The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 18

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

EIGHTEEN. Peace Mission to the Blackfeet

June 15. After impatiently sitting out a morning of heavy rain, the explorers started up the steep, slippery Lolo Trail without guides, counting on the long days of approaching summer to let them make up for the late beginning. They were right. In spite of laborious progress through thick forests littered with fallen timber, they covered twenty-two miles.

The next morning they were on the way by six o'clock, rejoicing briefly in grassy glades spangled with violets, columbine, and bluebells. This illusion of springtime did not last. Soon the horses were lunging "though intolerable bad fallen timber over a high Mountain on which great quantity of Snow is yet lying." In places that snow was eight to ten feet deep, or so the captains estimated from the depth of the cavities surrounding the tree trunks—cavities created by sun warmth reflected off the wood. When they reached Hungry Creek, on whose banks Clark's advance party had killed a deer the previous September, they were confronted with a raging torrent of snowmelt. Rather than enter the flood to skirt the base of projecting cliffs, they forced their horses up and over the obstructions. Rough going. A full day's exertion advanced them only fifteen miles. [1]

In one sense the deepening snow was an advantage, for it had settled enough to hold a horse's weight while covering the dense windfalls and jagged rocks that had plagued the animals at lower elevations. But the snow also covered the trail. Missing the way by taking a wrong turn along one of the many densely timbered, snow-shrouded ridges ahead of them could he disastrous. They needed guides who knew landmarks and, if necessary, could find the way from tree to tree by following scratches on the bark caused by the frequent passage of loaded packhorses. Perhaps such guides, chosen as promised by the Indian council, were already hurrying after them. But perhaps not. To cover the contingency, the officers decided to send Drouillard and Shannon back to Broken Arm's village with incentives: a good, short-barreled Harpers Ferry rifle for anyone who would conduct them across the Lolo Trail to Traveler's Rest. If two or three Indians would continue as far as the Falls of the Missouri, acting as both guides and peace delegates to the Blackfeet, they would receive ten horses plus still more guns. The party would wait for the guides (if any) at some meadow below the snow line where they could find food for themselves and the horses.

Reluctant to risk losing valuable instruments and papers while scrambling back down the killer terrain they had just crossed, the officers directed the crew to build a scaffold by tying poles between trees and flooring it with a deerskin. On that platform they placed their valuables and as much dried meat, roots, and baggage as they could get along without during the next few days. Then back they turned—the first retreat the captains had called since the trip began. "The party were a great deel dejected," Lewis admitted, "tho' not as much so as I had apprehended they would have been."

After a two-mile descent made late in the evening, they stopped at a small opening where grass was beginning to show. It did not satisfy the hungry horses. During the night they strayed so far and wide over the steep, thickly forested hills, searching vainly for food, that the party had to spend most of the next morning rounding them up. As soon as Drouillard and Shannon were mounted, they hurried ahead. The others followed into a dreadful day. While Potts was clearing trail with a "big knife"—we would probably call it a machete—he cut a deep gash across the inner part of one leg. Blood gushed, and this time it was Lewis whose medical competence was tested. Fortunately he was well enough grounded in anatomy to know a vein leading toward the heart, and not an artery, had been severed. By whittling a wooden "cushion," greasing it with fat, and pressing it below the wound with a tight bandage, he stanched the flow. He then sewed flesh and skin together, probably with an ordinary needle and thread, and got Potts back onto his horse. [2]

A little farther on, as the company was fording Hungry Creek single file, Colter's horse fell. The flood rolled rider and mount downstream, over and over among the rocks. Both eventually crawled out, bruised but not seriously hurt. The likelihood of such an accident explains why the captains had preferred leaving their papers unwatched in the forest.

To avoid fighting downtimber all the way to Weippe Prairie and back again with the guides, if any, they camped on the same meadow, under the same cloud of mosquitos, they had chosen on the night of the 15th. Unfortunately the hunters could find no game there, and so, two days later, they rode another twenty-two miles to their original starting place. Along the way they encountered two young Nez Percé warriors, each leading two extra horses. The pair had not been appointed as guides by the council but were on their way to gossip with the Flatheads on Clark's River concerning events of the past winter and learn the allied tribe's plans for the summer. Clearly they would be handy to have along if no appointed guides showed up, and so Lewis and Clark persuaded them, perhaps with small gifts as well as sign talk (clumsy signs with Drouillard gone), to delay their journey two days.

