Modern history


Over the Continental Divide

August 13–August 31, 1805

On Tuesday morning, August 13, 1805, Lewis set out early, headed west on a plain, heavily and recently used Indian trail that fell down a long, descending valley. Along the way, he saw and described the Rocky Mountain maple, the skunkbush sumac, and the common snowberry. He stopped to collect seeds of the snowberry for Mr. Jefferson.I

At nine miles, Lewis saw two Indian women, a man, and some dogs. When he had arrived within half a mile of them, he ordered Drouillard and the two privates to halt, unslung his pack and rifle and put them on the ground, unfurled a flag, and advanced alone at a steady pace toward the Indians. The women retreated, but the man stayed in place until Lewis was within a hundred yards.

Lewis called out “tab-ba-bone,” loudly and frequently. The man “absconded.”

Lewis had his men join him and proceeded. The country was cut by some short and steep ravines. After less than a mile, topping a rise, they came on three Indian women, one a twelve-year-old, one a teen, and the third elderly, only thirty yards away. At the first sight, Lewis laid down his rifle and advanced on the group. The teen ran off, but the old woman and the child remained. Seeing no chance to escape, they sat on the ground and held their heads down; to Lewis it looked as though they had reconciled themselves to die.

He approached and took the elderly woman by the hand, raised her up, said “tab-ba-bone,” and rolled up his shirtsleeve to show her his white skin (his hands and face were so deeply tanned he might have been an Indian, and his clothes were entirely leather). Drouillard and the privates joined him. From their packs he gave the woman some beads, a few moccasin awls, a few mirrors, and some paint. His skin and the gifts, and his friendly attitude, were enough to calm her down.

Through Drouillard’s sign language, he asked her to call the teen back, fearing that otherwise the girl might alarm the main body of Shoshones. The old woman did as asked, and the teen reappeared. Lewis gave her some trinkets and painted the “tawny cheeks” of the women with some vermilion. When the Indians were composed, Lewis told them, through Drouillard, that he “wished them to conduct us to their camp that we wer anxious to become acquainted with the chiefs and warriors of their nation.” They did as requested, and the group set off, the Indians leading.

After two miles, the long-anticipated and eagerly sought contact took place. Sixty warriors, mounted on excellent horses and armed for war with bows and arrows plus three inferior rifles, came on at full speed. When they saw Lewis’s party, they halted.

This was the first time an American had ever seen a Shoshone war party, and the first time this band of Shoshones had ever seen an American. The Indians were overwhelmingly superior. It would have been the work of only a moment for them to overwhelm Lewis’s party, and they would have more than doubled their firepower in rifles and gathered as loot more knives, awls, looking glasses, and other trinkets than any Rocky Mountain Indian band had ever seen.

But rather than assuming a defensive position, Lewis laid down his rifle, picked up his flag, told his party to stay in place, and, following the old woman who was guiding, advanced slowly toward he knew not what.

A man Lewis assumed was the chief rode in the lead. He halted to speak to the old woman. She told him that these were white men “and exultingly shewed the presents which had been given.” This broke the tension. The chief and then the warriors dismounted.

The chief advanced. Saying “ah-hi-e, ah-hi-e,” which Lewis later learned meant “I am much pleased, I am much rejoiced,” the chief put his left arm over Lewis’s right shoulder and applied his left cheek to Lewis’s right cheek, continuing “to frequently vociforate the word ah-hi-e.”

The warriors and Lewis’s men then came on, “and we wer all carresed and besmeared with their grease and paint till I was heartily tired of the national hug.”

This first meeting between Shoshones and Americans went better than Lewis could have dared to hope. He had been exceedingly lucky. The war party had ridden out in response to the alarm given by the man who had fled earlier that day. The Shoshones expected to find Blackfeet and might have attacked without pause save for the old woman. Had Lewis not met her, and had she not responded so positively to his appeals and gifts, there might well have been a firefight.

Instead there was a parlay. Lewis brought out his pipe and sat, indicating to the Indians that they should do the same. They did, but not without removing their moccasins, a custom among the Shoshones to indicate sincerity in friendship, or, as Lewis put it, “which is as much as to say that they wish they may always go bearfoot if they are not sincere; a pretty heavy penalty if they are to march through the plains of their country.”

Lewis lit and passed the pipe. After smoking several rounds, he distributed some presents. The Shoshones were “much pleased particularly with the blue beads and vermillion.” Lewis learned that the chiefs name was “Ca-me-ah wait.” Lewis told him that “the object of our visit was a friendly one,” that after they reached Cameahwait’s camp he would explain the expedition more fully, including “who we wer, from whence we had come and wither we were going.” He gave Cameahwait an American flag, “which I informed him was an emblem of peace among whitemen [sic] . . . to be respected as the bond of union between us.”

