The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 14

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London


"every thing," William Clark wrote about the meeting of the boat crews with the horse Indians, "appears to astonish those people. the appearance of the men, their arms, the canoes, the Clothing my black servent & the Segassity of Capt Lewis's Dog." Sagacity? Did Seaman extend a paw to shake hands? Plunge into the river to bring back sticks that had been thrown for him? In any event, as the Shoshoni crowded around, staring, Sacagawea added to the confusion by recognizing a young woman who had been captured with her during the Hidatsa attack at Three Forks. Unlike Charbonneau's wife, that captive had escaped and made her way home—a considerable feat, it would appear from today's viewpoint, for a child ten or twelve years old. The reunion, Nicholas Biddle remarked after hearing Clark's tale, "had in it something peculiarly touching." [1]

As soon as the Shoshoni could lay hold of the newly arrived captain, they led him to one of their easily erected brush wickiups. Long ago, outsiders had taken to defining the builders of those wickiups with a sinuous motion of hand and arm: "people of the woven houses." Or so the theory goes. But the motion might also be taken to represent a serpent's progress. Snake Indians—and, by association, the great Snake River that wound through part of their territory. William Clark's suggestion that the term derived from the Shoshoni's skill in taming serpents is not widely accepted. [2]

Be that as it may, the Indians took him inside and seated him, as a sign of honor, on a white buffalo robe. All those in attendance took off their moccasins. The ceremonial pipe passed back and forth, and Cameahwait decorated the captain's shaggy hair with six pieces of "pearl," or bits of seashell. That indirect evidence of trade routes to the Pacific was exciting.

Because Drouillard was off hunting—there were many people to feed—Sacagawea and Charbonneau were summoned to help translate. It was an awkward procedure. One of the captains spoke in English to the boatman Labiche. He put the remarks into French for Charbonneau, who passed them along in Hidatsa to his wife. She translated them into Shoshoni for Cameahwait. As the talks began, recognition came to her again, this time like a blow. The chief was her brother! Inexpressibly agitated, she threw her blanket over his head (a sign, perhaps, of their sibling bond) and burst into tears. After the two had wept together for a time, the ceremony resumed, "but her new situation seemed to overpower her, and she was frequently interrupted by tears." [3]

This preliminary introduction completed, the whites invited all the Shoshoni in the vicinity to a small-scale replica of the formal councils they had held the preceding year with the tribes they had encountered along the Missouri. Like its predecessors the meeting took place under an awning made from a sail. It may be assumed that Drouillard, back with the other hunters after bagging four deer and an antelope, passed on Lewis's remarks in hand and body language, for he'd had ample practice at other gatherings. Because the Indians' main home was not on American soil—at least not yet—Lewis did not address them as children of the great father. He did, however, point out that the Corps was an official arm of the United States government and was traveling to the Pacific in search of a good route for bringing American merchandise into the interior. Since no commerce could be developed until after the explorers had returned home, it behooved the Indians to speed the explorers along their way by furnishing horses and a guide. The time to start was now, by helping the expedition get its baggage across the divide.

Very interesting, Cameahwait replied, "with his ferce eyes and lank jaws grown meager for the want of food. . . . `If we had guns, we could then live in the country of buffaloe and eat as our enemies do and not be compelled to hide ourselves in these mountains and live on roots and berries as the bears do.'" But before he could furnish horses, he would have to return to his village and prevail on the people there to help. [4]

It was a risky outlook, but for the time being the Americans had to be satisfied with it. They wound up the meeting by distributing the usual medals and gifts. Lewis fired his airgun—great medicine, that!—and the entire group of Indians at the camp (the number is uncertain; it could have been as low as sixteen) was feasted on hulled corn supplemented by the antelope the hunters had brought in. On their part, the thirty-two expedition members and the dog made short shrift of the four deer.

The talk of trade led to more talk about routes. The Indians the captains questioned agreed with Cameahwait. Men could not pierce the fearful gorges that led toward the sea. If they tried they would starve, for there was no game in those terrible wastes. Though Lewis and Clark remained unconvinced—what of those shells in Clark's hair?—the statements were so positive they agreed they had better look things over before they jumped.

They planned carefully. Clark, whose sore feet and legs had healed, would lead eleven men equipped with boat-building tools down the river until he found trees from which dugouts could be hewn. If timber proved unavailable or if the river really was unnavigable, he would investigate possibilities by land. Charbonneau and Sacagawea would go with him as far as the Shoshoni village. There they would make sure that the Indians, whom Lewis regarded as capricious and undependable, returned promptly with men who, so Cameahwait promised, would be willing to sell horses. In the interim Lewis was to supervise the making of pack saddles and the rearranging of the baggage into parcels suitable for horse transport. [5]

The next morning Meriwether indulged in a bit of aggressive salesmanship. Clark needed a few horses immediately for carrying his party's boat-building tools and enough supplies for an extended stay of construction work, if such developed. Lewis's hunters needed one or two so they could range far to find game enough for those who stayed behind. So after the Indians had collected their mounts, he drew from one of the bales of trade goods a cloth coat, some gay hankerchiefs, a pair of leggings, and a knife, the whole worth, back in St. Louis, about twenty American dollars. How many horses, he asked the watching, yearning riders, would one or more of them give for the collection? After strenuous bargaining, he got three. He turned two over to Clark, the other to Drouillard. Inspired by the success, some of the men (whether of Clark's group or Lewis's is not stated) obtained, for private use, a fourth in exchange for a worn shirt, a pair of old leggings, and a knife. Nor was that all. As Clark's eleven men were hiking toward the pass, the mounted Indians in file beside them, they met a Shoshoni riding one mule and leading another. The fellow was so shocked at seeing the white captain traveling on foot that he promptly gave him one mule and added a Spanish saddle. Clark repaid the generosity with a waistcoat. At lunchtime he also broke into his party's supply of corn and pork to feed the Indians, for they had no food with them, their hunters having failed to find game along the way. [6]

Back at the camp beside the forks of the Jefferson/Beaverhead River, Lewis somberly estimated the number of pack saddles he should have his men make. Twenty, he decided. They produced the necessary boards by sawing off the blades of the dugout oars and by breaking up wooden packing boxes after transferring their contents into specially prepared rawhide sacks. He softened other pieces of leather in water so they could be cut into thongs for taking the place of nails in the construction and into straps for the saddle riggings.

He began his work on August 18, 1805, his thirty-first birthday. It was not a happy occasion for him. As far as the journals show, he had not reminded William Clark, Drouillard, or anyone else of the event. Probably it is not possible now to understand fully why the anniversary triggered Lewis's all-too-easily-induced melancholia. Certain guesses can be offered, however. As an army officer, he could not build up unstrained relationships with enlisted men, and so Clark's departure this particular day may have left him feeling very lonesome, there in the subarctic zones just below the top of the remote Continental Divide. He was, furthermore, very ambitious and hence susceptible to fears of failure. With winter just ahead, if there was no way through the mountains his great enterprise might collapse. Yet when he unburdened himself in his journal—a trip journal, not a personal diary—none of these considerations surfaced. Instead he sounded like a very moody, very introspective, very youthful thirty-one. Which he was.

He had been indolent, he wrote. He had not improved his mind as much as he might have. He had "as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race or to advance the information of the succeeding generation." In the future, he vowed, he "would live for mankind as I have heretofore lived for myself." [7]

Considering what he was doing for country and mankind, the self-flagellation was hardly deserved. Yet it may have helped stir him into filling, during the next several days, page after page of his journal with ethnographic observations about the hitherto unknown Shoshoni, or Snake, tribe. It was the sort of analysis that Jefferson wanted and that more than one "succeeding generation" of anthropologists would find very useful.

The words poured out: family relationships in the tribe, the status of women as he saw it, the characteristics of the people as a whole, foods, dress, weapons, diseases. For the most part his observations were accurate, concise, and objective. At times he added personal reactions. By using nothing more than the sharp tip of a deer or elk horn, he noted, a warrior could chip an arrowhead out of flint "with a quickness and neatness that is really astonishing." A necklace of grizzly bear claws marked its wearer as a celebrity, for first he had to slay the animal, and that deed "with the means they have . . . must really be a serious undertaking."

For practical reasons he was interested in sexual customs. Women and children outnumbered men in the village beyond the divide at least three to one. Most of the women were married—polygamy was acceptable—but, as in other tribes, marital ties did not forbid liaisons with outsiders if the husband consented, which, for a trifle, he generally did. Aware of the impossibility of imposing restraint on the Corps's young men, "whom some months abstanence have made very polite to those tawney damsels," Lewis contented himself, for the record, with urging discretion.

He also made inquiry through Charbonneau and Sacagawea as to whether the Shoshoni were subject to venereal complaints. Some were infected, he learned, and the victims often died. The knowledge apparently did not increase his worry about his soldiers or about what they might bring to the Shoshoni. However, it did lead him, as a matter of scientific interest, to speculate that if a tribe as isolated as the Shoshoni suffered from the disorders, sexual diseases were probably endemic to America and not imported from Europe, as was generally believed. He was probably right. Syphilis may well have been carried from the New World to the old by Columbus's sailors. [8]

Twenty pack saddles, Lewis soon realized, were not going to be enough for transporting the Corps's equipment over the hill. Shrunken though his supplies seemed, they would have to be pared still more. Finding a distant place for a cache and making sure the four Indians at camp were not watching, he had some of his men dig a hole. Into it went the natural history specimens he had collected between Great Falls and the divide, as well as every gaudy coat, every carrot of tobacco, and every bar of lead he thought the expedition could spare. The next problem was the dugouts. He did not want the Indians breaking them up for fuel, for they would be needed if the Corps returned this way from the ocean, or from whatever obstacle chanced to turn them hack. Accordingly, he filled the boats with rocks and sank them in a pond near the forks.

Shortly thereafter, on August 22, Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and Cameahwait returned with about fifty warriors accompanied by their families and many horses. The sight jarred Lewis. So large a group probably signified that the salmon run had dwindled away and that as soon as other groups of Shoshoni and perhaps some Flatheads arrived to build up their strength, the combined parties would move down the Missouri on their dangerous trek to the buffalo grounds. With them, almost beyond doubt, would go some of the horses he had been counting on.

Hoping that food might keep the Indians amiable while he dickered, Lewis sent Drouillard out with the expedition's lone animal to find as much game as possible. All the hunter got was a single fawn. Breaking into the expedition's reserves, Lewis had the cooks boil up huge kettlefuls of corn and beans. The Indians enjoyed the unfamiliar fare, but it did not incline them to part with horses on the eve of their vital hunt. During a long bargaining session, the captain succeeded in obtaining only five of the twenty or more animals he needed. [9]

The only solution was to go to the village, where horses not required for the hunt should be available. To make the trip he would load the heaviest material on the five head he had purchased, add Drouillard's mount and other animals he could rent, and hire porters to lug along, on foot, whatever the Corps's crewmen, burdened with their personal baggage, could not handle. Unfortunately the porters—women, because the men refused even to listen to such a proposal—would not go unless the entire group they were with also returned to the village.

To keep hunger from upsetting his plans, Lewis had his men prepare a brush drag of the sort that had served the expedition well on some of the tributary streams of the Missouri. With the contraption he and his crew, helped by a few Indians, swept 528 big trout out of the sunny pools below the forks. The Indians' conduct during the operation won Lewis's admiration. They were orderly; they did not crowd or grab. Short of culinary articles of their own, the women borrowed knives and kettles from the whites, and, after the meal, scrupulously returned them. [10]

Geniality did not reduce stubbornness, however. When Lewis sought the next morning, August 23, to start the mixed group toward the divide, Cameahwait balked. More Indians, he said, would soon be passing through on their way to the Missouri and he wanted to talk to them. Reluctantly, for he could do nothing else, Lewis complied, and then turned the delay to his advantage the next day by purchasing three more horses and a mule from the newcomers. Two rented animals and the mount Drouillard had been using brought the total number of available packhorses to twelve. (Charbonneau, using knickknacks Lewis had given him, had bought a riding horse for Sacagawea and her baby, and a friendly Indian, conscious of the needs of dignity, had loaned Lewis a mount, but those animals were not for packing.) Determined to wait no longer, Lewis, at noon on the 24th, pressed ahead with his cavalcade—mounted Indians milling along beside the string of plodding packhorses, porters, and overburdened crew members. [11]

All this put Cameahwait in an untenable position. Government of the Shoshoni, as with most tribes, was by consensus, and he retained his position as principal chief only to the extent that the members of the band respected his judgment. But which way should he lean now? He did not wish to alienate these whites of whom his sister spoke with great favor. They had shared their food with his hungry people. They had promised that if the expedition succeeded, traders would soon bring in firearms and other goods that would enable the Shoshoni to hold up their heads again. Yet Cameahwait understood his band's possessiveness about their horses, the only wealth they had. They had lost many to the Pahkees not long before, and that made them doubly jealous of the rest. Finally, many of his starving tribesmen were losing patience, saying angrily that it was time they were off on their annual hunt. What obligation commanded that they keep on riding back and forth over the pass for the sake of strangers?

Unutterably badgered, Cameahwait capitulated and secretly sent messengers ahead to the village, asking the people there to catch their horses and ride over the divide, ready for the hunt. Learning of the defection, Sacagawea told Charbonneau of it. Not realizing the seriousness, her husband did not tell Lewis of it until the procession had halted for lunch just short of the divide. The captain was appalled. The moment the villagers arrived, the people he was with would swing around. He would lose the horses he had rented and the services of the women porters. Worse, his hope of acquiring more pack animals for following Clark to whatever trail he had decided on would evaporate.

Summoning Cameahwait and the two lesser chiefs who accompanied him, Lewis upbraided them. Did their promises mean nothing? Did they expect that white men would come to them with trade goods if they did not keep faith and help the expedition reach its goal?

Squirming, the lesser chiefs shifted full blame onto Cameahwait. For a long moment he stood silent. The hunger. His honor. And a chance to get firearms. The latter considerations triumphed and he sent a runner to the village, countermanding his order. But as the group neared the Indian encampment the following day (August 26) he asked Lewis to help him save face by firing a set of volleys. The salute would impress his people and make them aware of the power of guns—a power that his decision about returning would bring to them, if the white men kept their promise. [12]

Lewis agreed, of course. He had saved the expedition by maneuvering it through a more critical situation than is generally recognized today. True, he had many horses still to buy, but at least he now had a chance. How important that opportunity had become he learned when he met John Colter in the village with a message from Clark and discovered what lay ahead.

The reader will remember that Clark and his potential boat builders, accompanied by Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and Cameahwait's first group of Indians, had left the American camp near the forks of the Beaverhead early in the morning of August 19. With their heaviest goods carried by a couple of packhorses, they were able to travel fast. According to Sergeant Gass's estimate, they covered thirty-six miles that day, including a crossing of Lemhi pass. Another few miles brought them to the Indians' main camp, which had been moved a short distance upstream since Lewis's visit. There the whites paused in the band's sole remaining leather tepee for a few hours of ceremony and talk. With Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and an unnamed French boatman acting as conduits for the conversation, Clark cleared off a patch of ground and pressed Cameahwait to draw a specific map of the supposedly impassable river he had talked about only in generalities so far. [13]

After scratching a line in the earth with a knife blade—that was the river, torn by rocks into froth—the chief heaped up mounds of sand to represent mountains dropping steeply into the water, leaving no banks that men or horses could travel. Impassable, he insisted again. For the time being Clark accepted the statement. But what of the seashells and pieces of Spanish horse equipment he had noticed in the camp? Was it possible, he asked, that they came along trails running southwest of the river?

Cameahwait sent for an old man who had once lived several days' travel in that direction. The fellow talked grimly of vast expanses of hostile desert broken only occasionally by canyoned rivers. Scholars now surmise he was talking of the bleak Snake River plains of southern Idaho, but Clark, unfamiliar with the Southwest and confused by fuzzy translations, supposed the fellow was trying to tell him of the approaches to the Gulf of California. For an expedition seeking the mouth of the Columbia, that route would not do.

Next Clark asked about trails northwest of the supposedly impassable river. He'd heard of one, Cameahwait replied. It was said Pierced Nose Indians—the Nez Percé—used it to reach the buffalo. But it was a very bad trail, without game, broken and rocky and heavily timbered. If snow came early, it would be fatal.

Clark was elated. If Indians could get through with women and children, the expedition could. Yet a string of packhorses could be troublesome: rounding the animals up every morning, packing and unpacking them every day, risking sore feet and accidents at critical times. Perhaps he had better evaluate the river, after all. Like Lewis, he still did not believe that Indians unaccustomed to boats knew how to estimate fast water.

When he asked about a guide, Cameahwait produced a man the explorers took to calling Old Toby, a designation belied by the endurance and agility he showed during the next several weeks. By three in the afternoon, only a few hours after the scouts had reached the village, the party was on its way, Clark riding his gift mule and the rest walking, their equipment on the two packhorses. (Presumably Toby rode his own horse.) While daylight lasted, they followed the Lemhi north, downstream. The next morning they reached a big river gliding hard and strong out of the southwest. Surely this new stream was the South Fork of the Columbia, which the captains, following dotted lines on Nicholas King's conjectural map of 1803, had postulated as far back as Camp Wood near St. Louis. Later, acting on the basis of Hidatsa information, they had refined the fork into a long stream running due north along the western base of the Rockies until it finally swung west to join the main Columbia near the coast. Because Meriwether Lewis had been the first white man to see the headwater streams of the fork, Clark named it Lewis's River. Today it is called the main fork of the Salmon. The beautifully located, river-girt, mountain-cupped town of Salmon now stands at the stream's junction with the Lemhi.

As the explorers pressed down the Salmon, still flowing northward, the difficulties of travel increased. In places the knees of great mountains, patched with evergreens high up and scaled with sagebrush lower down, pressed so close to the water that the way-farers had to climb far up the steep hillsides to skirt the obstructions. Unaware of whites in their country, the few Indians they met were terrified at seeing them, but after Toby's voice had reassured them, they either gave the whites or sold them, at trifles, some of the salmon and cakes of berries they had. It was a welcome generosity, for the country was indeed devoid of game.

On the 22d, after passing a tributary that Clark did not name but that is now called the North Fork of the Salmon, the river bent sharply west. Travel grew worse. Again and again the men and the two packhorses had to labor over the steep promontories that ribbed the narrow canyon bottom, where white water boomed and thrashed. On the 23d the horses were blocked completely. Yet Clark still wanted to believe that canoes could be taken through if the ladings were portaged around the bad places and the craft were lowered through the heavy water with cords. So he told eight of the men to remain at the stopping place while he, Toby, and three of the soldiers went ahead on foot to learn whether his thin hope was tenable.

The going was rough—teetering slabs of talus at the base of the cliffs, strong currents slamming against the far walls of the tight bends, water "foaming & roreing thro the rocks in every direction." To complete the whites' education, Toby led them along an Indian path that climbed six miles up a side stream (today's Squaw Creek) to a stupendous view of "the hollers [hollows] of the river for 20 miles." From that vantage point, as Clark put matters dryly, Toby "pointed out the dificulties."

Back they went to the place where the others were camped. There Clark tore a page out of his notebook and wrote a letter to Lewis. He was willing to make a stab at the river under certain conditions: let half the party follow the stream while the other half hunted on the mountains above, coming down now and then to help and change places with the river crews. But the ferocity of the river was such that perhaps the Corps ought to risk the starvation trail used by the Pierced Nose Indians. Old Toby had been there as a youth and believed he could find it again.

This note, and a horse, Clark entrusted to John Colter for delivery to Lewis at the main Shoshoni village. Toby went with Colter so that Lewis could talk to him through interpreters, for Clark of course had been relying on sign language, which he knew only imperfectly from observing Drouillard at work. The others followed slowly, depending for food on the Indians and camping finally beside the Lemhi, a few miles above its junction with the Salmon. No use going farther, for the main party would soon be coming down the tributary. Wishing they had a little red meat to eat, the men began making pack saddles for the horses they supposed Lewis was buying.

After brief talks with Colter and Toby, Lewis agreed they should take the Nez Percé trail. This meant, ideally, a riding horse for each of the thirty-one adults in the party plus another two dozen or so for packing, some of which could be used for food in case of an emergency. Since Clark and he, traveling separately, had brought only fifteen or so across Lemhi Pass to the village, Lewis was going to have to steel himself for a lot of drawn-out dickering. Accordingly he asked Clark, by messenger, for help. Leaving his party's baggage downstream with two men to guard it, Clark and the rest of his group responded promptly.

Realizing their bargaining strength, those Shoshoni who were willing to sell jacked prices higher and higher, and then happily gambled away their profits, "content," in Ordway's words, "to let the world go as it may." Soon the Indians were asking for guns and ammunition as well as for knives and clothing. At that the whites balked. The twenty-nine horses they now owned—good animals but sore-backed because of the Shoshonis' crude saddles—would have to do. The captains, Sacagawea, and a few others could ride, but most would have to walk, yanking the stubborn pack animals along by their improvised halters. At least hunting had improved, and the Corps was able to start out with a little venison to supplement their diet of fish. [14]

The morning of August 30 was a time of swirling color and confusion, the whites loading their fractious animals to go north, the Indians readying their gear for the Missouri hunt. At that point Sacagawea definitely cast her lot with the Americans. Perhaps she did not even question her obligation to stay with the husband who had purchased her and who had no intention of leaving the expedition. It is likely, too, that she preferred the ways of the whites and the security they provided. Clark quite possibly was already calling her "Janey" and her son "Pomp," as he did later on. [15] (His use of the nicknames is not to be taken as evidence of the secret, unrequited grand passion between soldier and Indian maid that aficionados of the latter like to dwell dreamily on. But it does indicate an easygoing relationship that could have appealed to the girl-mother who previously had known little but abuse.)

No journal keeper mentions her decision. Clark was absorbed in the turmoil of departure, to which the private affairs of the interpreter and his wife were peripheral indeed. As for Lewis, he had ceased making, on August 26, journal entries of any sort. Melancholia again? Or, as is more probable, did he fall silent in order to lighten his load of duties? Jefferson, to be sure, had asked that both captains (and other expedition members) keep diaries. But the president was not after different viewpoints; he simply wanted to increase the odds that at least one diary would survive. To those in the field, the duplication must have been onerous at times. Ordway and Whitehouse often copied each other word for word. And was it really necessary, the captains perhaps asked each other, for both to stay up to all hours writing under dim candlelight about the same things? Couldn't they take turns?

That in effect is what they did. Though Lewis continued with his voluminous field notes, he made no more journal entries, except for three short periods when Clark was away on various errands, until January 1, 1806. At that time Lewis resumed his diary—and Clark ceased his. And so, for the period to January 1, we must rely on Clark for a record of each day's traverse, and on Sergeants Gass and Ordway and Private Joseph Whitehouse.

These tell us that after picking up Clark's baggage the cavalcade continued down the right bank of the Salmon, across talus piles that bruised the horses' feet and ankles and then up today's Boyle Creek to a bit of flat land big enough to hold a night's camp and provide grazing for the horses. There the men ate their last sparse ration of venison and topped off the meal with locally grown berries. This shortage of food may be what prompted the six Indians who had accompanied them this far to turn back, so that Old Toby and one of his sons were the only Shoshoni who remained. Having fewer mouths to feed could not have displeased either the captains or the hunters.

Toby was leading them over a shortcut of sorts, scrambling up steep hills, dipping into creek valleys, and threading increasing amounts of timber as elevation increased. That evening, September 1, they camped on the North Fork of the Salmon, six miles above its confluence with the main river—close enough that three men were able to hike down to an Indian camp Clark's party had passed during their exploratory venture and return with twenty-five pounds of dried salmon.

Real trouble began the next day. They had to cut passage through thickets of evergreens, both standing and fallen. They dragged their reluctant horses through deep bogs the men named the Dismal Swamp. While they were clambering up rocky hillsides to escape the narrowing defile through which the creek poured, several horses slipped and fell. Some tumbled down the slope and, burdened by their packs, could not regain their feet. The men had to slide down to them, remove the loads, urge them back onto the trail, and then carry the baggage up for repacking. One animal gave out so completely they had to abandon it and its load. Except for a few "pheasants" (grouse), the hunters brought in nothing fresh to eat. Ravenous, the crew wanted to kill a horse. The captains turned instead to their shrinking supply of pork. Live animals were precious. [16]

September 3 was the worst day. Two men took the horse Lewis had been riding back to rescue the animal that had been left behind. They salvaged it by putting its load on Lewis's stallion and letting it limp back behind them. Then more uphill, more downhill, more trail cutting, more horses falling—"horrid bad going," said Whitehouse, to which Clark added his amen: "some of the worst roads that a horse ever passed." Gloomily he went on, "We met with a great misfortune, in haveing our last Themometer broken, by accident." If the instrument had been sound, it would have set a new low for the season. A rain that had been falling most of the afternoon turned, after dark, to snow. Later the skies cleared, the stars leaped out like a spray of icy points, and everything that was wet froze hard. "Slept wet and hungry and cold," Whitehouse complained. But at least the discoverers had crossed the humpbacked ridge, seven thousand feet in elevation, that divides the waters of Lewis's River from those of the stream Lewis later named Clark's River. It is the Bitterroot today.

After working their way down Camp Creek, the Corps came into a lovely vale holding thirty-three tepees—about four hundred men, women, and children. They were Flatheads, short, stocky, light-hued members of the widespread Salish people. Since Flatheads did not deform their children's skulls, as the coastal Indians did, the reason for the name is unknown, although various theories have been offered. [17] Lewis and Clark had first heard of them from the Hidatsas, who said they dwelt beside a big stream flowing north along the western base of the Rockies, and Clark had located them in that position on his 1805 map. But here, on the scene, a bit of geography suddenly straightened itself out. There was not one north-flowing river at the base of the mountains, as they had thought the Hidatsas had said, but two, separated by the divide they had just crossed—Lewis's River, which they'd seen bend west toward the Pacific, and Clark's River. Whether Clark's River (the Bitterroot) also reached the ocean, no one on the spot could tell them.

The Flatheads were anxious to climb the hill the Americans had just descended. That way they could strike east across the Continental Divide at what is now Gibbon Pass and follow the Wisdom (Big Hole) River to the forks of the Jefferson, where Clark's dugouts had run into trouble a month earlier. The Corps, on its part, was just as anxious to reach the trail of the Pierced Nose Indians. Nevertheless, the prospect of profitable horse trading kept the groups together for a day and a half. In that time the captains purchased at least eleven sound, clean-limbed animals (or perhaps thirteen; accounts aren't clear) and traded off seven of their injured mounts for the same number of healthy ones. Three of the acquisitions were mares followed by unweaned colts.

When the explorers continued through cold rains down the Bitterroot Valley, they had approximately forty good horses in their remuda. Though hunger still pinched them much of the time, they were feeling more confident about the future than they had for several days past. Perhaps Lewis was feeling better about himself, too, for he had taken advantage of slow spells in the bargaining to make notes on some of the new tribe's salient characteristics and to compile a partial vocabulary for Jefferson to use in his studies of comparative languages.

