Meriwether Lewis and the Meandering Mandan

see also: The Untimely Unexplained and Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis By Thomas Jewett

One of the charges that Jefferson had laid upon Meriwether Lewis in his rather extensive instructions for the exploration of the Louisiana Purchase was to open negotiations with Native American tribes and to have those tribes send representatives to Washington City. The observance of that charge led to one of the strangest stories that surrounds the Corps of Discovery and contributed to Lewis' tragic end. It is the story of Sheheke, the Mandan chief.

Sheheke, which means Coyote in Mandan, was also known as "Big White" and "White Coyote." He was the principal chief of the lower Mandan village of Matutonka. Sheheke was nicknamed "Big White" by French trappers because of his size and complexion. (Musselman) He was described as gregarious, fat and light skinned.

Sheheke, Chief of the Mandans

Light complexions were not rare among the Mandan. There was a belief by many, Jefferson included, that this tribe was descendants of ancient Welshmen. (See Charles Moore's "The Mystery of the Mandans" at for a discussion of this theory.) The Mandans were probably the first farming Indians on the northern plans moving to North Dakota around 1450. Clark was most taken with them, describing the people as "brave, humane, and hospitable-the most friendly Indians." (

Sheheke first met Lewis and Clark on October 20, 1804. Lewis was so impressed with him that he presented the chief with a Jefferson peace medal which irritated other tribal leaders. The Corps decided to winter near the Mandan camp and Sheheke was a frequent visitor. It was during this time that he stated to the young Captains: "If we eat you shall eat, if we Starve you must Starve also." (Mussulman) He would later give the Corps a large quantity of meat which was direly needed since game was scarce. During this time he would also describe the country to the west for Clark who would incorporate this information into two maps, "Big White's Map" and the 1805 map of the west. (Mussulman)

Why did Sheheke, and the Mandan tribe, become such staunch friends to the explorers and the United States, when other tribes were at best ambivalent? Perhaps the reason is in the chief's name. His name Coyote in Mandan mythology is a creature who is wily and a trickster. Sheheke was a wily politician. He knew that a trade alliance with the United States would make the Mandan the dominant tribe of the area. Other tribes looked to the British out of Canada for their trade. (Isern)

On the Corps return to the Madans in August of 1806, Sheheke reaffirmed his friendship with the Captains and the United States. Eager to fulfill Jefferson's wish to have Indian leaders visit him, Lewis invited Sheheke and other chiefs of various tribes to return east with him. Warfare had broken out among the tribes of the area and the leaders were wont to leave. Only Sheheke was convinced, and only if he could take his family and the interpreter Rene Jusseaume and his family. (Ambrose, 1996) The chief began his incredible journey on August 30, 1806. His people wailed his departure, believing that they would never see him again.

The trip down the Missouri was largely uneventful. Four days after leaving the Mandan village the party met a group of French traders who informed them that an Arikara chief who had gone east in 1805 had died in Washington. Later that day they reached the Arikara village but chose not to inform them of their chief's death, (Mussulman) The party stopped at Fort Bellefontaine to outfit Sheheke and his family with new clothes for his journey to meet Jefferson. They reached St. Louis on September 23, 1806. Lewis immediately wrote Jefferson informing him of Sheheke's upcoming visit. Jefferson replied: "Tell my friend the Mandan also that I have already opened my arms to receive him. Perhaps while in our neighborhood, it may be gratifying to him and not otherwise to yourself to take a ride to Monticello and see what manner I have arranged the tokens of friendship I have received from his country particularly as well from other Indian friends; that I am in fact preparing a kind of Indian hall." (As cited in Mussulman.)

Sheheke reached Washington City on December 28 and entered into a whirlwind of receptions and public engagements. He was feted throughout Washington society becoming an exotic object of curiosity. On December 30, Jefferson gave a dinner for the Mandan ambassador and tells him: "Your numbers will increase instead of diminishing, and you will live in plenty and in quiet." (As cited in Mussulman.)

Lewis looked after the Mandans while in Washington. He took them with him at the end of March 1807, when he went to Philadelphia to discuss with various scientists the discoveries of the Corps. Going with the party was Pierre Chouteau of St. Louis, who was to take Sheheke back west and outfit a return party. (Montgomery, 2000)

While in Philadelphia, it seems that Sheheke was not a picture of decorum or chastity. Charles Willson Peale writes to Jefferson on February 10, 1807: "In a conversation with a friend this morning, as the Indians were leaving the city, he said they were sadly diseased; they had been with the women of bad fame in the lower part of the town and contracted the venereal disease. I have had no opportunity to enquire for the facts of this report; however, I think it my duty to give you this notice, with the idea that you will give orders for their cure before their departure. " (As cited in Montgomery, 2000.) Jefferson, as far as is known, did not make any arrangements for a cure. Thus, the indisposed Sheheke would begin a return trip that will require two years, a collective force of more than 600, and cost a total of $20,000 along with lives and limbs.