Cameahwait spoke to his warriors, and soon the entire party set out for the main camp. He sent some youngsters ahead to inform the others to prepare for their arrival. When they reached the camp, on the east bank of the Lemhi River, about seven miles north of today’s Tendoy, Idaho, Lewis was ushered into an old leather tepee (the only one the band had left after the Blackfoot raid) and ceremoniously seated on green boughs and antelope skins.

After the ritual smoking, “I now explained to them the objects of our journey &c.” How well the Shoshones could comprehend a trip across the continent—or if they could even conceive of the continent—Lewis did not say.

He was confident the sign language Drouillard was using was understood, even though he realized it was “imperfect and liable to error.” Still, “The strong parts of the ideas are seldom mistaken.”

Women and children crowded around, eager to see these “children of the Great Spirit.” Lewis distributed the presents he had left, to the delight of the Shoshones. One Shoshone warrior later described the mirrors as “things like solid water, which were sometimes brilliant as the sun, and which sometimes showed us our faces.”1

By this time, it was growing dark. Lewis and his men had not eaten in twenty-four hours. He mentioned this to Cameahwait, who said he was sorry but the band had nothing but berries to eat. He gave the white men some cakes of serviceberries and choke cherries. “Of these I made a hearty meal,” Lewis wrote.

He strolled down to the Lemhi River and found it a rapid, clear stream about forty yards wide and three feet deep. Through Drouillard’s signs, Lewis inquired about the course of the stream. Cameahwait replied that a half-day’s march north it joined with another, twice as large, coming in from the southwest, forming today’s Salmon River. On further questioning, Cameahwait said there was little timber along the river below, that the river was “confined between inacessable mountains, was very rapid and rocky insomuch that it was impossible for us to pass either by land or water down this river to the great lake where the white men lived as he had been informed.”

Cameahwait was referring to the traders who called at the mouth of the Columbia River. His description of the Salmon was as accurate as it was unwelcome. It confirmed what Lewis must have feared when he first gazed on the Bitterroots from Lemhi Pass—there was no all-water route, or anything remotely resembling it, across the continent.

But Lewis dared to hope that this was untrue, suspecting that Cameahwait was only trying to detain the Americans for trading purposes.

In fact, as Lewis should have known from Sacagawea, it was time for Cameahwait’s band to cross the Divide to meet other bands of Shoshones and Flatheads to go on a hunt in the Missouri River buffalo country. Having lied to the chief about the meaning of the flag, and being prepared to tell more lies if necessary to meet his aims, Lewis was ready to believe the worst about Cameahwait.

The distressing information about the Salmon was somewhat balanced for Lewis by the sight of “a great number of horses feeding in every direction around their camp.” Drouillard later counted four hundred of them. Assuming he could trade for an adequate number of horses, Lewis had “little doubt but we shall be enable to . . . transport our stores even if we are compelled to travel by land over these mountains.”

His spirits were further raised when, on his return to his tepee, a warrior gave him a piece of fresh-roasted salmon, “which I eat with a very good relish. this was the first salmon I had seen and perfectly convinced me that we were on the waters of the Pacific Ocean.” In other words, his positive assertion the previous day that he had first tasted the waters of the Columbia after crossing Lemhi Pass had been more an expression of hope than a certain fact; for all he knew, the Lemhi-Salmon River might have been a tributary of the Dearborn River.

That night, the Shoshones entertained Lewis and party with a dance. It lasted almost to dawn. At midnight, “I grew sleepy and retired to rest leaving the men to amuse themselves with the Indians. . . . I was several times awoke in the course of the night by their yells but was too much fortiegued to be deprived of a tolerable sound night’s repose.”

With contact made, Lewis now had to give Clark time to come up the Jefferson as far as the fork that marked the extreme limit of navigation—if that limit had not already been passed. Clark was making only four or five miles a day in the shallow, boulder-covered bed of the Jefferson, which was not much more than a large creek. Lewis decided to spend the morning of August 14 writing in his journal, the afternoon in procuring further information from Cameahwait about the country to the west.

He sent Drouillard and the privates out to hunt. The Indians furnished them with horses, and some twenty young braves joined them. Lewis was treated to a sight few white men ever saw, a chase on horseback by the young Indian hunters after ten pronghorns. “It lasted about 2 hours and considerable part of the chase in view from my tent. The hunters returned [they] had not killed a single Antelope, and their horses foaming with sweat.”

