Lewis and Clark’s Trail
through Missouri River Country
APRIL 27, 1805 MISSOURI RIVER COUNTRY NEAR TODAY’S SNOWDEN BRIDGE
After crossing into what would become Montana, Captain Meriwether Lewis describes the day’s events in his Journal and the first written history of Montana commences.
Lewis and Clark’s adventurous and historic route through Montana originates and terminates In Missouri River Country. In all, the Expedition spent more time in this great state than anywhere else … close to six months. Thirty-seven of those days were in Missouri River Country, covering nearly 330 river miles and exposing them to some of the most varied and beautiful prairie country of the entire journey ….
Changing little since 1805-06, the landscape they encountered is yet today open, quiet and void of people. Experience it by vehicle, canoe, raft, motorboat, horse or on foot, and you will come away with an appreciation for this unique landscape, not only from gaining a sense of history, but through the pictures you’ll take in your mind and camera of the simple grandeur of northeast Montana.
To better comprehend this epic passage, first read the Captains’ Journals, either abridged versions such this and Clark’s Montana Trail published by Northern Rockies Publishing. Then sit on the bank of the Missouri or Yellowstone rivers in Missouri River Country and try to imagine these explorers passing by almost two centuries ago.
In the field, the Montana Atlas and Gazetteer is a good companion, as it delineates public and private lands and shows the roads.
Understand that most Lewis and Clark campsite locations are only approximate. Both the Yellowstone and the Missouri rivers have a dynamic flow and channels, junctions and side streams have been and continue to be altered with time, and at least 11 of their encampments are now under the waters of Fort Peck Lake. The map included with this guide shows as accurate a determination of them as possible.
When traveling off paved roads, make sure they’re dry and know the weather forecast. Many back roads are made of shale and clay that can turn into impassible gumbo when wet.
Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery
On May 14, 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with their Corps of Discovery (initially 43 men strong) left camp Dubois near St. Louis, Missouri to embark on one of history’s most storied expeditions – the exploration of the northern sector of the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase. This vast territory that stretched east of the Mississippi River to the Rockies had been acquired by the United States from France in the spring of 1803. President Thomas Jefferson, who spearheaded the acquisition, appointed Lewis to lead the undertaking to explore the new land. Lewis in turn asked Clark to be his equal in command.
The Corps of Discovery arrived at and set up their winter quarters northwest of Bismarck, North Dakota on October 26th, 1804. Christened Fort Mandan, it was situated near three Hidatsa (Minnetarrees) and two Mandan Indian villages. Here for the next five months, the two captains learned all they could from their Indian neighbors and put the finishing touches on their preparations.
Since the Hidatsa warriors made periodic treks to the Rockies and could explain the rivers and mountains yet to be encountered, the explorers interrogated them whenever possible, absorbing as much information as they might about the uncharted territory to the west. To illustrate their knowledge, the natives drew rivers and trails on tanned skins, on the earth floors of their lodges or in the ashes of fire pits; piles of soil were used to depict elevations above the plain. Clark copied this information onto a map that became one of their most indispensable navigational tools.
Frenchman Toussaint Charbonneau, hired as a cook and interpreter for expected contacts with the Indians, had two wives. One, Sacajawea, a young Shoshone 15 or 16 years of age, who, having been kidnapped five years before by the Hidatsa in Montana, was chosen to accompany her husband and the explorers. The Captains hoped “the Snake (Shoshone) woman, ” as they called her, would be of assistance when meeting her people. This proved to be a wise decision, as she came to be of a far greater value than they imagined.
The original fleet of watercraft that would take the Corps towards the sunset consisted of two pirogues, one white and one red, and six canoes, all shaped out of large cottonwood trees. Neither of the two styles handled very well and both had a tendency to take on water, especially when rounding corners into the wind. Poles, oars, ropes, towlines and occasionally a sail were used to move the boats upriver.
