The drama of this landscape is in the sky, pouring with light and always moving. The earth is passive. And yet the beauty I am struck by . . . is a fusion: this sky would not be so spectacular without this earth to change and glow and darken under it. And whatever the sky may do, however the earth is shaken or darkened, the Euclidean perfection abides. The very scale, the hugeness of simple forms, emphasizes stability. . . . Eternity is a peneplain.1
Milk River – Bear's Paw Mountain in Distance
John Mix Stanley
8.25 by 8.875 inches
As the Corps of Discovery approached and passed the mouth of the Yellowstone River, Lewis and Clark almost daily expressed their delight with the land and the scenery. They saw what any plantation-owner from the Piedmont of Virginia would wish to see – "rich black earth," "dark, rich, mellow-looking loam." Pleasant, extensive, level, fertile plains, "beautiful in the extreme." On May 19 they passed the mouth of the Musselshell and shortly entered what Clark, a week later, would call "the Deserts of America."2 But Lewis didn't revise his earlier impressions of the high plains, which could well have served as advertisements for Jim Hill's railroad, which was to transect this region in the 1890s.
Lewis clung wholeheartedly to the sort of optimism that thereafter would distort the otherwise good judgment of countless explorers, and with which land speculators, encouraged by railroad builders, would in turn infect thousands of hopeful farmers and ranchers around the turn of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, many of them were ill-prepared to cope with this land on its own terms.
On August 30, 1853, forty-eight years after the Corps of Discovery passed through, explorer Isaac Stevens sent three of his men, including artist John Mix Stanley, to climb the the highest peak in the Bear's Paw range and from there study the surrounding country, especially westward toward the Rocky Mountains. Their report was gladsome, and Stevens was enthusiastic.
At the upper portion of Milk river, for some thirty miles, the water appeared only in pools, but it was exceedingly cool, delightful, and pure, and was evidently running water. There is a singular fact connected with all the streams of this country, which become dried up in the summer and fall, that as soon as the cold weather comes on the water rises in the streams, and the usual quantity passes down. The fact is, the streams do not dry up; only in the summer and early fall their course is in the sands, and by sinking wells the purest and clearest water would be found at a depth of from two to three feet; and I have no doubt, from my own personal observation, that ample supplies of water would, in the driest season, be afforded by Milk river for the largest emigration, or for the largest business of a double track railroad.3
1. Wallace Stegner, "The Question Mark in the Circle," from Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (New York: Viking Press, 1955), 7.
2. May 26 was the day Lewis thought he "beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time." He was mistaken; what he saw probably was the Highwood Mountains near Great Falls. That was also the day when he took time to enter into his journal Toussaint Charbonneau's recipe for his delectable "white pudding."
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., 1860), vol. 12, bk 1, Narrative and Final Report, p. 90, plate 22.