When Drouillard returned, equally unsuccessful, Lewis used his sign-language ability to ask Cameahwait “to instruct me with rispect to the geogrphy of his country.” The chief repeated what he had said the previous day, with more details. After drawing a waving line on the ground to represent the river, he piled sand on each side of it to represent “the vast mountains of rock eternally covered with snow through which the river passed.” He spoke of “perpendicular and even juting rocks so closely hemned in the river that there was no possibilyte of passing along the shore. . . . the whole surface of the river was beat into perfect foam as far as the eye could reach. That the mountains were also inaccessible to man or horse.”II

How, then, to cross those mountains? Cameahwait said he had never done it, but there was an old man in his band “who could probably give me some information of the country to the N.W.” He added that “he had understood from the persed nosed Indians who inhabit this river below the rocky mountains that it ran a great way toward the seting sun and finally lost itself in a great lake of water which was illy taisted.”

That sentence linked the continent. For the first time, a white man had a map, however imperfect and imprecise, to connect the great rivers of the western empire. Also for the first time, a white man heard of the Nez Percés, the major tribe living west of the mountains. Cameahwait added that the Nez Percés crossed to the Missouri River buffalo country to hunt each year.III

What route did they use? Lewis asked. It was to the north, the chief answered, “but added that the road was a very bad one as he had been informed by them and that they had suffered excessively with hunger on the rout being obliged to subsist for many days on berries alone as there was no game in that part of the mountains which were broken rockey and so thickly covered with timber that they could scarcely pass.”

Far from being downcast by such a description, Lewis was encouraged. “My rout was instantly settled in my own mind,” he wrote. “I felt perfectly satisfyed, that if the Indians could pass these mountains with their women and Children, that we could also pass them.”

This is a wonderful sentence. It shows his complete confidence in himself, Captain Clark, and the men. He is not boasting, or challenging, just being matter-of-fact about it. If they can, we can.

It also shows Lewis’s (and Clark’s) ability to get more out of the men than the men ever thought they could give. Ascending the Missouri in the keelboat, the bitter cold winter at Mandan, the awful labor at the Great Falls portage, the incredible labor getting the canoes up the Jefferson—every time they had such an experience behind them, the men agreed that it had to be the worst, and that they could not possibly endure anything worse. Only to have it get worse.

But well-led men working together can do far more than they ever thought they could. Especially if they are in life-threatening situations—which was exactly where Lewis intended to lead them. He dared to do so because he knew they had more in them than they thought, and he knew how to bring out the best in them.

Cameahwait had more information. He said there were no buffalo west of the mountains, that the Indians who lived there subsisted on salmon and roots. He complained about the Spanish policy of never selling guns to Indians, whereas the English sold guns to the Blackfeet, Hidatsas, and other enemies of the Shoshones. With that advantage in firepower, the Plains Indians were continually harassing the Shoshones, who were forced to hide in the interior of the mountains most of the year. But, Cameahwait added, “with his ferce eyes and lank jaws grown meager for the want of food, [such] would not be the case if we had guns, we could then live in the country of buffaloe and eat as our enimies do.”

Here was the opening Lewis sought, here was the opportunity to make promises that would induce Cameahwait to help with the portage over the Continental Divide and to trade for horses that could get the expedition over the Bitterroots on the Nez Percé route. Lewis said that he had already induced the Hidatsas to promise that they would no longer raid against the Shoshones or make war on any of their neighbors (even though he knew that the Hidatsas had sent out a war party that spring), and that, when the expedition got to the Pacific and then returned to the United States, “whitemen would come to them [the Shoshones] with an abundance of guns and every other article necessary to their defence and comfort.”

Since the expedition was now more than three thousand river miles from St. Louis, that was a promise for an uncertain future. He made it anyway.

Lewis told Cameahwait that he wanted the band to cross Lemhi Pass with him in the morning, bringing thirty horses, to meet with Clark and the main party at the forks of Jefferson River and help bring the baggage over the pass and down to the Indian camp on the Lemhi River, where “we would then remain sometime among them and trade with them for horses.”

Cameahwait agreed. He “made a lengthey harrangue to his village,” then told Lewis that everything was settled—they would start in the morning. Lewis was overjoyed. The Shoshone horses, he wrote, were excellent: “Indeed many of them would make a figure on the South side of James River or the land of fine horses.” Even better, they had some surefooted mules. Lewis went to his tepee to sleep in a happy mood; as for the Indians, “they were very merry they danced again this evening untill midnight.”