Although frequent Indian hunting at Weippe had made the deer very shy, the riflemen found a way to lure the does. The females were, at the time, giving birth to their young. By bleating in imitation of a fawn, the men drew targets within easy range. During June 22 and 23 they killed twelve. To this they added four bears, so that the larders were well stocked when Drouillard and Shannon appeared on the afternoon of the 23d with three men who had agreed to go as far as the Great Falls in return for two guns. The captains knew them—a brother of Cut Nose and two braves "of good character and respected by their nation." St. Louis by fall! Eagerly each man caught up the horses assigned to him (somebody must have helped Potts, whose inflamed, infected leg was being treated with poultices of pounded cous roots) and picketed them nearby for an early start in the morning. [3]

The first night out the Indians went through a ceremony they said would guarantee good weather for the trip. At dark they set fire to the dead, dry boughs that hung thickly below the green branches of several tightly grouped firs. The needles caught the flames and whooshed them up the trees, sparks exploding against the night sky—"a beatifull object in this situation," Lewis wrote. [4] The charm worked; the weather held. At the scaffold cache, where they reloaded their goods, the snowpack had shrunk until it was "only" about seven feet deep. In spite of that still-considerable blanket, the Indians were able to go unerringly, each evening, to untimbered, south-facing slopes where patches of bare ground shimmered with tender new grass for the horses. Then back to the winding ridges for another day of progress along sun-crusted snow hard enough to support the animals. From a high knob on the main hogback dividing the drainage of the North Fork of the Clearwater from the Lochsa the whites looked out in awe across stupendous canyons and "mountains principally covered with snow from which to one unacquainted with them it would seem impossible ever to escape. . . . these fellows are most admirable pilots." [5]

By keeping to the main ridge the pilots avoided the detour along the Lochsa and up Wendover Ridge that Old Toby, the Shoshoni, had mistakenly followed the previous September. Now, in June, they needed to save every possible mile and hour. Running out of meat, they ate roots cooked in bear oil. The hungry, weary horses fared little better. But good guidance made the difference. On June 29 they dropped off the ridge, bade "adieu to the snow," and early in the afternoon reached a cluster of hot springs at the foot of low, massive gray cliffs. They had been too hurried on their outward journey to pause there, but this time they made the most of the phenomenon. Over the course of the years Indians traveling back and forth along the Lolo Trail had dammed the outlet of one of the cooler springs to form a bathing pool. (Some of the springs were too hot to endure. Ah, but this one!)

Lewis, always meticulous, timed his own immersion: nineteen minutes, a dunking that left him sweating profusely. Clark stayed ten minutes. The others fooled around at will, the soldiers luxuriating in what was probably their first bath in many months. They did not follow the example of the Indians, who "after remaining in the hot bath as long as they could bear it ran and plunged themselves into the creek [Lolo Creek] the water of which is as cold as ice can make it; after remaining here a few minutes they return again to the warm bath, repeating the transition several times but always ending with the warm bath." [6] A good evening. Joseph Field killed a deer to go with their roots, Potts's leg was healing at last, the violent headache that had afflicted Clark along most of the ridge had abated, and the horses were in surprisingly good shape. Best of all, perhaps, was the knowledge that in six days, and in spite of the snow, they had covered a trail whose previous crossing had taken eleven days.

On June 30 they pushed hard to reach Traveler's Rest, close to what they called Clark's Fork River (today's Bitterroot). There they gave themselves and the horses a two-day rest. Renewal: the spring vegetation was aglow with its own exuberance. Fat deer abounded. "this," Clark exulted, "is like once more returning to the land of the liveing a plenty of meat and that very good." Lewis botanized almost frenziedly. He rattled off the names of birds he saw—doves, larks, robins, blackbirds, cranes, jays, crows, and various members of the sparrow, woodpecker, and swallow families. He collected and pressed samples of flowers and shrubs to take East and show Jefferson—wild roses, serviceberries, chokecherries, lady's-slippers, flags, two kinds of wild clover, and, most especially, the dazzlingly beautiful, pink-hued bitterroot, another useful Indian plant food that few whites learned to like. Later the bitterroot would be named Lewisia rediviva and be designated as Montana's state flower.

During the layover Shields repaired all the guns. The five Nez Percés and the American soldiers ran footraces and horse races. "Those are a race of hardy strong athletic active men," Lewis wrote admiringly of the Indians. In between contests the horses stuffed themselves as they had not been able to do for a long, long time. Yet even paradise had its drawbacks—mosquitos such as the explorers had not seen since toiling along the upper Missouri the year before; the captains could not sit still and write except under netting, and the desperate horses crowded into the smoke of the fires. Goodrich and McNeal, whom Lewis thought he had cured, were very sick again with syphilis picked up from the Chinook women of the coast. [7]

During this rest stop, Lewis and Clark refined the plans they had made at Fort Clatsop for their return journey. The party was to divide, at Traveler's Rest, into two groups. One would explore north to, and along, the Maria's River, the other south to, and along, the Yellowstone. As each unit proceeded, it would be further divided into subgroups, each assigned a specific task.

