Modern history

CHAPTER THIRTY

The Lob Trail

June 10–July 2, 1806

On the morning of June 10, just before the expedition set off for Weippe Prairie, Cut Nose sent word that two of his young men would overtake the party in a day or so, guide it through the mountains, then lead Lewis to the falls of the Missouri. Welcome news, the best possible. The party moved out in high spirits.

Each man—and presumably Sacagawea—was mounted and leading a packhorse. In addition, there were several spare horses. “We therefore feel ourselves perfectly equiped for the mountains,” Lewis wrote. He established camp at the quawmash flats. “Quawmash” was camas, the root that had stood off starvation for the men in September and then damn near killed them. Stomachs had adjusted; the men could eat it now without violent consequences. The plant was so central to the lives of the Nez Percé that Lewis wrote a fifteen-hundred-word description of camas and the Indian methods of preparing it for food. His concluding sentence was: “This root is pallateable but disagrees with me in every shape I have ever used it.”

He enjoyed its appearance: “The quawmash is now in blume and from the colour of its bloom at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is this deseption that on first sight I could have swoarn it was water.”

By June 13, the pressure on the captains—from both within and without—to get going was all but irresistible. But Cut Nose’s young men had not shown up. Lewis gave them one more day. Meanwhile, he sent two hunters ahead, to a prairie eight miles east, to lay in a stock of meat.

The Indians did not show that day, or the next, and Lewis gave up on the guides. On the evening of June 14, he ordered the horses hobbled, in anticipation of an early start.

“From hence to traveller’s rest,” Lewis wrote that night, “we shall make a forsed march.”

With the decision to go without guides, Lewis had allowed impatience to cloud his judgment. He was taking chances and violating Jefferson’s orders to be always prudent so that he could carry out his number-one objective, to get to the Pacific and back with a report on the main features of the country. And for what was he taking such a risk? To get home a little earlier?

If the expedition could get to Traveler’s Rest by early August, and if it then took the Nez Percé route to the buffalo country, it would be at Great Falls by the middle of August. There it could dig up its caches and then speed downstream, with two good traveling months to get to St. Louis.

But Lewis felt a pressing need to get going. Besides just giving in to impatience, he had some genuine objectives in mind, primarily further exploring. He and Clark had agreed to divide at Traveler’s Rest. Clark would go to the Jefferson River and on to Three Forks, where he would cross to the Yellowstone Valley and proceed down the Yellowstone to the Missouri, mapping and describing new country every step of the way.

Lewis would follow the Nez Percé buffalo route to Great Falls, then conduct an exploration of the Marias River to its sources. He hoped that those sources would be well north of forty-nine degrees. That would be good news to bring to the president.

To make these side explorations, the captains needed to get over the mountains by the beginning of July. That was why Lewis felt time pressing. But, although the expeditions to the Marias and the Yellowstone were interesting and important, they were not significant enough to merit risking everything.

Lewis’s usual good judgment had left him. Previously he had made his decisions on the basis of what needed to be done next to make the expedition succeed, not what might be done in two months if such-or-so were done now. Previously he had been a mature, responsible senior commander (except with the Sioux, where he had allowed himself to be provoked into taking excess risks); now he was an impatient junior officer acting more on impulse than on judgment.

He had always been self-confident; now he was cocksure. He remarked at Lemhi Pass in 1805 that anything Indians could do, he and his men could do. Even after seeing the Clatsops and Chinooks in their canoes, after seeing the Nez Percé ride their horses, he retained that notion of white superiority. Even when the Indian boy who set out to cross the mountains a couple of weeks earlier showed up to report that he had been forced back by the heavy snow, Lewis insisted on going.

The Nez Percé told him it couldn’t be done. At first he discounted them; eventually he ignored them. He proposed to be the first to cross the Lolo Trail, in 1806, and without guides.

