YANKTON, S.D. – Late summer 1804, and the Corps of Discovery had moved up the Missouri River and onto the cusp of a landscape so vast, so open and so rich with grasses, grains and game it would come to be known simply as the Great Plains.
The gently rolling, open country was, however, far from empty. The Sioux and other native peoples had lived, hunted and thrived here for centuries. The explorers knew about the Indians and the natives undoubtedly were aware of the small band of strangers moving up river. In keeping with their military orders, Corps commanders Meriwether Lewis and William Clark planned to meet with local tribal leaders as soon as possible.
But they were first anxious to visit Paha Wakan, or Spirit Mound, a place of great fear among the natives. Clark, in his creative spelling, describes the mound and the fear it triggered. “in an imence Plain a high Hill is Situated, and appears of a Conic form and by the different nations of Indians in this quarter is Suppose to be the residence of Deavels. that they are in human form with remarkable large heads and about 18 Inches high, that they are Very watchfull, and are arm’d with Sharp arrows with which they Can Kill at a great distance; . . . So much do the . . . nations believe this fable that no Consideration is Suffecient to induce them to approach the hill.”
The Americans were determined to see it, possibly with an eye toward their planned meeting with tribal leaders. Knowledge that the visitors had ascended Paha Waken might add a layer of strength and respect to their side of the negotiations.
On the morning of August 25, 1804, Clark and Lewis took 11 men along with Lewis’s dog Seaman and climbed aboard a pirogue and headed toward the north shore…