Lewis undertook the northern and more dangerous ride. How it came about that he was the one chosen we do not know. First of all, he would strike as directly east as possible to the vicinity of the Great Falls of the Missouri. He knew, from the Indians and from celestial observations he and Clark had taken along the Lemhi Pass route, that this new trail would be from five hundred to six hundred miles shorter than the other. But what, exactly, were its characteristics? Would it serve for transportation and communication between the United States and the Pacific?

Having reached the White Bear Islands above Great Falls, his party would open the caches there and repack the material for transport down the Missouri. That done, the captain and six men would cut across country to Maria's River and determine, if they could, how far north it actually extended—the old dream: a siphon for furs from the Saskatchewan. During this period three men would watch over the goods at White Bear Island until they were joined by one of Clark's subgroups, coming down the Missouri with the dugouts and other material retrieved from the cache at the eastern foot of Lemhi Pass. The combined groups, helped by horses, would transport the baggage around the falls to Portage Creek. After refitting the pirogue hidden there, they would rejoin Lewis somewhere near the mouth of Maria's River. During this time, Clark would take the rest of his group from the Three Forks of the Missouri to the Yellowstone, whose course he would explore by horseback and boat to its mouth. There he would join the other parties! [8]

Lewis's route would take him almost immediately into the canyon later called Hellgate because of its use as an ambush by the three confederated tribes of Blackfeet (Siksikas, Bloods, and Piegans) and their allies, the Atsina, whom the captains generally called the Minitaris or Gros Ventres of the Plains, although the Atsina had no blood or linguistic connection with the Minitaris (Hidatsas) of the Missouri, neighbors of the Mandans. After running the Hellgate gauntlet, Lewis's party would continue to White Bear Islands, drop off the three men delegated to stop there, and then turn north into the heart of Pahkee country, a blanket name for all the marauding groups. A risk, yes. But exposure to the Pahkees was what Lewis wanted (or had thought he wanted, back at Fort Clatsop) for the sake of intertribal peace and American commerce. The five Nez Percés who had brought the expedition across the Lolo Trail would, he hoped, help him reach his goal by continuing with his party at least as far as the Great Falls.

Unfortunately the five were already spooking themselves about the dangers involved. They nervously identified certain tracks they discovered near Traveler's Rest as left by the Pahkees. Suddenly they decided they wanted to go home, and it was only with difficulty that the captains persuaded them to continue far enough to put Lewis on the right "road to the buffalo."

Because the mission was dangerous, Lewis asked for volunteers. Several men stepped forward. First he chose, inevitably, George Drouillard and Joseph and Reuben Field. To them he added, as sergeant for the group, Patrick Gass, and then Robert Frazer and William Werner. The three men delegated to handle matters at the White Bear Islands were named arbitrarily: John Thompson and the syphilitic sufferers, Hugh McNeal and Silas Goodrich. Theirs was the easiest of the tasks; during intervals of rest, the ailing pair could "use the mercury freely," to quote Lewis. [9]

Clark's men divided from Lewis's early in the morning of July 3, 1806. "I could not help feeling much concern," Lewis admitted, not so much for himself or Clark, one feels, as for the success of the entire expedition. For at that moment, with the homestretch lying ahead, the Corps was disintegrating on purpose.

Bear with us now, for we run into a confusion of names. Lewis's group—ten whites, counting himself, and five Indians—started north, down the Bitterroot. (The whites called it Clark's Fork.) After riding about five miles they came abreast of the point where today's Clark Fork (their East Fork of Clark's River) joined the Bitterroot. Lewis wanted to cross the Bitterroot so he could follow the north bank of the Clark Fork through Hellgate Canyon to the Big Blackfoot River. Lewis called that stream "The River of the Road to the Buffalo," or, in Nez Perce, the Cokahlarishkit. [*]

The whites built three rafts for this crossing—three because the only dry driftwood they could find was small and crooked. Disdaining flotation, the Indians rode across the stream, towing their gear in sacks of deerskin manufactured on the spot. Shouting and throwing sticks, the whites chased their seventeen horses into the water. Once started, the animals swam on across the stream after the Indians. Altogether, the crossing took three hours, for the small rafts had to shuttle back and forth several times. During the process the boats drifted downstream more than a mile. By the time Lewis and the remaining men started over, they had reached a place of fast current. They paddled frantically, only to run into some overhanging brush on the far side that knocked Lewis overboard. He floundered ashore unharmed. His erstwhile companions, unnamed but identified as poor swimmers, flailed mightily with their homemade paddles before managing to land.

