When I first got interested in Lewis & Clark, I heard people talking about “the portage,” and I didn’t even know what the word meant. I soon learned that on a canoe trip, a portage is when you encounter low water, rocks, a dam, or some other obstacle that means you have to get out and tote your canoe a ways before you can put it back in the water.
Lewis and Clark’s portage was like that in the same way that racing in the Tour de France is like riding your bike to the corner store. One of the most epic achievements of the entire Lewis & Clark Expedition, the portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri would test the mettle of the captains and men to the limit, and reveal the depths of their determination and character.
During their winter at the Mandan villages, Lewis and Clark had interviewed the Mandans and Hidatsas extensively to learn what they would face as they proceeded west into present-day Montana. The Indians had told them that the Missouri cascaded into a huge waterfall. They were ready for it and had planned to portage their canoes and trade goods around it, a process which they estimated would take about a week.
But nothing could have prepared Meriwether Lewis for what he found on June 13, 1805. Lewis and several men had gone ahead of the main party, and from some seven miles away, Lewis began to hear the roaring of an enormous waterfall. Lewis’s journal reflects utter wonder at what he found, “the grandest sight I ever beheld.”
Lewis’s sheer pleasure at the natural beauty of the falls cannot be overstated, but it soon gave way to amazement and dismay. Above the Great Falls over the course of about 10 river miles lay a series of rapids, a monster spring, and four more major waterfalls: Crooked Falls, Colter Falls, Handsome Falls (today’s Rainbow Falls), and Black Eagle Falls. Besides the falls, the river here was a sunken, roiling trench hurtling between 200-foot cliffs. After William Clark caught up with the canoes and the main party, he and Lewis scouted out a route for the portage that they would have to make, and it wasn’t pretty. The Corps of Discovery faced a portage of 18.25 miles over rugged, unbroken ground covered with prickly pear and teeming with rattlesnakes and grizzly bears.
The first order of business was to improvise wagons with which to transport their many tons of supplies, weapons, and equipment. Under the leadership of Sergeant Patrick Gass, a master carpenter, they improvised some crude trucks. Naturally, they needed wood to make wheels and axles. Anyone who has ever been to Great Falls, Montana, knows that trees are in rather short supply there; they were forced to make due with soft cottonwood and willow and endure frequent breaks and accidents.
The captains then established two camps. Even after I saw these in person, I had a hard time understanding exactly what was involved, so it is worth explaining. The “Lower Portage Camp” was the starting point, the place where they had to take their canoes and baggage out of the water. From here, Clark, who was an excellent surveyor, marked out a route for the passage, looking for as much level or semi-level ground as he could find. He was able to shave about half a mile off the route he and Lewis had originally scouted, and marked it with poles stuck into the rough prairie earth. Clark would command the Lower Portage Camp.
The “Upper Portage Camp” was the ending point of the journey. Using only their own brute strength (remember, they had no horses at this point of the journey), the men would haul the heavily laden trucks from the Lower Portage Camp to the Upper Portage Camp. Lewis would command the Upper Portage Camp. He and a detachment of men worked on assembling the collapsible iron boat that Lewis was counting on to replace the large pirogue, which they were hiding at the lower camp for their return journey. They also hunted on behalf of the entire crew, and Lewis himself took over the role of cook.
On June 23, Clark began a journal entry in which he outlined the grueling ordeal facing the men on a daily basis:
a Cloudy morning wind from the S. E, after getting the Canoe to Camp & the articles left in the plains we eate brackfast of the remaining meat found in Camp & I with the party the truck wheels & poles to Stick up in the prarie as a guide, Set out on our return, we proceeded on, & measured the Way which I Streightened considerably from that I went on yesterday, and arrived at our lower camp in Suffcent time to take up 2 Canoes on the top of the hill from the Creek, found all Safe at Camp
the men mended their mockersons with double Soles to Save their feet from the prickley pear, (which abounds in the Praries,) and the hard ground which in Some & maney places So hard as to hurt the feet verry much, the emence number of Buffalow after the last rain has trod the flat places in Such a manner as to leave it uneaven, and that has tried and is wors than frozen ground.
