Read Chapter XII - At the Sources of the Missouri of First Across the Continent, free online book, by Noah Brooks, on

The explorers were now (in the last days of July, 1805) at the head of the principal sources of the great Missouri River, in the fastnesses of the Rocky Mountains, at the base of the narrow divide that separates Idaho from Montana in its southern corner. Just across this divide are the springs that feed streams falling into the majestic Columbia and then to the Pacific Ocean. As has been already set forth, they named the Three Forks for President Jefferson and members of his cabinet. These names still survive, although Jefferson River is the true Missouri and not a fork of that stream. Upon the forks of the Jefferson Lewis bestowed the titles of Philosophy, Wisdom, and Philanthropy, each of these gifts and graces being, in his opinion, “an attribute of that illustrious personage, Thomas Jefferson,” then President of the United States. But alas for the fleeting greatness of geographical honor! Philosophy River is now known as Willow Creek, and at its mouth, a busy little railroad town, is Willow City. The northwest fork is no longer Wisdom, but Big Hole River; deep valleys among the mountains are known as holes; and the stream called by that name, once Wisdom, is followed along its crooked course by a railroad that connects Dillon, Silver Bow, and Butte City, Montana. Vulgarity does its worst for Philanthropy; its modern name on the map is Stinking Water.

On the thirtieth of July, the party, having camped long enough to unpack and dry their goods, dress their deerskins and make them into leggings and moccasins, reloaded their canoes and began the toilsome ascent of the Jefferson. The journal makes this record: -

“Sacajawea, our Indian woman, informs us that we are encamped on the precise spot where her countrymen, the Snake Indians, had their huts five years ago, when the Minnetarees of Knife River first came in sight of them, and from whom they hastily retreated three miles up the Jefferson, and concealed themselves in the woods. The Minnetarees, however, pursued and attacked them, killed four men, as many women, and a number of boys; and made prisoners of four other boys and all the females, of whom Sacajawea was one. She does not, however, show any distress at these recollections, nor any joy at the prospect of being restored to her country; for she seems to possess the folly, or the philosophy, of not suffering her feelings to extend beyond the anxiety of having plenty to eat and a few trinkets to wear.

“This morning the hunters brought in some fat deer of the long-tailed red kind, which are quite as large as those of the United States, and are, indeed, the only kind we have found at this place. There are numbers of the sand-hill cranes feeding in the meadows: we caught a young one of the same color as the red deer, which, though it had nearly attained its full growth, could not fly; it is very fierce, and strikes a severe blow with its beak. . . .

“Captain Lewis proceeded after dinner through an extensive low ground of timber and meadow-land intermixed; but the bayous were so obstructed by beaver-dams that, in order to avoid them, he directed his course toward the high plain on the right. This he gained with some difficulty, after wading up to his waist through the mud and water of a number of beaver-dams. When he desired to rejoin the canoes he found the underbrush so thick, and the river so crooked, that this, joined to the difficulty of passing the beaver-dams, induced him to go on and endeavor to intercept the river at some point where it might be more collected into one channel, and approach nearer the high plain. He arrived at the bank about sunset, having gone only six miles in a direct course from the canoes; but he saw no traces of the men, nor did he receive any answer to his shouts and the firing of his gun. It was now nearly dark; a duck lighted near him, and he shot it. He then went on the head of a small island, where he found some driftwood, which enabled him to cook his duck for supper, and laid down to sleep on some willow-brush. The night was cool, but the driftwood gave him a good fire, and he suffered no inconvenience, except from the mosquitoes.”

The easy indifference to discomfort with which these well-seasoned pioneers took their hardships must needs impress the reader. It was a common thing for men, or for a solitary man, to be caught out of camp by nightfall and compelled to bivouac, like Captain Lewis, in the underbrush, or the prairie-grass. As they pressed on, game began to fail them. Under date of July 31, they remark that the only game seen that day was one bighorn, a few antelopes, deer, and a brown bear, all of which escaped them. “Nothing was killed to-day,” it is recorded, “nor have we had any fresh meat except one beaver for the last two days; so that we are now reduced to an unusual situation, for we have hitherto always had a great abundance of flesh.” Indeed, one reason for this is found in Captain Lewis’s remark: “When we have plenty of fresh meat, I find it impossible to make the men take any care of it, or use it with the least frugality, though I expect that necessity will shortly teach them this art.” We shall see, later on, that the men, who were really as improvident of food as the Indians, had hard lessons from necessity.

