Modern history

CHAPTER TWENTY

The Great Portage

June 16–July 14, 1805

On Sunday morning, June 16, Lewis set out from his camp at the base of the first falls to rejoin Clark and the party at their camp, some six miles downstream. At 2:00 p.m., the captains were reunited. They had much to talk about—their experiences over the past few days, what they had seen, the meat supply, and most of all which side of the river to use to make the portage of the falls, and where to start the portage.

But before they could get into these immediate, pressing problems, Clark informed Lewis that there was an even more urgent matter. Sacagawea was ill, and had been for almost a week. Clark had tried bleeding her, which hadn’t worked, and applying to her pelvic region a poultice of Peruvian bark and laudanum, also without success. He turned the patient over to Lewis, glad to be rid of the responsibility. In his journal, Clark wrote, “The Indian woman verry bad, & will take no medisin what ever, untill her husband finding her out of her Senses, easyly provailed on her to take medison, if She dies it will be the fault of her husband as I am now convinced.” (He did not explain why he blamed Charbonneau.)

Lewis’s initial, cursory examination showed that Sacagawea was extremely ill, much reduced by her indisposition, with a high fever, a scarcely perceptible pulse, irregular breathing, and alarming twitching of the fingers and arms. “This gave me some concern,” Lewis wrote, for Sacagawea and her baby boy, of course, but even more “from the consideration of her being our only dependence for a friendly negociation with the Snake Indians on whom we depend for horses to assist us in our portage from the Missouri to the columbia River.”

Lewis gave Sacagawea a fuller examination and concluded that “her disorder originated principally from an obstruction of the mensis in consequence of taking could.”I Apparently he wasn’t far off in his diagnosis. His therapy was “two dozes of barks and opium,” which soon produced an improvement in her pulse. She was thirsty. Lewis recalled a sulphur spring on the opposite (northwest) bank of the river; he sent a man over to bring him some. He figured it contained iron as well as sulphur and would be just what she needed. He was probably right; such symptoms as the twitching of the fingers and arms could have been due to loss of minerals resulting from Clark’s bleeding her. For sure, his repeated bleeding had dehydrated her and stimulated her thirst.1 She drank eagerly of the sulphur water, which was all the liquid Lewis would allow her to have. He continued the application of poultices to her pelvic region.

That evening, he was delighted with her progress. Her pulse had become regular, and much fuller; a gentle perspiration had come on; the twitching had in a great measure abated, “and she feels herself much freer from pain.” Chuinard praises Lewis for his methods: “His recording of the patient’s complaints, his physical examination of her, the medication employed, and his genuine concern about her probably would not be exceeded by any physician of his time.”2

While Lewis was doing his doctoring, Clark took a party to a clump of cottonwoods about a mile below the entrance of a small creek (today’s Belt Creek) to establish a base camp for the portage. This was the only place within miles in which there was enough wood for fuel. Lewis joined him in the afternoon. Clark had sent two men to examine the ground on the south side. Lewis told him that the portage was going to be at least sixteen miles long, a staggering piece of information. The captains decided they would have to leave the white pirogue at the base camp, and depend on Lewis’s iron-frame boat for the upriver journey beyond the Great Falls. To further lighten the load, they also decided to make another cache of items they did not absolutely need.

At dusk, the two scouts came in “and made a very unfavourable report. They informed us that the creek just above us and two deep ravenes still higher up cut the plain between the river and mountain in such a manner, that in their opinions a portage for the canoes on this side was impracticable.”

Another staggering piece of information. Lewis took it in stride. “Good or bad we must make the portage,” he wrote with characteristic matter-of-fact realism. Besides, from what little he had seen with his own eyes, from the north bank, “I am still convinced . . . that a good portage may be had on this side.”

The next morning, June 17, his conviction grew. Examination revealed that the small canoes could make it up the creek—which the captains named Portage Creek—almost two miles, from which point there was a gradual ascent to the top of the high plain. There the portage would begin. Clark set off with a small party to look over the route.

