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Imagine being lost in an unfamiliar wilderness for sixteen days, without food, shelter, ammunition, or any way to let your companions know where you were. Such was the fate of Private George Shannon, the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Only 18 years old when he joined Lewis & Clark’s party in October 1803, Shannon literally grew up along the trail. In the course of the 2 ½ year journey, he suffered one of the most harrowing ordeals of all the men of the Corps of Discovery– facing the wilderness totally alone.

George Shannon

Artist’s rendering of George Shannon

George Shannon was born in 1785 in Washington County, Pennsylvania, an intelligent young man from a good family. He met Meriwether Lewis in Pittsburgh in 1803, while Lewis was awaiting the completion of the expedition’s keelboat.  Shannon was one of three men Lewis took along from Pittsburgh on a trial basis. He officially signed on at Maysville, Kentucky on October 19, 1803, and is usually considered one of the “nine young men from Kentucky,” although his ties to Kentucky were forged later. Shannon was hired onto the expedition as a hunter, at the rank of private. His salary was $25 per month.

Shannon wintered over at Camp Dubois with the rest of the Corps, and was placed in the first squad under Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor. He seems to have been considered a capable and reliable young man, who rarely caused the captains any trouble.The captains thought enough of Shannon’s abilities that they tapped him to discharge Pryor’s duties should Pryor need to be absent from the squad.

Shannon’s ordeal began on August 26, 1804, when he was detailed to search for two missing pack horses near Spirit Mound in present-day South Dakota. Shannon found the horses quickly and proceeded upriver, believing the rest of the Corps to be ahead of him. In fact, the Corps was actually trailing him. With only a rifle and a handful of ammunition, Shannon wandered alone in the wilderness for the next sixteen days, desperately trying to catch up to his companions.

A skilled hunter, Shannon was able to kill his own food until his ammunition ran out, several days after he went missing. He was forced to abandon one of the pack horses which gave out in the wilderness. Loading his rifle with a hard stick, he managed to bring down one rabbit. Otherwise, he survived by eating grapes, keeping the second pack horse in reserve as a last resort.

Finally, on September 11, 1804, Shannon spied the Corps of Discovery coming up the river. One can only imagine his emotions upon finally being reunited with his fellows. A relieved Captain Clark wrote in his journal:

here the man who left us with the horses 16 days ago and has been a head ever Since joined, us nearly Starved to Death, he had been 12 days without any thing to eate but Grapes & one Rabit, which he Killed by shooting a piece of hard Stick in place of a ball—. This man Supposeing the boat to be a head pushed on as long as he Could, when he became weak and feeble deturmined to lay by and waite for a tradeing boat, which is expected  Keeping one horse for the last resorse,—    thus a man had like to have Starved to death in a land of Plenty for the want of Bulletes or Something to kill his meat.

Private Shannon Lost Map

Children’s map – “Where in the World is Private George Shannon?”

Unfortunately for Shannon, it wasn’t the last time he got lost. On August 6, 1805, he was sent out to hunt near the Three Forks, a dangerous and confusing area inhabited by unfamiliar Indians. It was a stressful day for the Corps, with Clark ailing from a hurt ankle and Private Whitehouse seriously injured from almost being crushed by a canoe. A harried Captain Lewis wrote in his journal that night:

Shannon had been dispatched up the rapid fork this morning to hunt, by Capt Clark before he met with Drewyer or learnt his mistake in the rivers. When he returned he sent Drewyer in surch of him, but he rejoined us this evening and reported that he had been several miles up the river and could find nothing of him.    we had the trumpet sounded and fired several guns but he did not join us this evening. I am fearful he is lost again. this is the same man who was seperated from us 15 days as we came up the Missouri and subsisted 9 days of that time on grapes only.

Lewis sent Reubin Fields in search of Shannon, but Fields returned on August 8 and “reported that he had been up Wisdom river some miles above where it entered the mountain and could find nothing of Shannon.”  But the next day, Lewis happily reported that Shannon had finally rejoined the group.

while we halted here Shannon arrived, and informed us that having missed the party the day on which he set out he had returned the next morning to the place from whence he had set out or furst left them and not finding that he had supposed that they wer above him; that he then set out and marched one day up wisdom river, by which time he was convinced that they were not above him as the river could not be navigated; he then returned to the forks and had pursued us up this river.    he brought the skins of three deer which he had killed which he said were in good order. he had lived very plentifully this trip but looked a good deel worried with his march.

Shannon suffered some minor mishaps during the remainder of the expedition, but was careful not to get lost on the return trip. He returned up the Missouri River in 1807, on an ill-fated fur-trading expedition that had the added goal of returning Mandan chief Sheheke to his village. The party was attacked by the Arikara Indians, and Shannon suffered a bullet wound that broke his leg. By the time the party straggled back down the river, gangrene had set in and Shannon was not expected to live. Shannon’s amputated leg was buried at Fort Bellefontaine on the bank of the Missouri River. The young man survived, but his exploring days were over. He was still only 22.

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

Shannon went on to study law in Lexington, Kentucky. In the spring of 1810, William Clark recruited him to travel to Philadelphia to assist Nicholas Biddle with editing the Lewis and Clark journals. Clark’s letter of introduction stated that Shannon “possesses a sincere and undisguised heart, he is highly spoken of by all his acquaintances and much respected at the Lexington University where he has been for the last two years.”

After his involvement with the Lewis and Clark journals, Shannon returned to Kentucky, married into a prominent Lexington family, fathered seven children, and embarked on a turbulent legal and political career in Kentucky and Missouri that spanned almost three decades. George Shannon died suddenly August 30, 1836 at the age of 51. A St. Louis newspaper reported that his masonic funeral was attended by “a large assemblage of the ladies and gentlemen of the town … to offer their last testimony of respect to the remains of a good man.” He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Massie Mill Cemetery near Palmyra, Missouri.

The compelling story of Shannon’s ordeal in the wilderness continues to resonate with students of the Lewis and Clark expedition, especially young people. Shannon is the subject of several children’s books, second only to the expedition’s dog, Seaman.

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Location: Great Falls, Montana

When I talk to people about traveling the Lewis & Clark trail, they often seem to imagine there is an actual walking trail carved across the land from St. Louis to Astoria, similar to the incredible footpath created by volunteers over the decades for the Appalachian Trail. But in fact, in many cases it is difficult to get close to the Missouri or the Columbia by car or even on foot unless you are a first-rate hiker, making spots where you can literally walk in the footsteps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark relatively rare.

