Read Chapter VIII - In the Haunts of Grizzlies and Buffalo of First Across the Continent, free online book, by Noah Brooks, on

Game, which had been somewhat scarce after leaving the Yellowstone, became more plentiful as they passed on to the westward, still following the winding course of the Missouri. Much of the time, baffling winds and the crookedness of the stream made sailing impossible, and the boats were towed by men walking along the banks.

Even this was sometimes difficult, on account of the rocky ledges that beset the shores, and sharp stones that lay in the path of the towing parties. On the twenty-eighth of April, however, having a favorable wind, the party made twenty-eight miles with their sails, which was reckoned a good days journey. On that day the journal records that game had again become very abundant, deer of various kinds, elk, buffalo, antelope, bear, beaver, and geese being numerous. The beaver, it was found, had wrought much damage by gnawing down trees; some of these, not less than three feet in diameter had been gnawed clean through by the beaver. On the following day the journal has this record: -

“We proceeded early, with a moderate wind. Captain Lewis, who was on shore with one hunter, met, about eight o’clock, two white (grizzly) bears. Of the strength and ferocity of this animal the Indians had given us dreadful accounts. They never attack him but in parties of six or eight persons, and even then are often defeated with a loss of one or more of their party. Having no weapons but bows and arrows, and the bad guns with which the traders supply them, they are obliged to approach very near to the bear; as no wound except through the head or heart is mortal, they frequently fall a sacrifice if they miss their aim. He rather attacks than avoids a man, and such is the terror which he has inspired, that the Indians who go in quest of him paint themselves and perform all the superstitious rites customary when they make war on a neighboring nation. Hitherto, those bears we had seen did not appear desirous of encountering us; but although to a skilful rifleman the danger is very much diminished, yet the white bear is still a terrible animal. On approaching these two, both Captain Lewis and the hunter fired, and each wounded a bear. One of them made his escape; the other turned upon Captain Lewis and pursued him seventy or eighty yards, but being badly wounded the bear could not run so fast as to prevent him from reloading his piece, which he again aimed at him, and a third shot from the hunter brought him to the ground. He was a male, not quite full grown, and weighed about three hundred pounds. The legs are somewhat longer than those of the black bear, and the talons and tusks much larger and longer. Its color is a yellowish-brown; the eyes are small, black, and piercing; the front of the fore legs near the feet is usually black, and the fur is finer, thicker, and deeper than that of the black bear. Add to which, it is a more furious animal, and very remarkable for the wounds which it will bear without dying.”

Next day, the hunter killed the largest elk which they had ever seen. It stood five feet three inches high from hoof to shoulder. Antelopes were also numerous, but lean, and not very good for food. Of the antelope the journal says: -

“These fleet and quick-sighted animals are generally the victims of their curiosity. When they first see the hunters, they run with great velocity; if he lies down on the ground, and lifts up his arm, his hat, or his foot, they return with a light trot to look at the object, and sometimes go and return two or three times, till they approach within reach of the rifle. So, too, they sometimes leave their flock to go and look at the wolves, which crouch down, and, if the antelope is frightened at first, repeat the same manoevre, and sometimes relieve each other, till they decoy it from the party, when they seize it. But, generally, the wolves take them as they are crossing the rivers; for, although swift on foot, they are not good swimmers.”

Later wayfarers across the plains were wont to beguile the antelope by fastening a bright-colored handkerchief to a ramrod stuck in the ground. The patient hunter was certain to be rewarded by the antelope coming within range of his rifle; for, unless scared off by some interference, the herd, after galloping around and around and much zigzagging, would certainly seek to gratify their curiosity by gradually circling nearer and nearer the strange object until a deadly shot or two sent havoc into their ranks.

May came on cold and windy, and on the second of the month, the journal records that snow fell to the depth of an inch, contrasting strangely with the advanced vegetation.

