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Scenic Yellowstone River

Yellowstone River
Yellowstone River.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

Yellowstone River
Yellowstone River.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

Yellowstone River with mountain background
Yellowstone River.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

" ...bison were so numerous and loud that the men had difficulty sleeping."

- Clark
15 July 1806

The Marias and Missouri rivers were Lewis' targets for further exploration on the 1806 return trip. Clark took the Yellowstone. They divided their forces at Travelers Rest and planned to meet back where the Missouri and Yellowstone converge at Fort Union, some 450 miles to the east. They would become the first whites known to travel the Yellowstone River.

At Three Forks, Clark split his group into northern and eastern-moving parties. The northbound party under Ordway went up the Missouri to meet with Lewis. Clark's July 13th entry recalls Sacagawea's constant help in navigation:

"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".

The gap he refers to was later named Bozeman Pass. It breached the last major land obstacle the expedition would face. They emerged just south of modern-day Livingston, where they followed the river overland. On July 15th, they stood at the Yellowstone River, tantalizingly close to the wonders that would become Yellowstone National Park. It would be left to John Colter, member of the expedition, to experience those sights. Nicknamed "Colter's Hell," it would be dismissed as legend for decades before being rediscovered.

At Buffalo Mirage Access, the group cut, hollowed, and burned out two canoes, lashing them together for stability. Clark took to the river near modern Park City.

That night they slept as they lost half their horses to a Crow raiding party. This was disastrous enough, but the experience was repeated soon after. Clark had dispatched Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor with a message for trader Hugh Heney in North Dakota, east of Fort Mandan. The letter asked that Heney convince several Sioux chiefs to accompany Lewis and Clark on their return trip to the nation's capital.

The message also encouraged Heney to exercise influence in turning tribal favor away from British traders toward the American presence that would follow. Unfortunately Pryor was relieved of all his horses after two days' ride. He exercised considerable survival skill in crafting bullboats (skins stretched across tree-branch frames) and catching up to Clark's remaining party.

Clark made his mark on the stone pillar he named Pompey's Tower on July 25. Clark's party camped nearby. The bison were so numerous and loud that the men had difficulty sleeping. The next day Clark reached, and named, the Bighorn River at a point some 60 miles north of the future boundary of the Crow Reservation. At the Little Bighorn Battlefield, less than 70 years later, the U.S. Army would suffer defeat at the hands of several native nations.

The distance from Pompeys Pillar to the mouth of the Bighorn was about 45 miles. Compared to their struggles with the mountain passes, Clark's progress was remarkable. As was usually the case, Lewis' experience was less than pleasant. To the north, he was leaving Camp Disappointment after several rainy days of searching in vain for a river boundary for the new territory. The next day, as Clark and his party appreciated the beauty of the plains, his group had its fatal conflict with Piegan warriors.

Clark finally reached the confluence of the Missouri on August 3, near present-day Fort Union. When they met with Lewis' contingent, he was alarmed to find Lewis nursing "a very bad flesh wound." While hunting elk, Lewis had been accidentally shot by his one-eyed private, Cruzatte. Fortunately the wound was not fatal.

The Yellowstone served as a commercial highway long before the arrival of the first roads. Trappers, fur traders, cattlemen and others used the calm, dependable river to move through the territory decades before the Missouri steamers, freight wagons and railroads connected Montana with the world.