July 11-15: Back to the Falls

Five Days in Limbo

Great Falls, Montana

interactive aerial labeling the bend in the Missouri River through the town of Great Falls

© 2004 Airphoto, Jim Wark. All rights reserved.

Brownish silt rain-washed from the plain into the Sun River will be diluted by the Missouri at Great Falls, Montana. The four existing Falls of the Missouri are downstream at left. Lewis' return route followed a straight line as far as the last bend in the Sun, then cut straight toward the vicinity of the White Bear Islands.

One can almost feel the thrill of wakening to a clear early-summer dawn, smell the pungent air that earth suspires, share nature's ecstasy as night segues into day at this powerful place on the pregnant plains where the Medicine meets the Missouri. Thus began a five-day hiatus in Lewis's master plan for his junket to find the boundary of British-held Canada.

July 11: Captain Meriwether Lewis, U.S. Army, was on a high. The morning was fair, he wrote with a blend of pleasure and awe on July 11, 1806, "and the plains looked beautifull the grass much improved by the late rain. the air was pleasant and a vast assemblage of little birds which croud to the groves on the river sung most enchantingly." As he rode toward White Bear Islands and the site of their old camp near the mouth of Sand Coulee,1 the soundscape changed from birds to bulls.

It is now the season at which the buffaloe begin to coppelate and the bulls keep a tremendious roaring we could hear them for many miles and there are such numbers of them that there is one continual roar. our horses had not be acquainted with the buffaloe they appeared much allarmed at their appearance and bellowing. when I arrived in sight of the whitebear Islands the missouri bottoms on both sides of the river were crouded with buffaloe I sincerely belief that there were not less than 10 thousand buffaloe within a circle of 2 miles arround that place.

The hunters killed five bulls for their meat and hides, and that afternoon the crew set to work making two "canoes" to get themselves, their baggage, and all that fresh meat across the river to their old campsite on the east bank. "The one we made after the mandan fassion with a single skin in the form of a bason," he explained. "The other we constructed of two skins on a plan of our own." (What plan, captain? Not even a clue?)

July 12: They finished the boats at about 10 o'clock this morning, and when the fierce wind died down and the river smoothed out at about five in the afternoon they paddled across to their old camp. The canoes "answered even beyond our expectations," Lewis wrote with satisfaction.

There was more than that to occupy his mind, however, for at daybreak they had discovered their horses were missing. By 10 o'clock two searchers returned with only four. Though neither Lewis not Gass indicated any material evidence had been found, Lewis figured the rest, the best ones, had been stolen. He sent Sgt. Gass and Pvt. Werner to take another look. They rode seven miles back up the Sun River to within sight of Fort Mountain and found three of the truants, which Werner led back to camp; Gass got back by mid-afternoon, having had no further success. Lewis then dispatched Joe Field and George Drouillard on the same mission. Field was back by dark, unsuccessful. Where was Drouillard?

July 13: This morning Lewis made another disappointing discovery. The cache of supplies and materials—"the Fraim of the [iron] boat, some papers and a few other trivial articles of but little importance"—which they had buried on July 10, 1805, had been badly damaged by high water. Some bearskins had been entirely destroyed; so had all the plant specimens he had collected between Fort Mandan and the Falls; a medicine chest had been soaked and most of its contents were beyond recovery. "Opened my trunks and boxes and exposed the articles to dry. found my papers damp and several articles damp." A map of the Missouri River survived—evidently Clark's "draught of the river with the couses and distances from the entrance of the Missouri to Ft. Mandan"—but it is not among the post-expeditionary documents. Still no sign of Drouillard.

July 14: The men dug up the wheels they had made the previous summer to haul the canoes over the portage route, and found them in good order. The iron frame of the boat, though probably somewhat rusted, had not suffered materially. There were the usual distractions associated with this place:

the wolves are in great numbers howling arround us and loling about in the plains in view at the distance of two or three hundred yards. I counted 27 about the carcase of a buffaloe which lies in the water at the upper point of the large island.

The mosquitoes were not quite as intimidating, but there were many more of them, and they were equally as voracious as the wolves. By the way, what could possibly have happened to Drouillard?

July 15: Although the Nez Perces' warnings about the "Pahkees" must have remained at the forefront of their concerns, and it had been disquieting to realize that Indian scouts possibly were monitoring their every move, Lewis's main fear was that George had undergone a different sort of encounter.

I had already settled it in my mind that a whitebear [grizzly] had killed him and should have set out tomorrow in surch of him, and if I could not find him to continue my route to Maria's river. I knew that if he met with a bear in the plains even he would attack him.    and that if any accedent should happen to seperate him from his horse in that situation the chances in favour of his being killed would be as 9 to 10.

Lewis's anxiety was relieved at 1:00 p.m.today, when Drouillard showed up. He hadn't recovered the missing horses, but he told a surprising tale. He had tracked them all the way back to an expertly concealed camp of 15 lodges on Dearborn's River only three miles south of Lewis's camp of the seventh. Evidence indicated that the thieves weren't Blackfeet, Atsinas, or Assiniboines, but a band of otherwise friendly Salish, or "Tushapahs," who apparently were returning to the mountains from a buffalo hunt. They had struck camp at about the time the horses were stolen.

Drewyer informed that there camp was in a small bottom on the river of about 5 acres inclosed by the steep and rocky and lofty clifts of the river and that so closely had they kept themselves and horses within this little spot that there was not a track to be seen of them within a quarter of a mile of that place.

Ironically, Private Hugh McNeal actually had a brush with eternity today when he surprised a grizzly near the old Willow Creek camp. His horse turned sharply to flee, throwing his rider at the feet of the bear. The bear "raised himself on his hinder feet for battle," which gave McNeal the chance to recover from his fall and club the grizzly over the head with his rifle, distracting the bear and breaking the gun at the breech. While the beast rubbed his head with his paws, McNeal scrambled up a nearby tree, where he clung until late in the afternoon, when the animal abandoned his prisoner and left. "It seems that the hand of providence has been most wonderfully in our favor with rispect to them," Lewis said, "or some of us would long since have fallen a sacrifice to their farosity." There seemed to be "a sertain fatality attatched to the neighbourhood of these falls," he went on, "for there is always a chapter of accedents2 prepared for us during our residence at them."

July 16: Deprived of seven of his best horses, Lewis decided to leave behind three of the men he had intended to take with him up the Marias River, as well as four horses to be used on the portage back down around the falls. He would take only Joe and Reuben Field and George Drouillard, with six horses. At 10 o'clock this morning—after a two-hour search for nine of the precious horses—the four of them set out, crossed the wide Missouri in their buffalo-skin boats while swimming their horses, boated across the Medicine river, and hurried down the northwest side of the river toward the place, eight days away, which they would call Camp Disappointment, and to their next appointment with destiny.

1. This was the drainage Clark labeled "Flattery Run" in June of 1805.

2. On several occasions during the expedition Lewis either explained or resolved problems by consigning their outcomes to "the chapter of accidents." The expression came from a sentence in a popular book by the British memoirist Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773). Lord Chesterfield wrote to a friend in 1753 in reference to his own growing deafness: "The chapter of knowledge is a very short, but the chapter of accidents is a very long one. I will keep dipping in it, for sometimes a concurrence of unknown and unforeseen circumstances, in the medicine and the disease, may produce an unexpected and lucky hit." Lewis, however, used the aphorism more often in connection with a near calamity than with a "lucky hit." John Bradshaw, ed., The Letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, 3 vols., (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1892), 3:1054.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust