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Chief One-Eyed


On this date, William Clark recorded in his journal that the great Hidatsa chief, Le Borgne – which is French for One-Eyed – had finally visited the Lewis and Clark expedition at their winter quarters at Fort Mandan.

When the expedition first arrived at the Knife River Villages in October 1804, the Hidatsas were living in three separate villages near the Mandans. The largest of these, with 450 warriors, was led by One-Eyed and was made up of 130 earth lodges. One-Eyed was away with a war party when the expedition held its first council with the two tribes, so Lewis and Clark sent the chief presents through another Hidatsa leader. When he returned, One-Eyed showed his contempt for the Americans by staying away.

One-Eyed had a nasty reputation as a brutal leader, but he was also highly respected for his warring abilities. The Mandans had an uneasy alliance with him and the Hidatsas, because parties of raiding Sioux – reluctant to fight the notorious chief – avoided the Knife River villages.

In 1811, lawyer Henry Brackenridge observed Le Borgne and wrote, “(One-Eyed) is a giant in stature, and if his one eye had been placed in the middle of his forehead, he might have passed for a cyclops. His huge limbs and gigantic frame, his bushy hair shading his coarse visage and savage features, with his one eye flashing fire, constituted him a fearful demon. He sways, with unlimited control, all these villages, and is feared by all the neighboring nations. I remarked that on one or two occasions he treated She-he-ke with great contempt... He is sometimes a cruel and abominable tyrant.”

In his book on Lewis and Clark, author Gary Moulton wrote, “Le Borgne, or One Eyed, was easily the most notorious chief – among whites – on the upper Missouri at this period. He had a formidable, and largely bad, reputation. Traders’ and travelers’ accounts agree in describing him as... brutal, lecherous, bad-tempered, and homicidal, while generally acknowledging his leadership ability and prowess in war.”

After a few months, One-Eyed finally decided he would meet Lewis and Clark and came to Fort Mandan. They fired two guns in his honor, gave him a medal, a gorget, arm-bands, an American flag, and a shirt. (The following year, a Northwest trader, Alexander Henry, saw Le Borgne wrap himself in this flag during peace ceremonies with the Cheyenne.)

Clark’s red hair captured One-Eyed’s interest, but it was York, Clark’s black servant, who the chief found most fascinating. Clark wrote that One-Eyed licked his finger and tried to rub off York’s skin color. York, enjoying the attention, took off his cap and showed the chief his hair, convincing One-Eyed that he wasn’t a white in disguise.

One-Eyed maintained a semblance of friendship with the expedition, but he thought the whites were weak. He later said that “the only two sensible men” were the “worker of iron and the mender of guns.” Indeed, the blacksmith had set up a bellows and was using, for the first time, North Dakota lignite coal to produce and repair axes, knives and iron arrowheads. The villagers were impressed, and traded food for these tools, as well as for hoes to work their crops and metal scrapers for preparing hides and furs.

Written by Merry Helm