Read Chapter X - To the Great Falls of the Missouri of First Across the Continent, free online book, by Noah Brooks, on

Next day, June 8, the Lewis party returned to the main body of the expedition. They reported that timber was scarce along the river, except in the lowlands, where there were pretty groves and thickets. These trees, the journal says, were the haunts of innumerable birds, which, as the sun rose, sung delightfully: -

“Among these birds they distinguished the brown thrush, robin, turtle-dove, linnet, gold-finch, large and small blackbird, wren, and some others. As they came along, the whole party were of opinion that this river was the true Missouri; but Captain Lewis, being fully persuaded that it was neither the main stream, nor that which it would be advisable to ascend, gave it the name of Maria’s River. After travelling all day they reached camp about five o’clock in the afternoon, and found Captain Clark and the party very anxious for their safety. As they had stayed two days longer than had been expected, and as Captain Clark had returned at the appointed time, it was feared that they had met with some accident.”

As we now know, the stream that came in from the north was that which is still called Maria’s (or Marais) River, and the so-called branch from the southwest was the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark, however, were in the dark as to the relations of the two streams. Which was the parent? Which was the branch? After pondering all the evidence that could be collected to bear on the important question, the two captains agreed that the southern stream was the true Missouri, and the northern stream was an important branch. The journal says:

“These observations, which satisfied our minds completely, we communicated to the party; but every one of them was of a contrary opinion. Much of their belief depended on Crusatte, an experienced waterman on the Missouri, who gave it as his decided judgment that the north fork was the genuine Missouri. The men, therefore, mentioned that, although they would most cheerfully follow us wherever we should direct, yet they were afraid that the south fork would soon terminate in the Rocky Mountains, and leave us at a great distance from the Columbia. In order that nothing might be omitted which could prevent our falling into an error, it was agreed that one of us should ascend the southern branch by land, until we reached either the falls or the mountains. In the meantime, in order to lighten our burdens as much as possible, we determined to deposit here one of the pirogues, and all the heavy baggage which we could possibly spare, as well as some provision, salt, powder, and tools. This would at once lighten the other boats, and give them the crew which had been employed on board the pirogue.”

On the tenth of June, the weather being fair and pleasant, they dried all their baggage and merchandise and secreted them in places of deposits, called caches, as follows: -

“These deposits - or caches, as they are called by the Missouri traders - are very common, particularly among those who deal with the Sioux, as the skins and merchandise will keep perfectly sound for years, and are protected from robbery. Our cache was built in the usual manner. In the high plain on the north side of the Missouri, and forty yards from a steep bluff, we chose a dry situation, and then, describing a small circle of about twenty inches diameter, removed the sod as gently and carefully as possible: the hole was then sunk perpendicularly for a foot deep. It was now worked gradually wider as it descended, till at length it became six or seven feet deep, shaped nearly like a kettle, or the lower part of a large still with the bottom somewhat sunk at the centre. As the earth was dug it was handed up in a vessel, and carefully laid on a skin or cloth, in which it was carried away and thrown into the river, so as to leave no trace of it. A floor of three or four inches in thickness was then made of dry sticks, on which was placed a hide perfectly dry. The goods, being well aired and dried, were laid on this floor, and prevented from touching the wall by other dried sticks, as the merchandise was stowed away. When the hole was nearly full, a skin was laid over the goods, and on this earth was thrown and beaten down, until, with the addition of the sod first removed, the whole was on a level with the ground, and there remained not the slightest appearance of an excavation. In addition to this, we made another of smaller dimensions, in which we placed all the baggage, some powder, and our blacksmith’s tools, having previously repaired such of the tools as we carry with us that require mending. To guard against accident, we had two parcelss of lead and powder in the two places. The red pirogue was drawn up on the middle of a small island, at the entrance of Maria’s River, and secured, by being fastened to the trees, from the effects of any floods. We now took another observation of the meridian altitude of the sun, and found that the mean latitude of Maria’s River, as deduced from three observations, is 49’0 25’ 17.2” N.”

