June 14, 1805, was a day of surreal occurrences for Meriwether Lewis. Lewis and his party were in the vicinity of the Great Falls of the Missouri, an amazing spectacle he had come upon only the day before. On the morning of the 14th, Lewis set off by himself to begin to scout a route for the Corps of Discovery to portage their supplies and equipment around the falls. Quickly realizing that the “great falls” was not one waterfall but a series of five waterfalls stretching over several miles of roiling rapids, Lewis’s journal entry reveals a man clearly distracted from the navigational problem that confronted him by the amazing rugged natural beauty around him.
After debating in his journal which waterfall was the most beautiful, Lewis noticed a “beautiful little island” in the middle of the rapids where a black eagle had built her nest in a cottonwood tree. “A more inaccessable spot I beleive she could not have found,” he wrote, “for neither man nor beast dare pass those gulphs which seperate her little domain from the shores.”
The day would bring more surprises. To the south and west below the falls, Lewis found that Missouri River “lies a smoth even and unruffled sheet of water of nearly a mile in width bearing on it’s watry bosome vast flocks of geese which feed at pleasure in the delightfull pasture on either border.” He also spotted the river the Indians called Medicine River and determined to explore it. After resting a while, Lewis “decended the hills and directed my course to the bend of the Missouri near which there was a herd of at least a thousand buffaloe; here I thought it would be well to kill a buffaloe and leave him untill my return from the river and if I then found that I had not time to get back to camp this evening.” Lewis selected a buffalo and shot him through the lungs. While he was standing with an unloaded rifle waiting for the beast to fall, he suddenly noticed the large grizzly bear that had “crept on me within 20 steps.”
Lewis tried backing away slowly, hoping to have a chance to reload his rifle, but the bear charged. “I ran about 80 yards and found he gained on me fast, I then run into the water the idea struk me to get into the water to such debth that I could stand and he would be obliged to swim, and that I could in that situation defend myself with my espontoon; accordingly I ran haistily into the water about waist deep, and faced about and presented the point of my espontoon.” Inexplicably, the bear turned tail on Lewis and rapidly ran away, leaving Lewis to puzzle over his close call. Climbing out of the water when he was sure the coast was clear, Lewis shuddered when he saw the ground torn with the bear’s talons.
Proceeding on to the Medicine River with his newly recharged rifle, Lewis spent the afternoon exploring and decided to head back to camp around 6:30pm, “having by my estimate about 12 miles to walk.” On his way back, he encountered a strange animal.
in returning through the level bottom of Medecine river and about 200 yards distant from the Missouri, my direction led me directly to an anamal that I at first supposed was a wolf; but on nearer approach or about sixty paces distant I discovered that it was not, it’s colour was a brownish yellow; it was standing near it’s burrow, and when I approached it thus nearly, it couched itself down like a cat looking immediately at me as if it designed to spring on me. I took aim at it and fired, it instantly disappeared in it’s burrow; I loaded my gun and exmined the place which was dusty and saw the track from which I am still further convinced that it was of the tiger kind. whether I struck it or not I could not determine, but I am almost confident that I did; my gun is true and I had a steady rest by means of my espontoon, which I have found very serviceable to me in this way in the open plains
Some have speculated that the creature Lewis saw may have been a bobcat, or perhaps a wolverine, in which case he was lucky that he did not get closer to it, as they are known for having a ferocious temperament and being able to kill prey many times their size. Whatever the creature was, Lewis could not find it. But soon he had bigger problems to worry about. He wrote:
It now seemed to me that all the beasts of the neighbourhood had made a league to distroy me, or that some fortune was disposed to amuse herself at my expence, for I had not proceded more than three hundred yards from the burrow of this tyger cat, before three bull buffaloe, which wer feeding with a large herd about half a mile from me on my left, seperated from the herd and ran full speed towards me, I thought at least to give them some amusement and altered my direction to meet them; when they arrived within a hundred yards they made a halt, took a good view of me and retreated with precipitation.
Although it was getting late, Lewis was clearly unnerved by his series of near-misses. He considered making camp for the night and feasting on the buffalo he had killed, then decide he “did not think it prudent to remain all night at this place which really from the succession of curious adventures wore the impression on my mind of inchantment.” The adventure had not only rattled his nerves, but it seemed to be having a hallucinogenic affect on his brain. “At sometimes for a moment I thought it might be a dream, but the prickley pears which pierced my feet very severely once in a while, particularly after it grew dark, convinced me that I was really awake, and that it was necessary to make the best of my way to camp.”
When one considers what all had happened to Lewis in the previous 7 days, it is no wonder his mind might have been playing tricks on him. One week before, on June 7, Lewis had returned from a 60-mile trip up the north fork of the Missouri, much of it in a driving rain, and culminating in Lewis and Private Windsor nearly falling off a 90-foot precipice. Lewis’s small party rejoined Clark and the main party two days later than expected, and Lewis admitted to being “much fatiegued.” Nevertheless, the next day, Lewis determined to go on another scouting trip, this time up the south fork of the Missouri. He and Captain Clark stood alone, believing this to be the right route.
On June 10, Lewis recorded that “I still feel myself somewhat unwell with the disentary,” having evidently suffered from it for several days. Nevertheless, he set off the next day anyway. He was so ill on the 11th that he could not eat and had to dose himself with a tea made from chokecherries to treat his intestinal pain and fever. But he covered 27 miles the next day, and on the 13th, he reached the first of the Great Falls of the Missouri River, which meant he had chosen the right route but also that he had a huge logistical problem to solve. With such a momentous week behind him, it would not have been surprising if Lewis had simply been overwhelmed—mentally, physically, and emotionally—from all that he had experienced.
After his ordeal with the animals, Lewis’s relief at getting home safe to camp was palpable –and so was that of his men. “It was sometime after dark before I returned to the party; I found them extremely uneasy for my safety; they had formed a thousand conjectures, all of which equally forboding my death, which they had so far settled among them, that they had already agreed on the rout which each should take in the morning to surch for me. I felt myself much fortiegued, but eat a hearty supper and took a good night’s rest.”
He spent the next day fishing and sleeping off his adventure. The only event of note was that when he awoke from a nap under a tree, he found a large rattlesnake about 10 feet away. Lewis calmly killed it, and reported in his journal that “he had 176 scuta on the abdomen and 17 half formed scuta on the tale.”