Modern history


Looking for the Shoshones

July 15–August 12, 1805

The captains were anxious to meet the Shoshones. The mosquitoes were troublesome. The prickly-pear thorns were painful. But for Lewis, despite these mental worries and physical problems, the second two weeks of July 1805 were a delight. He was keenly alive to sights and sounds, new birds and animals, the majesty of the western mountains and valleys. The first American ever to see such wonders, he took seriously his responsibility to provide the first report on what was out there. His descriptions of the things he saw are enchanting.

He had been a bit sour in the early-morning hours of departure day, July 15, because the canoes were overloaded. “We find it extreemly difficult to keep the baggage of many of our men within reasonable boundes,” he wrote. “They will be adding bulky articles of but little use or value to them.”

But at 10:00 a.m., when the loading was complete and the men began to push their canoes away from the shore and paddle upstream, his mood soared. “Much to my joy,” Lewis wrote, “we once more saw ourselves fairly under way.”

He walked on shore, with two privates, partly to lighten the load in the canoes, mainly because he loved to walk over new country. He was so pleased with life he even found something good to say about the prickly pear, which “is now in full blume and forms one of the beauties as well as the greatest pests of the plains.” He described the abundant sunflowers in bloom, and how the Indians made bread of them. He noticed “lambsquarter, wild coucumber, sand rush and narrow dock.” He saw a singular formation, a round, fortresslike mountain rising at the perpendicular one thousand feet above the plain with an extensive flat top. Lewis called it Fort Mountain (today’s Square Butte, southwest of Great Falls, one of Charley Russell’s favorite subjects).

The next day, Lewis decided to strike out ahead of the main body, so he could get to the place where the river came out of the mountains and make celestial observations. He brought along Drouillard and two privates. They walked through the morning; at noon, Lewis measured the sun’s altitude and deduced his latitude as N. 46 degrees, 46’ 50.2”—thirty-five miles too far north.

In the afternoon, he reached a spot where the mountains were crowding in on the river and made camp. He climbed to the summit of a rock he called “the tower . . . and from it there is a most pleasing view of the country we are now about to leave. from it I saw this evening immence herds of buffaloe in the plains below.” He selected and killed a fat elk for supper.

As he began the ascent into the mountains, he encountered “a great abundance of red yellow perple & black currants, and service berries now ripe and in great perfection . . . vastly preferable to those of our gardens.”

He was aware of passing from one ecological zone into another. On July 17, he noted that the broadleaf eastern cottonwood was giving way to the narrowleaf western cottonwood. The mosquitoes were troublesome. Just as he was ready to lie down, Lewis realized with a sharp pang that he had left his “bier,” his mosquito netting, with the canoes. “Of course [I] suffered considerably,” he wrote in his journal, “and promised in my wrath that I never will be guilty of a similar peice of negligence while on this voyage.”

During the third week in July, Lewis had two new rivers to name. Previously he and Clark had used the names of the men, of Sacagawea, of relatives, or of unusual features or incidents. Now that they were past the Great Falls, they changed their references. It was as if they suddenly recalled that they had some political responsibility here, that no politician can ever be flattered too much or too brazenly, and that nothing quite matches having a river named for you.

Lewis named the first river coming in from the left Smith’s River, for Robert Smith, Jefferson’s secretary of the navy. Lewis described it as “a beautifull river. . . . the stream meanders through a most lovely valley. . . .” The first river coming in from the right he named Dearborn’s, for Henry Dearborn, the secretary of war. He called it a “handsome bold and clear stream.”I

That morning, July 18, he noted “a large herd of the Bighorned anamals on the immencely high and nearly perpendicular clift opposite to us; on the fase of this clift they walked about and bounded from rock to rock with apparent unconcern where it appared to me that no quadruped could have stood, and from which had they made one false step they must have been precipitated at least a 500 feet.”

Lewis’s anxiety to meet the Shoshones increased. He talked with Clark; they agreed that one or the other of them would take a small party and proceed by land upriver, to get well ahead of the canoes, in order to find some Shoshones. Their idea was that the daily firing of the rifles by the hunters would frighten away the Shoshones, who would assume their enemy the Blackfeet were around. Of course the land party would also have to fire weapons to sustain itself—but not so many of them.

Clark led the party. It left at dawn on July 19. Lewis led the canoes up the river. It was hard going, whether using the cord, the setting poles, or the paddles. Whenever the mountains broke back to give a view, there was to their right the disheartening sight of lofty summits all covered with snow, standing between the expedition and its goal. Meanwhile, Lewis noted unhappily, “we are almost suffocated in this confined vally with heat.”


