Long Legacy of Deadly Lewis and Clark Incident

Two hundred years ago Thursday, members of the Lewis and Clark expedition killed at least one Blackfeet Indian during a stopover near the Montana town of Browning. Carolyn Gilman, curator of the Lewis and Clark National Bicentennial Exhibition, talks with Alex Chadwick about the legacy of the incident — the only fatal clash of the historic expedition.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

More than two centuries ago, Meriwether Lewis set out with the Corps of Discovery on the first U.S. expedition to reach the Pacific Ocean, and all these years later, it's still not certain what happened on this day 200 years ago on the journey back east. Captain Lewis had an encounter with members of the Blackfeet Tribe.

Joining us to talk about what happened is Carolyn Gilman, curator for the Lewis and Clark National Bicentennial Exhibition, currently on view at the Smithsonian Institution. Carolyn Gilman, welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Ms. CAROLYN GILMAN (Curator, Lewis and Clark National Bicentennial Exhibition): Thank you, Alex.

CHADWICK: So on this moment, Meriwether Lewis is really leading a kind of exploratory party away from the main Corps and they encounter this group of Blackfeet. They decide to camp with them. Everything seems to be fine, until a skirmish breaks out. What exactly happened?

Ms. GILMAN: Well, of course, we only have Lewis's version of what happened. According to him, they had spent a very sociable evening together, smoking and talking around the campfire. And then the next morning, he was woken out of a sound sleep by the sound of a scuffle and somebody saying, damn you, let go of my gun. And he rose up to find one of the Blackfeet men struggling with George Drouillard, one of his companions for the gun. So he pulled out his pistol, which he still had with him, and he managed to get the Blackfeet to give them back their guns. But then the Blackfeet went after their horses.

CHADWICK: So he used his gun, he shot someone.

Ms. GILMAN: Yes. He had resolved, as he put it, to defend his property with his life. And at that point it escalated far beyond what it had been. They fired on Lewis. He said he heard the sound of the bullet going past him. And the men with Lewis managed prevail and then they went as fast as they could on their horses back to the Missouri River and safety, as they thought.

CHADWICK: This was the only fatal encounter of the entire Lewis and Clark expedition to the West Coast and back to St. Louis. The only one?

Ms. GILMAN: Yes.

CHADWICK: Now, they killed either one or two of the Blackfeet and the other Blackfeet ran away. The counts differ exactly on the numbers. There's more to this story. It appears that Captain Lewis and his friends had told the Blackfeet around the campfire the previous night about a plan to unite the various tribes in the region and to arm them.

But the Blackfeet were already being armed by Canadian fur traders and they didn't want these other tribes, their sometime enemies - the Nez Perce and the Shoshoni - to have American guns. So this is a factor in all this.

Ms. GILMAN: Naturally the Blackfeet did not want this to happen. They had military superiority on the plains. Lewis and Clark, on the other hand, had been dealing with the enemies of the Blackfeet all along and had promised them guns. So what they were describing was essentially an escalation of the military situation on the plains.

CHADWICK: The word spread among the Blackfeet, this lead to 30 years of bad relations between the U.S. government and the Blackfeet.

Ms. GILMAN: You might say that, in fact, Lewis's last act among the Blackfeet led to the marginalization of the route that he and Clark had explored. Because subsequent American fur traders could not use the Missouri River because the Blackfeet had made it so dangerous for them.

CHADWICK: You wrote a paper, I guess not so long ago, drawing parallels between this incident and the current U.S. led occupation and military campaign in Iraq. How do you get there?

Ms. GILMAN: Lewis and Clark spent three years learning about tribal societies. For instance, in tribal society, you are responsible for the actions of all members of your tribe. And as the Blackfeet saw it, all Americans were responsible for the actions of Meriwether Lewis. Other fur traders who showed up on the Missouri River didn't feel the slightest bit responsible because they looked at it from an individualistic Western point of view. But we have to learn when we go into tribal societies that we are all responsible, in their eyes, for the actions of each one of us.

CHADWICK: Carolyn Gilman is curator of the Lewis and Clark National Bicentennial Exhibition. Today is the 200th anniversary of the only fatal encounter on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Carolyn, thank you.

Ms. GILMAN: It's been a pleasure, Alex.

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