However, one of the most visually dramatic and historically significant portions of the trails is accessible to just about everyone, thanks to a creative partnership begun in 1989 between local and state government and volunteer groups in Great Falls, Montana. The River’s Edge Trail is a work-in-progress that now encompasses 25 miles of graded path — much of it wheelchair accessible — that lets you hike, bike, skate, or otherwise navigate almost the exact route of the Corps of Discovery.

During our most recent visit to Great Falls, we stayed at a hotel (La Quinta) that was right along the Missouri River and the River’s Edge Trail. It was wonderful to be able to walk to nearby eateries and then stroll along the river watching the long, slow Montana sunset sparkle on the water. There were many benches just for sitting and people-watching and the grass was so soft and thick you could take off your shoes and rest your feet in its coolness — a far cry from the prickly pear that tormented Lewis and Clark and their men.

The River’s Edge Trail. Courtesy Great Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.

And a far cry from the recent past as well. The powerful waterfalls that forced the epic portage were also irresistible targets for the development of hydroelectric power as far back as the 1890s, when the first dam was built at Black Eagle Falls. By the turn of the 20th century, Great Falls was a center for the smelting and refining of the copper, gold, and silver being stripped out of Montana’s mines. All five of the falls of the Missouri were dammed and turned to power generation, and major railroads, including the Great Northern and the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, moved the materials out to fuel the great industrial factories of the east. Anaconda Copper built the world’s largest smokestack in Great Falls (508 feet) and for decades was the city’s largest employer.

Vintage postcard view of Great Falls and the “Big Stack” of the Anaconda smelter

Many books have been written on the violent and dramatic history of Montana mining, and many news reports generated on the epic environmental damage at both the mines and the smelters, many of which are now federal “Superfund” sites in need of painstaking cleanup. The Anaconda plant was closed in 1980 and the “Big Stack” demolished two years later. The railroad tracks would have returned to the land if not for the foresight of local leaders who conceived of the old railroad right-of-way as an asset. In the last 20 years, the riverfront has been extensively cleaned up and a trail constructed that includes 13 trailheads, tunnels, bridges, and overpasses (many of which make use of fascinating old historic railroad structures), historic hiking spurs to Lewis & Clark sites, a maze of technical challenges for mountain bikers — even a dog park.

The website for the trail includes progress reports and recent goals. The 2012 plan includes a design of trail segments that will improve access to the north shore of the Missouri across from Giant Springs and applying for grant funding that would allow the extension of  the trail to connect Black Eagle Falls with Rainbow Falls, the cascade of which Meriwether Lewis wrote:

I now thought that if a skillfull painter had been asked to make a beautifull cascade that he would most probably have presented the precise image of this one; nor could I for some time determine on which of those two great cataracts to bestoe the palm, on this or that which I had discovered yesterday; at length I determined between these two great rivals for glory that this was pleasingly beautifull,while the other was sublimely grand.

For more reading:

The River’s Edge Trail (official site with lots of maps, history, and progress reports)
Fall of the Big Stack (extensive retrospective on Anaconda history by the Great Falls Tribune)

Lewis & Clark’s Portage Around the Great Falls

“All the beasts of the neighborhood had made a league to distroy me” (Meriwether Lewis’s very bad day on the River’s Edge Trail)
Lewis & Clark road trip: The  National Historical Trail Interpretive Center at Great Falls
Lewis & Clark road trip: Giant Springs

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One of the most difficult aspects of Lewis and Clark’s cross-continental journey was figuring out how to transport the tons of goods and supplies they had brought. As transportation conditions changed along the river, the logistics of handling so much baggage on land became impractical or downright impossible. At three major points along the route, Lewis and Clark were forced to build underground caches to store ammunition, supplies, or other articles too big and bulky to transport. They built three major caches in all during the course of the expedition, all in present-day Montana.

Native American cache pit

Typical Native American cache pit

The use of cache pits for storage would have been well-known to the Corps of Discovery. White settlers and Native Americans alike dug carefully constructed holes to store food for the winter, and fur trappers often dug caches to hide animal pelts until they could transport them somewhere to be sold. A cache pit functioned something like a cellar. Cache pits were typically six to eight feet deep and shaped like a jug, with a wide bottom and narrow mouth. They were often lined with animal hides and grasses, and shored up with sticks to prevent the cache from collapsing onto the food or goods stored inside.

Lewis and Clark built their first cache in early June 1805, on an island near the confluence of the Marias and the Missouri Rivers, a spot known as “Decision Point.” At that time, the Captains were facing the difficult dilemma of whether the muddy north fork or swift-flowing south fork was the true Missouri River. Choosing to follow the less navigable south fork, Lewis and Clark decided to leave the red pirogue and some of the heavier baggage behind. On June 9, 1805, Lewis wrote in his journal:

We determined to deposite at this place the large red perogue all the heavy baggage which we could possibly do without and some provision, salt, tools powder and Lead &c with a view to lighten our vessels and at the same time to strengthen their crews by means of the seven hands who have been heretofore employd. in navigating the red perogue; accordingly we set some hands to diging a hole or cellar for the reception of our stores. these holes in the ground or deposits are called by the engages cashes; on enquiry I found that Cruzatte was well acquainted this business and therefore left the management of it intirely to him.

The next day, Lewis reported that the deed was done. “In order to guard against accedents we thout it well to conceal some ammunicion here and accordingly buryed a tin cannester of 4 lbs. of powder and an adequate quantity of lead near our tent; a cannester of 6 lbs. lead and an ax in a thicket up the S. Fork three hundred yards distant from the point.    we concluded that we still could spare more amunition for this deposit    Capt. Clark was therefore to make a further deposit in the morning, in addition to one Keg of 20 lbs. and an adequate proportion of lead which had been laid by to be buryed in the large Cash.    we now scelected the articles to be deposited in this cash which consisted of 2 best falling axes, one auger, a set of plains, some files, blacksmiths bellowses and hammers Stake tongs &c.    1 Keg of flour, 2 Kegs of parched meal, 2 Kegs of Pork, 1 Keg of salt, some chissels, a cooper’s Howel, some tin cups, 2 Musquets, 3 brown bear skins, beaver skins, horns of the bighorned anamal, a part of the men’s robes clothing and all their superfluous baggage of every discription, and beaver traps.—    we drew up the red perogue into the middle of a small Island at the entrance of Maria’s river, and secured and made her fast to the trees to prevent the high floods from carrying her off    put my brand on several trees standing near her, and covered her with brush to shelter her from the effects of the sun.”

