It was August 11, 1805, and Meriwether Lewis was getting desperate. Since leaving Fort Mandan in April 1805, the Corps of Discovery had navigated the twists and turns of the Upper Missouri, run their canoes through the Missouri Breaks, and portaged their boats and equipment on a grueling 18-mile land route around the Great Falls of the Missouri River. As July wore on into August, the Corps pressed on into what is now western Montana, searching for the Shoshone Indians. The Shoshone’s formidable horse herds were critical to the success of Lewis and Clark’s plan for reaching the Pacific Ocean. If they could only barter for horses, they believed they could swap their increasingly grueling river travel for an easy horseback ride across the Continental Divide.
There was only one problem. The Shoshone were nowhere to be found. In many places along the Upper Missouri, Lewis and Clark saw signs of Indian camps, hunting expeditions, cook fires, and smoke signals. But they did not encounter any people. In any case, they could not be sure whether these deserted camps belonged to the Shoshone, or indicated the unwelcome presence of hostile Assiniboine or Blackfeet.
By late July the party had reached the Three Forks, and Sacagawea began to recognize landmarks from the area in which she lived prior to being kidnapped as a child. While Lewis wrangled the boats up the river, Clark led a party by land, suffering blistered feet and prickly pear punctures. But they still saw no Indians. The explorers simply did not realize that the Shoshone were still hunting and fishing west of the Divide and typically did not cross the mountains until early fall.
By the first week of August, Lewis and Clark’s party was exhausted, demoralized, and hungry. The river was barely navigable, Clark was sick and his feet painful and infected. If they could not find horses, the expedition would have to attempt the Rocky Mountains on foot, carrying only a fraction of their supplies and relying on finding scarce game in the mountains in winter. It was a bleak prospect indeed. Then, a ray of hope: Sacagawea recognized Beaverhead Rock. She was certain that her people would be camped along the river nearby.
Clark still being too ill to lead a scouting party, Lewis set out with George Drouillard, John Shields, and Hugh McNeal. On the morning of August 11, he finally found the man he was looking for:
after having marched in this order for about five miles I discovered an Indian on horse back about two miles distance coming down the plain toward us. with my glass I discovered from his dress that he was of a different nation from any that we had yet seen, and was satisfyed of his being a Sosone; his arms were a bow and quiver of arrows, and was mounted on an eligant horse without a saddle, and a small string which was attatched to the underjaw of the horse which answered as a bridle. I was overjoyed at the sight of this stranger and had no doubt of obtaining a friendly introduction to his nation provided I could get near enough to him to convince him of our being whitemen. I therefore proceeded towards him at my usual pace. when I had arrived within about a mile he mad a halt which I did also and unloosing my blanket from my pack, I mad him the signal of friendship known to the Indians of the Rocky mountains and those of the Missouri, which is by holding the mantle or robe in your hands at two corners and then throwing up in the air higher than the head bringing it to the earth as if in the act of spreading it, thus repeating three times. this signal of the robe has arrisen from a custom among all those nations of spreading a robe or skin for ther gests to set on when they are visited. this signal had not the desired effect, he still kept his position and seemed to view Drewyer an Shields who were now comiming in sight on either hand with an air of suspicions, I wold willingly have made them halt but they were too far distant to hear me and I feared to make any signal to them least it should increase the suspicion in the mind of the Indian of our having some unfriendly design upon him. I therefore haistened to take out of my sack some b[e]ads a looking glas and a few trinketes which I had brought with me for this purpose and leaving my gun and pouch with McNeal advanced unarmed towards him. he remained in the same stedfast poisture untill I arrived in about 200 paces of him when he turn his hose about and began to move off slowly from me; I now called to him in as loud a voice as I could command repeating the word tab-ba-bone, which in their language signifyes white man.
Lewis advanced slowly, repeatedly shouting the word “tab-ba-bone,” a word which he had undoubtedly gotten from Sacagawea as the best way to describe white men to her people. Seeing the Indian glancing nervously over his shoulder, Lewis frantically motioned for Drouillard and Shields to halt their advance so as not to spook the man, but Shields failed to see the signal and continued forward. Lewis continued in his journal: “whe I arrived within about 150 paces I again repepeated the word tab-ba-bone and held up the trinkits in my hands and striped up my shirt sleve to give him an opportunity of seeing the colour of my skin and advanced leasure towards him but he did not remain untill I got nearer than about 100 paces when he suddonly turned his hose about, gave him the whip leaped the creek and disapeared in the willow brush in an instant and with him vanished all my hopes of obtaining horses for the present.”
