September 6: Naval Power over the Missouri River
The War of 1823, often known as “The Arikara War”, forcibly opened the Upper Missouri River to trade. It also established Anglo-American military supremacy over the Upper Missouri River. This victory would be cemented by an Indian Peace Commission, an integral part of a military expedition led by General Atkinson in 1825. This commission was responsible for a series of unequal treaties throughout the region recognizing Anglo-American supremacy.
Prior to the War of 1823, the Arikara nation had been a major naval power. Arikaras were able to use their strategic location to choke trade up and down the Missouri River.
According to the fur trader Edwin Thompson Denig, Arikara men were “... good fishermen, which they take by making pens out of willows planted in the Missouri eddies and meat thrown in. The fish entering, the door is closed upon them, and the men jump in and throw them out. In this way great numbers of fish are taken in the summer when they have but little else to occupy their time. … The Arickaras are also good swimmers, [venturing] out on floating cakes of ice when the Missouri breaks up in the spring and bring ashore the drowned buffalo drifting by.”
Another observer referred to Arikaras as “perhaps, the best swimmers in the world.”
This was naval power. Classic brown water naval power. Arikaras were in every position to block river transit through the portion of the Missouri River that they controlled.
If the Lakota were the sword of the northern plains, the Arikara were the shield.
When Lakota warriors took the side of the United States against the Arikara in 1823, they effectively destroyed their own shield against the Anglo-American conquest of the northern plains. By the 1860s, the United States had built a network of military forts up and down the Upper Missouri River, all of which needed to be supplied by riverboats. The Missouri River was a cheap and effective supply route for Anglo-American military adventures. If riverboat resupply missions had been cut off, the ability of the United States to conquer the northern plains would have been greatly impaired.
Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel
- William R. Nester, The Arikara War (Missoula, MT: Rocky Mountain Publishing Company, 2001), page 181.
- Ibid., page 199-200.
- Edwin Thompson Denig & John C. Ewers (editor), Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri (Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press, 1961), pages 48-49.
- Pierre-Antoine Tabeau, Annie Heloise Abel (editor), and Rose Abel Wright (translator), Tabeau's Narrative of Loisel's Expedition to the Upper Missouri (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939), page 173.
- Ibid., pages 172-179.