Lewis woke on the morning of Thursday, August 15, “as hungary as a wolf.” The previous day, he had nothing to eat save a scant meal of flour and berries, which had not satisfied him as it “appeared to do my Indian friends.” He had two pounds of flour left. He told McNeal to divide the flour into two equal parts and to cook one half mixed with berries. “On this new fashoned pudding four of us breakfasted, giving a pretty good allowance also to the Chief who declared it the best thing he had taisted for a long time.”

After breakfast, a crisis. The warriors would not move, despite Cameahwait’s urging. Lewis asked after the cause and was told “that some foolish persons among them had suggested the idea that we were in league with the Pahkees [the Shoshone word for Atsinas] and had come on in order to decoy them into an ambuscade where their enemies were waiting to receive them.”

Lewis told Cameahwait that he forgave the warriors their suspicion: “I knew they were not acquainted with whitemen . . . that among whitemen it was considered disgracefull to lye or entrap an enimy by falsehood.” After that stretcher, Lewis threatened that, if the Shoshones did not help with the portage, no white man would come to bring them arms and ammunition.

Then he challenged their manhood, saying, “I still hope that there were some among them that were not affraid to die.” The challenge “touched on the right string; to doubt the bravery of a savage is at once to put him on his metal.”

Cameahwait mounted his horse and gave a speech to his people, saying he would go with the white men to convince himself of the truth of what Lewis said. He added that he hoped some at least of the warriors would join him. Six mounted their horses. The small party set out, even though “several of the old women were crying and imploring the great sperit to protect their warriors as if they were going to inevitable distruction.”

The Indians rode on anyway, and soon enough another half-dozen men and three women joined them, making all together a party of sixteen Indians and four white men. Lewis was struck by the “capricious disposition of those people who never act but from the impulse of the moment. they were now very cheerfull and gay, and two hours ago they looked as sirly as so many imps of satturn.”

They crossed Lemhi Pass and descended to Shoshone Cove, where they camped on the creekIV and had their second meal of the day: “I now cooked and among six of us eat the remaining pound of flour stired in a little boiling water.” The Shoshones, save Cameahwait and an unnamed warrior, had nothing to eat that day.

The next morning, August 16, Lewis sent Drouillard and Shields out to kill some meat. He asked Cameahwait to keep his young men in camp so that they would not alarm the game. That was a mistake, for it reawakened the suspicions of the Shoshones. They feared the white men were trying to make contact with the Blackfeet, so two parties of warriors set out on each side of the valley to spy on Drouillard and Shields.

Lewis, McNeal, and the remainder of the Shoshones followed. After about an hour, “when we saw one of the spies comeing up the level plain under whip, the chief pawsed a little and seemed somewhat concerned. I felt a good deel so myself.” Lewis’s fear was that by “some unfortunate accedent” the Blackfeet really were in the neighborhood. But when the scout arrived, breathless, he had good news—Drouillard had killed a deer.

“In an instant they all gave their horses the whip.” Lewis was riding double with a young warrior. The Indian was whipping the horse “at every jump for a mile fearing he should loose a part of the feast. . . . As I was without tirrups . . . the jostling was disagreeable.” Lewis reined in his horse and forbade the young man to use the lash. The Indian jumped off and ran on foot at full speed for a whole mile.

At the site of the kill, “the seen when I arrived was such that had I not have had a pretty keen appetite myself I am confident I should not have taisted any part of the vension. . . . each [Indian] had a peice of some discription and all eating most ravenously. Some were eating the kidnies the melt [the spleen] and liver and the blood running from the corners of their mouths, others were in a similar situation with the paunch and guts. . . . one of the last [to arrive] had provided himself with about nine feet of the small guts one end of which he was chewing on while with his hands he was squezzing the contents out at the other. I really did not untill now think that human nature ever presented itself in a shape so nearly allyed to the brute creation. I viewed these poor starved divils with pity and compassion.”

However heartfelt, his pity and compassion did not extend far enough for him to note that, if the Indians appeared savage with the blood running down their cheeks, they had taken only the parts of the deer Drouillard had thrown away when he dressed the kill. They had not touched the meat.

Lewis saved a hindquarter for himself and his men and gave the balance to Cameahwait to divide among his people. They devoured it without bothering to start a fire to cook it. The party then moved on. Soon word came that Drouillard had killed a second deer. “Here nearly the same seene was encored.” Lewis started a fire to cook his meat; Drouillard came in with a third deer, of which Lewis saved a quarter and gave the rest to the Indians, who were finally full and thus “in a good humour.” Shields then killed a pronghorn; the problem of food was solved for that day.

