Two hundred years ago last Tuesday, Sheheke finally made it home.
Sheheke was the principal chief of the lower Mandan village who befriended Lewis and Clark during the long winter they spent at Fort Mandan in 1804-05. Nicknamed “Big White” (evidently he was a large man with a pale complexion), he became the focus of the captains’ diplomatic efforts with the Mandan tribe. Sheheke responded to Lewis and Clark’s gifts and attentions by welcoming the Corps of Discovery to the neighborhood. He extended the full warmth of his hospitality during that famously cold winter, telling the captains: “If we eat, you shall eat; if we starve, you must starve also.”
Upon their return to the Mandan villages in August 1806, Lewis and Clark invited Sheheke to return east with them, in keeping with Jefferson’s wish to give Indian leaders an in-person look at American might. Sheheke agreed to go, taking along his wife and son.
Thus began a multi-year ordeal that would lead to disaster, not only for Sheheke but for several members of the Corps of Discovery. Sheheke and his family spent several months in the East, meeting Jefferson, wining and dining with dignitaries, and being suitably impressed with the civilization of their new “white father.” In March of 1807, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn sent instructions to Clark, asking him to see that Sheheke and his family were escorted back home. It proved easier said than done. The first attempt, led by Corps veteran Nathaniel Pryor, ended in a pitched battle with the Sioux and the Arikara on the Missouri River and had to turn back. Sheheke languished in St. Louis while the matter festered. As the problem dragged on into the summer of 1808, Territorial Governor Lewis received two pointed letters from Jefferson, pressing him on his plans for Sheheke’s return. “[It] is an object which presses on our justice & our honor,” Jefferson complained.
In February 1809, Lewis finally contracted with the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company – an enterprise in which he had an interest – to return Sheheke and his family to his home at the mouth of the Knife River. The new plan left nothing to chance, requiring the service of over 500 armed men, including militia, volunteers, and fur traders and trappers. The price tag of the enterprise was an astounding $20,000. Fortunately, it worked. The massive flotilla got Sheheke safely past the Sioux and the Arikara and delivered him home to the Mandan villages on September 22, 1809.
Ironically, Lewis and Sheheke both ended up on the losing end. Jefferson had left office, and new Secretary of War William Eustis rejected Lewis’s expense vouchers for the trip, scolding him for failing to get prior approval and for using the expedition to combine commercial and military ventures. As his finances collapsed, Lewis’s desperation was palpable. “An explaneation is all that is necessary I am sensible to put all matters right,” he wrote. Lewis died at Grinders Stand on October 9, 1809, on his way to Washington to attempt to straighten out the mess.
Sheheke fared little better. In the three years he had been away from his tribe, he lost much of his status and reputation. Some of the Mandans thought he was too friendly with white people, and others didn’t believe his fabulous stories of beautiful buildings and sailing ships he’d seen back east. He died in an intertribal conflict in his own village in 1812.
On Tuesday at the boat landing in Stanton, North Dakota, the anniversary of Sheheke’s return was celebrated with food, song, dancing and storytelling—like his own would have been on an autumn day 200 years ago. Many of Sheheke’s descendants were at the boat landing, some exploring the village site of their ancestor for the first time. A permanent storyboard was placed in honor of Sheheke by the Sakakawea Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.