Read Chapter VII - From Fort Mandan to the Yellowstone of First Across the Continent, free online book, by Noah Brooks, on

Up to this time, the expedition had passed through regions from which vague reports had been brought by the few white men who, as hunters and trappers in pursuit of fur-bearing game, had dared to venture into these trackless wildernesses. Now they were to launch out into the mysterious unknown, from which absolutely no tidings had ever been brought by white men. The dim reports of Indians who had hunted through some parts of the region were unreliable, and, as they afterwards proved, were often as absurdly false as if they had been fairy tales.

Here, too, they parted from some of their comrades who were to return to “the United States,” as the explorers fondly termed their native country, although the strange lands through which they were voyaging were now a part of the American Republic. The despatches sent to Washington by these men contained the first official report from Lewis and Clark since their departure from St. Louis, May 16, 1803; and they were the last word from the explorers until their return in September, 1806. During all that long interval, the adventurers were not heard of in the States. No wonder that croakers declared that the little party had been cut off to perish miserably in the pathless woods that cover the heart of the continent.

But they set out on the long journey with light hearts. In his journal, whose spelling and punctuation are not always models for the faithful imitation of school-boys, Captain Lewis set down this observation: -

“Our vessels consisted of six small canoes, and two large perogues. This little fleet altho’ not quite so respectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook, were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs; and I dare say with quite as much anxiety for their safety and preservation. We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessels contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves. However as the state of mind in which we are, generally gives the colouring to events, when the imagination is suffered to wander into futurity, the picture which now presented itself to me was a most pleasing one. Entertaining as I do the most confident hope of succeeding in a voyage which had formed a darling project of mine for the last ten years, I could but esteem this moment of our departure as among the most happy of my life.”

The barge sent down the river to St. Louis was in command of Corporal Wharfington; and with him were six private soldiers, two French voyageurs, Joseph Gravelines (pilot and interpreter), and Brave Raven, a Ricara (or Arikara) chief who was to be escorted to Washington to visit the President. The party was also intrusted with sundry gifts for the President, among them being natural history specimens, living and dead, and a number of Indian articles which would be objects of curiosity in Washington.

The long voyage of the main party began on the 8th of April, 1805, early passing the mouth of the Big Knife River, one of the five considerable streams that fall into the Missouri from the westward in this region; the other streams are the Owl, the Grand, the Cannonball, and the Heart. The large town of Stanton, Mercer County, North Dakota, is now situated at the mouth of the Big Knife. The passage of the party up the river was slow, owing to unfavorable winds; and they observed along the banks many signs of early convulsions of nature. The earth of the bluffs was streaked with layers of coal, or carbonized wood, and large quantities of lava and pumice-stone were strewn around, showing traces of ancient volcanic action. The journal of April 9 says: -

“A great number of brants (snow-geese) pass up the river; some of them are perfectly white, except the large feathers of the first joint of the wing, which are black, though in every other characteristic they resemble common gray brant. We also saw but could not procure an animal (gopher) that burrows in the ground, and is similar in every respect to the burrowing-squirrel, except that it is only one-third of its size. This may be the animal whose works we have often seen in the plains and prairies; they resemble the labors of the salamander in the sand-hills of South Carolina and Georgia, and like him the animals rarely come above ground; they consist of a little hillock of ten or twelve pounds of loose ground, which would seem to have been reversed from a pot, though no aperture is seen through which it could have been thrown. On removing gently the earth, you discover that the soil has been broken in a circle of about an inch and a half diameter, where the ground is looser, though still no opening is perceptible. When we stopped for dinner the squaw (Sacajawea) went out, and after penetrating with a sharp stick the holes of the mice (gophers), near some drift-wood, brought to us a quantity of wild artichokes, which the mice collect and hoard in large numbers. The root is white, of an ovate form, from one to three inches long, and generally of the size of a man’s finger, and two, four, and sometimes six roots are attached to a single stalk. Its flavor as well as the stalk which issues from it resemble those of the Jerusalem artichoke, except that the latter is much larger.”

