Modern history

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

From Fort Mandan to Marias River

April 7–June 2, 1805

In the morning and early part of the afternoon of April 7, 1805, Lewis was busy overseeing the last-minute wrapping of packages and their placement into the canoes that would head upriver to the mountains, or into the keelboat that was going downstream to St. Louis. He checked weapons, powder, food and medical stocks, trade goods, and implements. He gave last-minute instructions to Corporal Richard Warfington, in command of the keelboat—mainly to be on full alert in Sioux territory, to be prepared to shoot his way through the Sioux, and to make sure the plants, animals, and artifacts he had selected, and the letters, journals, and reports he and Clark had created, got through to President Jefferson.

At 4:00 p.m., the boat, pirogues, canoes, and crews were ready to shove off. The men of the permanent expedition called out goodbye, good luck, and Godspeed to the crew of the keelboat, then pushed their six small canoes and two larger pirogues, all heavily laden, into the current. They climbed in, took up their paddles, and began pulling upstream.

They quickly got into their stroke, all the blades on the six-man pirogues dipping into the Missouri in unison on both sides of the vessels as the men at the helm turned the craft upstream. How many strokes, and how much poling and pulling of the vessels remained before they reached the source of the Missouri, no man knew. But they all figured it would be a lot.

Lewis watched them go. For the past several weeks, he had been so busy writing he had taken no exercise. Feeling the want of it—and perhaps wanting to be alone on the occasion—he had decided to walk on shore that afternoon. He went up the north bank of the river some six miles, to the upper Mandan village, where he called on Chief Black Cat. When he found the chief not at home, he returned two miles downstream, where he joined Clark and the party.

Lewis took an early supper and went to bed. His bed was a buffalo-skin and a blanket placed inside a buffalo skin tepee, apparently put up (and taken down and packed the next morning) by Sacagawea, perhaps with some help from York. The men slept in the open. Joining Lewis in his lodge were Clark, Charbonneau, Drouillard, Sacagawea, and her baby. Putting her in the tent, surrounded by the two captains, the hunter and interpreter, her husband, and her son, removed temptation for the men. This sleeping arrangement persisted until Sacagawea and Charbonneau returned to the Mandan villages. It worked: there is not the slightest hint in the journals that having a young woman among those healthy, hearty soldiers ever caused a problem.

That night, or shortly thereafter, Lewis wrote his first journal entry since February 13I That entry is justly famous and deserves to be quoted at some length: “Our vessels consisted of six small canoes, and two large perogues. This little fleet altho’ not quite so rispectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook, were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs; and I dare say with quite as much anxiety for their safety and preservation. we were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civillized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves. however, as this the state of mind in which we are, generally gives the colouring to events, when the immagination is suffered to wander into futurity, the picture which now presented itself to me was a most pleasing one. entertaing as I do, the most confident hope of succeading in a voyage which had formed a darling project of mine for the last ten years, I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.”

In the morning, Lewis again walked on shore. He came to the Mandan village after two miles, and there paid a farewell visit to Black Cat. They smoked a pipe together. At noon, he descended to the river, where he had to wait for the party to come up, since one of the canoes had filled with water. The men unloaded the craft and spread the contents to dry in the sun. That task completed, they made a few more miles in the late afternoon. In the evening, a Mandan man came up, bringing with him “a woman who was extreemly solicitous to accompany one of the men of our party, this however we positively refused to permit.”

Lewis refused for an obvious reason: not because a woman would be an extra mouth to feed but, rather, because an unattached woman would be a source of jealousy and disruption. Sacagawea was already showing that she could make a contribution; Lewis noted on April 9 that “when we halted for dinner the squaw busied herself in serching for the wild artichokes which the mice collect and deposit in large hoards. this operation she performed by penetrating the earth with a sharp stick. . . . her labour soon proved successful, and she procurrd a good quantity of these roots.” They were Jerusalem artichokes.

The roots were welcome, because the hunters were unable to kill anything. Hidatsa braves had frightened the game out of the river valley within two or three days’ ride of the villages, reducing the party to subsisting on parched corn and jerky. But the Indians had assured Lewis that game would be plentiful once the expedition got beyond the range of the hunting parties, and meanwhile the little fleet was making excellent progress. On April 9, it covered twenty-three and a half miles, which was what Lewis hoped to make as an average, and was about double the distance the expedition had averaged on the river below the Mandans, when it had been encumbered by the clumsy, slow-moving keelboat.

The white pirogue was the flagship of the fleet. Slightly smaller than the red, the white pirogue was more stable, so it carried the astronomical instruments, the medicines, the best trade goods, the captains’ writing desks, their journals and field notes, and several casks of gunpowder. It was propelled by six paddlers, including the three nonswimmers among the privates, who were on board for safety’s sake. Sacagawea and her baby, riding all bundled up on her back in his cradleboard, joined Charbonneau, Drouillard, and the two captains (most of the time, one or the other of the captains walked on shore; their rule was that one of them should always be with the fleet).

