To see a journal entry, click a hoof print.
Upon their return to Travelers' Rest on the 30th of June, 1806, the Corps paused to gather strength for the next leg of the journey, setting out in two parties, in opposite directions, on July 3. Clark headed south up the Bitterroot Valley bound for Camp Disappointment where the canoes had been cached the previous August. On the 6th his contingent followed an Indian "road" over the Continental Divide and into the broad basin of the Big Hole River.
I observe the appearance of old buffalow roads and some heads on this part of the mountain. (proving that formerly Buffs. roved there. Also that this is the best route, for the Buffs. and the Indians always have the best route. Here both were joined).
Only one day later, but about 130 air-miles to the northeast, Lewis would make a similar observation.
Bones of the 'Buffalo'
On August 2, 1805, the party was well into the valley of the Jefferson River, south of the Three Forks of the Missouri. With mounting anticipation, they were approaching the long-sought Continental Divide, but Lewis expressed his disappointment in one certainty:
The bones of the buffaloe and their excrement of an old date are to be met with in every part of the valley, but we have long since lost all hope of meeting with that animal in these mountains.
Indeed, there were to be no more buffalo feasts until their return to the east side of the Rockies, 16 months later.
Clark was on the Gallatin River near the Three Forks of the Missouri on July 14, 1806:
I saw Elk, deer, Antelopes, and a great deel of old Signs of buffalow. their roads is in every direction. The Indian woman informs me that a fiew years ago Buffalow was very plenty in those plains. Vallies quite as high as the head of Jeffersons River.
On July 16, 1805, some ten miles south of today's Cascade, Montana, Lewis experienced a new gustatory delight:
Drewyer killed a buffaloe this morning near the river and we halted and breakfasted on it. here for the first time I ate of the small guts of the buffaloe cooked over a blazing fire in the Indian style, without any preperation of washing or other clensing, and found them very good.
After a two-day respite at Travelers' Rest in early July, 1806, while Clark headed south towards Camp Fortunate, Lewis followed an Indian road up the Big Blackfoot River and over the Continental Divide towards the Great Falls of the Missouri, and back into buffalo country.
On July 7, just west of the divide, Lewis observed:
saw some sign of buffaloe early this morning in the valley where we encamped last evening from which it appears that the buffaloe do sometimes penetrate these mountains a few miles. we saw no buffaloe this evening. but much old appearance of dung, tracks, &c.
The following day, just east of the divide:
Josh. Fields saw two buffaloe below us some distance which are the first that have been seen. . . . much rejoiced at finding ourselves in the plains of the Missouri which abound with game.
One Continual Roar
On July 11, 1806, Lewis descended the lower Sun ("Medicine") River and arrived back at their old camp at the upper end of the portage route around the Great Falls of the Missouri. It was a splendid day.
The morning was fair and the plains looked beautifull. . . . The air was pleasant and a vast assemblage of little birds which croud to the groves on the river sung most enchantingly. . . . Proceeded with the party across the plain to the white bear Islands . . . through a level beautifull and extensive high plain covered with immence hirds of buffaloe. It is now the season at which the buffaloe begin to coppelate and the bulls keep a tremendious roaring we could hear them for many miles and there are such numbers of them that there is one continual roar. our horses had not been acquainted with the buffaloe they appeared much allarmed at their appearance and bellowing. The missouri bottoms on both sides of the river were crouded with buffaloe I sincerely belief that there were not less than 10 thousand buffaloe within a circle of 2 miles arround that place.
Meanwhile, on July 24, over on the Yellowstone River, Clark and his contingent were to have their own experience with horses and bison. Having built canoes to carry his men and their baggage down to the Missouri, he sent Sergeant Pryor and privates Shannon, Hall, and Windsor, with their remaining 20 horses—a total of 29 had already been stolen, possibly by Crow Indians—on ahead to the Mandan villages. Within hours of their departure, the detail encountered a problem:
Sergeant Pryor informed me that in passing every gangue of buffalow Several of which he had met with, the loos horses as Soon as they Saw the Buffalow would imediately pursue them and run around them. All those that Speed suffient would head the buffalow and those of less Speed would pursue on as fast as they Could. He at length found that the only practiacable method would be for one of them to proceed on and when ever they Saw a gang of Buffalow to Scear them off before the horses got up. This disposition in the horses is no doubt owing to their being frequently exercised in chasing different animals by their former owners the Indians as it is their Custom to chase every Speces of wild animals with horses, for which purpose they train all their horses.