A. E. Mathews, Gates of the Mountains (1867). (Montana Historical Society)

That evening, “we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1200 feet. every object here wears a dark and gloomy aspect. the towering and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us. . . . for the distance of 53/4 miles [the river is] deep from side to side nor is there in the 1st 3 miles of this distance a spot . . . on which a man could rest the soal of his foot. . . . it was late in the evening before I entered this place . . . obliged to continue my rout untill sometime after dark before I found a place sufficiently large to encamp my small party; at length such an one occurred on the lard. side. . . . from the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.”

In the morning, as the flotilla paddled its way out of the canyon, the mountains receded and a beautiful intermountain valley presented itself. But about 10:00 a.m., a distressing, worry-making sight appeared in the sky: a column of smoke, coming out of a creek drainage some seven miles west, big enough to have been deliberately set. It had to have been done by Indians, all but certainly Shoshone, and almost surely because a single Indian or a small party had heard the discharge of a rifle and set fire to the grass to warn the rest of the tribe to retreat into the interior of the mountains.

That was about as bad as anything that could happen, but there was nothing to do but press on. The following day, the flotilla entered “a beautifull and extensive plain country of about 10 or 12 miles wide which extended upwards further than the eye could reach this valley is bounded by two nearly parallel ranges of high mountains which have their summits partially covered with snow.”

Lewis was within a couple of hours’ march from one of the great gold deposits, at Last Chance Gulch, in present Helena, Montana. But he wasn’t looking for gold. His lack of interest in it was one of the things that distinguished his exploration from that of his Spanish predecessors (another was his lack of interest in converting Indians to Christianity). Interested in plants and animals, especially fur-bearing animals, he paid little attention to potential mineral deposits, especially after leaving the Mandans. He had noted lead deposits on the lower Missouri, but when he entered the Rockies he hardly ever commented on rocks or minerals.

Why should he? In the prerailroad age, there was no way to move heavy, bulky items—no matter how valuable—from the mountains back to the seaboard. In his final instructions to Lewis, Jefferson had ordered the explorer to take note of the mineral deposits, but he meant such minerals as lead, iron, and coal, valuable adjuncts to an agricultural economy, not export items.

Donald Jackson comments that this unconcern with minerals “was a blank spot in Lewis’s thinking that he almost surely had acquired from Jefferson. The Rockies were too far away for mining, for any commerce but the fur trade, and so were not an object of study and speculation but only a wretchedly cold obstacle between men and the sea.”1 As far as Lewis and Jefferson were concerned, animals, not minerals, were the great wealth of the Rocky Mountains.

Ten days after passing Last Chance Gulch, the expedition made camp on a small creek entering today’s Beaverhead River. The captains named it Willard’s Creek, in honor of Private Alexander Willard. “Nothing remarkable happened,” Donald Jackson writes. It would be sixty years before Willard’s Creek was renamed Grasshopper Creek and the Beaverhead country teemed with gold miners.

Jackson speculates on what might have happened had the expedition brought back a handful of nuggets from Willard’s Creek: “Nomadic fur traders, blazing trails in the years immediately following Lewis and Clark, might have been joined by adventurous miners. The finding of shorter and easier trails, such as the route across South Pass in southern Wyoming, would have occurred earlier. The timetable for western settlement would surely have been advanced by a generation, and that peculiar American invention, Indian removal, would have become standard government policy much earlier in the area west of the Mississippi.”2

As the mountains began to close in again, toward evening on July 22, the expedition got a badly needed morale booster. The men were laboring mightily, often in the water pulling the canoes along, feet slipping (or getting cut on rocks), the river apparently having no end, the mountains crowding in, the great buffalo herds now left behind on the plains, no whiskey left, the days beginning to grow noticeably shorter. Sacagawea recognized this section of the river. She had been here as a girl; it was the river on which the Shoshones lived in the summer. The Three Forks were at no great distance ahead. “this peice of information has cheered the sperits of the party,” Lewis duly noted.

At 4:00 p.m., the flotilla reached Clark, who had made camp on the starboard side. He had found no Indians, although he had seen signs that they were out there. He had left some presents, cloth and linen, “in order to inform the indians should they pursue his trale that we were not their enemies, but white men and their friends.”

But the thing that stood out was Clark’s physical condition, more specifically his feet. They were a raw, bleeding mass of flesh torn apart by prickly pears. “I opened the bruses & blisters of my feet which caused them to be painfull,” Clark wrote, in his own get-to-the-point fashion. He spent the day resting, waiting for Lewis to come up with the canoes.

The captains talked. They agreed that another overland expedition was necessary. Clark wanted to lead it; he wanted another chance at finding Indians and overcoming prickly pears. One day of self-enforced idleness was all he could take; he itched to be back at work.

Lewis wrote, “altho’ Capt. C. was much fatiegued his feet yet blistered and soar he insisted on pursuing his rout in the morning nor weould he consent willingly to my releiving him. . . . finding him anxious I readily consented to remain with the canoes.” Clark told the Field brothers and Private Robert Frazier to get ready to accompany him in the morning. Charbonneau asked if he could go along; Clark agreed.

