their fields of maize, and even in the village itself, individuals are
massacred by small parties.”62 Therefore, it was little surprise that when Henry
approached a Mandan village, his group “soon met a Mandane, well armed with
his gun, etc; he accompanied a party of women hoeing corn, and served as their
guard.”63 Likewise, explorer John Bradbury noted that the Arikaras “scarcely
ever appear without arms beyond the limits of the town.”64 Sioux raids, real and
threatened, impeded the villagers’ efforts to farm and, therefore, to procure
subsistence and surplus to channel into trade with other tribes and Euroamerican traders.
These smallpox-stricken societies also found it difficult to carry out hunting
activities. Whereas the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras conducted routine communal and smaller-scale bison hunts prior to 1780, it became more challenging to
do so after smallpox reduced their manpower. Dispatching hunting expeditions
put those in the party at risk, as well as those who remained in the village, for even
fewer warriors were now available to defend them. Consequently, when hunting
parties set out, they typically did not stray far from home, as Lewis and Clark
noted that both the Mandans and Arikaras “hunt immediately in their neighborhood.”65 Since game did not always congregate nearby, however, the villagers
sometimes mounted large expeditions to hunt elsewhere. Upon encountering a
party of some 500 Mandans on the hunt, explorer Henry Marie Brackenridge
noted that “[t]hey sometimes go on hunting parties by whole villages.”66 Such
large expeditions, of course, helped to ensure the safety of the hunters and their
fellow villagers.
While Sioux relations with the Mandans and Hidatsas remained largely military in nature, Sioux-Arikara relations continued to be ambiguous, although the
Sioux clearly held the upper hand after 1782. By the time Lewis and Clark visited
62. Tabeau, Narrative, 204.
63. Henry and Thompson, New Light, vol. 1, 324.
64. John Bradbury, Travels in the Interior of America, Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms,
1966, 163.
65. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 6, 89, 90.
66. Henry Marie Brackenridge, “Journal of a Voyage Up the River Missouri, Performed in
1811,” in Reuben Gold Thwaites, Early Western Travels, vol. 6, Cleveland, OH: The Arthur
H. Clark Company, 1904, 27–152: 136.
them, the Arikaras “claim[ed] no land except that on which their villages stand
and the fields they cultivate… [t]he [Sioux] claim the country around them,”
adding that Sioux “rob [Arikaras] of their horses, plunder their gardens and fields,
and sometimes murder them, without opposition.”67 Truteau noted that a band of
Sioux lived for some time among the Arikaras and that the latter “humored them
through fear and to avoid making too many enemies among the Sioux, who would
inevitably overpower them.”68 Nevertheless, those Sioux eventually left that
village and periodically returned to raid it. The Sioux became so ruthless that
Truteau observed that “their very name causes terror” among the Arikaras.69
Notwithstanding their considerable numerical disadvantage, the Arikaras maintained their reputation as a fierce people by sometimes launching retaliatory war
expeditions. On occasion, Sioux war parties recruited Arikaras to join expeditions
against their old Mandan and Hidatsa enemies, although such instances became
rarer after the 1780–82 smallpox epidemic. Nevertheless, the few occurrences
served to preserve the ages-old divide between the Arikaras and Mandan-Hidatsa
Although they frequently warred on one another, the Arikaras and Sioux
groups carried on what Lewis and Clark termed a “partial trade.”71 This term
suggests that the commerce between the two, much like their warfare, was heavily
skewed in favor of the Sioux. Tabeau’s testimony supports this assertion, for he
remarked that “[t]he commodities of the Ricaras attract almost all the year a large
crowd of Sioux from whom the Ricaras have to endure much without deriving
any real benefit.”72 The Sioux, reported Tabeau, fixed the price of their goods at
high values and demanded great quantities of Arikara goods in return. If the
Arikaras dared to challenge Sioux demands, the latter used the threat of force to
gain their compliance.73
Nevertheless, the Arikaras made intermittent efforts to forge an alliance with
the Mandans and Hidatsas. Tabeau remarked that during his visit to the Arikaras,
67. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 6, 89.
68. Truteau, “Journal,” 310.
69. Ibid., 296.
70. Ibid., 295; Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 6, 89; McGinnis, Counting Coup, 15, 19;
Tabeau, Narrative, 130–31; Innis, Bloody Knife, 5.
71. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 6, 89.
72. Tabeau, Narrative, 151.
73. Ibid., 131; Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 6, 89.
they sent overtures to the Mandans so that they could make peace and finally
escape what he called “the slavery of the Sioux.”74 At the same time, Lewis and
Clark noted that the Arikaras “express an inclination to be at peace with all
nations,” particularly with the Sioux, who had “great influence over the Rickeres
poison their minds and keep them in perpetual dread.”75 The Sioux naturally
opposed such a coalition between the semisedentary villagers, for they understood
that if the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras joined forces against them, they
would have a more difficult time maintaining control over the villagers. As Tabeau
explained, “the union of the three nations would become formidable to them” and
“they would lose, in the Ricaras, a certain kind of serf, who cultivates for them
and who, as they say, takes, for them, the place of women.”76 Although the
semisedentary villagers periodically established peace among themselves between
1782 and 1810, such agreements were short-lived.77
Sioux pressure compelled the upper Missouri villagers to become increasingly
reliant upon trade with Euroamerican visitors to procure much-needed material
goods. Although Native interest in the fur trade blossomed earlier in the eighteenth century as the tremendous advantages offered by the horse and gun
encouraged them to engage in commerce, the devastating effects of smallpox
made Indians view these items in a new light. Trade was no longer simply a
means of acquiring a few helpful weapons and mounts, then passing the surplus
on to their neighbors for a handsome profit. It was now necessary to accumulate
these commodities for the sake of survival. Consequently, post-epidemic trading
along the upper Missouri took on an air of necessity rather than one of mere
profitability. The villagers recognized that treating white visitors, especially
traders, with hospitality might provide them with economic and material advantages that they desperately needed after smallpox weakened them. Of all the
semisedentary villagers, Lewis and Clark found the Mandans to be “the most
friendly, well disposed Indians inhabiting the Missouri.”78 Reflecting on his visit
to the Mandans in 1795–96, explorer John Evans wrote how “they received me
will all the Affability possible, many of their Chiefs Came to Meet me, at some
distance from their village, and would not permit me to enter their village on
74. Tabeau, Narrative, 128.
75. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 1, 189.
76. Tabeau, Narrative, 130.
77. Henry and Thompson, New Light, vol. 1, 330; McGinnis, Counting Coup, 19.
78. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 6, 90.
foot, they carried me between four men in a Buffaloe Robe, to the Chiefs
tents.”79 Similarly, when Mackenzie reached the Hidatsa villages in 1804, he
marveled that “the natives flew in crowds to meet us.”80 Brackenridge found his
Arikara hosts so eager to please his party that the Natives offered their women
to them.81 Tabeau correctly deduced the intentions of the Arikaras, commenting
that “[h]ospitality and the protection of one’s hosts, according to established
usage, give an incontestable right to extractions without limit and entail excessive expenses.”82
The 1780–82 smallpox epidemic, however, diminished the trade potential of
the upper Missouri villages by vastly reducing the number of middlemen and
consumers living in them. Consequently, when the St. Louis-based fur trade
picked up during the final decade of the eighteenth century, company agents often
disregarded the semisedentary villagers altogether, as they sought to establish
direct contact with the larger bison-hunting groups.83 In response, the semisedentary villagers eagerly and, sometimes, forcefully, persuaded traders to deposit as
many goods as possible in their villages. For instance, when he traveled up the
Missouri, John Evans found that the Arikaras “would not permit me to pass their
Village and carry any Goods to those nations that reside above them, they said,
they were themselves in want of Goods & c. finding then that all me Efforts were
in vain, to get on, I was obliged to stay among them.”84 A decade later, Tabeau
found the situation little changed, for he commented that the Arikaras looked
“upon the whites as beneficent spirits who ought, since they can, to supply all its
needs and it looks upon the merchandise, brought to the village, as if destined for
and belonging to it.”85
The Mandans also recognized their need for traders’ goods in the wake of the
smallpox epidemic. As a result, Euroamerican traders found that Mandans sometimes tried to obstruct their dealings with other tribes in order to maintain their
79. John Evans, “Extracts of Mr. Evans Journal,” in Abraham P. Nasatir, ed., Before Lewis and
Clark: Documents Illustrating the History of the Missouri, 1785–1804, vol. 2, Lincoln, NE:
