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He had inquired on all sides for the Pacific. The Assiniboins could tell him nothing. Nor could any information be expected from them, since their relatives and mortal enemies, the Sioux, barred their way to the West. The Cristineaux were equally ignorant; but they supplied the place of knowledge by invention, and drew maps, some of which seem to have been made with no other intention than that of amusing themselves by imposing on the inquirer. They also declared that some of their number had gone down a river called White River, or River of the West, where they found a plant that shed drops like blood, and saw serpents of prodigious size. They said further that on the lower part of this river were walled towns, where dwelt white men who had knives, hatchets, and cloth, but no firearms. 1
Both Assiniboins and Cristineaux declared that there was a distant tribe on the Missouri, called Mantannes (Mandans), who knew the way to the Western Sea, and would guide him to it. Lured by this assurance, and feeling that he had sufficiently secured his position to enable him to begin his western exploration, La Vérendrye left Fort La Reine in October, 1738, with twenty men, and pushed up the river Assiniboin till its rapids and shallows threatened his bark canoes with destruction. Then, with a band of Assiniboin Indians who had joined him, he struck across the prairie for the Mandans, his
1 Journal de la Verendrye joint à la Lettre de M. de Beauharnois du - Octobre, 1737.
Indian companions hunting buffalo on the way. They approached the first Mandan village on the afternoon of the third of December, displaying a French flag and firing three volleys as a salute. The whole population poured out to see the marvellous visitors, who were conducted through the staring crowd to the lodge of the principal chief, — a capacious structure so thronged with the naked and greasy savages that the Frenchmen were half smothered. What was worse, they lost the bag that held all their presents for the Mandans, which was snatched away in the confusion, and hidden in one of the caches, called cellars by La Vérendrye, of which the place was full. The chief seemed much discomposed at this mishap, and explained it by saying that there were many rascals in the village. The loss was serious, since without the presents nothing could be done. Nor was this all; for in the morning La Vérendrye missed his interpreter, and was told that he had fallen in love with an Assiniboin girl and gone off in pursuit of her. The French were now without any means of communicating with the Mandans, from whom, however, before the disappearance of the interpreter, they had already received a variety of questionable information, chiefly touching white men cased in iron who were said to live on the river below at the distance of a whole summer's journey. As they were impervious to arrows, — 80 the story ran, - it was necessary to shoot their horses, after which, being too heavy to run, they were easily
caught. This was probably suggested by the armor of the Spaniards, who had more than once made incursions as far as the lower Missouri; but the narrators drew on their imagination for various additional particulars.
The Mandans seem to have much declined in numbers during the century that followed this visit of La Vérendrye. He says that they had six villages on or near the Missouri, of which the one seen by him was the smallest, though he thinks that it contained a hundred and thirty houses.” As each of these large structures held a number of families, the population must have been considerable. Yet when Prince Maximilian visited the Mandans in 1833, he found only two villages, containing jointly two hundred and forty warriors and a total population of about a thousand souls. Without having seen the statements of La Vérendrye, he speaks of the population as greatly reduced by wars and the small-pox, — a disease which a few years later nearly exterminated the tribe.”
1 Journal de La Vérendrye, 1738, 1739. This journal, which is illwritten and sometimes obscure, is printed in Brymner, Report on Canadian Archives, 1889.
* Le Prince Maximilien de Wied-Neuwied, Voyage dans l'Interieur de l’Amérique du Nord, ii. 371, 372 (Paris, 1843). When Captains Lewis and Clark visited the Mandans in 1804, they found them in two villages, with about three hundred and fifty warriors. They report that, about forty years before, they lived in nine villages, the ruins of which the explorers saw about eighty miles below the two villages then occupied by the tribe. The Mandans had moved up the river in consequence of the persecutions of the Sioux and
La Vérendrye represents the six villages as surrounded with ditches and stockades, flanked by a sort of bastion, — defences which, he says, had nothing savage in their construction. In later times the fortifications were of a much ruder kind, though Maximilian represents them as having pointed salients to serve as bastions. La Vérendrye mentions some peculiar customs of the Mandans which answer exactly to those described by more recent observers.
He had intended to winter with the tribe; but the loss of the presents and the interpreter made it useless to stay, and, leaving two men in the village to learn the language, he began his return to Fort La Reine. “I was very ill,” he writes, “but hoped to get better on the way. The reverse was the case, for it was the depth of winter. It would be impossible to suffer more than I did. It seemed that nothing but death could release us from such miseries." He reached Fort La Reine on the eleventh of February, 1739.
His iron constitution seems to have been severely shaken; but he had sons worthy of their father. The two men left among the Mandans appeared at Fort La Reine in September. They reported that they had been well treated, and that their hosts had parted from them with regret. They also declared
the small-pox, which had made great havoc among them. Expe dition of Lewis and Clark, i. 129 (ed. Philadelphia, 1814). These nine villages seem to have been above Cannon-ball River, a tribu tary of the Missouri.
that at the end of spring several Indian tribes, all well supplied with horses, had come, as was their yearly custom, to the Mandan villages to barter embroidered buffalo hides and other skins for corn and beans; that they had encamped, to the number of two hundred lodges, on the farther side of the Missouri, and that among them was a band said to have come from a distant country towards the sunset, where there were white men who lived in houses built of bricks and stones. The two Frenchmen crossed over to the camp of these western strangers, among whom they found a chief who spoke, or professed to speak, the language of the mysterious white men, which to the two Frenchmen was unintelligible. Fortunately, he also spoke the language of the Mandans, of which the Frenchmen had learned a little during their stay, and hence were able to gather that the white men in question had beards, and that they prayed to the Master of Life in great houses, built for the purpose, holding books, the leaves of which were like husks of Indian corn, singing together and repeating Jésus, Marie. The chief gave many other particulars, which seemed to show that he had been in contact with Spaniards, – probably those of California; for he described their houses as standing near the great lake, of which the water rises and falls and is not fit to drink. He invited the two Frenchmen to go with him to this strange country, saying that it could be reached before winter, though a wide circuit must