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The Lewis & Clark journals provide a fascinating snapshot of the U.S. frontier on the cusp of the 19th century, when the explorers were navigating through a roiling melting pot of attitudes, cultures and nationalities.  This rapidly changing world is perfectly illustrated in Lewis’s journal entry of November 23, 1803. The Corps of Discovery was still en route from Louisville to St. Louis. Clark was under the weather with stomach problems, and Lewis took a break from navigating the difficult and rapid currents of the Mississippi River to pay a visit to a settlement he called “Cape Jeradeau” (more commonly known today as Cape Girardeau, Missouri).

There Lewis encountered the commandant, a striking figure named Louis Lorimier. Born near Montreal in 1748, Lorimier and his father had established an Indian trading post known as “Laramie’s Station” on a branch of the Great Miami River in Ohio. Lorimier was loyal to the British during the Revolution, and even led raiding parties of Indians into Kentucky. Awkwardly, William Clark’s brother George Rogers Clark had burned Laramie’s Station to the ground in 1782, ruining his business and destroying $20,000 worth of goods.

War Council at Lorimier's Store, by Hal Sherman

War Council at Lorimier’s Store, by Hal Sherman

So it was perhaps just as well that Lewis went alone to visit Louis Lorimier. A few years after George Rogers Clark burned him out, Lorimier had moved to Spanish Louisiana in the 1780’s and obtained a large land grant from the Spanish to establish a settlement for Indians, partly as a defensive buffer against possible American invasion. Lorimier’s district was huge, extending, in Lewis’s words, ” the distance of sixty miles W. from the river as far as the river St. Francis.” Under the Spanish crown, Lorimier was authorized to administer land grants, hold court, take the census, and maintain the militia for Cape Girardeau. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, in spite of being no great friend to the United States, Lorimier continued in much the same role and served as U.S. Indian agent.

Having entirely recovered his losses from the George Rogers Clark incident, Lorimier was now “a man of very considerable property.” Lewis witnessed this firsthand in a wild scene that was going on just as he arrived. He found Commandant Lorimier in the middle of a horse race, in which the prizes were the horses themselves. Lorimier lost four horses valued at $200 but “seemed to bear his loss with much cheerfulness.” But not everyone followed his example.

The Comdt. was busied for some time in settling the disputes which had arrisen in consequence of odds being given among the by betters; this seane reminded me very much of their small raises in Kentucky among the uncivilized backwoodsmen, nor did the subsequent disorder which took place in consequence of the descision of the judges of the rase at all lessen the resembleance; one fellow contrary to the descision of the judges swore he had won & was carrying off not only his own horse but that also of his competitor; but the other being the stoutest of the two dismounted him and took both horses in turn; it is not extrawdinary that these people should be disorderly    they are almost entirely emegrant from the fronteers of Kentuckey & Tennessee, and are the most dessolute and abandoned even among these people; they are men of desperate fortunes, but little to loose either character or property—

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, 1867

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, 1867

Once all disputes were settled, Lewis was able to present his credentials and found himself warmly received by Lorimier. He describe the commandant in vivid terms:

he is a man about 5 F 8 I high, dark skin hair and [e]yes; he is remarkable for having once had a remarkable suit of hair; he was very cheerfull & I took occasion to mention this to him    he informed me that it was on[c]e so long that it touched the grond when he stood errect—nor was it much less remarkable for it’s thickness; this I could readily believe from it’s present appearance, he is about 60 years of age, and yet scarcely a grey hair in his head; which reaches now when cewed (the manner in which he dresses it) nearly as low as his knees, and it is proportionally thick; he appears yet quite active—    this uncommon cue falls dow his back to which it is kept close by means of a leather gerdle confined around his waist—

Like many Canadian traders, Lorimier had taken metis wife, a French-Shawnee woman named Charlotte Bougainville. Lewis was invited home to meet Charlotte and the rest of Lorimier’s family. He found them to be remarkably “decent,” using the adjective three times in the course of one journal entry. “She is a very desent woman and if we may judge from her present appearance has been very handsome when young,” Lewis wrote of Lorimier’s wife. “She dresses after the Shawnee manner with a stroud leggings and mockinsons, differing however from them in her linin which seemed to be drawn beneath her girdle of her stroud, as also a short Jacket with long sleeves over her linin with long sleeves more in the stile of the French Canadian women.”