The flat-bottomed pirogues were clumsy craft, but with experienced helmsmen they could be more or less controlled. The six canoes were round-bottomed dugouts, hewn from cottonwood trees, each with three paddlers. They were more difficult to maneuver and much more likely to ship water, especially when rounding a point into the wind. To overcome the wind, the men often got out and tugged the craft along, using elk-skin ropes and one hemp line per boat. Or they could use setting poles to propel the pirogues and canoes forward.

Best of all were the times when the wind was behind them. Then the men could raise their square sails and scoot along at a breathtaking three miles an hour.

Worst of all were the times when there was a strong head wind. This could force the party to stay in camp for an entire day. Of course the captains didn’t waste the enforced layover; Lewis and Clark supervised drying damp articles, repairing the fleet, making moccasins and clothing, adding to the meat supply, writing in their journals, making observations.

During the first four days, the expedition covered ninety-three miles, to the mouth of the Little Missouri. In the process, it traversed the many-miles-long curve of the river called the Great Bend. That meant that, for the first time since Lewis left the mouth of the Kansas River, in July 1804, he was headed nearly straight west, instead of northwest or even straight north.

His journal entries were lyrical. On April 15, eight days out of Fort Mandan, the expedition passed the farthest point upstream on the Missouri known by Lewis to have been reached by white men. The previous voyagers were two French trappers, one of them now a member of the expedition, Private Baptiste Lepage.

Lewis was now stepping into the unknown. For all he had heard from the Hidatsas about what lay ahead, for all that he knew the distance to his destination—as the crow flies—he was as close to entering a completely unknown territory, nearly a half-continent wide, as any explorer ever was. His April 7 half-humorous comparison of his fleet to those of Columbus and Cook was on the mark.

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He was entering a heart of darkness. Deserts, mountains, great cataracts, warlike Indian tribes—he could not imagine them, because no American had ever seen them. But, far from causing apprehension or depression, the prospect brought out his fullest talents. He knew that from now on, until he reached the Pacific and returned, he would be making history. He was exactly what Jefferson wanted him to be, optimistic, prudent, alert to all that was new about him, and able to describe the flora and fauna, the native inhabitants, and the skies above with scientific measurement. His health was excellent. His ambition was boundless. His determination was complete. He could not, would not, contemplate failure.

Lewis had come to a point that he had longed for, worked for, dreamed of all of his life.

He was ready, intensely alive. Every nerve ending was sensitive to the slightest change, whether what the eye saw or the skin felt or the ears heard or the tongue tasted or the fingers touched. He had an endearing sense of wonder and awe at the marvels of nature that made him the nearly perfect man to be the first to describe the glories of the American West.

He turned his face west. He would not turn it around until he reached the Pacific Ocean. He stepped forward, into paradise.

Not quite paradise, although one would hardly know it from Lewis’s descriptions, which were accurate enough but always given a positive slant. Overall, Lewis was enchanted by the Plains. May 5: “The country is as yesterday beatifull in the extreme.” He did not mention the indications of average yearly rainfall, which was less than ten inches. He did mention one apparent result, in his entry of April 10: “The country on both sides of the missouri from the tops of the river hills, is one continued level fertile plain as far as the eye can reach, in which there is not even a solitary tree or shrub to be seen.”

Most American pioneers believed that hardwood forests were a sign of good soil, and would have regarded the treeless Plains as unsuitable to agriculture, but Lewis had an easy—and, so far as it went, accurate—explanation for the lack of trees. No trees could get started because the Indians burned the prairie each spring. The soil was fertile, as evidenced by the grass.

The Plains grew luxuriant grass, enough to feed an uncountable number of animals. This really was paradise, for such creatures as the deer, elk, buffalo, sheep, pronghorns, and other grass-eating animals, and for the beaver who lived off the bark of the cottonwood trees, and for the coyote, fox, wolves, and bears who lived off the hoofed animals, and for the human hunters who declared war on the predators and lived off their prey.

Lewis exclaimed at the magnificance of it all.

April 17: “we saw immence quantities of game in every direction around us as we passed up the river; consisting of herds of Buffaloe, Elk, and Antelopes with some deer and woolves.”

April 21: “We saw immence herds of buffaloe Elk deer & Antelopes.”

April 22: “I asscended to the top of the cutt bluff this morning, from whence I had a most delightfull view of the country, the whole of which except the vally formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing to the first glance of the spectator immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, & Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture. . . . walking on shore this evening I met with a buffaloe calf which attatched itself to me and continued to follow close at my heels untill I embarked and left it.”

April 27: “altho’ game is very abundant and gentle, we only kill as much as is necessary for food. I believe that two good hunters could conveniently supply a regiment with provisions.”

The men’s labor was again such that each private ate as much as nine or ten pounds of meat per day. This meant that, when the captains went hunting (to free the hunters to help move the fleet forward), the two of them had to bring in three hundred pounds or so of meat.

May 6: “It is now only amusement for Capt. C. and myself to kill as much meat as the party can consum; I hope it may continue thus through our whole rout, but this I do not much expect.”

