The Rock She Meant

"The Indian woman," Lewis reported on Thursday, 8 August 1805, "recognized the point of a high plain to our right which she informed us was not very distant from the summer retreat of her nation on a river beyond the mountains which runs to the west.    this hill she says her nation calls the beaver's head from a conceived re[s]emblance of it's figure to the head of that animal." Although many of the journalists' entries were obviously written in haste, with little concern for precise meanings, Lewis often appears to have chosen his words carefully. In this instance, for example, he chose "conceived"—a synonym for "imagined," "supposed," or "fancied." It sounds as if he himself was somewhat skeptical.

"Point of Rocks"

point of rocks

This view was taken in 1902 by Olin Wheeler's photographer from northeast of the landmark Sacagawea had identified as the "beaver's head." Wheeler's caption informs us that in his day it was locally known as "Point of Rocks." It is still listed that way in the USGS Geographic Names Information System.


"Same From the South"

view from south

Point of Rocks" looking north, downstream. On August 10, Clark reported, "we proceeded on passed a remarkable Clift point on the Stard. [starboard; the boats' right] side about 150 feet high, this Clift the indians Call the Beavers head, opposit at 300 yards is a low clift of 50 feet which is a Spur from the Mountain on the Lard. [larboard; the boats' left]" That "Spur from the Mountain" can be seen clearly, a little to the right of center in this photo.


"Beaverhead Rock From the Air"

Beaverhead Rock—Aerial

Beaverhead Rock, center, and the Beaverhead River viewed from 1,000 feet in the air, looking northwest. The river is flowing from the bottom of the photo toward the upper left. On the horizon are the Tobacco Root Mountains, still snowcovered in early May of 2000.


"Rattle snake clifts," From the South

Rattle snake Clifts from the south

Three days after stopping at his "Lookout" to get his bearings, Clark and his party, in six dugout canoes, "halted on the river under an immencely high perpendicular clift of rocks where it entered the mountain. . . . from the number of rattle snakes about the Clifts . . . we called them the rattle snake clifts." This, however, is the landmark that white settlers believed Sacagawea really meant to identify as "Beaverhead Rock." The reason would be obvious to anyone who has ever seen a picture of a beaver.

Did Sacagawea misspeak? Or was she simply mistaken? Ever since the area was first settled in the 1860s, local opinion has held that either she did or she was. Moreover, it may not be much of a stretch to say that at least a small proportion of all the rocks in the west may have a "conceived resemblance" to the shape of a beaver, depending on the time of day, the angle of view, the background, and the viewer's predisposition to anthropomorphize inanimate nature. (Notice the little "beaver shrub" at bottom-center of the last picture, above.)

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program.