That was the last notable adventure on the way to the Great Falls, unless struggles with fading morale can be called adventures. The next morning (July 4: no celebration that year) the Indians halted. No Hellgate for them. After giving Lewis directions to a pass across the Continental Divide, they smoked a pipe together, and the Indians grieved, "confident the Pahkees would cut us off." Then they parted, "these affectionate people [showing] every emmotion of unfeigned regret at separating from us." After that it was hard to pass old war camps, as the whites did nearly every day, and not feel uneasiness. July 6: "we expect to meet with the Minnetares and are therefore on our guard both day and night"—an awkward way to feel about people they had once wanted to find and turn into friends. [10]

No confrontation occurred. After crossing the divide at gentle Lewis and Clark Pass, which Clark never saw and Lewis did not name, they came down the Medicine (our Sun) River to the Missouri. It was July 11. Old Toby, the Shoshoni, had said the traverse would take four days. The Nez Percé had suggested five. The whites had spent a little more than eight, partly because they had sat out a rain and had taken time to hunt. Small matter. Last year's journey by way of Lemhi Pass had taken almost two months. (But if they hadn't gone that route they might never have found the horses they needed.) Their spirits soared. "the morning was fair and the plains looked beatifull the grass much improved by the late rain. the air was pleasant and a vast assemblage of little birds which croud to the groves on the river sang most enchantingly."

The animals felt the joy, too. By Lewis's estimate, there were no fewer than ten thousand buffalo in a two-mile circle around the White Bear Islands. "it is now the season at which the buffalo begin to coppelate and the bulls keep a tremedious roaring we could hear them for many miles."

By evening they had killed, skinned, and butchered eleven of the massive animals, for food and for hides to be used in making boats, tents, many pack ropes, and other gear. As soon as the boats were finished, they crossed the river and set up camp close to where they had stayed while making the portage the year before. While wolves howled and circled around then at a cautious distance, they opened the cache and discovered that high water had entered the pit, destroying Lewis's bearskins, all the plant specimens he had collected between the Mandan villages and the falls, and most of the medicines. But much of what was in his trunk and boxes could be spread out and dried. The wooden wheels of the wagon they had built for portaging their dugouts had survived. The pieces of the iron boat frame looked as good as ever—and about as useful. Best of all, Clark's detailed chart of the Missouri and Great Falls was intact.

Another loss occurred that night. Apparently the party was careless about guarding the horses, and Indians—Flatheads, Lewis believed—made off with ten of the seventeen animals. The reduction caused a shift in plans. The captain would take only Drouillard and the Field brothers with him to the Marias. They would ride four horses and lead two spares. Gass, Frazer, and Werner would remain at the camp with Thompson, Goodrich, and McNeal. After the party floating down the Missouri from the caches on the Beaverhead had arrived, the combined groups would use the remaining four horses to help with the portage past the Falls.

There was almost a loss of personnel as well. On the 15th, Hugh McNeal, supposedly ailing with the pox, returned from an errand to Portage Creek with a broken rifle. He said that on his way through the brush of Willow Creek he had ridden almost on top of a grizzly. The bear—but let Lewis give the summary. He could be graphic when recounting such episodes in his journal.

McNeal's startled horse "threw him immediately under the bear; this animal raised himself on his hinder feet for battle, and gave him time to recover from his fall which he did in an instant and with his clubbed musquet he struck the bear over the head and cut him with the guard of the gun and broke off the breech, the bear stunned with the stroke fell to the ground and began to scratch his head with his feet; this gave McNeal time to climb a willow tree which was near at hand and thus fortunately made his escape." The adventure put Lewis to ruminating about luck. Members of the expedition had killed several grizzlies in Nez Percé country, but none had been a match for those of the Missouri. "these bear are a most tremenduous animal; it seems that the hand of providence has been most wonderfully in our favor with rispect to them, or some of us would long since have fallen a sacrifice to their farosity." [11]

On the 16th, with no remarks about providence, Lewis, Drouillard, and the Field brothers started north, planning to intersect the Marias near the point where Lewis had turned back from his exploration of the river the previous year. On the 18th they reached the stream about six miles above their target point. They had seen Indian sign along the way and were very much on the qui vive as they jogged ahead for five days, sometimes out on the treeless plains. On reaching the junction of Two Medicine and Cut Bank creeks (their mingling forms the Marias River), they turned north along the Cut Bank. The gravelly soil, alternating in places with clay made rough by herds of buffalo, hurt the horses' feet. There was no sign of the migratory buffalo themselves, however. What little meat the quartet obtained had to be stretched out with pounded cous roots they had brought along for emergencies.