This was about as close to a disagreement that the captains ever came, or at least ever wrote about, with regard to rank. In Lewis’s version, “I readily consented.” In Clark’s version, “I deturmined to proceed on in pursute of the Snake Indians.”

So insistent was Clark that he had determined, rather than Lewis’s having consented, that years later, in editing the journals for publication, Clark had “I deturmined” substituted for Lewis’s “he insisted.”

As a dispute, that wasn’t much, more a disagreement over the right word to describe the decision-making process than a fight over the question of who was in command. For Virginians, taught rank-consciousness from birth, sensitive to the slightest slight, concern about rank, status, and position was as much a part of life as breathing. Lewis’s journal description of this little incident is written on an unspoken, probably unconscious, assumption: that he could order Clark to stay with the canoes while he took the scouts to look for Indians. Clark disagreed: in his view, this was a case of “I deturmined” rather than “you allowed.”

There is a hint in the decision that the captains thought Clark was the better at approaching and dealing with Indians, but just a hint. The makeup of Clark’s party is puzzling. Why did Charbonneau have to ask to come along, and why didn’t Clark bring Sacagawea? The captains had brought her all this way so that she could to be the contact person with the Shoshones.

Instead, Clark was proposing to approach them with three other armed men, none of them proficient with the sign language (Drouillard was camped upriver a few miles that night; he had been hunting). The only Shoshone words Clark knew he had been taught by Sacagawea. He had asked her what was her people’s word for “white man.”

“Tab-ba-bone,” she replied.

Actually, the Shoshones had no word for “white man,” never having seen one. Scholars have guessed that tab-ba-bone might have meant “stranger,” or “enemy.”3

Certainly bringing along a recently ill young woman with a papoose on her back would have slowed the party, but, then, how fast was Clark going to go, with his feet in tatters? Anyway, proceeding slowly would have been preferable to blundering ahead hoping to bump into some Indians yet having no way to communicate with them.

When it came his turn to lead an overland search for Shoshones, Lewis followed Clark’s example and did not ask Sacagawea to accompany him. The captains shared a hubris, that they could handle Indians. They believed they needed Sacagawea’s interpreting ability only to trade for horses, not to establish contact. And they had no ability whatsoever to see the initial encounter from the Shoshones’ point of view. Four-man parties, armed better even than the Blackfeet, approaching on foot, shouting something that sounded like “stranger,” or “enemy”—did Clark really expect these Indians to come running to embrace him when they saw the American flag?

In this case, it would seem that the captains allowed their self-confidence, and perhaps their male chauvinism, to override their common sense.

Clark set out the next morning, July 23, in search of Indians. Lewis headed upriver. Conditions were awful. “Our trio of pests still invade and obstruct us on all occasions, these are the Musquetoes eye knats and prickley pears.” It was hot. Progress was measured in yards, even feet. “The men complain of being much fortiegued, their labour is excessively great.” So moved was Lewis by their effort—and so eager was he to get on—that “I occasionally encourage them by assisting in the labour of navigating the canoes, and have learned to push a tolerable good pole in their fraize.”

He still had time for observation. Signs of beaver were noted, and otter. Cranes, geese, red-breasted mergansers, and curlews brought comment. He saw “a great number of snakes,” killed one, examined its teeth to see if they were hollow and thus would carry poison, “and fund them innosent.”

What excited wonder also caused worry. “The mountains they still continue high and seem to rise in some places like an amphatheater one rang above another as they receede from the river untill the most distant and lofty have their tops clad with snow.” They loomed out there, every time Lewis looked to his right, waiting for him.

Another frustration—the river was now flowing from a southeasterly direction, so progress was taking the expedition in exactly the wrong direction.

Another worry—although Sacagawea insisted that there were no falls or obstructions in the river above, Lewis confessed, “I can scarcely form an idea of a river runing to great extent through such a rough mountainous country without having it’s stream intersepted by some difficult and dangerous rappids or falls.”

Another pest—needle grass, an invention of the devil, consisting of barbed seeds which “penetrate our mockersons and leather legings and give us great pain untill they are removed. my poor dog suffers with them excessively, he is constantly binting and scratching himself as if in a rack of pain.”

Another day on the river. Making about eighteen miles per day. Endless. Exhausting.

July 27: “We set out at an early hour and proceeded on but slowly the current still so rapid that the men are in a continual state of their utmost exertion to get on, and they begin to weaken fast from this continual state of violent exertion.” They had reached the breaking point.