Replicas of Lewis and Clark's white and red pirogues

Replicas of Lewis and Clark’s white and red pirogues

Lewis and Clark hoped to be able to recover the stores and pirogue on the return trip. A few weeks later, in the midst of a grueling portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri River, they were forced to dig a second cache rather than transport more heavy equipment upriver. “Capt. C. also scelected the articles to be deposited in the cash consisting of my desk which I had left for that purpose and in which I had left some books, my specimens of plants minerals &c. collected from fort Mandan to that place,” Lewis wrote. “also 2 Kegs of Pork, ½ a Keg of flour 2 blunderbushes, ½ a keg of fixed ammunition and some other small articles belonging to the party which could be dispenced with.”

Also jettisoned at this point was the swivel gun that had been mounted on the expedition’s keelboat earlier in the expedition. Lewis wrote that they “deposited the swivel and carriage under the rocks a little above the camp near the river.” The white pirogue was dragged on shore and hidden in some willows below the Great Falls. On July 10, yet another deposit was made: the dismantled frame of Lewis’s ill-fated iron boat, which despite his tireless efforts could not be made watertight. “Had a cash dug and deposited the Fraim of the boat, some papers and a few other trivial articles of but little importance,” Lewis wrote with resignation.

The expedition’s third major cache was made about six weeks later, in mid-August 1805. After a long and anxiety-filled search, Lewis and Clark had finally found the Shoshone Indians and were negotiating for horses to carry them across the Rocky Mountains. Naturally, much of the remaining baggage had to be left behind. Near the Beaverhead River and the spot they called Camp Fortunate, they sunk their canoes in the river and buried everything they could not take across the Great Divide. On August 21, 1805, Sergeant John Ordway wrote: ” four men sent to dig a hole or carsh… this evening after dark we carried the baggage to the carsh or hole which we leave at this place.    we took it to hide undiscovred from the natives.    all the baggage which we carry with us packed up & pack Saddles made ready to cross the diveding ridge as soon as the horses return from the other Side.”

Continental Divide

The Rocky Mountains at the Continental Divide

That was the final significant deposit, save for two canisters of lead powder that Clark buried on the Weippe Prairie once the Expedition had crossed the great divide and was camping near the Nez Perce. There was nothing to do now but hope for the best that the goods could be recovered for the return trip.

All in all, Lewis and Clark’s caches made out fairly well. On May 7, 1806, the Corps was headed for home and was back among the Nez Perce. Lewis wrote, “a man of this lodge produced us two canisters of powder which he informed us he had found by means of his dog where they had been buried in a bottom near the river some miles above, they were the same which we had buryed as we decended the river last fall.” The honest man returned the powder to the captains.

On July 8, 1806, the Corps returned to Camp Fortunate and the Beaverhead River. Desperate for a smoke, the men were particularly impatient to get into this cache. Clark wrote:

Dried tobacco twists

Dried tobacco twists

after dinner we proceeded on down the forke which is here but Small    9 Miles to our encampment of 17 Augt.   at which place we Sunk our Canoes & buried Some articles, as before mentioned the most of the Party with me being Chewers of Tobacco become So impatient to be chewing it that they Scercely gave themselves time to take their Saddles off their horses before they were off to the deposit. I found every article Safe, except a little damp. I gave to each man who used tobacco about two feet off a part of a role    took one third of the ballance myself and put up ⅔ in a box to Send down with the most of the articles which had been left at this place, by the Canoes this evening. I examined them and found then all Safe except one of the largest which had a large hole in one Side & Split in bow.

The opening of the oldest caches on either side of the Great Falls proved to be a bit of a disappointment. On July 13, the Corps of Discovery had reached their old camp at White Bear Island on the upper part of the portage route. Lewis had the upper portage cache opened and found that there had been some casualties. He wrote disconsolately:

found my bearskins entirly destroyed by the water, the river having risen so high that the water had penitrated.    all my specimens of plants also lost.    the Chart of the Missouri fortunately escaped. [This map was apparently lost at a later date.]   opened my trunks and boxes and exposed the articles to dry.    found my papers damp and several articles damp.    the stoper had come out of a phial of laudinum and the contents had run into the drawer and distroyed a gret part of my medicine in sucuh manner that it was past recovery.

The next day’s dig yielded a little better news. Lewis wrote: “Had the carriage wheels dug up    found them in good order.    the iron frame of the boat had not suffered materially.” He dispatched Private Hugh McNeal to determine the state of the white pirogue and the cache at the lower portage camp. Fortunately, the white pirogue had survived the winter quite well. On July 27th, Sergeant John Ordway wrote, “we halled out the white perogue out of the bushes and repaired hir.    about 12 we loaded and Set out with the white perogue and the 5 canoes.”

The red pirogue and the cache on the Marias were not so lucky. On July 28, Lewis was hugely relieved to rejoin with other members of the Corps of Discovery after his ill-fated exploration of the Marias River and hair-raising flight from his encounter with the Blackfeet Indians. Lewis wrote that upon reaching the mouth of the Marias “we heared the report of several rifles very distinctly on the river to our right, we quickly repared to this joyfull sound and on arriving at the bank of the river had the unspeakable satisfaction to see our canoes coming down.” After reconnoitering to make sure the party was safe and unobserved, Lewis had the last remaining cache at the lower portage camp opened.

Grizzly bear hide

Lewis’s bear skins were damaged beyond recovery

“We found that the cash had caved in and most of the articles burried therin were injured,” he wrote. “I sustained the loss of two very large bear skins which I much regret; most of the fur and baggage belonging to the men were injured.    the gunpowder corn flour poark and salt had sustained but little injury the parched meal was spoiled or nearly so.    having no time to air these things which they much wanted we droped down to the point to take in the several articles which had been buried at that place in several small cashes; these we found in good order, and recovered every article except 3 traps belonging to Drewyer which could not be found.”

His disappointment at the loss of his bear skins was lessened by his strong desire to make tracks lest the Blackfeet catch up with them. Unfortunately, the red pirogue would not be making the trip. “Having now nothing to detain us we passed over immediately to the island in the entrance of Maria’s river to launch the red perogue, but found her so much decayed that it was imposible with the means we had to repare her and therefore mearly took the nails and other ironwork’s about her which might be of service to us and left her.    we now reimbarked on board the white peroge and five small canoes and decended the river about 15 ms. and encamped on the S. W. side near a few cottonwood trees.” They had recovered as much buried treasure as they could, and it was time to move on.