In his journal on June 14, Lewis admitted to apprehension. The snow and the lack of grass for the horses “will prove a serious imbarrassment to us as at least four days journey of our rout in these mountains lies over hights and along a ledge of mountains never intirely destitute of snow.” Clark wrote that evening, “Even now I Shudder with the expectation with great dificuelties in passing those Mountains.”

Lewis rationalized the decision. “We have now been detained near five weeks in consequence of the snows,” he wrote, “a serious loss of time at this delightfull season for traveling.”

Whatever the risk and apprehension, there is no doubt the decision to move out was a popular one. “Every body seems anxious to be in motion,” Lewis wrote, “convinced that we have not now any time to delay if the calculation is to reach the United States this season; this I am detirmined to accomplish if within the compass of human power.”

On the morning of June 15, in a cold, driving rain, the party set out. At eight miles, they found two deer the hunters had killed and hung. At noon, they halted at a creek and dined while the horses grazed. Through the afternoon, they marched. The going was difficult, because of fallen timber crisscrossing the trail and the slippery pathway, caused by the rain. Still, they made twenty-two miles. Lewis did a bird count, and found a hummingbird nest. So far so good. No snow yet, so the trail was easy to follow.

June 16, an early start. The party ascended a ridge and nooned it at a “handsome little glade” where there was grass for the horses. The glade was bursting with life. Lewis noted the dogtooth violet, the bluebells, the yellow flowering pea and the columbine in bloom, and the honeysuckle, huckleberry, and white maple putting out their first leaves, along with other signs of spring in the mountains.

But within a couple of hours of resuming the march, the party found itself in winter conditions. The snow was eight to ten feet deep. Fortunately, it was firm enough to bear the horses—indeed, it improved the traveling, for it covered the fallen timber—but it also covered the trail. They made fifteen miles during the day and camped at the small glade where Captain Clark had killed a horse the previous September and hung it for Lewis and his men. There was insufficient grass for the horses, and it was obvious that as they continued to gain altitude there would be even less grass.

In the morning, the going was “difficult and dangerous.” The climb toward the ridge was steep, the elevation gain dramatic. After three miles of climbing, “we found ourselves invelloped in snow from 12 to 15 feet deep even on the south sides of the hills with the fairest exposure to the sun.”

Lewis thought he had prepared himself for the worst, but he hadn’t. “Here was winter with all it’s rigors,” he wrote that evening.

The party was six or seven days’ march from Traveler’s Rest, provided it was fortunate enough not to lose the way, and “of this Drewyer our principal dependance as a woods-man and guide was entirely doubtfull.”

In an analysis that would have been better written five days earlier, Lewis admitted, “If we proceeded and should get bewildered in these mountains the certainty was that we should loose all our horses and consequently our baggage instruments perhaps our papers and thus eminently wrisk the loss of the discoveries which we had already made if we should be so fortunate as to escape with life.”

He consulted with Clark. They reached an obvious conclusion: “We conceived it madnes in this stage of the expedition to proceed without a guide.” This led to a resolution: “To return with our horses while they were yet strong” to an encampment with sufficient grass. Drouillard and Private Shannon would hurry on back to the Nez Percé villages to hire a guide. The party would wait for them and subsist on hunting, preserving their roots.

That resolution made, “we ordered the party to make a deposit for all the baggage which we had not immediate use for.” In the deposit, the men put the roots they had brought, depending on the hunters for the next few days for food. In addition, Lewis put in the instruments and journals.

The journals were by far the most precious of all the expedition’s possessions. The reason Lewis left them in the deposit illuminates what a risk he had taken in starting too soon: he wrote that they “are safer here than to wrisk them on horseback over the roads and creeks which we had passed.”

The deposit was laid on scaffolds and well covered. At 1:00 p.m., the party started down the mountain.

Lewis hated to turn around. So did the men. “The party were a good deel dejected,” Lewis wrote. “This is the first time since we have been on this long tour that we have ever been compelled to retreat or make a retrograde march.” Sergeant Gass added that most of the men were “melancholy and disappointed.”1

On June 18, Drouillard and Shannon struck out for the village to procure a guide. The price Lewis was ready to pay for a guide was unprecedented. He gave Drouillard an army rifle to be offered as reward for leading the party to Traveler’s Rest, and authorized him to promise two additional army rifles and ten horses to any man who would lead the party to the falls of the Missouri.