Then fortune smiled. Just around the turn, at 9:00 a.m., Lewis in the lead canoe came to a junction with a river from the southeast. A quarter-mile or so upstream, two rivers came together, a southwest fork and a middle fork, making the Three Forks. As Lewis described it, “The country opens suddonly to extensive and beatifull plains and meadows which appear to be surrounded in every direction with distant and lofty mountains.”

He came to shore on the larboard side. Telling the men to rest, he set out to climb a nearby high limestone cliff. At the top, “I commanded a most perfect view of the neighbouring country.” Looking up the southeast fork, he saw “smoth extensive green meadow of fine grass. . . . a distant range of lofty mountains rose their snow-clad tops above the irregular and broken mountains which lie adjacent to this beautifull spot.”

From the cliff Lewis stood on, the view today is still spectacular. There are modern intrusions—Interstate Highway 90, Montana Highway 287, and a few secondary roads run through it, and the little town of Three Forks is a few miles away—but the overall scene is as it was. There is a tremendous bowl, containing the linked valleys of the two rivers coming out of today’s Yellowstone Park to the south and east, and the valley of the river to the southwest, coming down from the Madisons. The rivers are crowded with fish and waterfowl; the banks are crowded with deer. The mountains surround the bowl in a nearly complete circle of up to a hundred miles in diameter and are just as Lewis saw them, lofty and snow-covered.


A. E. Mathews, Three Forks (1867). (Montana Historical Society)

After writing a description of the Three Forks area, Lewis returned to the canoes, ate breakfast, and led the flotilla upstream. At the junction of the middle and the southwest forks, he found a note Clark had written and stuck on a pole; it said he would rejoin Lewis here unless he fell in with some fresh sign of Indians, in which case he intended to follow the Indians and would count on Lewis to ascend the southwest (or right-hand) fork.

Lewis immediately agreed with Clark’s judgment that the right-hand was the fork to take. He set up camp and made plans to stay awhile, because “beleiving this to be an essential point in the geography of this western part of the Continent I determined to remain at all events untill I obtained the necessary data for fixing it’s latitude Longitude &c.” And it wouldn’t hurt to give the men a chance to rest.

Lewis set out to explore. Comparing the middle fork with the southwest fork, he could see no difference in character or size. “Therefore to call either of these streams the Missouri would be giving it a preference wich it’s size dose not warrant as it is not larger than the other. They are each 90 yds wide.”

Lewis named the southeast fork “Gallitin’s river,” in honor of Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury; the middle fork he called “Maddison’s river,” in honor of James Madison, secretary of state; the southwest fork, the one he intended to follow, he called “Jefferson’s River in honor [of] that illustrious personage Thomas Jefferson President of the United States. . . .”II

At 3:00 p.m., Captain Clark came into camp. He was extremely sick, completely exhausted. He told Lewis he had been sick all night, with a high fever, frequent chills, and constant pains in his muscles. Nevertheless, in the morning, he had made a forced march of about eight miles up the middle fork but, finding no Indian sign, decided to return to Three Forks. He said he was “somewhat bilious and had not had a passage for several days.”

Lewis convinced Clark that a dozen of Rush’s pills would be sovereign in this case; he said it always worked. Clark agreed to take five. Lewis also convinced Clark to bathe his feet in warm water. Despite the treatment, Clark closed his short journal entry for the day, “I continue to be verry unwell fever verry high.”

Lewis closed his journal that night with a worry. “We begin to feel considerable anxiety with rispect to the Snake Indians,” he wrote. “If we do not find them . . . I fear the successfull issue of our voyage will be very doubtfull or at all events much more difficult in it’s acomplishment.” He believed the expedition would soon reach “the bosom of this wild and mountanous country,” and realized that meant game would grow scarce, perhaps even nonexistent. Meanwhile, the expedition would be “without any information with rispect to the country not knowing how far these mountains continue, or wher to direct our course to pass them to advantage or intersept a navigable branch of the Columbia.”

Without Shoshone horses, without Shoshone information, the expedition might as well turn around and go home, or so Lewis feared, although he was prepared to press on as long as it was possible. He consoled himself with the thought that the Jefferson River had to head with the tributaries of the Columbia. As to the lack of game, he figured that “if any Indians can subsist in the form of a nation in these mountains with the means they have of acquiring food we can also subsist.”

The expedition spent two days at the Three Forks, the men making clothing or hunting, Lewis making celestial observations, Clark recuperating. Always the booster and developer, Lewis proposed the establishment of a fort at Three Forks, at the far-western limit of Louisiana, where the rivers and creeks teemed with beaver. That it was almost three thousand miles up the Missouri from St. Louis and the nearest civilization bothered him not a bit—there was plenty of timber, and “the grass is luxouriant and would afford a fine swarth of hay.”