On May 5, Lewis discovered and described the gray wolf. He noted that, unlike its larger relative, the wolf of the Atlantic states, the gray wolf never burrowed, but like the eastern species howled rather than barked. He marveled at the way the packs wore down buffalo, some wolves pursuing while others rested before taking up the chase in their turn. He noted, “we scarcely see a gang of buffaloe without observing a parsel of those faithfull shepherds on their skirts in readiness to take care of the mamed & wounded.”

Of all the animals, the most prized was the beaver. In the immediate range, because the tail of the beaver was one of the most favored delicacies; in the longer term, because, if properly prepared, stacked, pressed, and aired once a month or so for moths, the beaver pelt could be gotten back to St. Louis, where it fetched a fair price, then to New York, and on to London, where it fetched a fabulous price. So some of the men became en-route beaver trappers, in the richest beaver country any white man had ever seen.

On the third day out, the expedition caught up with three French trappers, who accompanied it to the Little Missouri. These were the first beaver hunters west of Mandan, according to Lewis, and “the beaver these people have already taken is by far the best I have ever seen.” He recorded on April 12 that, to his surprise, beaver were seen during the day, “proof that they have been but little hunted.”

On the morning of April 18, Lewis came upon two of his privates engaged in a furious argument. It seemed that one beaver had gotten himself caught in two traps, belonging to the two different men. They were on the verge of blows when Lewis intervened.

Beaver was the greatest, most immediately exploitable wealth of the trans-Mississippi West. Beaver presence in such quality and quantity guaranteed an immediate penetration of Louisiana by American hunters. Lewis was their scout.

He characteristically thought of practical uses for other products of the Plains. On April 12, he took some cuttings from a creeping juniper (he called it “dwarf juniper”) to send to Jefferson, and noted, “This plant would make very handsome edgings to the borders and walks of a garden . . . [and it is] easily propegated,” advice that innumerable people living in suburbs in the American West ever since have followed.

Less successful was his suggestion that buffalo hair would produce a wonderful wool. He claimed it had “every appearance of the wool of the sheep, tho’ much finer and more silkey and soft.”

New birds always brought out his passion for detail. On May 1, Private George Shannon brought in “a bird of the plover kind.” Lewis took more than five hundred words to describe it—length, weight, wingspan, number of feathers on the tail, and so on—and concluded with observations on its behavior (“it sometimes rests on the water and swims which I do not recollect having seen the plover do”). He named it the “Missouri plover”; actually it was the American avocet, already known to science but not to Lewis.

In April, he discovered and described for the first time the snow goose and the cackling goose. On April 13, Clark shot a Canada goose sitting on its nest in the top of a lofty cottonwood. Lewis climbed to inspect the nest and brought back an egg. He noted, “the wild gees frequently build their nests in this manner.” That statement later was challenged by nineteenth-century ornithologists, because east of the Mississippi geese always nested on the ground. But Lewis was right; on the Plains, geese often nested in trees as a precaution against predators. So much so that on May 3 Lewis was surprised to find a nest among some driftwood, the first he had seen on the ground. He took three eggs from it.

Another description later challenged—indeed, dismissed as an inexplicable error—was of the grizzly bear. On April 29, Lewis and a party of hunters brought in their first grizzly. Lewis described it in some detail. Among other observations, he said the testicles were “suspended in seperate pouches from two to four inches asunder.” He later described the same phenomenon on another bear. No one else has ever seen such a thing, but it is impossible to believe that Lewis made it up.

Lewis had seen the first grizzly sign on April 13. “The men as well as ourselves are anxious to meet with some of these bear,” he then recorded. The Indians had given the white men “a very formidable account of the strengh and ferocity of this anamal,” but Lewis had discounted the information, because the Indians had only bows and arrows or “the indifferent guns with which the traders furnish them, with these they shoot with such uncertainty and at so short a distance that they frequently mis their aim & fall a sacrefice to the bear.” It gave him a bit of pause that the Indians, before attacking a grizzly, went through all the rituals they commonly used before going on a war party; still, he, Clark, and the men had faith in their long rifles and were eager to challenge the grizzly.

On April 29, Lewis was walking on shore with one man when they spotted two grizzlies. Each man fired and hit a bear. One of the wounded beasts escaped, but the other charged Lewis, pursuing him some eighty yards. Fortunately, the bear was badly enough wounded so that Lewis and the private had time to reload. They shot again and killed it. Though not full-grown, it weighed three hundred pounds. Lewis described it as a “much more furious and formidable anamal” than the black bear of the eastern United States. “It is asstonishing to see the wounds they will bear before they can be put to death,” he admitted, but he remained cocky: the Indians “may well fear this anamal . . . but in the hands of skillfull riflemen [the bears] are by no means as formidable or dangerous” as the Indians indicated.

On May 5, his cockiness began to fade. Clark and Drouillard killed a grizzly. Lewis described it as “a most tremendious looking anamal, and extreemly hard to kill notwithstanding he had five balls through his lungs and five others in various parts he swam more than half the distance across the river to a sandbar & it was at least twenty minutes before he died; [he] made the most tremendous roaring from the moment he was shot.”