On March 8, 1807 Henry Dearborn, Secretary of War, sent Clark instructions to see to it that Sheheke and his family were to be sent back to their home "by as safe and Speedy conveyance as practicable." He authorized a force of one sergeant and ten privates, with the option of adding a few more men, to be commanded by Ensign Nathaniel Pryor. (Pryor, recently promoted, had been a sergeant in the Corps of Discovery.) Dearborn also authorized a draft of $400 for presents to Sheheke's people, plus whatever was "indispensably necessary in fitting out the party for the Voyage." (As cited in Mussulman.)

Pryor set out on May 18 with fourteen soldiers, an interpreter, and a trading party of 22 under the direction of Pierre Chouteau. The group was stopped on September 9 by the Arikara who were enraged by the belated news of their chief's death, and because of this fact were now allied with the Sioux. Pryor watched from his boat as some 650 Arikara and Sioux, "all of whom were armed with guns, and many of them with additional warlike weapons," gathered on the shore. He directed Sheheke to barricade himself in the boat's cabin with a "breast work of trunks and boxes." A pitch battle erupted. Three of the traders were killed outright and one died later. George Shannon, a former member of the Corps of Discovery lost his leg. (Montgomery, 2000) (As a side note to the event, Shannon, one of the wild, young Kentuckians of the Corps, will turn to the study of law after losing his leg. He will later serve as the U.S. senator from Missouri. He is the single enlisted member of the Corps to find success in civilian and civilized life.)

Meriwether Lewis

The party was forced back to St. Louis. On October 16, Ensign Pryor submitted a 2200 word report explaining the "untoward circumstances" that led to the failure of his mission. He estimated it would take a force of at least 400 men to return the Mandan chief to his people. (Mussulman)

The worse thing about Pryor's failure was that Lewis, when he returned to St. Louis, as Territorial Governor, in the summer of 1808, made an attempt to raise a small army of volunteers and fur traders to return Sheheke and his family and to use the trip as an excuse to establish a great fur trapping company. The partners of this company included Auguste and Pierre Chouteau, Manuel Lisa, Lewis' brother Reuben and William Clark. (Montgomery, 2000) It is generally thought that Lewis was a silent partner. He would buy supplies for the expedition to return Sheheke from his partners. Lewis seemed incapable in seeing the conflict of interest, but back in Washington the scheme only encouraged greater scrutiny from the bureaucrats of his expenditures.

Plans for the summer 1808 expedition did not come to fruition. Lewis was under tremendous pressure from Jefferson to return the Mandan and to finish rewriting his journals for publication. Lewis had not even started on the journals. He started to drink and take drugs. The drink was whiskey and the drug was said to be opium. He took daily doses of opium-laced medicine for "chills, fever, and the blahs." He put himself to sleep with a double dose. It was noted that his behavior became erratic under this regime. (Montgomery, 2000)

Lewis was in this state of mind when he contracted the St. Louis Fur Company, the company he set up, to return Sheheke in the summer of 1809 for the sum of $7,000. He gave Chouteau explicit instructions for trip. Chouteau was to recruit 240 armed mercenaries and traders. He was to ally himself with the Sioux, and bribe 300 of them to attack the Arikara. When the party reaches the Arikaras, Chouteau should demand delivery of all those who attacked Pryor's party. If they cannot supply the actual perpetrators, Chouteau should take an equivalent number and shoot them in full view of the tribe. (Montgomery, 2000)

Chouteau, being of much sounder mind does not obey all the instructions. In May 1809, he and about 160 traders on 13 keelboats and barges began the journey to once again take Sheheke home. When the party arrived at the Arikara village, Chouteau made a show of force and did some threatening, but ultimately obtained passage by the extensive use of bribes of tobacco, powder, lead, and war paint. These had all been purchased by Lewis using government drafts. (Montgomery, 2000) Finally, on September 22, 1809, three years after he begun his journey, Sheheke was back with his tribe.

This should have been a time of celebration for both Sheheke and Lewis, but the opposite became true. Authorities in Washington disputed the bills to the government for the return. Since Lewis had signed personal vouchers for the expenses, he would have to pay the bill himself, which would have ruined him if they were disapproved. He set out for Washington to settle the matter. This strain, along with his drug and alcohol abuse, probably contributed greatly to his committing suicide during the trip.

Sheheke was at first welcomed back by his tribe and feted. He showed off his gifts from the East, which caused much resentment because he would not share them, as was tribal tradition. His reputation continued to fall as he bragged of his exploits from the trip. These were considered to be tall tales by the tribe. His status fell to such an extent, that it is later reported, that he moved back to St. Louis. He was killed by another tribe on his way back up river to the Mandan in 1832.

Thus ends the story of the meandering Mandan. A story that has become just a footnote in the current celebration about the Corp of Discovery. But a footnote which did much to bring to a tragic end some of the major participants in the story.


Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage. Simon & Schuster. New York. 1996. "Return of the Native".

Isern, Tom. "Plains Folk: Sheheke".

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the President-Second Term 1805-1809. Little, Brown And Company. Boston. 1974.

Montgomery, M.R. Jefferson and the Gun-Men. Crown Publishers. New York. 2000.

Moore, Charles W. "The Mystery of the Mandans".

Mussulman, Joseph. "Sheheke-'Big White'". "The Mandan".

Tom Jewett is presently an Assistant Professor at McKendree College. He retired from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and holds the title of Professor Emeritus from that institution.

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