In the spring of 1804, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out on a voyage launched by President Thomas Jefferson. Their mission was to explore and map the wilderness between the Missouri River and the Pacific coast, paving a trade route across a new land recently acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. Traversing a territory that has since become 10 states, the explorers encountered natural wonders they had never seen before, and they recorded these discoveries in their journals. The President instructed them to establish friendly relations with the Indians and to impress on them the power of their new “white father” in Washington.
Lewis and Clark’s first council with American Indians was held near present-day Fort Calhoun,
Nebraska. This site was referred to as the “council on the bluff” in their journals, and they recommended this location for a future military installation. The entire area became known as the council bluffs and is often confused with Council Bluffs, Iowa. Settled in 1838 as Kanesville, the Iowa town was renamed Council Bluffs in 1852. Locally, this historic meeting led to the founding of Fort Atkinson in 1820 and, eventually, the town of Fort Calhoun in 1855. Fort Atkinson today is located three blocks to the east and features a bronze sculpture commemorating this first council.
The First Council
On August 3, 1804, the Otoe and Missouria were the first tribes to hold council with Lewis
and Clark. In full uniform and with much pomp and ceremony, the captains presented to the chiefs a document that offered peace. They gave speeches, smoked a pipe, awarded peace medals and exchanged gifts; they displayed technology such as the air gun, magnet, spyglass, compass, and watch. This “show” was meant to establish the sovereignty of the United States over the tribe, and was performed before those that Lewis & Clark felt were of sufficient rank to speak for the rest. Lewis promised to bring trade to the plains on the condition the Oto-Missouria stop their raids on the Omaha and establish peace with area tribes.
This meeting on August 3 was one of two meetings that Lewis & Clark held with the Otoe-Missouria Nation. It turns out that this “first council” was the official council with the Missouria as We thea a (He pities them) the headman for the Missouria Nation was there. The Otoe Nation was represented by Chon ga ton ga (Big Horse) the younger brother of Otoe nation’s headman, We 'ar ruge nor (Little Thief). Lewis and Clark's lack of understanding of the political structure of Indigenous nations caused a problem. They gave Big Horse a large peace medal, given to headmen of the Nation. Big Horse had no authority to represent the Otoe Nation. This caused a problem among the tribe and Big Horse was punished for receiving headman honors that he did not have the right to accept. A second meeting was scheduled with the rightful leaders, and Big Horse was punished by having to walk naked to the site of the second meeting. The second meeting took place on August 18, where Otoe Headman, Little Thief, met with the Corps. Before departing, Little Thief indicated he would go to Washington in the spring. In March 1805, a delegation including Little Thief and one Missouri chief met in Washington with President Jefferson, who promised trade goods and told them he hoped for peace.
At the same time of this first council, a Boatman called La Liberte deserted the Corps of Discovery. The next day, a soldier Moses Reed also deserted. They were later captured and returned to the Captains. La Liberte again escapes, never to be heard of again. Reed is punished by military rules, which required walking the gauntlet, which horrify the Otoe and Missouria by its cruelty and savagery.
This first council of the Corps of Discovery really did not accomplish much, but it established the routine for all subsequent councils on the expedition. After completing their work here, the Corps moves on to present day Sioux City, Iowa.