When the United States purchased Louisiana from France in 1803, no one knew exactly what the landscape, weather, plants and animals, or people were like. President Thomas Jefferson, a scientist with interests in all things zoological, botanical, and human, sent two energetic and competent men, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to explore Louisiana. Lewis and Clark led the expedition, called the Corps of Discovery. They had orders to collect samples, make maps, and meet all the tribes of the Missouri River.
Lewis and Clark were ordered to forge diplomatic relationships with the American Indian nations of the Upper Missouri. Lewis and Clark were to tell the tribes that they were part of the United States now and that they owed their loyalty to the President. They were to be peaceful with other tribes and the United States. The tribes were invited to trade with St. Louis merchants, rather than merchants from Canada.
The Corps of Discovery avoided armed conflict, and the men succeeded in gathering a great deal of information on Louisiana. However, Lewis and Clark failed to establish peaceful relationships with the Indian tribes and end warfare among the tribes. Lewis and Clark, for all of their experience and diplomatic skills, did not understand how the Teton Dakotas dominated the complex of economic relationships on the Upper Missouri. Lewis and Clark did not realize that the Teton Dakotas were ready to defend their territory against all threats.
Several factors contributed to the failure of the diplomatic mission. During their most important meeting with the Teton Dakotas, the expedition’s Dakota language interpreter was at another location. Another factor was that the Corps of Discovery was very weak militarily. Though Lewis and Clark threatened to fire guns on the Dakotas, they knew that the soldiers of the Corps of Discovery could easily be overwhelmed by the Dakotas’ superior force. The men of the expedition were well-armed, but they were a small group facing well-armed Dakotas defending their homeland. In addition, the United States did not have the military resources to enforce the expedition’s demands for peace. Finally, Lewis and Clark and their men thought, as did most Anglo-Americans, that Indians were ignorant and primitive savages incapable of sophisticated strategies to maintain their economic interests. As long as Americans held to that idea, they would not be able to fully understand inter-tribal relationships on the northern Great Plains.
On the other hand, Lewis and Clark came to understand that the tribes they met were sharp traders and good negotiators. They arranged for chiefs of many tribes to be escorted to Washington, D.C. The President thought that the chiefs would be impressed by the power of the United States once they visited the major cities. The chiefs, however, turned the tables by demonstrating their vast knowledge of Louisiana.
Lewis and Clark bravely stood their ground when they were challenged by the Teton Dakotas. It was as close as they came to a violent encounter on the Missouri River and they handled the situation very well. However, instead of peace, they left a legacy of distrust that continued throughout the remainder of the 19th century.