Lewis spotted a single cottonwood tree of some twenty-two inches in diameter just below the entrance of the creek, the only tree of such size within twenty miles. He put six men to work cutting it down and then sawing it crosswise to make wheels. He directed that the hardwood mast of the white pirogue be cut to make axles. The much softer cottonwood would serve for tongues, couplings, and bodies of the two wagons—or “trucks,” as Lewis called them—which would transport the canoes and baggage.

Lewis’s patient was much improved. She was free of pain, clear of fever, with a regular pulse and a healthy appetite. He continued the medication—sulphur water and poultices—and allowed her to eat broiled buffalo (“well seasoned with pepper and salt”) and a soup of the same meat. With vast relief, he wrote in his journal that evening, “I think therefore that there is every rational hope of her recovery,” an indication of how fearful he had been that she wouldn’t make it.

He had other things to worry about, among them the covering for the iron-frame boat. He wanted elk skins, because he believed that they were more durable and stronger than buffalo skins and that they would not shrink so much in drying. But though there was an abundance of buffalo and deer around this part of the Missouri, elk were scarce. On the morning of June 19, he sent Drouillard and two of the enlisted men, Privates Reubin Field and George Shannon, to the north side of the Missouri with orders to proceed to the entrance of Medicine River and kill elk for their skins.

The wagons were ready; the baggage was sorted and prepared for the portage. The party was waiting only for Clark to return from his scouting mission. Lewis had a rare afternoon of genuine leisure; to amuse himself, he went fishing. The men mended their moccasins.

The Indian woman had been better in the morning. She had walked out onto the plains and gathered a considerable quantity of the white apples. She ate them raw—without telling Lewis—together with some dried fish.

Her fever returned. She felt awful. Lewis was furious: “I rebuked Sharbono severely for suffering her to indulge herself with such food he being privy to it and having been previously told what she must only eat. I now gave her broken dozes of diluted nitre [saltpeter, used as a diuretic and diaphoretic, for fevers and gonorrhea]3 untill it produced pespiration and at 10 P.M. 30 drops of laudanum which gave her a tolerable nights rest.”

In the morning, she was “quite free from pain and fever and appears to be in a fair way for recovery, she has been walking about and fishing.” His prognosis was correct; within a couple of days, she was well.

Lewis sent the men out hunting. He wanted to lay by as large a store of dried meat as possible, so that when the portage began he wouldn’t have to detach men to hunt. That evening, Clark came into camp to report that the portage route was seventeen and three-quarters miles long.

The captains talked. They decided that Clark would oversee the portage while Lewis would go to the termination point, a group of islands that Clark had named White Bear Islands from the presence of so many grizzlies, where Lewis would oversee the preparation of his iron-frame boat. He would take the first load over the route, in a canoe carried on a wagon; the load would include the iron frame and the necessary tools. Sergeant Gass and Privates Joseph Field and John Shields would accompany him.

Clark told Lewis that there were no pines, only cottonwoods, in the area of the White Bear Islands. That gave Lewis something more to worry about: without pine pitch to pay the seams of the leather covering of his iron frame, he faced “a deficiency that I really know not how to surmount unless it be by means of tallow and pounded charcoal which mixture has answered a very good purpose on our wooden canoes.”

The portage began shortly after sunrise on June 22. All the enlisted men, save two left behind to guard the baggage, joined the captains in moving the canoe over the plains. They had a multitude of problems, beginning with prickly pears and including numerous breakdowns. The axles broke. The tongues broke. Lewis renewed them with sweet-willow branches “and hope that they will answer better.” Despite the difficulties, after dark they made it to the termination point. Along the way, Lewis discovered and described one of the best-loved birds of the Great Plains, the western meadowlark.

Over the next twelve days, Lewis stayed at the White Bear Islands camp, supervising the construction of the iron-frame boat (called “The Experiment” by the enlisted men), while Clark supervised the portage. The latter was the most difficult undertaking the expedition had yet experienced.