Lewis had assumed that Cut Bank Creek might bring him as high as the fiftieth parallel of latitude, close to major tributaries of the South Saskatchewan, as shown on British maps. The stream veered west, however, and by July 22 the party was close enough to the spectacular stretch of the Rockies later called the Lewis Range that he could see the gap by which the creek left today's Glacier National Park and entered the plains. Clearly it did not head nearly as far north as he had hoped.

Still, it was good to learn even unpalatable truths. The day might come, moreover, when boundary negotiators dealing with Great Britain about the upper limits of Louisiana Territory might find it useful to know just how far north he had penetrated into a key area of the Missouri River's drainage system. So he had the party camp beside Cut Bank Creek, intending to make his celestial observations the next day.

It rained the next day. It either rained or was cloudy until July 26, when Lewis grudgingly decided they could wait no longer but must return to the Missouri and join the other groups of the fragmented expedition. After naming the bivouac where they had stayed Camp Disappointment (Lewis's emphasis), the quartet rode south to Two Medicine Creek. Drouillard pressed down the stream to hunt. Lewis and the Field brothers climbed, on their horses, out of the creek's deep trench for a look at the plains, which in that area were rough and broken.

Through his spyglass the captain saw, with a jolt, eight Indians and about thirty horses on another hill about a mile away. Run? He resisted the impulse. The eight Indians had already noticed him, and there might be more out of sight in the folds of the hills. Fleeing would simply invite a chase by people whose horses were probably fresher than his party's. And certainly the whites were outnumbered. The best reaction, he decided, was to hold the Pahkee peace meeting he had talked so glibly about in the councils of the Nez Percé.

Stiffly, like strange dogs coming together, the groups approached each other. The Indians, he noted, had only two guns among them but a full complement of bows and arrows. When no one made a threatening move, all relaxed. Lewis passed out gifts to the three men who he was told by signs were the Indians' leaders. He understood them to say they were Minitaris of the Plains. If his interpretation was correct, they were lying; Canadian traders who heard the story of the encounter from the Indians themselves identified the eight as Piegans, a Blackfoot tribe.

Telling them he had much to say, he prevailed on them to camp with him in the river bottom. The spot he chose was a tight meadow between almost unscalable bluffs broken here and there by stubby box canyons that he called niches. Close to the only three cottonwood trees in the meadow the Piegans erected a large, semicircular shelter of dressed buffalo skins (a windbreak? a sort of half tepee?) and invited Lewis and Drouillard, who had been fetched back to join the assembly, to sleep there with them. The Field brothers spread out their blankets close to the fire, which was built near the shelter. Each group, seeking perhaps to bluff the other, said it had many friends nearby. Then, over their pipes, they conversed in signs through Drouillard. In answer to a question about commerce the Indians said they traded wolf and beaver skins for arms, liquor, blankets, and so on at English forts on the Saskatchewan, six days' ride away. At that Lewis trotted out, with full embroidery, his Pax Americana talk. He had been to the great waters where the sun sets, he said. Along the way he had convinced many nations of the advantages of living at peace with their neighbors. He had spread the word that the Americans would soon build trading houses on the Missouri that all Indians could visit without fear of attack. Would his listeners, or a delegation summoned by them, ride with him to the mouth of the Marias and meet his men? (By then, he was figuring, the six soldiers he had left at the Great Falls would be on hand with the white pirogue and its swivel gun. Perhaps the nine men Clark was dropping off at the Beaverhead would have joined them with their five canoes. Everybody armed. Magic things to see. That ought to impress the Indians.) To those who made the trip, he said, he would give ten horses. "To this proposition," he wrote laconically in his diary, "they made no reply."

That night he took the first watch. On being relieved by Reuben Field, he crawled into the shelter where Drouillard and the Piegans were sleeping. Lying down fully clad, as the others were, he fell into a deep slumber.

At dawn someone built up the fire outside. The Indians crowded around it while the whites, except for Joseph Field, who was then on guard, still luxuriated in their blankets. Lulled by the apparent friendliness of the Piegans, Joseph thoughtlessly laid his rifle on the ground beside Reuben's. Reuben was just beginning to stir and stretch.

