Trading With the Arikara
The Arikaras, or Sanish, were a trading and farming tribe on the middle Missouri. The location of their villages was a point where horses from the south, guns from the northeast, and goods filtering up the Missouri could be traded into an extensive inter-tribal barter economy in which the Arikara were intermediaries. Arikara farms produced a surplus of corn, squash, beans and local tobacco as their direct contribution to the trade. Traders like Ashley did not see why the Arikara middleman status should be part of the American trade in goods headed to tribes farther west. The Arikaras refused to be cut out of any trade along their part of the river. American traders viewed the Arikaras as an unpredictable tribe to deal with; a tribe that would occasionally bully, rob or even murder traders as they tried to pass by.
In 1823, two Arikara villages dominated a bend in the Missouri and were home to around 2,500 people. A ragged palisade of logs and dirt made an effective barricade around each village. Inside the palisades were earth lodges – a framework of logs covered in willow and packed dirt to make rounded, weatherproof dwellings. These palisades overlooked an open beach area, the river and across to the far bank and open prairie. The two towns comprised a fortified Native trading post occupying a position that controlled travel on the river.
On May 30, Ashley anchored his keelboats midstream from the villages then made it clear he wanted to parley and trade, not fight. Making a show of confidence, Ashley left the safety of his keelboat and went ashore to begin negotiations.
The Arikaras wanted compensation for several dead warriors killed in recent fights with another fur trading company. Ashley told the Arikaras he was not from that company and his people had nothing to do with that battle, but to make his peaceful intentions clear, he presented them with gifts. It is likely the Arikaras made no distinction between competing companies of white men, accepted the gifts as reparations for their slain men, and viewed Ashley as acknowledging responsibility for the other company’s conflict. Whatever the understandings or misunderstandings, the talk moved on to horses.
Ashley had guns and ammunition, the Arikaras had horses. It was reported that Ashley traded 25 muskets plus ammunition for 19 horses. Two decades before, the Arikaras were noted as paying the Cheyenne one gun, 100 rounds of ammunition and a knife for each horse brought up from the south, so Ashley appears to have made a good deal. If Ashley thought that showing no fear would awe the Arikaras into letting him proceed upriver unchallenged, then giving them firearms could have been a further expression of confidence, however trading ended abruptly the moment Ashley announced there were no more weapons to trade.
With horses to look after, Ashley now split his command into a river group and an overland group. He put Jedediah Smith in charge of 40 men onshore, including Hugh Glass, to mind the horses on the beach below the lower village. This party would drive the horse herd to Fort Henry. The boatmen stayed aboard the two keelboats anchored thirty yards off shore, ready to continue up river the next day. Both groups had to wait out a windstorm before they could depart.
An Arikara warned Ashley that some of the village warriors planned to attack the Americans either at the villages or later on the open prairie. Ashley decided to stand pat, make no changes that would show concern, and leave as soon as the wind abated.
The shore party secured the horses, made camp, and got what rest they could. Two of Ashley’s men, Edward Rose and Aaron Stephens slipped into the nearest village hoping to meet with some of the village women.
The accounts of the battle in the early morning of June 1 do not entirely agree. What follows is a blend of several accounts to reach a plausible version of how it played out:
Sometime after midnight, three Arikara warriors slipped aboard Ashley’s boat and tried to enter his cabin, but were chased away when Ashley brandished a pistol. Then, screams came from the lower village, followed by Edward Rose running onto the beach to tell the shore party that Stephens had been murdered. Those on the beach argued as whether to try to recover Stephens‘ body or immediately swim the horses to the opposite shore, in spite of it still being dark. They decided to stand ready and wait for daylight.
Before dawn, an Arikara called out to those camped on the beach, saying he would go into the village and bring out Stephens’ remains for the price of one horse. After some debate, this was agreed to and the price paid. The Arikara returned without the body, declaring it so badly mangled that there was no longer enough to return.
Pre-dawn illuminated the situation. The Ashley men on shore were on an open beach with the horses. They looked uphill to the riverbank, topped by several hundred yards of rough palisade that defined the lower Arikara village where they could see warriors ramming home charges in their guns. The two keelboats, still moored in the swift current of the Missouri, each had a rowboat, or skiff, bobbing nearby.
Moments later, the first musket balls slapped into Ashley’s men and horses on the beach. Dead horses quickly became barricades as hunters attempted to get clear shots at warriors behind the palisades. Some on the shore called out to the keelboats to come and pick them up.
Ashley ordered the keelboats closer to shore, but his boatmen were hunkered down and initially refused to move. One keelboat finally advanced but it ran aground on a sand bar. Next, Ashley got his two skiffs headed for the beach, which attracted concentrated fire from the village. One vessel got a few men off the beach and onto a keelboat, but an oarsman was hit before a second trip could be made and the boat began to drift downstream.
The Arikaras, sure of their victory, began to come from behind the palisade to close on the beach. At this point, those who could swim dove for the river. The weak swimmers and some of the wounded disappeared under the water. The current swept several men past the boats as they grasped for a handhold. Arikara warriors swarmed the beach.
Ashley’s crew got their keelboat free of the sandbar, into the current and floating downstream. The crew of the other keelboat cut its anchor cable and let the current take them as well. At this point, retreat and safety was to let the Missouri carry the boats out of musket range.
Barely fifteen minutes passed after the first shot, and in that short span of time, Ashley had lost 14 men killed and 11 wounded. Arikara losses were thought to be 5 to 8.
