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Lewis and Clark Trail Article

Discover Montana's National Parks through the lens of Brian D’Ambrosio, guest writer


Tracing Lewis and Clark’s route today is still an exciting exploration. But how much of an adventure and how close to the trials and realities faced by the Corps is a matter of personal choice. 

At the present-day city of Great Falls, Montana, the Missouri River of 1805 plunged through a series of five waterfalls with torrents between them. Ravines cut deeply into the high, steep riverbanks. (Today, five dams, including Ryan Dam at the Great Falls, have altered the appearance of the Missouri.) The Corps of Discovery needed to portage around this section of the river. Preparing for the portage, circumventing the falls, and then preparing to go on would take a month, from June 14 to July 14, 1805, of extremely arduous work.

At the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls, along the south shore of the Missouri River, exhibits feature the Corps’ travels through Indian country, with emphasis on the Indian cultures of the 1800s. The grounds includes overlooks and a living history site, and the center is home to extensive archives and the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. 

With eight canoes sturdily loaded, the Corps of Discovery was eager to head up the Missouri River by water again, now voyaging south across Montana. Near the present town of Ulm, they passed the mouth of the Smith River, which they named after Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith. Where they didn’t learn of Indian names, they named creeks and rivers for relatives, men in Jefferson’s cabinet, and members of the Corps. Most of these designations have since been changed, but not those of the Marias, Judith (for the future Mrs. Clark, called both Judith and Julia Hancock), Smith, Dearborn, Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson Rivers. Fort Benton, Montana, is proud that their town is home to Explorers at the Marias, the official Montana Lewis and Clark monument. The riverfront statue was created by Bob Scriver, a prolific Western sculptor from Browning, Montana, to mark the United States Bicentennial in 1976. 

On July 19, 1805, the party entered “dark and gloomy” cliffs that the Missouri had “forced” its way through. For nearly six miles, they rowed in rapid current where the river was narrowed by what Lewis called “The Gates of the Rocky Mountains.” Today, the Gates of the Mountains boat tour takes passengers through the narrow gorge on the Missouri River, where the mammoth sheer cliffs appear to narrow behind the boat. You’ll see some of the same sights that mesmerized Lewis and Clark. It’s possible to see mountain goats, and osprey and eagles are common. Pack a lunch, take an early boat, and spend time at the Meriwether Picnic Area landing.

On July 30, 1805, the Corps of Discovery moved up the Jefferson River from the Three Forks of the Missouri, the confluence of three rivers they named the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin. At the Missouri Headwaters State Park in Three Forks, visitors can view a variety of interpretive exhibits relating to the impact of Lewis and Clark, gold mining, and native plants.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition camped at what is now the town of Lolo on September 9 and 10, 1805, and named the site Traveler’s Rest. The spot lived up to its designation. They recuperated for a couple of days and planned the journey’s next segment. On the return trip, in late June 1806, the Corps of Discovery followed a rough Indian trail along the ridge dividing the North Fork of the Clearwater and the Lochsa River. By the time they “bid adieu to the snow” on June 29, their only food was roots, without salt or oil for cooking. At Lolo Hot Springs that night, the men enjoyed “the baths.” The expedition again camped at Travelers’ Rest until July 3, 1806, to recuperate before continuing.

The captains had formulated a plan that would allow them to explore more land on the return trip. They would split into two groups: Captain Meriwether Lewis’s to seek the enigmatic Marias River’s headwaters and Captain William Clark’s to chart the Yellowstone River. 

Most of the expedition traveled overland and down the Yellowstone River with Captain William Clark. But Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor and several others split off from Clark’s party and rode to the Mandan Indian villages, then turned north to British posts on the Assiniboine River. Former Corps member John Colter was the first known white man to view Yellowstone National Park, not long after the expedition.

Traveling across southwestern Montana, Captain William Clark found Sacagawea “of great Service to me as a pilot through this Country.” On July 25, 1806, Clark’s group came upon the sandstone landmark he named “Pompy’s Tower,” from the nickname for Sacagawea’s little boy; today it is called Pompeys Pillar. Clark carved his name and the date on it, which still can be seen, and climbed to its top for the view. The name “Pompy’s” was first seen upon the publication of the Lewis and Clark journals in 1814. Montana’s first historical marker had a protective grid over the signature, placed by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1882. 

After the expedition, co-captain William Clark (officially, second lieutenant) served as governor of Missouri Territory from 1813 to 1820, but failed to be elected the first Missouri state governor in 1820. From 1813 to his death in 1838, he was in charge of Indian affairs west of the Mississippi, and was based in St. Louis. 

Named governor of Louisiana Territory, Meriwether Lewis oversaw the Louisiana Purchase lands beyond the northern border of today’s state of Louisiana. Lewis suffered from “melancholia,” or depression, much of his life, and it appears that he killed himself at an inn in Tennessee in 1809. He was buried at the site, 60 miles south of Nashville.