Snowbank Camp to Indian Post Office

Indian Post Office1

Clark's Map

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Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

From Moulton, Atlas, Map 70.


Snowbank Camp, September 15, 1805

Clark undoubtedly noticed the main trail continuing in both directions when he intersected it on the main ridge at the summit of the nameless mountain, and sketched a bit of it as a reminder for the return trip. He may, in fact, have been recording his short side trip to the top of the mountain an eighth of a mile east and 250 feet above the shallow saddle where they had reached the top of Wendover Ridge. "From this point," he wrote, "I observed a range of high mountains Covered with Snow from S E. to S W with Their top bald or void of timber." Presently the party dropped down into a shallow saddle at the 6,400-foot elevation and pitched camp "near a Bank of old Snow about 3 feet deep." It had been a long, thirsty climb since leaving the spring where Clark waited for the rest of the party to catch up, and now a hard-packed snowbank was their only source of water to wash down the remains of the horsemeat they had carried all the way from Colt Killed Camp. As any wintertime camper can imagine, melting enough snow to satisfy man and beast for a supper and a breakfast can consume a lot of time, fuel, and patience. Although none of the journalists mentioned it, the very presence of last winter's snow on those mountains in late September must have aroused the feeling that crossing the Rockies was going to be even tougher than they had figured.

Lonesome Cove Camp, September 16, 1805

In this map, Clark seems to indicate that the Indian road followed a more or less distinct ridgeline. One authority, however, maintains that from Spring Mountain the road–or at least one of its principal tracings–dropped down on the north side of the ridge some 1,500 feet to Moon Creek, followed Howard Creek, crossed over into Gravy Creek, thence up Serpent Creek back to the ridge.That is the route as shown on the most recent USGS maps.2 Another believes they descended into the Howard and Moon Creek drainages, and returned to the ridge at Moon Saddle.3 Clark shows the road descending into the Gravy Creek drainage, and places their camp of the sixteenth on a tributary that may be today's Horseshoe Creek.

On the other hand, Private Joe Whitehouse's journal for the sixteenth clearly indicates that Clark's sketch is generally correct. They "kept on the ridge of the mountain," he wrote. "Several high knobs to pass over but had more down hill than up." Towards evening they "descended the mountain; down into a lonesome looking Cove on to a Creek, where we encamped in a thicket of spruce Pine timber."

This was one of the most terrible days of the crossing. Some of the men (Whitehouse again) were "without Socks, and [were] forced to wrap Rags round their feet to keep out the cold." That couldn't have helped for long. They had wakened under two inches of new snow, and the storm continued until it was nearly six inches deep, some of it atop icy, compacted snowbanks left over from the previous winter. (Imagine hiking in wet rags through snow-covered ice!) They skipped breakfast simply for lack of anything to eat. At noon they melted snow and made some portable soup. Like bouillon before a five course dinner, it merely whetted their appetites without nourishing them sufficiently to cope with the cold and the work they faced. Captain Clark took seven shots at the only deer they saw that day, but the flint was loose in the lock and the gun didn't fire.

They made the best of the worst, however. "Killed a Second Colt," Clark explained, "which we all Suped hartily on and thought it fine meat." That decision impeded their timely departure the next morning, but not on account of indigestion.


Bears Oil and Roots Camp, June 27

On the twenty-sixth of June the Corps reached the cache where they had left most of their baggage nine days before, loaded up their horses, then "cooked and made a haisty meal of boiled venison and mush of cows[cous]." (And the hastier the better, as far as cooking was concerned, because the fire was digging its own hole in the snow, the hotter the faster.) The whole party was standing on snow seven feet deep, so there was nothing for the horses to eat. No one mentioned what either men or horses had for supper that evening, and the fact is that their cupboard was nearly bare. The next day they marched 28 miles "without releiving the horses from their packs or their having any food," and one imagines that hunger pangs made those animals restive and hard to handle. The party fared only a little better. "Our meat being exhausted," wrote Clark, "we issued a pint of bears oil to a mess4 which with their boiled roots made an agreeable dish." At least the people got a few calories and vitamins. Their bivouac that night was somewhere on Spring Mountain.

Twenty inches of the snowpack had melted while the Corps of Discovery was biding its time, but the going was still treacherous. Gass complained of "some of the steepest mountains I ever passed," explaining that the snow was so deep "that we cannot wind along the sides of these steps [steeps?], but must slide straight down." The horses' hooves generally sank only a few inches into the hard-packed snow, but once in a while a horse would suffer a jolting plunge to its belly, presumably in places where the snow was undermined by water from the melt. Fortunately, the men had recalled their experience on the snowy road the previous September, and carefully saved their socks until now. Otherwise, the day was pleasant, although Gass felt that "it appeared to me somewhat extraordinary, to be travelling over snow six or eight feet deep in the latter end of June."

Indian Post Office

If there was a rock cairn on the ridge between Post Office Creek and Howard Creek when the Corps of Discovery passed by, none of the journalists mentioned it, and none ever used the expression "Indian Post Office," which some unknown "authority" since then has hinted was a secret means that Indians once used to communicate with other travelers along K'useyneiskit. That theory is apocryphal, although actually it would have been the logical place for some sort of a marker, for in order to get around Indian Peak, from which there was no way to proceed westward, the Indian road took a sharp turn to the north, dove down into the valley, crossed Howard Creek to Moon Creek, then regained the ridge at Moon Saddle.

