The Trail 1806

“The rain Seased [ceased] and it became fair about Meridien [noon], at which time we loaded our Canoes & at 1 P.M. left Fort Clatsop on our homeward-bound journey.”
-Captain William Clark, March 23, 1806

The captains decided to do some exploring of the Louisiana Territory on the return journey. They would split up when they reached Traveler’s Rest, their campsite in the mountains. Clark would take his group south to the Three Forks of the Missouri, then explore the Yellowstone River. Lewis would go north to the Great Falls of the Missouri, then explore the Marias River.

The Corps headed east on March 23, 1806. As they made their way down the Columbia River, they had trouble with the local Indians stealing items from them. The Indians even tried to steal Seaman, but released him when they saw three of the men, armed, chasing after them! After this happened, the captains decided to leave the Columbia River and travel overland to the Nez Perce villages.

The expedition was pressed for time. They needed to collect their horses from the Nez Perce, who had cared for them over the winter, so that they could cross the Bitterroot Mountains. The Indians would be leaving to hunt buffalo in early summer. They arrived at the Nez Perce camp on May 11.

The Indian chiefs had discouraging news for the captains. Snow was still deep in the mountains, and the expedition would have to wait until it cleared before it could cross. This was hard for the men to do. All of them were wanting to be with their family and friends again. Every day the captains asked the chief’s about the trail ahead, and every day they were told to wait. Finally, the captains decided to leave, despite the warnings. They gathered their supplies and set out for the mountains. Everyone was very happy, but they soon found out that the Indians were right – the farther into the mountains they went, the deeper the snow got. Disappointed, the Corps turned around.

A week later, on June 10, the Corps tried again. This time, they hired several Nez Perce guides to show them the way over the mountains. The week’s time and the guides made a big difference, and the expedition was able to cross the Bitterroots in just six days. They reached Traveler’s Rest on July 4, 1806.

At Traveler’s Rest, the Corps split up. Lewis took nine men, the Indian guides, and 17 horses with him and headed north; Clark took the remainder of the men and horses and headed south. Lewis wanted to find the shorter route to the Great Falls of the Missouri that their guide, Toby, had told them about, and to explore the Marias River. Clark would explore the Yellowstone River. The two parties would meet again at the mouth of the Yellowstone River.

On July 26, along the Marias River, Lewis and his men encountered a group of Blackfoot warriors. The warriors were out hunting game and seemed friendly enough, so Lewis suggested they camp together. Lewis told them that the Americans were establishing peace and trade with other Indian tribes. To the Blackfeet, this meant that other tribes would soon be getting guns and would be able to compete with them for trade – not a good thing. During the night as Lewis’ men slept, the warriors took their rifles. One man, Private Joseph Fields, woke as the warrior grabbed his gun. A scuffle followed in which Fields stabbed one warrior to death and Lewis shot another. The Indians retreated.

After the fight, Lewis and his men saddled their horses and pushed them “as hard as they would bear” for over 80 miles before stopping to camp. Lewis feared the other members of his party might be attacked by the Blackfeet and he wanted to reach them as quickly as possible. They rode hard again the next day and rejoined the rest of their men on July 28.

Meanwhile, Clark was traveling across the Continental Divide via a shortcut the Salish Indians had told the captains about a year earlier (now known as the Bozeman Pass). The party then traveled overland to the Yellowstone River, reaching it near what is now Livingston, Montana. The river carried them so swiftly downstream that they reached the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers in a little over a week. They tried to make camp at the meeting place, but there was little game and lots of mosquitos. Clark decided to move his group farther downstream. He left a note for Lewis at the fork of the rivers.

Amazingly, Clark’s note was still there when Lewis arrived. Lewis continued on and the two parties reunited on August 12, 1806. In great pain from his gunshot wound, Lewis made his last journal entry on this day. In it, he described in detail a new kind of cherry.

The explorers set off down the Missouri River towards the Mandan and Hidatsa villages. They reached the villages on August 14. On the trip downstream, they had met two fur traders. Private John Coulter asked the captains if he could resign from the Corps and join the traders as a guide and partner. The captains released him, and he traveled west to discover the hot springs area of Yellowstone, and eventually retired to go into farming.

Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and Pomp, also said their good-byes to the Corps. They were back in their homeland. Clark had grown attached to Pomp and offered to adopt him from Charbonneau and Sacagawea. He would see to it that he got a proper education. Pomp’s parents felt the child was too young to leave them, but promised to bring Pomp to visit Clark at his home.

The explorers left the Mandan and Hidatsa, anxious to get back home. Their return journey went much faster than when they were going west. They traveled from 50 to 80 miles a day. They met traders and trappers along the way that were amazed to see the Corps. People had long ago given up hope that the explorers would return.

The explorers shot their guns in salute at each village they passed. They also got very excited when they saw a cow along the bank. Clark wrote: “We Saw Some cows on the bank which…Caused a Shout to be raised for joy.” On September 23, 1806, the Corps arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, nearly two and a half years after they departed!

What happened next?

After the expedition was over, everyone went their separate ways (see The Corps page for more info). Captains Lewis and Clark received land, money, and great acclaim for what they had accomplished. Lewis was made Governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1807. Clark became Superintendent of Indian Affairs of the Louisiana Territory, and later, Governor of Missouri.

Lewis was not suited to politics and he was unable to deal with the many challenges of his new position. In addition, he had financial problems, and had difficulty getting the journals he had worked so hard on organized for publication. Lewis sank into a deep depression, and on his way to Washington in October 1809, he committed suicide. After Lewis’ death, a Philadelphia lawyer, Nicholas Biddle, edited the journals into a book which was published in 1814. Unfortunately, Biddle had no natural history background and most of the scientific portions were left out. The result was that Lewis and Clark did not get full credit for their many descriptions of new plants and animals. It wasn’t until 1893, when naturalist Elliott Coues reissued the Biddle journals with extensive footnotes, that their contributions to botany and zoology were recognized.

William Clark married Julia Hancock shortly after returning from the expedition. He moved to St. Louis when he was appointed Superintendent, and went on to accomplish many things. He had seven children – six sons and one daughter. He named his eldest son, Meriwether Lewis Clark, after his dear friend. Clark eventually became guardian of Pomp and his little sister, Lizette. Charbonneau and Sacagawea gave him the opportunity when they brought the children to St. Louis a few years after the expedition. Clark died in 1838.