“I now informed Capt. Clark of my discoveries with rispect to the most proper side of our portage, and of it’s great length, which I could not estimate at less than 16 miles.” – Meriwether Lewis, June 16, 1805
To the west Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the other members of the Corps of Discovery could see the shape of the mountains. Although none of them then knew how far the range extended, Lewis & Clark were both aware that timing was crucial. Their goal was to reach the Pacific before winter set in and those mountains would have to be crossed. First, however, there was the more immediate problem of the falls that lay just in front of them – and not just the one “great falls”, as they had been led to believe, but five.
When Lewis rejoined Clark and the others after his reconnoitering of the falls, he found that Sakakawea was “extremely ill and much reduced by her disposition.” Lewis further wrote: “This gave me some concern as well for the poor object herself, then with a young child in her arms, as from the consideration of her being our only dependence for a friendly negociation with the Snake Indians on whom we depend for horses to assist us in our portage from the Missouri to the Columbia river.” Fortunately, Lewis was able to treat the young woman successfully, and she quickly regained her strength.
Lewis had told Clark that he felt that the north side of the river was the best way to make the portage. Clark went out with a few men to scout the situation for himself. He determined the portage route to be nearly 18 miles long and, upon his return, took charge of the work that needed to be done.
With all that the men had already been through, this was their greatest challenge yet. They made two “trucks” out of a large tree and the mast of the white pirogue. Onto these were loaded the canoes and all of their belongings and trade goods. On June 22, the portage began. The problems were endless. Axles broke, mosquitoes tortured, the prickly pear ravaged their feet, apple-sized hail fell and the winds were fierce.
Clark described the effort in his journal:
“The men has to haul with all their Strength wate & art, maney times every man all catching the grass & knobes & Stones with their hands to give them more force in drawing on the Canoes & Loads, and notwithstanding the coolness of the air in high presperation and every halt (the men) are asleep in a moment, many limping from the Soreness of their feet. Some become fant for a fiew moments, but no man Complains all go Chedarfully on.”
Meanwhile, Lewis had taken Sergeant Gass and two privates to the termination point of the portage, a camp called White Bear Islands. While the portage was in progress he was overseeing the building of one of his pet projects, the iron-framed boat. Putting the frame together was relatively easy. The next task was to cover the frame with furs. The skins of 28 elk and four buffalo had been prepared and two of the men began sewing them together.
The calendar turned from June to July. The portage would be completed before the nation’s birthday, but Lewis was still absorbed with “The Experiment”, as some of the men had taken to calling the iron boat. An adhesive would be needed to secure the skins to the frame and make the boat water-tight. The necessary materials were not available, so Lewis was forced to contrive other alternatives to make a form of tar.
On July 4, the men worked all day, but celebrated that evening with the last of the whiskey. Cruzatte got out his fiddle and created music that set the men to dancing. All the while fires were kept burning under the iron boat, now up on a scaffold, to dry it out and make it ready for the water.
The boat was finally launched five days later. The portage had been completed a week earlier and the Corps of Discovery was still at White Bear Islands. After being placed in the water, Lewis discovered that his prized boat leaked severely. Instead of carrying men and goods upstream, the frame became part of another cache. It was considered so useless that no one bothered to retrieve it on the return trip.
Precious time had been lost and the failure of the iron boat had created another problem: a lack of room for all of the party and the items they needed to carry with them. Clark, obviously having little faith in Lewis’ experiment, had sent hunters out looking for big trees that could be made into dugout canoes. Two trees were found, cut down and hollowed out. Finally, on July 15, after progressing just 25 miles in the previous month, the expedition was ready to “proceed on”.
Their next goal was to find the Shoshone Indians, who they hoped would provide them with the horses they would need to get over the mountains. Clark and a group of men traveled overland, while Lewis and the others kept to the Missouri River. On the evening of July 19, Lewis wrote in his journal about the remarkable sight they had seen that day:
“This evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. These clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1200 feet. Every object here wears a dark and gloomy aspect, the towering and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us… for the distance of 5 miles (the river is) deep from side to side nor is there in the first 3 miles of this distance a spot… from the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.”
It is one of the few place names credited to Lewis & Clark that is still in use today.
On July 27, Lewis and his exhausted men came around a bend and found a river flowing into the Missouri and shortly after that, yet another. They had come to the Three Forks of the Missouri River. Lewis named the southeast fork for Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, the middle one for Secretary of State James Madison, and the southwest fork in honor of President Thomas Jefferson. He and Clark agreed that the latter was the one on which they should proceed.
Clark was exhausted and ill, his feet raw and blistered from his overland travels in search of the Shoshones. He had seen signs of tribes, friendly and not, but the Indians themselves had stayed well hidden. Lewis was growing concerned. On the night they reached Three Forks, he wrote: “If we do not find them….I fear the successful issue of our voyage will be very doubtfull or at all events much more difficult in it’s accomplishment.” Their need was not just for Shoshone horses. They also needed information the natives could provide about the mountains into which they were headed.
The Corps rested for two days at Three Forks, which Sakakawea recognized as the place where she had been abducted by the Hidatsas five years earlier. Then Lewis and Drouillard were off to find the Shoshones. They traveled ahead of the canoes up the newly-named Jefferson River. Lewis saw the occasional lone Indian, but did not encounter any tribes. It was now early August and each day was becoming more precious and more vital, not just to the success of their mission but to the very survival of its participants.
On August 12, Lewis reached “the most distant fountain of the mighty Missouri in search of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights”. He drank of the cold water and spent a quiet moment enjoying his accomplishment. One of his men “stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri”.
Then came the key moment of the expedition – climbing to the top of the Continental Divide to see what lay on the other side. Lewis was circumspect about his reactions when he “discovered immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow”. However, one can imagine the feelings he must have experienced upon seeing the extent of the Rockies. There would be no all-water route to the Pacific, as Jefferson had dreamed. And to complete the expedition’s mission and reach the western edge of the continent, Lewis and Clark and the rest of the Corps of Discovery would have to make their way across those mountains. It was imperative that he find the Shoshones – and soon!