As the party approached the forks, where Lewis had told the Indians they would meet Clark, Cameahwait insisted on halting. With much ceremony, he put tippets such as the Shoshones were wearing around the necks of the white men. Lewis realized that the chief’s suspicions were still strong, that he wanted to make the white men look like Indians in case it was Blackfeet and not Clark waiting at the forks. Realizing this, Lewis took off his cocked hat and put it on Cameahwait. The men followed his example, “and we were son completely metamorphosed.”

The entire party moved downstream to the forks. Lewis had a warrior carry the flag, so that “our own party should know who we were.” But when they got to within a couple of miles of the forks, “I discovered to my mortification” that Clark had not arrived.

“I now scarcely new what to do,” Lewis confessed, “and feared every moment when they would halt altogether.”

Desperate, he gave Cameahwait his rifle and told him that if the Blackfeet were around he could use it to defend himself, “that for my own part I was not affraid to die and if I deceived him he might make what uce of the gun he thought proper or in other words that he might shoot me.” Lewis had his men give up their rifles too, “which seemed to inspire them [the Indians] with more confidence.”

This bold move bought Lewis enough time to think of a plan. Recalling that he had left a note for Clark at the forks, “I now had recource to a stratagem in which I thought myself justifyed by the occasion, but which I must confess set a little awkward.” He sent Drouillard, accompanied by a warrior, to pick up the note. When Drouillard returned with the note and the warrior’s confirmation that he had picked it up at the forks, Lewis told Cameahwait that Clark had written it and that it said he, Clark, was just below, coming on, and that Lewis should wait for him at the forks.

Lewis had told a lie that the Indians would never discover, but he was by no means through the crisis. Though his confidence in Clark was very great, in truth he did not know where Clark was. Clark might very well have found navigation impossible and be in camp many miles below, waiting for Lewis.

Lewis came up with another “stratagem.” He told Cameahwait that in the morning he would send Drouillard ahead to meet Clark, and proposed that a warrior accompany Drouillard to see the truth of his words. Lewis, Shields, and McNeal would remain with the main party of the Shoshones. “This plan was readily adopted and one of the young men offered his services; I promised him a knife and some beads as a reward for his confidence in us.”

He was taking a huge gamble. Several of the warriors were already complaining of Cameahwait’s exposing them to danger unnecessarily “and said that we told different stories.” The Indians held the rifles. If Clark was not coming up the Jefferson, they could easily kill the white men, and almost certainly would, although the only fear Lewis expressed was that the Indians “would immediately disperse and secrete themselves in the mountains.”

He could hardly bear to think about it. At the least, “we should be disappointed in obtaining horses, which would vastly retart and increase the labour of our voyage and I feared might so discourage the men as to defeat the expedition altogether.”

To hold the Shoshones, Lewis told them that Sacagawea was with Clark, and that there was also a man with Clark “who was black and had short curling hair.” The Indians expressed great eagerness to see such a curiosity.

Nevertheless, that night Lewis wrote in his journal, “my mind was in reality quite as gloomy . . . as the most affrighted indian but I affected cheerfullness.” He lay down to sleep, Cameahwait beside him. “I slept but little as might be well expected, my mind dwelling on the state of the expedition which I have ever held in equal estimation with my own existence, and the fait of which appeared at this moment to depend in a great measure upon the caprice of a few savages who are ever as fickle as the wind.”

In the morning, Lewis sent Drouillard and the warrior off at first light. The leftover meat from the previous day provided a scant breakfast. At about 9:00 a.m., an Indian who had gone down the creek for a mile or so returned and reported “that the whitemen were coming.” The Shoshones “all appeared transported with joy.” Lewis confessed, “I felt quite as much gratifyed at this information as the Indians appeared to be.”

Shortly thereafter, Clark arrived, accompanied by Charbonneau and Sacagawea. Cameahwait gave Clark the national hug and festooned his hair with shells. In the midst of the excitement, one of the Shoshone women recognized Sacagawea. Her name, Jumping Fish, she had acquired on the day Sacagawea was taken prisoner, because of the way she had jumped through a stream in escaping the Hidatsas.2 The reunited teens hugged and cried and talked, all at once.

Lewis had a camp set up just below the forks.V He had a canopy formed from one of the large sails. At 4:00 p.m., he called a conference. Dispensing with Drouillard and the sign language, he decided to use a translation chain that ran from Sacagawea, speaking Shoshone to the Indians and translating it into Hidatsa, to Charbonneau, who translated her Hidatsa into French, to Private Francis Labiche, who translated from French to English.