Two days later, Indians stole the rest of the horses!
With Verdure Clad
It was a "pleasent and fair" day, on June 3, 1805, when the captains admired the countryside around the confluence of the Marias and Missouri Rivers.
Capt. C & myself stroled out to the top of the hights in the fork of these rivers from whence we had an extensive and most enchanting view; the country in every derection around us was one vast plain in which unnumerable herds of Buffalow were seen attended by their shepperds the wolves; the solatary antelope which now had their young were distribued over it's face; some herds of elk were also seen; the verdure perfectly cloathed the ground, to the South we saw a range of lofty mountains; . . . these were partially covered with snow.
More than two hundred years later the view is still enchanting, although most days the air isn't nearly as clear as it once was, the verdure is a cash crop, and if there are any bovidae to be seen, they belong to the domestic variety.
Those mountains are now known as the Highwoods, a small island range in central Montana that is nearly 100 miles east of the Rockies.
Bison Along the Trail
By July 25, 1806, Clark was in the vicinity of the Indian landmark which he named "Pompys Tower," now called Pompey's Pillar, east of Billings, Montana. The view was great, but the neighbors were noisy:
emence herds of Buffalow about our [camp] as it is now running [rutting] time with those animals the bulls keep Such a grunting nois which is very loud and disagreeable Sound that we are compelled to Scear them away before we can Sleep. the men fire Several Shot at them and Scear them away.
A Buffalo Jump
On May 29, 1805, the day after the midnight visit of the buffalo bull, Lewis documented one of the Indians' means of killing buffalo, sometimes called a buffalo jump, or "pishkun." To modern readers the practice may seem terribly wasteful, but in fact the Indians knew that if any animals escaped, the rest of the buffalo would soon learn to avoid humans, which would make hunting all the harder:
Today we passed on the Stard. side the remains of a vast many mangled carcases of Buffalow which had been driven over a precipice of 120 feet by the Indians and perished; the water appeared to have washed away a part of this immence pile of slaughter and still their remained the fragments of at least a hundred carcases they created a most horrid stench.
In this manner the Indians of the Missouri distroy vast herds of buffaloe at a stroke; for this purpose one of the most active and fleet young men is scelected and (being) disguised in a robe of buffaloe skin, having also the skin of the buffaloe's head with the years and horns fastened on his head in form of a cap, thus caparisoned he places himself at a convenient distance between a herd of buffaloe and a precipice proper for the purpose, which happens in many places on this river for miles together;
The other indians now surround the herd on the back and flanks and at a signal agreed on all shew themselves at the same time moving forward towards the buffaloe; the disguised indian or decoy has taken care to place himself sufficiently nigh the buffaloe to be noticed by them when they take to flight and runing before them they follow him in full speede to the precepice, the cattle behind driving those in front over and seeing them go do not look or hesitate about following untill the whole are precipitated down the precepice forming one common mass of dead an mangled carcases;
The (Indian) decoy in the mean time has taken care to secure himself in some cranney or crivice of the clift which he had previously prepared for that purpose.
The part of the decoy I am informed is extreamly dangerous, if they are not very fleet runers the buffaloe tread them under foot and crush them to death, and sometimes drive them over the precepice also, where they perish in common with the buffaloe.
All in an Uproar
Asleep in their camp under a new moon at the mouth of the Judith River, on the night of May 28, 1805, some of the men had a close call. Meriwether Lewis's journal entry the next day can scarcely capture the anxiety of the moment—for them and, one supposes, for the bull:
Last night we were all allarmed by a large buffaloe Bull, which swam over from the opposite shore and coming along side of the white perogue, climbed over it to land, he then alarmed ran up the bank in full speed directly towards the fires, and was within 18 inches of the heads of some of the men who lay sleeping before the centinel could allarm him or make him change his course, still more alarmed, he now took his direction immediatley towards our lodge, passing between 4 fires and within a few inches of the heads of one range of the men as they yet lay sleeping, when he came near the tent, my dog saved us by causing him to change his course a second time, which he did by turning a little to the right, and was quickly out of sight, leaving us by this time all in an uproar with our guns in our hands, enquiring of each other the cause of the alarm, which after a few moments was explained by the centinel; we were happy to find no one hirt.
