Meeting the Salish at Ross Hole

Headwaters of the Bitterroot ("Clark's") River

Viewed from "a Divideing ridge" on Saddle Mountain

Looking down into a narrow, forested valley

© 1998 VIAs Inc.

Map showing the route over Lost Trail Pass and into Ross Hole

© 1998 VIAs Inc.

Ascent to Lost Trail Pass

Since arriving at the headwaters of the Missouri River, and reaching the Continental Divide at today's Lemhi Pass on August 12, 1805, the men of the expedition had met Sacagawea's people, the Shoshone Indians, confirmed the Indians' experience that the Salmon River canyon was impassable, and purchased 29 undernourished, sore-backed, ill-mannered horses to carry their baggage across the Bitterroot Mountains to the navigable reaches of the Columbia River basin.

On the 30th they bade farewell to Sacagawea's people, who were headed for the Three Forks where they would join their Salish friends and proceed to their annual bison hunt on the high plains. Forthwith, accompanied by a Shoshone guide—Old Toby and his sons—the Corps set out northward from Lemhi River country and headed for the Indian road that they had been told would lead them across the Bitterroot Mountains.

Seeking the shortest way over the Bitterroot Divide, they labored up the head of the North Fork of the Salmon River, instead of following the more circuitous Indian road that wound back over the Continental Divide to the east. Wild game was scarce, so they were on short rations.

The slopes were heavily timbered, and in many places the underbrush was so dense they had to hack their way through it with their hatchets. Elsewhere the mountainside was so rocky and steep that the horses frequently fell. An early-season snowstorm, followed by rain and sleet, made things worse. No one knows for certain which way they went on September third. There are no obvious natural routes; the journal description is vague, and details may be erroneous.

Descent to Ross Hole

On the morning of the fourth, their fingers aching from the cold and their moccasins frozen on their feet—the thermometer read 19° Fahrenheit at dawn—they began their trek down the north slope of the Bitterroot Divide, staying just above the brushy bottoms of the rushing stream now known as Camp Creek, which still "waters" the narrow canyon. The ankle-deep snow at first, followed without interruption by cold rain, combined with the steepness of the stream's course, made their descent extremely hazardous and painfully slow. Most of the men were leading their loaded pack horses, an exercise that often required skillful footwork for their own safety, and unrelenting attention to dangers that lay just ahead. Every step placed them on the brink of injurious if not fatal accident. Their goal was to intersect with the Indian road that would carry them down the valley of today's Bitterroot River, but which they dubbed "Clark's River." If they had spied that drainage from the highest point on the ridge that bounded it, their destination for the day was about ten miles and 3,400 vertical feet away—an an exhausting descent of 340 feet per mile.

Toward evening they arrived at a small, flat, grassy valley ringed by mountains—a rond or "hole," as trappers would call it—and encountered there a large encampment of Salish Indians. Sergeant Ordway noted in his journal that there were about 400 people, 40 lodges, and four or five hundred horses.

Clark's Impressions

Clark summarized his impression of the people:

those people recved us friendly, threw white robes over our Sholders & Smoked in the pipes of peace, we Encamped with them & found them friendly but nothing but berries to eate a part of which they gave us, those Indians are well dressed with Skin ShirtS & robes, they Stout & light complected more So than Common for Indians, The Chiefs harangued untill late at night, Smoked our pipe and appeared Satisfied. I was the first white man whoever wer on the waters of this river.

Immediately the Americans took a genuine liking to the Salish, who responded in kind. "They are the likelyest and honestest we have seen and are verry friendly to us," wrote Sergeant Ordway, "and appeared to wish to help us as much as lay in their power."

As told by Sergeant Ordway

Sergeant Ordway filled in more details of the Lewis and Clark Expedition's visit with the Salish on September 5, 1805:

our officers took down Some of their language found it verry troublesome Speaking to them as all they Say to them has to go through Six languages, and hard to make them understand.

The captains' questions were translated into French by Drouillard or Labiche, directed to Charbonneau, who conveyed them to Sacagawea in Hidatsa, who rephrased them in her native language to a young Shoshone who was with the tribe and could speak Salishan—"a gugling kind of languaje," noticed Clark, "Spoken much thro the Throught." Answers followed the same route in reverse. And what did they speak of?

The Americans:

we informed them who we were, where we Came from, where bound and for what purpose &c. &c. and requsted to purchase & exchange a few horses with them, in the Course of the day I purchased 11 horses & exchanged 7. . . . these people possess ellegant horses.

The Salish offered encouraging words: "They tell us," wrote Private Joseph Whitehouse:

that we can go in 6 days to where white traders come and that they had Seen bearded men who came a river to the North of us 6 days march but we have 4 mountains to cross before we come on that River.

At two o'clock on the afternoon of the 6th, the Salish set out to meet their friends, the Shoshones, at the Three Forks of the Missouri, to hunt buffalo together. The Americans headed for the Columbia River via the Indian "road" over today's Lolo Pass.

As to those "4 mountains" and that "6 days march": Was it that the intricate chain of communication had broken down, or that the Indians were merely describing familiar topograpy in concepts that were foreign to the Americans? More than likely it was the latter. In either case, the expedition was to spend the next 15 days walking down the Bitterroot Valley and climbing over the Bitterroot Range—"those tremendious mountanes," Clark later called them—until they met some Nez Perce Indians on September 20.

Ross Hole Today

The Expedition's View of Ross Hole

Small valley in the mountains converted to farm pastures

© 1998 VIAs Inc.

You can see this rond as the Corps of Discovery saw it, if you can imagine this scene without barbed wire fences, electric power poles, farmstead outbuildings, gate posts embellished with no-trespassing signs, and asphalt pavement that is only a short distance to the right of the photo from the place where the Corps most likely camped that night.

Construction of U.S. Highway 93 began, piecemeal, in the mid-1920s. It now extends from the Canadian border above Eureka, Montana, to the town of Wickenburg in southern Arizona, where it ends at its junction with U.S. Highway 60. In southwestern Montana it follows the Indian "road" that the Corps of Discovery traveled northward from the headwaters. In fact, parts of it lie atop sections of the ancient trail the Corps traveled all the way from the town of Salmon, Idaho, to Ross Hole. The Corps probably camped a short distance from the right edge of this photo on the night of September 5, 1805, and spent the next day with the Salish, who were en route by another road to Three Forks to join forces with a Shoshone band to hunt bison—no doubt the same band of Shoshone hunters they had parted from on August 30.

Only about three miles in diameter, Ross Hole is much smaller than the sprawling Big Hole, which lies to the south, on the east side of the Continental Divide, and was transected by the "excellent road" which Clark and his contingent followed on July 6 7, and 8, 1806, on their return trip to reclaim their dugout canoes at Fortunate Camp. For countless generations Ross Hole served as a comfortable resting and meeting place for Salish, Shoshone, and Nez Perce travelers.1

  • 1. For photos comparing the forest surrounding Ross Hole in 1895, with the same location in 1980, see Now and Then.