THE LANCE OF MAHTOTOHPA (1822–1837)
HERO TALES BY FOUR BEARS THE MANDAN
 WHILE the United States was getting acquainted with the Western Indians, there lived among the Mandans in
the north a most noted hero—the chief Mah-to-teh-pa, or Four Bears.
Young Captain Lewis the Long Knife Chief, and stout Captain Clark the Red Head, who with their
exploring party wintered among the Mandans in 1804–1805, and enlisted the Snake Bird-woman as
guide, were the first white men to write a clear account of the curious Mandans; but they did not
tell the half.
For a curious people indeed were these Mandans, dwelling in two villages on the Missouri River above
present Washburn in central North Dakota.
They were polite, hospitable, and brave. Their towns were defended by ditches and loose timber
palisades, not tight like those of the Iroquois and Hurons. Their houses were circular; of an
earthern floor sunk two feet, and heavy six-foot logs set on end inside the edge of it, with a roof
of timbers, woven willow, and thick mud-plaster; with a sunken fire-place under a hole in the center
of the roof, and with bunks, screened by elk-hides or buffalo-robes, along the walls.
These houses were large enough to shelter twenty to
 forty persons; the roofs were favorite loafing spots, for men, women, and dogs.
The Mandans formed a happy, talkative people, of strange appearance, but exceedingly clean, fond of
bathing, either in the river or in wicker tubs. Their hair was heavy, sometimes reached to the
ground, and was black, brown, and frequently gray or pure white even on the young. Their eyes were
likely to be hazel, blue or gray; instead of black; their skin almost white. They made glassy clay
vases and bowls, and remarkable blue glass beads. In fact, they seemed to have white manners, white
arts, and white blood. Rumor asserted that they were partly Welsh, descended from the lost colony of
the Welsh prince, Madoc.
Now this Madoc, a prince of the early Welsh people, set sail about the year 1180, with ten ships, to
found a colony in a new Western continent that he claimed to have discovered.
He never was heard from. He and his ten ship-loads vanished. But if he reached North America, and
traveled inland, to be swallowed up amidst the red blood, the strange Mandans may have been the
proof of his arrival.
Their round boats, of bowl-like wicker-work covered with hide, and their way of dipping the paddle
from the front instead of from the rear, were exactly the Welsh method of canoe travel.
In the days of Mah-to-toh-pa the Mandans numbered two thousand, in two towns allied with the towns
of the Minnetarees. They were beset by the tough, winter-traveling Assiniboins to the north, and by
treacher-  ous Arikarees and the bold Sioux to the south. Therefore when in 1833 the wandering artist George
Catlin of Pennsylvania, who spent eight years painting Indians in their homes all the way from
Florida to the Rocky Mountains, made a long stay among the Mandans, they rejoiced him by their brave
tales as well as with their curious habits.
According to all the reports, the "bravest of the braves" in the Mandan towns was Mahtotohpa; second
chief by rank, but first of all by deeds. "Free, generous, elegant, and gentlemanly in his
deportment—handsome, brave and valiant," says Artist Catlin. Such words speak well for Four
Bears, but not a. bit too well.
Before he arrived at the Artist Catlin lodge to have his portrait painted, the warning ran ahead of
him: "Mahtotohpa is coming in full dress!" He was escorted by a great throng of admiring women and
children. Now it was twelve o'clock noon, and he had been since early morning getting ready, so as
to appear as befitted a noble chief.
His dress was complete: shirt, leggins, moccasins, head-dress, necklace, belt, robe, medicine-bag,
tobacco sack, pipe, quiver, bow, knife, lance, shield, tomahawk and war-club. And as he proudly
stood erect, waiting, he made a splendid sight.
His shirt was mountain-sheep skins, one before, one behind, sewed together at their edges. They were
embroidered with porcupine quills brightly dyed, and fringed with the black scalp-locks of the
enemies whom he had slain in combat, and tasseled with ermine tails.
 They were pictured with his deeds, painted in sign language.
The leggins were of finely dressed deer-skin, worked with the porcupine quills, fringed with the
scalp-locks, and fitting tightly from moccasins to thighs.
The moccasins were of buck-skin, armored with the dyed quills.
