Confrontation at Mandan Village
On August 29, 1833, fur trader William Laidlaw wrote to his boss Pierre Chouteau about what had happened to his rival three weeks earlier.
“At the Mandans they were received in the following manner. They held a council for the distributions of presents at which 'The four Bears' presided. Sublette gave them a little powder and a few balls tied up in a handkerchief. They asked him if this was the great present they expected from the Americans, and upon being told it was all they were to get, they Knoked it to one side and told him to go away as soon as possible. He then gave them a Keg of Powder, but they remained as exasperated as before, for upon examination the Keg was found to be tap[p]ed and about the half taken out. However they took his present...”
This letter presents a mystery. Just what was that “great present” that Four Bears was expecting?
James Kipp, fur trader and son-in-law of Four Bears, knew that the federal government had sent Dr. Meredith Martin to vaccinate downstream Indians one year earlier. Yet, if Four Bears had wanted vaccine, the term “great present” probably confused his audience.
The federal government sent presents to Mandans in 1833. And 1834. And 1835. And 1836.
Federal records for 1836 show that Mandans of the two villages were given a total of fourteen 3-point white blankets, eighteen yards of blue wool cloth, twenty-five yards of fancy calico, twenty-five yards of blue ground calico, one hundred eighty scalping knives, seventy-two cartouche knives, four packages of hawk bells, two hundred eighty-eight finger rings, six pounds of vermilion, seventy-two paper covered mirrors, seventy-two fire steels, four pounds of house bells, 40 ounces of patent thread, thirty-six corn hoes, three hundred pounds of tobacco, one hundred seventy-five pounds of gunpowder, and three hundred fifty pounds of lead shot.
Four Bears was apparently satisfied with these presents. They didn't include vaccine.
1837 was the year when the federal government sent no presents to Mandan Village. No calicos. No knives. No blankets. Nothing. Federal Subagent William Fulkerson became very unwelcome at Mandan Village when he did not bring presents. 1837 was the year when smallpox came up the Missouri River on the Steamboat St. Peters.
Four Bears wanted a great present. His people would have been better off with vaccine.
Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel