National Historic Trails - Lewis and Clark Trail

The Journey
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The Lewis And Clark National Historic Trail commemorates one of our nation's grandest journeys of exploration. It is an epic that captures the imagination as much today as it did nearly 200 years ago. A significant segment of the 8000-mile Trail crosses the rugged, though handsome, northern Rocky Mountains.

In 1800, the Rocky Mountains of northwestern United States was a land known only by the Indian tribes of the region. The portion of the Rockies east of the Continental Divide became U.S. territory in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The following year, the famous military expedition of captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out from their winter camp near St. Louis to explore the newly acquired land. By way of the Missouri River they reached the Rocky Mountains in July 1805, and crossed the Continental Divide at present Lemhi Pass in southwestern Montana a month later. Once west of the Divide they were in foreign, unclaimed land.

This brochure tells the story of this epic journey in the Rocky Mountains. It traces the day-to-day decisions and challenges that confronted the 33-member expedition. The map will help you follow their route in your mind or on our modern highways.

Although some of the Lewis and Clark Trail is on private land, the surrounding National Forests provide the scenic backdrop. In other places, especially at mountain passes, the trail is on National Forest lands. The Forest Service provides interpretive signs and publications help people understand and enjoy our country's proud heritage.

An Epic Journey
On May 14, 1804, 45 men in a 55-foot keelboat and two pirogues set sail up the Missouri River from its confluence with the Mississippi. These explorers were destined to fulfill a long-held dream of Thomas Jefferson: Explore the western half of the continent in search of the fabled northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson also longed to learn about the geography of that unknown land, its plants, animals, and native peoples.

Jefferson chose his private secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead the party. In turn, Lewis chose William Clark of Louisville, Kentucky, one of his former commanding officers, to be his co-commander. Lewis spent several weeks in Philadelphia studying science, medicine, surveying, and in general, preparing for what he thought would be an 18-month trip undertaken by a corps of about a dozen men. As it turned out, there were 33 in the main party, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition—America's epic journey of discovery—took over 28 months.

The Mandan Indian Villages
The first leg of the journey to the ocean took the explorers to the Mandan and Hidatsa Indian villages in present central North Dakota. Here, over 1,600 miles from their point of departure, they made their first winter's headquarters and named it Fort Mandan. The following spring they sent the keelboat and several men back to St. Louis with information and the specimens they had collected to that point.

At Mandan they hired a French fur trader, Toussaint charbonneau, and his wife, Sacagawea, as interpreters to accompany them to the ocean. Sacagawea was part of a Shoshonean Indian tribe that lived in the Rocky Mountains at the headwaters of the Missouri. She had been abducted five years earlier by a band of Hidatsas and sold to Charbonneau. She would be useful when the Expedition bargained with her people for the horses that would be needed to transport their baggage over the mountains.

In all, there were two captains, three sergeants, 23 privates, and five non-military personnel in the party that headed up the Missouri from Fort Mandan on April 7 1805. The civilians, in addition to Charbonneau and his wife, were their infant son, Jean Baptiste, Clark's servant, York, and an interpreter/hunter by the name of George Drewyer. The 33-member expedition set out in their two pirogues and the six cottonwood dugouts they had built near their winter encampment.

The Great Falls
Entering present Montana on April 27, 1805, the corps passed Milk River, the largest northern tributary of the Missouri, on May 8, and came to another large northern tributary on June 2, which was equal in size to the Missouri. For some reason the Indians at Mandan had not told them about this river, and because of its size the explorers were not sure which course to follow. After a week of investigating the two rivers, they finally determined that the south course was that of the Missouri. The river flowing from the north was given the name Maria's River in honor of Lewis' cousin, Maria Wood.

At Marias River (as it is known today) they left one of the pirogues, and cached a good deal of the baggage they could do without until they returned from the ocean.

On June 13, Lewis and a small party, which had gone ahead of the boats. reached the Great Falls of the Missouri. Rather than one waterfall, as they had anticipated, there was a series of five cascades around which they would have to portage boats and baggage. Clark arrived with the boats on June 16 and found the shortest and best portage route was on the south side of the river and nearly 18 miles long.

In order to haul six dugouts and baggage around the falls, they had to build two wagons. Slabs from a 22" cottonwood tree were cut for wheels. Harnesses were made and strapped to the men who were to pull the wagons. When the wind was favorable, the sails were raised on the dugouts to help the men move the wagons across the rugged prairie. The pirogue was too large to portage. It was dragged ashore and left below the falls. More baggage was cached near the lower portage campsite.

The portage required four round-trips and two weeks to complete. However, the patty remained at the falls for an additional week completing construction on a collapsible iron-frame boat, which Lewis designed and had built at Harper's Ferry during the summer of 1803. His initial plan was to navigate the keelboat (which he had also designed) up the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains. The Expedition would then portage over the mountains to navigable waters on the western side, assemble the iron-frame boat, and sail to the ocean.

Unfortunately, it was not that simple. And now they suffered another setback. They were unable to find the necessary pine pitch, and they did not have the proper needles to sew the hides together. The iron-frame boat had to be abandoned. In its place they built two more cottonwood dugouts. The failure of the iron-frame boat made it necessary to cache more baggage, this time at the upper portage camp.

The delay at the Great Falls gave the hunters and fishermen an opportunity to prepare a large quantity of dried fish, meat, and pemmican. They had learned at Fort Mandan that game would be scarce once they reached the mountains—a warning that proved only too accurate.

Gates of the Mountains
Upon leaving "canoe camp" just above the Great Falls on July 15, Lewis and Clark, along with two privates, walked on shore to lighten the burden of the excessively loaded canoes. The next day they found willow shelters and horse tracks, which appeared to be about ten days old. They supposed these to be signs of the Shoshones, whom they were anxious to meet and bargain with for horses. Lewis, two privates, and York went ahead of the party in an unsuccessful attempt to find these Indians.

On July 18, Clark, with a small party, ventured out along an Indian road in search of the natives. The next day they saw where the Indians had peeled bark off pine trees. Sacagawea later informed them that her people obtained sap and the soft part of the wood and bark for food.

Meanwhile, Lewis and the main party were using tow lines and poles to ascend the evermore challenging Missouri. On July 19 they reached the "most remarkable cliffs" they had yet seen. It looked as though the river had worn a passage just the width of its channel through these 1,200-foot-high cliffs for a distance of three miles. Lewis called this the Gates of the Rocky Mountains.

The Rocky Mountains
On July 20, Lewis saw smoke up a creek near Gates of the Mountains, and on the same day Clark saw smoke up Prickly Pear Creek. The officers determined that these fires were set by Indians to alert distant tribesmen. However, the Indians kept themselves hidden.

Clark's party followed the Indian road up Prickly Pear Creek. As they walked, they left items of clothes, paper, and linen tape along the trail to inform the Indians that they were white men and not their enemies.

On July 22, Sacagawea, for the first time since leaving Fort Mandan, began to recognize the country. Lewis wrote: "The Indian woman recognizes the country and assures us that this is the river on which her relations live, and that the three forks are at no great distance. This piece of information has cheered the sperits of the party..."

On this same day Lewis's party reunited with Clark's. In the four days they were out, Clark's detachment was unable to make contact with any Indians.

The following morning, Clark, with Charbonneau and three privates, again went ahead in pursuit of the Shoshones. Certain they were getting close to the Indians, Lewis ordered small U.S. flags hoisted on the canoes so the natives would understand they were not enemy Indians.

The river became ever more difficult as the days passed. With growing fatigue, the men struggled to pull the boats over rapids. Not only was the river forbidding, Lewis also noted that, "our trio of pests still invade and obstruct us on all occasions, these are the musquetoes eye knats and prickly pear, equal to any three curses that ever poor Egypt laiboured under, except the Mahometant Yoke."

On July 24, they passed a remarkable bluff of red colored earth. Sacagawea told them this was the clay the Indians used for paint. For her people, red was emblematic of peace.

On July 25, Lewis's party reached the "Little Gates of the Mountains", also referred to as the "second range of mountains." The Indians at Mandan had informed them of this place.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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