The expedition had no equipment with which to weigh the bear. Clark thought he would go five hundred pounds; Lewis thought six. This was their first disagreement. They boiled the oil and put it in a cask; it was as hard as hog’s lard.

A week later, the party saw a grizzly swim the river. He disappeared before an attack could be made on him. Lewis wrote, “I find that the curiossity of our party is pretty well satisfyed with rispect to this anamal.” The size of the beast, and the difficulty in killing the bear, “has staggered the resolution [of] several of them, others however seem keen for action with the bear; I expect these gentlemen will give us some amusement shotly as they soon begin now to coppolate.”

The first month of travel into the unknown was splendid all around. Progress was steady, if slower on the average than Lewis had hoped for, and it was generally straight west, directly toward the setting sun. No Indians, hostile or friendly, had been discovered—a good thing, Lewis thought, for he wanted to move as far west and as fast as possible. It is difficult to think of men who sometimes made but a few miles in one day, and never more than twenty-five, as being in a hurry, with no time to spend smoking pipes and explaining themselves to strange tribes, but this was so.

Cool or cold nights, mornings when the water froze on the paddles, gave way to warm, pleasant days—except for the wind.

There were enough adventures to satisfy everyone. On the fifth day out, Clark went walking while Lewis rode in the white pirogue. Lewis ordered the fleet to cross to the larboard (south) side in order to avoid a bank that was falling into the river on the starboard side, but although all the canoes saw his signal and crossed, the red pirogue did not. It was being pulled by the towline.

By the time Lewis noticed the failure of communications, it was too late to do anything about it. “I expected to have seen her carried under every instant,” he wrote that night, but “it was too late for the men to reembark, and retreating is more dangerous than proceeding in such cases; they therefore continued their passage up this bank and much to my satisfaction arrived safe above it.”

On April 13, there was another scare. The wind was from the east. Lewis ordered the square sail and the spritsail hoisted on the white pirogue, “which carried her at a pretty good gate.” Charbonneau was at the helm. When a sudden squall of wind hit and rocked the boat, Charbonneau panicked. Instead of bringing the craft up into the wind, he laid her broadside to it, which came as close to “overseting the perogue as it was possible to have missed.”

Lewis called out orders: Drouillard, take the helm and turn her into the wind! You men there, take in the sails! It was done and the pirogue righted.

On April 25, Lewis entered a wonderland. He decided to walk on ahead, knowing that the Yellowstone River could not be far distant, so that he could make his celestial observations and write a description of the country while the main party struggled up the Missouri against the wind. He took with him Sergeant Ordway, Drouillard, Private Joseph Field, and one other man. The party set out at 11:00 a.m., accompanied by Lewis’s dog, Seaman, who had been out all night but had returned in the morning, to Lewis’s delight. They were on the south bank of the Missouri. Shortly after noon, Lewis killed a buffalo calf. One of the men built a fire, and they enjoyed “a hearty meal” of excellent veal.

In the afternoon, Lewis ascended the hills, “from whence I had a most pleasing view of the country perticularly of the wide and fertile vallies formed by the missouri and the yellowstone rivers, which occasionally unmasked by the wood on their borders disclose their meanderings for many miles in their passage through these delightfull tracts of country. . . .”

The animal life added to the romantic quality of the place. “The whol face of the country was covered with herds of Buffaloe, Elk & Antelopes; deer are also abundant, but keep themselves more concealed in the woodland. the buffaloe Elk and Antelope are so gentle that we pass near them while feeding, without apearing to excite any alarm among them, and when we attract their attention, they frequently approach us more nearly to discover what we are.”

That evening, Lewis and his men camped on the Yellowstone, two miles south of its junction with the Missouri. In the morning, Lewis sent Private Field up the Yellowstone with instructions to follow it as far as he could and still get back to base camp in a day.

Then Lewis set about examining the country. In the bottoms, he found redberry, serviceberry, redwoods, gooseberry, choke cherry, purple currant, and honeysuckle, intermixed with willow, a favorite winter food of the hoofed animals.

At 9:41, 9:42, and 9:43 a.m., he measured the altitude of the sun with his sextant and an artificial horizon. He was obtaining his local time, trying to establish the moment of high noon, against which to compare Greenwich time. He could figure out Greenwich time with a set of “lunar-distance” measurements that he could obtain by taking the sextant angle between the moon and the star Altair. What he wanted to fix was the longitude of the junction of the rivers.

Toward noon, he heard the discharge of several guns, indicating that Clark and the main party were at the mouth of the Yellowstone. He sent Drouillard to tell Clark to send a canoe up the Yellowstone to collect the meat his party had killed and prepared. At 6:49, 6:50, and 6:52 p.m., he again measured the sun’s altitude. Unfortunately, clouds came up and he was not able to make his nighttime observations.