The weather rapidly grew so warm, although this was early in April, that the men worked half-naked during the day; and they were very much annoyed by clouds of mosquitoes. They found that the hillsides and even the banks of the rivers and sand-bars were covered with “a white substance, which appears in considerable quantities on the surface of the earth, and tastes like a mixture of common salt with Glauber’s salts.” “Many of the streams,” the journal adds, “are so strongly impregnated with this substance that the water has an unpleasant taste and a purgative effect.” This is nothing more than the so-called alkali which has since become known all over the farthest West. It abounds in the regions west of Salt Lake Valley, whitening vast areas like snow and poisoning the waters so that the traveller often sees the margins of the brown pools lined with skeletons and bodies of small animals whose thirst had led them to drink the deadly fluid. Men and animals stiffer from smaller doses of this stuff, which is largely a sulphate of soda, and even in small quantities is harmful to the system.

Here, on the twelfth of April, they were able to determine the exact course of the Little Missouri, a stream about which almost nothing was then known. Near here, too, they found the source of the Mouse River, only a few miles from the Missouri. The river, bending to the north and then making many eccentric curves, finally empties into Lake Winnipeg, and so passes into the great chain of northern lakes in British America. At this point the explorers saw great flocks of the wild Canada goose. The journal says: -

“These geese, we observe, do not build their nests on the ground or in the sand-bars, but in the tops of the lofty cottonwood trees. We saw some elk and buffalo to-day, but at too great a distance to obtain any of them, though a number of the carcasses of the latter animal are strewed along the shore, having fallen through the ice and been swept along when the river broke up. More bald eagles are seen on this part of the Missouri than we have previously met with; the small sparrow-hawk, common in most parts of the United States, is also found here. Great quantities of geese are feeding on the prairies, and one flock of white brant, or geese with black-tipped wings, and some gray brant with them, pass up the river; from their flight they seem to proceed much further to the northwest. We killed two antelopes, which were very lean, and caught last night two beavers.”

Lewis and Clark were laughed at by some very knowing people who scouted the idea that wild geese build their nests in trees. But later travellers have confirmed their story; the wise geese avoid foxes and other of their four-footed enemies by fixing their homes in the tall cottonwoods. In other words, they roost high.

The Assiniboins from the north had lately been on their spring hunting expeditions through this region, - just above the Little Missouri, - and game was scarce and shy. The journal, under the date of April 14, says: -

“One of the hunters shot at an otter last evening; a buffalo was killed, and an elk, both so poor as to be almost unfit for use; two white (grizzly) bears were also seen, and a muskrat swimming across the river. The river continues wide and of about the same rapidity as the ordinary current of the Ohio. The low grounds are wide, the moister parts containing timber; the upland is extremely broken, without wood, and in some places seems as if it had slipped down in masses of several acres in surface. The mineral appearance of salts, coal, and sulphur, with the burnt hill and pumice-stone, continue, and a bituminous water about the color of strong lye, with the taste of Glauber’s salts and a slight tincture of alum. Many geese were feeding in the prairies, and a number of magpies, which build their nests much like those of the blackbird, in trees, and composed of small sticks, leaves, and grass, open at the top; the egg is of a bluish-brown color, freckled with reddish-brown spots. We also killed a large hooting-owl resembling that of the United States except that it was more booted and clad with feathers. On the hills are many aromatic herbs, resembling in taste, smell, and appearance the sage, hyssop, wormwood, southernwood, juniper, and dwarf cedar; a plant also about two or three feet high, similar to the camphor in smell and taste; and another plant of the same size, with a long, narrow, smooth, soft leaf, of an agreeable smell and flavor, which is a favorite food of the antelope, whose necks are often perfumed by rubbing against it.”

What the journalist intended to say here was that at least one of the aromatic herbs resembled sage, hyssop, wormwood, and southernwood, and that there were junipers and dwarf cedars. The pungent-smelling herb was the wild sage, now celebrated in stories of adventure as the sage-brush. It grows abundantly in the alkali country, and is browsed upon by a species of grouse known as the sage-hen. Junipers and dwarf cedars also grow on the hills of the alkali and sage-brush country. The sage belongs to the Artemisia family of plants.

Four days later, the journal had this interesting entry:

“The country to-day presented the usual variety of highlands interspersed with rich plains. In one of these we observed a species of pea bearing a yellow flower, which is now in blossom, the leaf and stalk resembling the common pea. It seldom rises higher than six inches, and the root is perennial. On the rose-bushes we also saw a quantity of the hair of a buffalo, which had become perfectly white by exposure and resembled the wool of the sheep, except that it was much finer and more soft and silky. A buffalo which we killed yesterday had shed his long hair, and that which remained was about two inches long, thick, fine, and would have furnished five pounds of wool, of which we have no doubt an excellent cloth may be made. Our game to-day was a beaver, a deer, an elk, and some geese. . . .

