Here’s what we know:
In 1831, four Nez Perce arrived in St. Louis seeking a man the tribe had met 25 years earlier, William Clark. What they sought wasn’t entirely clear, because the only person who knew any words in the language of the Nez Perce was Clark, and he didn’t remember much from that long-ago expedition. We also know that a few weeks after their arrival, the two older men, Black Eagle and Speaking Eagle, became ill and died, though not before being baptized by Catholics. Their younger companions stayed the winter and left for home the following spring aboard the steamer Yellowstone on its way up the Missouri River. At some point on that trip, George Catlin painted the surviving men (below), who were in their 20s. In the Catlin images below that is No Horns on His Head on the left and Rabbit Skin Leggings on the right. No Horns on His Head succumbed to disease on the trip home. Rabbit Skin Leggings may have made it back, or he may have been killed by Blackfeet before reaching home.
Here’s what’s fishy:
FISH TALE ONE. The journey the men made is fuzzily famous, mostly because of two accounts of their visit. The first was given by William Walker and quoted in the March 1, 1833, edition of the Christian Advocate by his friend G.P. Disoway, the secretary of the Methodist Board of Foreign Missions. Walker described meeting three of the Indians in St. Louis, and he told of their overwhelming desire to secure a copy of “a book containing directions of how to conduct themselves” that members of the Corps of Discovery had talked about when they met the Nez Perce. Disoway argued that the Indians were clearly seeking the wisdom of the Bible.
Walker, who allegedly met the Indians, went on to describe them in detail. He said they were “small in size, delicately formed, small hands, and the most exact symmetry throughout, except the head.” The unusual thing about their heads, you see, was that their foreheads had been flattened and sloped radically back in the manner of the Flathead people.
There are several points that make this story difficult to swallow. First, recall that no one knew the language of the Nez Perce so communication of complex concepts would have been difficult. Next, they were Nez Perce, not Flatheads, and the “Flatheads” didn’t practice the head flattening custom in the first place. The rest of Walker’s description was also wrong, as the men were not small and delicate at all. Finally, records show that Walker was not in St. Louis at the time of the visit, so could not have met them.
FISH TALE TWO. An unidentified man supposedly overheard a little speech given by one of the Nez Perce when they left St. Louis. In part, it reads, “I came to you, the Great Father of white men, but with one eye partly opened. I am to return to my people, beyond the mountains of snow, at the setting sun, with both eyes in darkness and both arms broken. I came for teachers and am going back without them. I came to you for the Book of God. You have not led me to it… And I am to return to my people to die in darkness.”
The speech reads like the trumped-up eloquence of a storyteller, not like the words of a young man who could not speak English. Also, if they could make their wishes known so plainly, why didn’t someone just give them a Bible? The question of how they were hoping to read it might come up, but surely Bibles were not in short supply in St. Louis.
Whatever reason the Nez Perce delegation had for seeking William Clark in St. Louis (he didn’t bother to mention the visit in his journals), the myth that grew up around it had an important effect. It triggered the missionary movement to the West, starting with the Spaldings and Whitmans leaving in 1836 to make their missions in Oregon Country (present-day Idaho and Washington State).