The Piegans noticed not only the unattended guns but the general unreadiness of all the whites. Speaking quickly and openly, for no one knew their language, they planned a concerted attack. One warrior would make off with both of the Field brothers' guns. Two others would seize the rifles in the shelter—those lying beside Drouillard and Lewis. The other six Piegans should lay hold of the whites' six horses. There seems to have been no intent, right then, to kill the Americans. Such a battle might cost a Piegan life, a loss that all Indian raiders were reluctant to face. Bringing home white mens' guns and horses without harm to themselves would give them prestige enough. Besides, the Americans, left unarmed and afoot on the plains, would soon die anyway.

Someone flashed a signal and the attack began. Lewis's people responded faster than the Piegans anticipated. Joseph yelled at his brother and raced after the man burdened with their two guns. As they grappled, Reuben rushed up and stabbed the thief to the heart. As he withdrew the knife blade, he heard air whistle through the wound from the punctured lung. Drouillard meanwhile wrested his gun from the man who attempted to spirit it away. Their shouts and scuffles aroused Lewis. Drawing his pistol from its holster, he took after the brave who had his gun, yelling, "Drop it!" The man could not understand the words, but the meaning was clear and he could see that plans had backfired. Meekly, he complied.

During the excitement the American and Indian horses had mixed together and were galloping away in two bunches, the Piegans assigned to them racing after them afoot. Drouillard and the two Fields sprinted after the larger herd. Lewis pursued the two men hazing the smaller bunch. In the confusion some of the horses peeled off to one side or the other. The rest ran into one of the box canyons, or niches, opening into the main trench of the stream.

End of race: there was a blank wall ahead. Realizing this, one of the Piegans jumped behind a jumble of rocks. The other wheeled and took aim at Lewis, who, after three hundred yards of running, had pulled within thirty steps of the pair. Although he was gasping for breath, he managed to fire first. His hand held steady and the bullet hit the Piegan in the stomach. He dropped to his knees, caught himself, and fired back. The bullet passed so close to Lewis's bare head that he said he felt the breath of it. The wounded man then crawled away to join his companion among the rocks. Unable to reload—his shot pouch was in the shelter—Lewis decided he really did not want to follow the horses into the niche, where one hale Indian crouched, bow and arrow ready. [12]

One way or another, the Americans retrieved as many horses as they needed—a bargain, since four of them had belonged to the Piegans and were better than the ones the whites had been using. While the soldiers hurriedly packed and saddled the animals, Lewis threw most of the abandoned Indian baggage onto the fire. Seeing that the peace medal he had given to the dead man the night before was still around the corpse's neck, he left it there "that they might be informed who we were," for he still believed more Indians were nearby.

Fearing that the fleeing Indians would stir their yet nearby tribesmen to furious pursuit, the whites galloped from the scene in a hurry. Stopping only occasionally to eat, nap, and let the horses graze, they covered 120 miles, by Lewis's estimate (and he was pretty close), in little more than twenty-four hours. They were stiff and sore as they rode through the morning light onto the edge of a steep slope overlooking the Missouri, but they soon forgot the aches. By happy coincidence both of the groups that had been descending the Missouri hove into sight aboard the white pirogue and five dugouts. Behind them came Gass and Willard with the four horses they had been using at the portage around Great Falls. That portage had been hard work in deep mud, under clouds of mosquitos, but it had only taken four days to complete. And along the way both groups had passed through Edens of game, notably "beaver Sign and lodges without number."

The rivermen saluted the fleeing quartet with shouts and rifle fire. On reaching the water's edge, the men threw their saddles into the river and turned the horses loose. Hurriedly, for Lewis was still afraid of pursuit, he urged the boatmen on to the Marias, to retrieve as swiftly as possible the red pirogue and the goods that had been cached there the year before.

Though the caches were, for the most part, in good order, the red pirogue was too decayed to repair. After stripping it of its nails and ironwork, the explorers resumed their downriver dash, the men plying the oars with a will. Not until then, soothed by the rocking of the boat he was on, did Lewis relax with the belief that he and his men had passed well beyond the reach of any retaliation the Indians could mount. He never learned, as we have through the hindsight of history, that the eight Piegans had been alone and there had been no pursuit. He never learned either, for he died young, of the disastrous results that flowed from his extemporized incursion into Blackfoot diplomacy.

The Indians' first reaction to that murderous little fight—Lewis's target at the niche had also died—was a desire for revenge, a response normal to most North American tribes. Only blood satisfaction could wipe away the hurt brought on by the spilling of a friend's or relative's blood. That satisfaction, moreover, could be achieved by inflicting harm on any member of the tribe or clan to which the original attacker belonged.