Let Clark describe it: “The men has to haul with all their Strength wate & art, maney times every man all catching the grass & knobes & Stones with their hands to give them more force in drawing on the Canoes & Loads, and notwithstanding the Coolness of the air in high presperation and every halt [the men] are asleep in a moment, maney limping from the Soreness of their feet Some become fant for a fiew moments, but no man Complains all go Chearfully on—to State the fatigues of this party would take up more of the journal than other notes which I find Scercely time to Set down.”

They were assaulted by hail as big as apples, by “musquetoes,” by hot sun and cold rain. The winds could be awesome. On June 25, Lewis noted that “the men informed me that they hoisted a sail in the canoe and the wind had driven her along on the truck wheels. this is really sailing on dry land.”

To free up a man to help prepare elk skins for the boat covering, Lewis assigned himself the duty of cook. He collected the wood and water and in the biggest iron kettle boiled enough dried buffalo meat to feed thirty men, then made it into a suet dumpling by way of a treat for all the diners.

There were vast herds of buffalo in the neighborhood; Clark estimated he could see ten thousand in one view. The bulls kept Seaman up all night, barking at them. Grizzlies were also numerous, and, unlike the buffalo, they were dangerous; Lewis forbade any man to go alone on any errand that required passing through brush, and ordered all hands to sleep with their rifles close at hand. The bears came close around camp at night, Lewis wrote on June 28, “but have never yet ventured to attack us and our dog gives us timely notice of their visits, he keeps constantly padroling all night.”

The bears often showed themselves at midday, which infuriated Lewis and his men. But “we are so much engaged that we could not spare the time to hunt them.” Still, Lewis made a vow: “We will make a frolick of it” when the time came. He intended personally to direct an all-out attack on the enemy.

By June 30, the iron frame was put together and the skins—twenty-eight elk and four buffalo—had been prepared. In the morning, the sewing together of the skins over the frame would begin. Meanwhile, the portage was within two days of completion. Soon the expedition would be rolling up the river again.

Not soon enough to suit Lewis, who confessed in his journal, “I begin to be extremely impatient to be off as the season is now waisting a pace nearly three months have now elapsed since we left Fort Mandan and not yet reached the Rocky Mountains.” He had given up any idea of getting to the Pacific and then back to the Mandans before winter set in, and had about concluded that he would not even be able to return from the ocean to join the Shoshone Indians for the winter.

Around this time, Lewis and Clark made a decision, later recorded in Lewis’s journal of July 4. They had agreed before leaving Fort Mandan that, when they completed the Great Falls portage, they would send three men back to St. Louis, carrying specimens, artifacts, maps, journals, and other invaluable items. Now they changed their minds. They had made no contact with the Shoshone Indians, and even with Sacagawea along and in good health they could not count on those Indians’ being friendly, or, even if friendly, disposed to trade horses for geegaws. As Lewis put it, “we conceived our party sufficiently small,” meaning he wanted every rifle he could get.

The decision to keep the party at full strength has not drawn much commentary from Lewis and Clark scholars, but it deserves some consideration. Giving up 10 percent of the firepower and muscle power of the expedition might well have been fatal. But, then again, if the party ever got into a situation in which every rifle was needed, it might well not survive that situation, in which case all that had been discovered from April 7, 1805, to date, including the plants, birds, animals, rivers, lay of the land, the truth about the Great Falls, the latitude of the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers would have been lost. To reduce the party by three men might endanger the others; but to send three men downriver to pass the Sioux would endanger them.

“We have never once hinted to any one of the party that we had such a scheme in contemplation,” Lewis wrote. The passage illuminates the relationship between the captains and their men. In the first place, it indicates that at some times—around the campfire? while the men were eating?—the captains were able to talk without being overheard. It also speaks to the relative absence of rumors among the men. All soldiers love rumor—and this platoon-sized unit was coming upon rivers no one had ever heard of, finding five falls where they had been told to expect one, so it might be expected to do a lot of speculation on the captains’ intentions. But it didn’t, a tribute to the captains’ leadership and discipline and the mark of how totally the men trusted them.