The next evening, the party made camp in a meadow on the edge of the mountains. There was plenty of grass; the horses could fatten up here while the men waited for a guide. One of the men found some black morel mushrooms, which Lewis “roasted and eat without salt pepper or grease in this way I had for the first time the true taist of the morell which is truly an insippid taistless food.”

On neither that day nor the next two was there any sign of Drouillard and Shannon. The captains worried about them, and talked about what they would do if they couldn’t get a guide.

The plan they agreed on showed the depth of their desperation. “We have determined to wrisk a passage” without a guide, Lewis wrote. “Capt. C. or myself shall take four of our most expert woodsmen with three or four of our best horses and proceed two days in advance taking a plentifull supply of provision.” The party would find the Lolo Trail by the marks on the sides of the pine trees, marks made over the decades by Indian horses and baggage rubbing against the trunks, and by tomahawks.

At the end of the second day, two men from the reconnaissance party would march back down the mountain to inform the main party whether to come right on or to give the scouts more time to locate the trail.

If the trail could be found, Lewis was confident he could get through, because the snow was firm, so the horses got good footing without having to step over or around fallen timber every few yards. If the trail could not be found, Lewis proposed to move far to the south in search of an alternate route over the Bitterroots.

On June 21, the party fell back to the quawmash flats, where the hunting was better. During the march, two young Indians, probably teen-age boys, were encountered. They informed the captains that they were headed up the mountain to visit their friends on the other side. Lewis’s eyes lit up at this news, but without Drouillard he found it difficult to understand the flashing hands of the warriors. Apparently the Indians were saying that Drouillard and Shannon would not be returning for two more days, but Lewis could not make out a reason for the delay. Lewis pressed the Indians to stay with his party until Drouillard and Shannon returned, and then to serve as guides for the crossing. They agreed to delay two days, no longer, at their own camp, closer to the mountains.

Two days later, still no sign of Drouillard and Shannon. Lewis was fearful that the two young Indians would set off that morning, so he sent four men to detain them, with Sergeant Gass in command. If the Indians insisted on going, Gass and his squad should accompany the Indians to Traveler’s Rest, blazing the trees as they proceeded along the Lolo Trail.

That afternoon, to the relief of all, Drouillard and Shannon returned. The delay had been caused by bargaining, but it was well worth the time: they had with them three guides. One was a brother of Cut Nose, and the other two were men who had each given the captains a horse. Lewis described them as “all young men of good character and much respected by their nation.” He was overjoyed to have them, even at the price of two rifles.

In the morning, the expedition was off at first light. The party made it back to the campsite of June 19–20, where it met with Gass, his squad, and the two Indians. The grass was good.

After dark, the Indians set some fir trees on fire, telling Lewis it was “to bring fair weather for our journey.” This made a spectacular sight. “They have a great number of dry lims near their bodies,” Lewis explained, “which when set on fire creates a very suddon and immence blaze from bottom to top. . . . They are a beatifull object in this situation at night. This exhibition reminded me of a display of fireworks.”

They were off at 6:00 a.m. In midmorning, they got to the deposit they had left nine days earlier. Everything was in good order. The snow had subsided from eleven feet to seven. As some men rearranged baggage, others cooked a meal of boiled venison.

The Indians urged haste. They said it was a considerable distance to the place they had to reach before dark, the only spot where there was grass for the horses. In two hours, everything was ready.

“We set out,” Lewis wrote, “with our guides who lead us over and along the steep sides of tremendious mountains entirely covered with snow. . . . We ascended and decended severall lofty and steep hights . . . late in the evening much to the satisfaction of ourselves and the comfort of our horses we arrived at the desired spot and encamped on the steep side of a mountain convenient to a good spring. Here we found an abundance of fine grass for our horses.”

