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,
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
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,
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