Mingling of the Waters

Page 7 of 7

"Maria's" River joins the Missouri

View northeast, down the Missouri

confluence of Marias and Missouri

© 2000 Airphoto, Jim Wark. http://www.airphotona.com

Late in the evening of Sunday, June second, 1805, the Corps of Discovery's six canoes "came too on the Lard. [larboard; their left] side in a handsome bottom of small Cottonwood timber opposite to the entrance of a very considerable river."  That would have been on the point at right of center in this view, although back then it might have been a mile or so downstream.

confluence of Marias and Missouri Rivers For hundreds of thousands of years these two rivers have periodically re-negotiated their meeting-place, contentiously changing their minds and their beds every few years, leaving traces of their arguments mingled in writhing ghostly contours on the broad, sandy floodplain pictured above. However, between 1890 and 1958, nine dams built on the Missouri beginning at Great Falls, 54 miles upstream, took much of the fight out of the Missouri, and pretty well quieted those old riverine disputes. Finally, in 1970 Tiber Dam, inserted eighty miles up the Marias, restrained, calmed, and nearly cleared Miss Wood's River. Nevertheless, the true course of the Missouri can be confounding even from the air. Photographer Jim Wark admitted he flew up the north fork some twenty miles before realizing it was the Marias.

The next morning the Corps "passed over and formed a camp on the point formed by the junction of the two large rivers," and the two captains "strolled out to the top of the hights in the fork of these rivers," from which they had "an extensive and most inchanting view." Their vantage point was at the center of the photo, where the land seems to be touching a melon-shaped slice of island, but is actually about a hundred feet above the river. The loop pinned to the gravel road that leads to the bridge over the Missouri is the parking lot of a State Park, from which a trail leads along the highland—the "top of the hights" where Lewis and Clark stood.

Lewis admitted that the deeper waters of the north fork (entering from left in this photo) "run in the same boiling and roling manner which has uniformly characterized the Missouri throughout it's whole course so far; its waters are of a whitish brown colour very thick and terbid, also characteristic of the Missouri." Nevertheless, he was unconvinced that that was the true Missouri. The rest of the party, however, "with very few exceptions," agreed with their chief waterman, Pierre Cruzatte: The north fork was the one to follow.

The captains observed that the south fork was clearer and more rapid than the north fork, and its bottom was "composed of round and flat smooth stones like most rivers issueing from a mountainous country." They needed to reach the Rocky Mountains, where they expected to find Sacagawea's tribe and get horses from them, and the south fork seemed more likely to lead them in that direction. Nevertheless, just to be sure, they decided to spend a few days reconnoitering both rivers. Meanwhile, Lewis named the north fork for his cousin, Maria Wood.

Sight Unseen

Miss Wood's own river

Detail from Clark's 1814 map

To see labels, point to the map.

interactive map showing Lewis & Clark geographic labels

American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

All in all, this 1814 visualization of the region between the mouth of the Marias River and the Rocky Mountain Front is less accurate than it might have been had Clark himself ever set foot on the land. Only the course of Maria's River is reasonably true. But Lewis, who explored its basin extensively, had been dead five years before this map reached its final draft, which may explain how Clark came to show the Marias, the Medicine (Sun) and the Dearborn, as having their sources deep within the mountains, rather than on the steep east face of the Rocky Mountain Front. The route of Lewis's 1806 shortcut from Travelers' Rest to the Falls of the Missouri is correct until it reaches the east side of the mountains. From there it traces an Indian road rather than Lewis's track. The Skishaquaw (Shishequaw) River—which doesn't really qualify as a river, but is a very respectable creek—waters the base of the landmark Lewis identified by name as he and his small contingent marched northward along the Old North Trail.

Finally, notice the line marking the "Northern Boundary of LOUISIANA." Whatever became of Lewis's intuition that the Milk River valley would define this part of the Missouri river Basin's northern boundary? That was a really good guess. Unfortunately, he didn't have time to confirm it, so, when it came to finishing his comprehensive map of the western part of Louisiana, he relied on his own guess as to where it began, which was that the Milk flowed nearly due south from a source up near the Assinniboin River. And that guess was wrong!

Nevertheless, when one compares this conception with the map Nicholas King prepared for the explorers from the most reliable sources then known, which resulted in a simple articulation of empty spaces, it is clear that Clark's effort, for all its faults, represented a quantum leap in the visualization of this corner of the High Plains.


"It is true," Lewis admitted on second thought, "that the hue of the waters of this turbulent and troubled stream but illy comport with the pure celestial virtues and amiable qualifications of that lovely fair one." But, he rhapsodized with quickening pulse:

on the other hand it is a noble river; one destined to become in my opinion an object of contention between the two great powers of America and Great Britin with respect to the adjustment of the North westwardly boundary of the former; and that it will become one of the most interesting brances of the Missouri in a commercial point of view, I have but little doubt, as it abounds with anamals of the fur kind, and most probably furnishes a safe and direct communication to that productive country of valueable furs exclusively enjoyed at present by the subjects of his Britanic Majesty; in adition to which it passes through a rich fertile and one of the most beautifully picteresque countries that I ever beheld, through the wide expance of which, innumerable herds of living anamals are seen, it's borders garnished with one continued garden of roses, while it's lofty and open forests, are the habitation of miriads of the feathered tribes who salute the ear of the passing traveler with their wild and simple, yet s[w]eet and cheerful melody.

What an impassioned tribute! But what was really on Lewis's mind? Geo-politics? Commerce? Geography? The immediate problem at hand? Or the superior beauty and nobility of "that lovely fair one." In any case, from each of those perspectives this was truly a "remarkeable point"—this little spot on the vast geography of "a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civillized man had never trodden." This was a major anchor point for the map of this region that was emerging in their minds mile by mile, day by day. Obviously, it was essential to make precise observations from which accurate calculations of its coordinates could be made.