Anxious to reach the Indians, who were believed to be somewhere ahead of them, Captain Lewis and three men went on up the Jefferson, Captain Clark and his party following with the canoes and luggage in a more leisurely manner. The advance party were so fortunate as to overtake a herd of elk, two of which they killed; what they did not eat they left secured for the other party with the canoes. Clarks men also had good luck in hunting, for they killed five deer and one bighorn. Neither party found fresh tracks of Indians, and they were greatly discouraged thereat. The journal speaks of a beautiful valley, from six to eight miles wide, where they saw ancient traces of buffalo occupation, but no buffalo. These animals had now completely disappeared; they were seldom seen in those mountains. The journal says of Lewis: -

“He saw an abundance of deer and antelope, and many tracks of elk and bear. Having killed two deer, they feasted sumptuously, with a dessert of currants of different colors - two species red, others yellow, deep purple, and black; to these were added black gooseberries and deep purple service-berries, somewhat larger than ours, from which they differ also in color, size, and the superior excellence of their flavor. In the low grounds of the river were many beaver-dams formed of willow-brush, mud, and gravel, so closely interwoven that they resist the water perfectly; some of them were five feet high, and caused the river to overflow several acres of land.”

Meanwhile, the party with the canoes were having a fatiguing time as they toiled up the river. On the fourth of August, after they had made only fifteen miles, the journal has this entry: -

“The river is still rapid, and the water, though clear, is very much obstructed by shoals or ripples at every two hundred or three hundred yards. At all these places we are obliged to drag the canoes over the stones, as there is not a sufficient depth of water to float them, and in the other parts the current obliges us to have recourse to the cord. But as the brushwood on the banks will not permit us to walk on shore, we are under the necessity of wading through the river as we drag the boats. This soon makes our feet tender, and sometimes occasions severe falls over the slippery stones; and the men, by being constantly wet, are becoming more feeble. In the course of the day the hunters killed two deer, some geese and ducks, and the party saw some antelopes, cranes, beaver, and otter.”

Captain Lewis had left a note for Captain Clark at the forks of the Jefferson and Wisdom rivers. Clarks journal says: -

“We arrived at the forks about four o’clock, but, unluckily, Captain Lewis’s note had been attached to a green pole, which the beaver had cut down, and carried off with the note on it: an accident which deprived us of all information as to the character of the two branches of the river. Observing, therefore, that the northwest fork was most in our direction, we ascended it. We found it extremely rapid, and its waters were scattered in such a manner that for a quarter of a mile we were forced to cut a passage through the willow-brush that leaned over the little channels and united at the top. After going up it for a mile, we encamped on an island which had been overflowed, and was still so wet that we were compelled to make beds of brush to keep ourselves out of the mud. Our provision consisted of two deer which had been killed in the morning.”

It should be borne in mind that this river, up which the party were making their way, was the Wisdom (now Big Hole), and was the northwest fork of the Jefferson, flowing from southeast to northwest; and near the point where it enters the Jefferson, it has a loop toward the northeast; that is to say, it comes from the southwest to a person looking up its mouth.

After going up the Wisdom River, Clark’s party were overtaken by Drewyer, Lewis’s hunter, who had been sent across between the forks to notify Clark that Lewis regarded the other fork - the main Jefferson - as the right course to take. The party, accordingly, turned about and began to descend the stream, in order to ascend the Jefferson. The journal says: -

“On going down, one of the canoes upset and two others filled with water, by which all the baggage was wet and several articles were irrecoverably lost. As one of them swung round in a rapid current, Whitehouse was thrown out of her; while down, the canoe passed over him, and had the water been two inches shallower would have crushed him to pieces; but he escaped with a severe bruise of his leg. In order to repair these misfortunes we hastened (down) to the forks, where we were joined by Captain Lewis. We then passed over to the left (east) side, opposite the entrance of the rapid fork, and camped on a large gravelly bar, near which there was plenty of wood. Here we opened, and exposed to dry, all the articles which had suffered from the water; none of them were completely spoiled except a small keg of powder; the rest of the powder, which was distributed in the different canoes, was quite safe, although it had been under the water for upward of an hour. The air is indeed so pure and dry that any wood-work immediately shrinks, unless it is kept filled with water; but we had placed our powder in small canisters of lead, each containing powder enough for the canister when melted into bullets, and secured with cork and wax, which answered our purpose perfectly. . . .”

