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Lewis and Clark: "We send from this place with dispatches"


On May 26 Lewis climbed to a high point on the trail* and beheld the snow-crowned Rocky Mountains for the first time with wonderment, pleasure, and some trepidation. The explorers entered an area of hills, cliffs, and rocky walls that gave impressions of beautiful sculptures, while the terrain required the men to drag the boats through rocks and mud.

The second of June found them at a junction with another large river, requiring a decision as to which branch was the continuation of the Missouri. After exploration, the captains correctly decided on the southern fork, naming the northern river the Marias for one of Lewis's cousins.

The Great Falls of the Missouri, presaged by a thunderous roar, came into view on June 13, 1805, commanding an awe that Lewis felt defied description. At Fort Mandan the Indians had assured the captains that a short portage around the falls would bring them almost to the Continental Divide. To the explorers' surprise the falls comprised not one but five imposing waterfalls, requiring almost a month of back-breaking labor to haul the canoes, supplies, and equipment around them.

Beyond the falls the party was surrounded by majestic mountains and beautiful valleys abundant with flora and fauna. Still, when cliffs continued to rise around them as they proceeded upriver beset by insects and prickly pears, the captains became concerned that they would soon be entering territory where game and other means of subsistence might become scarce. They were anxious to meet the Indians from whom they hoped to acquire information about the distance and course to the Columbia River and horses to cross the Continental Divide. Sacagawea assured them that she recognized the country they were entering and that her Shoshone relatives were close at hand.

The end of July 1805 brought the explorers to the Three Forks of the Missouri. The captains diplomatically christened the southeast fork the Gallatin River in honor of the secretary of the treasury, the middle branch the Madison River for the secretary of state, and the southwest fork, which they ascended, for President Jefferson.

As the expedition approached the headwaters of the Missouri, expectation mounted for crossing the Continental Divide and the half-day's portage needed, according to the Indians at Fort Mandan, to enter the Columbia River. Instead, when Lewis climbed to the top of the dividing pass** on August 12, 1805, and saw the ranges of snow-covered mountains receding into the distance, his hopes for the long-sought water route to the Pacific faded with them.

Now, more than ever, the Corps of Discovery needed the assistance of the Shoshone Indians and their horses. Their meeting occurred the following day. Lewis, advancing with three others, first encountered a few women, then a large party of warriors on horseback led by Chief Cameahwait. After Lewis's declarations of friendship and gifts of trinkets, the chief welcomed them with ceremony and accommodations. He also agreed to Lewis's request to accompany him with men and horses to retrieve the other explorers and their equipment. Four days later at the reunion with Clark and the rest of the party, all were astounded to learn that Sacagawea, who had been kidnapped by the Hidatsa and later sold to Charbonneau, not only belonged to this tribal band, but was Chief Cameahwait's sister.

When Lewis attempted to discuss the journey ahead with the chief, he found that Cameahwait's knowledge of geography was scanty and the prospects far from encouraging. The chief said that the neighboring Nez Perce Indians, who lived west of the mountains, had conquered them only with great difficulty, finding little food and losing many of their horses.

In spite of the discouraging news, the captains vowed to forge ahead. With early morning freezes already apparent, the Corps of Discovery faced its most formidable challenge thus far. On September 1, 1805, with twenty-nine horses purchased from the Shohones at great cost in clothing, trinkets, knives, even a gun and ammunition, the explorers with an elderly Indian guide began the arduous descent into the Bitterroot Valley and the subsequent crossing of the Bitterroot Range on the Lolo Trail.

Several days of slow and dangerous progress through slippery mountain terrain, steep ravines, snow, and freezing temperatures with the loss of horses and with dwindling food supplies brought the explorers to a friendly encounter with a band of Salish Indians who shared their meager meal and provided additional horses.

*One captain or the other would often walk on shore, sometimes with a few other men, while the boats proceeded upstream. The leaders followed a policy that both would not be ashore at the same time while underway.

**Lemhi Pass on what is now the Montana-Idaho border.


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