Sacagawea informed him that the expedition’s camp was precisely on the spot where the Shoshones had been camped five years ago when a raiding party of Hidatsas discovered them. The Shoshones had retreated three miles upriver and hidden in a wood. But the Hidatsas had found and routed them, killing four men, four women, and a number of boys, and making prisoners of four boys and all the remaining women, including Sacagawea.

“I cannot discover that she shews any immotion of sorrow in recollecting this event,” Lewis concluded his journal entry relating Sacagawea’s story, “or of joy in being again restored to her native country; if she has enough to eat and a few trinkets to wear I believe she would be perfectly content anywhere.”

One wonders if Lewis was comparing Sacagawea with the young black female slaves he had known, or with white women of his own class. One wonders too how the man who could be so observant about so many things, including the feelings and point of view of his men, could be so unobservant about Sacagawea’s situation. A slave, one of only two in the party, she was also the only Indian, the only mother, the only woman, the only teen-aged person. Small wonder she kept such a tight grip on her emotions.

Captain Clark had improved, somewhat. Though his fever was gone, he was “still very languid and complains of a general soarness in all his limbs.” Lewis prescribed Peruvian bark (for the tonic effect of its quinine).

Over the next week, Lewis, with Drouillard and small parties of men (and once Sacagawea), marched ahead of the canoes, searching for Indians. The early-August sun beat down on the hikers; on the first day of the month, Lewis described himself as “much exhausted by the heat of the day the roughness of the road and the want of water.” He nevertheless discovered and described the blue grouse and the pinyon jay. He found a profusion of berries, “now ripe and in full perfection, we feasted suptuously on our wild fruit.” He saw more beaver signs than he had ever thought possible. He named two tributaries of the Jefferson River: “[We] called the bold rapid an clear stream Wisdom and the more mild and placid one Philanthrophy, in commemoration of two of those cardinal virtues, which have so eminently marked that deservedly selibrated character [Jefferson] through life.”III

The junction of the Wisdom and the Jefferson presented a familiar problem. Which river to follow? Lewis decided on the Jefferson, not because it was bigger (it carried less water than the Wisdom) but because it was much warmer, “from which I concluded that it had it’s source at a greater distance in the mountains.” He wrote a note to Clark, recommending that he bring the canoes up the Jefferson if he got to the junction before Lewis returned from a two-day scout for Indians. He stuck the note on a pole at the fork of the river and set out with Drouillard, Charbonneau, and Sergeant Gass (who had disabled himself in an accident and was in great pain, too much so to work a canoe, though, according to Lewis, “he could march with convenience”).

Two days later, August 6, Lewis returned to the area, empty-handed with regard to the Shoshones. Now he heard “the hooping of the party to my left.” He marched toward the sound and found Clark and the canoes on the Wisdom River. They were a sorry mess. One canoe had just overset and all its baggage was wet, including the medicine box. Two other canoes had filled with water. Immediate action was necessary.

“The first object,” Lewis wrote, was to examine, dry, and arrange the stores. They made a camp on a gravel bar at the mouth of the Wisdom and spread the stuff out to dry.

That job done, the captains talked. Why was Clark going up the Wisdom? Hadn’t he seen Lewis’s note? He had not. The captains puzzled over this, then concluded that Lewis had put the note on a green pole; a passing beaver had cut it down and carried it off, together with the note. “The possibility of such an occurrence never once occurred to me when I placed it on the green pole,” Lewis confessed.

Clark had not agreed with Lewis on which river to take. He had gone up the Wisdom because he thought it went more directly in the direction the expedition wanted to go. But the Wisdom was much too narrow, willow-infested, rapid, and twisty. Clark said that he had met with Drouillard before Lewis came up, that Drouillard had informed him of the true state of the two rivers, and that he was in the process of turning around (which was what caused the canoe to upset) when Lewis arrived.

Another worry. Clark had sent Private Shannon ahead, up the Wisdom, to hunt. When Clark met Drouillard and decided to turn around, he told Drouillard to proceed upstream, catch up with Shannon, and bring him back. But toward dusk, Drouillard came in to report he could not find Shannon. Lewis ordered the trumpet sounded and had the men fire a couple of volleys, but Shannon made no appearance.

In the morning, August 7, the captains decided they had so far exhausted their supplies that they could proceed with one canoe less, so they hid and secured one in a thicket of brush. In the afternoon, they made seven miles up the Jefferson. Shannon failed to join the party. On the 8th, they made fourteen river miles, but, as Lewis noted, “altho’ we travel briskly and a considerable distance yet it takes us only a few miles on our general curse or rout,” because the river was “very crooked many short bends.” Three days previously, Lewis had noted that “the men were so much fortiegued today that they wished much that navigation was at an end that they might go by land.” Morale, and the energy level, were sinking fast.

