During the return journey from the Pacific coast in 1806, Lewis and Clark decided to divide their party so that they could do some extra exploring. For more than a month — July 3 to August 12 — they were out of contact with each other. And as regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised to know, Meriwether Lewis had a huge adventure in which he almost got killed, twice. William Clark, on the other hand, had a time so idyllic that it is often overlooked even by historians of the Expedition. But it shouldn’t be, because during that month, in his own patented “no drama” fashion, Clark led the pioneering exploration of the Yellowstone River and southwest Montana.
The Yellowstone River is the principal tributary of the upper Missouri. It is actually bigger than the Missouri at the point where it joins the great river, flowing in from the south and draining the entire basin of present-day Yellowstone National Park and the high plains of southern Montana and northern Wyoming. It was called “yellow stone” by the Hidatsa Indians, probably for the color of the rocks in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Lewis and Clark translated the name into English (independently, French fur trappers also translated the Hidatsa into Roche Jaune or Yellow Rock). The river was best-known to western tribes such as the Lakota, Cree, Crow, and Cheyenne, who used it and its tributaries to get around their rich summer hunting grounds.
Lewis and Clark had passed the Yellowstone on their way west back in 1805, but they barely had time to do more than examine its confluence with the Missouri. This time, Clark would make a full reconnaissance. His party included York, Sacagawea and her family, and 13 men. For the first time in the journey, Sacagawea actually got to be a guide. As Clark records:
I observe Several leading roads which appear to pass to a gap of the mountain in a E. N E. direction about 18 or 20 miles distant. The indian woman who has been of great Service to me as a pilot through this Country recommends a gap in the mountain more South which I shall cross.— July 13, 1806
The pass Sacagawea recommended, later called Bozeman Pass, took Clark and his company south of present-day Livingston, Montana, just 40 miles from Mammoth Hot Springs and other wonders we associate with Yellowstone National Park. Clark had no way of knowing what he was missing, and he and the men set up camp near present-day Park City.
It’s striking how the weeks on the Yellowstone encapsulate Clark’s personality and career in a nutshell. Clark was the great waterman of the Expedition. Here, he and his men got busy building dugouts to navigate the turbulent waters of the Yellowstone, even incorporating the Indian innovation of lashing them together to make a more stable craft. Clark was the future Indian diplomat; here, he dispatched Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor ahead with a message to Canadian fur trader Hugh Heney, whom they had met back at the Mandan villages. Clark wanted to enlist Heney’s help in persuading the Sioux (whom Clark didn’t even like) to send delegates to Washington to meet with President Jefferson.
Psychologists could speculate endlessly as to the reasons, but Clark was ever-willing to shoulder the less glamorous duties. Here, in addition to exploring the Yellowstone, he had taken responsibility for the Expedition’s horse herd, which they had acquired from the Shoshones and Nez Perce. They hoped to sell and trade the horses at the Mandan villages. The Crow Indians had other ideas, stealing most of the horses and dooming Pryor’s side trip to visit Heney.
Clark did not panic or allow himself to be distracted. He proceeded down the river, recording so many animals in his journal that local historians have called the Yellowstone valley “Clark’s Serengeti.” Here’s an example:
Saw Several herds of buffalow Since I arived at this Camp also antilops, wolves, pigions, Dovs, Hawks, ravins, Crows, larks, Sparrows, Eagles & bank martins &c. &c. The wolves which are the constant attendants of the Buffalow are in great numbers on the Scerts of those large gangues which are to be Seen in every direction in those praries – July 21, 1806
July 25 marked the most notable day of Clark’s exploration. He found a large rock tower rising some 200 feet from the valley floor and covered with petroglyphs of animals and other symbols. Clark climbed to the top and admired the view, then he made another characteristic decision, naming the tower “Pompey’s Tower” after Sacagawea’s 17-month-old son, whom Clark adored and wanted to adopt. Most notably for Lewis & Clark aficionados today, Clark then took the time to carve his name and the date into the rocks.
This was a day in which Clark really had fun, hunting big horn sheep and digging fossils out of the rocks:
after Satisfying my Self Sufficiently in this delightfull prospect of the extensive Country around, and the emence herds of Buffalow, Elk and wolves in which it abounded, I decended and proceeded on a fiew miles, Saw a gang of about 40 Big horn animals fired at them and killed 2 on the Sides of the rocks which we did not get. I directed the Canoes to land, and I walked up through a crevis in the rocks almost inaxcessiable and killed 2 of those animals one a large doe and the other a yearlin Buck. I wished very much to kill a large buck, had there been one with the gang I Should have killd. him. dureing the time the men were getting the two big horns which I had killed to the river I employed my Self in getting pieces of the rib of a fish which was Semented within the face of the rock
The next day, Clark would give the name Bighorn River to the next major tributary of the Yellowstone to remember the sheep he had so much fun hunting. In fact, much of Clark’s narrative for the next ten days records hunting and fishing. In spite of the horse thefts and the usual mishaps (Private George Gibson injured his knee; Toussaint Charbonneau managed to fall on some prickly pears), Clark’s good mood is palpable until they neared the confluence of the river with the Missouri, where they were to wait for Captain Lewis. The problem was the reappearance of two old friends, the grizzly bear:
when the bear was in a fiew paces of the Shore I Shot it in the head. the men hauled her on Shore and proved to be an old Shee which was so old that her tuskes had worn Smooth, and Much the largest feemale bear I ever Saw. after taking off her Skin, I proceeded on and encampd a little above the enterance of Jo: Feilds Creek on Stard. Side in a high bottom Covered with low Ash and elm. – August 2, 1806
and the mosquito:
last night the Musquetors was so troublesom that no one of the party Slept half the night. for my part I did not Sleep one hour. those tormenting insects found their way into My beare and tormented me the whole night. – August 3, 1806
Fighting bears and mosquitoes, Clark moved around the area waiting for Lewis until August 12, when his partner arrived exhausted, fleeing from hostile Indians, and severely wounded in the buttocks from a hunting accident with one of his own men. Vacation was over, and it was back to drama for William Clark.
Clark’s maps of the Yellowstone area would stand as the most reliable source for travelers for the next fifty years. One of Lewis & Clark’s own men, John Colter, may have been the first white man to see the geothermal wonders of the Yellowstone in 1807 and 1808, when he was fur-trapping (and running from Indians) in the area. For many years, fur trappers like Colter brought back tales of geysers, boiling mud pots, and petrified forests, only to be met with disbelief back home. Another organized scientific expedition into the Yellowstone region would not follow Lewis and Clark until 1869 and 1870.
Despite the ubiquitous bears and mosquitoes, the area around the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone became a major fur trading post. Fort Union was active from 1828 to 1867. Even after the demise of the fur trade, the strategic area became home to a military post, Fort Buford. The troops stationed here protected the routes to the Montana gold fields. The area was a center of conflict during the Great Sioux Wars, and Fort Buford is also remembered as the place where Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881.