Shoals Reconsidered

Even though he didn't show their locations on his 1814 map, which circulated with the Journals, he did describe them in his entry for July 30, 1806.1 Buffalo Shoals, so-called from the presence of one of those animals in them when he passed through, is:

a succession of bad shoals, interspersed with a hard, dark brown, gritty rock, extending for six miles, the last of which stretches nearly across the river, and has a descent of about three feet. At this place they were obliged to let the canoes down with the hand, for fear of their splitting on a concealed rock; though when the shoals are known a large canoe could with safety pass through the worst of them. This is the most difficult part of the whole Yellowstone river.

He continued:

Twenty miles from those shoals is a rapid, caused by a number of rocks strewed over the river; but though the waves are high, there is a very good channel on the left, which renders the passage secure. There was a bear standing on one of these rocks, which occasioned the name of the Bear Rapid.

Ten miles farther downstream is Wolf Rapid which he mentioned in his daily journals—"not bad," he remarked—but was not included by Biddle.

Sixty years later, Alfred E. Mathews appended to his remarks on the "Exit of the Yellowstone from the Mountains" a long, unsigned editorial from the Butte, Montana Territory, newspaper.2 From the chronological center of the steamboat era, when the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers was just getting into high gear for remodeling rivers to enhance navigability, the writer voiced some reservations about the Yellowstone River as a freightway:

We think the Yellowstone might be navigated to the foot of Wolf Rapids, one hundred and fifty miles above its mouth. These Rapids are probably more dangerous than any other in the river, but in less than a hundred miles above them are Bear Rapids, which are very shallow and filled with large rocks—forty or fifty miles above them are Buffalo Shoals, where for more than six miles the river is very rapid, and ordinarily less than two feet in depth. The bottom is composed of yellow sandstone which is very hard, and crosses the river at this point in the ledge. It would be impossible to improve it. All thoughts of ascending the river by steam to the Big Horn must be given up.

"The best improvement that could be made," the writer concluded, "would be a wagon road along the bank, from the foot of Wolf Rapids—a work that could be constructed without any serious difficulty."

The "Old Yellowstone Trail" was not far in the future.

1. The Journals of the Expedition under the command of Capts. Lewis and Clark to the sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains, and down the river Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, performed during the years 1804-5-6 by order of the Government of the United States Edited by Nicholas Biddle (2 vols.; 1814, New York: Heritage Press, 1962), II:520.

2. A. E. Mathews, Pencil Sketches of Montana. (Published by the Author, New York, 1868), 76–79.