On 26 July 1806, Lewis and his men left Camp Disappointment and headed for the mouth of the Marias River, where they planned to rendezvous with the rest of their contingent. After about seventeen miles, riding on the south (right) side of the Two Medicine River, Lewis spied eight young Indians "on the top of an eminence"—Flag Butte, the highest point on the ridge above the river in the photograph. The encounter was unwelcome, though not unexpected. Soon, however, Lewis concluded that the Indian boys "were more allarmed at this accedental interview" than he and his own men were. Lewis assumed they were the dreaded Atsinas, "Minnetarees of Fort de Prarie," but they probably were Piegan Blackfeet.
The Indians invited the Americans to share a campsite that night. The camp may have been in the vicinity of the wooded area on the far (east) side of the river, just left of center in the picture. Settling in for the night, the two parties smoked and talked, with sign-talker Drouillard as interpreter. Lewis told the Piegans of his expedition and its purposes, adding that an American post would soon be conveniently established in Blackfeet territory. To the youths, this meant that the Salish and other tribes unwelcome to the Blackfeet would come to trade on their turf. Not a good sign!
At daybreak, despite the soldiers' watchfulness, the Indians tried to steal the Americans' guns and horses. That immediately erupted into a skirmish. Lewis and his men recovered the guns but killed at least one and possibly two of the Piegans in the process. The rest fled. Quickly, the four Corps members packed their gear, mounted up, and raced toward the Missouri River, covering more than a hundred miles in a little over twenty-four hours. The next morning, as they neared the river, they heard rifle fire in the distance, and as they neared the bank of the Missouri they "had the unspeakable satisfaction to see our canoes coming down" from White Bear Islands.
The two captains and their respective detachments, which at one point during the month of July had been 250 miles apart, were reunited on 12 August 1806 near today's New Town, North Dakota. Hurrying on down the Missouri without further delays, they arrived in St. Louis on 23 September. "The Corps of Volunteers for North Western Discovery" had fulfilled its mission.
From Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air
Photography by Jim Wark
Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press