The Trail 1805


Lewis and Clark had not expected the weather to turn so cold so fast. Before they realized it, their boats were frozen tight in the river. Lewis wrote on February 3, “The situation of our boat and perogues is now alarming.” The men spent many days hacking at the ice with axes, and pouring boiling water over it, attempting to free the boats. Finally, after many days, they pulled the boats ashore and began repairs.

On February 11, Lewis’ doctoring skills were put to the test – he helped Sacagawea deliver her baby! Sacagawea was having a hard time giving birth. Her labor was long and very painful. Finally, a trader told Lewis about an old Indian remedy that might help speed things up. Lewis decided to give it a try, although it didn’t sound very appetizing. He mixed a bit of the crushed rattle of a rattlesnake with some water and gave it to Sacagawea to drink. Ten minutes later her healthy baby boy, Jean Baptiste (jaun bap-TEEST) was born. Clark later nicknamed the boy “Pomp.”

Mandan village along the Missouri River

The men were glad to see the days get longer as spring weather came. They made dugout canoes, repaired the keelboat, packed their gear, and dried buffalo meat in preparation for the coming journey. On April 2, the men began packing items to be sent back down the Missouri River with a small return party, to President Jefferson. The shipment contained 4 boxes, 1 trunk, and 3 cages. The cages contained a live prairie dog, a sharp-tailed grouse, and 4 magpies. The boxes were filled with animal pelts, horns, and skeletons, dried plants, soil and mineral samples, and insect specimens, along with seeds from the Indians’ corn, bean, and tobacco crops. The trunk contained a buffalo robe painted by a Mandan man. The date each item was found along with a description was included by Lewis.

On April 7, the keelboat and its crew headed back downstream. The Corps of Discovery’s Permanent Party, now numbering 33, turned upstream. They were traveling in unmapped territory now. Lewis was excited, and he wrote in his journal:

“We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trod. The good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine,… Entertaining as I do the most confident hope of succeeding in a voyage which had formed a darling project of mine for the last ten years, I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life. The party are in excellent health and spirits, zealously attached to the enterprise, and anxious to proceed. Not a whisper or murmur of discontent to be heard among them, but all act in unison and with the most perfect harmony.”

Although the men were excited to be on their way, travel was not easy for them. They fought against the strong current of the Missouri made worse by the heavy winds of spring weather. Some days they were not able to make any progress at all, so they would just stop and camp. On April 26, the expedition came to the confluence (where the two rivers come together) of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.

Missouri – Yellowstone River confluence
North Dakota Tourism Department

A few days later, the Corps encountered the “white bears” (grizzly bears) the Indians had talked so much about. According to the Indians, the bears were ferocious and strong, but the men felt they were in no danger. Why, the Indians only had bows and arrows, while they had powerful rifles. They quickly changed their minds when they shot a grizzly eight times and the bear still was able to chase the hunters into the river!

Sacagawea proved to be a valuable addition to the expedition. She gathered roots and other edible plants to create a more balanced diet for the men. She also saved many journals and papers from the Missouri’s current when the white pirogue was blown by a sudden gust of wind and nearly tipped over.

At the end of May the Corps was traveling across what is now northern Montana. On the afternoon of May 26, Lewis climbed to the top of a high bluff overlooking the Missouri. In the distance he spotted snowy mountain tops, and wrote in his journal that he “…beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time.” Unfortunately, this was not the Rockies, but a smaller range known as the Highland Mountains. The Corps would travel another two and one-half months before they reached the Rockies.

Lewis arrived at the falls on June 13, and found five sets of falls instead of one! They stretched over 18 miles, and instead of taking one day to get around, as the Indians had said, it took a month.

It was a very difficult portage over the falls. The men endured hail storms, flash floods, grizzly bears, and prickly pear cactus to get their dugout canoes and supplies past them. They camped at the end of the falls and a few of the men worked to put Lewis’ collapsible, metal-framed boat together. This boat was to take the place of the white pirogue that had been to big to carry across the falls. The collapsible boat leaked, however, and the men had make two more dugout canoes to replace it. They buried the collapsible boat next to the portage trail.

On July 19, the Corps passed through the “The Gates of the Rocky Mountains.” The river flowed between rocky cliffs that towered 1,200 feet above them. Lewis described the area as “dark and gloomy.” He didn’t feel it was possible for anything to live in such a place. He was surprised to see many bighorn sheep jumping easily from rock to rock, not worried about falling from the steep cliffs. Once past the cliffs, they entered a great valley, which Sacagawea recognized from her childhood.

On July 27, the Corps reached the headwaters of the Missouri. Here, two other rivers joined the one they were traveling on. They had made it to Three Forks, but still had not seen any Shoshone Indians. The captains were beginning to worry. They were depending on the Shoshones in order to continue on – they needed help, directions, and horses.