The Corps of Discovery was becoming a walking hospital. Captain Clark’s intestinal problems had disappeared, but he had developed a tumor on his ankle, which was much swollen and inflamed and gave him considerable pain. Sergeant Gass, Charbonneau, and four or five of the enlisted men had various indispositions. Everyone was more or less exhausted most of the time.

But that afternoon, Sacagawea again gave the men a much-needed lift. As Lewis put it, “The Indian woman recognized the point of a high plain to our right which she informed us was not very distant from the summer retreat of her nation on a river beyond the mountains which runs to the west.” She said the Shoshones called the hill the “Beaver’s Head,” from a supposed resemblance of its shape to the head of a swimming beaver. “She assures us that we shall either find her people on this river or on the river immediately west of it’s source.”

So close. The men wanted to hide the canoes, put the baggage on their backs, and march to the dividing ridge. But if the captains let them do that, they would have to leave the greater part of the baggage as well as the canoes, and in Lewis’s view, “we have a stock already sufficiently small for the length of the voyage before us.” They had to have horses.

“As it is now all important with us to meet with those people [the Shoshones] as soon as possible,” Lewis wrote, the captains decided to send out an overland party that would stay out until it located the Indians. Clark wanted to lead it, but “the rageing fury of a tumer on my anckle musle” made it impossible for him to walk.

Lewis’s determination was absolute. His intention was “to proceed tomorrow with a small party to the source of the principal stream of this river and pass the mountains to the Columbia; and down that river untill I found the Indians; in short it is my resolusion to find them or some others, who have horses if it should cause me a trip of one month.”

In the morning, before breakfast, Lewis did some “wrightings, which I conceived from the nature of my instructions necessary lest any accedent should befall me on the long and reather hazardous rout I was now about to take.” What those writings consisted of, no one knows. It sounds as if they were written instructions to Clark in the event he did not return. Did he tell Clark to press on, whatever happened to him? Or to fall back to St. Louis and try again the next year, with a bigger party?

This was the first time he had done such a thing. Clearly he felt he had arrived at the critical moment and that he was in a do-or-die situation. He was a man whose mind never stopped working, and during his long walks on the plains or in the mountains he had plenty of time to think—even though his eyes were constantly picking up flora and fauna, geographical features, the distance to this or that spot, and registering them in his mind so he could write about them in his journal.

That was the naturalist/explorer in him, and his interest never flagged. But he was also an army officer operating under orders to go to the Pacific and return and report. And he was a company commander, responsible for the lives of thirty men. So what was the military-officer/explorer thinking?

In that capacity, Lewis was a worrier who took care to put his concerns down on paper. The question “Where is Shannon?” led to conjecture. Lewis’s thought was that he must have shot an elk or two and was waiting beside the Wisdom for the expedition to come to him. Which river to take? Can we possibly make it without horses? Always he worried about the state of the men’s health, and wondered how much more of this they could take.

As to what he thought lay ahead, on August 10 he wrote, “I do not beleive that the world can furnish an example of a river runing to the extent which the Missouri and Jefferson’s rivers do through such a mountainous country and at the same time so navigable as they are.” His men were already questioning that word “navigable,” but his optimism remained: “If the Columbia furnishes us such another example, a communication across the continent by water will be practicable and safe.” This had to be the triumph of faith in Jefferson, at the expense of what he was seeing with his own eyes, the men at their uttermost limits and still so far to go.

His realism returned to him: “this [a short portage and an easy float to the Pacific] I can scarcely hope from a knowledge of its having in its comparitively short course to the ocean the same number of feet to decend which the Missouri and Mississippi have from this point to the Gulph of Mexico.”

His mind covered the continent. If the Columbia had only one-fifth the course to run to get to sea level as the Missouri-Mississippi, and if they started out within a short hike of each other, then the Columbia was going to have lots more falls and rapids than anything they had so far encountered.

But his fixed rule was always to assume the road ahead was good, until proved otherwise.

Only a tiny number of people have ever had the experience of not knowing what they would see when they got to the top of the mountain or turned into the river or sailed around the tip of a continent. Lewis expected that, when he got up the mountain to the Divide, he would see something resembling the country he was traveling through—long, sweeping valleys dropping down to the broader valley of the Jefferson—only in this case the stream would be running to the south branch of the Columbia. Whatever he saw, he was either going to find horses on this trip, and get over the mountains and onto the Columbia, or die in the attempt.

Aside from his own calculation about the nature of the Columbia, he seldom wrote about what he expected to see. He did write about what the Hidatsas told him. Their information was awfully sketchy beyond Three Forks, and nonexistent on the western side of the Divide. Lewis’s theoretical expectation, learned from Jefferson, was that the Rockies were a single chain of mountains, like the Appalachians. But, given that the Rockies were so much higher than anything east of the Mississippi, he really didn’t know what he would see.