“In the evening we killed three deer and four elk, which furnished us once more with a plentiful supply of meat. Shannon, the same man who had been lost for fifteen days (August 28 to Sep, 1804), was sent out this morning to hunt, up the northwest fork. When we decided on returning, Drewyer was directed to go in quest of him, but he returned with information that he had gone several miles up the (Wisdom) river without being able to find Shannon. We now had the trumpet sounded, and fired several guns; but he did not return, and we fear he is again lost.”

This man, although an expert hunter, had an unlucky habit of losing himself in the wilderness, as many another good man has lost himself among the mountains or the great plains. This time, however, he came into camp again, after being lost three days.

On the eighth of August the party reached a point now known by its famous landmark, Beaver Head, a remarkable rocky formation which gives its name to Beaverhead County, Montana. The Indian woman, Sacajawea, recognized the so-called beaver-head, which, she said, was not far from the summer retreat of her countrymen, living on the other side of the mountains. The whole party were now together again, the men with the canoes having come up; and the journal says: -

“Persuaded of the absolute necessity of procuring horses to cross the mountains, it was determined that one of us should proceed in the morning to the head of the river, and penetrate the mountains till he found the Shoshonees or some other nation who can assist us in transporting our baggage, the greater part of which we shall be compelled to leave without the aid of horses.”. . .

Early the next day Captain Lewis took Drewyer, Shields, and M’Neal, and, slinging their knapsacks, they set out with a resolution to meet some nation of Indians before they returned, however long they might be separated from the party.

The party in the canoes continued to ascend the river, which was so crooked that they advanced but four miles in a direct line from their starting-place in a distance of eleven miles. In this manner, the party on foot leading those with the canoes, they repeatedly explored the various forks of the streams, which baffled them by their turnings and windings. Lewis was in the advance, and Clark brought up the rear with the main body. It was found necessary for the leading party to wade the streams, and occasionally they were compelled by the roughness of the way to leave the water-course and take to the hills, where great vigilance was required to keep them in sight of the general direction in which they must travel. On the 11th of August, 1805, Captain Lewis came in sight of the first Indian encountered since leaving the country of the Minnetarees, far back on the Missouri. The journal of that date says:

“On examining him with the glass Captain Lewis saw that he was of a different nation from any Indians we had hitherto met. He was armed with a bow and a quiver of arrows, and mounted on an elegant horse without a saddle; a small string attached to the under jaw answered as a bridle.

“Convinced that he was a Shoshonee, and knowing how much our success depended on the friendly offices of that nation, Captain Lewis was full of anxiety to approach without alarming him, and endeavor to convince him that he (Lewis) was a white man. He therefore proceeded toward the Indian at his usual pace. When they were within a mile of each other the Indian suddenly stopped. Captain Lewis immediately followed his example, took his blanket from his knapsack, and, holding it with both hands at the two corners, threw it above his head, and unfolded it as he brought it to the ground, as if in the act of spreading it. This signal, which originates in the practice of spreading a robe or skin as a seat for guests to whom they wish to show a distinguished kindness, is the universal sign of friendship among the Indians on the Missouri and the Rocky Mountains. As usual, Captain Lewis repeated this signal three times: still the Indian kept his position, and looked with an air of suspicion on Drewyer and Shields, who were now advancing on each side. Captain Lewis was afraid to make any signal for them to halt, lest he should increase the distrust of the Indian, who began to be uneasy, and they were too distant to hear his voice. He therefore took from his pack some beads, a looking-glass, and a few trinkets, which he had brought for the purpose, and, leaving his gun, advanced unarmed towards the Indian. He remained in the same position till Captain Lewis came within two hundred yards of him, when he turned his horse and began to move off slowly. Captain Lewis then called out to him in as loud a voice as he could, repeating the words tabba bone, which in the Shoshonee language mean white man. But, looking over his shoulder, the Indian kept his eyes on Drewyer and Shields, who were still advancing, without recollecting the impropriety of doing so at such a moment, till Captain Lewis made a signal to them to halt: this Drewyer obeyed, but Shields did not observe it, and still went forward. Seeing Drewyer halt, the Indian turned his horse about as if to wait for Captain Lewis, who now reached within one hundred and fifty paces, repeating the words tabba bone, and holding up the trinkets in his hand, at the same time stripping up the sleeve of his shirt to show the color of his skin. The Indian suffered him to advance within one hundred paces, then suddenly turned his horse, and, giving him the whip, leaped across the creek, and disappeared in an instant among the willow bushes: with him vanished all the hopes which the sight of him had inspired, of a friendly introduction to his countrymen.”

