It was April 7, 1805 and, as the keelboat headed back to St. Louis, the men, woman, child, and dog who comprised the Corps of Discovery’s “permanent party” pointed their boats to the west. Their goal was to reach the Pacific Ocean, hopefully by summer. But beyond the next few bends of the Missouri River lay mostly unknown territory.
Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the rest of the men were glad to be back on the river after their long, cold winter at Fort Mandan. Fortunately, the spring of 1805 would prove to be one of the least difficult and most beautiful parts of the journey for them.
In camp that first night, Lewis reflected on the journey so far, and considered what lay ahead: “We are now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessels contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves.”
Lewis expressed his optimism for a successful conclusion to their mission and “esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.” He and Clark would often write their journal entries in the buffalo tepee that they shared with Drouillard and the Charbonneau family. The other men slept outside in the elements.
With the keelboat gone, the white pirogue took its place as the fleet’s flagship. While smaller than the red pirogue, the white boat was considered the more stable and sturdy of the two. It usually carried at least one of the captains, as well as the most important physical possessions of the expedition: medicine, trade goods, gunpowder, astronomical equipment and, of greatest value, the irreplaceable journals.
At least the pace had quickened. Without the keelboat to maneuver, the expedition was now often covering up to 25 miles a day, twice the distance that they had been able to make in the past. On the eighth day out of Fort Mandan, they traveled beyond the farthest point previously reached by white men. Lewis and Clark had gleaned as much information from the Hidatsas as they possibly could, but the picture of what awaited them was nowhere near complete. The astronauts who first went to the moon had a better idea of what to expect than the Corps of Discovery now did.
In his book Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose describes Meriwether Lewis at that moment: “He had an endearing sense of wonder and awe at the marvels of nature that made him the nearly perfect man to be the first to describe the glories of the American West.”
One of the “wonders” that the Corps had heard much about was the grizzly bear. The Indians had told many stories about the strength and ferocity of this animal, but the white men were confident that their rifles would be more than adequate defense. Once they started to encounter grizzlies however, their respect grew quickly. Often several shots would be fired into the animals and still they would keep coming at the men.
Other wildlife that was new to them included the snow goose and the grey wolf. Game was plentiful in the form of buffalo, elk, antelope and deer. Beaver were trapped by many of the men for the value of their pelts and for the tail, which had become their favorite delicacy.
By late April the party had reached the Yellowstone River and in early May Clark reckoned that they had reached the 2,000 mile-point on the Missouri. As they traveled along, the captains gave names to the various tributaries that flowed into the Missouri. Few of the names stuck, however. It took so long for the journals to be published that most of the rivers had already been given other designations by explorers and trappers who followed Lewis & Clark.
They met no Indians, so the addition of Charbonneau as interpreter was of no value during this stretch. As a boatman, he was termed by Lewis as “perhaps the most timid waterman in the world.” On May 11, Charbonneau was at the helm of the white pirogue when wind caught its sail. In a panic, the Frenchman allowed the boat to fill with water and items started to float away.
Without the calm reaction and quick thinking of Sacagawea, many items, including the journals, could have been lost. She retrieved at least most of the articles that were going overboard. Whether parts of the journals or field notes were lost in this incident can never be truly known.
By the end of May the Corps of Discovery had reached the section of the Missouri that remains the most untouched today: the Missouri River Breaks and the White Cliffs. For the men, this 160-mile stretch was difficult to endure. The river twisted and turned constantly and was filled with sharp rocks. They ropes used to tow the boats were worn and starting to break. Lewis wrote of his men: “their labor is incredibly painfull and great, yet those faithfull fellows bear it without a murmur.”
Whither the Missouri?
In early June the party encountered a large river flowing into the Missouri that had not been mentioned by the Hidatsas. One of the most crucial issues to be decided during the journey now faced then: which of the streams was the Missouri? If they made the wrong choice, the success of the expedition and their very lives could be in jeopardy. Lewis and Clark set out with small parties on foot, each group traveling along one of the streams. They walked up to 30 miles a day.
On June 8, they regrouped and the captains conferred on what they had seen. They agreed that the south fork was the true Missouri. The north fork, which Lewis had explored, was named the Marias River in honor of his cousin. Every one of the men disagreed with the captains on which river was the Missouri, but such was their faith in Lewis & Clark that they followed them without hesitation. Fortunately, the captains were correct.
To lighten their load, the first cache was made at the mouth of the Marias. The red pirogue, along with beaver pelts and a portion of the gunpowder and supplies, were buried to await their return. Clark then commanded the remaining boats as they headed upstream, while Lewis, Drouillard and three privates went overland in search of the Great Falls.
On June 13, Lewis finally heard the sound of water falling. He followed the sound until he was able “to gaze on this sublimely grand specticle – the grandest sight I ever beheld.” The Hidatsas had spoken of one falls that they felt could be portaged in half a day. To Lewis’ growing dismay, he found five falls stretching over 12 miles.
Clark and the others were now waiting at the foot of the rapids. It was time to map out plans for the portage. With the beginning of summer, the days would start getting shorter. Lewis and Clark had already seen the Rocky Mountains in the distance, mountains that were larger than anything they knew back home. The portage around the falls would obviously be time consuming. At times the Pacific Ocean must have seemed farther away than ever.
Looking back at the expedition from the distance of 200 years, from a time when travel is measured in hours and communication is instantaneous, it is almost impossible to fathom the strength and dedication that were the hallmark of the Corps of Discovery. Day after day, week after week, month after month, the men rowed and pulled and pushed the boats against the current of the Missouri, against strong headwinds that wanted to drive them back, and against their own fatigue. And the worst was yet to come.