With regard to the Indians he was seeking, he neglected to think through his situation. He just blundered ahead on the unshakable and unacknowledged assumption that he was such an expert in handling Indians that when he met a Shoshone he would know instinctively what to do.

If he ever interviewed Sacagawea about her people, he didn’t consider it important enough to put into his journal. If he ever asked her what the country beyond the Divide was like, he didn’t write about it. Clark’s asking her how to say “white man” in Shoshone was the full extent of the captains’ interrogation of the most valuable intelligence source they had available to them. That Lewis did not bring her along on the most important mission of his life is inexplicable. She had made long marches before, and could again.

Also inexplicable was the failure of the captains to talk with each other, and to bring Drouillard and Charbonneau in on the discussion, about what to do when contact was made with a Shoshone. Furthermore, Lewis held no conference with Drouillard and Privates John Shields and Hugh McNeal, the men he had selected to go on the mission with him, to tell them what to do when an Indian was spotted—how to behave, what signs to use, what to say.

Lewis had good reason to believe the Shoshones would welcome the expedition. The tribe desperately needed contact with white traders, so that the braves could arm themselves and fight the Blackfeet, Hidatsas, and other enemies on more equal terms. Of course, Lewis wasn’t bringing the hard-pressed Shoshones any guns—only the promise that if the Shoshones cooperated, American traders would come to their country. Short-term, Lewis needed the Shoshones far more than they needed him; long-term, their fate was tied up with the success of the expedition. But how to get them to recognize this would be a problem. So would getting past the initial moment of contact without anybody’s firing or running away.

These problems required a plan and a strategy, but the captains never developed either one.

At breakfast on the morning of August 9, a good omen for Lewis’s mission: Shannon came in, with three deer skins and an adventure story that had a happy ending.

“Immediately after breakfast,” Lewis wrote that night, “I slung my pack and set out.”

The first day, he covered sixteen miles. The second day, it was thirty miles, ending up in “one of the handsomest coves I ever saw, of about 16 or 18 miles in diameter.”IV He had followed an old Indian road, but it gave out on him. On the morning of the 11th, he met with his party and gave out the closest thing to a plan he could come up with. They would spread out across the valley, headed west, looking for the Indian road. Drouillard would go out to the right, Shields to the left; McNeal would stay with Lewis. If Drouillard or Shields should find the road, he would notify Lewis by placing a hat on the muzzle of his rifle and holding it aloft.

They marched abreast for five miles. No sign of a road. Suddenly Lewis squinted, looked again, took out his telescope, and saw for sure “an Indian on horse back about two miles distant coming down the plain toward us.” His dress was Shoshone. “His arms were a bow and quiver of arrows, and was mounted on an eligant horse without a saddle.”

“I was overjoyed at the sight of this stranger,” Lewis wrote, “and had no doubt of obtaining a friendly introduction to his nation provided I could get near enough to him to convince him of our being whitemen.”

Lewis hiked on at his usual pace. The Indian horseman came on. But when they were about a mile apart, the Indian stopped. So did Lewis. Lewis pulled his blanket from his pack, threw it into the air, and spread it on the ground, which he understood to be a signal of friendship. Unfortunately, “this signal had not the desired effect, he still kept his position.” He was glancing from side to side. It seemed to Lewis that he was viewing Drouillard and Shields “with an air of suspicion.”

Of course he was. The Indian was, probably, a teen-ager out on a scout, curious about these strangers but cautious, brought up to fear all strangers. Coming at him were four armed men. How could he not be suspicious? Especially since the Shoshones had just suffered a serious loss of people and horses from a Blackfoot raid.4

Lewis wanted to make Drouillard and Shields halt, but they were out of shouting range “and I feared to make any signal to them least it should increase the suspicion in the mind of the Indian of our having some unfriendly design upon him.”

Lewis spread out the pitiful supply of trade goods he had brought with him—some beads, a looking glass, a few trinkets. Leaving his rifle and pouch with McNeal, he advanced toward the Indian.

The Indian sat his horse, and watched, until Lewis was within two hundred yards. At that point, he turned his horse and began to move off slowly.

Desperate, Lewis called in as loud a voice as he could command, “tab-ba-bone,” repeatedly.

Instead of responding to Lewis, the Indian kept watching Drouillard and Shields as they advanced. Lewis was furious with them: “Neither of them haveing segacity enough to recollect the impropriety of advancing when they saw me thus in parley with the Indian.” Finally, he broke his rule not to make signals—he signaled them to stop. Drouillard saw and obeyed; Shields (“who afterwards told me that he did not observe the signal”) kept coming on.

At 150 yards, Lewis repeated “tab-ba-bone,” and held up “the trinkits in my hands and striped up my shirt sleve to give him an opportunity of seeing the coulour of my skin.”

