Read Chapter XXV - Adventures on the Yellowstone of First Across the Continent, free online book, by Noah Brooks, on

The route of Captain Clark from the point where he and Captain Lewis divided their party, was rather more difficult than that pursued by the Lewis detachment. But the Clark party was larger, being composed of twenty men and Sacajawea and her baby. They were to travel up the main fork of Clarks River (sometimes called the Bitter Root), to Rosss Hole, and then strike over the great continental divide at that point by way of the pass which he discovered and which was named for him; thence he was to strike the headwaters of Wisdom River, a stream which this generation of men knows by the vulgar name of Big Hole River; from this point he was to go by the way of Willards Creek to Shoshonee Cove and the Two Forks of the Jefferson, and thence down that stream to the Three Forks of the Missouri, up the Gallatin, and over the divide to the Yellowstone and down that river to its junction with the Missouri, where he was to join the party of Captain Lewis. This is the itinerary that was exactly carried out. The very first incident set forth in the journal is a celebration of Independence Day, as follows: -

“Friday, July 4. Early in the morning three hunters were sent out. The rest of the party having collected the horses and breakfasted, we proceeded at seven o’clock up the valley, which is now contracted to the width of from eight to ten miles, with a good proportion of pitch-pine, though its low lands, as well as the bottoms of the creeks, are strewn with large stones. We crossed five creeks of different sizes, but of great depth, and so rapid that in passing the last several of the horses were driven down the stream, and some of our baggage was wet. Near this river we saw the tracks of two Indians, whom we supposed to be Shoshonees. Having made sixteen miles, we halted at an hour for the purpose of doing honor to the birthday of our early country’s independence. The festival was not very splendid, for it consisted of a mush made of cows and a saddle of venison; nor had we anything to tempt us to prolong it. We therefore went on till at the distance of a mile we came to a very large creek, which, like all those in the valley, had an immense rapidity of descent; we therefore proceeded up for some distance, in order to select the most convenient spot for fording. Even there, however, such was the violence of the current that, though the water was not higher than the bellies of the horses, the resistance made in passing caused the stream to rise over their backs and loads. After passing the creek we inclined to the left, and soon after struck the road which we had descended last year, near the spot where we dined on the 7th of September (1805). Along this road we continued on the west side of Clark’s River, till at the distance of thirteen miles, during which we passed three more deep, large creeks, we reached its western branch, where we camped; and having sent out two hunters, despatched some men to examine the best ford across the west fork of the river. The game to-day consisted of four deer; though we also saw a herd of ibex, or bighorn.”

Two days later they were high up among the mountains, although the ascent was not very steep. At that height they found the weather very cool, so much so that on the morning of the sixth of July, after a cold night, they had a heavy white frost on the ground. Setting out on that day, Captain Clark crossed a ridge which proved to be the dividing line between the Pacific and the Atlantic watershed. At the same time he passed from what is now Missoula County, Montana, into the present county of Beaver Head, in that State. Beaver Head, the reader will recollect, comes from a natural elevation in that region resembling the head of a beaver. These points will serve to fix in ones mind the route of the first exploring party that ever ventured into those wilds; descending the ridge on its eastern slope, the explorers struck Glade Creek, one of the sources of the stream then named Wisdom River, a branch of the Jefferson; and the Jefferson is one of the tributaries of the mighty Missouri. Next day the journal has this entry: -

“In the morning our horses were so much scattered that, although we sent out hunters in every direction to range the country for six or eight miles, nine of them could not be recovered. They were the most valuable of all our horses, and so much attached to some of their companions that it was difficult to separate them in the daytime. We therefore presumed that they must have been stolen by some roving Indians; and accordingly left a party of five men to continue the pursuit, while the rest went on to the spot where the canoes had been deposited. We set out at ten o’clock and pursued a course ’0 E. across the valley, which we found to be watered by four large creeks, with extensive low and miry bottoms; and then reached (and crossed) Wisdom River, along the northeast side of which we continued, till at the distance of sixteen miles we came to its three branches. Near that place we stopped for dinner at a hot spring situated in the open plain. The bed of the spring is about fifteen yards in circumference, and composed of loose, hard, gritty stones, through which the water boils in great quantities. It is slightly impregnated with sulphur, and so hot that a piece of meat about the size of three fingers was completely done in twenty-five minutes.”

