Hoofbeats & Nightmares

masthead saying 'We Proceeded On'

Reprinted from We Proceeded On1

La Courbette

Sketch of a French calvary rider with the horse standing on his two hind feet

Livre de La Guérinière Gravures de Charles Parrocel, École de Cavalerie (Paris: Par la compagnie, 1733).

Horseback: Lewis's Alpha and Omega

Meriwether Lewis was on horseback both at the beginning and end of his appearance in the pages of history. Each time he was haunted by horse mishaps.

In early March 1801 Lewis had set off from Pittsburgh, headed for Washington, traveling with three horses, to accept the appointment as President Jefferson's private secretary, which ultimately led to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.2 One horse went lame on the rugged, muddy roads. Delayed by this disability, Lewis did not reach Washington until three weeks later, April 1st–an inordinate delay for accepting an important presidential assignment.

And in the final days of his life, eight years later, he again headed for Washington on horseback, this time from St. Louis to defend his expeditionary expense accounts. On the Natchez Trace en route two of his horses were lost in the Wilderness, forcing his companion, Major James Neelly, to remain behind to search for them.3 Lewis rode ahead alone, apparently in a distracted state, to lonely Grinder's Stand where his tragic death occurred by gunshot wounds October 9, 1809. It was a death which might have been averted had Neelly not been absent searching for lost horses.

Lewis's horses thus furnished both a preface in 1801, and a somber epilogue in 1809, of the difficulties he had with his mounts on the Expedition of 1804–1806. For it was on horseback that Lewis, his co-leader William Clark, and their men faced their most dangerous trails. Yet despite the critical importance of these animals in the Lewis and Clark drama, there appear to be no paintings or images of any kind in the pictorial record depicting the two captains astride horses. Typically, they are shown standing on a promontory overlooking rivers and mountains, pointing forward, or poised in the prow of a canoe, or grouped with native chieftains parlaying in the wilderness. Rarely, if ever, do horses (other than native mounts) show up in the graphic literature of the expedition.

A Subservient Domination

But without their horse luck Lewis and Clark may have been just two other minor figures in the opening of the West. It was only through their fortuitous purchase of horses from the Shoshone Indians on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, August 1805, that their mission was saved from probable defeat. Those purchases enabled them to stumble with their baggage across "those turrible mountains." Staving off starvation by eating "killed colts," they managed to reach the Pacific watershed before winter could shut them down. Thanks to their horses they would proceed on to fulfill a mission critical to the new nation's future. The Expedition thus became unique testimony to the precept that "man on a horse's back is history's dominant figure."4

As horsemen however, Lewis and Clark were not very "dominant." Instead, at times on horseback they seemed pathetic and bedraggled, more like Quixote than heroic cavaliers worthy of statues in the court house square. Their men also, when dependent on horses, were often a disheveled, disoriented bunch, especially on the Lolo trail, bungling along in front of, or behind, or astride their equally pitiful nags. Lewis himself called this stretch with the horses the most "wretched portion of our journy, the Rocky Mountain, where hungar and cold in their most rigorous forms assail the waried traveller; not any of us have yet forgotten our sufferings in those mountains . . . and I think it probable we never shall."5

Horse Tracks: Where?

What was the actual geographic extent of the Lewis and Clark horse trail? Captain Clark measured it out in his "Postexpeditionary Miscellany."6 After river mileage of 3096 miles westward up the Missouri, the party went by land, i.e. by horse, from the Shoshone encampments (near the present day southwestern Montana-Idaho border) "over to Clark's river and down that to the enterance of travellers rest Creek . . . thence across the ruged part of the Rocky Mountains to the navagable branches of the Columbia 398 Miles." Eastbound on the return trip, the party had the help of horses from present-day Dalles on the Columbia, overland at least 360 miles to the Nez Perces, thence back to Travelers' Rest. From there, directly across the mountains to the plains and the Great Falls of the Missouri was a distance of 340 miles. Though the party was divided into different groups, all with horses, at Travelers' Rest each of these groups on their different routes would have traversed at least a minimum of the 340 miles cited by Clark as the distance between Travelers' Rest and the Great Falls. There were, of course, additional daily sorties of hunters and special rides (such as Lewis's all night gallop of 120 miles from the fight with the Blackfeet at the Two Medicine River site).

In short, the Expedition left horse tracks of at least four to five hundred miles on a westward lineal course, plus at least a thousand miles easterly, widely scattered over strikingly varied terrain—with horses ranging in number from two or three at a time up to 65. The Corps of Discovery had become, in effect, a kind of cavalry unit for a cumulative period of six months during its approximate 28 months of absence from St. Louis. These men had then to manage a large squadron of unruly animals on which they were absolutely dependent for surmounting the most dangerous fifth of the total round trip.

  • 1. Robert R. Hunt, "Hoofbeats & Nightmares: A Horse Chronicle of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Parts I and II," We Proceeded On, Volume 20, No. 4 (November 1994) and Volume 21, No 1 (February 1995), the quarterly journal of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Editorial additions include page titles, side headings, and graphics to assist the web-based reader. The original printed format is provided at http://lewisandclark.org/wpo/pdf/vol20no4.pdf#page=4 and http://lewisandclark.org/wpo/pdf/vol21no1.pdf#page=4.
  • 2. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), vol. l, 4n.
  • 3. Ibid, vol. 2, 467–68.
  • 4. Glenn R. Vernam, Man on Horseback (New York: Harper & Row, Inc., 1964), ix.
  • 5. Gary E. Moulton, ed. The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), vol. 7, 325. All quotations or references to journal entries in the ensuing text are from Moulton, Volumes 1–8, by date unless otherwise indicated, without further citations in these notes.
  • 6. Ibid, vol. 8, 388 et seq.