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Three Forks area, Montana

Three Forks area, Montana

It was August 11, 1805, and Meriwether Lewis was getting desperate. Since leaving Fort Mandan in April 1805, the Corps of Discovery had navigated the twists and turns of the Upper Missouri, run their canoes through the Missouri Breaks, and portaged their boats and equipment on a grueling 18-mile land route around the Great Falls of the Missouri River. As July wore on into August, the Corps pressed on into what is now western Montana, searching for the Shoshone Indians. The Shoshone’s formidable horse herds were critical to the success of Lewis and Clark’s plan for reaching the Pacific Ocean. If they could only barter for horses, they believed they could swap their increasingly grueling river travel for an easy horseback ride across the Continental Divide.

There was only one problem. The Shoshone were nowhere to be found. In many places along the Upper Missouri, Lewis and Clark saw signs of Indian camps, hunting expeditions, cook fires, and smoke signals. But they did not encounter any people. In any case, they could not be sure whether these deserted camps belonged to the Shoshone, or indicated the unwelcome presence of hostile Assiniboine or Blackfeet.

By late July the party had reached the Three Forks, and Sacagawea began to recognize landmarks from the area in which she lived prior to being kidnapped as a child. While Lewis wrangled the boats up the river, Clark led a party by land, suffering blistered feet and prickly pear punctures. But they still saw no Indians. The explorers simply did not realize that the Shoshone were still hunting and fishing west of the Divide and typically did not cross the mountains until early fall.

Beaverhead Rock

Beaverhead Rock (courtesy NPS)

By the first week of August, Lewis and Clark’s party was exhausted, demoralized, and hungry. The river was barely navigable, Clark was sick and his feet painful and infected. If they could not find horses, the expedition would have to attempt the Rocky Mountains on foot, carrying only a fraction of their supplies and relying on finding scarce game in the mountains in winter. It was a bleak prospect indeed. Then, a ray of hope: Sacagawea recognized Beaverhead Rock. She was certain that her people would be camped along the river nearby.

Clark still being too ill to lead a scouting party, Lewis set out with George Drouillard, John Shields, and Hugh McNeal. On the morning of August 11, he finally found the man he was looking for:

after having marched in this order for about five miles I discovered an Indian on horse back about two miles distance coming down the plain toward us.    with my glass I discovered from his dress that he was of a different nation from any that we had yet seen, and was satisfyed of his being a Sosone; his arms were a bow and quiver of arrows, and was mounted on an eligant horse without a saddle, and a small string which was attatched to the underjaw of the horse which answered as a bridle. I was overjoyed at the sight of this stranger and had no doubt of obtaining a friendly introduction to his nation provided I could get near enough to him to convince him of our being whitemen. I therefore proceeded towards him at my usual pace.    when I had arrived within about a mile he mad a halt which I did also and unloosing my blanket from my pack, I mad him the signal of friendship known to the Indians of the Rocky mountains and those of the Missouri, which is by holding the mantle or robe in your hands at two corners and then throwing up in the air higher than the head bringing it to the earth as if in the act of spreading it, thus repeating three times.    this signal of the robe has arrisen from a custom among all those nations of spreading a robe or skin for ther gests to set on when they are visited.    this signal had not the desired effect, he still kept his position and seemed to view Drewyer an Shields who were now comiming in sight on either hand with an air of suspicions, I wold willingly have made them halt but they were too far distant to hear me and I feared to make any signal to them least it should increase the suspicion in the mind of the Indian of our having some unfriendly design upon him. I therefore haistened to take out of my sack some b[e]ads a looking glas and a few trinketes which I had brought with me for this purpose and leaving my gun and pouch with McNeal advanced unarmed towards him.    he remained in the same stedfast poisture untill I arrived in about 200 paces of him when he turn his hose about and began to move off slowly from me; I now called to him in as loud a voice as I could command repeating the word tab-ba-bone, which in their language signifyes white man.

Shoshone on horseback

Shoshone on horseback

Lewis advanced slowly, repeatedly shouting the word “tab-ba-bone,” a word which he had undoubtedly gotten from Sacagawea as the best way to describe white men to her people. Seeing the Indian glancing nervously over his shoulder, Lewis frantically motioned for Drouillard and Shields to halt their advance so as not to spook the man, but Shields failed to see the signal and continued forward. Lewis continued in his journal: “whe I arrived within about 150 paces I again repepeated the word tab-ba-bone and held up the trinkits in my hands and striped up my shirt sleve to give him an opportunity of seeing the colour of my skin and advanced leasure towards him but he did not remain untill I got nearer than about 100 paces when he suddonly turned his hose about, gave him the whip leaped the creek and disapeared in the willow brush in an instant and with him vanished all my hopes of obtaining horses for the present.”

Lewis was mortified, disappointed, and furious at Shields and the other men. He confessed that he “could not forbare abraiding them a little for their want of attention and imprudence on this occasion.” In other words, Shields got a good old-fashioned army ass-chewing.

Still hoping to make contact, Lewis and his men tracked the Shoshone for two more days. On the morning of August 13, Lewis again had a close encounter:

we had proceeded about four miles through a wavy plain parallel to the valley or river bottom when at the distance of about a mile we saw two women, a man and some dogs on an eminence immediately before us.    they appeared to vew us with attention and two of them after a few minutes set down as if to wait our arrival we continued our usual pace towards them.    when we had arrived within half a mile of them I directed the party to halt and leaving my pack and rifle I took the flag which I unfurled and avanced singly towards them the women soon disappeared behind the hill, the man continued untill I arrived within a hundred yards of him and then likewise absconded.    tho’ I frequently repeated the word tab-ba-bone sufficiently loud for him to have heard it. I now haistened to the top of the hill where they had stood but could see nothing of them.

Shoshone women and children

Shoshone women and children

A short time later, however, Lewis finally hit paydirt:

we had not continued our rout more than a mile when we were so fortunate as to meet with three female savages.    the short and steep ravines which we passed concealed us from each other untill we arrived within 30 paces.    a young woman immediately took to flight, an Elderly woman and a girl of about 12 years old remained. I instantly laid by my gun and advanced towards them.    they appeared much allarmed but saw that we were to near for them to escape by flight they therefore seated themselves on the ground, holding down their heads as if reconciled to die which the expected no doubt would be their fate; I took the elderly woman by the hand and raised her up repeated the word tab-ba-bone and strip up my shirt sleve to sew her my skin; to prove to her the truth of the ascertion that I was a white man for my face and hads which have been constantly exposed to the sun were quite as dark as their own. they appeared instantly reconciled, and the men coming up I gave these women some beads a few mockerson awls some pewter looking-glasses and a little paint.