Lewis walked down and joined the main party at the camp on the point of land formed by the junction of the rivers. He found the men “all in good health, and much pleased at having arrived at this long wished for spot, and in order to add in some measure to the general pleasure which seemed to pervade our little community, we ordered a dram to be issued to each person; this soon produced the fiddle, and they spent the evening with much hilarity, singing & dancing, and seemed as perfectly to forget their past toils, as they appeared regardless of those to come.”

Private Field came in, to report that the Yellowstone wandered, had a gentle current, many sandbars, and a sand-and-mud bottom. Clark took measurements: the Missouri at the point of junction was 330 yards wide with a deep channel, whereas the Yellowstone was 297 yards wide and 12 feet deep at its deepest channel.

The Hidatsas had told Lewis that the Yellowstone was navigable for pirogues and canoes nearly to its source in the Rocky Mountains (at today’s Yellowstone National Park), and that at one point it passed within less than a half-day’s march of a navigable part of the Missouri. They also said that the sources of the Yellowstone were adjacent to those of the Missouri, Platte, and Columbia Rivers. They were right about the Missouri and Columbia, which do have their ultimate sources in the Yellowstone plateau, but wrong about the Platte, which rises in the Colorado and Wyoming Rockies.

The captains apparently never gave it a thought, but had they listened more closely to the Indians, and had Jefferson’s instructions not been so contradictory (he wanted the explorers to follow the Missouri to its source, but he also wanted them to follow the shortest route across the continent; the president’s assumption that these were one and the same was badly wrong), they might have abandoned the Missouri and ascended the Yellowstone. At today’s Livingston, Montana, where the Yellowstone makes a sharp bend from a northerly to an easterly flow (or from west to south going upstream), the party could have abandoned the river and continued west to cross the divide between the rivers over a relatively low pass (today’s Bozeman Pass) and gotten to Three Forks some weeks, maybe even two months, sooner.

But they continued upstream on the Missouri, as Jefferson had ordered. On May 3, Lewis, walking on the north bank among “vast quantities” of game, came to “a beatifull bold runing stream, 40 yards wide at its entrance; the water transparent.” He called it Porcupine River, from the unusual number of porcupines he spotted.II Clark named its first tributary “2,000 mile creek” (today’s Red Water), since the expedition was now two thousand miles above the mouth of the Missouri. Lewis wrote of Porcupine River, “I have but little doubt that it takes it’s source not far from the main body of the Suskashawan river, and that it is probably navigable 150 miles. . . . it would afford a very favorable communication to the Athebaskay country, from whence the British N[orth]-W[est] Company derive so large a portion of their valuable furs.”

Lewis wrote something similar about every river flowing into the Missouri from the north (there are not very many of them). Jefferson wanted it so, because any stream coming in from the north that reached up into the Canadian prairie might extend the boundaries of Louisiana and would certainly give the Americans access to the most valuable portion of the British fur-trading country. But, as badly as Lewis wanted to please Jefferson, it was all wishful thinking; even for the smallest canoe, at the height of the spring runoff, Porcupine River would not be navigable much more than a couple of dozen miles, and its sources are south of the forty-ninth parallel.

On May 8, the expedition “nooned it” just above another river, coming in from the north. While the men ate, Lewis walked up it some three miles. “I have no doubt but it is navigable for boats perogues and canoes, for the latter probably a great distance,” he wrote. “From the quantity of water furnised by this river it must water a large extent of country; perhaps this river also might furnish a practicable and advantageous communication with the Saskashiwan river.”

The Hidatsas had told Lewis and Clark of this river, which they called “The River Which Scolds at All Others.” Lewis named it Milk River, from the color of its water. It retains that name today. It rises in Glacier National Park, flows slightly north of west into southernmost Alberta, then bends back to a southwesterly flow to re-enter Montana. At no point does it come anywhere near the Saskatchewan.

That afternoon, Drouillard, Charbonneau, and Sacagawea went walking. She found some wild licorice and dug up a quantity of roots called the white apple. Lewis gave the root a full five-hundred-word description, concluding that, although it was “a tastless insippid food of itself . . . our epicures would admire this root very much, it would serve them in their ragouts and gravies in stead of the truffles morella.” He never mentioned Sacagawea’s contribution (Clark did), but he did write that it was a very healthy food.

It certainly was a welcome addition to the virtually all-meat diet. “We can send out at any time and obtain whatever species of meat the country affords in as large quantity as we wish,” Lewis wrote. But all that meat, if not complemented by vegetables or fruit, might well lead to scurvy, and there are some indications that the men of the expedition at various times did suffer from scurvy. It was an age in which almost nothing was known about a balanced diet, making Lewis’s comment on a “healthy food” notable. According to Dr. Eldon “Frenchy” Chuinard, the expert on medical aspects of the expedition, “malnutrition was an almost constant condition of all soldiers.”1

Almost all American soldiers of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 suffered from malaria, dysentary, diarrhea, rheumatism, ophthalmia, and other scourges. So did the men of the expedition. Venereal disease, including syphilis, was so common it was scarcely commented upon. Lewis noted on April 24 that “soar eyes is a common complaint among the party.” He attributed it to the fine sand driven by the wind: “so penitrating is this sand that we cannot keep any article free from it; in short we are compelled to eat, drink, and breath it very freely.” Chuinard suggests that venereal disease may also have been a factor; Moulton posits the constant glare of the sun on the water as another.2