In order to make assurance doubly sure, Captain Lewis resolved to take four men with him and ascend the south branch (that is, the true Missouri), before committing the expedition to that route as the final one. His proposition was that his party should proceed up the river as rapidly as possible in advance of the main party. On the second day out, says the journal: -

“Captain Lewis left the bank of the river in order to avoid the steep ravines, which generally run from the shore to the distance of one or two miles in the plain. Having reached the open country he went for twelve miles in a course a little to the W. of S.W.; when, the sun becoming warm by nine o’clock, he returned to the river in quest of water, and to kill something for breakfast; there being no water in the plain, and the buffalo, discovering them before they came within gunshot, took to flight. They reached the banks in a handsome open low ground with cottonwood, after three miles’ walk. Here they saw two large brown bears, and killed them both at the first fire - a circumstance which has never before occurred since we have seen that animal. Having made a meal of a part, and hung the remainder on a tree, with a note for Captain Clark, they again ascended the bluffs into the open plains. Here they saw great numbers of the burrowing-squirrel, also some wolves, antelopes, mule-deer, and vast herds of buffalo. They soon crossed a ridge considerably higher than the surrounding plains, and from its top had a beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains, which are now completely covered with snow. Their general course is from S.E. to N. of N.W., and they seem to consist of several ranges which successively rise above each other, till the most distant mingles with the clouds. After travelling twelve miles they again met the river, where there was a handsome plain of cottonwood.”

Again leaving the river, Captain Lewis bore off more to the north, the stream here bearing considerably to the south, with difficult bluffs along its course. But fearful of passing the Great Falls before reaching the Rocky Mountains, he again changed his course and, leaving the bluffs to his right he turned towards the river.

The journal gives this description of what followed: -

“In this direction Captain Lewis had gone about two miles, when his ears were saluted with the agreeable sound of a fall of water, and as he advanced a spray, which seemed driven by the high southwest wind, arose above the plain like a column of smoke, and vanished in an instant. Toward this point he directed his steps; the noise increased as he approached, and soon became too tremendous to be mistaken for anything but the Great Falls of the Missouri. Having travelled seven miles after first hearing the sound, he reached the falls about twelve o’clock. The hills as he approached were difficult of access and two hundred feet high. Down these he hurried with impatience; and, seating himself on some rocks under the centre of the falls, enjoyed the sublime spectacle of this stupendous object, which since the creation had been lavishing its magnificence upon the desert, unknown to civilization.

“The river immediately at this cascade is three hundred yards wide, and is pressed in by a perpendicular cliff on the left, which rises to about one hundred feet and extends up the stream for a mile; on the right the bluff is also perpendicular for three hundred yards above the falls. For ninety or one hundred yards from the left cliff, the water falls in one smooth, even sheet, over a precipice of at least eighty feet. The remaining part of the river precipitates itself with a more rapid current, but being received as it falls by the irregular and somewhat projecting rocks below, forms a splendid prospect of perfectly white foam, two hundred yards in length and eighty in perpendicular elevation. This spray is dissipated into a thousand shapes, sometimes flying up in columns of fifteen or twenty feet, which are then oppressed by larger masses of the white foam, on all of which the sun impresses the brightest colors of the rainbow. Below the fall the water beats with fury against a ledge of rocks, which extends across the river at one hundred and fifty yards from the precipice. From the perpendicular cliff on the north to the distance of one hundred and twenty yards, the rocks are only a few feet above the water; and, when the river is high, the stream finds a channel across them forty yards wide, and near the higher parts of the ledge, which rise about twenty feet, and terminate abruptly within eighty or ninety yards of the southern side. Between them and the perpendicular cliff on the south, the whole body of water runs with great swiftness. A few small cedars grow near this ridge of rocks, which serves as a barrier to defend a small plain of about three acres, shaded with cottonwood; at the lower extremity of which is a grove of the same trees, where are several deserted Indian cabins of sticks; below which the river is divided by a large rock, several feet above the surface of the water, and extending down the stream for twenty yards. At the distance of three hundred yards from the same ridge is a second abutment of solid perpendicular rock, about sixty feet high, projecting at right angles from the small plain on the north for one hundred and thirty-four yards into the river. After leaving this, the Missouri again spreads itself to its previous breadth of three hundred yards, though with more than its ordinary rapidity.”

One of Lewiss men was sent back to inform Captain Clark of this momentous discovery, which finally settled all doubt as to which was the true Missouri. The famous Great Falls of the river had been finally reached. Captain Lewis next went on to examine the rapids above the falls. The journal says: -