U. of Nebraska P., 1990, 495–9: 496.
80. Mackenzie, “Narratives,” 231.
81. Brackenridge, “Journal,” 129.
82. Tabeau, Narrative, 145.
83. Bradbury, Travels, 94; Lehmer, “Other Side,” 99–101; Lehmer, “Epidemics,” 109–10.
84. Evans, “Extracts,” 495–6.
85. Tabeau, Narrative, 134.
villages’ status as the central trading hubs of the northern Plains.86 As Mackenzie
observed, the Mandans “asserted that if the white people extended their dealings
to the Rocky Mountains, the Mandans would thereby become the great sufferers–
as they . . . would lose all benefit which they had hitherto derived from their
intercourse with those distant tribes.”87 Furthermore, individual Mandan villages
competed with one another for traders’ business. For instance, when Henry’s
party attempted to leave one Mandan village to visit another, they found that since
“every village being ambitious of getting as many European articles as they can,
particularly arms and ammunition,” their hosts would not help them transport
their goods across the river.88 Henry, however, acknowledged that this was a
“good policy,” for each Mandan village needed all the goods it could get to help
its inhabitants ward off their enemies, particularly the Sioux.89
The economic plight of the semisedentary villagers resulted not only from
traders’ responses to smallpox depopulation, but also the actions of their Sioux
enemies. Wisely, Sioux groups worked to ensure that the villagers did not conduct
business with Euroamerican traders, as well as other Plains peoples. By depriving
the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras of guns, ammunition, and other goods that
they used to defend themselves, Sioux groups could more easily dominate them.
Lewis and Clark observed that the Yankton Sioux “will not suffer any trader to
ascend the river, if they can possible avoid it; they have, heretofore, invariably
arrested the progress of all those they have met with, and generally compelled
them to trade at the prices, nearly which they themselves think proper to fix on
their merchandise.”90 Truteau experienced this firsthand when he traversed the
Missouri during the mid-1790s to reach the Arikaras. After meeting a Yankton
camp, his trading party found their further progress blocked, whose chief told him
that the “French did very wrong to carry powder and balls to the Arikaras… this
powder would be used to kill the Sioux.”91 Bradbury later had a similar encounter,
when some Yankton and Lakota Sioux halted his expedition’s advance and
86. Francois-Antoine Larocque, “Francois-Antoine Larocque’s ‘Missouri Journal,’” in W.
Raymond Wood and Thomas D. Thiessen, Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains: Canadian Traders Among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738–1818, Norman, OK: Oklahoma UP, 1985, 129–55: 135.
87. Mackenzie, “Narratives,” 244.
88. Henry and Thompson, New Light, vol. 1, 329–30.
89. Ibid.
90. Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 6, 96.
91. Truteau, “Journal,” 270.
informed him that they had a “decided intention of opposing our progress, as they
would suffer no one to trade with the Ricaras, Mandans, and [Hidatsas], being at
war with those nations.”92 Eventually, the traders convinced the Sioux that they
intended to see their “brothers,” or other Sioux, and the Yankton-Lakota group
let them pass.93 Likewise, Sioux labored to intercept any Natives who tried to
trade with the villagers, such as Crows, Assiniboines, Crees, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Kiowas.94 The decline in villager strength after the epidemic, which
enabled Sioux bands to move west of the Missouri, allowed them to carry out this
policy. Of course, this approach worked to weaken those other Sioux enemies as
well. Thus, the Sioux conquest of the northeastern Plains resulted from military as
well as economic developments.
The smallpox epidemic of 1780–82 constituted a major turning point in the
history of the northern Great Plains. The near collapse of the Mandan, Hidatsa,
and Arikara populations, combined with enduring social, political, economic, and
military stresses, irrevocably tipped the regional balance of power in favor of
westward-expanding Lakota, Yankton, and Yanktonai Sioux peoples. The villagers of the upper Missouri, unable to conduct offensive warfare as they had before
1780, were compelled to adopt a predominantly defensive stance that little
troubled Sioux invaders after smallpox drastically reduced their populations and,
therefore, fighting strength. Moreover, actions undertaken by the Mandans,
Hidatsas, and Arikaras to consolidate their remaining populations for the sake of
survival produced conflicts within their individual tribes and among them which
plagued efforts offer a united front against the Sioux. Seizing the initiative, Sioux
groups conducted merciless warfare against the semisedentary villagers, both
military and economic, to take control of the bison-rich Plains west of the
Missouri, as well as maintain a strong presence along that river in an effort to
monopolize the growing fur trade. This story, of the dynamic and complex
relationship between pestilence and power, demonstrates that Old World infectious diseases had just as great of an impact on Native history as any material
good that Europeans introduced to the New World, horses and guns included.