On May 4, Lewis, who did most of the doctoring, reported that Joseph Field was sick with dysentery and a high fever. Lewis treated him with Glauber salts (a strong laxative), “which operated very well,” plus thirty drops of laudanum (a tincture of opium), which would have helped Field sleep. For sore eyes, he used a wash made of two parts white vitriol (zinc sulphate) and one part sugar of lead (lead acetate). For the “boils and imposthumes” that were common among the party and were probably caused by scurvy, he used “emmolient poltices,” without specifying how he made the poultices.3

May 9 was a good day. The party made twenty-four and a half miles, and Lewis shot and described a willet, new to science. He was able to make astronomical observations after darkness fell. The buffalo had become “so gentle that the men frequently throw sticks and stones at them in order to drive them out of the way.”

Lewis selected a fat buffalo and saved “the necessary materials for making what our wrighthand cook Charbono calls the boudin blanc; this white pudding we all esteem one of the gretest delicacies of the forrest.” Lewis wrote a long, detailed recipe on the subject of Charbonneau’s method of making the sausage. The recipe ended, “It is then baptised in the missouri with two dips and a flirt, and bobbed into the kettle; from whence after it be well boiled it is taken and fryed with bears oil untill it becomes brown, when it is ready to esswage the pangs of a keen appetite or such as travelers in the wilderness are seldom at a loss for.”

Altogether, a perfect day and evening, except that the river was as broad here as at its mouth. Were it not much shallower, Lewis wrote, “I should begin to dispair of ever reaching it’s source.” And he confessed, if only to himself, “I begin to feel extreemly anxious to get in view of the rocky mountains.”

At about 5:00 p.m. on May 11, Private William Bratton came running along the bank, shouting and making signs. Lewis ordered the pirogue to put to. Bratton was so out of breath when he came up that it was some minutes before he could explain that he had shot and wounded a grizzly, but the bear had turned on him and pursued him a considerable distance.

Lewis was not about to allow a bear to defeat one of his men so ignominiously or so completely. He ordered the crew of the white pirogue to join him on an expedition “in quest of this monster.” Finding a trail of blood, they pursued the bear for a mile through thick brush before finding him concealed. They shot him through the head, twice. Examination disclosed that Bratton’s shot had gone through the bear’s lungs, “notwithstanding which he [the bear] had pursued him [Bratton] near half a mile and had returned more than double that distance.”

Lewis concluded, “these bear being so hard to die reather intimedates us all; I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen and had reather fight two Indians than one bear.”

Three days later, there was another battle between bear and party. The six men in the two rear canoes saw a bear on the bank. They put to shore and planned their attack in some detail. They sneaked up to within forty yards of the enemy without being spotted. Four men fired simultaneously, while two soldiers held their rifles in reserve. All four balls hit the mark, two passing through the lungs. The bear rose with a roar and launched an immediate counterattack, charging with open mouth. The two-man reserve force fired; one ball hit muscle only, but the other broke the bear’s shoulder; this, however, only slowed him for an instant.

The men took to flight. The bear pursued down to the river, where two men got away in the canoe while the remainder took to hiding places in the willows, to reload and fire. They hit the bear several more times, but that only let him know where they were hidden. He routed two of the men, who threw away their rifles and pouches and dived into the river, from a perpendicular bank of near twenty feet.

The bear jumped in after them. He was about to reach one of the swimmers when a soldier on the bank finally shot him through the head and killed him. Examination revealed that eight balls had passed through the bear.

While that adventure was taking place, Lewis had one of his own, so dangerous to the enterprise that he later wrote, “I cannot recollect [it] but with the utmost trepidation and horror.”

The incident took place while the two captains were on shore, contrary to their own orders and established routine, and for reasons neither ever explained. Charbonneau was at the helm of the white pirogue—despite his near-disaster on April 13, and despite Lewis’s judgment of him as “perhaps the most timid waterman in the world.” The pirogue was under sail when a sudden squawl struck and turned her. Charbonneau, in a panic, instead of putting her bow into the wind, turned with it. The wind drew the brace of the sail out of the hands of the man attending it “and instantly upset the perogue and would have turned her completely topsaturva, had it not have been from the resistance made by the oarning against the water.”

Watching from shore, the captains were in a state of near-panic themselves. They fired their rifles to attract the attention of the crew and hollered out to cut the halyards and haul in the sail—but the crew, on the far side of the river, could not hear either the shots or the shouts. Meanwhile, Cruzatte (perhaps the best waterman on the expedition) was shouting at Charbonneau to take up the rudder and turn the boat into the wind, but Charbonneau was crying to God for mercy and could not hear.

Before Charbonneau and the crew could recover their wits sufficiently to bring in the sail, the pirogue was filled to within an inch of the gunnels. Articles were floating away. Meriwether Lewis watched in the most awful agony and fearful anticipation.