Hard lesson

H ere at that well-known but little understood rock cairn, in the autumn of 1893, three twenty-something "gentleman sportsmen" from New York left K'useyneiskit's main line and descended into what they anticipated would be the two-week hunting trip of a lifetime. And it was, though not at all in the way they had hoped it would be. They were to learn by choice the lesson that the Corps of Discovery had discovered 88 years before by necessity: that once autumn snows begin to fall on them the Bitterroot Mountains are more dangerous than wise travelers should ever dare to challenge, except with a wise, experienced, and command-capable guide.

In charge of this ill-fated excursion was Will Carlin, 27, whose father, Brigadier General William P. Carlin, was the commander of the U.S. Army post at Fort Vancouver, Washington. Second was Will's best friend, 28-year-old Abe Himmelwright, who had been his hunting partner on an extended hunting trip five years before. The third member of the party was Will's brother-in-law, John Pierce, who was a rank newcomer to big game hunting. The party's outfitter and guide, Marty Spencer, 27, was a native of Iowa who had been doing that kind of work in Idaho for eight years. The camp tender and cook was George Colgate, 52, who had accompanied Will and Abe on their earlier hunt. Colgate was so eager to go along that he neglected to tell the others that for twenty years he had been putting up with what seemed to be prostate and bladder problems, but the rigors of this journey would bring that matter to everyone's attention before long. With five pack and five saddle horses, two terriers for bear hunting, Colgate's black spaniel to fetch grouse, and provisions to last them for two weeks, the party entered K'useyneiskit from its west end on September 18. Reaching Indian Post Office on the twenty-fifth, they turned south to slip and slide down the steep indian trail to the Lochsa River. Their initial objective was to camp near the hot springs and salt licks where Indians had once hunted deer and elk. Wide-eyed with expectation, it didn't occur to them that they were descending into a Hell on earth.

It wasn't long before Colgate was stricken with his old afflictions, which prompted him to recall that he had not brought his catheters along. While the others nursed him–and hunted in the ongoing rain–snow was deepening on the ridges and slopes above them, and a safe escape by the way they came was soon proved to be impossible. By mid-November it was obvious that they would have to somehow make their way down the Lochsa canyon. Given the circumstances, the four men felt that their only option was to leave the suffering Colgate with some food and firewood–convinced he would die before he used up all of either–and preserve their own lives by floating down the river. But the river soon demolished the raft they had cobbled together, and their only recourse was to bushwhack through the riverside brush, and thread their way past the infamous Black Canyon over a long succession of dangerously steep cliffs.

On November 22, half-dead from hunger, cold, and exhaustion, they were spotted by the fastest of four simultaneous rescue parties–the one that had dragged and poled two makeshift rafts up the Lochsa's stair-step chain of rapids and pools for two exhausting days. The one that was initiated and commanded by General Carlin himself.

Reports of the tragedy that resulted from the young hunters' cascade of dilemmas soon grew into a scandal of nationwide extent. Headline after headline spread the words: "Lost in the Peaks," "New Yorkers Snowbound in the Mountains," "Rescuers Driven from the Wilderness by Raging Storm," "The Mountains Surrender; The Romance is Ended!" "Colgate's Bones," "Cowardly Desertion of the Enfeebled Cook,"and the inevitable summary, "Oh! Man's Inhumanity!" Predictably, all of those banners underscored the question, "Who was to blame?"5 From the perspective of another 120 years after the fact, it appears that the symptoms of George Colgate's illness, especially the swelling of his limbs to the point of immobilization, and the ultimate cause of his death, renal failure, point to his own responsibility for deliberately entering an environment from which he could not have been rescued, in those days, in time to save his life.

The following summer, after several unsuccessful attempts to recover Colgate's remains, a small party succeeded, and buried them where he had died. Today, a highway rest area and wildlife-viewing site called Colgate Licks, at the largest salt lick in the canyon, memorializes the hapless victim who died alone by the Lochsa, as well as the young "extreme sportsmen" who bore the anguish of leaving him in the wilderness.

1. Map callouts reviewed by Norm Steadman. Aerial photographs by Jim Wark, using waypoints supplied by Steve L. Russell.

2. Ralph S. Space, The Lolo Trail: A History and a Guide to the Trail of Lewis and Clark (2nd ed., Missoula, Montana: Historic Montana Publishing, 2001), 29. National Geographic Maps: Idaho, 2002.

3. James R. Fazio, Across the Snowy Ranges: The Lewis and Clark Expedition in Idaho and Western Montana (Moscow, Idaho: Woodland Press, 2001), 75-79.

4. Back at Camp Dubois on April 1, 1804, the captains had issued detachment orders dividing the company into three squads. Further, the orders read,

The Camp Kittles, and other Public utensels for Cooking Shall be produced this evening after the parade is Dismissed; and an equal division shall take place of the Same, among the non commissioned officers Commanding the Squads. Those non-commissioned officers Shall make an equal Division of the proportion of those utensils between their own messes of their respective Squads,– each squad shall be devided into two messes, at the head of one of which the Commanding Serjeant Shall Preside. the Serjeants messes will Consist of four privates only to be admitted under his discrission, the ballance of each Squad Shall form the Second mess of each Squad.

That organization facilitated cooking, as it would be faster for six cooks to work at small fires than to rustle food for 23 men at once over a large one. The two captains, York, Charbonneau, and Sacagawea together formed a seventh mess.

5. The tragic tale of the Carlin party has drawn a lot of printer's ink ever since it took place. The latest and best reconsideration is the essay by the late Dave Walter titled "Too Many Cooks: The Carlin Hunting Party Lost in the Lochsa, 1893," in Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Montana History, by Dave Walter, et alia, 2nd ed. (Guilford CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2011), 151-166. Coincidentally, that same volume opens with another item of interest to students of the Lewis and Clark expedition: Kristin L. Gallas, "Foil for the Good Guys: Toussaint Charbonneau", pp. 1-11.

Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee