Meriwether Lewis stood atop the Continental Divide on Monday, August 12, 1805, hoping to see a river that would take the Corps of Discovery west. More importantly, he hoped to see a river that would mean the expedition had achieved its main goal and found the all-water route to the Pacific that Jefferson had envisioned.
What Meriwether Lewis saw instead was a seemingly endless string of high mountains that he and his party would have to cross to reach their destination. Lewis never recorded his feelings at that moment. Instead of focusing on what must have been crushing disappointment, he concentrated on the immediate need – to find the Shoshones and their horses!
Fortunately, that meeting would occur the next day. Lewis, accompanied by three men, came upon an elderly woman and two young girls. He placed his rifle on the ground to demonstrate that he had come in peace, gave them trinkets and painted their faces with vermilion.
Soon a party of 60 warriors arrived. Lewis once again put down his gun. The old woman spoke positively to the chief about the gifts they had received, and he and his men welcomed the newcomers in their traditional way. Lewis wrote: “We were all caressed and besmeared with the grease and paint till I was heartily tired of the national hug.” The Shoshone chief was Cameahwait, and Lewis could not have anticipated how fortuitous this would prove to be for him and his men.
Lewis, through Drouillard’s interpretation, talked with Cameahwait about how best to reach the ocean. The chief told him that the Salmon River was impossible to navigate because of the narrow canyons and strong rapids. He also told Lewis about the Nez Perce, a band on the western side of the mountains, who crossed them each year to hunt buffalo along the Missouri River. Cameahwait warned Lewis that the Nez Perce had a difficult time of it and that game would be scarce. However, Lewis “felt perfectly satisfied, that if the Indians could pass these mountains with their women and children, that we could also pass them.”
Lewis convinced Cameahwait to move his tribe and a number of horses over the Lemhi Pass where they would meet up with Clark and the rest of the party, who were coming up the Jefferson River. There was a great lack of trust on the part of many of the Shoshones, but their chief prevailed.
On Saturday, August 17, Clark and the others arrived at the camp at the forks of the Jefferson. Sacagawea had come home. She quickly recognized a young woman who had been kidnapped with her, but who had managed to escape and return to her people. Then Sacagawea was called upon to translate the meeting between Cameahwait and the two captains. She was just beginning to interpret, “when in the person of Cameahwait she recognized her brother: She instantly jumped up, and ran and embraced him, throwing over him her blanket and weeping profusely.”
The chain of translation was cumbersome: Sacagawea turning the Shoshone language into Hidatsa for Charbonneau, who translated that into French for Private Labiche, who finished the translation into English for the captains. The bottom line was that the captains obtained what they needed – assistance from the Shoshones in getting their equipment over Lemhi Pass and horses to help them over the mountains.
Clark went off with some of the men to scout the Salmon River for himself while Lewis and the others prepared for the next part of their journey. August 18 was Lewis’ birthday. His journal entry that night is one of the most often quoted: “This day I completed my thirty first year. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended.”
After six days at Camp Fortunate, the name given to the site, Lewis and group departed for Lemhi Pass with Cameahwait and his band of Shoshones. As they made camp by the Lemhi River, Private Colter brought a letter from Clark confirming that the Salmon was impassable. The Corps of Discovery would have to go over the mountains.
Cameahwait and his people needed food, and that need had become more pressing than helping the Americans. He did sell horses to the white men, but the price had gone up and the horses were not exactly prime stock. Old Tody also had agreed to guide them.
No one knows exactly what route the party took over the Lolo Pass through the Bitterroots. What is known is that the trek was the closest they come to losing it all. Even in the first week of September there was snow and virtually no game. They were finally forced to rely on the portable soup that Lewis had bought in Philadelphia more than two years earlier.
Encountering a large band of Salish Indians headed for the buffalo hunt, Lewis and Clark traded with them for more and better horses. The horses carried their cargo, at times carried the men and women of the party, and some eventually were killed and used as food. The colts went first.
By September 18, the situation was so dire that Clark and six hunters went out in advance of the main party to look for food. Lewis wrote; “I find myself growing weak for the want of food and most of the men complain of a similar deficiency and have fallen off very much.”
About mid-day on September 22, Clark sent word that he had found a village of Nez Perce just seven miles away and that the Indians were willing to give them food. By suppertime the forced march was over.
The trip over Lolo Pass to the Nez Perce villages at Weippe Prairie in what is now Idaho had taken eleven days. Their passage through the mountains had been brutal, slogging through high snowdrifts, up and down steep canyons, and up and over the deadfall of trees. Food had been scarce and what they did have was a change from their usual diet. Now with the Nez Perce they were eating dried salmon and roots instead of meat. Many of the men, Lewis foremost among them, became violently ill for days. Clark treated them with Rush’s pills (a diuretic-like pill that was promoted as capable of curing any illness), which just made matters worse.
The Nez Perce could easily have taken advantage of the weakened condition of the Corps of Discovery. They would have found themselves armed with more guns than any other tribe in the west, not to mention all of the other equipment they would have acquired.
Killing the men would have been easy and was, supposedly, seriously considered. Again, a woman saved the expedition. Her name was Watkuweis. The Blackfeet had captured her several years earlier and sold her to a white man in Canada. The whites had treated her well and she intervened on behalf of the strangers.
While Lewis and others recovered, Clark put the healthy men to work making dugout canoes. They didn’t have the strength to hollow them out by chopping, so they used the traditional Indian way of burning out the interior. On October 9, the boats were ready. Capt. Clark, not feeling well himself, saw to their loading and launching. For the first time since hitting the Mississippi in the fall of 1803, the Corps of Discovery was headed downstream.
Running strong rapids in dugout canoes was yet another challenge. The boats overturned easily, throwing men and supplies into the river. But the end was in sight and the captains were anxious to reach the finish line. Down the Clearwater to the canyons of the Snake was the river that would take them to the ocean – the mighty Columbia. They could almost smell the Pacific.
The party camped for two nights where the Snake meets the Columbia. As they drew nearer to the Cascade Mountains, the journey continued to be difficult. The Columbia in 1805 was not the tame river that it is today. It was full of rapids and falls and had to be portaged in a couple of places. At the Short Narrows at the Dalles and later at the Long Narrows the captains sent the non-swimmers overland, carrying the most valuable items, while they and the swimmers rode the rapids with the rest of the cargo. The Indians stood on the banks watching and waiting for the crazy white men to tip over and drown.
It was now November and the party had entered the magnificent Columbia Gorge. The banks on both sides of the river were covered in trees – fir, spruce, ash and alder. Along the south side was a series of waterfalls cascading over the rocks. Mist and fog drifted down the valley, and when they passed Beacon Rock, they were in tidewater.
As they continued down the Columbia, they encountered Coastal Indians in their canoes. The weather was miserable and the camping sites the same. But then on November 7 came that great cry from William Clark: ” Ocian in view! !! The joy.”
Their campsite that night was again on rough, rocky ground and the rain came down as it would virtually every day the Corps of Discovery spent in the Pacific Northwest. But inside each of the men and the one woman who had made it to this point there had to be great satisfaction.