On April 7, 1805, Lewis, Clark and their crew pushed off against the current heading for a landscape never before seen by white men. Eighteen days later, on April 25th, Meriwether Lewis, traveling over land, reached the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers and the entrance to Missouri River Country.
APRIL 25, 1805 – APRIL 29, 1805
From the Missouri Yellowstone River’s Confluence to Big Muddy Creek
Thursday, April 25, Meriwether Lewis penned, “The wind had been so unfavorable to our progress for several days past, and seeing but little prospect of a favourable change; knowing that the river was crooked, from the report of the hunters who were out yesterday, and beleiving that we were at no very great distance from the Yellow stone River; I determined, in order as mush as possible to avoid detention, to proceed try land with a few men to the entrance of that river and make the necessary observations to determine it’s position … which I hoped to effect try the time that Capt. Clark could arrive with the party … our rout lay along the foot of the river hills … I ascended the hills from whence I had a most pleasing view of the country, particularly of the wide and fertile vallies formed try the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, which occasionally unmasked by the wood on their borders disclose their meanderings for many miles in their passage through these delightfull tracts of country. I could not discover the junction of the rivers immediately, they being concealed by woods, however sensible that it could not be distant I determined to encamp on the bank of the Yellow stone river which made it’s appearance about 2 miles South of me. ”
It was Lewis’s intention to explore as much of the Yellowstone as was feasible before Clark and his men with the boats caught up. He recorded on April 26, “This morning I dispatched Joseph Fields up the yellowstone river with orders to examine it as far as he could conveniently and return the same evening … while I proceeded down the river with one man in order to take a view of the confluence of this great river with the Missouri … The bottom land on the lower side of the yellowstone river near it’s mouth for about one mile in width appears to be subject to inundation; while that on the opposite side of the Missouri and the point formed by the junction of these rivers is of the common elivation, say from twelve to 18 feet above the level of the water, and of course not liable to be overflown except in extreem high water, which dose not appear to be very frequent there … about 12 Olock I heard the discharge of several guns at the junction of the rivers, which announced to me the arrival of the party with Capt Clark … I walked down and joined the parry at their encampment on the point of land formed by the junction of the rivers; found them all in good health, and much pleased at having arrived at this long wished for spot, and in order to add in some measure to the general pleasure which seemed to pervade our little community, we ordered a dram (of rum) to be issued to each person; this soon produced the fiddle, and they spent the evening with much hilarity, singing & dancing, and seemed as perfectly to forget their past toils … ”
Historic maps made by early scientific expeditions show a stable confluence well after Captain Clark made his chart here in 1805. But a huge ice jam in the 1930s caused widespread flooding along the Missouri and in the Yellowstone Valley, sending both rivers out of their banks and shifting channels. The confluence itself was forced about two miles to the northeast. Today, a Landsat image very clearly shows a meander scar indicating the former river paths and their mixing spot. This evidence is possible to see near Fairview, Montana.
Lewis’s notation of April 27, in part says, “This morning I walked through the point formed by the junction of the rivers … here a beautifull level low plain commences and extends up both rivers for many miles, widening as the rivers recede from each other, and extending back half a mile to a plain about 12 feet higher than itself; … on the Missouri about 2 1/2 miles from the entrance to the Yellowstone river, and between this high and low plain, a small lake is situated about 200 yards wide extending along the edge of the high plain parallel with the Missouri about one mile … ” This is today’s Nohly Lake, in close proximity to the town of Fairview.
Leaving the confluence and crossing into what would become Montana and Missouri River Country, the Corps stayed the night on the north side of the river about a mile below the former village of Nohly and near today’s Snowden Bridge.