Lewis meets Lorimier - Mississippi River mural, Cape Girardeau

Lewis meets Lorimier – Mississippi River mural, Cape Girardeau

Lorimier and his wife had seven children. His eldest daughter caught Lewis’s eye: “The daughter is remarkably handsome & dresses in a plain yet fashionable stile or such as is now Common in the Atlantic States among the respectable people of the middle class.    she is an agreeable affible girl, & much the most descent looking feemale I hae seen since I left the settlement in Kentuckey a little below Louisville.”

Invited to stay for supper, Lewis wrote with approval, “The lady of the family presided, and with much circumspection performed the honours of the table: supper being over which was really a comfortable and desent onen I bid the family an afectionate adieu.”   It may have been the last decent meal the Captain would have for a while, at least until he reached St. Louis.

Plaque at Lorimier Cemetery, Cape Girardeau

Plaque at Lorimier Cemetery, Cape Girardeau

In 1806, Lorimier laid out the lots and streets for Cape Girardeau along the wide, flat riverfront. In 1808, the settlement was incorporated as the town of Cape Girardeau. Louis Lorimier, the Father of Cape Girardeau, died in 1812 and is buried in Lorimier Cemetery, on land that he donated to the community he founded. His wife preceded him in death in 1808 and is buried by his side.

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

18th-century sailors

18th-century sailors: no strangers to scurvy

During the age of exploration and long sea voyages, scurvy was a common malady among men who went for months on an unbalanced, limited diet. Scurvy is a serious disease that occurs when you have a severe lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in your food. The symptoms of scurvy include weakness, fatigue, loose teeth, swollen gums, stinking breath, anemia, skin eruptions and even hemorrhages.

Vitamin C is vital for the health of connective tissues such as collagen, cartilage and bone; it is also critical to the body’s ability to absorb iron for healthy red blood cells. Though Lewis and Clark would not have known about vitamin C and its role in human health, they were certainly aware of the dangers of scurvy, and there is some evidence that they took concrete steps to prevent it during the Expedition.

Jug of vinegar

Vinegar did little to help prevent scurvy

Starting in Revolutionary times, the Continental Army included a daily dose of 4 teaspoons of vinegar in the men’s rations to help prevent scurvy among the troops. It is recorded in the journals  that William Clark obtained “750 rats. [rations] of Soap Candles & vinager” for the Corps of Discovery while at Camp River DuBois in January 1804. Since vinegar is never mentioned again in the journals, it is unknown whether the rations were handed out at Camp River DuBois, taken along on the expedition, or used for some other purpose than scurvy prevention.  In any case, the vinegar would not have helped much. Though cider vinegar is as tangy as lemon juice and would have supplied some of the acid ideally gotten through citrus fruits, it contains no vitamin C and thus would have had little practical effect in preventing scurvy.

A Treatise on the Scurvy by Dr. James Lind, 1753

A Treatise on the Scurvy by Dr. James Lind, 1753

Fortunately for Lewis and Clark, scurvy is not that easy a disease to get. It takes one to three months of complete vitamin C deprivation before the human body begins to show signs of scurvy. For much of the journey, the men were able to find fruits, vegetables, and berries along the trail that would have supplied some much-needed vitamin C. In various entries in the journals, Lewis and Clark mention the men consuming rosehips, plums, chokecherries, serviceberries, and currants. Also, some greens like cattail, lamb’s quarter, and miner’s lettuce are good sources of vitamin C and would have been available at points along the trail.

I did not know (until researching this blog) that some types of meat can also contain vitamin C. Organ meats such as kidneys and liver are sometimes rich in vitamin C, and so are some kinds of fish. So these sources would have also helped supply the much-needed vitamin in the Corps’ diet.