The passage indicates too how sensitive Lewis was to morale, for he goes on to say he feared that sending three men back “might possibly discourge those who would in such case remain.” At that moment, the portage all but completed and the iron-frame boat about to be launched, morale was excellent. Lewis’s description shows how strongly he had impressed his own personality and passion on the expedition. The men, he wrote, “all appear perfectly to have made up their minds to suceed in the expedition or purish in the attempt. we all believe that we are now about to enter on the most perilous and difficult part of our voyage, yet I see no one repining; all appear ready to met those difficulties which wait us with resolution and becoming fortitude.”

The men of the expedition were linked together by uncommon experiences and by the certain knowledge that they were making history, the realization that they were in the middle of what would without question be the most exciting and important time of their lives, and the obvious fact that they were in all this together, that every man—and the Indian woman—was dependent on all the others, and they on him or her.

Together, under the leadership of the captains, they had become a family. They could recognize one another at night by a cough, or a gesture; they knew one another’s skills, and weaknesses, and habits, and background: who liked salt, who preferred liver; who shot true, got the cooking fires going quickest; where they came from, what their parents were like, what dreams they had. Lewis would have hated to break them apart. He decided to hold them together. They would triumph, or die, as one.

On the morning of July 1, Lewis set two men to sewing the leather that would cover the boat, two men to preparing a pit to burn wood to try to make tar, and one man to making crosspieces for the boat, while he and Drouillard rendered the tallow, obtaining a hundred pounds. But the attempt to make tar failed, the sewing went slowly, and Lewis grew testy. The absence of pitch pine had forced him to experiment, and his experiments were terribly time-consuming because it was so difficult to obtain the necessary materials. Lewis found the work “extreemly tedious and troublesome.” Everything about the boat was novel to the men, so “my constant attention was necessary to every part of the work; this together with the duties of cheif cook has kept me pretty well employed.”

Lewis was fortunate to have at hand a worthy object for his frustration and pent-up energy. “The bear were about our camp all last night,” he concluded his July 1 journal entry. “We have therefore determined to beat up their quarters tomorrow, and kill them or drive them from their haunts about this place.”

At 8:15 a.m., after Lewis had measured the altitude of the sun, he and Clark led a twelve-man squad in an attack. They crossed to the largest of the islands and went through the brush in three-man teams. “We found only one,” Lewis reported, “which made at Drewyer and he shot him in the brest at the distance of about 20 feet, the ball fortunately passed through his heart, the stroke knocked the bear down and gave Drewyer time to get out of his sight; the bear changed his course we pursued him about a hundred yards by the blood and found him dead.” The soldiers were disappointed at finding only one of the enemy, but at least they had suffered no losses.

On returning to camp, the men, in moving some baggage, caught a large rat. Lewis examined and described the pack rat, previously unknown to science.

By July 3, as the boat neared completion, Lewis’s doubts were assailing him. He nearly convinced himself that none of his experiments in finding a substitute for pitch was going to work. No matter what he tried, he could not produce tar. Without tar, “I fear the whole operation of my boat will be useless.” There was something else: “I fear I have committed another blunder also in sewing the skins with a nedle which has sharp edges these have cut the skin and as it drys I discover that the throng does not fill the holes as I expected.”

He and Clark and the men wanted to get going. “The current of the river looks so gentle and inviting that the men all seem anxious to be moving upward as well as ourselves.”

That prospect brought Lewis’s spirits back. His boat was done by evening, except for paying her (covering the skin with a composition that would make her watertight). Somehow he would find a way to do that. Meanwhile, he indulged himself in a bit of hubris about the design: “She has assumed her shape and looks extreemly well. She will be very light, more so than any vessel of her size that I ever saw.”

The Fourth of July was a working day for the Corps of Discovery. Lewis had the men turn the boat and put her on a scaffold, then had small fires build underneath the craft to dry her.

