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Getting Shekehe Home


Yesterday we brought you the story of a bad-tempered Hidatsa chief, One-Eyed, who visited Lewis and Clark at Fort Mandan. Today we bring you a story of another chief, Sheheke, leader of the lower Mandan village, Matootonha.

A number of early explorers reported that certain Mandans had fair skin, light colored hair and eyes and had features resembling northern Europeans. Paintings made of Shekehe show him to be one of these. He was also very tall, and while his translated name was actually Coyote, he became known as Big White, a name given to him by the whites. His wife, Yellow Corn, once arrived at Fort Mandan carrying her child and a gift of 100 pounds of meat on her back.

When Lewis and Clark passed through the Knife River villages on their way home, they invited a number of tribal leaders to accompany them to meet President Jefferson. Shekehe was the only one to accept the invitation, as long as Yellow Corn and their young son, White-Painted Horse, could go along. It was August 1806 when they left.

Traveling through Kentucky, they made their way to Washington, where Shekehe met Jefferson four months later on New Year’s Eve.

Taking the leader back, on the other hand, took 3 years. In the spring of 1807, Nathaniel Pryor was given the responsibility of transporting Big White home by keelboat up the Missouri. A dozen soldiers served as bodyguards, and a trading boat steered by Pierre Choutea, accompanied them.

Progress into Dakota Territory was slow but peaceful until September 9th, when a party of Arikara fired on them. Pryor believed that Lewis and Clark had brought about peace between the Arikara and the Mandans, but now they were at war. A Mandan woman who had been taken prisoner told Pryor that the Arikara had learned from a passing fur trader that Shekehe was aboard.

An Arikara chief demanded that Shekehe be surrendered to him. Pryor refused, so the Arikara opened fire. Choutea’s boat was hung up on a sandbar, and Pryor returned fire until it could be freed. They retreated downstream, followed by Arikara snipers for an hour until one of their leaders was killed. By the time it was over, three of the fur traders were dead, seven were wounded, and three of Pryors men were also wounded.

The boats returned to St. Louis, where Pryor demanded 400 escorts if they were to get Big White home. Previously, an Arikara chief who had visited Washington died before reaching home, and British agents were stirring Native American hostilities toward Americans. If Big White wasn’t delivered safely, hostilities would get even worse.

While officials tried to figure out what to do, Shekehe and his family lived like celebrities. Finally, in the summer of 1809, Manuel Lisa’s Fur Company took on the challenge. With more than 150 men as escort, a brigade of nine keelboats and a canoe set out for the Knife River Villages – but they weren’t needed. The Arikaras let them pass without incident, and the Fur Company was paid $7,000 – almost three times the cost of the entire Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Shekehe and Yellow Corn had many stories to tell about their three-year adventure. Unfortunately, their people didn’t believe them, and Big White lost much of his prestige and influence. In 1832, he was killed in a Sioux raid on his village.

Written by Merry Helm