AT THE MANDAN VILLAGES
The winter camp. Hunting the buffalo. The journey onward. Finding the Yellowstone River. Adventures with grizzly bears. Hunting in Montana.
On the north bank of the Missouri, in the present McLean County, North Dakota, about eight miles below the mouth of Big Knife River, where the town of Stanton is now situated, the explorers built two rows of log huts, protected by a stockade, for their winter camp. The roofs were rudely thatched with grass and clay, and in spite of the bitter weather they passed the winter comfortably."
Here they secured an Indian interpreter named Chaboneau. His wife. Sacajawea (Bird Woman), had been captured from the Snake Indians and sold to her husband. The journal speaks of her as "a good creature, of a mild and gentle disposition, greatly attached to the whites." She and her husband accompanied the travelers throughout the remainder of their journey, and her patience, courage, and helpfulness were unfailing.
The Sioux and other Indians were constantly engaged in warfare, and the Mandans suffered so much that Captain Clark once mustered twenty-four men and offered to lead the Mandans against the Sioux. The deep snow prevented, but the offer was gratefully received and remembered. The friendliest relations prevailed between these Indians and the explorers.
In December, Clark and others joined the Mandans in a great buffalo hunt. The hunters. mounted on horseback and armed with bows and arrows, encircle the herd and gradually drive them into a plain. . . . They then ride in and singling out a buffalo, a female being preferred, go as close as possible and wound her with arrows till they think they have given the mortal stroke, when they pursue another. If, which rarely happens, the wounded buffalo attacks the hunter, he evades his blow by the agility of his horse, which is trained for the combat with great dexterity."
In spite of weather so cold that the mercury often went thirty-two degrees below zero, the Indians kept up outdoor sports. Even the white men enjoyed a merry Christmas. Later, when their meat supply grew low, a hunting expedition was sent out, which killed forty deer, sixteen elk, and three buffalo. Although the game was lean and the wolves stole much of it, they gathered, in all, some three thousand pounds of meat.
Visits from white fur traders and the inroads of the Sioux were among the incidents of a winter which must, after all, have passed slowly. In late Februaiy, however, it was possible to cut the boats free from the ice and to begin preparing them for the onward journey.
On April 7, 1805, the soldiers who had been sent as escort, with the boatmen and one interpreter, started back. They carried reports for President Jefferson, with stuffed animals, and skeletons, horns, skins, and articles of Indian dress. All these reached the President safely in course of time, and the specimens were exhibited at his home in Monticello.
On the same day, April 7, the expedition, now consisting of thirty-two persons, embarked in two large boats, or pirogues, and six canoes, and started on their way into a region practically unknown to white men. The messages which the explorers sent back at this point were the last word received from them until they returned in September, 1806. But Captain Lewis wrote, "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."
As they advanced they saw quantities of "brant" (snow geese), and they found an animal strange to them, the gopher. The squaw Sacajawea dug into some of the gopher holes and obtained wild artichokes collected by the gophers. The statement of Lewis and Clark: that the wild geese which they saw built their nests in the tops of tall cottonwood trees was doubted at the time, but was nevertheless true. The travelers were now in the country of the sagebrush and alkali dust,— both unknown to them, and the latter very painful to their eyes.
They had heard of a large river as rising in the mountains and emptying into the Missouri, and on April 25 Captain Lewis and four men left the party and found the river, which was already known to French trappers, who called it La Roche Jaune. Captain Lewis named it the Yellowstone. It has kept the name, which is familiar also as the name of the National Park, in which the river rises. The wonders of the Yellowstone Park were discovered later by John Colter, then with the expedition.
They saw numbers of wild animals; and one day Captain Lewis, who was on shore with one hunter, encountered two of the formidable grizzly bears of which the Indians had given dreadful accounts. Both men "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 could not run so fast as to prevent him from reloading his piece, which he again aimed at the bear, and a third shot from the hunter brought him to the ground."
A little later it was Captain Clark’s turn. The huge bear which he met is called "brown", but the grizzly is called both "white" and "brown" in the journal. As the hunters fired, "the bear 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."
At another time one of the men shot a grizzly through the lungs; but in spite of this wound the bear " pursued him furiously for over half a mile, then returned more than twice that distance and with his talons prepared himself a bed in the earth," where he was found and killed.
Another wounded grizzly pursued two hunters 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 found that eight balls had passed through him in different directions."
When these exciting adventures happened they were journeying through Montana. They passed Porcupine River, named from the prevalence of those animals. This is now Poplar River, and there is an Indian agency at its mouth. They discovered Milk River, which keeps the name that they gave it on account of the whiteness of its water. They found a river bed without water, which they called "Big Dry," a name which is also preserved.
Again and again they speak of the quantities of buffalo and of elk. Now the few buffalo in the United States are guarded in the Yellowstone National Park and in zoölogical gardens and private preserves. Lewis and Clark found over a hundred skeletons of buffalo under a precipice over which they had been driven by the Indians.
There are still many elk in parts of the Rocky Mountains, but they are in danger of being destroyed like the buffalo. They are exposed not only to the ravages of hunters but also to the danger of starvation. In the winter of 1902—1903, when deep snow covered the grass, elk in Wyoming and elsewhere fairly stormed the haystacks of ranchers in their eagerness for food, and many died of starvation. The preservation of elk and other "big game" left in the West becomes yearly of greater importance.
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© 2001, Lynn Waterman