They had reached the untimbered south side of Bald Mountain. The grass was ten days old, lush and green. The next grass, according to the Indians, was a day and a half’s march away.

On June 27, another early start. After eight miles, the guides reached an elevated point where there was a conic mound of stones eight feet high.I The Indians stopped for a ceremonial smoke.

“From this place we had an extensive view of these stupendous mountains,” Lewis wrote. The sight filled him with awe, dread, and an even greater respect for the Indian guides. “We were entirely surrounded by those mountains,” he commented, “from which to one unacquainted with them it would have seemed impossible ever to have escaped; in short without the assistance of our guides I doubt much whether we who had once passed them could find our way to Travellers rest.” The “marked trees” on which he had counted so heavily when he thought the party would have to go without guides turned out to be very few and far between.

But he had confidence in the guides. “These fellows are most admireable pilots,” he explained. Whenever the snow was melted away, the party found themselves on the trail.

After smoking with the Indians and “contemplating this seene sufficient to have damp the sperits of any except such hardy travellers as we have become, we continued our march.”

That day, they made twenty-eight miles and camped on the side of Spring Mountain. At Bald Mountain they had been at six thousand feet; at Spring Mountain they were five hundred feet higher. There was no grass for the horses, and the men had exhausted the meat supply. The captains distributed a pint of bear oil to go into each of the four kettles, there to be mixed with boiled roots. Lewis judged it “an agreeable dish.”

In the morning, Lewis cast his eye over the herd and was disturbed to see the horses looking “extreemly gant.” The guides reassured him: they would be at good grass by noon. Sure enough, after thirteen miles, at 11:00 a.m., “we arrived at an untimbered side of a mountain with a Southern aspect. . . . Here we found an abundance of grass.”

As the horses grazed, Lewis asked the guides how far to the next grass. Farther than the party could march in the afternoon, the Indians replied. “As our horses were very hungary and much fatiegued,” Lewis decided to make camp right there.II

In the morning, after a march of five miles took them to Rocky Point, the guides led the party down the mountain to the Lochsa River, then up the trail to the quawmash flats (today’s Packer Meadows, a couple of miles south of Lolo Pass), on the Divide between the Clearwater and the Bitterroot Rivers. They were at fifty-two hundred feet and there was plenty of grass. The horses grazed and the men ate.

There was still plenty of daylight left, so after dinner the party set off down the valley toward the Bitterroot River. At seven miles, the men reached today’s Lolo Hot Springs and went into camp.

As soon as camp was set up, the men, red and white, plunged into the pools created by the Nez Percé over the decades by the use of rocks. The Indians would stay in the hot bath as long as they could stand it, then leap out and run to the creek, which was ice cold, and jump in, whooping and hollering and splashing. When they were too cold, they ran back to the hot bath.

Lewis took a hot bath only. He stayed in nineteen minutes. It was only “with dificulty” that he could remain that long. “It caused a profuse sweat.”

On June 30, the party marched down the valley. The men were well out of the snow, but the trail was often difficult, sometimes dangerous. At one steep hillside, Lewis’s horse slipped “with both his hinder feet out of the road and fell.” Lewis fell off backward and slid forty feet before he could grab a branch to stop himself. “The horse was near falling on me” as he slid, he wrote, “but fortunately recovers and we both escaped unhirt.”

Just before sunset, the party rode into Traveler’s Rest. They had covered 156 miles in six days. The previous fall, the expedition had been slowed by Old Toby’s losing the way and by the fallen timber, and it had taken eleven days to cover the distance.

On this crossing, the horses had grass every day but one. To Lewis’s delight, they had stood the journey surprisingly well. Most of them were in fine order “and only want a few days rest to restore them perfectly.”

This was thanks to the skill of the guides. Their sense of distance and timing, not to mention their sense of direction and ability to follow a trail buried under ten feet of snow, was a superb feat of woodsmanship. Most of the trail was in dense forest, and the guides were young men, not yet twenty years of age.