Nevertheless, some scholars believe that Lewis and Clark’s men may have suffered from the beginning stages of scurvy at some points along the expedition.   On May 10, 1805, while traveling through violent winds and sometimes snow in present-day Montana, Lewis wrote:  “Boils and imposthumes have been very common with the party Bratton is now unable to work with one on his hand; soar eyes continue also to be common to all of us in a greater or less degree.” Dr. E. G. Chuinard, author of Only One Man Died: The Medical Aspects of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, suggests that the “boils and imposthumes” may have been an indication of mild scurvy.

Hawthorn berries

Hawthorn berries from the Nez Perce provided desperately needed vitamin C

There can be no doubt that the Corps was badly malnourished when they emerged from the Bitterroot Mountains in September of 1805. Deep snows made the seven-day crossing of the rugged Bitterroot Range a terrible ordeal, and there was no wild game to be found. The Corps was reduced to slaughtering their horses and eating rancid “portable soup” Lewis had purchased back in Philadelphia two years before. During this time, Clark records that skin infections and boils were common among the men, and it would not have been surprising if these were a sign of scurvy. Fortunately, the Corps reached the Nez Perce villages, where the natives supplied hawthorn berries. Later on the Columbia River, they had access to fruits and fish that helped restore the men to health.

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Albert Szent-Gyorgi discovered Vitamin C in 1927

While various theories about the treatment of scurvy abounded, the actual cause of the disease remained somewhat poorly understood, and scurvy continued to be a scourge of armies and navies well into the 20th century. It was not until the 1920’s that Hungarian researcher Albert Szent-Gyorgyi isolated a substance known as hexuronic acid, or vitamin C. The connection between the lack of hexuronic acid and scurvy was finally proven in 1932, by American researcher Charles Glen King of the University of Pittsburgh.  Albert Szent-Gyorgyi won the Nobel Prize for his achievement – and renamed his discovery “ascorbic acid” in honor of its antiscorbutic (anti-scurvy) properties.

Shinin’ Times! by Edward Louis Henry

The fur trade played a pivotal role in the development of the American West. From the 1600s, France and England had competed for the best spots to trap beaver and other fur-bearing animals and ship the pelts home for enormous profits. Certainly the opportunity for America to join in this seemingly inexhaustible fur bonanza was one of the reasons that President Jefferson was eager for Lewis & Clark to stake U.S. claims to the Upper Missouri and the Rocky Mountains.

While I knew this historical background, I’d never given much thought to the young men who actually ventured into the wilderness and lived as mountain men. Who were they? Why did they choose to live such a hard life? How did they learn what to do in time to survive? What would it have actually been like to leave behind everything familiar and live such a free and elemental life?

About the time that our first novel, To the Ends of the Earth, came out, I had the privilege of reading and reviewing Edward Louis Henry’s excellent first novel, The Backbone of the World, on our old and long-gone website, and we later exchanged copies of our second novels. Like us, Ed has battled the indifference of the publishing industry to meaty American historical fiction, and so you can imagine how delighted I was to be contacted by his new publisher with a copy of his third novel, Shinin’ Times!

Shinin’ Times! explores the peak years of the fur trade, from 1828-1833, and continues the story of our picaresque hero Temple Buck, who at the ripe old age of 23 has graduated from wilderness newcomer to grizzled veteran of the Rocky Mountains. Henry writes the book as a first-person “memoir” by Temple, with an authenticity that can easily make you forget you are reading a work of modern fiction. The story begins with Temple returning to St. Louis to “re-up” for another trip up the river, and the sights and smells of the frontier gateway come to life, complete with a trip to William Clark’s farm on the outskirts of town.

Before long, Temple has embarked on his journey into the wilderness in the company of a wry Shawnee chief who happens to be his biological father, and Micah, a former slave turned expert gunsmith. As they join up with old friends at “rendezvous” (the annual fur-trade gathering of buying, selling, and carousing), the international nature of the rough-and-tumble early West comes alive — Americans, Irish, and French rub elbows with Indians of many tribes and dispositions, and in Henry’s skilled hands lovable fictional characters mingle effortlessly with real-life historical characters like Jedediah Smith and William Sublette.

