On the 3d of December, De la Verendrye’s sons stepped before the ragged host of six hundred savages with the French flag hoisted. The explorer himself was lifted to the shoulders of the Mandan coureurs. A gun was fired and the strange procession set out for the Mandan villages. In this fashion white men first took possession of the Upper Missouri. Some miles from the lodges a band of old chiefs met De la Verendrye and gravely handed him a grand calumet of pipestone ornamented with eagle feathers. This typified peace. De la Verendrye ordered his fifty French followers to draw up in line. The sons placed the French flag four paces to the fore. The Assiniboine warriors took possession in stately Indian silence to the right and left of the whites. At a signal three thundering volleys of musketry were fired. The Mandans fell back, prostrated with fear and wonder. The command “forward” was given, and the Mandan village was entered in state at four in the afternoon of December 3, 1738.
The village was in much the same condition as a hundred years later when visited by Prince Maximilian and by the artist Catlin. It consisted of circular huts, with thatched roofs, on which perched the gaping women and children. Around the village of huts ran a moat or ditch, which was guarded in time of war with the Sioux. Flags flew from the centre poles of each hut; but the flags were the scalps of enemies slain. In the centre of the village was a larger hut. This was the “medicine lodge,” or council hall, of the chiefs, used only for ceremonies of religion and war and treaties of peace. Thither De la Verendrye was conducted. Here the Mandan chiefs sat on buffalo robes in a circle round the fire, smoking the calumet, which was handed to the white man. The explorer then told the Indians of his search for the Western Sea. Of a Western Sea they could tell him nothing definite. They knew a people far west who grew corn and tobacco and who lived on the shores of water that was bitter for drinking. The people were white. They dressed in armor and lived in houses of stone. Their country was full of mountains. More of the Western Sea, De la Verendrye could not learn.
Meanwhile, six hundred Assiniboine visitors were a tax on the hospitality of the Mandans, who at once spread a rumor of a Sioux raid. This gave speed to the Assiniboines’ departure. Among the Assiniboines who ran off in precipitate fright was De la Verendrye’s interpreter. It was useless to wait longer. The French were short of provisions, and the Missouri Indians could not be expected to support fifty white men. Though it was the bitter cold of midwinter, De la Verendrye departed for Fort de la Reine. Two Frenchmen were left to learn the Missouri dialects. A French flag in a leaden box with the arms of France inscribed was presented to the Mandan chief; and De la Verendrye marched from the village on the 8th of December. Scarcely