Crossing to the Yellowstone. The last glimpse of the Rockies. Buffalo and bears. Reaching the Missouri. Attacked by mosquitoes. Pryor loses the horses. Bitten by a wolf. The whole party reunited.

We must go back for more than a month to begin the story of Clark’s exploration of the Yellowstone River. He had parted from the others on July 3 at Traveler’s Rest Creek in the Bitter Root Mountains in western Montana. With fifteen men and Sacajawea, her child, and fifty horses, they traveled along Clark’s River. On July 4, having made sixteen miles, "we halted at an early hour for the purpose of doing honor to the birthday of our country’s independence. The festival was not very splendid, for it consisted of a mush made of cows [cowish] roots and a saddle of venison, nor had we anything to tempt us to prolong it."

In passing from the present Missoula County, Montana, into Beaver County they crossed a hill which divides the flow of water to the Atlantic from that to the Pacific. They discovered some of the hot sulphur springs which have since become so familiar. At the forks of the Jefferson they opened the cache made in August, 1805, and found the hidden goods and canoes generally in excellent condition. In their descent of the Jefferson they saw "innumerable quantities of beaver and otter, [and] 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, we observed many of the big horn which take ref uge there from the wolves and bear." This was to the westward of the present Bannock City.

When they reached the mouth of Madison River, Clark sent Sergeant Ordway and nine men on down the Missouri to overtake Lewis and the others. Clark himself, with ten men and Sacajawea, her baby, and fifty horses, set out from the forks of the Missouri to reach the Yellowstone River. The travelers of to-day who pass through Bozeman Pass from Gallatin City to Livingston by the railroad are following Captain Clark’s route for much of the way.

Sacajawea, always helpful, found edible roots, and assisted the travelers by her recollections of the country. On July 15 they passed the ridge dividing the waters of the Missouri and the Yellowstone. Some of the horses were stolen by Indians in the night. One of the hunters "fell on a small piece of timber, which ran nearly two inches into the muscular part of his thigh. The wound was very painful, and were it not for their great anxiety to reach the United States this season, the party would have remained till he was cured." But it was necessary to place him in a rude litter and to press on. They reached a tributary of the Yellowstone, where they made two dugouts which were lashed together. Sergeant Pryor and two others were sent on with the horses, and the sergeant’s experience was most unfortunate. "As soon as they discovered a herd of buffalo the loose horses, having been trained by the Indians to hunt, immediately set off in pursuit of them, and surrounded the buffalo herd with almost as much skill as their riders could have done. At last he was obliged to send one horseman forward and drive all the buffalo from the route." But the whole party aided in getting most of the horses across the river, and Pryor, with an additional man, was sent on his way to the Mandan villages.

Clark and his party were now descending the Big Horn River. On an island they found a huge Indian lodge, sixty feet in diameter at the base, built of poles covered with bushes. On the tops of the poles were eagle feathers, and from the center hung a stuffed buffalo skin. This was probably a place for councils.

On July 27 they passed from the Big Horn into the Yellowstone and "took a last look at the Rocky Mountains, which had been constantly in view from the first of May."

As they floated down the discolored waters of the Yellowstone, buffalo appeared in vast numbers. "Such was the multitude of these animals, that, although the river, including an island, over which they passed was a mile in length, the herd stretched as thick as they could swim, completely 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 proceeded a distance of forty-five miles on an island, below which two other herds of buffalo, as numerous as the first, soon after crossed the river."

On August 2 Captain Clark notes that "the bear which gave so much trouble on the head of the Missouri, are equally fierce in this quarter. This morning one of them, which was on a sandbar as the boat passed, raised himself on his hind feet, and after looking at the party, plunged in and swam towards them. He was received with three balls in the body; he then turned round and made for the shore."

On August 3 they reached the junction of the Yellowstone and the Missouri, where they had made their camp on April 26, 1805. But swarms of mosquitoes gave them such a reception that they moved their camp farther down the river to await the coming of Captain Lewis. Of Sacajawea’s poor little child we read, "The face of the Indian child is considerably puffed up and swollen with the bites of these animals." The men themselves could procure scarcely any sleep. When Clark tried to hunt he could not keep the mosquitoes from the barrel of his rifle long enough to take aim.

Sergeant Pryor’s adventures with the horses were most trying. At the outset, as we saw, he lost some and had much difficulty in managing the others. He and his companions overtook Clark on August 8, but they had no horses at all. They could only report that the horses had disappeared in the night. All that they were able to find were the tracks of the Indians who had stolen them.

But Pryor’s troubles did not end here. "On the following night a wolf bit him through the hand as he lay asleep, and made an attempt to seize Windsor, when Shannon discovered and shot him."

The ingenuity of these men was equal to the emergency. When the horses disappeared, they imitated the Mandans by making boats of buffalo skins stretched around hoops and ribbed with sticks, and in these frail vessels they floated safely down the river until they overtook Captain Clark.

On August 11 Clark encountered two white fur traders from the country of the Illinois, and from these adventurers they gathered some news of the lower country. The fur traders and trappers were always among the first pioneers and explorers of the far West.

On August 12 they were overtaken by the boats commanded by Captain Lewis, who was lying wounded in the pirogue.

The party was now reunited, and they started again on their way to the villages of the Minnetarees and the Mandans.

Chapter 19

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© 2001, Lynn Waterman