The head-dress was a crest of two polished buffalo horns set in a thick mat of ermine, from which
fell clear to his heels a ridgy tail of countless eagle plumes also set in the ermine fur.
The necklace was of fifty grizzly-bear claws, strung from otter skin.
The belt was of tanned buck-skin, supporting tomahawk and broad-bladed scalping knife with elk-horn
The robe slung from his shoulders like a. Roman toga was the softened hide of a young buffalo bull
worn fur side in; and on the white skin side all the battles of his life had been painted.
The medicine-bag was a beaver skin, ornamented with hawk-bills and ermine. He held it in his right
His tobacco sack was of otter skin decorated with porcupine quills. In it were dried red-willow
bark, flint and steel, and tinder.
His pipe was of curiously carved red pipe-stone from the peace quarries in present Minnesota. The
stem was ash, three feet long, wound with porcupine quills to form pictures of men and animals;
decorated with wood-peckers' skins and heads, and the hair of the
 white buffalo's tail. It was half painted red, and notched for the years of his life.
His quiver was of panther skin and filled with arrows, flint pointed and steel pointed, and some
His bow was of strips of elk-horn polished white, cemented with glue of buffalo hoof, and backed
with deer sinews to give it spring. Three months had been required to make it. There was none
His lance had a deadly two-edge steel blade, stained with the dried blood of Sioux and Arikaree and
Cheyenne and Assiniboin. The six-foot ashen shaft was strung with eagle feathers.
His shield was the hide from a buffalo's neck, hardened with hoof glue. Its center was a pole-cat
skin; its edges were fringed with eagle feathers and antelope hoofs that rattled.
His battle-axe was of hammered iron blade and skull-pecker, with ash handle four feet long and
deer-sinew grip. Eagle feathers and fur tufts decorated it.
His war-club was a round stone wrapped in raw-hide at the end of a cow-tail, like a policeman's
After his portrait was painted, Mahtotohpa spread out his wonderful robe, and told the stories of
the twelve battles and the fourteen scalps pictured on it by his own hand; and these stories
included that of his Arikaree lance, and Cheyenne knife.
The lance story came about in this way. In the shaft of the lance, near the blade, there had been
set an antelope prong; and when Mahtotohpa posed for his portrait, with the butt of the lance
proudly planted on
 the ground, he carefully balanced an eagle feather across this prong.
"Do not omit to paint that feather exactly as it is," he said, "and the spot of blood upon it. It is
great medicine, and belongs to the Great Spirit, not to me. I pulled it from the wound of an enemy."
"Why do you not tie it to the lance, then?"
"Hush!" rebuked Mahtotohpa. "If the Great Spirit had wished it to be tied on, it would never have
Whereupon, presently, he told theostory of the mighty lance. This had been the lance of a famous
Arikaree warrior, Won-ga-tap. Some years back, maybe seven or eight, the Mandans and the Arikarees
had met on horses near the Mandan towns, and had fought. The Mandans chased the Arikarees, but after
the chase the brother of Mahtotohpa did not come in.
Several days passed; and when Mahtotohpa himself found his brother, it was only the body, scalped
and cut and pierced with an arrow, and fastened through the heart to the prairie by the lance of
Many in the village recognized that as the lance of Won-ga-tap. Mahtotohpa did not clean it of its
blood, but held it aloft before all the village and swore that he would clean it only with the blood
of Wongatap the Arikaree.
He sent a challenge to the Arikarees; and for four years he waited, keeping the lance and hoping to
use it as he had promised. Finally his heart had grown so sore that he was bursting; and again
holding the lance up before the village, he made a speech.
 "Mahtotohpa is going. Let nobody speak his name, or ask where he is, or try to seek him. He will
return with fresh blood on this lance, or he will not return at all."
He set out alone, on foot, like Piskaret, the Adirondack, had set out in his great adventure against
the Iroquois. By night journeys he traveled two hundred miles, living on the parched corn in his
pouch, until lie was seven days hungry when at last he came to the Arikaree town where the lodge of
Wongatap was located.
He knew the village well, for there had been brief periods when the Mandans and the Arikarees were
at peace; besides, it was a warrior's business to know an enemy's lodges.