Scarcely had they begun the cumbersome process when Sacagawea began to stare at Cameahwait. Suddenly recognizing him as her brother, “she jumped up, ran & embraced him, & threw her blanket over him and cried profusely.”3

What a piece of luck that was. No novelist would dare invent such a scene. As James Ronda writes, “the stars had danced for Lewis and Clark.”4

Lewis wrote that the reunion was “really affecting.” He wrote not a word to indicate that he was surprised by the show of so much emotion from Sacagawea, whom he had characterized a couple of weeks earlier as someone who never showed the slightest emotion.

When Sacagawea recovered herself, the council began—although it was frequently interrupted by her tears. The captains expanded on what Lewis had already told Cameahwait. They explained “the objects which had brought us into this distant part of the country,” in the process making it appear that the number-one object was to help the Shoshones by finding a more direct way to bring arms to them. In the process, “we made them sensible of their dependance on the will of our government for every species of merchandize as well for their defence & comfort.” But this could not be accomplished without Shoshone horses, or without a guide to take them over the Nez Percé trail.

In reply, Cameahwait “declared his wish to serve us in every rispect; that he was sorry to find that it must yet be some time before they could be furnished with firearms but said they could live as they had done heretofore untill we brought them as we had promised.” Though he had insufficient horses to carry the baggage over Lemhi Pass, he would return to his village in the morning and encourage his band to come and help.


Charles M. Russell, Lewis and Clark Expedition. Meeting the Shoshones; to the right, Sacagawea is hugging her childhood friend Jumping Fish. (From the collection of Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa)

The captains were satisfied—indeed, they could hardly have dared hope for so much cooperation. They asked Cameahwait to indicate who were the lesser chiefs among his men. He pointed to two others. The captains gave Cameahwait a medal with Jefferson’s likeness on one side and the clasped hands of an Indian and a white man on the other, and gave a smaller medal with George Washington’s likeness to the two inferior chiefs. Next they presented Cameahwait with a uniform coat, a pair of scarlet leggings, a carrot of tobacco, and some geegaws. The lesser chiefs got a shirt, leggings, a handkerchief, a knife, and some tobacco. The captains distributed paint, awls, knives, beads, mirrors, and other items to the remaining Indians.

“Every article about us appeared to excite astonishment in ther minds,” Lewis wrote: the appearance of the men, their arms, the canoes, York, “the segacity of my dog”—all were objects of admiration. Lewis shot his air gun, which the Indians immediately pronounced “great medicine.”

Adding to the joyous mood, the hunters brought in four deer and a pronghorn. After the feast, the captains asked Cameahwait for more information “with rispect to the country.” He repeated what he had already told Lewis, who by now was convinced of the truth of his description.

Even though he regarded Cameahwait as “a man of Influence Sence & easey & reserved manners, appears to possess a great deel of Cincerity,” Clark wanted to see for himself before accepting Cameahwait’s alarming description of the Salmon River route. He and Lewis conferred. Lewis agreed that in the morning Clark should set out with eleven men carrying axes and other necessary tools for making canoes. They would make a reconnaissance of the Salmon, accompanied by Charbonneau and Sacagawea. They would stay the first night at the Shoshone village, to hasten the return of the band to Camp Fortunate to make the portage.

If Clark found the river navigable, he would set to making canoes. Lewis, meanwhile, would bring on the remaining eighteen members of the party and the baggage to the Lemhi River. He figured the move would take a week or more, enough time for Clark to make his reconnaissance and determine whether the expedition was to proceed by land or water. If by land, “we should want all the horses which we could perchase.”

Whatever the route, Lewis had cause for satisfaction. The expedition was once more united and would soon be on the move. He slept better than the previous night.

In the morning, August 18, while Clark prepared for his reconnaissance, Lewis traded for some horses. He intended to provide Clark with two, to transport his baggage, and keep one for his hunters, to transport whatever meat they obtained. He got what he wanted: three very good horses in exchange for a uniform coat, a pair of leggings, a few handkerchiefs, three knives, and some trinkets “the whole of which did not cost more than about 20$ in the U’States.” (Not counting in the transportation costs!) “The Indians seemed quite as well pleased with their bargin as I was.” One of the privates also purchased a horse, for an old checked shirt, a pair of old leggings, and a knife. At such prices, Lewis could count on obtaining quite a herd from the main village on the Lemhi River.

