The Roche Jaune

Six hundred and seventy miles of free-flowing river, the Yellowstone or Roche Jaune (row-sh zjohne), as early French explorers named it, stretches from its headwaters in the high country at the southern boundary of Yellowstone National Park to its confluence with the mighty Missouri, on the Montana-North Dakota border.

Captain Lewis Sighting the Yellowstone

Charles Fritz

early explorers atop high cliff

Oil on canvas. © 1999 by Charles Fritz. All rights reserved.

When Captain Lewis arrived at the mouth of the great river in late April 1805, he saw a "rich, delightful land, broken into valleys and meadows, and well supplied with wood and water. . . . " He noted vast herds of buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope, and remarked on the stands of cottonwoods in that vicinity, together with dense undergrowth of elm, ash, box-elder, willow, and wild rose.

Meriwether Lewis, Thursday, April 25, 1805:

I ascended the hills from whence I had a most pleasing view of the country, particularly of the wide and fertile vallies formed by the missouri and the yellowstone rivers, which occasionally unmasked by the wood on their borders, disclose their meanderings for many miles in their passage through these delightfull tracts of country. . . .


Captain Clark Reaches the Roche Jaune1

J. K. Ralston

Explorers on horses descending into a broad valley

Oil on canvas, 1960, 5.5' by 17.5'

When, in July of the following year, Captain Clark explored the Yellowstone from Livingston to the Missouri in July of the following year, he admired the "bold, rapid, and deep stream," and judged from his pre-steamboat perspective that it was navigable throughout its entire lengthas far as he knew it. He commented on the abundance of furbearing animals: "the Yellowstone and its tributaries . . . abound in beaver and otter."

On July 15, 1806, Captain Clark wrote:

Passing over a low dividing ridge to the head of a water Course [Bilman Creek] which runs into the Rochejhone, prosueing an old buffalow road which enlarges by one which joins it from the most Easterly branch of Galetins R. The mountains [the Absaroka Range and the Beartooth Mountains] to the S. S. E on the East side of the river is rocky rugid and on them are great quantities of Snow.


This abundant environment had been home to Native Americans for millennia, and as Adrian Heidenreich has written, its resources had always "provided more than sustenance."2 Arapooish, Chief of the Absalooka (Crow) Indians who had moved to the area about 1750, once said of their homeland, "The Great Spirit put it in exactly the right place. . . . It has snowy mountains and sunny plains, all kinds of climates and good things for every season."

Clark had already learned much about the Yellowstone in conversations with the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians during the winter of 1804–05 at Fort Mandan. Big White, chief of the lower Mandan village, told him the Mandans called this river Meé,-ah'-zah Wakpa—Elk River.3 Since he didn't meet any of the Apsáalooke face to face during the expedition, he never learned their name for the Yellowstone, Lichii'likaashaashe (roughly pronounced ee-JEE-lee-gah-sha ah-zha), which similarly means Elk River.4

  • 1. Used by permission of the First National Bank of Livingston (Livingston, Montana) in cooperation with the Headwaters Chapter, Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc.
  • 2. C. Adrian Heidenreich, "The Native Americans' Yellowstone," Montana The Magazine of Western History 35 (Autumn 1985), 2–17.
  • 3. "Big White Chief of the Lower Mandan Village, Dined with us, and gave me a scetch of the Countrey as far as the high mountains,…he Says that the river Roche Jaune recves 6 Small rivers on the S. Side, & that the Countrey is verry hilley and the greater part Covered with timber, Great numbers of beaver &c." Clark, January 7, 1805.
  • 4. In May of 1806 the captains would learn the Nez Perce Indian name for the river—Wah-wo-ko ye-o-cose, as Lewis spelled it; wewúkiye kú•s, as the Nez Perce word sounds—which means "elk water." Gary E. Moulton, ed. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (13 vols, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), 7:343n.