He had nothing but praise for the men. In fact, they were revealing themselves to be a crack unit, bonded together by hardship and common purpose:
Added to those obstructions, the men has to haul with all their Strength wate & art, maney times every man all catching the grass & knobes & Stones with their hands to give them more force in drawing on the Canoes & Loads, and notwithstanding the Coolness of the air in high presperation and every halt, those not employed in reparing the Couse; are asleep in a moment, maney limping from the Soreness of their feet Some become fant for a fiew moments, but no man Complains all go Chearfully on—
It is recorded in the journals that even after their daily ordeal, the men danced in the evenings to the fiddle of Pierre Cruzatte — surely a lesson in how satisfying even the worst work can be if you believe in your cause. Clark finally had to give up on describing the travails of the portage:
To State the fatigues of this party would take up more of the journal than other notes which I find Scercely time to Set down.
The portage showed not only the brawn of the Corps, but brains as well. On June 25, some unnamed genius thought of a way to take advantage of the constant prairie winds. Clark wrote:
it may be here worthy of remark that the Sales were hoised in the Canoes as the men were drawing them and the wind was great relief to them being Sufficently Strong to move the Canoes on the Trucks, this is Saleing on Dry land in every Sence of the word.
It took eight backbreaking round trips to haul the six dugout canoes and all of the baggage around the falls. The men would haul the goods as far as possible in a day, then leave them secured as well as possible and hike to the Upper Camp to rest and sleep. Undoubtedly their worst day was June 29, when the Corps found themselves exposed on the plains to a sudden, violent hailstorm. Sergeant John Ordway described what happened:
Saw a black cloud rise in the west which we looked for emediate rain we made all the haste possable but had not got half way before the Shower met us and our hind extletree broke in too we were obledged to leave the load Standing and ran in great confusion to Camp the hail being So large and the wind So high and violent in the plains, and we being naked we were much bruuzed by the large hail. Some nearly killed one knocked down three times, and others without hats or any thing about their heads bleading and complained verry much. Soon after we had got all Safe to the run cleared off.
Clark, who had hiked to the river with York, Sacagawea, her husband, and baby Pomp to take some measurements of the terrain, was also lucky not to be killed. They took shelter in a ravine, only to be caught in a terrifying flash flood:
Soon after a torrent of rain and hail fell more violent than ever I Saw before, the rain fell like one voley of water falling from the heavens and gave us time only to get out of the way of a torrent of water which was Poreing down the hill in the rivin with emence force tareing every thing before it takeing with it large rocks & mud, I took my gun & Shot pouch in my left hand, and with the right Scrambled up the hill pushing the Interpreters wife (who had her Child in her arms) before me, the Interpreter himself makeing attempts to pull up his wife by the hand much Scared and nearly without motion— we at length retched the top of the hill Safe where I found my Servent in Serch of us greatly agitated, for our wellfar—.
Clark, York, and the Charbonneau family ran back to the main party and found everyone bloody and bruised. Clark notes with characteristic aplomb: “I refreshed them with a little grog.” At the Upper Portage Camp, all Lewis could do was wait and wonder how Clark and the men had survived the “amazeing large hail.” As Private Joseph Whitehouse recorded, the captain’s response to nature’s fury was vintage Lewis. The scientist in him first measured the hailstones; then, apparently taking his role as cook to heart, he used them to make punch.
Finally, some 32 days after it had began, the portage was completed and the Lewis & Clark Expedition could take once again to the Missouri River. If it’s true that character is revealed best by how you act when no one is watching, then the episode at the Great Falls is one of the most revealing chapters in the history of the Corps of Discovery, an extraordinary story of grit, determination, and leadership.