A problem emerged. The two lesser chiefs were “a little displeased” at not getting more presents. Clark thereupon gave them a couple of his old coats, and Lewis promised that “if they wer active in assisting me over the mountains . . . I would give them an additional present.” With that, at 10:00 a.m., Clark set off, accompanied by all the Indians save the two lesser chiefs, Jumping Fish, and another woman.

Lewis prepared for the portage. He had all stores and baggage opened and aired, and had the men begin the process of forming packages into proper parcels for transport over Lemhi Pass. He had rawhides put in the water in order to cut them into thongs proper for lashing the packages, “a business which I fortunately had not to learn on this occasion.”

Drouillard brought in a deer. One of the men caught a beaver. Lewis had a net arranged and set to catch some trout. He brought his journal up-to-date.

He concluded his August 18 journal entry with an oft-quoted passage of introspection and self-criticism. “This day I completed my thirty first year,” he began. He figured he was halfway through his life’s journey. “I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended.”

He shook the mood, writing that, since the past could not be recalled, “I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existence, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me . . .” and here he seems to have lost his train of thought. Whatever the cause, he forgot to name those “two primary objects of human existence,” and instead ended, “in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.”

Much has been made of this remarkable passage, perhaps too much. It was not unusual for men of the Enlightenment to write such stuff—come to that, a thirtieth or thirty-first birthday leads to such thoughts for men of the late twentieth century—and Jefferson sometimes wrote in a similar mood and vein.

Among other things, the passage is a reminder of how young Lewis was to be carrying so heavy a burden of command. Physically tired and emotionally exhausted after the tension of the past few days, he was in what is still today one of the most remote places on the continent, with only eighteen enlisted men, Drouillard, and four Indians as companions. He had reached the source of the Missouri River, but he still had those tremendous mountains to cross and was dependent on the whims of Cameahwait and his people to make that crossing.

If he was halfway through his life’s journey—always a gloomy thought for a young man—he was also only halfway through his journey of exploration from the Mandan village to the Pacific Coast, and the season was getting on. To him it seemed natural at this point to rededicate himself to doing better.

Lewis spent six days at Camp Fortunate. It gave him an opportunity to write some extended descriptions of the Shoshones. In addition, he oversaw the breaking up of boxes and the cutting off of the paddle blades to make enough boards for twenty wooden saddles. He established another cache, to lighten the burden of the portage. He made some celestial observations.

On August 22, an hour before noon, Cameahwait, Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and some fifty Shoshone men accompanied by women and children arrived at Camp Fortunate. After they set up camp, Lewis held a council. He distributed presents, especially to the second and third chiefs. Noting “these poor devils half starved,” Lewis had the men prepare a meal of corn and beans, which he served after the council.

Cameahwait said he “wished that his nation could live in a country where they could provide such food.” Lewis gave him a few dried squashes. He had them boiled “and declared them to be the best thing he had ever tasted except sugar, a small lump of which it seems his sister Sah-cah-gar Wea had given him.”

The trout net yielded 528 fish, most of which Lewis distributed among the Indians. He purchased five good horses for six dollars in trade goods each. Though he wanted to get going first thing in the morning, Cameahwait requested that he wait another day, so that a friendly band of Shoshones could join them.

Lewis realized that he had no choice, but it brought on a new worry. The Shoshones were gathering for their annual excursion onto the buffalo plains, and Cameahwait’s band showed “a good deel of anxiety” to get going. When the other group came in, during the afternoon, Lewis managed to trade with them for three horses and a mule.

On the morning of August 24, Lewis was once again on the road, this time with eighteen of his own men, Charbonneau, Sacagawea and Drouillard, nine horses and a mule, and Cameahwait’s band. He gave Charbonneau some articles to trade for a horse for Sacagawea, which was done. He was going to need still more horses; much of the baggage was being carried by Shoshone women.

But, notwithstanding future problems, he was happy, because “I had now the inexpressible satisfaction to find myself once more under way with all my baggage and party.”

His joy didn’t last long. On August 25, when the hunters brought in three deer and the party stopped for a noon meal, Charbonneau casually mentioned to Lewis that he expected to meet the whole of Cameahwait’s band coming over Lemhi Pass on the way to the buffalo country.

Why? Lewis asked.

Charbonneau explained that Sacagawea had overheard Cameahwait say to some of his young men to tell the band to meet him the next day, so that together the reunited band could go to the Missouri River.

If that happened, Lewis and his men would be left literally high and dry, halfway up Lemhi Pass, with only a dozen or so horses, and no guide for the Nez Percé trail.

