“At 1 P.M. left Fort Clatsop on our homeward bound journey. At this place we had wintered and remained from the 7th of Decr. 1805 to this day have lived as well as we had any right to expect – notwithstanding the repeated fall of rain which has fallen almost constantly since we passed the long narrows.” – William Clark, March 23, 1806
Their once heavily-laden pirogues and canoes now floated much more lightly on the water. Their once ample supply of foodstuffs and their gifts for the natives were either gone or cached somewhere to the east of them. They now traveled with just the basics – their rifles and powder, some dried fish and roots and the bare minimum of kettles, tools and scientific instruments. Mainly they were just glad to be heading away from that miserable wet winter site – and to be heading for home. Oh, the stories they would have to tell!
As Lewis and Clark and the permanent members of the Corps of Discovery set their boats into the Columbia River, they were once again going against the current, and the going was tough. Local natives were also a constant annoyance, trying to grab anything they could get their hands on, including Lewis’ dog, Seaman. When three men gave chase, the Indians let the dog go.
Lewis gave up on the canoes east of what is now The Dalles, Oregon and the men acquired horses, setting off overland. Still, the problems with the natives continued, to the point that Lewis threatened to “birn their houses.
“They have vexed me in such a manner by such repeated acts of vilany that I am quite disposed to treat them with every severyty, their defenseless state pleads forgivness so far as rispects their lives,” he wrote in his journal. A month after their departure from Fort Clatsop, the group was away from the despised Chinooks and reached the village of Chief Yellept and the Wallawallas, near the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. They spent three days with this friendly tribe, acquiring more horses and, perhaps of greatest value, news of a shortcut through the mountains.
Lewis and Clark and the men were all desperate to get over the mountains. On the other side were their caches, filled with tobacco and cooking kettles. On the other side were buffalo and cows, food for a feast they longed for. But in early May, the mountains were still deeply covered with snow, and their feast would have to wait.
They spent their time among the Nez Perce, who had kept the Corps’ horses for them over the winter. One of the largest tribes in the northwest and possessor of the largest herd of horses on the continent, the Nez Perce, or “the people” as they called themselves, were worthy of the captains’ attention. Lewis tried to convince the chiefs to move their people east of the mountains and to make peace with the Blackfeet. The chiefs listened, but were cautious in their response.
What the men really wanted however, was to be moving east. On June 15, against the advice of the Nez Perce chiefs and without guides, the Corps departed. They had more than 60 horses, an ample supply of roots, and arrogance. They could make it!
After just two days, the deep snow forced them to turn back – the first time that had happened on the entire expedition. A guide was sought from the Nez Perce and on June 24 they set out again. He realized how foolish he had been to attempt the trip without assistance. On June 30, they reached Traveler’s Rest.
While at Fort Clatsop, Lewis and Clark had made plans to split up at Traveler’s Rest, allowing them to learn more about the vast land that is now Montana and about the tribes who lived there.
On July 3, 1806 the men went their separate ways, planning to meet at the Missouri/Yellowstone confluence in about a month.
Lewis was headed north into Blackfeet country to find the northernmost reach of the Marias River. He had nine men with him and within a few days they were back on the plains, where there was buffalo to be found, along with deer and elk. The men rejoiced at the bounty and savored the feeling of full stomachs again.
They were also back at the Falls of the Missouri where the mosquitoes were still “excessively troublesome.” Lewis left six men there to accomplish this year’s much easier portage. He continued north to explore the Marias with Drouillard and the two Field brothers.
Lewis had originally wanted to meet with the Blackfeet, but he worried about such an encounter, too. This was the most feared tribe in the Upper Missouri territory and such a small band of men was vulnerable. But on July 26, 10 days after departing the falls, the feared encounter happened.
Drouillard was off hunting when Lewis and the Field brothers spotted a band of eight young Blackfeet. The hunter returned, and the wary men on both sides camped together for the night. Lewis used the opportunity to ask the Blackfeet questions about the size of their tribe (large) and how close the nearest British trading outpost was (six days). Lewis told them that they could get a better deal from the Americans.
The talking and pipe smoking continued late into the night. Finally they settled down to sleep, but Lewis was awakened at dawn by Drouillard shouting at a brave to let go of his gun. Another Indian was running off with Lewis’ rifle and the captain ran after him, threatening to shoot him with his pistol if the brave didn’t return the gun. The rifles were put down, and Lewis thought that violence could be averted.
However, Reuben Field had already killed an Indian who had run off with his rifle, stabbing him in the heart. The remaining Blackfeet tried to steal the white men’s horses. Lewis shot one man in the stomach. He and his men gathered together what horses they could find, saddled and loaded them and headed for the Missouri. The next afternoon, they found Sgt. Ordway and his men. They let the horses go, jumped into the canoes and the white pirogue, and headed downstream. They had successfully escaped the Blackfeet, but at a heavy cost.
Clark and his group, including Sacagawea and her toddler son, explored the Yellowstone. They too, had had horses stolen, in this case by a tribe of Crows. But their trip had been much less eventful, and Clark had been able to map the Yellowstone. He had also left the only physical sign of the expedition remaining today – his signature on what he called “Pompy’s Tower” near present day Billings, Montana. The rock stands 200 feet high and was named for Sacagawea’s son, Pompey.
When Lewis, Ordway and the others reached the mouth of the Yellowstone, they found that Clark and his group had been there and proceeded on. They finally rejoined forces on August 12, and Clark was distressed to find his co-captain had been wounded. While out hunting a few days earlier, Lewis had been shot in the buttocks, probably by Pierre Cruzatte, although they voyageur always denied it.
On the night that the entire Corps came together again, Lewis wrote about the day, about a particular type of cherry he had seen, and then handed off the journal writing to Clark. “As wrighting in my present situation is extreemly painfull to me I shall desist untill I recover and leave to my frind Capt. C. the continuation of our journal.” Lewis would not write in the journals again.
The Mandan Villages were close by, and here the Corps of Discovery said goodbye to Toussaint Charbonneau, Sacagawea and Pomp. Charbonneau was paid $500.33-1/2 for his work; his wife received nothing. Clark wrote to Charbonneau a few days later however, saying that “your woman diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her.”
During their short time with the Mandans, Lewis and Clark learned that their early efforts to bring peace to the tribes along the Lower Missouri had all come to nothing. Many of the tribes were fighting with each other or even among themselves and the Teton Sioux, as always, were still on the warpath.
They passed safely through Sioux country, however, and each day brought them closer to the end of their journey. They stopped to pay tribute to Sgt. Floyd at this grave high above the Missouri. They met up with Auguste Chouteau and purchased some whiskey, “the first spirituous licquor which had been tasted by any of them since the 4 of July 1805,” wrote Clark. They were making 70-80 miles a day.
Finally, on September 20, the Corps of Discovery reached civilization, the village of La Charette. The men were thrilled to see cows, a sign of domesticity. On September 21, they reached St. Charles, where again there was great rejoicing, and on the next day they turned their boats into the Mississippi River and landed on the St. Louis riverfront. Three cheers were raised by the town’s one thousand residents, most of whom came down to welcome the expedition back. Meriwether Lewis’ first question concerned how quickly he could get a letter off to the president.
Lewis wanted Jefferson to know that they had made the voyage successfully, although the all-water route they had gone to find did not exist. Still, they had accomplished so much, and no matter how many were already following them up the Missouri, they had done it first.