“Our game to-day,” proceeds the journal, “were deer, elk, and buffalo: we also procured three beaver. They were here quite gentle, as they have not been hunted; but when the hunters are in pursuit, they never leave their huts during the day. This animal we esteem a great delicacy, particularly the tail, which, when boiled, resembles in flavor the fresh tongues and sounds of the codfish, and is generally so large as to afford a plentiful meal for two men. One of the hunters, in passing near an old Indian camp, found several yards of scarlet cloth suspended on the bough of a tree, as a sacrifice to the deity, by the Assiniboins; the custom of making these offerings being common among that people, as, indeed, among all the Indians on the Missouri. The air was sharp this evening; the water froze on the oars as we rowed.”

The Assiniboin custom of sacrificing to their deity, or “great medicine,” the article which they most value themselves, is not by any means peculiar to that tribe, nor to the Indian race.

An unusual number of porcupines were seen along here, and these creatures were so free from wildness that they fed on, undisturbed, while the explorers walked around and among them. The captains named a bold and beautiful stream, which here entered the Missouri from the north, - Porcupine River; but modern geography calls the water-course Poplar River; at the mouth of the river, in Montana, is now the Poplar River Indian Agency and military post. The waters of this stream, the explorers found, were clear and transparent, - an exception to all the streams, which, discharging into the Missouri, give it its name of the Big Muddy. The journal adds: -

“A quarter of a mile beyond this river a creek falls in on the south, to which, on account of its distance from the mouth of the Missouri, we gave the name of Two-thousand-mile creek. It is a bold stream with a bed thirty yards wide. At three and one-half miles above Porcupine River, we reached some high timber on the north, and camped just above an old channel of the river, which is now dry. We saw vast quantities of buffalo, elk, deer, - principally of the long-tailed kind, - antelope, beaver, geese, ducks, brant, and some swan. The porcupines too are numerous, and so careless and clumsy that we can approach very near without disturbing them, as they are feeding on the young willows. Toward evening we also found for the first time the nest of a goose among some driftwood, all that we had hitherto seen being on the top of a broken tree on the forks, invariably from fifteen to twenty or more feet in height.”

“Next day,” May 4, says the journal, “we passed some old Indian hunting-camps, one of which consisted of two large lodges, fortified with a circular fence twenty or thirty feet in diameter, made of timber laid horizontally, the beams overlying each other to the height of five feet, and covered with the trunks and limbs of trees that have drifted down the river. The lodges themselves are formed by three or more strong sticks about the size of a man’s leg or arm and twelve feet long, which are attached at the top by a withe of small willows, and spread out so as to form at the base a circle of ten to fourteen feet in diameter. Against these are placed pieces of driftwood and fallen timber, usually in three ranges, one on the other; the interstices are covered with leaves, bark, and straw, so as to form a conical figure about ten feet high, with a small aperture in one side for the door. It is, however, at best a very imperfect shelter against the inclemencies of the seasons.”

Wolves were very abundant along the route of the explorers, the most numerous species being the common kind, now known as the coyote (pronounced kyote), and named by science the canis latrans. These animals are cowardly and sly creatures, of an intermediate size between the fox and dog, very delicately formed, fleet and active.

“The ears are large, erect, and pointed; the head is long and pointed, like that of the fox; the tail long and bushy; the hair and fur are of a pale reddish-brown color, though much coarser than that of the fox; the eye is of a deep sea-green color, small and piercing; the talons are rather longer than those of the wolf of the Atlantic States, which animal, as far as we can perceive, is not to be found on this side of the Platte. These wolves usually associate in bands of ten or twelve, and are rarely, if ever, seen alone, not being able, singly, to attack a deer or antelope. They live and rear their young in burrows, which they fix near some pass or spot much frequented by game, and sally out in a body against any animal which they think they can overpower; but on the slightest alarm retreat to their burrows, making a noise exactly like that of a small dog.

“A second species is lower, shorter in the legs, and thicker than the Atlantic wolf; the color, which is not affected by the seasons, is of every variety of shade, from a gray or blackish-brown to a cream-colored white. They do not burrow, nor do they bark, but howl; they frequent the woods and plains, and skulk along the skirts of the buffalo herds, in order to attack the weary or wounded.”

