Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land: Overview

The journals of explorers, fur traders, artists, and travelers provide keen insights into what the land and the native people of the West were like. Although the journal entries observe the country and its people through white men’s eyes, it is, for the most part, the only documentation that described the landscape and the people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Curious artists who made the journey up the Missouri filled in the visual scene as they sketched and painted the terrain and the Indians and their ways of life. They captured, mostly in color, what the journals could not. Without these journals and paintings/sketches, we would know very little about our world during these early years.

The Steam Boat Yellow Stone on the 19th April 1833 by Karl Bodmer.  Courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

The journal of geographer David Thompson and those of the Lewis and Clark Expedition provide the observations of the earliest explorers. David Thompson (1770–1857) was the first explorer to make extensive maps of the vast region southwest of Hudson’s Bay. In 1797 the North West Company employed him to spy out the lands into which that company could expand its fur operations. Called the “greatest practical land geographer of all time,” he did more than draw maps. He kept a journal which provided the first sure knowledge of Indian ways of life. He was a capable observer of the landscape and the Indian people whom he met at the Mandan villages and those of other Indian tribes that he encountered between the Missouri and the Pacific Ocean. His journals were not discovered until years after his death and were not published until 1916.

Seven years after David Thompson visited the Mandan, the Corps of Discovery (the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804–06) arrived in Mandan country en route to exploring the possibility of a waterway to the Pacific Ocean. No journals are more extensive than those of Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838), the expedition leaders. In his instructions to the pair, President Thomas Jefferson made it clear that he wanted a complete inventory of the American West through which the Corps traveled. The first objective was geographical:  To explore and map rivers and landforms. The second was to gather data about the Native people. The third was to record details on scientific topics such as climate, soils, flora, fauna and minerals. The day-by-day journal entries, which fill many volumes, provided a complete description of whatever or whomever they came across.

The Travellers Meeting with Minatarree Indians near Fort Clark by Karl Bodmer.  Courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

Historian Donald Jackson has observed that the men in the expedition were the “writingest explorers ever.” In addition to the journals kept by the two captains, three sergeants (Charles Floyd, John Ordway, and Patrick Gass) and two privates (Joseph Whitehouse and Robert Frazer) maintained journals of varying detail and length. These journals, with the exception of Frazer’s which has been lost, have all been published. The journals of the expedition provided the American government and public with a comprehensive view of the American West, at least the Missouri basin and trails to the ocean.

The fur trade frontier was chronicled in several significant journals. Because the fur trade companies required their employees to keep good records and to make periodic reports, most of the employees maintained, in some cases, daily journal entries.

The first white trader to the Indian villages on the Missouri was Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Verendrye (1685-1749). The king of France granted him a monopoly of the fur trade to the west of Montreal. He formed a business relationship with Montréal merchants and set out westward, north of Lake Superior, establishing fur posts. In 1738, more than thirty years before the American Revolution, he reached the Mandan and Hidatsa villages on the Missouri. He set down in his journal the first descriptions of these people and their life ways.

Just over sixty years later, Alexander Henry established a permanent fur post at Pembina for the North West Company (1801). His journals give vivid descriptions of the Chippewa and the Red River Valley fur trade. He also provides information about the Hidatsa chief Le Borgne whom he visited in 1806.

The most important fur trade journal on the Missouri River was that of Francis A. Chardon (n.d.–1848) at Fort Clark, an American Fur Company post. It details everyday life at the fort and happenings in the vicinity between 1834 and 1839. Of special historic importance, the astute Chardin wrote down the dying words of the Mandan Chief, Four Bears, capturing forever the chief’s condemnation of white people.

Although not in journal format, the memoir of Charles Larpenteur (1807–72) relates the role of Fort William in the fur trade and what it was like to go into business against the powerful American Fur Company. His recollection also covers his years of employment at Forts Union and other company posts.

Three painters took their eyewitness accounts and put them on canvas or on sketch pads. A portrait painter from Philadelphia, George Catlin (1796–1872), dedicated his life to writing about and picturing what he considered to be a vanishing Indian culture. In 1832 he was granted permission to take the American Fur Company’s steamer, Yellowstone, on its maiden voyage up the Missouri. For several years he traveled through the West, painting among the Indians during the summer. He spent winters in the East to earn money to support his summer travels. During his 1832 trip he painted and sketched several hundred works, mostly among the Mandan. He, however, did more than paint and sketch. He took hundreds of pages of notes about the Indian people and their culture. In 1841 he published Letters and Notes on the North American Indians, which devoted about 300 pages, and as many engravings, to the Mandan.

The year after Catlin visited Mandan country, Maximilian, Prince of Wied (1801–77), a zoologist and world-exploring traveler, arrived in Upper Missouri Country. Spending the late summer and fall of 1834 around Fort Union and the winter of 1834–35 among the Mandan and Hidatsa, Maximilian gathered enough first-hand information about the Indian people and their environs to publish Travels in the Interior of North American in the Years 1832-1834 which appeared in German and English. German fascination with American Indians made it a good seller.

As valuable as were the observations of the prince, the work of his commissioned painter gave face and color to the Indian people in dramatic fashion. Karl Bodmer (1809–93), a young Swiss artist, sketched Indians at every opportunity. His attention to detail characterized his work, often taking him an entire day to create a single watercolor. He worked sketches into colored engravings to illustrate Maximilian’s book. In all, he produced 427 watercolors during the expedition. Lost for many years, his watercolors were discovered after World War II in a Neuwied castle.

Another Swiss artist, Rudolph Friederich Kurz (1808–71), traveled the West, primarily the upper reaches of the Missouri River. He took a job as clerk at Fort Union from 1851 to 1852. On a daily basis he sketched the Indians and traders who came to the fur post and rode around the area in search of interesting scenes. As valuable as his work as an artist is toward an understanding of fort and Indian life, his lengthy journal provides crucial information about the workings of the fur trade and the waning of Indian culture.

The interview quotations below come from the following sources:  Journals and Letters of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de la Verendrye and His Sons (1927), New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest: The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry and David Thompson, 1799–1814 (1897), Chardon’s Journal at Fort Clark 1834-1839 (1997), Journal of Rudolph Friederich Kurz (1970), Fur Trade in the Upper Missouri: The Personal Narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833–1872 (1937), The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803–06).

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change