The expedition had been as lucky in its guides as Lewis had been in his fall from the horse, as Lewis knew. When he wrote that not even Drouillard could find his way in these mountains, he was giving his guides an extraordinary compliment.

The party stayed at Traveler’s Rest for three days. The captains put the final details into the plan for exploration they had been discussing through the winter at Fort Clatsop. In its final version, the plan went like this:

Lewis, with nine men and seventeen horses, would follow the Nez Percé route to the falls of the Missouri. At the falls, he would drop off three men to dig up the cache and prepare to help in a portage. With the remaining six volunteers, Lewis would ascend the Marias “with a view to explore the country and ascertain whether any branch of that river lies as far north as Latd. 50.” He also hoped to meet with the Blackfeet so that he could deliver his peace-and-trade speech. Those missions completed, he would go to the mouth of the Marias to meet the men coming down the Missouri.

Those men would be led by Sergeant Ordway. He was to proceed with Captain Clark to the head of the Jefferson River, where the expedition had left its canoes before crossing Lemhi Pass with the Shoshones. Ordway and a party of ten men would descend the Jefferson and the Missouri in the canoes. They would get help in the portage around the falls from the three men left there by Lewis. Once around the falls, the combined force of fourteen would proceed to the mouth of the Marias, there to pick up Lewis and his party. Reunited, they would descend to the mouth of the Yellowstone, where they would meet Clark and his group.

Clark’s independent exploration would start at the Three Forks. After dispatching Sergeant Ordway’s party, Clark and the remaining ten men, and Sacagawea and her boy, would cross the Divide between the Missouri and the Yellowstone. When they reached the river, they would build canoes. Clark and five of the men, plus Charbonneau and his family, plus York, would descend the Yellowstone in the canoes to its junction with the Missouri, where almost the entire expedition would come together again.

Missing would be Sergeant Pryor and two privates. They were assigned an independent mission. When Clark set off in the canoes, they were to take the horses to the Mandan villages, to use as gifts, with strings attached, for the Mandans. They had a second charge: to deliver a letter from Lewis to the North West Company agent Hugh Heney, whether at the Mandans or, if necessary, at Heney’s post in Canada.

It was a highly ambitious plan, exceedingly complex, full of promise about what could be learned, dependent on tight timing. It certainly showed how confident the captains were about their men. For the first time, they were dividing the party to pursue different missions. They were giving large responsibilities to sergeants and privates, counting on their men to be able to handle independent operations without a hitch.

It was also an excessively dangerous plan. The captains were taking chances they should have avoided. In the heart of the country that the war parties of Crows, Blackfeet, Hidatsas, and other tribes passed through regularly, the captains were dividing their platoon into five squads, so widely separated they were not in supporting distance of one another.

Lewis took the risk of dividing his command because he wanted the expedition to be as successful as possible, to bring back as much information as possible, to make every conceivable effort to broker peace among the tribes, to begin the process of creating the American trading empire. These were important objectives, but not important enough to justify having squads as small as three men, and none larger than ten, roving about independently.

The captains were underestimating the Indians. They had perhaps spent too long with the easily dominated Clatsops and Chinooks, too long with the always friendly Nez Percé. Although they knew more about the native peoples west of the Mississippi River than any man alive, they had no direct knowledge of the Blackfeet. They did know that all the other Indians feared the Blackfeet.

Lewis and Clark didn’t know enough to fear the Blackfeet, nor did the men. Since Lewis was leading his squad to the heart of Blackfoot country, his was the most dangerous mission. Nevertheless, when he called for volunteers on July 1, “many turned out, from whom I scelected Drewyer the two Feildses, Werner, Frazier and Sergt Gass.”

That afternoon, Lewis wrote a fifteen-hundred-word letter to Heney, to be carried to him by Sergeant Pryor. It represented his first step toward bringing about an American trade empire stretching from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia.