That evening, the first Americans ever to enter Montana, the first ever to see the Yellowstone, the Milk, the Marias, and the Great Falls, the first Americans ever to kill a grizzly, celebrated their nation’s twenty-ninth birthday. The captains gave the men a gill of whiskey—the last of the stock—“and some of them appeared a little sensible of it’s effects.” Cruzatte played the fiddle and the men danced “very merrily” until a 9:00 p.m. thunderstorm put an end to it. Even so, the men “continued their mirth with songs and festive jokes and were extreemly merry untill late at night.”

As for the captains, “we had a very comfortable dinner, of bacon, beans, suit dumplings & buffaloe beaf &c. in short we had no just cause to covet the sumptuous feasts of our countrymen on this day.”

That evening, Lewis described in his journal a phenomenon of the region, a repeated noise coming from the northwest at irregular intervals that resembled “precisely the discharge of a piece of ordinance of 6 pounds at the distance of three miles.” The men had often mentioned the sound to him, but Lewis had been sure they had been hearing thunder, until “at length walking in the plains the other day I heard this noise very distictly, it was perfectly calm clear and not a cloud to be seen.” He stopped and for an hour listened intently: he heard it twice more. “I have no doubt but if I had leasure I could find from whence it issued,” he wrote. He would hear it again on July 11 and then recalled that the Hidatsas had mentioned such a noise. Clark also heard it; like Lewis, he was certain there was a rational explanation, although none came to mind.

No one since has explained it, but if Lewis and Clark said they heard it, it was there.II

On July 5, Lewis kept the fires going under the boat, and set some men to pounding charcoal to form a composition with beeswax and buffalo tallow. The boat was complete, except for paying her, and in every “rispect completely answers my most sanguine expectation.” Eight men could carry her and she could carry four tons of goods. But Lewis feared that the charcoal-beeswax-tallow combination would not work, and, adding to his worries, “the stitches begin to gape very much since she has began to dry; I am now convinced this would not have been the case had the skins been sewed with a sharp point only and the leather not cut by the edges of a sharp nedle.”

For two more days, the men kept the fires going, as the boat so slowly, ever so slowly, dried out, and more composition was produced. By 4:00 p.m. on July 7, Lewis was ready to pay the boat, but a shower of rain attended by thunder and lightning prevented the operation.

It was done at noon the following day. Lewis was delighted with the result. After the first coat cooled, he put on a second: “This adds very much to her appearance whether it will be effectual or not. it gives her hull the appearance of being formed of one solid piece.”

July 9 was launch day. Lewis had brought the frame of the Experiment all the way from Harpers Ferry. The frame had taken up space that could have been given to whiskey or trade goods or cornmeal or tools. Lewis had spent nearly two weeks getting her ready to launch, and had held up the entire expedition the past four or five days for the final preparations. He was counting on the boat to carry the bulky items to the Shoshone country at the source of the Missouri. He had a lot at stake.

Yet he began his journal entry describing the day with an account of the blackbirds that crowded the White Bear Islands. Only then did he record, “We launched the boat, she lay like a perfect cork on the water. five men would carry her with the greatest ease.” Lewis directed the men to put the oars in place and load her up. He had others get the canoes ready to shove off. He was exultant.

But just as the expedition was about to become waterborne again, a violent wind came up, raising whitecaps on the river and wetting some of the baggage, forcing the men to unload the canoes.

It was late in the evening before the storm passed. When it did, Lewis discovered that the composition had separated from the skins and left the seams exposed. “She leaked in such manner that she would not answer.”

Lewis was “mortifyed.”

It turned out that the buffalo hides with a bit of hair left on them “answered much the best. . . . the parts which were well covered with hair about 1/8th of an inch in length retained the composition perfectly and remained sound and dry.” Lewis felt certain that, if he had used all buffalo skins, and kept some hair on them, even with the composition he had the boat would have answered.

