Shahaka (Big White) - Biography

Shahaka was a Mandan chief who welcomed Lewis and Clark upon their arrival at the Mandan villages in October 1804. Shahaka was a genial and friendly man who made the explorers feel welcome. Once he brought them a gift of 100 pounds of meat, for which he received presents and an ax for his wife. Lewis and Clark were especially impressed with Shahaka's extensive geographical knowledge. On one occasion he gave Clark a sketch of the country between the Mandan villages and the Black Hills including the Yellowstone River.

When Lewis and Clark returned to the Mandan villages after completing their journey to the Pacific Ocean, they persuaded Shahaka to accompany them back to the United States so he could meet with President Jefferson. Shahaka brought with him one of his wives and his only son.

After five months of travel, they reached Washington, D.C. and met with President Jefferson on December 30, 1806. Shahaka and his family were then taken on a tour of eastern cities, including Philadelphia. There his portrait was painted by Charles Balthasar Julien Fevre de Saint Memin, a Frenchman visiting America.

When spring arrived, Shahaka was taken to St. Louis where William Clark was now Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Clark arranged for Ensign Nathanial Pryor, a former member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, to escort Shahaka and his family back to the Mandan villages in the summer of 1807. The party, which included fur traders and a dozen soldiers, was traveling by keelboat. To reach the Mandan villages, they first had to pass an Arikara village on the Missouri River. However, the Arikaras were now at war with the Mandans. The Arikaras stopped the keelboat and demanded that Shahaka be turned over to them. When the demand was refused, a brisk fight broke out; several fur trappers were killed and three soldiers wounded. The group had to return to St. Louis, and it was another two years before Shahaka could be reunited with the Mandans.

When he finally did return, the Mandans refused to believe his stories about life in the United States. They thought his descriptions of large groups of white people, tall buildings, lamps, bridges, the ocean, and other marvels of the white world could not possibly be true. They called him "a bag of lies" and he became an outcast among his own people.

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