"If William Clark had been a prophet as well as an explorer, and a student of human watersheds as well as a geographer, he might have made some interesting speculations as he stood on the Milk River bluffs looking northward toward the region which would retain longer than any part of the United States, and any but the sub-arctic parts of Canada, the characteristics of the West that he knew in 1805."
Milk River and Panther Mountain
John Mix Stanley
Stevens, Railroad Survey, 1853
Lithograph, 8.25 by 8.875 inches
Stevens's report continued:
This morning was clear, cool, pleasant. . . . Engineer parties, both yesterday and to-day, have been actively at work getting in the country bordering the route of the main party. The road, as usual, was excellent to-day. I despatched a small party across Milk river to Panther2 Hill . . . to observe the country. Game was very abundant; plenty of buffalo, antelope, and beaver.3
Stanley's perspective looks down the Milk River and across the Missouri toward the Milk River Hills. There is no land form among them today that is known as "Panther Mountain." It is possible that the eminence on the horizon is the one now called Deadman Butte. Nearly five decades earlier, Meriwether Lewis had written, on the morning of 8 May 1805: "Capt Clark who walked this morning on the Lard. shore ascended a very high point opposite to the mouth of this river; he informed me that he had a perfect view of this river and the country through which it passed for a great distance." Probably 50 or 60 miles, Nicholas Biddle added after discussing the point with Clark in 1810. According to Moulton (Journals, 4:124) it may have been Elliott Coues, about 1890, who penciled the next words into the original journal entry: "To see 60 miles would require a height of 1000 feet."
If Clark could have climbed to a point 1,000 feet above the river, the northern horizon would have been slightly more than 42.6 miles away. But the highest point opposite the likely place where the Milk flowed into the Missouri in those days is nearly 2,700 feet above Mean Sea Level, and the MSL elevation of the confluence was approximately 2,020 feet. From only 680 feet above river level, the farthest horizon from Clark—and from Stevens's "small party" too—would have been only ± 35 straight-line statute miles northward, roughly the equivalent of two days' travel.
Some two weeks later Lewis realized that they were under the influence of an atmospheric illusion. "The air so so pure in this open country," he wrote, "that mountains and other elivated objets appear much nearer than they real are" (24 May 1805). The simple fact behind the phenomenon is that the humidity in that part of the plains was consistently much lower than they had been accustomed to, and therefore more transparent.
1. Wallace Stegner, "First Look," from Wolf Willow: a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (New York: Viking Press, 1955).
2. The panther, Felis concolor, also called mountain lion, puma, catamount, or cougar, was not unfamiliar to the Corps, but Lewis described it briefly in his journal entry for February 27, 1806. Whitehouse, in his journal for June 23, 1803, spelled the word "painter," reflecting a regional pronunciation of panther possibly influenced by the French form, panthère.
3. Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to ascertain the most practical and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, 12 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1855-60), vol. 12, bk. 1, bk I, Narrative and Final Report, 91, Plate 20.