After calling back the young woman who had run away, Lewis “painted their tawny cheeks with some vermilion” as a sign of friendship and bestowed trinkets on the women to convince them of his good intentions. The women agreed to lead him to their camp. Lewis recorded in  his journal that after walking with the women another two miles, “we met a party of about 60 warriors mounted on excellent horses who came in nearly full speed,  when they arrived I advanced towards them with the flag leaving my gun with the party about 50 paces behid me.    the chief and two others who were a little in advance of the main body spoke to the women, and they informed them who we were and exultingly shewed the presents which had been given them    these men then advanced and embraced me very affectionately in their way which is by puting their left arm over you wright sholder clasping your back, while they apply their left cheek to yours and frequently vociforate the word âh-hi’-e, âh-hi’-e  that is, I am much pleased, I am much rejoiced.    bothe parties now advanced and we wer all carresed and besmeared with their grease and paint till I was heartily tired of the national hug.”

Charlie Russell's Captain Lewis Meeting the Shoshones

“Captain Lewis Meeting the Shoshones” by Charles Russell

Lewis might not have been a “huggy” person, but he was a most fortunate one. Having never encountered white people before, the Shoshone were friendly and eager to embrace their new “tab-ba-bone” friend. According to the notes in Moulton’s Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, sources disagree on the translation of this word. Some say it meant “alien” or “stranger,” which would not have reassured the Shoshone upon repeated shoutings. Some say that Lewis meant to say Ti-yo bo-nin, meaning “I’m a white man! See!” deriving from Ti-you, meaning “one originating from the sun” (i.e., the east). Having no experience with whites, it is quite possible that tab-ba-bone meant nothing to the Shoshone at all.  Perhaps they just saw Lewis as a tired and desperate human being, and took him in.

Lewis met the principal chief, Cameahwait, who regretfully told Lewis the Shoshone had nothing to eat but berries. Lewis accepted them gratefully, and he and his famished men “made a hearty meal.” Lewis wrote that later, “an indian called me in to his bower and gave me a small morsel of the flesh of an antelope boiled, and a peice of a fresh salmon roasted; both which I eat with a very good relish.”He added with evident satisfaction: “This was the first salmon I had seen and perfectly convinced me that we were on the waters of the Pacific Ocean.”

More interesting reading: Lewis and Clark Among the Shoshones

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Among the many geographical features that Lewis and Clark were on the lookout for during their transcontinental trip was evidence of volcanic activity. Based on burned-out pieces of lignite coal that floated down the Missouri River, rumors of volcanoes in the Louisiana Purchase territory had reached Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was intrigued enough to purchase a copy of Claude Nicholas Ordinare’s Histoire naturelle des volcans in preparation for Lewis and Clark’s journey.

Illustration of a 19th century volcano eruption

Illustration of a 19th century volcano eruption

Still, the science of volcanology was still in its infancy, and Lewis and Clark were uncertain what to look for. On August 24, 1804, the Corps of Discovery was passing through present-day Dixon County, Nebraska, when Clark noted the “Great appearance of Coal” in the area  and investigated a burning bluff:

Some rain last night, a Continuation this morning; we Set out at the usial time and proceeded on the Course of last night to the (1) Commencement of a blue Clay Bluff of 180 or 190 feet high on the L. S. Those Bluffs appear to have been laterly on fire, and at this time is too hot for a man to bear his hand in the earth at any debth, gret appearance of Coal. An emence quantity of Cabalt or a Cristolised Substance which answers its discription is on the face of the Bluff—

The area Clark visited was later known as the “Ionia volcano,” after the now defunct town of Ionia, Nebraska. The burning bluff was not, however, due to volcanic activity, but rather to the heat released by oxidizing minerals on the rapidly eroding river bluff.

A few weeks later, on September 14, 1804, Clark again set out to investigate a possible volcano that had been referred to in the papers of fur trader and explorer Alexander MacKay. “I walked on Shore with a view to find an old Volcano Said to be in this neghbourhood by Mr. McKey,” Clark wrote. “I was Some distance out    Could not See any Signs of a Volcanoe, I killed a Goat, which is peculier to this Countrey about the hite of a Grown Deer Shorter, its horns Coms out immediately abov its eyes.” As there is no volcanic activity in this part of South Dakota, the phenomenon observed by Mackay (and not by Clark) was likely similar to the burning lignite bluff Clark had seen earlier.

Though they did not know it, Lewis and Clark were destined to see some of the most spectacular volcanoes in North America.

On November 3, 1805, Sergeant Patrick Gass wrote in his journal:

The morning was foggy: one of the men went out and killed a fine buck. At 9 we proceeded on, but could not see the country we were passing, on account of the fog, which was very thick till noon when it disappeared, and we had a beautiful day. We at that time came to the mouth of a river on the south side, a quarter of a mile broad, but not more than 6 or 8 inches deep, running over a bar of quicksand. At this place we dined on venison and goose; and from which we can see the high point of a mountain covered with snow, in about a southeast direction from us. Our Commanding Officers are of opinion that it is Mount Hood, discovered by a Lieutenant of Vancoover, who was up this river 75 miles.

Mount Hood

Mount Hood

It was indeed Mount Hood, one of the volcanoes in the Cascade Volcanic Arc, which includes more than 20 volcanoes in present-day Canada, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.  Formed due to one tectonic plate sliding under another on the western edge of the continent, the Cascade volcanoes are among the most potentially dangerous in the world.

Lewis and Clark’s party observed five of these, including Mount Hood, Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Jefferson, named by the Corps in honor of their presidential patron. The last major eruption of Mount Hood occurred in 1781-1782, but a more recent eruptive episode had occurred shortly before Lewis and Clark’s arrival in 1805. At the downstream end of the Columbia River gorge, Lewis and Clark noted the rich bottomlands that had been partially formed by Mount Hood’s eruption less than twenty-five years earlier. But they did not realize that the bottomlands had been formed by Mount Hood, an active volcano.

Nor did they know that Mount St. Helens had recently undergone a significant eruption. An explosion at Mt. St. Helens around the year 1800 probably rivaled the 1980 eruption in size, spreading ash over central and eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana.

Mount St. Helens erupting, May 1980

Mount St. Helens erupting, May 1980

Lewis and Clark did know something of what to expect geographically when they got to the Cascade Range due to the explorations of George Vancouver, though they initially mistook a newly-sighted peak, Mount Adams, for Mount St. Helens, and mistook Mount St. Helens for Mount Rainier. By the time they had made winter camp at Fort Clatsop, however, Clark had sorted out his map and assigned the right names to the right peaks. Lewis and Clark noted the conical nature of some of the mountains, but they apparently did not draw the connection that they were in the midst of a chain of volcanoes. Minor eruptions in the 19th century filled in the gaps as explorers and settlers realized they were living in the midst of potentially explosive geologic giants.