The Arikaree towns were much the same as the Mandan towns. Now Mahtotohpa lay outside and watched,
until at dusk he might slip through between the pickets, and seek the lodge of Wongatap. He was
enveloped in a. buffalo robe, covering his head, so that he would be taken for an Arikaree.
He peeped through a crack in the Wongatap lodge and saw that his enemy was getting ready for bed.
There he was, Wongatap himself, sitting with his wife in the fire-light, and smoking his last pipe.
Pretty soon, as the fire flickered out, he rapped the ashes from his pipe, his wife raked the coals
of the fire together, until morning; and now they two crawled into their bunk.
Hotly grasping his lance, and surrounded by the enemy, Mahtotohpa delayed a little space; then he
 arose and boldly stalked into the lodge and sat by the fire.
Over the coals was hanging a. pot of cooked meat; beside the fire were the pipe and the pouch of
red-willow smoking tobacco, just as left by Wongatap.
Amidst the dusk Mahtotohpa ate well of the cooked meat; and filling the pipe, smoked calmly, half
lying down, on one elbow.
"Who is that man, who enters our lodge and eats of our food and smokes of our tobacco?" he heard
Wongatap's wife ask.
"It is no matter," Wongatap replied. "If he is hungry, let him eat."
That was right. By Indian law a person in need may enter any lodge, and eat, and no questions shall
be asked until he has finished.
Mahtotohpa's heart almost failed him. Had that not been the killer of his brother, he would only
have left a challenge, and gone away. But he thought of his brother, and his vows, and his heart
When his pipe was smoked out, he laid it aside, and gently stirred the fire with the toe of his
moccasin, for more light. He dared to wait no longer. On a sudden he grasped his lance with both
hands, sprang up and drove it through the body of Wongatap, in the bunk.
With his knife he instantly snatched off the scalp. Then he uttered the Mandan scalp-halloo, and
dived for the door. There he paused, for just a second, to look back, that the squaw might see his
face—and in the glimmer of fire-light he noted a feather from the lance sticking in the hole
in Wongatap's side.
 So back he darted, plucked the feather, and carrying it in his left hand, that the Great Spirit
might help him, he ran hard. Wongatap's wife was shrieking; all the village heard and answered, and
the warriors streamed out of the lodges.
The whole night Mahtotohpa ran, while the Arikarees vainly searched for his trail. This day he hid,
in the brush along the Missouri River. The next night he ran again; and on the sixth morning he
panted into the Mandan town, with the dried blood of Wongatap on his lance's blade and the stiffened
scalp of Wongatap hanging to its handle.
So that was why he cherished the lance, and that was why he considered the loose eagle's feather to
be a strong medicine from the Great Spirit.
But this was only Number Six, in the twelve recorded deeds of Four Bears.
His next-biggest deed was as follows, and it is bigger, according to white man's way of thinking. By
that deed he won his knife.
Early one morning one hundred and fifty Cheyenne warriors attacked the Mandan town. They took a
scalp and many horses before they rode away. The Mandans had been surprised; but Mahtotohpa rallied
fifty warriors and pursued.
The fifty warriors led by Mahtotohpa pursued for a day and half a day. At noon they sighted the
Cheyennes driving the stolen horses; but the Cheyennes were so numerous that the Mandan warriors
lost their hearts and. wished to turn back.
Not so, Mahtotohpa! Iie galloped forward alone; he
 planted his lance in the earth, to the full length of the blade; and making a circle around it with
his horse he tore from his clothing a strip of red cloth and hung that to the lance shaft, for a
"If you are cowards, you may go back to the women," he called to his men. "I stay here, where my
lance is firm in the ground."
His men were ashamed, and hesitated. Now the Cheyennes had turned and were coming for battle. Their
chief saw the planted lance of Mahtotohpa, and Mahtotohpa waiting beside it, and he galloped
forward, alone, on his white horse.
"Who is it that has stuck down his lance, and defies the Cheyennes?" he shouted.
"I am Mahtotohpa."
"That is good. Mahtotohpa is a chief. Does he dare to fight?"
Is this a chief who speaks to Mahtotohpa?"
"I wear scalps at my horse's bit, and the eagle's feathers."
"You have said enough," replied Mahtotohpa. "Come. Let us meet."
Forward hammered the Cheyenne chief, riding splendidly in circles, until he (lashed in and planted
his lance, also, at the side of Mahtotohpa's lance. That was his answer.