92. Bradbury, Travels, 83.
93. Ibid., 88.
94. Ibid., 127; Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, vol. 6, 89–90; Hyde, Indians of the High
Plains, 186–87; Innis, Bloody Knife, 4–5, 8; Secoy, Changing Military Patterns, 75.
After all, it was smallpox, not the gun, the horse, nor even alcohol, that the
nineteenth-century artist George Catlin dubbed “the dread destroyer of the Indian
Although the 1780–82 smallpox epidemic left a lasting imprint on the human
history of the northern Plains, outbreaks of infectious diseases continued to
reshape the region well into the nineteenth century. The 1837–38 smallpox
epidemic, for instance, left little more than one hundred Mandans alive, while it
further reduced what remained of the Hidatsa and Arikara populations.96 Furthermore, it decimated the Blackfoot Nation, which had been the dominant power
on the northwestern Plains since the late eighteenth century, after the 1780–82
smallpox epidemic precipitated the Shoshones’ retreat into the Rockies. After the
1837–38 epidemic, western Sioux bands capitalized on this development, pushing
onto the northwestern Plains and becoming the preeminent force on the entire
northern Plains, as well as the powerhouse that the United States Army confronted
during the second half of the nineteenth century. Any attempt to understand the
complex history of the interactions between the United States government and
northern Plains Natives, then, must consider the effects of the 1780–82 smallpox
epidemic and its successors. For instance, smallpox depopulation helps to explain
why, during the so-called “Sioux Wars,” Arikara warriors enlisted in the United
States Army as scouts, using their powerful new ally to strengthen their hand in an
enduring intertribal struggle.97
Finally, it might be worthwhile to reemphasize that the significance of this
study’s findings not only resonates well beyond the eighteenth century, but also
beyond the northern Plains. The trends highlighted in this article developed
throughout colonial America, from New England and the Southeast to the Pacific
coast. Some differences do emerge when one compares the findings of this analysis
with the works mentioned in the above historiographical discussion. For instance,
unlike the Mandans, Arikaras, and Hidatsas, who retained their individual tribal
identities when they coalesced and relocated their villages after 1782, the different
groups that came together to form the Catawbas, Wyandots, Cherokees, and
95. George Catlin, North American Indians, ed. Peter Matthiessen, New York: Penguin, 1989,
96. Michael K. Trimble, “The 1837–1838 Smallpox Epidemic on the Upper Missouri,” in
Douglas W. Owsley and Richard L. Jantz, eds., Skeletal Biology in the Great Plains:
Migration, Warfare, Health, and Subsistence, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution
Press, 1994, 81–90: 84; Clyde D. Dollar, “The High Plains Smallpox Epidemic of 1837–38,”
Western Historical Quarterly 8, January 1977, 15–38.
97. Thomas W. Dunlay, Wolves for the Blue Soldiers: Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries with the
United States Army, 1860–90, Lincoln, NE: U. of Nebraska P., 1982.
others took on an entirely new identity. Throughout the diverse landscape of
colonial America, however, similar trends emerged. Infectious disease epidemics,
usually of smallpox, caused tremendous demographic shifts, as well as economic,
political, and social strife. Furthermore, outbreaks of Old-World pathogens reconfigured balances of power throughout colonial America, shaping and reshaping
lands that would one day become part of the United States. This essay, then,
contributes to a growing body of literature that demonstrates how the human
drama that unfolded in the New World after 1492 was partly the story of a
biological process at work.
Copyright of Historian is the property of Wiley-Blackwell and its content may not be copied
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written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.
Copyright of Historian is the property of Wiley-Blackwell and its content may not be copied
or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express
written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.

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