Larocque's Yellowstone Journey

Yellowstone Badlands

West of Terry, Montana (looking west)

aerial photo of barren, hilly land

Here Larocque had it easy, traveling on the southeast side (the viewer's right) of the Yellowstone. The following summer (July 29, 1806), Clark recorde his impression of the breaks on the northwest side: "The hills are high and ruged Containing Coal in great quantities." That is all he could see of the stream-deposited, coal-bearing, extensively eroded sediments of the Paleocene Epoch (65–58 million years ago), in what geologists today call the Tullock member of the Fort Union formation.

Near Terry, Montana

aerial photo of barren, hilly land

Rainsplash, wind, and runoff erosion have carved the soft, pale gray mudstone and somewhat harder ledges of brown sandstone into fantastic layered shapes.

Copies of Jim Wark's aerial photos of the Lewis and Clark Trail are available direct from AIRPHOTO North America.

On September 15 Larocque and his two companions arrived at the landmark Clark was to name Pompy's Tower. They pitched camp in the dark that night, "making no fire for fear of being discovered by horse thieves or enemies." At 8:00 p.m. on the sixteenth, having covered thirty-seven miles, they reached the mouth of the Bighorn River.

September 17 was one of the worst days in Larocque's four and one-half month tour of Crow Country.

We passed through a most abominable Country and often despaired of being able to get clear of this place enceting [beset?] with Rocks which it was impossible to ascend or to go round, so we were obliged often to go back on other road which presented us with the same difficulties. At last we ascended the hill but being on the top did not offer a more pleasing prospect. We were often obliged to unload the horses and carry baggage ourselves, and the horses being light we made jump over chasms in the Rock and climb precipices, but were near losing them.

At last, at 3 in the afternoon, we passed the whole of that bad road and arrived at the Border of Rocks where we could see a fine level country before us. But the sun was set before we could find a practiable road to come down to it, which we effected not without unloading the horses and carrying down their loads part of the way, while the horses slided down upon their rumps about 25 yards.

It was dark before they reached the plain. Had they had an Indian guide, Larocque admitted, they could have avoided those badlands, but once they entered them it seemed as hard to return as to proceed. "We Kept no regular course," he lamented, "but went on as we could to all points of the compass in order to extricate ourselves." He estimated they covered only nine miles that day.

For fear of Indian attack, the three men usually walked until after dark, lit no evening campfires, and shared the nightwatch. There were days when grass was so scarce they fed their horses on cottonwood bark—when they could find any trees. They shod their footsore horses with raw deer hide, "as their hoofs are worn out to the flesh with continual walking since last Spring." On September 27th they had to take to the riverbank to get around some rocks, but three of their horses became stuck in the mud. The farther down the Yellowstone, the traveling became easier; some days Larocque estimated they made nearly 40 miles. Or maybe it just seemed like 40 miles.

On September 30 they arrived at the confluence of the Yellowstone with the Missouri, having covered about 280 miles in 14 days, thus averaging about 20 miles per day—not counting the ups and downs. That was pretty good by 1805 standards, but Clark, on the water, would cover the same distance in just nine days, averaging a little over 36 miles per day. It was another 245 miles to the mouth of the Knife and the Mandan villages. Larocque covered that stretch in nine days, arriving overland on October 9.


Larocque's Yellowstone Camps

(heading down river, fall 1805

Map showing Larocque's travel times and distances down the Yellowstone

The locations of Larocque's recorded campsites are indicated by dates. The estimated overland mileages from Pryor's Creek to the Missouri, totaling 280 miles (174 km), are parallel to the river but cut across many of the river's bends.

Larocque's narrative of his journey down the Yellowstone river in the early fall of 1805 is problematic at several points. He wrote that at about 10:00 a.m. on September 15, on the east side of Pryor's Creek at its confluence with the Yellowstone, he passed "a whitish perpendicular Rock on which is painted with Red earth a battle between three persons on horseback and 3 on foot." But there is no perpendicular rock at or near that location today, and no evidence there ever was one. At 2:00 p.m. the same day he arrived at "a high hill on the side of the river called by the natives "Erpian Macolié." Whether or not this place was identical with the "remarkable rock" Clark was to call Pompy's Tower cannot be known, but the latter does not fit today's definition of hill—small heap or mound." It is possible, even likely, that Larocque did indeed see an Indian pictograph near Pryor's Creek,1 but we are disposed to conclude that he wrote these journal entries some time later, that he confused the two landmarks in his mind, and that the "whitish perpendicular Rock" he mentioned is actually Pompy's Tower.

The following day, September 16, Larocque and his companions arrived at "the Rocks of the large Horn [Bighorn] River" at 8:00 p.m. On the seventeenth they passed through "a most abominable country and often despaired of being able to get clear of [the] place." On the southeast side of the Yellowstone, beginning about four miles below the Bighorn, there is a five-mile stretch where the terrain is rough, to be sure, but not so much so as to evoke such plaints as he uttered on that single day. And there are nearly a dozen other places along the same side of the Yellowstone that would have been at least equally as difficult, though he mentions only one. Perhaps the explanation is that Larocque wrote of his Yellowstone journey some time after it was over, and that his recollections were imperfect—not surprising, considering all the new experiences he had undergone in a strange and danger-ridden land. Why he didn't return by the route Sheheke had mapped for Clark can only be imagined.

1. In 1876 Lt. James Bradley, descending the Yellowstone from the vicinity of today's Billings, Montana, observed: "At the point where the road ascends from the Clark's Fork bottom, the rocks are lavishly adorned with Indian hieroglyphics, some of them graven deeply in the face of the rock at a considerable height above the ground and in places difficult of access." Journal of James H. Bradley, in Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, Vol. II (Boston: J. S. Canner, 1966), 165.