“On the hills we observed considerable quantities of dwarf juniper, which seldom grows higher than three feet. We killed in the course of the day an elk, three geese, and a beaver. The beaver on this part of the Missouri are in greater quantities, larger and fatter, and their fur is more abundant and of a darker color, than any we have hitherto seen. Their favorite food seems to be the bark of the cottonwood and willow, as we have seen no other species of tree that has been touched by them, and these they gnaw to the ground through a diameter of twenty inches.”

And on the twenty-first of April the journal says:

“Last night there was a hard white frost, and this morning the weather was cold, but clear and pleasant; in the course of the day, however, it became cloudy and the wind rose. The country is of the same description as within the few last days. We saw immense quantities of buffalo, elk, deer, antelopes, geese, and some swans and ducks, out of which we procured three deer and four buffalo calves, which last are equal in flavor to the most delicious veal; also two beaver and an otter.”

As the party advanced to the westward, following the crooked course of the Missouri, they were very much afflicted with inflamed eyes, occasioned by the fine, alkaline dust that blew so lightly that it sometimes floated for miles, like clouds of smoke. The dust even penetrated the works of one of their watches, although it was protected by tight, double cases. In these later days, even the double windows of the railway trains do not keep out this penetrating dust, which makes one’s skin dry and rough.

On the twenty-fifth of April, the explorers believed, by the signs which they observed, that they must be near the great unknown river of which they had dimly heard as rising in the rocky passes of the Great Divide and emptying into the Missouri. Captain Lewis accordingly left the party, with four men, and struck off across the country in search of the stream. Under the next days date the journal reports the return of Captain Lewis and says: -

“On leaving us yesterday he pursued his route along the foot of the hills, which he descended to the distance of eight miles; from these the wide plains watered by the Missouri and the Yellowstone spread themselves before the eye, occasionally varied with the wood of the banks, enlivened by the irregular windings of the two rivers, and animated by vast herds of buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope. The confluence of the two rivers was concealed by the wood, but the Yellowstone itself was only two miles distant, to the south. He therefore descended the hills and camped on the bank of the river, having killed, as he crossed the plain, four buffaloes; the deer alone are shy and retire to the woods, but the elk, antelope, and buffalo suffered him to approach them without alarm, and often followed him quietly for some distance.”

The famous water-course, first described by Lewis and Clark, was named by them the Yellow Stone River. Earlier than this, however, the French voyageurs had called the Upper Missouri the Riviere Jaune, or Yellow River; but it is certain that the stream, which rises in the Yellowstone National Park, was discovered and named by Lewis and Clark. One of the party, Private Joseph Fields, was the first white man who ever ascended the Yellowstone for any considerable distance. Sent up the river by Captains Lewis and Clark, he travelled about eight miles, and observed the currents and sand-bars. Leaving the mouth of the river, the party went on their course along the Missouri. The journal, under date of April 27, says: -

“From the point of junction a wood occupies the space between the two rivers, which at the distance of a mile come within two hundred and fifty yards of each other. There a beautiful low plain commences, widening as the rivers recede, and extends along each of them for several miles, rising about half a mile from the Missouri into a plain twelve feet higher than itself. The low plain is a few inches above high water mark, and where it joins the higher plain there is a channel of sixty or seventy yards in width, through which a part of the Missouri, when at its greatest height, passes into the Yellowstone. . . .

“The northwest wind rose so high at eleven o’clock that we were obliged to stop till about four in the afternoon, when we proceeded till dusk. On the south a beautiful plain separates the two rivers, till at about six miles there is a piece of low timbered ground, and a little above it bluffs, where the country rises gradually from the river: the situations on the north are more high and open. We encamped on that side, the wind, the sand which it raised, and the rapidity of the current having prevented our advancing more than eight miles; during the latter part of the day the river became wider, and crowded with sand-bars. The game was in such plenty that we killed only what was necessary for our subsistence. For several days past we have seen great numbers of buffalo lying dead along the shore, some of them partly devoured by the wolves. They have either sunk through the ice during the winter, or been drowned in attempting to cross; or else, after crossing to some high bluff, have found themselves too much exhausted either to ascend or swim back again, and perished for want of food: in this situation we found several small parties of them. There are geese, too, in abundance, and more bald eagles than we have hitherto observed; the nests of these last being always accompanied by those of two or three magpies, who are their inseparable attendants.”