Lewis was mortified, disappointed, and furious at Shields and the other men. He confessed that he “could not forbare abraiding them a little for their want of attention and imprudence on this occasion.” In other words, Shields got a good old-fashioned army ass-chewing.
Still hoping to make contact, Lewis and his men tracked the Shoshone for two more days. On the morning of August 13, Lewis again had a close encounter:
we had proceeded about four miles through a wavy plain parallel to the valley or river bottom when at the distance of about a mile we saw two women, a man and some dogs on an eminence immediately before us. they appeared to vew us with attention and two of them after a few minutes set down as if to wait our arrival we continued our usual pace towards them. when we had arrived within half a mile of them I directed the party to halt and leaving my pack and rifle I took the flag which I unfurled and avanced singly towards them the women soon disappeared behind the hill, the man continued untill I arrived within a hundred yards of him and then likewise absconded. tho’ I frequently repeated the word tab-ba-bone sufficiently loud for him to have heard it. I now haistened to the top of the hill where they had stood but could see nothing of them.
A short time later, however, Lewis finally hit paydirt:
we had not continued our rout more than a mile when we were so fortunate as to meet with three female savages. the short and steep ravines which we passed concealed us from each other untill we arrived within 30 paces. a young woman immediately took to flight, an Elderly woman and a girl of about 12 years old remained. I instantly laid by my gun and advanced towards them. they appeared much allarmed but saw that we were to near for them to escape by flight they therefore seated themselves on the ground, holding down their heads as if reconciled to die which the expected no doubt would be their fate; I took the elderly woman by the hand and raised her up repeated the word tab-ba-bone and strip up my shirt sleve to sew her my skin; to prove to her the truth of the ascertion that I was a white man for my face and hads which have been constantly exposed to the sun were quite as dark as their own. they appeared instantly reconciled, and the men coming up I gave these women some beads a few mockerson awls some pewter looking-glasses and a little paint.
After calling back the young woman who had run away, Lewis “painted their tawny cheeks with some vermilion” as a sign of friendship and bestowed trinkets on the women to convince them of his good intentions. The women agreed to lead him to their camp. Lewis recorded in his journal that after walking with the women another two miles, “we met a party of about 60 warriors mounted on excellent horses who came in nearly full speed, when they arrived I advanced towards them with the flag leaving my gun with the party about 50 paces behid me. the chief and two others who were a little in advance of the main body spoke to the women, and they informed them who we were and exultingly shewed the presents which had been given them these men then advanced and embraced me very affectionately in their way which is by puting their left arm over you wright sholder clasping your back, while they apply their left cheek to yours and frequently vociforate the word âh-hi’-e, âh-hi’-e that is, I am much pleased, I am much rejoiced. bothe parties now advanced and we wer all carresed and besmeared with their grease and paint till I was heartily tired of the national hug.”
Lewis might not have been a “huggy” person, but he was a most fortunate one. Having never encountered white people before, the Shoshone were friendly and eager to embrace their new “tab-ba-bone” friend. According to the notes in Moulton’s Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, sources disagree on the translation of this word. Some say it meant “alien” or “stranger,” which would not have reassured the Shoshone upon repeated shoutings. Some say that Lewis meant to say Ti-yo bo-nin, meaning “I’m a white man! See!” deriving from Ti-you, meaning “one originating from the sun” (i.e., the east). Having no experience with whites, it is quite possible that tab-ba-bone meant nothing to the Shoshone at all. Perhaps they just saw Lewis as a tired and desperate human being, and took him in.
Lewis met the principal chief, Cameahwait, who regretfully told Lewis the Shoshone had nothing to eat but berries. Lewis accepted them gratefully, and he and his famished men “made a hearty meal.” Lewis wrote that later, “an indian called me in to his bower and gave me a small morsel of the flesh of an antelope boiled, and a peice of a fresh salmon roasted; both which I eat with a very good relish.”He added with evident satisfaction: “This was the first salmon I had seen and perfectly convinced me that we were on the waters of the Pacific Ocean.”
More interesting reading: Lewis and Clark Among the Shoshones