Reacting instinctively, he dropped his rifle, threw aside his shot pouch, and began tearing off his coat. His idea was to swim unencumbered out to the pirogue to save what he could. But before he dived into the river, “I recollected the folly of the attempt I was about to make.” The waves were high, the boat was three hundred yards away, the water was excessively cold, and the current strong. “There was a hundred to one but what I should have paid the forfit of my life for the madness of my project,” he wrote that evening in his journal. But, considering that the white pirogue carried the journals, maps, instruments, and other invaluable items, “had the perogue been lost, I should have valued [my life] but little.”

It all took but an instant. Prudence and common sense won out over rashness.4 Fortunately, Cruzatte was able to force Charbonneau to do his duty by threatening to shoot him instantly if he did not. Charbonneau took up the tiller and the boat righted. Cruzatte put two men to work bailing with kettles, while with two others he paddled her toward shore, where she arrived scarcely floating.

All this time, Sacagawea was calm, collected, and invaluable. As Lewis put it the following day, “The Indian woman to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution, with any person on board at the time of the accedent, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard.” Whether he praised her, or upbraided her husband, he did not say. He did record that, after the battle of the bear and the near-loss of the white pirogue, “we thought it a proper occasion to console ourselves and cheer the sperits of our men and accordingly took a drink of grog and gave each man a gill of sperits.”

During the last week of May, the expedition entered a section of the river dominated by high, rugged bluffs composed of all shades of brown set off by the pure blue sky and blazing sun. It remains one of the most isolated parts of the United States, a stretch of almost 160 miles from the western end of today’s Fort Peck Lake to today’s Fort Benton, Montana, that has been designated a Wild and Scenic River by Congress and is the least changed part of the Missouri. The first (eastern) section is called the Missouri River Breaks, the second portion is designated the White Cliffs Area. The river continues to run mostly west-east through the breaks, then flows almost straight south and then southeast through the cliffs—for Lewis, that meant traveling west, then northwest, then north, and finally southwest.

Clark called the breaks “the Deserts of America” and declared, “I do not think it can ever be settled.” Lewis spoke of “a desert, barren country,” and for once he found no redeeming virtue. “The air of the open country is asstonishingly dry as well as pure,” Lewis wrote.5 A lifelong resident of the humid eastern third of the continent, he could scarcely believe how quickly his inkstand ran dry. By experiment, he discovered that a tablespoon of water would “avaporate in 36 hours.”

On May 25, Lewis described at length the first specimen of the bighorn sheep the expedition had collected. Clark copied the entry, almost word for word. This was the first time Clark had done such a thing, but it quickly became habitual. As part of the small library Lewis had brought along, there was an edition of Linnaeus, and a four-volume set, A New and Complete Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences. In his May 25 entry, Clark for the first time indicates that he had been thumbing through what he called, in a marvelous spelling even for Clark, the “Deckinsery of arts an ciences.”

Donald Jackson speculates that, when the white pirogue all but sank, some important papers were lost. (Private Joseph Whitehouse wrote in his journal, “Some of the papers and nearly all the books got wet, but not altogether spoiled.”)6 Jackson thinks it possible that the near-disaster made the captains more careful than they had been to have two sets of all written scientific descriptions.III

On the afternoon of May 26, at the eastern end of the breaks, Lewis climbed the surrounding bluffs, a “fortiegueing” task, but he thought himself “well repaid for any labour” when he reached the highest point in the neighborhood, because “from this point I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time.”

Clark thought he had seen distant mountains the previous day; Lewis’s confirmation made them the first two Americans to see the Rockies. “These points of the Rocky Mountains were covered with snow and the sun shone on it in such manner as to give me the most plain and satisfactory view.”

The sight brought joy to his heart: “While I viewed these mountains I felt a secret pleasure in finding myself so near the head of the heretofore conceived boundless Missouri.”

The sight also brought dismay: “when I reflected on the difficulties which this snowey barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific, and the sufferings and hardships of myself and party in them, it in some measure counterballanced the joy I had felt in the first moments in which I gazed on them.”

The sight brought forth his characteristic resolution and optimism: “As I have always held it a crime to anticipate evils I will believe it a good comfortable road untill I am conpelled to beleive differently.”

With the mountains in view, the urge to get to them and over them became even greater, but, alas, progress was slower than ever, because of the numerous bends in the river, the way the bluffs came right down to the water’s edge, the usually head-on wind, and the abundance of protruding rocks in the shallow water. For the most part, the men pulled the pirogues and canoes, using worn-out elk-skin ropes that were constantly getting wet, then drying in the sun, growing progressively weaker and rotting. Often they would snap; if they snapped when the men were working a craft through a rock garden, there was a great danger of the vessel’s turning broadside and getting carried downstream out of control, to bump into a rock, which would surely overset her.

So progress was made, in Lewis’s apt description, “with much labour and infinite risk.” The water was cold on the men’s legs, the sun hot on their bare backs. The footing was either slippery mud or sharp rocks that cut and bruised their feet.

