Fifty years before Lewis and Clark came into Montana, the Blackfoot had a reputation of being friendly to Europeans, who occasionally even spent winter months with the tribe. By 1806, however, the world inhabited by the Blackfoot in present-day northern Montana had grown increasingly complex.
The Blackfoot were regular commerce partners with Canadian-based British merchants. During their frequent visits to Canadian-based British outposts, the Indians exchanged wolf and beaver pelts for guns, ammunition and alcohol. This relationship had lasted more than 20 years, and during that time, the Blackfeet – armed with guns – had been able to dominate their Nez Perce and Shoshone rivals.
Eight Blackfeet warriors encountered Meriwether Lewis and a party of the Corps of Discovery in July 1806. After their initial fears of the armed strangers had subsided, the Indians decided to camp with the Americans. During this first day and night, Lewis explained the United States’ intent to bring about what they thought would be peace between all the Indian tribes of the west. He went on to add that the Shoshones and Nez Perces – mortal enemies of the Blackfeet – had already agreed to this peace, and would be receiving guns and supplies because of their agreement. This was a huge mistake because Lewis and Clark both made assumptions without investigating more thoroughly the relationships, balances and counterbalances, and how the Blackfoot kept the region under control. Lewis and Clark sought to impose their own notions of hierarchy on Indians by “making chiefs” with medals, printed certificates, and gifts. Native people tried to impose the obligations of kinship on the visitors by means of adoption ceremonies, shared names, and ritual gifts.
To the Blackfeet, American plans represented a direct threat. As far as they were concerned, giving guns to their adversaries only could result in a weakening of Blackfeet power. That night, the Blackfeet attempted to steal the expedition’s guns. Their plans went awry, and in the chaos that ensued, Lewis and Reuben Field each killed a Blackfeet warrior. The incident marked the first act of bloodshed between the western Indians and representatives of the United States.
The surviving Blackfeet returned to their tribe, and communicated what they had learned of America’s goals for the region. From that point forward, the Blackfeet regarded the Americans with hostility, and acted toward them similarly. Ironically, in the years that followed, Blackfeet war parties would be responsible for the deaths of three former members of the Corps of Discovery.