Lewis and Clark’s last near-miss with volcanic activity came in the summer of 1806, when they passed to the north of the amazing thermal features of present-day Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone National Park is centered over the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest supervolcano on the continent. Like the Cascade volcanoes, the Yellowstone Caldera is considered an active volcano.

Boiling pots in "Colter's Hell"

Boiling pots in "Colter's Hell," Yellowstone National Park

In 1806, John Colter, a member of the Corps of Discovery, left the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Lewis’s consent to join a group of fur trappers. After splitting up with the other trappers, Colter passed through a portion of what later became Yellowstone National park during the winter of 1807–1808. He observed at least one geothermal area in the northeastern section of the park, near Tower Fall. After surviving wounds he suffered in a battle with members of the Crow and Blackfoot tribes in 1809, he gave a description of a place of “hidden fires, smoking pits, noxious steams, and smell of brimstone” that was dismissed by many people as delirium or exaggeration. Later, Colter’s observations were borne out by the reports of other mountain men who visited the area. The place he described was nicknamed “Colter’s Hell.”

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Continuing our sculpture tour of the Lewis & Clark trail, let’s take a look at the Lewis & Clark monuments to be found in the Great Plains states.

"First Council" Monument at Fort Atkinson State Park, Nebraska, by Oreland C. Joe (2003)

This interesting monument depicts the first meeting between Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with the Native Americans. The captains, along with their dog Seaman and an interpreter (whose name was recorded by Clark as “Fairfong”), met with Shon-go-ton-go and We-the-e of the Missouria-Oto tribes. The sculptor, Oreland C. Joe, is himself a Native American of Navajo and Ute descent.

"Spirit of Discovery" by Pat Kennedy (2002) stands in front of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City, Iowa

Does this imposing statue look familiar? It should if you read Lewis & Clark in Sculpture, Part 1. It is identical to the statue that stands on the waterfront in St. Charles, Missouri. I read on the Internet (so it must be true) that there were three castings of this sculpture. Where is the other one? Let me know in the comments!

"Pointing the Way" by Tom Palmerton at the entrance of the Missouri River Basin Visitors' Center in Nebraska City.

I can’t seem to discover much about this monument. Anyone who knows more about its story and when it was dedicated is cordially invited to comment!

Mary poses with Tom Neary's "Mandan Winter" (2004) at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, North Dakota

This is truly one of my favorite Lewis & Clark sculptures. When we first arrived at the Interpretive Center (gateway to Fort Mandan and a huge milestone on our Lewis & Clark travels), it was raining lightly, and the powerful impression of the sculpture of the two captains with Sheheke of the Mandans (Big White), brought to mind some lyrics from a favorite song:

I could almost see them standin’ in the rain
Their brown and blinded faces reflecting all the pain
And all the cars and people, passing by
And all the ringing memories that can make a banjo cry

Also, visit sculptor Neary’s site for some great photos of the fabrication of this statue and a separate one of Seaman that is near the replica fort.

Explorers at the Marias, by Bob Scriver (1976). This statue stands along the Missouri River in Fort Benton, Montana.

The sculpture at left by Bob Scriver depicts Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea at “Decision Point,” as they make the critical decision at a huge fork in the river as to which branch is the true Missouri and will lead them further to the west. There is some interesting history behind this monument. The site was selected as Montana’s official state memorial to the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1925. However, no money was ever appropriated to proceed. In 1972, the community of Fort Benton began a fundraising project that resulted in $400,000 and a commission to Bob Scriver, a sculptor mostly known for his western bronzes. The research for the Fort Benton work led Scriver to a life-long obsession with Lewis & Clark.

York, Seaman, Lewis & Clark gaze westward in Bob Scriver's "Explorers at the Portage" (1989) in Great Falls

Scriver’s prominence only grew with the passing years, and in 1989 he created this bronze for the city of Great Falls in honor of the centennial of Montana statehood.

If anyone has any additional details about these statues, or I have missed any in the Great Plains states (South Dakota, where are you?), please let me know. I’d also welcome any comments on how the summer floods affected these sites. In the final installment of this series, we will visit the statues from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific.

For more reading:

Lewis & Clark road trip: The Nebraska Trail
Lewis & Clark road trip:  The Sioux City Interpretive Center
Lewis & Clark road trip: Fort Mandan
Lewis & Clark road trip: Fort Benton, Montana

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William Clark's drawing of the manitou spirit, a Missouri River petroglyph, June 5, 1804. Courtesy American Philosophical Society.

passed a Projecting Rock called the Manitou a Painting   from this Deavel to the Pt. on the Lbd Side N 23° W 7½ Ms. — William Clark, June 5, 1804

With this casual notation very early in the Lewis & Clark Expedition, somewhere in present-day Moniteau County, Missouri, William Clark made note of a rock painting which he termed a “deavel” (devil) or manitou, a French version of an Algonquian Indian word meaning “spirit.” Undoubtedly, it was only the first of many encounters the Corps of Discovery would have with Indian rock art; in fact, it seems likely that rock art was so common in the regions traversed by Meriwether Lewis and and William Clark that it was seldom thought worthy of special note.

There are actually two types of rock art: petroglyphs, or carvings made in rock; and pictographs, or paintings made on rock. Over the years, erosion has weathered away many of the rock art images that Lewis and Clark would have seen, but remarkably sites survive in Kansas, Montana, and the Columbia River Basin.

Kansas petroglyph on the Lewis & Clark trail. Courtesy Kansas History Society.

Kansas is rich in petroglyphs, especially on the sandstone bluffs and cliffs in the central part of the state. Examples can still be found depicting men on horseback and people wearing headdresses and carrying spears and shields. Animal tracks are another common theme. More rare is a monster, spirit, or “deavel” such as the one Clark described. Very little is known about the cultures that made these images, and many of them have never been documented or studied, making them a mysterious and intriguing subject for hikers and modern-day explorers.

An Elk pictograph near The Dalles. Courtesy Marysville Pictograph Project.

On the other end of the trail, the Columbia River Gorge is the site of hundreds and hundreds of ancient petroglyphs, made by tribes like the Warm Springs, Yakima, Umatilla, and Nez Perce and their ancestors. One area with thousands of drawings was named Petroglyph Canyon. Unfortunately, Lewis and Clark did very little ethnographic work while in this region (they were racing the calendar to make it to the Pacific Coast before winter set in.) And unlike in Kansas, these ancient expressions are obscured today by more than erosion. Though some can still be seen high on the cliff faces, most of them were buried under millions of gallons of water when the area was flooded by the construction of massive dams in the 1950s.

