Lewis and Clark National Historic

Landmarks in Montana


by Ellen Baumler

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 53 (Summer 2003), 67-69; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2003.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition's two-month journey from their Mandain village winter quarters proved easy compared to the eighteen-mile portage the party would undertake to by-pass the Great Falls of the Missouri. F. Jay Haynes photographed the falls (above) in 1880
The Lewis and Clark Expedition's two-month journey from their Mandain village winter quarters proved easy compared to the eighteen-mile portage the party would undertake to by-pass the Great Falls of the Missouri. F. Jay Haynes photographed the falls (above) in 1880.

Lewis and Clark spent more time exploring in what is now Montana than in any other state, and although they left few traces, their journals provide lively accounts of encounters with rugged and intriguing places. Seven of these treasured sites were so pivotal to the journey that between 1960 and 1974 the Secretary of the Interior designated them National Historic Landmarks (NHLs).
The entire two-month journey from the Mandan villages where the corps wintered was easy compared to the portage the men would undertake after finding the Great Falls of the Missouri on June 13, 1805. From fifteen miles away Meriwether Lewis, traveling overland with a small advance party, saw telltale spray and soon heard "a roaring too tremendious to be mistaken." Approaching the sound, Lewis saw "spray arise above the plain like a collumn of smoke." Humbled by the magnificence of the falls, Lewis felt his written description impossibly inadequate. The grueling eighteen-mile portage around the natural wonder, however,Montana The Magazine of Western History was a month-long ordeal with many days spent in preparation and eleven days in transit. Grizzly bears, rattlesnakes, and "muskquetoes" kept the men vigilant while, scorched by the summer sun, they dragged crude wagons filled with supplies across gullies and around ravines.1
Two hundred years later the great rock cliffs over which the water tumbled lie exposed, the falls long since harnessed for hydroelectric power. Although the town of Great Falls has grown up around the area and the portage itself is not discernible, the visitor can still locate the route, which has been identified through documentary and cartographic research. Landmarks include several campsites, the sulfur spring credited with saving the critically ill Sacagawea, and Giant Springs. The Great Falls Portage NHL extends south and east of the city of Great Falls; the land, which is under varied ownership, ranges from highly developed to near pristine.
On July 27, 1805, with the difficult portage behind them, Lewis stood atop a limestone cliff observing "three noble streams" in a sweeping view of a vast valley basin ringed by snowcapped mountain ranges. Lewis and Clark named the three rivers the Jefferson, the Gallatin, and the Madison after the three political figures who played key roles in the Louisiana Purchase and the expedition itself. Lewis understood immediately that the Three Forks of the Missouri was "an essential point in the geography of this western part of the Continent."2 A natural crossroads, it was a meeting place for Indian hunting parties and early fur trappers. Five years prior to the corps' arrival, the Hidatsas had captured Sacagawea from the Shoshones near the Three Forks. A few years after the expedition, John Potts and George Drouillard returned to the Three Forks where they were killed in separate incidents with the Blackfeet. Near the Three Forks a naked John Colter made the legendary run for his life with scores of Blackfeet warriors in pursuit.
From the Three Forks the corps proceeded southwestward until they reached the mountains. In mid-August Lewis and three of his men followed a winding Indian trail west to the Continental Divide, the boundary between the United States and the Territory of Spain. A single glance to the west across seemingly endless miles of snowcapped mountains shattered their hopes of an easy crossing. Fortunately, on the west side of the pass Lewis's party met some Shoshones who agreed to provide horses critical to the expedition. On August 17 Lewis rejoined Clark. Heartened by the incredible coincidence that the chief of the Shoshone band was Sacagawea's own brother, Cameahwait, they made plans to take the entire corps back over this pass.
The pass that Lewis and Cameahwait had crossed had long served as a route for Indian hunters headed to the plains for buffalo as well as a route for the Blackfeet, who had a fearsome reputation among the Shoshones and other tribes. Eventually, traders and fur brigades would travel over the pass along the route known as the Blackfoot Road. On the west side, Mormon settlers founded a colony in 1855, naming it Fort Limhi after fair-skinned King Limhi in the Book of Mormon.3 Settlers later corrupted the spelling to Lemhi.