Lewis put pen to paper on April 28, ” … Capt Clark walked on shore this morning and I proceeded with the party. the country through which we passed today is open as usual and very broken on both sides near the river hills, the bottoms are level fertile and partially covered with timber. the hills and bluffs exhibit their usual mineral appearances, some birnt hills but no appearance of Pumicestone; coal is in great abundance and the salts still increase in quantity; the banks of the river and sandbars are incrusted with it in many places and appear perfectly white as if covered with snow or frost … ”
He was describing coal seams streaking the banks and sides of buttes, hills capped with red rocks, (birnt hills) today known as scoria, a result of a burning coal vein metamorphosing the rocks above. The observations of salt were saline seeps (salts left behind when water evaporates). This country the Captains described between the Culbertson Bridge and Otis Creek appears much the same to today’s explorer.
After a fine day under sail with a bracing wind at their backs and viewing “great quantities of game, ” they camped on the north side of the river near Otis Creek.
The Mandan and Hidatsa had warned of the ferocious white bear the Expedition would encounter. Lewis took this admonition lightly, assuming that their superior firepower (since the natives didn’t possess guns) would more than compensate. On April 29, at about 8 a.m., he shot his first grizzly, which then aggressively pursued him for almost 80 yards before a second bullet managed to bring it down. Lewis, who at this moment experienced an epiphany, gained a new respect for the “furious and formidable anamal that will frequently pursue the hunter when wounded … these bear being so hard to die reather intimedates us all; I must confess that I do not like the gentelmen and had rather fight two Indians than one bear. That evening, the men came to a waterway on the ”stard side of the river … the bed is of mud principally … This stream my friend Capt. C. named Marthas river” and here they spent the night. Today, the river is called Big Muddy Creek and forms the eastern boundary of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
It was early spring in Montana and with it came all of the meteorological events common to this unpredictable time of the year. Strong winds, sometimes blowing at gale force from the west, made forward movement nearly impossible at times. The weather usually was pleasant and warm, but nights were often below freezing and some days even brought snow squalls. While the landscape was at its finest with wildflowers poking through tall grasses and an abundance of wildlife – deer, bear, antelope, bison, beaver, elk and wolves making their appearance – mosquitoes and the prickly pear cactus proved troublesome.
EXPLORING THIS SEGMENT OF THE ROUTE
This section of the Corps’ journey, from the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers to Culbertson, presents many opportunities to see places and approximate camps as described in the Captains’ Journals.
The Missouri River Ranch offers trips from Culbertson past the campsites near Otis Creek and Nohly to the confluence as well as the approximate place were Lewis tussled with the grizzly bear.
Nohly Lake is a couple miles from Dore, North Dakota and four miles north of Fairview, Montana on ND Highway 58. The site of the former village of Nohly and today’s Snowden Bridge are also reached from Highway 58 north of Fairview. The road to these places is not marked, but is easy to detect because it is the first one heading west along the bluffs. Coming from the south, if you cross the Missouri, you have gone too far.
Back on Highway 58, when you arrive at the T with ND Route 1804, point west and you will see Fort Union, turn east and you’ll note signs to the Confluence and Fort Buford.
The Culbertson Bridge affords a view of this scenic and dramatic stretch of the Missouri. A public boat ramp here provides access and you can float to the confluence or work your way upriver to the April 29 camp near where Big Muddy Creek joins the Missouri.
FINDING YOUR CAMP
You can camp on public lands such as sandbars on the river, at designated campsites or call the following places for accommodations in the area.
MONTANA RIVER RANCH 877-277-4084
CULBERTSON CHAMBER OF COMMERCE 406-787-5821
SIDNEY CHAMBER OF COMMERCE 406-482-1916
THE FAIRVIEW-KORNER MOTEL 406-742-5259
APRIL 30, 1805 – MAY 8, 1805
Brockton to Fort Peck
Continually impressed with the landscape, Clark declared, “the Countrey” on both Sides have a butifull appearance.” In this area near Brockton, the prairie north of the Missouri slopes gradually down toward meandering river bottoms and extensive stands of cottonwoods, while badlands and bluffs guard the south.