The great Canadian geographer, cartographer, and fur trader, David Thompson, saw the workings of the system in person. During the summer of Lewis's battle with the Piegans, Thompson had tried to cross the northern Rockies to reach the tribes of the upper Columbia River. The Blackfeet, who then controlled trade with the western Indians by means of guns and sheer terror, turned him back. In 1807, however, Thompson got through, because, as he wrote, "the murder of two Peagan Indians by Captain Lewis of the United States, drew the Peagans to the Mississourie River to revenge their deaths and this gave me an opportunity to cross the Mountains." [13]

But there was more to the antipathy than just revenge. Having obtained guns from Canadian traders some years before, the Blackfeet had driven several tribes westward off the plains into wilderness fastness beyond the Rockies. Except for annual hunts by large parties, they stayed off, as Lewis and Clark had learned during talks with the Shoshoni, the Nez Percé, and, to an extent, the Flatheads. Yet the captains supposed that a general peace promoted by the United States and sealed with gifts and demonstrations of wondrous technological devices would solve the problem and let Western Indians visit trading houses on the Missouri—all to the benefit of American mercantile interests.

Naively, Lewis had outlined the program to the eight Piegans. Probably the implication did not register on them at the moment. Probably simple plunder had been their motive when they grabbed at the guns. But when they rejoined their tribe, they told the full story. Alarm as well as anger ran through the listeners. Trading houses—guns—on the Missouri! Any such development would undercut Blackfoot power and threaten their position as middlemen for the whites of the Hudson's Bay and North West fur companies. So they began lurking along the river and its tributaries, and when the first American trapping/trading parties came upstream on Lewis and Clark's trail, they struck. It was the beginning of a series of guerrilla wars that would keep taking American lives until a smallpox epidemic of the late 1830s and the decline of fur trade reduced the tribe to near-impotence. [14]

Meriwether Lewis did not see those developments. William Clark did live through those years, however, dying in 1838, but whether he grasped the full panorama, even during his time as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, is unlikely. After all, the Corps of Discovery had merely been trying to carry out Jefferson's bidding, and if there had been trouble, the Piegans were the ones who, in a most treacherous manner, had started it.

This discussion is, of course, basically fruitless. If Meriwether Lewis had not clashed with Indians over the control of the newly acquired West, some other "advance agent of civilization" would have. And the Indians would have fought back. That's the way the American frontier was.

Trigger fingers kept busy during the long run from the mouth of the Marias to the Yellowstone, where Clark's detachment was expected. Lewis now had twenty men to feed. Their appetites were huge, game abounded, and the hunters slaughtered exuberantly, taking only the choicest cuts of the animals they killed. Lewis also wanted elkskins for use as shelters against the deluges that were soaking them. The hunters (chiefly Drouillard, the Field brothers, and Collins and Colter) obliged with piles of hides. The soldiers draped them around the poles of abandoned tepees they occasionally found in the bottomlands and perhaps over log frames they erected themselves. Once Lewis had a crude hide awning stretched over the deck of the white pirogue. More shooting attended his request for the skeletons and woolly coats of mountain sheep that he could take East as specimens of Western wildlife. Grizzly bears furnished irresistible proofs of prowess, and by that time the Corps knew how to go about killing them. One monster they bagged measured nine feet from the tip of its nose to the end of its stubby tail. Finally, hides, bear claws, and elk teeth could be used at times as mediums of exchange in the Indian towns farther down the river.

So most of the hunting can be classified as necessary. Still, the size of some of the body counts Lewis recorded in his journal lead to a suspicion that many animals were shot just because they were there. On July 30, the nimrods brought in nine bighorns, two buffalo, two beaver, and one elk. The next day, fifteen elk, fourteen deer, two bighorns, and one beaver. Between the morning of August 2 and the evening of August 3, the Field brothers slew twenty-nine deer. Lewis did say on occasion that they rowed past game without pausing to kill it, as though the restraint were noteworthy. "Game," he wrote on August 6, "is so abundant and gentle that we kill it as we please." The American frontier was that way, too—joyfully exploitive in the presence of seemingly boundless resources. [15] The sadness and the feeling of loss came later, when the good things were hard to find.

About 4:00 P.M. on August 7, the detachment reached the mouth of the Yellowstone. From the remnants of a note once attached to a piece of elk horn, they learned Clark had arrived there on the 3d but had drifted on, looking for buffalo and, if possible, freedom from mosquitos. Unhurried now that he knew where Clark was, Lewis halted his little fleet a short distance below the river junction to repair the dugouts and let the men, who were nearly naked, make clothes out of deerskin. Then on they went until midday, August 11, when they spotted a herd of elk in a willow thicket on an island.

Landing, several of the men scattered out for a little shooting. Lewis, dressed like the others in buckskin, went with them. He had killed one elk in the brush and was pursuing another he had wounded when a bullet slammed into his left buttock. The lead ball passed completely through without striking a bone, grazed a deep groove across the right buttock, and lodged in his trousers. He yelled at Pierre Cruzatte, from whom he had recently separated, got no answer, remembered the Blackfeet, and jumped to the conclusion that Indians were lurking in the willows. He stumbled to the pirogue. Gathering as many men as he could, he prepared to comb the thicket. Then shock and pain and the blood running down his legs made him give up.

His men found no Indians. They did find Pierre Cruzatte, who admitted, with great trepidation, that he may have fired the shot. Satisfied that the accident did not deserve punishment even on the grounds of carelessness, Lewis let the matter drop and with Sergeant Gass's help turned to the torturous process of dressing the multiple wounds. [16]

Pain and fever kept him awake most of the night. Nevertheless, when the bowman of the pirogue spotted a riverside camp at eight o'clock the next morning, Lewis insisted on pulling over and interviewing the two trappers who stepped to the shore to wave at them. They were Joseph Dickson and Forest Hancock, residents of Illinois—the first American trappers to penetrate that high up the river and the first white men the Corps had seen since leaving the Mandan towns. "I pointed out to them," Lewis wrote later while lying on his stomach, "the places [on the Missouri] where the beaver most abounded." During the talk Collins and Colter, who had been separated from the main company for several days while hunting, reappeared with tales of having killed thirteen deer and five elk—and with the skins of thirty-one beaver. Excited by what they had seen and heard, Dickson and Hancock decided to return to the Mandan towns with the explorers and persuade one of the French-Canadian voyageurs who lived nearby to help them reach the fabulous fur grounds at the head of the river. [17]

At one o'clock that same day the fleet overtook Clark's party. Once more the crews banged away at the sky with their rifles, "being rejoiced to meet all together again," Ordway wrote. Lewis was not in sight, however, and Clark was alarmed until he found his friend stretched out stomach down in the white pirogue and heard his wan assurance that he would soon he on his feet once more. To speed the process Clark took over the painful task of dressing the wounds. Before long and still lying on his stomach most of the time, Lewis began trying to turn his abbreviated field notes into finished copy for his journal. The task proved too demanding and he quit—but not before he performed a last botanical duty by describing in detail the stem, leaf shapes, blossoms, and berries of "a singular cherry" Clark discovered and brought to show him. [18]

From then on, as far as we know, the chore of keeping the trip diary was entirely Clark's once again. He added the new copy without a break to what he had already written about his detachment's adventures and misadventures since parting from Lewis's group at Traveler's Rest.


1. The first attempt to cross the Lolo Trail: V, 136–56. Readers interested in determining trail locations and camping sites can consult Space and/or Peebles. (back)
2. Chuinard, 377. (back)
3. V, 157–58. (back)
4. V, 159. (back)
5. V, 164–65. (back)
6. V, 170–71. (back)
7. V, 173–82. Cutright, Pioneering Naturalists, 305. L. Thompson, 15–16. (back)
8. V, 175–76, 179. Allen, 347–49. (back)
9. V, 180. (back)
10. V, 192. Incidental intelligence: for some unstated reason, Lewis gave his dog's name Seaman (not Scammon) to a creek they passed on July 5. (V, 191.) (back)
11. V, 203–4. (back)
12. The exploration of the Marias: V, 204–28; Biddle, 111, 718–33. The fight: V, 223–25; Biddle, 730–31. Ordway's account as he received it from the participants is in Quaife, 382–83. See also Jackson, Letters, 341–42. In spite of all this coverage I have assumed a few details because Lewis, our main source, was concentrating on what was immediately under his nose, and certain peripheral matters need attention. (back)
13. Thompson, 273. (back)
14. Josephy, 651–53. Ewers, Blackfeet , 48. Ronda, Lewis and Clark, 244. Such fur-trade histories as DeVoto, Across the Wide Missouri , and Dale Morgan, Jedediah Smith, provide ample evidence of the implacability of the Blackfeet in the face of the whites' refusal to withdraw. (back)
15. V, 240–42. Hunting statistics: V, 229–38, passim. (back)
16. V, 240–42. Ordway in Quaife, 387. (back)
17. V, 243–44. Ordway in Quaife, 388–89. (back)
18. See chapter 19, note 10. (back)
*. The U.S. Board of Geographic names eschews apostrophes in proper names—e.g., Clark Fork River, not Clark's Fork. This may be the place for us to drop the apostrophe from Maria's River, as the hoard has, even though Lewis himself, the namer of the stream, always wrote it Maria's and undoubtedly pronounced it that way, too. (back)