“After passing one continued rapid and three cascades, each three or four feet high, he reached, at the distance of five miles, a second fall. The river is here about four hundred yards wide, and for the distance of three hundred rushes down to the depth of nineteen feet, and so irregularly that he gave it the name of the Crooked Falls. From the southern shore it extends obliquely upward about one hundred and fifty yards, and then forms an acute angle downward nearly to the commencement of four small islands close to the northern side. From the perpendicular pitch to these islands, a distance of more than one hundred yards, the water glides down a sloping rock with a velocity almost equal to that of its fall: above this fall the river bends suddenly to the northward. While viewing this place, Captain Lewis heard a loud roar above him, and, crossing the point of a hill a few hundred yards, he saw one of the most beautiful objects in nature: the whole Missouri is suddenly stopped by one shelving rock, which, without a single niche, and with an edge as straight and regular as if formed by art, stretches itself from one side of the river to the other for at least a quarter of a mile. Over this it precipitates itself in an even, uninterrupted sheet, to the perpendicular depth of fifty feet, whence, dashing against the rocky bottom, it rushes rapidly down, leaving behind it a sheet of the purest foam across the river. The scene which it presented was indeed singularly beautiful; since, without any of the wild, irregular sublimity of the lower falls, it combined all the regular elegancies which the fancy of a painter would select to form a beautiful waterfall. The eye had scarcely been regaled with this charming prospect, when at the distance of half a mile Captain Lewis observed another of a similar kind. To this he immediately hastened, and found a cascade stretching across the whole river for a quarter of a mile, with a descent of fourteen feet, though the perpendicular pitch was only six feet. This, too, in any other neighborhood, would have been an object of great magnificence; but after what he had just seen, it became of secondary interest. His curiosity being, however, awakened, he determined to go on, even should night overtake him, to the head of the falls.

“He therefore pursued the southwest course of the river, which was one constant succession of rapids and small cascades, at every one of which the bluffs grew lower, or the bed of the river became more on a level with the plains. At the distance of two and one-half miles he arrived at another cataract, of twenty-six feet. The river is here six hundred yards wide, but the descent is not immediately perpendicular, though the river falls generally with a regular and smooth sheet; for about one-third of the descent a rock protrudes to a small distance, receives the water in its passage, and gives it a curve. On the south side is a beautiful plain, a few feet above the level of the falls; on the north, the country is more broken, and there is a hill not far from the river. Just below the falls is a little island in the middle of the river, well covered with timber. Here on a cottonwood tree an eagle had fixed her nest, and seemed the undisputed mistress of a spot, to contest whose dominion neither man nor beast would venture across the gulfs that surround it, and which is further secured by the mist rising from the falls. This solitary bird could not escape the observation of the Indians, who made the eagle’s nest a part of their description of the falls, which now proves to be correct in almost every particular, except that they did not do justice to the height.

“Just above this is a cascade of about five feet, beyond which, as far as could be discerned, the velocity of the water seemed to abate. Captain Lewis now ascended the hill which was behind him, and saw from its top a delightful plain, extending from the river to the base of the Snowy (Rocky) Mountains to the south and southwest. Along this wide, level country the Missouri pursued its winding course, filled with water to its smooth, grassy banks, while about four miles above, it was joined by a large river flowing from the northwest, through a valley three miles in width, and distinguished by the timber which adorned its shores. The Missouri itself stretches to the south, in one unruffled stream of water, as if unconscious of the roughness it must soon encounter, and bearing on its bosom vast flocks of geese, while numerous herds of buffalo are feeding on the plains which surround it.

“Captain Lewis then descended the hill, and directed his course towards the river falling in from the west. He soon met a herd of at least a thousand buffalo, and, being desirous of providing for supper, shot one of them. The animal immediately began to bleed, and Captain Lewis, who had forgotten to reload his rifle, was intently watching to see him fall, when he beheld a large brown bear which was stealing on him unperceived, and was already within twenty steps. In the first moment of surprise he lifted his rifle; but, remembering instantly that it was not charged, and that he had no time to reload, he felt that there was no safety but in flight. It was in the open, level plain; not a bush nor a tree within three hundred yards; the bank of the river sloping, and not more than three feet high, so that there was no possible mode of concealment. Captain Lewis, therefore, thought of retreating with a quick walk, as fast as the bear advanced, towards the nearest tree; but, as soon as he turned, the bear rushed open-mouthed, and at full speed, upon him. Captain Lewis ran about eighty yards, but finding that the animal gained on him fast, it flashed on his mind that, by getting into the water to such a depth that the bear would be obliged to attack him swimming, there was still some chance of his life; he therefore turned short, plunged into the river about waist-deep, and facing about presented the point of his espontoon. The bear arrived at the water’s edge within twenty feet of him; but as soon as he put himself in this posture of defence, the bear seemed frightened, and wheeling about, retreated with as much precipitation as he had pursued. Very glad to be released from this danger, Captain Lewis returned to the shore, and observed him run with great speed, sometimes looking back as if he expected to be pursued, till he reached the woods. He could not conceive the cause of the sudden alarm of the bear, but congratulated himself on his escape when he saw his own track torn to pieces by the furious animal, and learned from the whole adventure never to suffer his rifle to be a moment unloaded.”

