Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell

Lewis and Clark—III

They had now passed Milk River, and the Dry Fork, and the journal says: "The game is now in great quantities, particularly the elk and buffalo, which last are so gentle that the men are obliged to drive them out of the way with sticks and stones." Bears were abundant, and almost every day one was killed.

They were approaching the mountains, and the spring storms, which here last until the middle of July, troubled them with abundant rains and by obscuring the view. On the loth they reached the mouth of the Musselshell, and pushing on, in a short time found themselves among the bad lands of the upper Missouri. They were now obliged to "cordell," a number of the men walking on the shore with a tow-line, while others kept the boat off the bank. This was slow and difficult work, and was made more dangerous by the fact that their elk-skin ropes were getting old and rotten, and were likely to break at critical times. On May 2q some buffalo ran through the camp, and caused much confusion and alarm, no one knowing exactly what had happened until after it was all over. When they passed the mouth of the Judith River they found traces of a large camp of Indians, a hundred and twenty-six fires, made, as they conjectured, by "The Minnetari of Fort de Prairie," that is, the Gros Ventres of the Prairie—Arapahoes or Atsena. Here, too, they passed precipices about one hundred and twenty feet high, below which lay scattered the remains of at least a hundred carcasses of buffalo. The method by which the buffalo are driven over the cliffs by the upper Missouri tribes is described. At this place the wolves which had been feasting on these carcasses were very fat, and so gentle that one of them was killed with a spontoon or halberd. They were now among some of the most impressive bad lands of the Missouri River, and the extraordinary effects of erosion by air and water made the explorers wonder.

Captains Lewis and Clark were much puzzled at this point to know which of the rivers before them was the main Missouri. The Minnetari had told them that the main Missouri headed close to the Columbia River, and it was this main stream that they wished to follow up, in order that they might strike Columbia waters, and thus continue their way toward the west. The choice of the wrong branch might take them a very long distance out of their way, and they would be forced to return to this point, losing a season for travelling, and also, perhaps, so disheartening the men as to take away much or all of their enthusiasm. Accordingly, two land parties set out, one under Captain Lewis and one under Captain Clark. Captain Lewis followed up the Missouri River, and became convinced that it was not the main stream, and that it would not be wise to follow it up. The remainder of his party, however, believed it to be the true Missouri. Captain Clark, who had followed up the other stream, had seen nothing to give him much notion as to whether it was or was not the principal river. After long consideration, and getting from the interpreters and Frenchmen all that they knew on the subject, they determined to make a cache at this point, and that a party should ascend the southern branch by land until they should reach either the falls of the Missouri or the mountains. This plan was carried out. The heavy baggage, together with some provisions, salt, powder, and tools, were cached; one of the boats was hidden; and Captain Lewis, with four men, started June 11 to follow up the southern stream.

Lewis and Clark


On the 13th they came to a beautiful plain, where the buffalo were in greater numbers than they had ever been seen, and a little later Captain Lewis came upon the great falls of the Missouri. This most cheering discovery gave them the information that they desired, and the next day an effort was made to find a place where the canoes might be portaged beyond the falls. This was not found; and a considerable journey up and down the river showed to the explorers the great number of falls existing at this place. Game was very numerous, and buffalo were killed and the meat prepared, and a messenger was sent back to the main party to tell what had been discovered. One day in this neighborhood Captain Lewis, having carelessly left his rifle unloaded, was chased for a considerable distance by a bear, and finally took refuge in the river. The next day he was threatened by three buffalo bulls, which came up to within a hundred yards of him on the full charge, and then stopped; and the next day, in the morning, he found a rattlesnake coiled up on a tree trunk close to where he had been sleeping. There seems to have been excitement enough in the neighborhood of the Great Falls. It was found necessary here to leave their boats behind, and the travellers made an effort to supply their place by a homely cart, the wheels of which were made from sections of the trunk of a large cotton-wood tree.

For a good while now the party had been travelling, most of the time on foot, over rough country, covered with prickly pears, and the ground rough with hard points of earth, where the buffalo had trodden during the recent rains. Their foot-gear was worn out, and the feet of many of the men were sore. All were becoming weak from exertion and the fatigues they were constantly undergoing. However, the enormous abundance of game kept them from suffering from hunger. Two or three weeks were spent in the neighborhood of the Great Falls, preparing for their onward journey. Provisions were secured by killing buffalo and drying their meat. They tried to prepare a skin boat for going up the river, and for various explorations and measurements in the neighborhood, but the attempt was unsuccessful. The iron frame had been brought from the East, but wood for flooring and gunwales was hardly to be had. They were obliged to give up the boat, strip the covering from it, and cache the pieces.

While they were in this neighborhood, they were much annoyed by the white bears, which constantly visited their camp during the night. Their dog kept them advised of the approach of the animals, but it was annoying to be obliged to sleep with their arms by their sides and to expect to be awakened at any moment. The daring of the bears was great; once some of the hunters, seeing a place where they thought it likely that a bear might be found, climbed into a tree, shouted, and a bear instantly rushed toward them. It came to the tree and stopped and looked at them, when one of the men shot it. It proved to be the largest bear yet seen.

Captain Clark, journeying with Chaboneau, the interpreter, his wife and child, and the negro servant York, took shelter one day under a steep rock in a deep ravine, to be out of the rain and wind. A heavy shower came up, and before they knew it a tremendous torrent came rolling down the ravine, so that they narrowly escaped losing their lives. Captain Clark pulled the Indian woman up out of the water, which, before he could climb the bank, was up to his waist. The guns and some instruments were lost in the flood.