They passed a point where rotten, stinking buffalo were piled up in incredible numbers. Lewis thought it was a pishkin, or buffalo jump. In one of his best-known passages, he described the way Indian boys wearing buffalo robes would lure the buffalo to their death as the tribe pressed from behind. He had his information from the Hidatsas, and he had it right—except that this place was not a buffalo jump, but a bend in the river where buffalo who had drowned in the river when the ice broke had piled up. Wolves were there in such number, and were so stuffed with putrid meat, that Clark walked up to one and killed it with his espontoon. Lewis named the nearby stream Slaughter Creek (later changed to Arrow Creek).

A couple of miles farther on, a stream came in on the south side. Clark walked up it and named it Judith’s River, after his cousin Julia Hancock.

By May 31, the party was well into the White Cliffs Area. The river was worse than ever. For the men, that meant “their labour is incredibly painfull and great, yet those faithfull fellows bear it without a murmur.” There was a terrible scare in the forenoon, when the tow rope of the white pirogue, the only rope made of hemp, broke at a bad place. The pirogue swung and just barely touched a rock, yet was near oversetting.

So relieved were the captains at the narrow escape, and so much did they feel for the men because of their incredible labor, that at noon they “came to for refreshment and gave the men a dram which they received with much cheerfullness, and well deserved.” Lewis’s heart was still thumping that night at the narrow escape of the white pirogue and her contents, which he valued as much as his own life. He wrote, “I fear her evil gennii will play so many pranks with her that she will go to the bottomm some of those days.”

As for the White Cliffs themselves, Lewis’s description is one of the classics of American travel literature: “The hills and river Clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance,” he began. They were two to three hundred feet high, nearly perpendicular, shining pure white in the sun. “The water in the course of time in decending from those hills . . . has trickled down the soft sand clifts and woarn it into a thousand grotesque figures, which with the help of a little immagination and an oblique view . . . are made to represent eligant ranges of lofty freestone buildings . . . statuary . . . long galleries . . . the remains or ruins of eligant buildings . . . some collumns standing . . . others lying prostrate an broken . . . nitches and alcoves of various forms and sizes. . . . as we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never had and end . . . vast ranges of walls of tolerable workmanship, so perfect indeed that I should have thought that nature had attempted herre to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first began her work.”IV

There were swallows in uncountable numbers, nesting in the banks. After putting ashore, while the men made camp and cooked, Lewis went for a stroll. When he returned, he told Clark he had just seen “the most butifull fox in the world.” Its colors were a fine orange, yellow, white, and black. Lewis shot at it but missed.7

On June 1, the river made a great bend, causing the expedition to change direction from a north-northwest course to southwest. Lewis spent most of the day walking on shore with hunters, looking for elk. He anticipated getting to the Great Falls of the Missouri any day now, based on the appearance of the mountains and on information gathered from the Hidatsas, and he was going to need elk skin to cover the iron-frame boat he had been hauling from Harpers Ferry the past two years. The party collected six elk, along with two buffalo, two mule deer, and a bear (the bear almost got Charbonneau, but Drouillard killed it with a shot to the head just in time).

At dusk, the party put in on the south shore. Across the water they could see a considerable river flowing into the Missouri. What was this? According to the Hidatsas, whose information had so far been more or less correct, they had passed already the last northern tributary of the Missouri. The Great Falls were supposed to be the next landmark after “The River Which Scolds at All Others,” the one the captains had named the Milk River.

It was nearly dark, too late to examine the unexpected river that night. They would look it over in the morning.


I. When Clark was gone on a hunting expedition from early February to the 13th, Lewis made daily journal entries—a strong indication that he was not writing in his journal when Clark was present. As to when Lewis wrote his April 7 entry, his verb tense is more tantilizing than conclusive. “We were now,” he wrote at one point, not “we are now,” making it seem he wrote it days or weeks or months later. But he also wrote (in what was a copy of a paragraph he had written to Jefferson, evidently that morning to give to Warfington), “The party are in excellent health and sperits, zealously atached to the enterprise, and anxious to proceed,” which makes it seem he wrote it that night.

II. Today’s Poplar River. Lewis and Clark had been naming streams and creeks ever since they left Mandan, but few of their names appear on today’s maps, because of the long delay in the publication of their journals. Early-nineteenth-century trappers and miners, not knowing what Lewis and Clark had called the rivers, gave them names.

III. Jackson’s further speculation is more difficult to accept. He thinks it may be that, when the white pirogue almost went down, Lewis lost his journal for the period May 1804 through March 1805. But if Lewis kept a journal during that period, why didn’t he send a copy of it to Jefferson with Corporal Warfington on the keelboat?

IV. It is today as Lewis saw it. The White Cliffs can be seen only from small boat or canoe. Put in at Fort Benton and take out three or four days later at Judith Landing. Missouri River Outfitters at Fort Benton, Montana, rents canoes or provides a guided tour by pontoon boat. Of all the historic and/or scenic sights we have visited in the world, this is number one. We have made the trip ten times.

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