Sadly disappointed by the clumsy imprudence of his men, Captain Lewis now endeavored to follow the track of the retreating Indian, hoping that this might lead them to an encampment, or village, of the Shoshonees. He also built a fire, the smoke of which might attract the attention of the Indians. At the same time, he placed on a pole near the fire a small assortment of beads, trinkets, awls, and paints, in order that the Indians, if they returned that way, might discover them and be thereby assured the strangers were white men and friends. Next morning, while trying to follow the trail of the lone Indian, they found traces of freshly turned earth where people had been digging for roots; and, later on, they came upon the fresh track of eight or ten horses. But these were soon scattered, and the explorers only found that the general direction of the trails was up into the mountains which define the boundary between Montana and Idaho. Skirting the base of these mountains (the Bitter Root), the party endeavored to find a plain trail, or Indian road, leading up to a practicable pass. Travelling in a southwesterly direction along the main stream, they entered a valley which led into the mountains. Here they ate their last bit of fresh meat, the remainder of a deer they had killed a day or two before; they reserved for their final resort, in case of famine, a small piece of salt pork. The journal says: -

“They then continued through the low bottom, along the main stream, near the foot of the mountains on their right. For the first five miles, the valley continues toward the southwest, being from two to three miles in width; then the main stream, which had received two small branches from the left in the valley, turned abruptly to the west through a narrow bottom between the mountains. The road was still plain, and, as it led them directly on toward the mountain, the stream gradually became smaller, till, after going two miles, it had so greatly diminished in width that one of the men, in a fit of enthusiasm, with one foot on each side of the river, thanked God that he had lived to bestride the Missouri. As they went along their hopes of soon seeing the Columbia (that is, the Pacific watershed) arose almost to painful anxiety, when after four miles from the last abrupt turn of the river (which turn had been to the west), they reached a small gap formed by the high mountains, which recede on each side, leaving room for the Indian road. From the foot of one of the lowest of these mountains, which rises with a gentle ascent of about half a mile, issues the remotest water of the Missouri.

“They had now reached the hidden sources of that river, which had never yet been seen by civilized man. As they quenched their thirst at the chaste and icy fountain - as they sat down by the brink of that little rivulet, which yielded its distant and modest tribute to the parent ocean - they felt themselves rewarded for all their labors and all their difficulties.

“They left reluctantly this interesting spot, and, pursuing the Indian road through the interval of the hills, arrived at the top of a ridge, from which they saw high mountains, partially covered with snow, still to the west of them.

“The ridge on which they stood formed the dividing line between the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They followed a descent much steeper than that on the eastern side, and at the distance of three-quarters of a mile reached a handsome, bold creek of cold, clear water running to the westward. They stopped to taste, for the first time, the waters of the Columbia; and, after a few minutes, followed the road across steep hills and low hollows, when they came to a spring on the side of a mountain. Here they found a sufficient quantity of dry willow-brush for fuel, and therefore halted for the night; and, having killed nothing in the course of the day, supped on their last piece of pork, and trusted to fortune for some other food to mix with a little flour and parched meal, which was all that now remained of their provisions.”