But, he said, “to make any further experiments in our present situation seemed to me madness.” The season was advancing; the vast buffalo herds were moving downstream, away from the Great Falls. “I therefore relinquished all further hope of my favorite boat.” He resigned himself to leaving her in a cache, but tortured himself with what-ifs. If he had only singed his elk skins, instead of shaving them, the composition would have worked. If he could have just kept her afloat for a couple of days, the expedition would have reached pine country, where pitch could be obtained. “But it was now too late to introduce a remidy and I bid a dieu to my boat, and her expected services.” He never mentioned her again.III

Arlen Large indulges in a piece of imaginative speculation about the failure of the Experiment. He notes that, whereas Lewis’s journal is stuffed with loving details about every step in preparing the Experiment for her launch, Clark’s entries are brief, cold, distant, possibly indicating that he had no faith in the thing from the first. After the boat sank, Lewis wrote that he and Clark “recollected hving heard the hunters” mention some trees about eight miles upriver that would answer for canoes. Clark, however, in an 1810 interview with Nicholas Biddle, made it clear he had anticipated failure and had “previously” sent the hunters out to look for big trees. If Clark felt that the Experiment wasn’t his baby and wouldn’t work, he must have believed his friend’s obsession with the boat had cost the expedition a lot of valuable time.

It may be, Large continues, that the Experiment caused a rift between the captains. If so, it was the only one. Lewis and Clark may have agreed on a period of separation to let things cool off. Clark took off the next morning to make canoes, and he stayed away from Lewis for most of the following two weeks.

The failure of the iron-frame boat left the expedition, despite the caches of so much material at Marias River and at Belt Creek, short of carrying capacity. Without the frame boat to substitute for the two pirogues hidden and secured downstream, more and larger canoes were needed. The hunters—acting at Clark’s direction—had discovered a grove of cottonwood trees large enough for suitable canoes. The captains agreed that, in the morning, Lewis would oversee the transport of the baggage to the tree grove, while Clark would take ten men and proceed by land to the grove and begin to make canoes.

Stung so badly by the failure of his experiment, Lewis was gun-shy. He confessed in his journal that he would think it extremely fortunate if there were cottonwoods big enough to make into canoes at the grove, because he had not seen a single one in the past two months that would have been suitable.

But the hunters were right. Clark found two trees, one with twenty-five feet of usable length, another of thirty-three feet, each about three feet wide. These answered nicely. It took five days to hollow them out and prepare them for the journey.

Anyone who has ever canoed on the upper Missouri River knows what a welcome sight a grove of cottonwoods can be. They provide shade, shelter, and fuel. For Indian ponies, they provided food. For the Corps of Discovery, they provided wheels, wagons, and canoes.

Pioneering Lewis and Clark scholar Paul Russell Cutright pays the cottonwoods an appropriate tribute: “Of all the western trees it contributed more to the success of the Expedition than any other. Lewis and Clark were men of great talent and resourcefulness, masters of ingenuity and improvisation. Though we think it probable that they would have successfully crossed the continent without the cottonwood, don’t ask us how!”4

It had been a month since Lewis discovered the Great Falls, a month in which the total progress was about twenty-five miles, or less than a mile a day. On July 12, Lewis confessed, “I feel excessively anxious to be moving on.” Two days later, everything was ready. With two large and six smaller canoes, and greatly reduced baggage, the expedition set out for the mountains. If the Hidatsas were right, the river would penetrate up to the Continental Divide, where Lewis and Clark would meet the Shoshone Indians, and where a half-day’s portage would take the expedition over the Divide and into the Columbia River drainage.

Whatever lay ahead, and no one expected it to be easy, the captains and the men must have felt that it could not possibly be more arduous than the portage they had just completed. And for Lewis personally, nothing could be more heartbreaking than seeing his beloved boat go down. The worst had to be behind them.


I. Chuinard conjectures that Sacagawea may have suffered from chronic pelvic inflammatory disease, because of gonorrheal infection (Only One Man Died, pp. 287–89).

II. Ken Karsmizki, the archaeologist from the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman who is directing the dig at the lower portage camp, has heard the boom several times.

III. And no one bothered to pick her up on the return journey to take her back to Harpers Ferry.

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