She Who Watches

A few drawings were hacked out of the rock before the floodings and stored near the fish ladder of the John Day Dam until 2004, when an amazing outdoor trail display was built for them at Columbia Hills State Park in Oregon. In addition to the 43 petroglyphs on the trail, the park is home to Tsagaglalal, “She Who Watches,” one of the most famous rock images in North America.

Further down river at The Dalles, both petroglyphs and pictographs were made by the Chinook, Clackamas, Watlala, Multnomah, Wasco, and Wishram peoples and their ancestors. A number of these rock art pieces were rescued and can be seen at The Dalles Visitor Center, the Maryhill Museum, and Roosevelt Petroglyph State Park in Washington. In addition, rubbings of many petroglyphs can be seen at the Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Washington.

Image found in Pictograph Cave State Park, Montana

Finally, a site rich in rock art is also one of the few sites remaining that has incontrovertible evidence that the Corps of Discovery passed that way. And all because William Clark decided to make some rock art of his own. At Pompey’s Pillar near present-day Billings, Montana, and nearby Pictograph Cave State Park, hundreds of red, white, and black pictographs exist from cultures dating back some 10,000 years. In his own matter-of-fact way, Clark gives a clue as to the inspiration for a petroglyph of his own:

the wind Contined high untill 2 P M. I proceeded on after the [rain] lay a little and at 4 P M arived at a remarkable rock Situated in an extensive bottom on the Stard. Side of the river & 250 paces from it.    this rock I ascended and from it’s top had a most extensive view in every direction. This rock which I shall Call Pompy’s Tower is 200 feet high and 400 paces in secumphrance and only axcessable on one Side which is from the N. E the other parts of it being a perpendicular Clift of lightish Coloured gritty rock on the top there is a tolerable Soil of about 5 or 6 feet thick Covered with Short grass. The Indians have made 2 piles of Stone on the top of this Tower. The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals &c. near which I marked my name and the day of the month & year. — William Clark, July 25, 1806

Clark's signature carved on Pompey's Pillar near Billings, Montana

I have not visited any of these sites except Pompey’s Pillar, and that was back in 1996 before I was into Lewis & Clark. I look forward to another trip to Lewis & Clark country to see these interesting and mysterious messages from the past.

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Location: Montana Highway 200, between Missoula and Rogers Pass

Mary at the Continental Divide

This incredibly scenic and varied route across Montana allows for a leisurely and fascinating day along the trail. This area is called “The Blackfoot Challenge” by the cooperative of local communities that have organized to protect the Blackfoot Valley watershed. The drive parallels the Blackfoot River and cuts through the heart of the territory once ruled by the Blackfoot Indians (who call the river Cokahlah-ishkit). For Lewis and Clark buffs, its significance is that it also parallels Meriwether Lewis’s return journey through Montana in 1806.

On July 3, 1806, while at Travelers’ Rest, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark decided to separate the Corps of Discovery in order to make up for some lost opportunities and get a little more exploration under their belts before heading home. Specifically, Lewis planned to take a party of nine men northeast to search for the source of the Marias River. This side mission was highly dangerous, for it took Lewis’s small party into the territory of the Blackfoot Indians, a tough and uncompromising band that was closely allied with the British. A number of historians have speculated that Lewis was feeling pressured by the Expedition’s “failure” to discover a water route to the Pacific Ocean (none existed). If he could prove the Marias River extended past the 49th Parallel, he could help Thomas Jefferson make a case that the Louisiana Purchase extended well into the boundaries of modern-day Canada. For Lewis, it seemed worth taking a chance, though his journal revealed his anxiety as well:

I took leave of my worthy friend and companion Capt. Clark and the party that accompanyed him. I could not avoid feeling much concern on this occasion although I hoped this seperation was only momentary. – Meriwether Lewis, July 3, 1806

For modern-day travelers, a delightful and leisurely drive in Lewis’s footsteps begins with mountains and pines near Missoula. This is the Montana of “A River Runs Through It.” Lewis and his party followed an old Indian road known to the Blackfoot as “the road to the buffalo.” Eventually, it led to the Great Falls and the yellow, rolling hills where the Indians converged for hunting season. Montana 200 closely follows this old route.

The Prairie of the Knobs. Photo by Bitterroot.

Three days out of Traveler’s Rest, Lewis came upon one of the most interesting landscapes on the entire Lewis & Clark trail, a place he named “the prairie of the knobs.” Here Lewis described a barren landscape studded with lumpy glacial mounds. The surrounding landscape contained a wide variety of birds and many animals, from antelope and deer to “burrowing squirrels” (known to us as Columbian ground squirrels). On our trip, we didn’t see any of those, but at a dusty rest stop, we did see a hobo spider. More to the point, Mary saw it drop on my back from above and make tracks for my neck. She acted quickly to save me from what would have been a scary bite! It made me wonder what instances of extreme screaming Lewis & Clark failed to record in their journals.

A very pleasant stop on “the road to the buffalo” is the small, bustling town of Lincoln. Lincoln had its day in the media spotlight back in 1996, when the pathetic figure of Ted Kaczynski, the murderous “Unabomber,” was hauled out of a cabin where he was living as a hermit. Lincoln has a lot to offer a tourist loafing along Highway 200, including a big souvenir trading post (where Mary found one of her best all-time Lewis & Clark t-shirts) and a lunch spot called Ponde Roses’s where we got great BLTs.

From Lincoln, you head towards the Continental Divide through incredible timbered mountains. We climbed and climbed into the spectacular and beautiful heights with hardly another car or person in sight. It was easy to imagine the Blackfoot still roaming this land and wish that somehow we all could have found a way to live together.

Funny sign near the Continental Divide

On July 7, 1806, Lewis and his party crossed the Continental Divide at a rugged spot now called Lewis & Clark Pass (though Clark never saw it). From the pass, Lewis had a spectacular view all the way to the Great Falls area and the landmark Square Butte. Even today, the faint marks of Indian travois poles can be seen etched in the prairie soil, and back then it must have been a sight to both thrill and slightly terrify the explorers.

Lewis & Clark Pass is just one pass along the “Great Divide” which separates the waters that drain into the Pacific from those that drain into the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. It can be reached via a three-mile hike/climb, which we were not equipped to undertake. Highway 200 crosses the Divide at another spectacular spot known as Rogers Pass, chosen as the highway route because it is 800 feet lower than Lewis & Clark Pass. Haze and the smell of woodsmoke from nearby wildfires was obvious here and off and on for the rest of the day.

