Discovery of the Musselshell. The first glimpse of the Rockies. A buffalo charges the camp. A narrow escape. At the Great Falls of the Missouri. A difficult portage. Reaching the Three Forks of the Missouri. In an unknown country.

This was a journey of incidents and accidents. At one time the explorers were startled by the upsetting of the canoe containing their papers, instruments, and medicines; but these were fortunately saved. Again, they had a narrow escape from being crushed by a falling tree. But they kept steadily on their way, paddling, sailing when the wind permitted, and sometimes towing the boats with a line from shore.

On May 20 they reached the mouth of a large river, the "Muscleshell" (Musselshell), twenty-two hundred and seventy miles above the Missouri’s mouth. Thus another important river was discovered, although it was impossible to explore it. The information given by Indians, that it rose in the mountains near the source of the Yellowstone, was erroneous.

On May 26, 1805, when the party had reached the present Cow Creek, Montana, Captain Lewis, after ascending the highest summit of some hills, "first caught a distant view of the Rock mountains, the object of all our hopes and the reward of all our ambition." It was a thrilling moment for the explorers; but they were not the first, for the Verendryes had seen the Rocky Mountains many years before.

A few days later a frightened buffalo broke into the camp at night. He galloped close to the heads of the men as they lay asleep by the camp fires, and nearly broke into the officers’ lodge. He was turned by the barking of a dog and, wheeling, vanished in the darkness before the men realized what had happened.

Early in June, when the explorers were near the site of the present town of Ophir, Montana, they came to a large stream which they called Maria’s River. It was so large that they were in doubt as to whether this river from the southwest or the main stream from the north was the real Missouri. "On our right decision," says the journal. "much of the fate of the expedition depends: since if, after ascending to the Rocky Mountains or beyond them, we should find that the river we were following did not come near the Columbia and be obliged to return, we should not only lose the traveling season, but probably dishearten the men."

To determine this point Captain Lewis started to explore the north fork, and Captain Clark the south. In three days Lewis was persuaded that his fork extended too far north for an approach to the Columbia, and he turned back.

Here there was a narrow escape from a serious accident. While passing along a bluff his foot slipped, and he barely saved himself with his spontoon (pike) from falling ninety feet, over a precipice into the river. Suddenly he heard one of his men cry, "Captain, what shall I do?" and turning saw the man lying on the edge of the precipice, his right arm and leg over the brink. Lewis was self-possessed. He told the man to take out his knife with his right hand and dig a hole in which he could place his right foot. Thus by degrees the poor fellow worked his way to safety.

Lewis and Clark of course were right in deciding that the northerly stream — Marias River — was a tributary, and that the southwestern stream was the Missouri. But many of the party thought differently, including Crusatte, an experienced voyageur. So they decided to explore farther. Digging holes in the ground, they concealed many of their goods in caches (the French name for these places for hiding stores from Indians and wild animals). Lewis ascended the south branch, the real Missouri, and on June 13 all doubts were set at rest by his discovery of the Great Falls of the Missouri, which the Indians had described. Of this wonderful cataract he gives a vivid picture. But his enjoyment of the beautiful sight and his further investigations were suddenly interrupted. A large grizzly bear charged upon him while his gun was unloaded, and chased him into the river. There the bear fortunately left him standing in water waist deep, with pike presented. Whatever Captain Lewis’s dreams may have been that night his waking must have been equally disturbing, for when he opened his eyes he saw a large rattlesnake coiled about the trunk of the tree under which he had been sleeping.

It was necessary to make a portage to transport their boats and baggage around the succession of cataracts and rapids. The south side of the river was selected for a portage path eighteen miles in length. The clearing of this long path was one of the many examples of the hard work done by the explorers. In addition, Captain Clark made careful surveys and maps of the falls, cascades, and rapids. A few years ago, when a manufacturing company planned a dam at one of the falls, their engineers found Captain Clark’s surveys entirely accurate. The total fall of the river is 412.5 feet, and the Great Falls alone plunges down 75.5 feet.

It was not until June 27 that the portage path was finished, after much hard work, and much annoyance from the prickly pear, which pierced their moccasins. They had other adventures with bears, which, with elk, were plentiful then. At this haunt of wild animals there is to-day Great Falls, — a town of over ten thousand people.

After hiding or caching such articles as could be left behind, the weary task of carrying their supplies over the long portage was begun. Suddenly there was a cloud-burst and a flow of water, from which Sacajawea, the faithful Snake Indian woman who accompanied her husband the guide from the Mandan villages, was barely saved by Clark, who was himself in great danger. But the work was done, in spite of a hailstorm and the annoyances of bears, and swarms of peculiarly active mosquitoes.

At the head of the falls a disappointment awaited them. An iron frame for a boat had been brought all the way from Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Over this frame they fastened the dressed skins of buffaloes and elks, covering the seams with beeswax mixed with powdered charcoal. But on launching the boat they found that this did not protect the seams, and the boat leaked so badly that they were forced to abandon it. It was therefore necessary to make canoes. Trees were scarce, and Clark traveled many miles before he found two cottonwoods which seemed suitable. But on cutting them down they were found to be partly hollow and damaged in falling. With the perseverance and pluck which showed in everything that these men did, they wrought out the best canoes they could, although their ax handles, which were made on the spot, were constantly breaking as they worked.

On July 15 they again set out upon their journey with eight heavily laden canoes. They encountered projecting cliffs, which sometimes made them pass and repass from one side of the river to the other. They noted fields of sunflowers, the seeds of which the Indians used to make bread. They found purple, yellow, and black currants, and many other berries, and on the cliffs they saw bighorns or Rocky Mountain sheep. Advancing through a frowning cañon which they called the "Gates of the Rocky Mountains," they continued southward with the Big Belt Mountains on the east and the main range of the Rockies on the west.

They were anxious to find some Shoshone or Snake Indians in order to obtain guides and horses; but the first Indians that they came near were frightened away by the guns of the hunters, and set the grass on fire as a sign of danger for their companions.

On July 25 Captain Clark, who was ahead, reached the Three Forks of the Missouri. The one flowing northeast, which is the main Missouri, was named the Jefferson. The name of Madison, the Secretary of State, was given to the middle branch, and the third was named for Albert Gallatin. Secretary of the Treasury. These names have been preserved. At this point the explorers were to the eastward of the present cities of Helena and Butte. Not far away, over the divide between southern Montana and Idaho, were the sources of some streams flowing to the Pacific. But this they had yet to learn. They were in a country untrodden by white men, a country of which they could obtain only vague ideas from the Indians, and yet much depended upon getting into communication with them. The explorers wished to find a pass through the mountains, and although Sacajawea was now in her own land, her knowledge of what lay beyond was very slight, and the real guaranty of success lay in the stout hearts, cheerful courage, and dauntless perseverance of the explorers themselves.

Chapter 15

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© 2001, Lynn Waterman