The mountains beyond Lemhi Pass proved impassable to the corps, so they headed north to find another route. "Old Toby," their Shoshone guide, led them through the Bitterroot Valley, the ancestral homeland of the Salish, to Lolo Creek, where they spent several days preparing for the most arduous part of their journey. Lewis named the campsite "Travellers rest." Fortunately for the corps, the Salish were generous in sharing their scanty supplies and provided Clark through sale and exchange with eighteen "ellegant" horses.4
From Traveler's Rest, Old Toby led the corps west along a winding, ancient Nez Perce route, following the ridge tops through the thick, tangled timberland of the Bitterroot Mountains and over Lolo Pass. On September 16, 1805, Clark wrote, "I have been wet and cold in every part as I ever was in my life [and] . . . fearfull my feet would freeze in the thin mockersons." Beyond Lolo Pass, the trail was very difficult to follow. Fallen timber impeded their progress across treacherously steep ridges. Snow and ice hid the route, and the horses slid down the steep slopes. Sick with dysentery, hungry, wet, and near freezing, the men covered about eighteen miles a day, finally reaching the trail's end and a Nez Perce village at Weippe Prairie on September 22. On the return trip from the Pacific, Patrick Gass recorded crossing "the steepest mountains I ever passed." Despite seven feet of snow, the Nez Perce guides kept to the trail, and they reached Traveler's Rest on June 30, 1806.5
The return trip, too often viewed as anticlimactic, had its share of significant discoveries. Between July 22 and 26, 1806, Lewis and three men explored the Marias River to determine the northern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. They also hoped to find a short portage between the Marias and Saskatchewan Rivers that would allow the diversion of the western Canadian fur trade to American traders. At the northernmost point of this trip, Lewis named a campsite Camp Disappointment because from a high overlook he saw Cut Bank Creek curve southwest toward the Rocky Mountains. He then knew that the boundary of the United States did not extend to 50 degrees north latitude. The men left Camp Disappointment on July 26. En route to join to rest of the expedition, they had their first and only encounter with Blackfeet, in which two Piegans were killed.
Remarkably, the expedition left only one piece of physical evidence in Montana, an inscription-"Wm. Clark July 25, 1806 "-etched in a sandstone pillar that rises one hundred twenty feet above the plain. The landmark's significance to Indians was obvious to Clark, who noted in his journal that "The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animal &c. near which I marked my name."6 Clark named the landmark "Pompy's Tower" after Sacagawea's infant son, Baptiste, whom Clark had nicknamed Pomp. In later years others also signed their names. In 1875 Smithsonian professors exploring the Yellowstone River reached the pillar, and their captain carved the steamship's name, Josephine, and the date. In 1876, 450 men under Colonel John Gibbon carved their names on the pillar. Clark's signature, weatherworn and difficult to see, was "enhanced" by a stonemason in the 1920s.
The seven Lewis and Clark NHLs are among several dozen national historic landmarks in Montana. Some of the Lewis and Clark landmarks are more accessible than others, but as a group they underscore the extensive explorations of the Corps of Discovery in the state. The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center operated by the United States Forest Service at Great Falls provides information about the Great Falls Portage NHL. Three Forks of the Missouri NHL is central to the 560-acre Missouri Headwaters State Park, three miles off Interstate 90 near the town of Three Forks. Lemhi Pass NHL on the Montana-Idaho border is in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in Montana and Salmon National Forest in Idaho. Traveler's Rest near Lolo on U.S. Highway 93 is a state park managed by the Travelers' Rest Preservation and Heritage Association. U.S. Highway 12 follows parts of the Lolo Trail NHL from Traveler's Rest to Lolo Pass; the trail is part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. Camp Disappointment NHL, inaccessible to the public, is about twelve miles northeast of Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation. A highway marker and roadside monument beside U.S. Highway 2 at mile post 233 commemorate the site. Pompeys Pillar NHL and National Monument, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is about thirty miles east of Billings on Interstate 94.

ELLEN BAUMLER is interpretive historian at the Montana Historical Society.

1. Gary E. Mouton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 13 vols. (Lincoln, 1983-2001), 4:283-85.
2. Ibid., 4:435.
3. Book of Mormon, Mosiah 5:8; Dillon (Mont.) Daily Tribune, June 10, 1969.
4. Mouton, ed., Journals, 5:188.
5. Ibid., 5:209, 245.
6. Ibid., 8:255.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition's two-month journey from their Mandan village winter quarters proved easy compared to the eighteen-mile portage the party would undertake to by-pass the Great Falls of the Missouri. F. Jay Haynes photographed the falls (above) in 1880.

MHS Photograph Archives, Helena

From Montana The Magazine of Western History,53 (Spring 2003), 58-64; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2003.