May 1, a particularly nasty storm with waves several feet high caused all forward motion to be halted at noon. The next morning Clark described, “a verry extroadernaley Climate, to behold the trees Green & flowers Spred on the plain & Snow an inch deep.” After a late 3 p.m. start, making only about five miles, they camped on the north bank near where MT Highway 251 crosses the river between Brockton and Poplar.
The crew overnighted several miles above Poplar and the mouth of today’s Poplar River on May 3. The Captains gave the waterway a different name, ” … we saw an unusual number of Porcupines from which we determined to call the river after that anamal, and accordingJy denominated it Porcupine river. “They also christened the present Redwater River in this area, “2000 mile creek,” estimating it was 2,000 miles from St. Louis. That evening, while Clark hiked to the top of one of the rises and saw the Little Rocky Mountains far to the west, Lewis penned, “the country in this neighborhood of this river, and as far as the eye can reach is level, fertile, open and beatifull beyond description. ”
Making 18 miles on the 4th, Lewis documented, “the river bottoms are very extensive … the fore part of this day the river was bordered with timber on both sides, a circumstance that is extreemly rare and the first that has occurred of anything like the same extent since we left the Mandans … I saw immence quantities of buffaloe in every direction,” The Corps then traveled another 14 or so miles and spent the evening of May 5 southeast of Wolf Point. Lewis wrote, ” … as usual saw a great quantity, of game today… The country is as yesterday beatifull in the extreme. ” As a result of years of river action, the approximate location of this campsite is now more than a mile from the river.
With a favorable wind, the Corps covered a decent 25 miles and camped on May 6 just southwest of the small town of Oswego.
“The country we passed today … is one of the most beautiful plains we have yet seen, it rises gradually from the river bottom … then becoming level as a bowling green … as far as the eye can reach … no appearance of birnt hills coal or pumicestone, ” so noted Lewis of the 15 miles to their encampment of May 7, a short way southwest of Frazer.
On May 8, 1805, with a respectable 28 miles behind them, the Corps attained another of the landmarks predicted by the Hidatsa. Meriwether Lewis writes, ” … the water of this river posseses a peculiar whiteness, being about the colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a tabelspoonfull of milk. from the colour of it’s water we called it Milk river. we think it possible that this may be the river called by the Minitares (Hidatsa) ‘the river that scolds at all others’ … ” Lewis climbed and noted the Milk River Hills that rise almost 700 feet above the floodplain of the Milk and Missouri, which can be ascended on their south side and reached via MT 24 across Fort Peck Dam. From these points one can view much of the terrain Lewis and Clark described, both along the Missouri on the north side of the hills and southwest out over Fort Peck Lake, once part of the Missouri River channel.
According to their interpretation of information from the Hidatsa, they expected that the Rocky Mountains should not be far off; but oh, how wrong they would be. After this momentous day, the resting spot that night was just south of the Milk River confluence and northeast of the town of Fort Peck, Fort Peck Lake and the east border of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
EXPLORING THIS SEGMENT OF THE ROUTE
This stretch of Lewis and Clark’s trail on the river has limited access. US Highway 2 parallels the Missouri’s course from Culbertson to Fort Peck. Midway between Brockton and Poplar a road reaches and crosses the river close to the May 2, 1805, L&C campsite. Just east of Wolf Point, Highway 13 crosses the Missouri at Lewis & Clark Memorial Park.
Rises along the highway between Brockton and the Fort Peck area present far-reaching views of the Missouri Valley. From these vantage points you’ll see why the Captains continually extolled the simple beauty of this piece of the prairie. Near Glasgow and Fort Peck, Route 117 from Nashua and Route 24 from Glasgow extend south to Fort Peck and the impounded Missouri at Fort Peck Dam. Interpretive sites, lake and river accesses are plentiful here.
FINDING YOUR CAMP
Public campsites are scattered throughout the Fort Peck region. Inquire at Fort Peck townsite or at the Corp of Engineers office near the dam.