Lewis and Clark decided to follow the river that forked to the right. It seemed to flow most directly from the mountains to the west. Their travel grew more difficult and, lo and behold, the river forked again! The men were ready to leave the boats and travel on land when Sacagawea point to a hill in the distance. She recognized it from her childhood. Her people called it Beaver’s Head and lived near it during the summer.

Several of the men, including Clark, were sick, so it was decided that Lewis should walk ahead and try to find Sacagawea’s people. On August 8, Lewis headed out with three of the men towards Beaver’s Head.

Lewis continued on across the Continental Divide (he holds the distinction of being the first U.S. Citizen to cross the Divide). The next day he and his men came upon three Shoshone women who were out gathering food. The women fearful of the white men until Lewis put down his gun and gave them gifts. They then led the men back to their village and introduced Lewis to their leader, Cameahwait (ca-ME-ah-wait).

Cameahwait welcomed Lewis and his men to his village. Lewis asked the chief what it would be like crossing the Rockies. The chief’s answer was disappointing. Travel by boat was impossible and food was scarce. An old man of the tribe called Toby, knew of a route over the mountains, but it was difficult and treacherous.

On September 1, the Corps set out along the Continental Divide. Clark wrote in his journal the next day: “A cloudy morning. Rained some last night. We set out early… Proceeded on through thickets in which we were obliged to cut a road, over rocky hillsides where our horses were in perpetual danger of slipping to their certain destruction, and up and down steep hills where several horses fell. Some turned over and others slipped down steep hillsides. One horse crippled, and two gave out. One load left about two miles back, the horse on which it was carried, crippled.” They came upon a band of Salish Indians and traded with them for more horses. Finally, on September 9, they took a break from their grueling travel, and camped near the banks of a mountain stream. They named the camp Traveler’s Rest.

Two days later, on September 11, the Corps started out again to tackle what Sergeant Gass called “the most terrible mountains” he had ever beheld. In a few days they came to a stream which flowed to the west. They had crossed the Continental Divide!

It was wintertime in the mountains, and the snow grew deeper and deeper every day they traveled. Toby had a hard time following the trail, and led the explorers in the wrong direction. They found their way back over steep, overgrown ground. The rest of the trail was more of the same. Steep slopes caused horses to slip and stumble, and sometimes to roll down the rocky slopes. Luckily, none of them got hurt.

The explorers struggled every mile. Finally, on September 17, with provisions low, and the men hungry and tired, the captains decided that the best way to survive was to send a party ahead to hunt. So, Clark took six men and moved on in advance of the rest of the Corps. They were to hunt for game and for any signs of the Nez Perce Indians.

On September 20, Clark and his men walked out of the wooded mountains onto a level plain. They did not find any food there, but they did find the Nez Perce. The tribe’s chief, Twisted Hair, welcomed them and gave them dried salmon and camas root to eat. Clark sent a man back to tell Lewis the good news.

Twisted Hair drew a map of the lands to the west and identified the rivers that flowed into the Columbia. The Corps stayed with the Nez Perce two weeks and prepared for the next part of their journey. On October 7, they were back on the water again, going downstream on the Clearwater River. The men thought that going downstream would be much easier than upstream, but it wasn’t. The river was rough and and filled with rapids. They lost one boat to a sharp rock, but luckily not any of the men that were in it – well, let me rephrase that: none of the men died. However, Toby, their Indian guide must of decided racing the rapids was too much for him. He was seen running away from the camp shortly afterwards!

On October 16, the Corps reached the Columbia River. They camped there for two days and visited with the Yakimas (YAK-eh-mas) and Walla Wallas (WA-la WA-las) Indians. Once they were back on the river again, they faced more rapids and difficult travel. Finally, the river started to rise and fall like an ocean tide, and the water tasted salty. On November 7, Clark wrote in his journal: “Ocian in view!” O! The joy!”

The joy didn’t last very long. The Corps had actually reached the large estuary (where the river’s current meets the sea’s tide) of the Columbia River. They camped on the north shore of the estuary that night. The next day they were pounded by heavy rains which dampened them and their spirits even more. The rains continued for six days, and the men got very hungry, wet, and cold. Finally, the captains sent Privates Colter, Willard, and Shannon out to find a better camp. They found a spot on a sandy beach farther up the north shore.

The Corps spent the winter preparing for their return journey. Each day, they saved any meat they didn’t eat and dried it for later. They made new clothes from elkskin, made new moccasins (Sergeant Gass reported 388 pairs in his journal!), and repaired their canoes. And, they stayed wet most of the time. It rained all but twelve days at Fort Clatsop. Lewis worked on his journals, and Clark worked on his map of the journey from Fort Mandan to the Pacific. The two captains also discussed the route of their return journey.

Travel to 1806 with the Corps