They did suffer some damage, though:
The next morning we found that the buffaloe in passing the perogue had trodden on a rifle, which belonged to Capt. Clark's black man, who had negligently left her in the perogue, the rifle was much bent, he had also broken the spindle, pivit, and shattered the stock of one of the bluntderbushes [blunderbusses: large-caliber, mounted guns] on board.
Lewis was nonetheless relieved:
with this damage I felt well content, happey indeed, that we had sustained no further injury.
Near the mouth of the Yellowstone River on April 25, 1805, Lewis remarked on the docility of the four-footed wildlife:
I ascended the hills from whence I had a most pleasing view of the country, perticularly of the wide and fertile vallies formed by the missouri and the yellowstone rivers . . . . the whol face of the country was covered with herds of Buffaloe, Elk, Antelopes; deer are also abundant, but keep themselves more concealed in the woodland. the buffalow Elk and Antelope are so gentle that we pass near them while feeding, without apearing to excite any alarm among them, and when we attract their attention, they frequently approach us more nearly to discover what we are, and in some instances pursue us a considerable distance apparently with that view.
Near today's Williston, North Dakota, on April 22, 1805, Meriwether Lewis took a morning walk:
I asscended to the top of the cutt bluff this morning, from whence I had a most delightfull view of the country, the whole of which except the vally formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing to the first glance of the spectator immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture.
Later the same day he got out of his boat for another stroll:
Walking on shore this evening I met with a buffaloe calf which attatched itself to me and continued to follow close at my heels untill I embarked and left it. it appeared allarmed at my dog which was probably the cause of it's so readily attatching itself to me.
As usual, the captains and their men were attentive students of wildlife behavior:
Capt Clark informed me that he saw a large drove of buffaloe pursued by wolves today, that they at length caught a calf which was unable to keep up with the herd. the cows only defend their young so long as they are able to keep up with the herd, and seldom return any distance in surch of them.
Lewis had seen great "gangues" of bison on more than one occasion—an estimated 3,000 near Oacoma, South Dakota, in September of 1804, 10,000 at the Great Falls of the Missouri on July 1, 1805.
South of the White River, near today's Chamberlain, South Dakota, on August 29, 1806, he beheld an awesome sight:
I assended to the high Country and from an eminance I had a view of the plains for a great distance. From this eminance I had a view of a greater number of buffalow than I had ever Seen before at one time. I must have Seen near 20,000 of those animals feeding on this plain.
West of Oacoma, South Dakota, on September 17, 1804, Lewis noted:
This senery already rich pleasing and beautiful was still farther hightened by immence herds of Buffaloe deer Elk and Antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains. I do not think I exagerate when I estimate the number of Buffaloe which could be comprehended at one view to amount to 3,000.
On September 9, 1804, west of today's Fort Randall Dam in South Dakota, Clark's black servant scored:
Derected my Servent York with me to kill a Buffalow near the boat from a numbr. then Scattered in the plains, I saw at one view near the river at least 500 Buffalow, those animals have been in view all day feeding in the Plains.
On August 23, 1804, near present Vermillion, South Dakota, Clark recorded:
J: Fields Sent out to hunt Came to the Boat and informed me that he had Killed a Buffalow in the plain a head.
Sergeant Ordway explained:
Capt. Lewis & myself & 10 more of the party went out Buchered & Brought it to the Boat . . . . I Saw the beds & Signs of a great many more Buffelow But this was the first I ever Saw & as great a curiosity to me.
Sergeant Gass noted:
We stopped at a prairie on the north side, the largest and handsomest, which I had seen. Capotain Clarke called it Buffaloe prairie.
Strong headwinds forced the party to heave to for a few hours, and while waiting for conditions to improve they salted two barrels of bison meat.
The wind blew "flying Sands which rasies like a Cloud of Smoke from the Bars when the wind Blows, the Sand being fine and containing a [great] perpotion of earth and when it lights it Sticks to every thing it touches."
On the following day they passed, on the Nebraska side of the Missouri, the bluffs later called the Ionia "volcano," and on the South Dakota side, the "Spirit Mound" believed by Indians to harbor devils "in human form with remarkable large heads and about 18 Inches high."
On June 6, 1804, near Boonville, Missouri, William Clark remarked simply, "Some buffalow Sign to day." Hoofprints and dung, perhaps.
On June 28, in the vicinity of present-day Kansas City, they finally caught sight of some, but it was to be another two months before they would get close enough to shoot one.