Tempting Fate

In the meantime, practical necessity required the identification of natural features that anyone could recognize on the ground. Meriwether Lewis was hoping that he could prove the headwaters of the Marias River would serve that purpose. On July 22 he and his companions camped on the south side of present Cut Bank Creek about 12 miles northeast of present Browning, Montana, and four miles north of U.S. Highway 2 (off today's Meriwether Road), on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. From his own calculations, and a reconnaissance by Druillard, he concluded correctly that the Marias would not fill the bill.

Still, he thought it "more than probable" that the Milk River would. Ironically, he wasn't aware that when he looked over the ridge a few miles north of camp and saw what he took to be the Sasketchewan River, he was actually looking at the Milk, which rises just a few miles north of the headwaters of Cut Bank Creek, flows northward into Canada, then turns southeast to join the Missouri River near present Fort Peck Dam. For three days Lewis tried making the necessary astronomical observations to determine the latitude of his camp, but inclement weather prevented him from completing them. Today, if we have guessed correctly where his camp was, we can say it was at 48 degrees, 39 minutes north latitude.

Although the grazing was good for their horses, food for the men was scant for the first two days, until Druilliard brought in a buck deer late on the third. In the meantime they got by on passenger-pigeon meat, with some mush made of cous roots they had brought with them. They caught but one small trout in the creek, not realizing they had camped near a blue heron rookery, which kept the fish population low.1

On the 25th Lewis lamented that "as if the fates were against me my chronometer from some unknown cause stoped today." On the 26th they awakened to "rain as usual." At 9:00 a.m., Lewis wrote, "we set out biding a lasting adieu to this place which I now call camp disappointment."

During their hunting and exploring jaunts they found evidence that Indians had recently camped in the vicinity. In that regard, "the fates" had more to reveal. The very next day they would encounter eight Peigan Indians, sup and parley with them cordially, and waken the next morning to a hand-to-hand conflict that would become the darkest blemish on the Expedition's record.

1. Wilbur Werner, " . . . one small trout," We Proceeded On, Vol. 13, No. 4.