The Solitary Hero Part 3

Once a few miles up the Beaverhead fork of the Jefferson, Lewis could now see that it headed in a "gap formed by it in the mountains." With that promising prospect in front of him Lewis wrote, "I did not hesitate in beleiving the [Beaverhead] the most proper for us to ascend." Better yet, "an old indian road very large and plain leads up this fork." This was the path to the Shoshone, the Continental Divide, waters that drained to the Pacific, and to glory.23

Down below, Clark was barely able to walk. The "poleing men" and those hauling the canoes were "much fatigued from their excessive labours . . . verry weak being in the water all day." After his initial reconnaissance of the Beaverhead, Lewis returned to the forks of the Jefferson River expecting to find "Capt. C. and the party . . . on their way up." Lewis was dismayed because upon reaching the forks, he discerned that Clark had not taken the recommended route up the Beaverhead, but one to the northwest known today as the Big Hole River. Lewis sent Drouillard after him and later "learnt from Capt. Clark that he had not found the note which I had left for him at that place and the reasons which had induced him to ascend" the more rapid northwesterly branch. In a comic twist, a beaver had gnawed down the post holding Lewis's directions with neardisastrous consequences for poor Clark, who had simply followed the stream with the greatest flow—a fundamental hydrological principle that had always guided the expedition.24

The captains traveled together for two days up the Beaverhead fork of the Jefferson, but by the end of the second day, . . . Lewis had had enough.

Lewis reported that Clark pursued the "rapid fork" for nine miles, but after one of the canoes was "overset and all the baggage wet, the medecine box among other articles . . . lost," including a shot pouch, powder horn, and a rifle, he decided to return to the forks of the Jefferson. By the time this retrograde movement was completed, two other canoes filled with water, dampening "a great part of our most valuable stores" including the all-valuable Indian presents. Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse had nearly been killed on this excursion when he was thrown out of one of the canoes which "pressed him to the bottom as she passed over him." Had the water been two inches shallower, Lewis opined, the canoe "must inevitably have crushed him to death." Fortunately, none of the lead canisters containing gun powder had been breached even "tho' some of them had remained upwards of an hour under water." (Any significant amount of moisture would have ruined this vital supply with potentially disastrous consequences for the sustainability or defense of the expedition.) After recounting this story, Lewis then credited himself for having conjured the system of storing powder in lead containers rather than wooden vessels.25

What Lewis referred to rather pointedly as Clark's "mistake in the rivers" almost resulted in the loss of yet another man. Clark had sent George Shannon ahead to hunt before the decision to reverse course was made. Shannon, Lewis recounted, had the previous misfortune of being lost for fifteen days going up the Missouri the year before. Shannon found his way back to the party a few days later, and Whitehouse was alive if "in much pain," but Clark's spirits were as dampened as the baggage that had been under his care. Lewis, on the other hand, was reveling this day in his narrative on the naming of the affluents of the Jefferson River: the "Wisdom" and the "Philanthropy, in commemoration of two of those cardinal virtues" of the president who dispatched them. Clark recounts nary a word about this fanciful stuff in his journal's reckoning of that dismal day. He rather sparingly reported instead about Drouillard catching up with him with the news that the route he was on "was impractiabl" and that "all the Indian roades" led up the fork that Lewis had scouted. Clark "accordingly Droped down to the forks where I met Capt Lewis & party," he wrote with a hint of resignation. Clark's sore ankle was "much wors than it has been," the physical pain compounding the embarrassment of having taken the wrong turn.26

The captains traveled together for two days up the Beaverhead fork of the Jefferson, but by the end of the second day, 8 August 1805, Lewis had had enough. He decided to "leave the charge of the party, and the care of the lunar observations to Capt. Clark" while he would on the next day proceed ahead "with a small party to the source of the principal stream of this river and pass the mountains to the Columbia." The boil or cyst on Clark's ankle had "discharged a considerable quantity of matter," but it was still swollen and left him in "considerable pain," Lewis reported. The morning Lewis forged ahead "to examine the river above, find a portage if possible, also the Snake Indians," Clark recorded a poignant observation tinged with resentment: "I Should have taken this trip had I have been able to march."27

Clark's expression is one of the most suggestive of any to be found in the millions of words in the journals of the expedition. It exudes chagrin about not being able to make contact with the Shoshone and more particularly the Columbia River. Furthermore, one can intuit from it that after Lewis's previous forays in pursuit of the Yellowstone and the Great Falls, Clark for certain, and maybe both captains, had concluded it was his turn for glory. Elliott Coues was the first to observe that "Captain Clark was sadly disappointed at not being able to take the lead in the trip." More recently Stephen Ambrose said, "Clark wanted to lead" this reconnaissance, but that in the end it would prove Lewis's "most important mission." This, of course, gets to the heart of what was bothering Clark.28


23. JLCE, 5:44-45, 51 n. 2.

24. JLCE, 5:43, 47, 52, 54.

25. JLCE, 5:52-53.

26. JLCE, 5:53-55.

27. JLCE, 5:59, 62-63.

28. Coues, History, 2:471 n.; Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, pp. 262, 264.

© 2010 by the Dakota Institute Press