POPLAR CHAMBER OF COMMERCE 406·768·3483
WOLF POINT CHAMBER OF COMMERCE 406·653·2012
GLASGOW CHAMBER OF COMMERCE 406·228·2222
FORT PECK·CORP OF ENGINEERS 406·526·3411
MAY 9, 1805 – MAY 19, 1805
Fort Peck to Fourchette Bay and the UL Bend
The strong flowing Missouri River Lewis and Clark struggled against at this point, is now stilled by Fort Peck Dam, transforming it into a lake covering more than 250,000 acres with 1,600 miles of shoreline. The Crown Jewel of the nation’s wildlife refuge system, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge surrounds it with its 1.1 million acres of prairie magnificence. In their time, the Corps plied the shores of a fertile river bottom with “rich black earth” and looked up at some of the most spectacular arid landscape in the West. The deepened waters of the lake, which have covered the explorers campsites, have not diminished the topography. If we can’t follow the exact route, at least we can view what they saw above the river.
Before making camp on the night of May 9 near Duck Creek, the Expedition passed today’s Big Dry Arm of Fort Peck Lake, a 40-mile long extension of the lake into the badlands south of the Missouri River. Lewis wrote, “today we passed the bed of the most extraordinary river that I ever beheld. it is as wide as the Missouri is at this place … and not containing a single drop of runing water … we called it Big dry river. ”
Ferocious winds continued to plague and slow their advancement on and off for the next several days. By the nth, they were only southwest of the Pines Recreation Area, and the 13th found them between Crooked Creek Bay and Hell Creek State Park. On the 14th of May, a wild encounter with a seemingly unstoppable grizzly and the near sinking of the white pirogue and subsequent loss of some medicines and important journal notes (most were saved by Sacajawea, who remained the only calm and level headed person in the boat), caused the captains to call for a day to rest and dry out (the 15th) and as Lewis commented, “we thought it a proper occasion to console ourselves and cheer the sperits of our men and accordingJy took a drink of grog and gave each man a gill of sperits. ” These two nights were spent a few miles above Snow Creek. In 1902, William Hornaday of the American Museum of Natural History, while hunting in the badlands of Snow Creek, discovered one of the world’s first Tyrannosaurus rex (T-rex) fossils.
The landscape the Corp of Discovery passed through from May 13 (Hell Creek) forward is the roughest and the most sculptured of their entire journey to date. Relief and elevation exceed anything found downriver. In the Seven Blackfeet Canyon the point of the hills rise 500 feet to 1000 feet above the river.
May 17, that evening, camping just below Seven Blackfeet Creek, “the party were much harassed” by a wild fire “which could not be extinguished.” Surrounding their camp, the mass of the Larb Hills on the north, and the untamed geography to the south, present perhaps the most dramatic and beautiful displays of upland prairie topography on the continent. The next day, after making 21 miles, the Corps passed and camped two miles above Devils Creek Recreation Area.
The big UL Bend of the Missouri where the Corps bedded down on May 19, 1805, is still, in spite of the broadened river, a prominent but low-lying landform. During the day, Clark climbed one of the high buttes nearby and could see the Little Rockies to the northwest and the Musselshell River just beyond the Bend to the south. He may have been atop either Mickey or Brandon butte on the north side of the water. The UL Bend Wilderness Area and the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge make up much of this peninsular-like piece of land. Both are contiguous to the CMR, and managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
EXPLORING THIS SEGMENT OF THE ROUTE
A boat launched from numerous put-in ramps around Fort Peck Lake is a great way to examine the terrain Lewis and Clark noted in their Journals as they passed through here. Maps of Fort Peck Lake are available from the Corp of Engineers (406-526-3411) or the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (406-538-8706).
West of the dam, many backcountry roads lead to the lake. The towns of Fort Peck and Glasgow are points of approach on the north and Jordan from the south. The CMR map shows these byways. With the exception of the Hell Creek Road out of Jordan, they are all weather sensitive; stay off of them when they are wet.
Malta, in the far northwest corner of Missouri River Country, is the “roadhead” for a road through the open prairie to Fourchette Bay, an excellent place to gain water access to the UL Bend and Iron Stake Ridge country.
