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In the Solitudes of the Upper Missouri

Under date of May 17, the journal of the party has the following interesting entries:—

"We set out early and proceeded on very well; the banks being firm and the shore bold, we were enabled to use the towline, which, whenever the banks will permit it, is the safest and most expeditious mode of ascending the river, except under sail with a steady breeze. At the distance of ten and one-half miles we came to the mouth of a small creek on the south, below which the hills approach the river, and continue near it during the day. Three miles further is a large creek on the north; and again, six and three-quarters miles beyond this, is another large creek, to the south; both containing a small quantity of running water, of a brackish taste. The last we called Rattlesnake Creek, from our seeing that animal near it. Although no timber can be observed on it from the Missouri, it throws out large quantities of driftwood, among which were some pieces of coal brought down by the stream…

The game is in great quantities, but the buffalo are not so numerous as they were some days ago; two rattlesnakes were seen to-day, and one of them was killed. It resembles those of the Middle Atlantic States, being about thirty inches long, of a yellowish brown on the back and sides, variegated with a row of oval dark brown spots lying transversely on the back from the neck to the tail, and two other rows of circular spots of the same color on the sides along the edge of the scuta; there are one hundred and seventy-six scuta on the belly, and seventeen on the tail."

Two days later, the journal records that one of the party killed a grizzly bear, "which, though shot through the heart, ran at his usual pace nearly a quarter of a mile before he fell."

The mouth of the Musselshell River, which was one of the notable points that marked another stage in the journey, was reached on the twentieth of May. This stream empties into the Missouri two thousand two hundred and seventy miles above its mouth, and is still known by the name given it by its discoverers. The journal says:

"It is one hundred and ten yards wide, and contains more water than streams of that size usually do in this country; its current is by no means rapid, and there is every appearance of its being susceptible of navigation by canoes for a considerable distance. Its bed is chiefly formed of coarse sand and gravel, with an occasional mixture of black mud; the banks are abrupt and nearly twelve feet high, so that they are secure from being overflowed; the water is of a greenish-yellow cast, and much more transparent than that of the Missouri, which itself, though clearer than below, still retains its whitish hue and a portion of its sediment. Opposite the point of junction the current of the Missouri is gentle, and two hundred and twenty-two yards in width; the bed is principally of mud, the little sand remaining being wholly confined to the points, and the water is still too deep to use the setting-pole.

"If this be, as we suppose, the Musselshell, our Indian information is that it rises in the first chain of the Rocky mountains not far from the sources of the Yellowstone, whence in its course to this place it waters a high broken country, well timbered, particularly on its borders, and interspersed with handsome fertile plains and meadows. We have reason, however, to believe, from their giving a similar account of the timber where we now are, that the timber of which they speak is similar to that which we have seen for a few days past, which consists of nothing more than a few straggling small pines and dwarf cedars on the summits of the hills, nine-tenths of the ground being totally destitute of wood, and covered with short grass, aromatic herbs, and an immense quantity of prickly-pear; though the party who explored it for eight miles represented the low grounds on the river to be well supplied with cottonwood of a tolerable size, and of an excellent soil. They also report that the country is broken and irregular, like that near our camp; and that about five miles up, a handsome river, about fifty yards wide, which we named after Chaboneau's wife, Sacajawea's or the Bird-woman's River, discharges into the Musselshell on the north or upper side."

Later explorations have shown that the Musselshell rises in the Little Belt Mountains, considerably to the north of the sources of the Yellowstone. Modern geography has also taken from the good Sacajawea the honor of having her name bestowed on one of the branches of the Musselshell. The stream once named for her is now known as Crooked Creek: it joins the river near its mouth, in the central portion of Montana. The journal, under date of May 22, has this entry:—

"The river [the Missouri] continues about two hundred and fifty yards wide, with fewer sand-bars, and the current more gentle and regular. Game is no longer in such abundance since leaving the Musselshell. We have caught very few fish on this side of the Mandans, and these were the white catfish, of two to five pounds. We killed a deer and a bear. We have not seen in this quarter the black bear, common in the United States and on the lower parts of the Missouri, nor have we discerned any of their tracks. They may easily be distinguished by the shortness of the talons from the brown, grizzly, or white bear, all of which seem to be of the same species, which assumes those colors at different seasons of the year. We halted earlier than usual, and camped on the north, in a point of woods, at the distance of sixteen and one half miles [thus past the site of Fort Hawley, on the south]."

Notwithstanding the advance of the season, the weather in those great altitudes grew more and more cold. Under date of May 23, the journal records the fact that ice appeared along the edges of the river, and water froze upon their oars. But notwithstanding the coolness of the nights and mornings, mosquitoes were very troublesome.

The explorers judged that the cold was somewhat unusual for that locality, inasmuch as the cottonwood trees lost their leaves by the frost, showing that vegetation, generally well suited to the temperature of its country, or habitat, had been caught by an unusual nip of the frost. The explorers noticed that the air of those highlands was so pure and clear that objects appeared to be much nearer than they really were. A man who was sent out to explore the country attempted to reach a ridge (now known as the Little Rocky Mountains), apparently about fifteen miles from the river. He travelled about ten miles, but finding himself not halfway to the object of his search, he returned without reaching it.

The party was now just westward of the site of the present town of Carroll, Montana, on the Missouri. Their journal says:—

"The low grounds are narrow and without timber; the country is high and broken; a large portion of black rock and brown sandy rock appears in the face of the hills, the tops of which are covered with scattered pine, spruce, and dwarf cedar; the soil is generally poor, sandy near the tops of the hills, and nowhere producing much grass, the low grounds being covered with little else than the hyssop, or southernwood, and the pulpy-leaved thorn. Game is more scarce, particularly beaver, of which we have seen but few for several days, and the abundance or scarcity of which seems to depend on the greater or less quantity of timber. At twenty-four and one-half miles we reached a point of woodland on the south, where we observed that the trees had no leaves, and camped for the night."

The "hyssop, or southernwood," the reader now knows to be the wild sage, or sage-brush. The "pulpy-leaved thorn" mentioned in the journal is the greasewood ; and both of these shrubs flourish in the poverty-stricken, sandy, alkaline soil of the far West and Northwest. The woody fibre of these furnished the only fuel available for early overland emigrants to the Pacific.

The character of this country now changed considerably as the explorers turned to the northward, in their crooked course, with the river. On the twenty-fifth of May the journal records this:—

"The country on each side is high, broken, and rocky; the rock being either a soft brown sandstone, covered with a thin stratum of limestone, or else a hard, black, rugged granite, both usually in horizontal strata, and the sand-rock overlaying the other. Salts and quartz, as well as some coal and pumice-stone, still appear. The bars of the river are composed principally of gravel; the river low grounds are narrow, and afford scarcely any timber; nor is there much pine on the hills. The buffalo have now become scarce; we saw a polecat [skunk] this evening, which was the first for several days; in the course of the day we also saw several herds of the bighorned animals among the steep cliffs on the north, and killed several of them."

The bighorned animals, the first of which were killed here, were sometimes called "Rocky Mountain sheep." But sheep they were not, bearing hair and not wool. As we have said, they are now more commonly known as bighorns.

The patience of the explorers was rewarded, on Sunday, May 26, 1806, by their first view of the Rocky Mountains. Here is the journal's record on that date:—

"It was here [Cow Creek, Mont.] that, after ascending the highest summit of the hills on the north side of the river, Captain Lewis first caught a distant view of the Rock mountains—the object of all our hopes, and the reward of all our ambition. On both sides of the river, and at no great distance from it, the mountains followed its course. Above these at the distance of fifty miles from us, an irregular range of mountains spread from west to northwest from his position. To the north of these, a few elevated points, the most remarkable of which bore N. 65'0 W., appeared above the horizon; and as the sun shone on the snows of their summits, he obtained a clear and satisfactory view of those mountains which close on the Missouri the passage to the Pacific."

As they continued to ascend the Missouri they found themselves confronted by many considerable rapids which sometimes delayed their progress. They also set forth this observation: "The only animals we have observed are the elk, the bighorn, and the hare common to this country." Wayfarers across the plains now call this hare the jack-rabbit. The river soon became very rapid with a marked descent, indicating their nearness to its mountain sources. The journal says:—

"Its general width is about two hundred yards; the shoals are more frequent, and the rocky points at the mouths of the gullies more troublesome to pass. Great quantities of stone lie in the river and on its bank, and seem to have fallen down as the rain washed away the clay and sand in which they were imbedded. The water is bordered by high, rugged bluffs, composed of irregular but horizontal strata of yellow and brown or black clay, brown and yellowish-white sand, soft yellowish-white sandstone, and hard dark brown freestone; also, large round kidney-formed irregular separate masses of a hard black ironstone, imbedded in the clay and sand; some coal or carbonated wood also makes its appearance in the cliffs, as do its usual attendants, the pumice-stone and burnt earth. The salts and quartz are less abundant, and, generally speaking, the country is, if possible, more rugged and barren than that we passed yesterday; the only growth of the hills being a few pine, spruce, and dwarf cedar, interspersed with an occasional contrast, once in the course of some miles, of several acres of level ground, which supply a scanty subsistence for a few little cottonwoods."

But, a few days later, the party passed out of this inhospitable region, and, after passing a stream which they named Thompson's (now Birch) Creek, after one of their men, they were glad to make this entry in their diary:

"Here the country assumed a totally different aspect: the hills retired on both sides from the river, which spreads to more than three times its former size, and is filled with a number of small handsome islands covered with cottonwood. The low grounds on its banks are again wide, fertile, and enriched with trees: those on the north are particularly wide, the hills being comparatively low, and opening into three large valleys, which extend themselves for a considerable distance towards the north. These appearances of vegetation are delightful after the dreary hills among which we have passed; and we have now to congratulate ourselves at having escaped from the last ridges of the Black Mountains. On leaving Thompson's Creek we passed two small islands, and at twenty-three miles' distance encamped among some timber; on the north, opposite to a small creek, which we named Bull Creek. The bighorn are in great quantities, and must bring forth their young at a very early season, as they are now half grown. One of the party saw a large bear also; but, being at a distance from the river, and having no timber to conceal him, he would not venture to fire."

A curious adventure happened on the twenty-eighth, of which the journal, next day, makes this mention:—

"Last night we were alarmed by a new sort of enemy. A buffalo swam over from the opposite side, and to the spot where lay one of our canoes, over which he clambered to the shore: then, taking fright, he ran full speed up the bank towards our fires, and passed within eighteen inches of the heads of some of the men before the sentinel could make him change his course. Still more alarmed, he ran down between four fires, and within a few inches of the heads of a second row of the men, and would have broken into our lodge if the barking of the dog had not stopped him. He suddenly turned to the right, and was out of sight in a moment, leaving us all in confusion, every one seizing his rifle and inquiring the cause of the alarm. On learning what had happened, we had to rejoice at suffering no more injury than some damage to the guns that were in the canoe which the buffalo crossed.

… "We passed an island and two sand-bars, and at the distance of two and a half miles came to a handsome river, which discharges itself on the South, and which we ascended to the distance of a mile and a half: we called it Judith's River. It rises in the Rocky Mountains, in about the same place with the Musselshell, and near the Yellowstone River. Its entrance is one hundred yards wide from one bank to the other, the water occupying about seventy-five yards, and being in greater quantity than that of the Musselshell River… There were great numbers of the argalea, or bighorned animals, in the high country through which it passes, and of beaver in its waters. Just above the entrance of it we saw the ashes of the fires of one hundred and twenty-six lodges, which appeared to have been deserted about twelve or fifteen days."

Leaving Judith's River, named for a sweet Virginia lass, the explorers sailed, or were towed, seventeen miles up the river, where they camped at the mouth of a bold, running river to which they gave the name of Slaughter River. The stream is now known as the Arrow; the appropriateness of the title conferred on the stream by Lewis and Clark appears from the story which they tell of their experience just below "Slaughter River," as follows:

"On the north we passed a precipice about one hundred and twenty feet high, under which lay scattered the fragments of at least one hundred carcasses of buffaloes, although the water which had washed away the lower part of the hill must have carried off many of the dead. These buffaloes had been chased down the precipice in a way very common on the Missouri, by which vast herds are destroyed in a moment. The mode of hunting is to select one of the most active and fleet young men, who is disguised by a buffalo-skin round his body; the skin of the head with the ears and horns being fastened on his own head in such a way as to deceive the buffalo. Thus dressed, he fixes himself at a convenient distance between a herd of buffalo and any of the river precipices, which sometimes extend for some miles. His companions in the mean time get in the rear and side of the herd, and at a given signal show themselves and advance toward the buffaloes. These instantly take the alarm, and finding the hunters beside them, they run toward the disguised Indian or decoy, who leads them on at full speed toward the river; when, suddenly securing himself in some crevice of the cliff which he had previously fixed on, the herd is left on the brink of the precipice. It is then in vain for the foremost buffaloes to retreat or even to stop; they are pressed on by the hindmost rank, which, seeing no danger but from the hunters, goad on those before them till the whole are precipitated, and the shore is strewn with their dead bodies. Sometimes, in this perilous seduction, the Indian is himself either trodden under foot by the rapid movements of the buffaloes, or missing his footing in the cliff is urged down the precipice by the falling herd. The Indians then select as much meat as they wish; the rest is abandoned to the wolves, and creates a most dreadful stench. The wolves which had been feasting on these carcasses were very fat, and so gentle that one of them was killed with an espontoon."[1]

The dryness and purity of the air roused the admiration of the explorers, who noticed that the woodwork of the cases of their instruments shrank, and the joints opened, although the wood was old and perfectly seasoned. A tablespoonful of water, exposed to the air in an open saucer, would wholly evaporate in thirty-six hours, when the thermometer did not mark higher than the "Temperate" point at the warmest hour of the day. Contrary to their expectations, they had not yet met with any Indians, although they saw many signs of their having recently been in that vicinity. The journal says:

"In the course of the day [May 30] we passed several encampments of Indians, the most recent of which seemed to have been evacuated about five weeks since; and, from the several apparent dates, we supposed that they were formed by a band of about one hundred lodges, who were travelling slowly up the river. Although no part of the Missouri from the Minnetarees to this place exhibits signs of permanent settlements, yet none seem exempt from the transient visits of hunting-parties. We know that the Minnetarees of the Missouri extend their excursions on the south side of the river as high as the Yellowstone, and the Assiniboins visit the northern side, most probably as high as Porcupine River. All the lodges between that place and the Rocky Mountains we supposed to belong to the Minnetarees of Fort de Prairie, who live on the south fork of the Saskashawan."

The party now entered upon some of the natural wonders of the West, which have since become famous. Their journal says:—

"These hills and river-cliffs exhibit a most extraordinary and romantic appearance. They rise in most places nearly perpendicular from the water, to the height of between two hundred and three hundred feet, and are formed of very white sandstone, so soft as to yield readily to the impression of water, in the upper part of which lie imbedded two or three thin horizontal strata of white freestone, insensible to the rain; on the top is a dark rich loam, which forms a gradually ascending plain, from a mile to a mile and a half in extent, when the hills again rise abruptly to the height of about three hundred feet more. In trickling down the cliffs, the water has worn the soft sandstone into a thousand grotesque figures, among which, with a little fancy, may be discerned elegant ranges of freestone buildings, with columns variously sculptured, and supporting long and elegant galleries, while the parapets are adorned with statuary. On a nearer approach they represent every form of elegant ruins—columns, some with pedestals and capitals entire, others mutilated and prostrate, and some rising pyramidally over each other till they terminate in a sharp point. These are varied by niches, alcoves, and the customary appearances of desolated magnificence. The illusion is increased by the number of martins, which have built their globular nests in the niches, and hover over these columns, as in our country they are accustomed to frequent large stone structures. As we advance there seems no end to the visionary enchantment which surrounds us.

"In the midst of this fantastic scenery are vast ranges of walls, which seem the productions of art, so regular is the workmanship. They rise perpendicularly from the river, sometimes to the height of one hundred feet, varying in thickness from one to twelve feet, being as broad at the top as below. The stones of which they are formed are black, thick, durable, and composed of a large portion of earth, intermixed and cemented with a small quantity of sand and a considerable proportion of talk [talc] or quartz. These stones are almost invariably regular parallelopipeds of unequal sizes in the wall, but equally deep and laid regularly in ranges over each other like bricks, each breaking and covering the interstice of the two on which it rests; but though the perpendicular interstice be destroyed, the horizontal one extends entirely through the whole work. The stones are proportioned to the thickness of the wall in which they are employed, being largest in the thickest walls. The thinner walls are composed of a single depth of the parallelopiped, while the thicker ones consist of two or more depths. These walls pass the river at several places, rising from the water's edge much above the sandstone bluffs, which they seem to penetrate; thence they cross in a straight line, on either side of the river, the plains, over which they tower to the height of from ten to seventy feet, until they lose themselves in the second range of hills. Sometimes they run parallel in several ranges near to each other, sometimes intersect each other at right angles, and have the appearance of walls of ancient houses or gardens."

The wall-like, canyon formations were charted by Lewis and Clark as "The Stone Walls." Their fantastic outlines have been admired and described by modern tourists, and some of them have been named "Cathedral Rocks," "Citadel Rock," "Hole in the Wall," and so on.

Passing out of this wonderful region, the expedition entered upon a more level country, here and there broken by bluffy formations which extended along the river, occasionally interspersed with low hills. Their journal says:

"In the plains near the river are the choke-cherry, yellow and red currant bushes, as well as the wild rose and prickly pear, both of which are now in bloom. From the tops of the river-hills, which are lower than usual, we enjoyed a delightful view of the rich, fertile plains on both sides, in many places extending from the river-cliffs to a great distance back. In these plains we meet, occasionally, large banks of pure sand, which were driven apparently by the southwest winds and there deposited. The plains are more fertile some distance from the river than near its banks, where the surface of the earth is very generally strewed with small pebbles, which appear to be smoothed and worn by the agitation of the waters with which they were, no doubt, once covered."

