Attempting to stop a band of young Blackfoot Indians from stealing his horses, Meriwether Lewis shoots one in the stomach.
The voyage of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the West began in May 1804 when the two captains and 27 men headed up the Missouri River. They reached the Pacific Ocean the following year, and on March 23, 1806, began the return journey. After crossing the worst section of the Rocky Mountains, the expedition split up. Clark took most of the men and explored the Yellowstone River country to the south. Lewis, with nine men, headed west to the Great Falls of the Missouri River where he split the small party still further. Six men remained behind to make the portage around the Great Falls. Lewis took the remaining three and headed north to explore the Marias River country of present-day northwestern Montana.
It was a risky, perhaps even irresponsible, decision. Lewis knew the Marias River country was the home of the Blackfoot Indians, one of the fiercest tribes of the Great Plains. Lewis hoped he could meet peacefully with the Blackfoot and encourage their cooperation with the United States. Yet, if they met a hostile Blackfoot band and a fight began, the four explorers would be badly outnumbered.
On July 26, Lewis encountered a party of eight young Blackfoot braves. At first, the meeting went well, and the Blackfoots seemed pleased with Lewis’ gifts of a medal, flag and handkerchief. Lulled into a false sense of security, Lewis invited the Blackfoot to camp with them. In the early morning of this day in 1806, Lewis awoke to the shouts of one his men–the Blackfoot were attempting to steal their rifles and horses.
Lewis sped after two Blackfoots who were running off with several of the horses, calling out for them to stop or he would shoot. One Blackfoot, armed with an old British musket, turned toward Lewis. Apparently fearing that the Blackfoot was about to shoot, Lewis fired first and hit him in the stomach. The Blackfoots retreated, and the men quickly gathered their horses. Lewis then learned that one of his men had also fatally stabbed another of the Blackfoot.
Fearing the survivors would soon return with reinforcements, Lewis and his men immediately broke camp. They rode south quickly and managed to escape any retribution from the Blackfoot. Lewis’ diplomatic mission, however, had turned into a debacle. By killing at least one Blackfoot, and probably two, Lewis had guaranteed that the already hostile Blackfoot would be unlikely to deal peacefully with Americans in the future.