FINDING YOUR CAMP
GLASGOW CHAMBER OF COMMERCE 406-228-2222
FORT PECK-CORP OF ENGINEERS 406-526-3411
JORDAN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE 406-557-2248
MALTA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE 406-654-1776
MAY 20, 1805 – MAY 24, 1805
UL Bend to the Fred Robinson Bridge and Kendall Bottoms
May 20th brought the voyagers to the southern May 20 brought the voyagers to the southern tip of the UL Bend and the Missouri’s meeting with another landmark, “the Shell river” or “Muscle Shell, ” coming in from the south. Lewis recorded ” … it takes it’s rise (origins), by their (Hidatsa) information in the 1st chain of the Rocky mountains at no great distance from the Yellowstone river.” The natives were correct as the Musselshell headwaters in the Castle Mountains to the southwest, less than 100 miles from the Yellowstone.
That night Lewis also wrote, ” … about 5 mi. above the mouth of shell river a handsome river of about 50 yds in width discharged itself on the … upper side; this stream we called Sa’h-ca’ -ger we-a’h or bird woman’s River after our interpreter the Snake woman.” Over time, this became known as Crooked Creek; but today, in deference to the invaluable service of the young Shoshone woman, it has been rightfully renamed Sacajawea River. Access by land is a road through the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which leads to the Crooked Creek Recreation Area. The mouth of the Musselshell is silting in and will perhaps narrow the Missouri at this point in the future. Today, west of the Musselshell- Missouri Confluence, the lake gradually becomes, once again, a river.
Serious windstorms plagued the Expedition for the next two days; “we found ourselves so invelloped with clouds of dust and sand that we were could neither cook, eat, nor sleep. ” The tired men took refuge the night of the 22nd just below today’s CK (or Kannuck) Creek, which they dubbed “Teapot Creek. ”
May 23 proved to be a day of extremes. Clark’s weather report stated, “a Severe frost last night … the water freeses on the oars. Ice on the edge of the river,” then later, “The after part of this day was worm & the Misquitors troublesome.” Coming upon “a large assemblage of the burrows of the Burrowing Squirrel (prairie dog)” and finding “The wild rose which is now in blume and very abundant, “they encamped just before the mouth of Rock Creek, across from the future site of the former steamboat stop and outlaw hangout of Rocky Point. CMR roads access this place on both the north and south.
Early in the morning of May 24, 1805, the party passed “North Mountain creek” (Rock Creek) emanating in the Little Rocky Mountains to the north. With, as Clark mentioned, “This Breeze afforded us good Sailing, the river rising fast. Current verry rapid, ” one can only imagine them ducking their heads as they “sped” under the then non-existent Fred Robinson Bridge and entered the eastern portion of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Making 24 plus miles that day, they retired for the evening at Kendall Bottoms and in doing so moved west of Missouri River Country.
EXPLORING THIS SEGMENT OF THE ROUTE
This western segment of the Corps’ trail through Missouri River Country encompasses space that witnessed some of the West’s most colorful history. US Highway 191, leading south from Malta through this landscape, passes the Little Rocky Mountains and crosses the Missouri at Fred Robinson Bridge. Here, CMR National Wildlife roads stretch east, paralleling the river on both sides. Along the way, overlooks and trails to the Missouri’s banks take in four of the voyageurs’ resting spots. A road off the southwest side of the bridge ascends Knox Ridge and after about three miles, looks down on the Kendall Bottoms and the May 24,1805 campsite of Lewis and Clark.
For a map of this region, stop at the CMR Sand Creek Wildlife Station up the hill south of the Fred Robinson Bridge, or call the Refuge headquarters in Lewistown (406-538-8706).
FINDING YOUR CAMP
The James Kipp Recreation Area is a good place to camp. There are also other campsites on the Refuge. Inquire at Sand Creek or again call the headquarters.