Another gut-tightening crisis. Lewis’s temper flared, but he was too good a diplomat to direct it at the cause, Cameahwait. Instead he cussed Charbonneau, who had been in possession of the information for some hours before divulging it to Lewis. Then he called Cameahwait and the two lesser chiefs for a smoke and a talk.

“I asked them if they had not promised to assist me with my baggage to their camp. . . . They acknowledged that they had.” Then why were they preparing to abandon him to go to the buffalo country? The Indians hung their heads.

Lewis said that, had they not promised to help with the portage, “I should not have attempted to pass the mountains but would have returned down the river and that in that case they would never have seen anymore white men in their country.”

In truth, he was going to try to get over those mountains come hell or high water, a resolution he frequently put into his journal. Still, he took the high moral ground, instructing the chiefs that “they must never promis us anything which they did not mean to perform.” He concluded by directing the chiefs to send a young man over the pass to the village to tell the people to stay where they were until Lewis, Cameahwait, and the others arrived.

The two lesser chiefs spoke up. They wanted to help and be as good as their word, they said, and it was not they who had instructed the band to cross to the Missouri River side of the Divide. Cameahwait had done it, and they had not approved. This was a handsome payoff for Lewis’s seeing their unhappiness a couple of days earlier and distributing more presents to them.

“Cameahwait remained silent for some time,” Lewis wrote; “at length he told me that he knew he had done wrong but that he had been induced to that measure from seeing all his people hungary, but as he had promised to give me his assistance he would not in future be worse than his word.”

His people were starving. The buffalo country was not much more than a day’s march away. Other bands of Shoshones were already meeting with Flathead villages to go on the hunt. But he had given his word, and Lewis shamed him into keeping it. A pity that Lewis never showed the slightest gratitude, or gave any indication that he understood what a difficult position Cameahwait was in.

He did realize that the Shoshones had to eat. In the afternoon, the party marched almost to the pass. The hunters brought in but one deer. Lewis ordered it distributed to the women and children “and for my own part remained supperless.”

At dawn on August 26, the temperature was at the freezing point, a sharp reminder where none was needed that the season was getting along. During the day’s march, Lewis saw the women collecting roots “and feeding their poor starved children; it is really distressing to witness the situation of those poor wretches.”

That evening, Lewis and his men and baggage made it to the camp on the Lemhi River. Private John Colter was already there, with a letter from Clark (who was in camp downstream) in which Clark described the Salmon River route as impassable.

Lewis was not surprised. He told Cameahwait that in the morning he wished to purchase twenty additional horses. Cameahwait pointed out that his people had lost a great number of their horses to the Blackfeet, but said he would see what he could do. He also said he thought the old man who had once crossed the mountains with the Nez Percé would be willing to guide Lewis and Clark.

“Matters being thus far arranged,” Lewis ended his journal entry for the day, “I directed the fiddle to be played and the party danced very merily much to the amusement and gratification of the natives, though I must confess that the state of my own mind at this moment did not well accord with the prevailing mirth as I somewhat feared that the caprice of the indians might suddenly induce them to withhold their horses from us without which my hopes of prosicuting my voyage to advantage was lost.”

The Indians were ready to sell, but the captains discovered over the next few days that the price had gone up considerably. The Shoshones had a captive, desperate market. It was perfectly clear to them that the white men had to have horses, come what may. On August 29, Clark found that he had to offer his pistol, a knife, and one hundred rounds of ammunition for one horse. The captains had tried to make it a strict rule never to reduce their arsenal, but now they had no choice.

Eventually, the captains bought twenty-nine horses, but, as James Ronda puts it, “The Shoshonis had proven to be better Yankee traders than the Americans.” When Clark examined the horses in his corral, he found them to be “nearly all Sore Backs [and] several Pore, & young.” The captains had bought the castoffs of the Shoshone herd.5

I. Jefferson later grew them in his garden and introduced them into Philadelphia gardens and the horticultural trade. Lewis compared the snowberry to the honeysuckle of the Missouri, or wolfberry; Gary Moulton notes, “Lewis’s ability to distinguish between species based on leaf and fruit characteristics again demonstrates his remarkable botanical powers of observation” (Journals, vol. 5, p. 85).

II. All this is nicely summed up in the modern nickname for the Salmon, River of No Return.

III. “Nez Percé” meant “Pierced-Nosed” Indians. Whether they actually pierced their noses is a subject of dispute. See Moulton, ed., Journals, vol. 5, p. 94.

IV. Today’s Horse Prairie Creek.

V. The site, later known as Camp Fortunate, is now under Clark Canyon Reservoir, just beside Interstate 15, twenty miles south of Dillon, Montana.

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