The Beaverhead River at Beaverhead Rock
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© 2000 Airphoto, Jim Wark. All rights reserved.
Jim Wark shot this photo in May of 1999, when crops, mostly hay, had begun to green up, and the river was high with spring runoff from mountain snow. The brown areas are fallow fields. The Beaverhead River, which Lewis and Clark thought of as a continuation of the Jefferson, is flowing northeast, toward the top of the picture. The prominent outcrop just above center is Beaverhead Rock, the base of which lies at approximately 4,900 feet above mean sea level. The snow-capped mountains in the background are the Tobacco Root Mountains, topped by 10,590-foot Granite Peak near the left edge of the photo.
Several times the journalists remarked on the "circuitous rout" and the "meandering course" of the river they called Jefferson's. It was, as Ordway complained, "small and amazeing crooked." Moreover, as Lewis said, "in many places they were obliged to double man the canoes and drag them over the stone and gravel."
Clark and the main party, with the eight dugout canoes, reached Beaverhead Rock on August 10, 1805, which Lewis had passed two days earlier.1 Meanwhile, Lewis covered 60 miles via a well-traveled Indian road, reaching the forks of Red Rock and Horse Prairie creeks, and camping five miles up the latter, headed toward Lemhi Pass.
It took 18 days for the main party to wrestle their canoes the 163 miles (by modern measurement) from the Three Forks to Camp Fortunate. No wonder the men "complain verry much of the emence labour they are obliged to undergo," as Clark wrote on August 12th, "& wish much to leave the river." On the other hand, in July of 1806, his 22-person contingent covered the same distance in the six remaining canoes, in just four days. Today, it's only 110 highway miles from Missouri Headwaters State Park at the Three Forks, to Clark Canyon Dam near the site of Camp Fortunate—an easy two-hour drive, and at highway speeds the silhouette of the beaver's head that cheered the Corps of Discovery eludes most passers-by.
On August 8, 1805, near today's town of Twin Bridges, Montana, the men were tediously poling their canoes up the river they called Jefferson's, which was becoming ever more "crooked with Short bends a fiew Islands and maney gravelly Sholes." That evening, Sacagawea shed the light of hope on the prospect of finally meeting her people, and securing horses for the portage over the mountains to the headwaters of the Columbia.
"The Indian woman," wrote Meriwether Lewis, "recognized the point of a high plain to our right which she informed us was not very distant from the summer retreat of her nation on a river beyond the mountains which runs to the west. This hill she says her nation calls the beaver's head from a conceived resemblance of its figure to the head of that animal."
Two days later, more than thirty miles upriver and ten miles south of today's Dillon, Montana, Lewis and three companions cooked lunch "under an immence high perpendicular clift of rocks" which, from the number of poisonous reptiles thereabouts, they called "the rattle snake clifts."
Some local people say that Sacagawea misspoke, that the so-called Beaverhead Rock resembles the animal only by the hyperextension of one's imagination, and that a rocky promontory opposite Rattlesnake Cliffs is the one she must have meant. Others say half the rocks in Beaverhead County resemble beavers' heads to some folks from certain angles, and that anyhow, we shouldn't tamper with legends. Admittedly, the resemblance is hard to recognize from the perspective of the modern highway, and at highway speeds.
Be that as it may, the compass bearings Clark took on August 13, 1805, from a point on the river about 14 miles south unmistakably identify this landmark as the feature she said was Beaverhead Rock. Furthermore, a mountain man's journal of 1831 also placed the well-known landmark here, near the mouth of the Ruby River, as did Montana pioneer Granville Stuart in about 1865.
1. Since their supplies had become "a little exorsted" by August 7, they left one canoe at the confluence of the Big Hole and the Jefferson, just above today's town of Twin Bridges. On their return, July 11, 1806, they salvaged all the nails they could, and made paddles of her sides.