Rogers Pass made history on January 20, 1954, when its weather station recorded a temperature of -70 degrees — the coldest temperature ever recorded in the continental United States. Rogers Pass is in a wilderness area noted as one of the last strongholds of the grizzly bear.

Here’s a joke is so old Lewis himself probably dreamed it up, but it’s still good:

When you go hiking in an area with grizzly bears, be sure to make noise by attaching tiny bells to your clothing, and watch out for grizzly bear poop.

How do you recognize grizzly bear poop?

It’s full of tiny bells.

More great reading:
Lewis & Clark Among the Blackfeet
Knobby Prairie (from the Discovering Lewis & Clark site)
Hobo Spiders

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Location: Great Falls, Montana

Bob Scriver statue of Charlie Russell at the C.M. Russell Museum

The first time we were in Great Falls, we missed the Charlie Russell Museum out of sheer ignorance, and had to spend the whole trip listening to other people talk about how great it was. The desire to see the museum was one of our main reasons for returning for a second visit to Great Falls.

While my expectations were high, I was even more impressed than I expected to be with the size and beauty of this first-rate museum, which showcases the life and work of Charlie Russell (1864-1926), the consummate artist of the American West. Russell arrived in Montana at age 16, the disaffected son of a prosperous St. Louis family. His folks figured a summer out west would cure their boy’s restlessness and get him ready to enter the family business. Instead, Russell immediately fell in love with the people and landscapes of the West. He immersed himself in the life of a working cowboy. A few years later, he also awakened to a desire to draw and paint what he was experiencing.

The museum’s numerous galleries showcase Russell’s work from these early efforts through the flowering of his art and international success. Russell’s career spanned decades, and it’s safe to say that he created a unique and personal body of work that documents a way of life that was already vanishing when he arrived on the scene. Far from mere “cowboy pictures,” the work of Charlie Russell is not only amazingly technically proficient, but full of deep humor, empathy, and pathos.

One of Russell's delightful letters includes a self-portrait of himself on "Red Bird." Russell wrote with a sense of humor rivaling that of Mark Twain.

We spent hours viewing hundreds of Russell’s great story paintings, as well as little sculptures, whimsical illustrations, and his wonderfully humorous letters (what a delight it must have been to be this man’s friend!). We also learned about the critical role his wife Nancy played in his success (no businessman, he). In addition, we viewed the collection of works by O.C. Seltzer, temporary exhibits of the paintings of Blackfeet artist Gary Schildt and sculptor Bob Scriver, and a great collection of firearms.

Best of all, the museum also includes Russell’s small but beautiful home and the log cabin studio in which he worked. His wife had the studio built next door to get him out of the house. His collection of Indian and western artifacts, paints, equipment, and the rustic space where he painted were much the same as he left them when he died.

It is easy to feel very close to Russell here, and a tour of the Russell Museum is easily worth half a day of your vacation, at least — the luxury of a whole day, if you can swing it.

More great reading:

Charlie Russell’s Paintings  of the Corps of Discovery

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Flood waters cover a highway between Nebraska and Iowa.

It’s pretty hard not to focus on the Missouri River right now in light of the historic flooding going on in Lewis & Clark country. Many of Lewis & Clark aficionados dream of floating on the river and recreating parts of the journey, and some, like the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, have even done it. But look at it now:

Brad Williams’ amazing photographs of the flooding near Council Bluffs

The River and I, by John G. Neihardt (1910)

A fascinating account, more poetry than travelogue, can be found in John G. Neihardt’s slim volume, The River and I, first published in 1910. Neihardt was in his mid-20s at the time that he and two friends, whom he identifies only as The Kid and Bill, hiked from Great Falls (the nearest railroad stop) to Fort Benton, where they planned to assemble a homemade boat and then float the river from Fort Benton to Sioux City, Iowa. From the beginning, it is captivating to imagine the young men’s journey as they hike through sagebrush and prickly pears in a country almost unchanged from the way it appeared to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark a century earlier.

Neihardt’s description of the Great Falls of the Missouri, still undammed at the time of his adventure, adds another dimension to the awe felt by Lewis in 1805:

A half-hour more of clambering over shale-strewn gullies, up sun-baked watercourses, and we found ourselves toiling up the ragged slope of a bluff; and soon we stood upon a rocky ledge with the thunders beneath us. Damp gusts beat upward over the blistering scarp of the cliff. I lay down, and crawling to the edge, looked over. Two hundred feet below me — straight down as a pebble drops — a watery Inferno raged, and far-flung whirlwinds all but exhausted with the dizzy upward reach, whisked cool, invisible mops of mist across my face.

With the dubious help of skeptical locals, the young men establish their “navy yard” at Fort Benton and proceed to build a light gasoline-powered boat that proves no match for the brutal whims of the capricious Missouri. And as for supplies in Montana, they soon learn not to rely on the “towns” labeled on the map:

At a point about fifty miles from the “town” so deeply longed for, a lone cow-punch appeared on the bank.

“How far to Rocky Point?” I cried.

“Oh, something less than two hundred miles!” drawled the horseman. (How carelessly they juggle with miles in that country!)

“It’s just a little place, isn’t it?” I continued.

“Little place!” answered the cow-puncher; “hell, no!”

“What!” I cried in glee; “Is it really a town of importance?” I had visions of a budding metropolis, full of gasoline and grub.

“It guess it ain’t a little place,” explained the rider; “w’y, they’ve got nigh onto ten thousand cattle down there!”

Though only 80 pages, The River and I is not a quick read, but a book to savor, full of youthful philosophy, poetical descriptions of the river as it existed 100 years ago, and a fair dash of humor and adventure. History buffs will enjoy as well the differences between then and now, including Neihardt’s enthusiastic ruminations on what it means to be a man (with strong echoes of Teddy Roosevelt and The Strenuous Life) and the near-obsession, common to the period, of carefully documenting the ethnicity of everyone involved and attributing their character traits to their race. Who knew being a Cornishman could be so significant?

John G. Neihardt in later years

John G. Neihardt went on to become a significant man of letters in the West, authoring epic poems and interviewing dozens of participants in key events such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Named the poet laureate of Nebraska in 1921, he held the post until his death in 1973. His most famous work is Black Elk Speaks (1932), a narration of the visions of Lakota holy man Black Elk. Neihardt worked with Black Elk for several years in the early 1930s to record his life and philosophy, earning the Lakota name Flaming Rainbow. The book is still in print and was especially popular in the 1960s, when it greatly influenced changing perceptions about Native American wisdom and the beginnings of the “new age” movement.

More great reading: Montana Yesterday (where I first learned about this book)

John G. Neihardt (great information from the Nebraska State Historical Society)

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