Desperately Seeking Horses

masthead saying 'We Proceeded On'

Reprinted from We Proceeded On1

Appaloosa Horse

profile of a large, gray Appaloosa horse

©2010 by Kris Townsend, used with permission.


Dark brown mule

©2011 by Kris Townsend, used with permission.

Where Are the Horses?

Once beyond the Great Falls of the Missouri, Lewis became increasingly aware that horses would be the only means of fighting against time and geography which were racing against him toward another winter. He voiced his worries on July 27th:

we begin to feel considerable anxiety with rispect to the Snake Indians. if we do not find them or some other nation who have horses I fear the successful issue of our voyage will be very doubtful . . . now several hundred miles within the bosom of this wild and mountainous country . . .

Still no Indians in sight by August 8th as Lewis scouted ahead of the party with three of his men. His record of the day had a desperate note:

without horses we shall be obliged to leave a great part of our stores, of which it appears to me that we have a stock already sufficiently small for the length of the voyage before us.

Meeting the Shoshone

Finally, by August 11th near the Continental Divide, he made contact with the Shoshones.

But Lewis was afraid the Shoshones could not be relied upon to make their animals available; many of the Indians were nervous, not yet ready to trust the strangers, suspecting a trap. Lewis feared they might bolt and disappear with their horses, which:

would vastly retard and increase the labour of our voyage and I feared might so discourage the men as to defeat the expedition altogether . . . I slept but little, my mind dwelling on the state of the expedition which I have ever held in equal estimation with my own existence . . .

There would indeed be further nightmares before the captains could determine "whether to prosecute . . . [the] journey from thence by land or water." On August 17th Clark and the main party were reunited with Lewis, and the Shoshones became more trusting—"the sperits of the men were now much elated at the prospect of getting horses." Still, the Captains remained uncertain whether to continue by horseback or canoe.

Serious Horse Trading Commences

Clark set off with eleven men armed with axes for canoe building, to reconnoiter the Salmon River. Several days of stumbling over dangerous terrain and viewing impossible canyons convinced him that the Indians had been right all along in ruling out such a route. He sent a letter by messenger to Lewis, who remained with the Shoshones, advising that land travel by horse appeared the only feasible course.

In the interim, Toussaint Charbonneau had learned that the Shoshones were about to leave surreptitiously with their horses for the buffalo country; he had neglected to tell Lewis until almost too late. "I could not forbear speaking to him with som degree of asperity," Lewis noted. He knew that his chance of obtaining additional horses could suddenly disappear, and he lost no time in cajoling the Shoshone chiefs to countermand their movement orders. After this new nightmare of vanishing horses, on receipt of Clark's letter, Lewis promptly determined to commence the purchase of at least 20 additional animals, still fearful that "the caprice of the indians might suddenly induce them to withhold their horses . . ."

It was here that the horse trading careers of the two captains began in earnest. They offered uniform coats, shirts, leggings, knives, handkerchiefs, axes, and trinkets (in one case even Clark's pistol with powder and balls) for animals which they considered generally in excellent condition, though later they would complain about sore backs and previous overuse of these animals. By August 30th they had purchased 29 or 30 (the number varies in their records) to begin their journey into the Bitterroot Mountains. Ten more were acquired further along the route when they encountered a band of Flathead Indians who had abundant herds. By September 6th, 40 horses plus three colts were on hand; some of the men thus had to manage two horses each during this most difficult segment of the journey.