Early 1823 proved deadly along the upper Missouri River after a series of Indian attacks on fur trappers and trading posts caused staggering economic losses, especially to the Missouri Fur Company. In particular, the Arikaras opposed American attempts to move upriver, which would eliminate their middleman role in the fur trade. On June 2 they attacked William Ashley's trapping party, which was camped near their villages, close to the confluence of the Grand and Missouri Rivers, killing fourteen men. When the survivors limped into Fort Atkinson (in present-day Nebraska) on June 18, Col. Henry Leavenworth and Indian agent Benjamin O'Fallon decided that American military strength had to be demonstrated. This would be the first major U.S. expedition against the Plains Indians.
Leavenworth left Fort Atkinson on June 22 with 230 men of the Sixth U.S. Infantry and two cannons to punish the Arikaras. Joining him five days later was trader Joshua Pilcher, head of the Missouri Fur Company, with sixty men and a howitzer. Ashley's men added eighty to the force, and about 700 Lakotas joined in to fight their enemies, the Arikaras. As the force neared the villages on August 9, the Lakotas rode ahead and engaged the Arikaras, killing ten to fifteen of them. At dawn on August 10, Leavenworth trained his artillery on the stockaded Arikara villages, but they mainly overshot the target. When the Lakotas deserted the fight to raid the Arikaras' cornfields, the troops were forced to face an expected battle alone. Seizing an opportunity to negotiate with Arikara leaders, Leavenworth asked them to return Ashley's property and to promise future good behavior. The Arikaras were allowed to leave their besieged villages on the night of August 14. Ashley seemingly accepted this outcome, but Pilcher was infuriated.
On August 15 Leavenworth and his troops headed downriver, followed by Pilcher with his contingent of trappers. Angry at the dismal show of force against the Arikaras, Pilcher set fire to both of their villages. This action naturally further alienated the Arikaras, who continued to resist American inroads on the upper Missouri. Forced to seek a new route to the trapping grounds, Ashley and his men forged the overland route into the Central Rockies through South Pass. The new trail set the stage for the enormous future pioneer migration along the Platte Valley and into the West in the 1840s.
Jo Lea Wetherilt Behrens University of Nebraska at Omaha
Meyer, Roy Willard. The Village Indians of the Upper Missouri: The Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977.
Morgan, Dale L. Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964.