Exploring is not for sissies. Although only one man died during the Lewis & Clark Expedition, injuries, illness, and accidents were a part of the daily life of the Corps of Discovery. In the rugged and sometimes hostile wilderness, close calls were unavoidable. Captain Lewis himself, in addition to being shot in the butt, was chased by grizzly bears, fell ill for weeks after crossing the Great Divide, and narrowly escaped being shot during a confrontation with the Blackfeet. In addition, over the course of the trip he suffered several spectacular falls.
Lewis’s first tumble down a cliff came on May 23, 1804, just a couple of days out from St. Louis. In present-day Franklin County, Missouri, the Corps passed a local landmark called Tavern Cave, and Lewis climbed up the bluff to have a closer look. Clark wrote in his journal about what happened next:
passed the Tavern Cave, Capt Lewis’ assended the hill which has peninsulis projecting in raged points to the river, and was near falling from a Peninsulia Saved himself by the assistance of his Knife. Capt. Lewis near falling from the Pencelia of rocks 300 feet, he caught at 20 foot.
Lewis evidently never went anywhere without his espontoon, because he had it handy the next time he plummeted off a cliff. On June 7, 1805, in present day Choteau County, Montana near the mouth of the Marias River, Lewis and Private Richard Windsor had a very close call. Lewis wrote:
In passing along the face of one of these bluffs today I sliped at a narrow pass of about 30 yards in length and but for a quick and fortunate recovery by means of my espontoon I should been precipitated into the river down a craggy pricipice of about ninety feet. I had scarcely reached a place on which I could stand with tolerable safety even with the assistance of my espontoon before I heard a voice behind me cry out god god Capt. what shall I do on turning about I found it was Windsor who had sliped and fallen abut the center of this narrow pass and was lying prostrate on his belley.
Lewis remained calm and managed to help Windsor to safety, then ordered the rest of the men coming behind to take a safer route. His journal reveals that he took the incident in stride, seeming to feel that all’s well that ends well: “we roasted and eat a hearty supper of our venison not having taisted a mosel before during the day; I now laid myself down on some willow boughs to a comfortable nights rest, and felt indeed as if I was fully repaid for the toil and pain of the day, so much will a good shelter, a dry bed, and comfortable supper revive the sperits of the waryed, wet and hungry traveler.”
On the return trip, Lewis suffered one more spectacular fall while traveling along Grave Creek, in present-day Missoula County, Montana, on June 30, 1806. Lewis wrote in his journal about the incident:
in descending the creek this morning on the steep side of a high hill my horse sliped and both his hinder feet out of the road and fell, I also fell off backwards and slid near 40 feet down the hill before I could stop myself such was the steepness of the declivity; the horse was near falling on me in the first instance but fortunately recovers and we both escaped unhirt.
Typically blasé about the near-miss, he immediately added: “I saw a small grey squirrel today much like those of the Pacific coast only that the belly of this was white. I also met with the plant in blume which is sometimes called the lady’s slipper or mockerson flower.”