Temple’s world is one of rough and raw beauty. In St. Louis, he finds comfort and pleasure in the arms of the always-randy and dramatic Lucette, a mixed-race madam from New Orleans, but lasting love and the final transition from boyhood to maturity come with Rainbow, a Salish woman who becomes the love of his life. Violence and death are ever-present, and Shinin’ Times! dramatizes countless battles with Indians who attack the fur trappers. The reality of the kill-or-be-killed ethos of the frontier is presented with matter-of-fact starkness, unmarred by either defensiveness or politically correct apologies by the author.

While focusing on Temple and his story, Shinin’ Times! and its predecessors are unlike any novels I have ever read. Henry has done it again, creating a fully realized alternate reality. Ed Henry is a mountain man reenactor as well a writer; perhaps that accounts for his ability to channel historical and cultural details into a total immersion experience, a time machine of the imagination.

I have some minor bones to pick with Henry, including wordiness truly worthy of the 19th century and the overuse of dialect to distinguish among the kaleidoscope of nationalities. But these are minor flaws in what is shaping up as a titanic achievement in historical fiction. A fourth book, Glory Days Gone Under, is planned to take Temple (and us) through the storied final years of this uniquely American saga.  Shinin’ Times! is a fascinating novel, well worth picking up for everyone interested in the early American west.

Purchase Shinin’ Times! and other novels by Edward Louis Henry at Christopher Matthews Publishing.

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.

Aurora borealis in Alaska, 2006. Courtesy of Dick Hutchinson.

One of the most popular posts we ever did on this site was about the aurora borealis (also known as the Northern Lights) that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark observed in the fall of 1804, when they were getting settled at their winter camp near the Mandan villages in North Dakota. The Little Ice Age explains how the aurora borealis that year may have been especially vivid due to the extreme climate conditions that prevailed that winter. Clark’s thermometer, which is considered reliable, routinely reached -40. After a while, as Clark wrote, a temperature of -9 “was not considered cold.”

Clark wrote a wondering passage about his first sight of the incredibly beautiful natural phenomenon:

last night late we wer awoke by the Sergeant of the Guard to See a nothern light, which was light, but not red, and appeared to Darken and Some times nearly obscered, and divided, and many times appeared in light Streeks, and at other times a great Space light & containing floating Collomns which appeared opposite each other & retreat leaveing the lighter Space at no time of the Same appearence. — William Clark, November 6, 1804

The aurora borealis is caused by solar flares which interact with the earth’s magnetic field. The subatomic particles of the flare are directed in streams to the earth’s magnetic poles, appearing in the sky as colorful trembling arches and streaks in a variety of colors. And as it turns out, many more of us will soon have the chance to witness what Lewis and Clark saw, because in 2013, the aurora borealis will be visible further south than it has been in over a decade.

Aurora borealis over Norway, by Ole C. Salomonsen

The reason is a phenomenon called the solar maximum, a period of increased activity by the sun that results in solar flares, intense magnetic loops (sunspots), and the flipping of the sun’s North and South poles. NASA scientists have issued varied predictions on how strong next year’s solar max is expected to be. Depending on how strong they are, the geomagnetic storms could cause disruptions in our cellphones, television, GPS, and power grids, and even expose air travelers to high degrees of radiation.

It will also produce fabulous auroras. The most powerful solar storm ever recorded came in 1859, and produced auroras visible as far south as Los Angeles and Mexico. The storm caused widespread disruption to telegraph lines, and it was reported that gold miners in the Rocky Mountains could work through the night and that townsfolk in New England could read a newspaper by the brightness of the lights (only in New England would people read the paper during the aurora borealis).

While next year’s storm isn’t expected to be that strong, it shouldn’t be underestimated. It is difficult to predict the aurora borealis, but it should be visible in many parts of Europe and the United States, and spectacular in places like Alaska, northern Canada, Siberia, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. The best months to see the aurora are August-April, with peak viewing around the equinoxes in September and March.

The Norwegian photographer Ole C. Salomonsen is an aurora chaser. The amazing video above is called Celestial Lights. Don’t skip this one.

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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