MALTA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE 406-654·1776
The Journey Home – Returning Through Missouri River Country
LEWIS JULY 31, 1806 – AUGUST 7, 1806
The Corps of Discovery spent the winter (December 7, 1805 – March 23, 1806) encamped in today’s northwest Oregon at a place they dubbed Fort Clatsop after the local Indian tribe. While here, Lewis and Clark made plans to separate once they returned to today’s Montana and their Travelers’ Rest camp of September 9 – 11, 1805, just up Lolo Creek near Missoula. On June 29,1806, the Corps crossed the Bitterroot Mountains and descended into Big Sky Country and to Travelers’ Rest
It had been decided at their winter camp that Lewis would lead a party over land “as far as the Falls of Missouri,” following a route the Nez Perce had mentioned the September past. There he would leave several men to build the equipment necessary for the portage. The rest of the crew would accompany him in exploring the Marias River, hoping to prove that the northernmost sources of the Missouri River lay north of the 50th parallel, which would give the U. S. claim to more land (beaver territory).
Clark, in the meantime, would travel southeast to a cache at Camp Fortunate (they built it in August 1805), then move down the Beaverhead/Jefferson River to Three Forks at which place several men from his group would paddle the canoes down the Missouri, connecting with Lewis’s construction party at the falls, “and after passing the portage around the falls, proceed on down to the enterance of Marias where Captain Lewis will join them.” Clark’s plan was to leave the Three Forks area, striking out eastward across new territory through the Gallatin Valley to reach the Yellowstone River and explore it to its confluence with the Missouri, where he and his men would reunite with Lewis and the rest of the Corps.
We will first follow Lewis on his return and pick up his trail on July 31, 1806, as he was passing through the far eastern reaches of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and crossing into today’s Missouri River Country.
Meriwether Lewis Retraces the Corps Route on the Missouri River
JULY 31, 1806 – AUGUST 7, 1806
July 31st, “The rain still continuing … late in the evening we took sheter in some Indian lodges built of sticks.” This camp was somewhere below Rock Creek.
August 1st, “The rain still continuing … I halted at this place about 15 ms. below Mussel shell river.” The party remained here drying the baggage and themselves out until the morning of the 3rd, “we are all extremely anxious to reach the entrance of the Yellowstone river where we expect to join Capt. Clark and party. ”
August 4th, ” … passed the entrance of big dry river; found the water in this river … (it had been dry when they passed in the spring of 1805)…at 3 P. M. we arrived at the entrance of Milk river where we halted a few minutes. this stream is full at present and it’s water is much the colour of that of the Missouri … we encamped this evening two miles below the gulph on the N. E. side of the river.” This camp was just before the location of their May 7, 1805 camp.
August 5th, ” … we continued our rout until late in the evening … and encamped on the South side about 10 miles below little dry river (Prairie Elk Creek).” This was around four miles before Wolf Point.
August 6th, camp that evening was past the town of Poplar below Mortarstone Bluff near Brockton.
August 7th, ” … we set out early resolving if possible to reach the Yelowstone river today which was at the distance of 8 3 ms. from our encampment of the last evening … we passed the entrance of Marthy’s river (Big Muddy Creek) which has changed it’s entrance since we passed it last year … at 4 P. M. we arrived at the entrance of the Yellowstone river. I landed at the point and found that Capt. Clark had been encamped at this place and from appearances had left it about 7 or 8 days. I found a paper on a pole at the point which mearly contained my name in the hand wrighting of Capt. C. we also found the remnant of a note which had been attatched to a peace of Elk’s horns in the camp; from this fragment I learned that game was scarce at the point and musquetoes troublesome which were the reasons given for his going on.” Clark actually left the note for Lewis on August 4th. They had missed the intended rendezvous by a mere three days, an astounding feat considering all the unknown country they’d all had to negotiate.