Next day, July 8, the party reached the forks of the Jefferson River, where they had cached their goods in August, 1805; they had now travelled one hundred and sixty-four miles from Traveller’s-rest Creek to that point. The men were out of tobacco, and as there was some among the goods deposited in the cache they made haste to open the cache. They found everything safe, although some of the articles were damp, and a hole had been made in the bottom of one of the canoes. Here they were overtaken by Sergeant Ordway and his party with the nine horses that had escaped during the night of the seventh.

That night the weather was so cold that water froze in a basin to a thickness of three-quarters of an inch, and the grass around the camp was stiff with frost, although the month of July was nearly a week old. The boats taken from the cache were now loaded, and the explorers were divided into two bands, one to descend the river by boat and the other to take the same general route on horseback, the objective point being the Yellowstone. The story is taken tip here by the journal in these lines: -

“After breakfast (July 10) the two parties set out, those on shore skirting the eastern side of Jefferson River, through Service (-berry) Valley and over Rattlesnake Mountain, into a beautiful and extensive country, known among the Indians by the name of Hahnahappapchah, or Beaverhead Valley, from the number of those animals to be found in it, and also from the point of land resembling the head of a beaver. It (the valley) extends from Rattlesnake Mountain as low as Frazier’s Creek, and is about fifty miles in length in direct line; while its width varies from ten to fifteen miles, being watered in its whole course by Jefferson River and six different creeks. The valley is open and fertile; besides the innumerable quantities of beaver and otter with which its creeks are supplied, the bushes of the low grounds are a favorite resort for deer; while on the higher parts of the valley are seen scattered groups of antelopes, and still further, on the steep sides of the mountains, are observed many bighorns, which take refuge there from the wolves and bears. At the distance of fifteen miles the two parties stopped to dine; when Captain Clark, finding that the river became wider and deeper, and that the canoes could advance more rapidly than the horses, determined to go himself by water, leaving Sergeant Pryor with six men to bring on the horses. In this way they resumed their journey after dinner, and camped on the eastern side of the river, opposite the head of Three-thousand-mile Island. The beaver were basking in great numbers along the shore; there were also some young wild geese and ducks. The mosquitoes were very troublesome during the day, but after sunset the weather became cool and they disappeared.”

Three-thousand-mile Island was so named by the explorers, when they ascended these streams, because it was at a point exactly three thousand miles from the mouth of the Missouri. But no such island exists now; it has probably been worn away by the swift-rushing current of the river. The route of Captain Clark and his party, up to this time had been a few miles west of Bannock City, Montana. As the captain was now to proceed by land to the Yellowstone, again leaving the canoe party, it is well to recall the fact that his route from the Three Forks of the Missouri to the Yellowstone follows pretty nearly the present line of the railroad from Gallatin City to Livingston, by the way of Bozeman Pass. Of this route the journal says: -

“Throughout the whole, game was very abundant. They procured deer in the low grounds; beaver and otter were seen in Gallatin River, and elk, wolves, eagles, hawks, crows, and geese at different parts of the route. The plain was intersected by several great roads leading to a gap in the mountains, about twenty miles distant, in a direction E.N.E.; but the Indian woman, who was acquainted with the country, recommended a gap more to the southward. This course Captain Clark determined to pursue.”

Let us pause here to pay a little tribute to the memory of “the Indian woman,” Sacajawea. She showed that she was very observant, had a good memory, and was plucky and determined when in trouble. She was the guide of the exploring party when she was in a region of country, as here, with which she was familiar. She remembered localities which she had not seen since her childhood. When their pirogue was upset by the carelessness of her husband, it was she who saved the goods and helped to right the boat. And, with her helpless infant clinging to her, she rode with the men, guiding them with unerring skill through the mountain fastnesses and lonely passes which the white men saw for the first time when their salient features were pointed out to them by the intelligent and faithful Sacajawea. The Indian woman has long since departed to the Happy Hunting-Grounds of her fathers; only her name and story remain to us who follow the footsteps of the brave pioneers of the western continent. But posterity should not forget the services which were rendered to the white race by Sacajawea.