They each drew off a little way, while the Mandan warriors and the Cheyenne warriors gazed
expectant. Then they charged like knights in a tournament, and shot at the same moment with their
guns. After they had passed each other, and had wheeled, Mahtotohpa
 held up his powder-horn. The Cheyenne's bullet had smashed it, so that the powder had flowed out.
Having shown, Mahtotohpa flung away his horn, threw his gun to the ground, and setting his
buffalo-hide shield upon his left arm, deliberately strung his bow and placed an arrow upon the
The Cheyenne chief was a mighty warrior. He likewise cast aside his powder-horn and gun, adjusted
his painted shield, prepared bow and arrow. Again they charged. They circled swiftly about each
other, performing many clever feats of horsemanship, while their stout bows twanged so fast that the
arrows crisscrossed like darting bees.
Some thudded into the thick shields, and the shields bristled with the feathered ends. Some found
legs and arms—but that mattered little. Now Mahtotohpa's horse reeled and fell, an arrow in
his heart. Mahtotohpa sprang nimbly off. And off from his own horse sprang the Cheyenne chief, that
he might not have the advantage.
They plied their bows, on foot. Soon the brave Cheyenne stripped his quiver from his left shoulder
and flourished it. It was empty. He tossed it away, and tossed away bow and shield. Then he drew his
"Ai!" responded Mahtotohpa, gladly; and ridding himself of shield and quiver he rushed forward,
feeling for his knife, too.
But his knife was not in his belt. He had lost it, or left it at home! Hah! He could not
stop—they had come together—the Cheyenne was upon him. So he
 fought with his bow. He struck aside the Cheyenne's thrust, and hit him over the head and knocked
him down. They grappled. It was a terrible fight.
Mahtotohpa. clutched for the knife, and the sharp blade was wrenched through his hand, cutting to
the bone. The Cheyenne stabbed him many times, and many times Mahtotohpa clutched the knife blade
again, before he could tear the haft from the Cheyenne's fingers.
But suddenly he succeeded, and the Cheyenne died. The warriors of both parties had formed a circle
close about, watching. Mahtotohpa staggered up, with the Cheyenne's scalp and knife, and gave the
kill whoop—and thus victory rested with the Mandans.
That was Mahtotohpa's most famous battle. In another battle he got his name, Four Bears. The
Assiniboins had put all his warriors to flight; but he stood his ground, and shot his gun and killed
an Assiniboin, and charged with lance and shield, and made them run off. He took sixty horses,
besides the scalp. After this he was called Four Bears, because the Assiniboins said that he charged
"like four bears in one."
His worst wound he received from the Sioux. They shot an arrow clear through his body, so that the
arrow continued on, dropping blood. But he lashed his horse forward, against them, and won another
Such honorable scars he kept covered with red paint, that all who saw might read.
These stories, and others, as pictured by the robe, Mahtotohpa told to Artist Catlin, while Indian
trader James Kipp translated the words, and Four Bears
 acted out the scenes; and they three at upon the robe itself.
The Cheyenne chief's knife he gave to Artist Catlin. He also made a copy of the pictures, on another
robe, and the knife and the second robe were sent to the Catlin Indian gallery, at Washington, where
they doubtless may be seen at this day.
Mahtotohpa 's end came to him as follows:
In the summer of 1837, a great death attacked the Mandan towns. It was the small pox. The Sioux
hedged the towns so closely that there was no escape into the prairie. The Mandan men, women and
children, thus herded together, died by hundreds.
Mahtotohpa was among the last left. He witnessed all his family and friends stretched cold and
lifeless, and he decided to try a sacrifice to the anger of the Great Spirit.
So he dragged his wives and children together and covered them decently with buffalo robes. Then he
went out to a little hill, and laid himself down, with a vow not to eat or drink, if the Great
Spirit would stay the plague.
On the sixth day he was very weak; but he crept back to his lodge, and again laid himself down, in a
robe, beside his family. And on the ninth day, he, too, died.
However, the plague was not stayed for many days. Of the sixteen hundred Mandans in the two towns,
only thirty-one remained alive; of all the Mandan nation there were scarce above one hundred; and
today they number about one hundred and fifty.