We had a few bumps in the road after we left the splendor of Al’s Oasis in Chamberlain. We had intended to travel the long way to Pierre via the Native American Scenic Byway, a route through local roads that takes you through the Crow Creek and Lower Brule Sioux Reservations. This route closely follows the Missouri River and thus the route that Lewis and Clark took on their journey.
I started out feeling excited and adventurous, but wrong turns, poor to non-existent signage, and contradictory maps showing long sections of unpaved road defeated our efforts. After about two hours of fruitless exploration, we found ourselves back in Chamberlain where we started! I must admit I didn’t feel very “Lewis & Clark-y” after this experience. Has anyone driven this route? If so, let me know and maybe you could do a guest post. I’d love to hear about it and get some tips.
Fortunately, at least, it is a very quick jaunt up to Pierre if you follow the main highway, which is a straight shot through a wide, empty grassland. The capital of South Dakota (pronounced PEER) is a compact prairie city reminiscent of Great Falls, Montana. Like most places in South Dakota, we found it dotted with road closures and construction.
Our first stop was just across the river in Fort Pierre’s Fischers Lilly Park, a cute, pleasant city park that lies at the confluence of the great blue Missouri and the small, green Bad River. There is significant Lewis & Clark history here. On September 24, 1804, Lewis and Clark set up camp here and arranged for some meetings with the Teton Sioux, well-known as the most powerful, dominant, and potentially dangerous tribe in the Upper Missouri.
Things did not go well. The Sioux, who of course vastly outnumbered the Corps of Discovery, were less than thrilled to hear about their new Great Father, Thomas Jefferson. The reality was that they ruled the area and other nations paid tribute to them or suffered the consequences. They meant to keep it that way.
The main Sioux leaders–men named Black Buffalo, The Partisan, and Buffalo Medicine — wanted to let Lewis & Clark know that they didn’t appreciate the Americans’ plan to continue upstream and trade with the Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa villages. The Sioux could and did arrange for trade goods with the British. If anybody needed anything they could go through them. If Lewis and Clark insisted on going forward, they would have to pay the Sioux a hefty toll.
Unfortunately, nuanced communication was almost impossible between the two groups. Lewis and Clark had employed a Sioux-speaking interpreter for a time, but he had stayed behind in the Yankton area. They soldiered on with their council, making speeches, demonstrating their high-tech air gun, and handing out peace medals and other presents. The Sioux scorned the presents and demanded that the Corps pay for their passage by giving up one of the boats, known as the white pirogue, and stuffing it full of the trade goods that were intended to last for the entire cross-continental journey.
Both sides realized that their positions were irreconcilable and that they both had a lot to lose. Lewis and Clark invited the chiefs to go on a tour of the keelboat and sleep on board. They also passed out whiskey, which turned out to be a mistake when it nearly resulted in a brawl between the Indians and the crew. Black Buffalo also reached out, inviting Lewis and Clark to a grand feast and dance and offering the white chiefs a couple of beautiful young women to round out the evening. But when Lewis and Clark declined the girls’ company, the Indians were both puzzled and offended.
After more talks the next day, Lewis and Clark invited the chiefs over for another sleepover on the keelboat, but a boat accident that dumped the chiefs in the water only inflamed tensions. Almost two hundred warriors came to watch the chiefs being fished out of the drink, and sixty men camped on shore all night to keep watch on the keelboat. Lewis and Clark began to fear an attack was imminent. They decided that the next morning, the Corps would proceed upriver.
Seeing the preparations, The Partisan made his move, mobilizing men on shore to hold fast to the keelboat’s cable and reiterate the demands for tribute before the Expedition could pass. Black Buffalo, who was still on board and had become aware of how well-armed the Expedition was, tried to diffuse the tension by suggesting that the Indians would be content with a gift of American tobacco. Lewis lost his temper at what he saw as a childish game of gotcha. He ordered all remaining Indians off the boat, while Clark made ready the swivel gun, drew his sword, and got into a shouting match with The Partisan on shore.
In the end, it was Black Buffalo who resolved the situation without bloodshed. Back on shore, he shamed Lewis into handing over the tobacco, then jerked the cable out of the warrior’s hands so that the keelboat could pass. The expedition proceeded on, shaken and acutely aware of their vulnerability and their failure to reconcile this proud, warlike people to becoming part of the American sphere of influence. (Indeed, with descendants like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and Black Elk, the Teton Sioux would resist to the end.)
We crossed the river into Pierre and had a nice picnic by a pretty lake on the grounds of the state capitol. The sunny and breezy weather was a welcome change from Texas! Afterwards, we looked at some of the memorials and then went inside for a self-guided walking tour. The capitol is small but still majestic, with terrazo mosaic floors; marble columns; a beautiful kaleidoscopic dome of stained glass; murals of gods, goddesses, and South Dakota scenes; and a marble staircase that leads to the House and Senate chambers. Mary even found one of the rare blue floor tiles, used as a kind of special signature by the Italian artisans who created the floor in 1910.
After a stop at a Walgreen’s to restock our supply of cheapo t-shirts, we headed back along the river to a great place called Farm Island State Recreation Area. We took a short hike (where we saw a bunny) and then donned our bathing suits and hit the protected beach, where you can swim in the cold waters of the Missouri! It felt great to swim around and enjoy the beautiful sights of the woods across the river, the rising hills, and the enormous blue sky studded with big, fluffy clouds. By the time we got out and raced out of the cold wind to get dressed, we felt great. It was easy to feel close to Lewis and Clark here.
After our fun swim, we hauled on through about one hundred miles of sunflowers, little fat pheasants, and even a deer to our overnight stop at the Wrangler Inn in Mobridge. We had a good supper at the adjacent restaurant, then made an early night of it for once.