On the fifteenth of July the party arrived at the ridge that divides the Missouri and the Yellowstone, nine miles from which they reached the river itself, about a mile and a half from the point where it issues from the Rocky Mountains. Their journey down the valley of the Yellowstone was devoid of special interest, but was accompanied with some hardships. For example, the feet of the horses had become so sore with long travel over a stony trail that it was necessary to shoe them with raw buffalo hide. Rain fell frequently and copiously; and often, sheltered at night only by buffalo hides, they rose in the morning drenched to the skin. The party could not follow the course of the river very closely, but were compelled often to cross hills that came down to the bank, making the trail impassable for horses. Here is the story of July 18 and 19: -

“Gibson, one of the party, was so badly hurt by falling on a sharp point of wood that he was unable to sit on his horse, and they were obliged to form a sort of litter for him, so that he could lie nearly at full length. The wound became so painful, however, after proceeding a short distance, that he could not bear the motion, and they left him with two men, while Captain Clark went to search for timber large enough to form canoes. He succeeded in finding some trees of sufficient size for small canoes, two of which he determined to construct, and by lashing them together hoped to make them answer the purpose of conveying the party down the river, while a few of his men should conduct the horses to the Mandans. All hands, therefore, were set busily to work, and they were employed in this labor for several days. In the mean time no less than twenty-four of their horses were missing, and they strongly suspected had been stolen by the Indians, for they were unable to find them, notwithstanding they made the most diligent search.”

“July 23. A piece of a robe and a moccasin,” says the journal, “were discovered this morning not far from the camp. The moccasin was worn out in the sole, and yet wet, and had every appearance of having been left but a few hours before. This was conclusive that the Indians had taken our horses, and were still prowling about for the remainder, which fortunately escaped last night by being in a small prairie surrounded by thick timber. At length Labiche, one of our best trackers, returned from a very wide circuit, and informed Captain Clark that he had traced the horses bending their course rather down the river towards the open plains, and from their tracks, must have been going very rapidly. All hopes of recovering them were now abandoned. Nor were the Indians the only plunderers around our camp; for in the night the wolves or dogs stole the greater part of the dried meat from the scaffold. The wolves, which constantly attend the buffalo, were here in great numbers, as this seemed to be the commencement of the buffalo country. . . .

“At noon the two canoes were finished. They were twenty-eight feet long, sixteen or eighteen inches deep, and from sixteen to twenty-four inches wide; and, having lashed them together, everything was ready for setting out the next day, Gibson having now recovered. Sergeant Pryor was directed, with Shannon and Windsor, to take the remaining horses to the Mandans, and if he should find that Mr. Henry (a trading-post agent) was on the Assiniboin River, to go thither and deliver him a letter, the object of which was to prevail on the most distinguished chiefs of the Sioux to accompany him to Washington.”

On a large island near the mouth of a creek now known as Canyon Creek, the party landed to explore an extensive Indian lodge which seems to have been built for councils, rather than for a place of residence. The lodge was shaped like a cone, sixty feet in diameter at the base and tapering towards the top. The poles of which it was constructed were forty-five feet long. The interior was strangely decorated, the tops of the poles being ornamented with eagles feathers, and from the centre hung a stuffed buffalo-hide. A buffalos head and other trophies of the chase were disposed about the wigwam. The valley, as the explorers descended the river, was very picturesque and wonderful. On the north side the cliffs were wild and romantic, and these were soon succeeded by rugged hills, and these, in turn, by open plains on which were descried herds of buffalo, elk, and wolves. On the twenty-seventh of July, having reached the Bighorn, one of the largest tributaries of the Yellowstone, the party have this entry in their journal: -