Captain Lewis now resumed his progress towards the western, or Sun, River, then more commonly known among the Indians as Medicine River. In going through the lowlands of this stream, he met an animal which he thought was a wolf, but which was more likely a wolverine, or carcajou. The journal says: -

“It proved to be some brownish yellow animal, standing near its burrow, which, when he came nigh, crouched, and seemed as if about to spring on him. Captain Lewis fired, and the beast disappeared in its burrow. From the track, and the general appearance of the animal, he supposed it to be of the tiger kind. He then went on; but, as if the beasts of the forest had conspired against him, three buffalo bulls, which were feeding with a large herd at the distance of half a mile, left their companions, and ran at full speed towards him. He turned round, and, unwilling to give up the field, advanced to meet them: when they were within a hundred yards they stopped, looked at him for some time, and then retreated as they came. He now pursued his route in the dark, reflecting on the strange adventures and sights of the day, which crowded on his mind so rapidly, that he should have been inclined to believe it all enchantment if the thorns of the prickly pear, piercing his feet, had not dispelled at every moment the illusion. He at last reached the party, who had been very anxious for his safety, and who had already decided on the route which each should take in the morning to look for him. Being much fatigued, he supped, and slept well during the night.”

On awaking the next morning, Captain Lewis found a large rattlesnake coiled on the trunk of a tree under which he had been sleeping. He killed it, and found it like those he had seen before, differing from those of the Atlantic States, not in its colors, but in the form and arrangement of them. Information was received that Captain Clark had arrived five miles below, at a rapid which he did not think it prudent to ascend, and that he was waiting there for the party above to rejoin him.

After the departure of Captain Lewis, Captain Clark had remained a day at Maria’s River, to complete the deposit of such articles as they could dispense with, and started on the twelfth of June.

Four days later, Captain Clark left the river, having sent his messenger to Captain Lewis, and began to search for a proper portage to convey the pirogue and canoes across to the Columbia River, leaving most of the men to hunt, make wheels and draw the canoes up a creek which they named Portage Creek, as it was to be the base of their future operations. The stream is now known as Belt Mountain Creek. But the explorers soon found that although the pirogue was to be left behind, the way was too difficult for a portage even for canoes. The journal says: -

“We found great difficulty and some danger in even ascending the creek thus far, in consequence of the rapids and rocks of the channel of the creek, which just above where we brought the canoes has a fall of five feet, with high steep bluffs beyond it. We were very fortunate in finding, just below Portage Creek, a cottonwood tree about twenty-two inches in diameter, large enough to make the carriage-wheels. It was, perhaps, the only one of the same size within twenty miles; and the cottonwood which we are obliged to employ in the other parts of the work is extremely soft and brittle. The mast of the white pirogue, which we mean to leave behind, supplied us with two axle-trees.

“There are vast quantities of buffalo feeding on the plains or watering in the river, which is also strewed with the floating carcasses and limbs of these animals. They go in large herds to water about the falls, and as all the passages to the river near that place are narrow and steep, the foremost are pressed into the river by the impatience of those behind. In this way we have seen ten or a dozen disappear over the falls in a few minutes. They afford excellent food for the wolves, bears, and birds of prey; which circumstance may account for the reluctance of the bears to yield their dominion over the neighborhood.

“The pirogue was drawn up a little below our camp, and secured in a thick copse of willow-bushes. We now began to form a cache or place of deposit, and to dry our goods and other articles which required inspection. The wagons are completed. Our hunters brought us ten deer, and we shot two out of a herd of buffalo that came to water at Sulphur Spring. There is a species of gooseberry, growing abundantly among the rocks on the sides of the cliffs. It is now ripe, of a pale red color, about the size of the common gooseberry, and like it is an ovate pericarp of soft pulp enveloping a number of small whitish seeds, and consisting of a yellowish, slimy, mucilaginous substance, with a sweet taste; the surface of the berry is covered glutinous, adhesive matter, and its fruit, though ripe, retains its withered corolla. The shrub itself seldom rises more than two feet high, is much branched, and has no thorns. The leaves resemble those of the common gooseberry, except in being smaller, and the berry is supported by separate peduncles or foot-stalks half an inch long. There are also immense quantities of grasshoppers, of a brown color, on the plains; they, no doubt, contribute to the lowness of the grass, which is not generally more than three inches high, though it is soft, narrow-leaved, and affords a fine pasture for the buffalo.”