The Lolo Trail, the name later given to the Nez Percé Trail, followed a creek that ran sparkling out of the mountains to join the Bitterroot. The captains halted there to give Lewis time to take celestial observations, for the hunters to gather meat—they did not have much luck—and for the other men to repair their moccasins. While most of the horses grazed, Clark and Toby rode down Clark's River to its East Fork (today's Missoula) to look over the country. More geography fell into place. According to Toby, travelers could veer up the East Fork's left-hand branch to an easy pass over the Continental Divide. The pass opened onto an east-flowing stream the captains had already named Dearborn; it entered the Missouri close to the Gates of the Mountain. The traverse took four days, Toby declared. [18] The Corps had been on the road fifty-two days.

The Hidatsas had told them about this crossing and about a similar one from the head of the Medicine. The captains had not understood the talk clearly. Besides, they had needed horses and the only place they could be sure of finding them (it had been said) was among Sacagawea's people near the headwaters of the Missouri. So they had followed the long hairpin curve—south, southwest, and north—that at the time had seemed the most dependable way. On their return journey, they could check this amazing shortcut, for they seem never to have doubted that they would return home by land—and not by sea, as Jefferson had said they might.

They started up the Lolo Trail in midafternoon, September 11. Straightway they ran into portents. Fresh, unseasonable snow cloaked the high peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains. A hard frost whitened the grass when they awoke on the morning of the twelfth. Later that same day they encountered pine trees from which starving Indians had peeled the bark in order, Sacagawea said, to be able to eat the moist fibers of the bark's inner layers. [19]

On the thirteenth they crossed a relatively low divide to headwater creeks that would soon unite to form a river later travelers would know as the Lochsa, a Flathead word meaning "rough water." Though they were unaware of it as yet, their guide, Toby, had been confused by paths the Flatheads used to reach good fishing places along the upper part of the river. The main trail followed the ridge tops, but he was whipping his horse down rain-slippery hills into tangles of fallen timber. On the night of the fourteenth, much fatigued and ravenously hungry, the explorers experimented with some of the gummy portable soup Lewis had packed away in lead canisters long before in Philadelphia. Not liking it, they killed one of their colts for supper.

The next day they floundered along the riverbank until Toby realized his mistake: they should be on the top of the giant hogback that formed the northern border of the Lochsa's profound canyon. To get there they climbed four thousand feet up a precipitous side ridge—tight zigzags, rocks that cut the horses' ankles, loose, gravelly soil, and piles of jackstraw trees that had been felled by fire and wind. Among the horses that lost their footing and rolled down the hill was one that carried Clark's field desk. Although the desk was irretrievably smashed, the horses survived. Dark had closed in when they reached the top. No water there. But they were able to melt enough snow for thinning the portable soup. With colt bones added for flavor, it tasted better.

Try to visualize that narrow, gigantic ridge winding between a series of knobby peaks overlooking a seemingly endless wilderness of deep, winding, heavily forested troughs. Rough saddles separate knob from knob, so that the travelers were constantly dropping down only to have to toil despairingly up again. In a few places the dim trail cut along the steep sides of the ridge to reach water. But eventually the long string, made up of forty or so horses and an unknown number of hikers, had to seek out the top again, to resume slogging from knob to wearying knob.

On the morning of the sixteenth they awoke on a side hill "astonished" to find their beds under six inches of snow, its whiteness dulled by thick fog. In order to find the trail, Clark walked along, head bent, leading his horse. Snow shaken from the weighted branches soaked them all, until, in Clark's words, he was "as wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life, indeed I was at one time fearfull my feet would freeze in the thin Mockirsons which I wore." Those who had cloth tore it up to wrap their feet. Sacagawea? The baby? No one says.

The low point came when Clark fired at a deer and heard the hammer click uselessly because of a loose flint—or so he wrote. Whitehouse says the gun fired but the shooter missed. [20] As morale sagged in the afternoon, Clark hurried ahead with one man along the side of the ridge. On reaching water near a sheltering copse of balsam, he built huge fires to warm the others when they came up, numb and downcast. That night they killed a second colt, ate half of it as a side dish for portable soup, and kept the rest for the next day's breakfast.

They had to turn the horses loose that night to graze. In the morning the hungry animals were badly scattered, partly because the mare whose colt had just been butchered had gone back along the trail looking for it. The delay caused by gathering the animals and excessive slipperiness resulting from melted snow held the cavalcade to a meager ten-mile advance. At suppertime they butchered the last colt, and again saved half. The skimpy supper left the thirty-five adults almost as voracious as if they hadn't eaten. In desperation the captains decided Clark should press ahead the next morning with six men (but without Toby for some unexplained reason) and try to find food to send back. [21]

After twenty miles of rocky, up-and-down riding, the advance party climbed a knob later named Sherman Peak. Far ahead the rumpled forest at last leveled off. Broad, tan openings broke the black look of the spiked trees. Surely there would be game there, and perhaps Indians to lend help. But the plains were still forty or more rugged miles away, and that involved going without food until late in the morning of the nineteenth, when they spotted a stray Indian horse. It was not fat, and Jefferson had been emphatic about respecting Indian rights. But the men begged hard, and Clark consented. After eating a hearty breakfast, they left the rest of the meat for those who followed. Sustained by that one meal, they reached Weippe Prairie late the next morning, September 20.

Three Indian boys, seeing the seven strangers riding toward them among the widely spaced ponderosa pines, dived into the tall grass to hide. Dismounting, Clark gave his gun and horse to one of the men to hold and searched through the grass until he found two of the youngsters curled up and trembling like rabbits. Reassuring them with a piece of ribbon, he and his companions followed the excited pair to a village of about thirty lodges made of mats woven of withes. Here the newcomers were surrounded by scores of apprehensive women and children and a few old men. The chief and most of the braves, Clark learned through signs, were away on a war excursion. They told him, as nearly as he could understand the word, that they were Cho-pun-nish. They were a likely people, he thought, of a somewhat darker complexion than the Flatheads. The men were portly, the women small but "handsome featured." He noticed their ornaments: white shells, blue beads, and brass rings. Some were worn in their noses. For these native people were indeed of the Pierced Nose tribe, the Nez Percé, later its pronunciation anglicized, unfortunately, into "nezz purse."

The mobile village had been located on the prairie because this was the best place and season for harvesting the bulbous roots of the camas lily—women's work. Mounds of roots stood here and there on the prairie and in the village. Close by were pit ovens for drying the vegetables so they could be pounded into flour for making soup or bread. When the new arrivals asked for food, the Indians plied them with dried salmon, raw camas roots, cooked roots, and bread of camas flour. Although the whites ate copiously, they wanted more solid food, both for themselves and for Lewis's expectant group. Sending hunters out for deer, Clark rode to a neighboring village, for he understood it might be near a navigable river. The town was not on a river, however, and he had no luck finding meat. Neither did the hunters. But again they were fed generously on fish and roots.

All seven were miserably sick during the night, the result, they thought, of overloading their hunger-weakened stomachs with unfamiliar food. Nevertheless, the men went hunting again in the morning, while Clark delved for information. Obligingly the principal chief of the town drew a map for him. Half a day's march away, on an island in the river Clark wanted to see, was the fishing camp of an influential person whose name the captain translated as Twisted Hair. A little distance below Twisted Hair's camp, his river and another came together. A little farther on, more streams added their water to the flow. After a distance of many sleeps, this big river broke through the mountains, creating in its passage a huge waterfall. Below the fall some white men lived, a remark the captain recorded without comment. He had heard a similar rumor way back among the Shoshoni. [22]

The hunters returned in the afternoon, still empty-handed. So roots and dried salmon would have to do for both his men and Lewis's. Clark bought as much as the Nez Percé would sell for the knickknacks he had in his pockets. Loading the food onto a packhorse, he entrusted it to Reuben Field for delivery. Still feeling miserable ("I am verry sick to day," he wrote, "and puke which relive me"), he set out for Twisted Hair's river camp to double-check the information he had received. After a long ride through the dark with an Indian guide hired for a red handkerchief, the explorers reached the top of a line of tall bluffs bounding a large stream. After inching cautiously downward, they located the camp shortly before midnight and were made welcome. Sick and weary though he was, Clark went through the requisite ceremonies, explained the American purpose as well as his knowledge of sign language allowed, and after bestowing a medal on the chief—"A Chearfull man of about 65 with apparent siencerity"—he tumbled into bed at about one in the morning.

Far back on the Lolo Trail, Lewis picked up his pen and resumed his journal writing. It was a doleful tale. The twenty-eight people with him were showing signs of malnutrition, perhaps even of scurvy—cramps, thin diarrhea, skin rashes. [23] Weakness, the difficulties of the trail, and constant trouble with the horses kept them to a snail's pace, even though they wanted to hurry. On September 18, the day Clark's party pushed ahead, they rode eighteen waterless miles, coming after dark to the head of a ravine down which they were able to lead the horses to a spring. After drinking deep and dining on a bit of soup, bear oil, and a few tallow candles, the wayfarers lay down beside approximately forty horses and managed to pass the night "on this Sidling Mountain."

The next day the rough ridge trail led them to the top of Sherman Peak. There they, like Clark, looked out to the distant prairie "with inexpressible joy." A little farther on, the narrow trail slanted high across the face of an almost perpendicular slope. There Robert Frazer's horse, loaded with two boxes of powder and ball, fell a hundred yards down the hill (200 feet, Ordway; 100 feet, Whitehouse) and crashed into the brushy creek bottom. [24] Amazingly, the men were able to salvage both the ammunition and the horse, "the most wonderfull escape," Lewis said, that he had ever seen.

Another wonderful experience was finding, the next day, the slaughtered horse Clark's advance party had left for them. That sustained them for thirty more hours, when they were able to put together a meal of a bit of horse meat, three grouse, one coyote, and some crayfish taken from the stream beside which they camped.

It is a measure of Lewis, perhaps, that throughout this time the entries in his trip journal stayed as voluminous as ever—much longer than Clark's. He devoted pages to distinguishing between the eight varieties of evergreens they passed and describing new birds they saw: a black-and-white jay (Canadian jay), and three varieties of grouse. As altitude dropped and the temperature warmed, he noted the changes these factors brought to the vegetation. But after they had met Reuben Field toward noon on September 22, had devoured the food he brought, and had gone on to make camp beside the nearest Nez Percé village, he wrote one flowery sentence about "the pleasure I now felt in having tryumphed over the rockey Mountains," and then laid down his pen. With one three-day exception (November 29 through December 1) he did not make another journal entry until the new year.

Clark, limping from the effects of a fall from a horse he had borrowed from Twisted Hair, rejoined the party that same evening. He bore glad tidings. No more rocky trails. No more horses to struggle with. They were within fifteen miles of a branch of the river that would carry them to the ocean.

He also warned them against eating too much. Wasted breath. Those were starving men. During a day's layover, while the captains held the usual council and handed out gifts, including an American flag for the grand chief who was absent, they absorbed as much dried salmon and camas root as they could hold. The next morning nearly everyone was violently ill. They blamed the ailment on their radical change of diet. The experience of later explorers and fur trappers tends to confirm the belief. [25] In spite of the extreme unpleasantness of the affliction, however, the captains determined to press on: they had no time to lose building canoes, reaching the ocean, and establishing winter quarters.