Under date of May 5, the journal has an interesting story of an encounter with a grizzly bear, which, by way of variety, is here called “brown,” instead of “white.” It is noticeable that the explorers dwelt with much minuteness upon the peculiar characteristics of the grizzly; this is natural enough when we consider that they were the first white men to form an intimate acquaintance with “Ursus horribilis. The account says: -

“Captain Clark and one of the hunters met, this evening, the largest brown bear we have seen. As they fired he did not attempt to attack, but fled with a most tremendous roar; and such was his extraordinary tenacity of life, that, although he had five balls passed through his lungs, and five other wounds, he swam more than half across the river to a sand-bar, and survived twenty minutes. He weighed between five and six hundred pounds at least, and measured eight feet seven inches and a half from the nose to the extremity of the hind feet, five feet ten inches and a half round the breast, three feet eleven inches round the neck, one foot eleven inches round the middle of the fore leg, and his claws five on each foot, were four inches and three-eighths in length. This animal differs from the common black bear in having his claws much longer and more blunt; his tail shorter; his hair of a reddish or bay brown, longer, finer, and more abundant; his liver, lungs, and heart much larger even in proportion to his size, the heart, particularly, being equal to that of a large ox; and his maw ten times larger. Besides fish and flesh, he feeds on roots and every kind of wild fruit.”

On May 8 the party discovered the largest and most important of the northern tributaries of the Upper Missouri. The journal thus describes the stream: -

“Its width at the entrance is one hundred and fifty yards; on going three miles up, Captain Lewis found it to be of the same breadth and sometimes more; it is deep, gentle, and has a large quantity of water; its bed is principally of mud; the banks are abrupt, about twelve feet in height, and formed of a dark, rich loam and blue clay; the low grounds near it are wide and fertile, and possess a considerable proportion of cottonwood and willow. It seems to be navigable for boats and canoes; by this circumstance, joined to its course and quantity of water, which indicates that it passes through a large extent of country, we are led to presume that it may approach the Saskaskawan (Saskatchewan) and afford a communication with that river. The water has a peculiar whiteness, such as might be produced by a tablespoonful of milk in a dish of tea, and this circumstance induced us to call it Milk River.”

Modern geography shows that the surmise of Captain Lewis was correct. Some of the tributaries of Milk River (the Indian name of which signifies “The River that Scolds at all Others”) have their rise near St. Mary’s River, which is one of the tributaries of the Saskatchewan, in British America.

The explorers were surprised to find the bed of a dry river, as deep and as wide as the Missouri itself, about fifteen miles above Milk River. Although it had every appearance of a water-course, it did not discharge a drop of water. Their journal says: -

“It passes through a wide valley without timber; the surrounding country consists of waving low hills, interspersed with some handsome level plains; the banks are abrupt, and consist of a black or yellow clay, or of a rich sandy loam; though they do not rise more than six or eight feet above the bed, they exhibit no appearance of being overflowed; the bed is entirely composed of a light brown sand, the particles of which, like those of the Missouri, are extremely fine. Like the dry rivers we passed before, this seemed to have discharged its waters recently, but the watermark indicated that its greatest depth had not been more than two feet. This stream, if it deserve the name, we called Bigdry (Big Dry) River.”

And Big Dry it remains on the maps unto this day. In this region the party recorded this observation: -

“The game is now in great quantities, particularly the elk and buffalo, which last is so gentle that the men are obliged to drive them out of the way with sticks and stones. The ravages of the beaver are very apparent; in one place the timber was entirely prostrated for a space of three acres in front on the river and one in depth, and great part of it removed, though the trees were in large quantities, and some of them as thick as the body of a man.”

Yet so great have been the ravages of man among these gentle creatures, that elk are now very rarely found in the region, and the buffalo have almost utterly disappeared from the face of the earth. Just after the opening of the Northern Pacific Railway, in 1883, a band of sixty buffaloes were heard of, far to the southward of Bismarck, and a party was organized to hunt them. The bold hunters afterwards boasted that they killed every one of this little band of survivors of their race.