The question of transportation was finally solved by their making two small canoes from cotton-wood trees, and they pushed on up the Missouri. A small party went ahead on foot, examining the country. Game was fairly numerous, and near the Dearborn River they saw a "large herd of the big horned animals." Indian camps were occasionally seen, and it was noted that in some places pine trees had been stripped of their bark, which, the Indian woman told them, was done by the Snakes in the spring, in order to obtain the soft parts of the wood and the bark for food.

The river here was deep, and with only a moderate current, and they were obliged to employ the tow-rope, cordelling their vessel along the shore. Geese and cranes were breeding along the river; the young geese perfectly feathered and as large as the old ones, while the cranes were as large as turkeys. The land party followed for much of the distance an Indian trail, which led in the general direction they wished to go.

They had now reached the Three Forks of the Missouri, which were duly named, as we know them to-day, Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin. They were in the country of the Snake Indians, whom they were in daily hope of meeting, feeling sure that through the medium of Chaboneau's wife they would be able to establish satisfactory relations with them. Captain Clark still kept ahead of the party, on foot, to learn the courses and practicability of the different streams for the canoes, and left notes at different points, with instructions for the boats. One of these notes, left on a green pole stuck up in the mud, failed to be received because a beaver cut down the pole after it had been planted, and the consequence was that the canoes proceeded for a considerable distance up the wrong fork, and were obliged to return. Reaching the Beaverhead, the Snake woman pointed out the place where she had been captured five years before. On August 9 Captain Lewis, with three men, set out, determined to find some Indians before returning to the party, and the rest of the expedition kept on up the main fork of the Jefferson as best they could. On August 11 Captain Lewis had the pleasure of seeing a man on horseback approaching him. The man's appearance was different from that of any Indian seen before, and Captain Lewis was convinced that he was a Shoshoni. When the two men were about a mile apart the Indian stopped, and Captain Lewis signalled to him with his blanket, making the sign of friendship, and attempted to approach him. The Indian was suspicious, and unfortunately the two men who were following Captain Lewis did not observe the latter's sign to wait, and so, though the Indian permitted the white man to come to within a hundred yards of him, he finally turned his horse and rode off into the willows. They followed the track of the Indian as well as they could until night, and the next morning continued the search. By this time their food was nearly gone. They kept on up the stream until it had grown to be a rivulet so small that Captain Lewis could stand over it with one foot on either bank.

Keeping on to the west, they reached the divide between the Atlantic and Pacific waters, and the next day came upon a woman and a man, who declined to await near approach. A little bit later they came on three Indians, an old and a young woman and a little girl. The young woman escaped by running, but the other two sat down on the ground and seemed to be awaiting death. Captain Lewis made them presents, and after a little conversation, by signs, they set out for the camp. Before they had gone far they met a troop of sixty warriors rushing down upon them at full speed. Captain Lewis put down his gun and went forward with a flag. The leading Indians spoke to the women, who explained that the party were white men, and showed, with pride, the presents that they had received. The warriors received them with great friendliness, and they smoked together on the best of terms, and subsequently proceeded to the camp, where they were received with the utmost hospitality. The Indians had abundant fresh meat and salmon. Most of them were armed with bows, but a few had guns, which they had obtained from the Northwest Company. They had many horses, and hunted antelope on horseback, surrounding and driving them from point to point, until the antelope were worn out and the horses were foaming with sweat. Many of the antelope broke through and got away.

Captain Lewis tried to arrange with the chief to return with him to the Jefferson, meet the party, and bring them over the mountains, and then trade for some horses. The chief readily consented, but it subsequently appeared that he was more or less suspicious, and he repeated to Captain Lewis the suggestions made by some of the Indians that the white men were perhaps allies of their enemies and were trying to draw them into an ambuscade. The chief, with six or eight warriors, started back with Captain Lewis, and it was evident that the people in the village thought that they were going into great danger, for the women were crying and praying for good fortune for those about to go into danger, while the men who feared to go were sullen and unhappy. Nevertheless, before the party had gone far from the camp, they were joined by others, and a little later all the men, and many of the women, overtook them, and travelled along cheerfully with them. Two or three days later Captain Lewis sent out two of his men to hunt, and this seemed to revive the suspicions of the Indians; and when, a little later, one of the Indians who had followed the hunters was seen riding back as hard as he could, the whole company of Indians who were with Captain Lewis whirled about and ran away as fast as possible. It was not until they had raced along for a mile or two that the Indian who returned made the others understand that one of the white men had killed a deer, and instantly the whole company turned about and ran back, each man eager to get first to the deer that he might make sure of a piece.

Meantime the main party had struggled on up the river, and on August 17 were met by a messenger from Captain Lewis, Drewyer, together with two or three of his Indian friends. The two parties met, and, through the medium of Chaboneau's wife, all suspicions were allayed and the friendliest relations established. Efforts were now made to learn something about the country to the westward and the best method of passing through it. The Indians said the way was difficult, the river swift, full of rapids, and flowing through deep canyons, which passed through mountains impassable for men or horses. The route to the southward of the river was said to pass through a dry, parched desert of sand, uninhabited by game, and impossible at that season for the horses, as the grass was dead and the water dried up by the heat of summer. The route to the northward, though bad, appeared to present the best road.

Obviously, if it was practicable, the river presented the easiest passage through the country, and, in the hope that its difficulties had been exaggerated, Captain Clark set out to inspect its channel. Passing as far down the river as he could, the leader convinced himself that it was useless to attempt its passage. Game was scarce, and for food the party depended almost entirely on the salmon which they could purchase from the Indians, and which in some cases were freely given them. The Shoshoni Indians led a miserable life, depending chiefly on salmon and roots. They ventured out on the buffalo plain to kill and dry the meat, though continually in fear of the Pahkees, "or the roving Indians of the Sascatchawan," who sometimes followed them even into the mountains. These Pahkees were undoubtedly the Piegan tribe of Blackfeet, known for many years as bitter enemies of the Snakes.