In the shock that followed the defeat on the beach and the expedition being chased back down the river, the Ashley men tried to regroup, collect stragglers, and bury those whose remains they recovered. Hugh Glass, wounded in the fracas, wrote a letter to the family of one of the dead, John Gardiner:
My painfull duty it is to tell you of the deth of yr son wh befell at the hands of the indians 2d June in the early morning. He lived little while after he was shot and asked me to inform you of his sad fate. We brought him to the ship when he soon died. Mr. Smith young man of our company made powerful prayr wh moved us all greatly and am persuaded John died in peace. His body we buried with others near this camp and marked the grave with log. His things we will send to you. The savages are greatly treacherous. We traded with them as friends but after great storm of rain and thunder they came at us before light and many were hurt. I myself was shot in the leg. Master Ashley is bound to stay in these parts till the traitors are rightly punished.
Yr Obt Svt
Siege of the Arikara Village
Ashley’s initial plan was to armor the boats with wooden planks and force passage beyond the Arikara as quickly as possible, but so many of his men refused to consider this that he felt compelled to devised different plans. He sent one keelboat downriver to Saint Louis with the wounded men and those who had had enough of the western fur trade. Along the way, this boat would deposit Ashley’s goods for safekeeping at Fort Kiowa, a rival company’s trading post. He sent Jedediah Smith and an unnamed French Canadian overland to Andrew Henry at the mouth of the Yellowstone to call additional men downriver to reinforce Ashley’s remnant. Ashley chose a spot further down river to camp and wait for help.
Along with the wounded, Ashley sent letters reporting the battle to the army at Fort Atkinson, the newspapers in Saint Louis, and the ranking Indian agent calling for help to punish the Arikaras and reopen the Missouri to American trade. The commanding officer at Fort Atkinson, Colonel Henry Leavenworth, was convinced, and on his own initiative, immediately organized and led 230 officers and men of the US Sixth Infantry toward the Arikara villages. This was the first time the US Army deployed troops against Indians west of the Mississippi. The soldiers marched along the Missouri, with their supplies transported in keelboats. Leavenworth called his force, “The Missouri Legion.” Before he reached the Arikaras, Atkinson led a mixed force of army infantry, 50 volunteers from the Missouri Fur Company, 80 more volunteers from Ashley and Henry’s combined group, and 500 Lakota horsemen, bringing the total to about 900 combatants.
Hugh Glass was still healing from his first encounter with the Arikaras, and so did not make the return trip to the villages to seek revenge. As it turned out, he probably would not have been satisfied. On August 10, after a day and a half of skirmishing, probing attacks and using up most of the ammunition for two cannons and a borrowed mortar, Leavenworth called a cease-fire. He had decided to parley with the Arikaras even as his officers begged for the chance to storm the village. This frustrated many in the Missouri Legion, especially the Lakotas who saw no further chance for glory in battle and went home. Ignoring objections from those who thought the Arikaras had not been adequately punished for killing Americans; Leavenworth negotiated a treaty with the Arikara leadership. They accepted Leavenworth’s terms, then quietly abandoned their villages during the night.
Leavenworth declared victory and ordered his troops back to Fort Atkinson. As the Army departed, they saw smoke rising behind them. Against Leavenworth’s orders, Missouri Fur Company employees had set fire to the empty town. With no village, the Arikaras spent the next several years living with other tribes, moving often, and killing American trappers wherever they could.
Ashley Abandons the River and Proceeds Overland
Ashley and Henry now considered the upper Missouri closed as a route to the mountains. They had amassed huge debts with little to show for their efforts. Their only remaining advantage was having men in a position to go overland into the mountains, to try to pull profit out of disaster. Ashley retreated downriver to Fort Kiowa, trading some of his stored goods for horses. He then split his men into two groups. Andrew Henry would lead one party cross-country to Fort Henry, shut it down, and then move south to winter among the Crow people. Hugh Glass, sufficiently recovered by then, headed out with Henry’s 30 men and six-pack horses in August 1823. The Arikara fight proved to be the first of Glass’ many near-death experiences as a mountaineer.
It took another month to secure horses for the second group, led by Jedediah Smith, to proceed directly to the Crow country and be ready for a spring hunt the following year. Ashley returned to Saint Louis, his political responsibilities, and his creditors. His men explored and trapped both sides of the Wind River Range, and identified the Upper Green River as prime beaver country. When news finally reached Ashley from the mountains in the summer 1824, Ashley realized his repeated financial gambles might pay off if he could support his trappers in the mountains and get the furs back to Saint Louis. His scheme to get supplies into the field and furs back out, evolved into the annual trapper’s rendezvous that helped define the mountain man period.
The Arikara fight caused Ashley and Henry to abandon the Missouri River as their supply line, but rather than folding their venture, they pushed their men on to the Rocky Mountains. The strategies this pair derived to free themselves of the river led directly to the rendezvous years. When Hugh Glass and the other men in Henry’s and Smith’s parties left the Missouri and headed west overland from Fort Kiowa, they initiated a cycle of adventure that has become American legend.
See Sources page for the original accounts of the Hugh Glass story…
Richard M. Clokey, William H. Ashley: Enterprise and Politics in the Trans-Mississippi West (Norman, OK, and London: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1980). This is a good general biography of Ashley.
Dale L. Morgan, The West of William Ashley (Denver, CO: Old West Publishing Company, 1964). This book, though out of print, is the best-published collection of primary source references concerning William Ashley’s western ventures.
William R. Nester, The Arikara War: The First Plains Indian War, 1823 (Missoula, MT: The Mountain Press, 2001). The Arikara War had causes that predated and repercussions long after the summer of 1823. This book is a good overview.
David J. Wishart, The Fur Trade of the American West 1807-1840 (Lincoln, NE, and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1979). A complete and readable description of the mechanics of the western American fur trade, this is a good book to start with.
Article by: Scott Walker