It was a ghastly march, attended by crowds of Indians. "Capt. Lewis," Clark wrote, "scercely able to ride on a jentle horse which was furnished by the Chief, Several men So unwell that they were Compelled to lie on the Side of the road for some time others obliged to be put on horses." The hunters Clark had left at Twisted Hair's camp—they were sick, too—had killed only two deer, and so the temptation to eat salmon and camas root continued. Clark handed out every type of medicine the expedition had: Rush's thunderbolts, salts, and "Tarter emetic." On they dragged through heavily forested country and down beside Twisted Hair's river (the north fork of the Clearwater) to the main fork, or, as the captains called it, the Kooskooskee. On September 26, they managed to cross the main stream and set up what they named Canoe Camp in a likely grove opposite the mouth of the north fork.

They stayed there eleven days. Considering their circumstances, they wrought mightily. When the hunters proved unable to bring in enough deer, they ate a horse. That finished, they turned reluctantly to fish and roots, the latter of which "filled us [the two captains] so full of wind, that we were Scercely able to Breathe all night." Despairing, some of the crew followed the example of the French rivermen and began buying and eating fat Indian dogs. [26]

At Canoe Camp the crew was divided into five groups. With axes hardly big enough for the work, they began hacking away at five huge trees, probably red cedar though heavy ponderosa pine was more common in the area, from which they hoped to fashion five river-worthy boats. Once the trees were down, they saved labor by building fires along the tops, Indian fashion, and then scraped out the ashes and charred wood with their chisels and adzes.

They dried and repacked their possessions. They branded and cut the forelocks off their thirty-eight surviving horses so the animals could be easily recognized, and entrusted them to Twisted Hair to watch until they returned. They cached their saddles and some powder during the dark of the night. There were four big canoes—no journal keeper reported their length, width, or depth—and one small one designed to run ahead of the others and check the state of the water. They planned on thirty-seven passengers: the original thirty-three, which included Sacagawea's infant, plus Toby and his son, and Twisted Hair and a fellow chieftan, Tetoharsky. The latter two had agreed to come along as interpreters while the travelers were still in Nez Percé country. And then there was Seaman.

On the night of October 6, Clark fell ill again. No matter. Lewis was even more debilitated. So it fell to Clark, the next morning, to supervise the hurly-burly of breaking camp, loading the canoes, and lashing in the bundles, for they knew rough water foamed ahead. Finally, toward noon, uncertain of their own strengths and certainly uncertain about their new boats, they swung into the current. For the first time since leaving the junction of the Ohio and the Mississippi, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were going with the flow of a river instead of against it.


1. Biddle, II, 334. (back)
2. Hodge, II, 557. Jackson, Letters, II, 554. (back)
3. Biddle, II, 334. (back)
4. II, 361–63. Cameahwait's remark, "If we had guns ..." is in II, 380. (back)
5. II, 364. (back)
6. DeVoto, Journals, 205–6. Ordway in Quaife, 270. Whitehouse in VII, 138. (back)
7. Lewis's self-evaluation: DeVoto, Journals, 206. (back)
8. Lewis's ethnographic jottings are spread throughout II, 372–III, 32 (the material on venereals is on 372–73). DeVoto's condensation is in Journals, 207–27. Biddle presents the ethnographic data in a single unit, 367–84. (back)
9. III, 13. (back)
10. IlI, 14. Ordway in Quaife, 272. (back)
11. III, 28. (back)
12. Holding Cameahwait to his promise: III, 35–36; Ordway in Quaife, 274. Ronda, 153, who persistently faults Lewis and Clark for not evaluating the Indians according to modern ethnological standards, feels the "blast" Lewis gave the chief was too severe. (back)
13. Clark's reconnaissance: II, 380–I11, 47; Biddle, II, 342–55; Allen, 294–300. Peebles, 5–11, attempts a precise definition of trails and a location of each night's campsite. (back)
14. Horse buying: III, 46–48; Ordway in Quaife, 275–76; Whitehouse in VII, 146. It is not possible to determine the exact number of horses the expedition had at any one time. (Appleman, 372 nn. 115 and 116.) (back)
15. Jackson, Letters, I, 315–17. (back)
16. Shoshoni to Flatheads: III, 50–53; Biddle, 382–86; Gass, 155–56. (back)
17. The Flatheads, a Salish tribe, did not deform their skulls, but their tops looked flat compared to the peaked skulls created by other Salish and Chinookan tribes. (Brandon, 310.) Ronda, 155, says the name came from the sign-language designation for the tribe: hands pressed against the sides of the head in a flattening motion. See also Hodge under "Salish." (back)
18. III, 58. (back)
19. The Lolo Trail: III, 62–72; Ordway in Quaife, 284–87; Whitehouse in VII, 153–58; Peebles, 17–19; Space, 2–12. (back)
20. Clark and the deer: III, 69; Whitehouse in VII, 157. (back)
21. From September 18 through 22, Clark's and Lewis's journal entries alternate in III, 79–84 and Space, 12–19. Whitehouse in VII, 156–60 and Ordway in Quaife, 288–90, supplement Lewis. See also Peebles under appropriate dates. (back)
22. Reaching the Nez Percé through the building of the canoes: III, 84–98; Ordway in Quaife, 290–94; Peebles, 23–26; Space, 19–22. (back)
23. Chuinard, 320. Mirsky, 318. (back)
24. III, 74. Ordway in Quaife, 288. Whitehouse in VII, 156. (back)
25. Cutright, Pioneering Naturalists, 218–19. (back)
26. Ordway in Quaife, 293. (back)