“They again set out very early, and on leaving the Bighorn took a last look at the Rocky Mountains, which had been constantly in view from the first of May. The (Yellowstone) river now widens to the extent of from four hundred to six hundred yards; it is much divided by islands and sandbars; its banks are generally low and falling in; it thus resembles the Missouri in many particulars, but its islands are more numerous, its waters less muddy, and the current is more rapid. The water is of a yellowish-white, and the round stones, which form the bars above the Bighorn, have given place to gravel. On the left side the river runs under cliffs of light, soft, gritty stone, varying in height from seventy to one hundred feet, behind which are level and extensive plains. On the right side of the river are low extensive bottoms, bordered with cottonwood, various species of willow, rose-bushes, grapevines, redberry or buffalo-grease bushes, and a species of sumach; to these succeed high grounds supplied with pine, and still further on are level plains. Throughout the country are vast quantities of buffalo, which, as this is the running-season, keep up a continued bellowing. Large herds of elk also are lying on every point, so gentle that they may be approached within twenty paces without being alarmed. Several beaver were seen in the course of the day; indeed, there is a greater appearance of those animals than there was above the Bighorn. Deer, however, are by no means abundant, and antelopes, as well as bighorns, are scarce.”

It is noticeable that the explorers, all along their route, gave to streams, rocks, mountains, and other natural features of the country many names that appear to us meaningless and trifling. It would appear that they used up all the big names, such as Jefferson, Gallatin, Philosophy, Philanthropy, and the like, and were compelled to use, first, the names of their own party, and then such titles as were suggested by trifling incidents. For example, when they reached a difficult shoal on the Yellowstone River, they named that Buffalo Shoal because they found a buffalo on it; and Buffalo Shoal it remains unto this day. In like manner, when they reached a dangerous rapid, twenty miles below that point, they saw a bear standing on a rock in the stream; and Bear Rapid the place was and is named. Bear and buffalo were pretty numerous all the way along that part of the river which they navigated in July. They had now rejoined the boats, and on the last day of July, when camped at a point two miles above Wolf Rapid (so called from seeing a wolf there), the buffalo were continually prowling about the camp at night, exciting much alarm lest they should trample on the boats and ruin them. In those days, buffalo were so numerous that they were a nuisance to travellers; and they were so free from fear of man that they were too familiar with the camps and equipage. On the first of August we find this entry in the journal of the party: -

“The buffalo now appear in vast numbers. A herd happened to be on their way across the river. Such was the multitude of these animals that, though the river, including an island over which they passed, was a mile wide, the herd stretched, as thickly as they could swim, from one side to the other, and the party was obliged to stop for an hour. They consoled themselves for the delay by killing four of the herd; and then having proceeded for the distance of forty-five miles (in all to-day) to an island, below which two other herds of buffalo, as numerous as the first, soon after crossed the river.”

Again, on the very next day, we find this entry: -

“The river was now about a mile wide, less rapid, and more divided by islands, and bars of sand and mud, than heretofore; the low grounds, too, were more extensive, and contained a greater quantity of cottonwood, ash, and willows. On the northwest was a low, level plain, and on the southeast some rugged hills, on which we saw, without being able to approach them, some bighorns. Buffalo and elk, as well as their pursuers, the wolves, were in great numbers. On each side of the river there were several dry beds of streams, but the only one of any considerable size was one to which they gave the name of Ibex River, on the right, about thirty yards wide, and sixteen miles from their encampment of the preceding night. The bear, which had given them so much trouble at the head of the Missouri, they found equally fierce here. One of these animals, which was on a sand-bar as the boat passed, raised himself on his hind feet, and after looking at the party for a moment, plunged in and swam towards them; but, after receiving three balls in the body, he turned and made for the shore. Towards evening they saw another enter the water to swim across; when Captain Clark directed the boat towards the shore, and just as the animal landed shot it in the head. It proved to be the largest female they had ever seen, and was so old that its tusks were worn quite smooth. The boats escaped with difficulty between two herds of buffalo that were crossing the river, and came near being again detained by them. Among the elk of this neighborhood they saw an unusual number of males, while higher up the herds consisted chiefly of females.”

It is almost incredible that these wild animals should have been so nearly exterminated by hunters and other rovers of the plains, very soon after travel set in across the continent. The writer of these lines, who crossed the plains to California so lately as 1856, saw buffalo killed for the sake of their tongues, or to give rifle practice to the wayfarers. After the overland railroad was opened, passengers shot buffalo from the car-windows, well knowing that they could not get their game, even if they should kill as they flew by a herd. There are no buffalo nor elk where millions once roamed almost unmolested.