At one hundred yards, the Indian “suddonly turned his hose about, gave him the whip, leaped the creek and disapeared in the willow brush in an instant and with him vanished all my hopes of obtaining horses for the preasent.”

“I now felt quite as much mortification and disappointment as I had pleasure and expectation at the first sight of this indian.” He was “soarly chargrined” by the conduct of the men, particularly Shields, whom he blamed for the failure.

“I now called the men to me,” Lewis wrote, “and could not forbare abraiding them a little for their want of attention and imprudence on this occasion.” Blaming them wasn’t going to accomplish anything, however, and Lewis’s refusal to assess his own mistakes in the encounter is noticeable. Surely he was just as guilty as they were, if not more so.

But he directed his anger at them. He had left his telescope with the blanket he had spread. McNeal had neglected to bring it along with the blanket, and Lewis seemed to take a bit of pleasure in ordering Drouillard and Shields to go back to search for it.

When they found it and returned, the party set off on the track of the horse, McNeal carrying a small U.S. flag attached to a pole. Thinking that the Indians might well be watching from the surrounding hills, and not wanting to give them the idea that an advance on them was being made, Lewis halted at an open place, built a fire, and cooked and ate breakfast. But just as he started out again, a heavy shower of rain raised the grass and wiped out the track. He saw several places where it appeared to him that the Indians had been digging roots that day, which meant the main village couldn’t be far off. At twenty miles, he made camp.

On the morning of August 12, “we fell in with a large and plain Indian road. . . . it passed a stout stream. . . . Here we halted and brakfasted on the last of our venison, having yet a small peice of pork in reseve.”

They hiked on, headed toward a pass, the stream growing small as they ascended the gentle slope. “At a distance of 4 miles further the road took us to the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in search of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights.”

He assessed the impact on himself: “Thus far I had accomplished one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for many years, judge then of the pleasure I felt in allying my thirst with this pure and ice cold water.”

Lewis was not alone in his rejoicing: “Two miles below McNeal had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri.”

Now was the moment to go to the top of the pass, to become the first American to look on Idaho and the great northwestern empire. Lewis described the moment: “We proceeded on to the top of the dividing ridge from which I discovered immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow.”V

To what degree Lewis was surprised or disheartened by the sight, he never said. John Logan Allen asks us to “imagine the shock and the surprise—for from the top of that ridge were to be seen neither the great river that had been promised nor the open plains extending to the shores of the South Sea.” What Allen calls “the geography of hope” had to give way to “the geography of reality.”5 With Lewis’s last step to the top of the Divide went decades of theory about the nature of the Rocky Mountains, shattered by a single glance from a single man. Equally shattered were Lewis’s hopes for an easy portage to a major branch of the Columbia.

But whatever Lewis felt as he first saw the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains, he never wrote about. Nor did he write about his feelings as he took his first step on the western side of the Divide, outside of Louisiana.

He descended the mountain, which was much steeper than the approach on the eastern side, about three-quarters of a mile, “to a handsome bold running Creek of cold Clear water. here I first tasted the water of the great Columbia river.”

The party proceeded another ten miles or so before making camp. “As we had killed nothing during the day we now boiled and eat the remainder of our pork, having yet a little flour and parched meal.”

Lewis was deep into Indian country with only three men, and his main body three or four days’ march away. He had a few geegaws as his currency. He had a frightened Indian reporting back to the Shoshones that strangers were in the area. He had just been through enough experiences for an entire expedition, all in one day. He needed a good night’s sleep, and lots of good luck in the morning.

I. Had he traveled up the Dearborn, he would have come to today’s Lewis and Clark Pass, a fairly low pass over the Divide with the Blackfoot River Valley on the other side, leading directly to today’s Missoula, Montana, and the Clark Fork River, which flows into the Columbia.

II. Usually the first captain to see a river named it, but not always. And often they saw a new river simultaneously. In this case, Clark had first seen the three rivers that merge to form the Missouri, but Lewis gave them their names. The following day, he solicited Clark’s views; Clark said he agreed that no one could claim right of place and that therefore Jefferson, Gallatin, and Madison were appropriate names.

III. The Wisdom is today’s Big Hole; the Philanthropy is today’s Ruby. The main stream the captains continued to call the Jefferson; on today’s maps it is the Beaverhead.

IV. Shoshone Cove, now mostly covered by the Clark Canyon Reservoir.

V. He was at Lemhi Pass, on today’s Montana-Idaho border. Except for a wooden fence along the border, a cattle guard at the crossing, and a logging road, the site is pristine. Along with the Missouri River from Fort Benton to Fort Peck Lake, and the Lolo Trail in Idaho, it is the closest we can come today to seeing a site as Lewis saw it in 1805. The U.S. Forest Service has done an excellent job of signposting the route Lewis traveled.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!