Lewis had met Heney the previous winter and been impressed by him, despite his being an agent for the North West Company. Heney had told Lewis that, if there was anything he could do for the Americans, he was ready to do it. Apparently he talked as if he was ready to drop his North West Company connection and go to work for the Americans. Lewis must have thought so, for he made Heney an offer to do just that.

If Heney could convince the influential chiefs of the Sioux to visit their new father in Washington, and go along with them to serve as interpreter, Lewis would pay him a dollar a day, from the date of the receipt of the letter, plus expenses. Lewis further promised that Heney would be first in line for the post of U.S. agent to the Sioux, which paid seventy-five dollars per month plus six rations per day.

Lewis was straightforward about his motives: he wanted the Sioux to “have an ample view of our population and resourses, and on their return convince their nations of the futility of an attempt to oppose the will of our government.” Lewis provided Heney with arguments to convince the Sioux to make the journey, the chief being that the Sioux had no means of resisting the American plans for building posts and fortifications along the Missouri, and, in any case, “their acquiescence will be productive of greater advantages than their most sanguine hopes could lead them to expect from oppersition.”

Lewis stressed a central point for Heney to pass onto the Sioux: the United States “will not long suffer her citizens to be deprived of the free navigation of the Missouri by a few comparitively feeble bands of Savages.” But he should also tell the Sioux about the friendly views of the United States government toward them and the plan to establish trading posts in their neighborhood.

Through Heney, Lewis was trying to talk to the Sioux—and the British. He told Heney that the Corps of Discovery had gone to the Pacific Ocean by way of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, and that he was about to explore the Marias. He obviously hoped that Heney would pass this information on to his superiors in the company, who would inform government officials in Montreal, who would thus learn of Lewis’s explorations and the potential American claim on the Oregon country, and possibly on southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Lewis said he hoped to arrive at the Mandan villages about the beginning of September. Heney should meet him there, with a party not to exceed twelve persons, the largest that the expedition could accommodate.2

A good idea. If it worked, Sioux chiefs would go to Washington, they would be mightily impressed, they would come home and make peace, renounce their British loyalties, welcome American trading posts on the Missouri, and become full-fledged partners in the grand enterprise of building the American empire.

If it worked, and if Lewis found a Blackfoot band and spread the good news of the coming of the Americans and persuaded the Blackfeet to join the enterprise, within a couple of years the Americans would take over the fur trade from the Mississippi to the mouth of the Columbia.

That was a big dream, an empire builder’s dream. Lewis was thinking on a worldwide scale. He was proposing to set up and execute one of the biggest business takeover deals of the century, and add the northwestern empire to the United States in the bargain.

Sitting beside Lolo Creek, near the place where it flows into the Bitterroot River, in a wide, beautiful, extensive valley, at least a thousand miles from the nearest white outpost, in command of a platoon-sized force in a country teeming with war parties, utterly destitute of equipment (except for rifles and kettles and a few remaining knives—exactly the manufactured items the Indians most wanted), Meriwether Lewis got started on making his dream come true, in his letter to Heney.

What a many-faceted man was Lewis. On the day he put the final touches to the plan for separate explorations, informed the men of what he and Clark intended, picked the volunteers to accompany him, and wrote that long letter to Heney, he also found time to do a bird count and write a five-hundred-word essay on the prairie dog.

The next day, July 2, he spent much of his time in conversation with the Indians, using sign language, trying to get a better fix on the lay of the land ahead. In the evening, “the indians run their horses, and we had several foot races betwen the natives and our party with various success.” He concluded with a handsome tribute to the five young Indians who had guided him over the Lolo Trail and thus saved the expedition: “These are a race of hardy strong athletic active men.”


I. It is still there, reduced to about half its size since 1806, just west of Indian Grave Peak and just off Forest Service Road 500.

II. The site is accessible by foot or four-wheel-drive vehicle from Forest Road 500, which generally follows the Lolo Trail from near Lolo Pass to Weippe Prairie. The U.S. Forest Service has done an excellent job of locating and marking campsites.

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