Under date of June 2d, the journal says:—

"The current of the river is strong but regular, the timber increases in quantity, the low grounds become more level and extensive, and the bluffs are lower than before. As the game is very abundant, we think it necessary to begin a collection of hides for the purpose of making a leathern boat, which we intend constructing shortly. The hunters, who were out the greater part of the day, brought in six elk, two buffalo, two mule-deer, and a bear. This last animal had nearly cost us the lives of two of our hunters, who were together when he attacked them. One of them narrowly escaped being caught, and the other, after running a considerable distance, concealed himself in some thick bushes, and, while the bear was in quick pursuit of his hiding-place, his companion came up, and fortunately shot the animal through the head."

Here the party came to the mouth of a large river which entered the Missouri from the northwest, at the site of the latter-day town of Ophir, Montana. This stream they named Maria's River, in honor of another Virginia damsel. So large and important in appearance was Maria's River that the explorers were not certain which was the main stream, that which came in from the north, or that which, flowing here in a general course from southwest to northeast, was really the true Missouri. The journal says:

"It now became an interesting question, which of these two streams is what the Minnetarees call Ahmateahza, or Missouri, which they describe as approaching very near to the Columbia. On our right decision much of the fate of the expedition depends; since if, after ascending to the Rocky Mountains or beyond them, we should find that the river we were following did not come near the Columbia, and be obliged to return, we should not only lose the travelling season, two months of which have already elapsed, but probably dishearten the men so much as to induce them either to abandon the enterprise, or yield us a cold obedience, instead of the warm and zealous support which they have hitherto afforded us. We determined, therefore, to examine well before we decided on our future course. For this purpose we despatched two canoes with three men up each of the streams, with orders to ascertain the width, depth, and rapidity of the current, so as to judge of their comparative bodies of water. At the same time parties were sent out by land to penetrate the country, and discover from the rising grounds, if possible, the distant bearings of the two rivers; and all were directed to return toward evening. …

Both parties returned without bringing any information that would settle the point. Which was the true Missouri still remained uncertain. Under these circumstances, it became necessary that there should be a more thorough exploration, and the next morning Captains Lewis and Clark set out at the head of two separate parties, the former to examine the north, and the latter the south fork. In his progress Captain Lewis and his party were frequently obliged to quit the course of the river and cross the plains and hills, but he did not lose sight of its general direction, and carefully took the bearings of the distant mountains. On the morning of the third day he became convinced that this river pursued a course too far north for his contemplated route to the Pacific, and he accordingly determined to return, but judged it advisable to wait till noon, that he might obtain a meridian altitude. In this, however, he was disappointed, owing to the state of the weather. Much rain had fallen, and their return was somewhat difficult, and not unattended with danger, as the following incident, which occurred on June 7th, will show:

"In passing along the side of a bluff at a narrow pass thirty yards in length, Captain Lewis slipped, and, but for a fortunate recovery by means of his spontoon, would have been precipitated into the river over a precipice of about ninety feet. He had just reached a spot where, by the assistance of his spontoon, he could stand with tolerable safety, when he heard a voice behind him cry out, `Good God, captain, what shall I do?' He turned instantly, and found it was Windsor, who had lost his foothold about the middle of the narrow pass, and had slipped down to the very verge of the precipice, where he lay on his belly, with his right arm and leg over it, while with the other leg and arm he was with difficulty holding on, to keep himself from being dashed to pieces below. His dreadful situation was instantly perceived by Captain Lewis, who, stifling his alarm, calmly told him that he was in no danger; that he should take his knife out of his belt with his right hand, and dig a hole in the side of the bluff to receive his right foot. With great presence of mind he did this, and then raised himself on his knees. Captain Lewis then told him to take off his moccasins and come forward on his hands and knees, holding the knife in one hand and his rifle in the other. He immediately crawled in this way till he came to a secure spot. The men who had not attempted this passage were ordered to return and wade the river at the foot of the bluff, where they found the water breast-high. This adventure taught them the danger of crossing the slippery heights of the river; but as the plains were intersected by deep ravines, almost as difficult to pass, they continued down the river, sometimes in the mud of the low grounds, sometimes up to their arms in the water; and when it became too deep to wade, they cut footholds with their knives in the sides of the banks. In this way they travelled through the rain, mud, and water, and having made only eighteen miles during the whole day, camped in an old Indian lodge of sticks, which afforded them a dry shelter. Here they cooked part of six deer they had killed in the course of their walk, and having eaten the only morsel they had tasted during the whole day, slept comfortably on some willow-boughs."


A short spear.

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