Following the 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French Emperor, Napoleon, President Thomas Jefferson wanted the vast western lands explored and documented.
As the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation states in a brochure, “Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, together with Sgts. Ordway, Gass and Floyd, and Private Whitehouse, recorded for posterity, the amazing chronicle of this great event in U.S. history.” The recorded observations of these men during these years contributed vast new knowledge of theretofore unknown facts in many fields, including the physical and social sciences, and the arts. “The Lewis and Clark Expedition literally spanned the North American continent, traversing areas which later would form many of our western states. By order of Congress, the lands of the newly acquired territory, and the watershed of the Columbia River claimed under discovery by Captain Robert Gray, were of paramount interest to the exploring party. The route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean provided priceless documentation of lands, peoples and resources within the present states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.”
On July 3, 1806 south of present-day Missoula, Lewis and nine men split from the rest of the party to further explore the Marias River area north of the Missouri River. The remaining members continued under the leadership of Captain William Clark, Among Clark’s party of 23 people were interpreters, Toussaint Charbonneau, his Shoshoni wife Sacagawea (also commonly spelled Sacajawea and meaning “bird woman”), and their baby Jean Baptiste, (whom Clark called Pomp). At Three Forks, 10 of the 23 in Clark’s party turned north to rejoin Lewis. Thirteen sought the Yellowstone. The Lewis and Clark Journals chronicle many exciting events in the Custer Country region, from the Park City-Laurel area to the Glendive region.
From the Three Forks of the Missouri River to the Yellowstone River, Sacagawea was commended for recalling Shoshoni travel routes. Clark called her his “pilot,” for pointing out a gap through the mountains, the modern-day Bozeman Pass.
From the Three Forks area, where they camped July 13, to the Park City area, which they reached on July 19, the expedition had difficulty finding cottonwoods large enough to be made into canoes. They were traveling overland with 50 horses. Along this stretch, Private George Gibson fell on a burned snag that went “nearly two inches into the Muskeler part of his thy,” according to Clark’s journal entry. Then, while Charbonneau was chasing a buffalo, his horse stepped into a badger hole, throwing him over the horse’s head, and he was “a good deel brused on his hip sholder & face.” The party also encountered “emence sworms of Grasshoppers…” Further, Indian smoke signals had been seen that were interpreted as “takeing us to be their Enemy made this signal for other bands to be on their guard.”However, game was abundant. Chokecherry wood was found for axe handles, and eventually, near Park City, suitable cottonwoods were found for two canoes.
On the morning of July 21, the intent of the smoke signals was discovered. In the night, 24 of the 50 horses had been stolen. The remaining horses were troublesome, since they insisted on chasing every buffalo encountered, as their original owners, Indians, had taught them to do.
On July 24 they lashed the two ready canoes together for stability and headed down river. It is easy to see why Clark’s journals talk of the strong currents and dangers of the Yellowstone River. Though calm on the surface, undercurrents and channels are hazardous. Four men, led by Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor, took the remaining 26 horse’s overland. July 24, Clark’s group floated past where today the Clarks Fork River flows into the Yellowstone River near Laurel, a place the Indians called “The lodge where all dance.” Indeed, a large council lodge 60 feet in diameter had been built on an island there. Just west of present-day Billings, near Blue Creek, the horse party met Clark and the others. Here the canoe party helped the explorers and horses cross to the south bank of the Yellowstone. The canoe and horse parties split up again. Clark’s party camped east of Billings near the mouth of Pryor Creek.
On July 25, the nine floaters noticed a huge sandstone rock “200 feet high and 400 paces in circumference” not far from the river. Clark climbed it and saw “Emence herds of Buffalows, Elk and wolves.” Indian pictographs were on the rock, and to them he added his name and the date: Wm. Clark, July 25, 1806. He named the rock Pompy’s Tower (now called Pompeys Pillar) after Sacagawea’s baby, whom she carried on a cradleboard strapped to her back for the 14 months that she accompanied and aided the expedition.
At the mouth of the Bighorn River, their July 26 camp, the group was kept awake by the bellowing of the buffalo bulls.
Castle Rock, near present Forsyth, where the party camped July 27, was noted in the journals. July 28, floating past Rosebud, Porcupine, and other creeks, the notable entry of the day was “The elk on the bank of the river were so abundant that we have not been out of sight of them today.” The Indians, in fact, called the Yellowstone River the “Elk River,” because of the vast herds. On July 29, near present day Miles City, Clark commented on “coal in great quantities” in the hills. On July 30, after one of the most difficult river navigations of what are present day Buffalo Rapids and Bear Rapids, the party came upon the Glendive Makoshika badlands, which Clark described as “birnt hills.”
On July 31, 1806, they camped near present day Glendive and recorded seeing a grizzly bear, “the largest I ever saw.” It was eating a buffalo. August 1 was rainy and windy. Clark reported that thousands of buffalo were crossing the river ahead of the canoes “as thick as they could swim.” The herd was a quarter mile wide and took an hour and fifteen minutes to cross. After they set camp at present Savage (near Sidney) two more herds, as big as the first, crossed the river. By the morning of August 3, they had reached the Missouri River, and would soon rejoin Lewis and his party. Meanwhile, Sgt. Pryor and the horse detail had suffered the rest of the horses stolen. Near Pompeys Pillar they constructed bull boats made of buffalo hide and floated the Yellowstone. They caught up with the rest of Clark’s party August 8.
(Primary source: “Clark on the Yellowstone,” Hoofprints Magazine, by John Willard, a descendant of expedition member Alexander Willard; historian updates by Sherman Hubley based on Moulton, 1993.)
On their journey, Clark mapped one of the most interesting historic trails in the world. Watch for Lewis and Clark Trail signs that point out the trail and details of their journey as you travel where these brave, early explorers traveled nearly 200 years ago.
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