Early in the afternoon of August 3, the party reached the junction of the Yellowstone and the Missouri, and camped on the same spot where they had pitched their tents on the 26th of April, 1805. They were nearing the end of their long journey.

But their troubles thickened as they drew near the close of their many miles of travel. The journal for August 4 has this record: -

“The camp became absolutely uninhabitable in consequence of the multitude of mosquitoes; the men could not work in preparing skins for clothing, nor hunt in the timbered low grounds; there was no mode of escape, except by going on the sand-bars in the river, where, if the wind should blow, the insects do not venture; but when there is no wind, and particularly at night, when the men have no covering except their worn-out blankets, the pain they suffer is scarcely to be endured. There was also a want of meat, for no buffalo were to be found; and though elk are very abundant, yet their fat and flesh is more difficult to dry in the sun, and is also much more easily spoiled than the meat or fat of either deer or buffalo.

“Captain Clark therefore determined to go on to some spot which should be free from mosquitoes and furnish more game. Having written a note to Captain Lewis, to inform him of his intention, and stuck it on a pole at the confluence of the two rivers, he loaded the canoes at five in the afternoon, proceeded down the river to the second point, and camped on a sand-bar; but here the mosquitoes seemed to be even more numerous than above. The face of the Indian child was considerably puffed up and swollen with their bites; the men could procure scarcely any sleep during the night, and the insects continued to harass them next morning, as they proceeded. On one occasion Captain Clark went on shore and ascended a hill after one of the bighorns; but the mosquitoes were in such multitudes that he could not keep them from the barrel of his rifle long enough to take aim. About ten o’clock, however, a light breeze sprung up from the northwest, and dispersed them in some degree. Captain Clark then landed on a sand-bar, intending to wait for Captain Lewis, and went out to hunt. But not finding any buffalo, he again proceeded in the afternoon; and having killed a large white bear, camped under a high bluff exposed to a light breeze from the southwest, which blew away the mosquitoes. About eleven o’clock, however, the wind became very high and a storm of rain came on, which lasted for two hours, accompanied with sharp lightning and loud peals of thunder.

“The party rose, next day, very wet, and proceeded to a sand-bar below the entrance of Whiteearth River. Just above this place the Indians, apparently within seven, or eight days past, had been digging a root which they employ in making a kind of soup. Having fixed their tents, the men were employed in dressing skins and hunting. They shot a number of deer; but only two of them were fat, owing probably to the great quantities of mosquitoes which annoy them while feeding.”

On the eleventh of August the Clark party came up with the two white traders from Illinois, of whom we have already made mention as having been met by the Lewis party on their way down the river. These were the first white men they had seen (except themselves) since they parted with the three French trappers, near the Little Missouri, in April, 1805, From them the wayworn voyagers received the latest news from the United States. From them they also had some unfavorable tidings. The journal says: -

“These men had met the boat which we had despatched from Fort Mandan, on board of which, they were told, was a Ricara chief on his way to Washington; and also another party of Yankton chiefs, accompanying Mr. Durion on a visit of the same kind. We were sorry to learn that the Mandans and Minnetarees were at war with the Ricaras, and had killed two of them. The Assiniboins too are at war with the Mandans. They have, in consequence, prohibited the Northwestern Company from trading to the Missouri, and even killed two of their traders near Mouse River; they are now lying in wait for Mr. McKenzie of the Northwestern Company, who has been for a long time among the Minnetarees. These appearances are rather unfavorable to our project of carrying some of the chiefs to the United States; but we still hope that, by effecting a peace between the Mandans, Minnetarees, and Ricaras, the views of our Government may be accomplished.”

Next day, August 12, 1806, the party, slowly descending the river, were overjoyed to see below them the little flotilla of Captain Lewis and his men. But they were alarmed when they discovered that Lewis was not with them; as the boats landed at the shore, the captain was not to be seen. Captain Clark’s party, on coming up with their friends, were told that Lewis was lying in the pirogue, having been accidentally wounded. The whole party were now happily reunited, and they were soon joined by the two Illinois traders whom they had met up the river; these men wished to accompany the expedition down the river as far as the Mandan nation, for the purpose of trading; they were more secure with a large party of white men than they would be if left to themselves.