EXPLORING THIS SEGMENT OF THE ROUTE AND FINDING YOUR CAMP
(See the notes accompanying the preceding route descriptions)
William Clark’s Return on the Yellowstone Passing Through the Southeast Corner of Missouri River Country and the Sidney Area
AUGUST 1, 1806 – AUGUST 4, 1806
Captain William Clark and his group met the Yellowstone at today’s Livingston and the Big Bend. At Park City west of Billings he was able to find cottonwood trees large enough to build canoes and leave their horses for the water, a faster way to travel.
On August 1, headwinds and rough water caused delays, they also “Had Showers of rain repeatedly all day … My situation a very disagreeable one. In an open Canoe wet and without a possibility of keeping my Self dry more Sand bars today than usual and more Soft mud at 2 P. M. I was obliged to land to let the Buffalow Cross over … this gangue of Buffalow was entirely across and as thick as they could swim … I was obliged to lay to for an hour.” This day, the river travelers passed Makoshika State Park, at Glendive, a beautiful region of badlands they were unable to see because of the weather. The crew camped on an island just below the mouth of Cottonwood Creek near where Dry Creek comes into the Yellowstone. That night, “two gangues of Buffalow Crossed a little below us, as noumerous as the first.”
Slowing down and spreading out, the “river wide and very much divided by islands and Sand and Mud bars. the bottoms more extencive and contain more timber Such as Cotton wood ash willow … passed the enterance of Several brooks on each Side, a Small river … on the Stard. Side, which I call Ibex River (probably Smith Creek near Savage) the river in this days decent is less rapid … this morning” (August 2).
Some of the islands Clark was describing are now the recreation areas of Elk Island by Savage and the Seven Sisters near Crane. This piece of the river is still crowded with islands and sandbars. Canoeing from Intake to Sidney shows nearly the same scenery Clark and his party witnessed. Experiencing this part of the Lewis and Clark Trail by river is the best way to go, as the highway from Glendive to Sidney seldom nears the water to present a good view or feel for it.
Sometime in the morning of August 2, after passing by the future town of Sidney, Clark and his detachment paddled out of Montana for good about three miles south of Fairview. They spent the night east of Fairview on the Yellowstone River in North Dakota at the mouth of Charbonneau Creek.
On August 3, 1806, life was not good, “last night the Musquetors was so troublesome 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. They are not less noumerous or troublesome this morning. At 8. A. M. I arrived at the function of the Rochejhone (Yellowstone River) with the Missouri, and formed my Camp immediately … at which place the party had all encamped the 26th of April-1805 … had the Canoes unloaded and every article exposed to dry & Sun.” Leaving a note for his partner, Captain Clark and his people fled further down the Missouri in search of respite from the incessant “musquetors.”
Lewis reached the meeting of the big waters at 4 p. m. on August 7. Considering all the distance covered in just over one month’s time (Lewis traveled an estimated 800 miles and Clark 1,000), only four days lapsed between their arrival at this junction … well done!
Finally, on Thursday, August 12, 1806, Clark was able to note “at Meridian (noon) Capt Lewis … in Sight with the party which went by way of the Missouri as well as that which accompanied him from Travellers rest on Clarks river.” The Expedition was whole again.
The Corps of Discovery, led by their Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, arrived at St. Louis, Missouri on September 23,1806. Their incredible Voyage of Discovery took two years, four months and nine days and they had traveled nearly 8,000 miles. In celebration Clark penned, “descended to the Mississippi and down that river to St. Louis at which place we arrived about 12 oClock. We Suffered the party to fire off their pieces as a Salute to the Town. ”
EXPLORING THIS SEGMENT OF THE ROUTE
From Highway 16 between Savage and Sidney, several roads lead to the Yellowstone River. The most prominent are the Elk Island and Seven Sisters fishing access points. Just south of Sidney, Highway 23 crosses the river on its way to North Dakota.
FINDING YOUR CAMP
SIDNEY CHAMBER OF COMMERCE 406-482-1916
FAIRVIEW CHAMBER OF COMMERCE 406-742-5259