The men were now (in the middle of May) greatly troubled with boils, abscesses, and inflamed eyes, caused by the poison of the alkali that covered much of the ground and corrupted the water. Here is an entry in the journal of May 11: -

“About five in the afternoon one of our men (Bratton), who had been afflicted with boils and suffered to walk on shore, came running to the boats with loud cries, and every symptom of terror and distress. For some time after we had taken him on board he was so much out of breath as to be unable to describe the cause of his anxiety; but he at length told us that about a mile and a half below he had shot a brown bear, which immediately turned and was in close pursuit of him; but the bear being badly wounded could not overtake him. Captain Lewis, with seven men, immediately went in search of him; having found his track they followed him by the blood for a mile, found him concealed in some thick brushwood, and shot him with two balls through the skull. Though somewhat smaller than that killed a few days ago, he was a monstrous animal, and a most terrible enemy. Our man had shot him through the centre of the lungs; yet he had pursued him furiously for half a mile, then returned more than twice that distance, and with his talons prepared himself a bed in the earth two feet deep and five feet long; he was perfectly alive when they found him, which was at least two hours after he had received the wound. The wonderful power of life which these animals possess renders them dreadful; their very track in the mud or sand, which we have sometimes found eleven inches long and seven and one-fourth wide, exclusive of the talons, is alarming; and we had rather encounter two Indians than meet a single brown bear. There is no chance of killing them by a single shot unless the ball goes through the brain, and this is very difficult on account of two large muscles which cover the side of the forehead and the sharp projection of the centre of the frontal bone, which is also thick.

“Our camp was on the south, at the distance of sixteen miles from that of last night. The fleece and skin of the bear were a heavy burden for two men, and the oil amounted to eight gallons.”

The name of the badly-scared Bratton was bestowed upon a creek which discharges into the Missouri near the scene of this encounter. Game continued to be very abundant. On the fourteenth, according to the journal, the hunters were hunted, to their great discomfiture. The account says: -

“Toward evening the men in the hindmost canoes discovered a large brown (grizzly) bear lying in the open grounds, about three hundred paces from the river. Six of them, all good hunters, immediately went to attack him, and concealing themselves by a small eminence came unperceived within forty paces of him. Four of the hunters now fired, and each lodged a ball in his body, two of them directly through the lungs. The furious animal sprang up and ran open-mouthed upon them.

“As he came near, the two hunters who had reserved their fire gave him two wounds, one of which, breaking his shoulder, retarded his motion for a moment; but before they could reload he was so near that they were obliged to run to the river, and before they had reached it he had almost overtaken them. Two jumped into the canoe; the other four separated, and, concealing themselves in the willows, fired as fast as they could reload. They struck him several times, but, instead of weakening the monster, each shot seemed only to direct him towards the hunters, till at last he pursued two of them so closely that they threw aside their guns and pouches, and jumped down a perpendicular bank of twenty feet into the river: the bear sprang after them, and was within a few feet of the hindmost, when one of the hunters on shore shot him in the head, and finally killed him. They dragged him to the shore, and found that eight balls had passed through him in different directions. The bear was old, and the meat tough, so that they took the skin only, and rejoined us at camp, where we had been as much terrified by an accident of a different kind.

“This was the narrow escape of one of our canoes, containing all our papers, instruments, medicine, and almost every article indispensable for the success of our enterprise. The canoe being under sail, a sudden squall of wind struck her obliquely and turned her considerably. The man at the helm, who was unluckily the worst steersman of the party, became alarmed, and, instead of putting her before the wind, luffed her up into it. The wind was so high that it forced the brace of the square-sail out of the hand of the man who was attending it, and instantly upset the canoe, which would have been turned bottom upward but for the resistance made by the awning. Such was the confusion on board, and the waves ran so high, that it was half a minute before she righted, and then nearly full of water, but by bailing her out she was kept from sinking until they rowed ashore. Besides the loss of the lives of three men, who, not being able to swim, would probably have perished, we should have been deprived of nearly everything necessary for our purposes, at a distance of between two and three thousand miles from any place where we could supply the deficiency.”

Fortunately, there was no great loss from this accident, which was caused by the clumsiness and timidity of the steersman, Chaboneau. Captain Lewiss account of the incident records that the conduct of Chaboneaus wife, Sacajawea, was better than that of her cowardly husband. He says: -

“The Indian woman, to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution with any person on board at the time of the accident, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard.”