Grand Fall: Lewis's Description

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First Picture

Principal Cascade of the Missouri

Barralet's painting of the Falls

Courtesy of Watzek Library, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon

Engraved from a drawing by John James Barralet (1807)

Note: Bold text in the journal entries below, identify features in the above illustration.

Lewis's description of the falls

I had proceeded on this course about two miles with Goodrich at some distance behind me whin my ears were saluted with the agreeable sound of a fall of water and advancing a little further I saw the spray arrise above the plain like a collumn of smoke which would frequently disapear again in an instant caused I presume by the wind which blew pretty hard from the S. W.

I did not however loose my direction to this point which soon began to make a roaring too tremendious to be mistaken for any cause short of the great falls of the Missouri. There I arrived about 12 OClock having traveled by estimate about 15 Miles [from camp]. I hurryed down the hill which was about 200 feet high and difficult of access, to gaze on this sublimely grand specticle.

I took my position on the top of some rocks about 20 feet high opposite the center of the falls. This chain of rocks appear once to have formed a part of those over which the waters tumbled, but in the course of time has been seperated from it to the distance of 150 yards lying prarrallel to it and forming a butment against which the water after falling over the precipice beats with great fury; this barrier extends on the right to the perpendicular clift which forms that board [side] of the river but to the distance of 120 yards next to the clift it is but a few feet above the level of the water, and here the water in very high tides appears to pass in a channel of 40 yds. next to the higher part of the ledg of rocks; on the left it extends within 80 or ninty yards of the lard. Clift which is also perpendicular; between this abrupt extremity of the ledge of rocks and the perpendicular bluff the whole body of water passes with incredible swiftness.

immediately at the cascade the river is about 300 yds. wide; about ninty or a hundred yards of this next the Lard. bluff is a smooth even sheet of water falling over a precipice of at least eighty feet, the remaining part of about 200 yards on my right formes the grandest sight I ever beheld, the hight of the fall is the same of the other but the irregular and somewhat projecting rocks below receives the water in it's passage down and brakes it into a perfect white foam which assumes a thousand forms in a moment sometimes flying up in jets of sparkling foam to the hight of fifteen or twenty feet and are scarcely formed before large roling bodies of the same beaten and foaming water is thrown over and conceals them. In short the rocks seem to be most happily fixed to present a sheet of the whitest beaten froath for 200 yards in length and about 80 feet perpendicular.

the water after decending strikes against the butment before mentioned or that on which I stand and seems to reverberate and being met by the more impetuous courant they role and swell into half formed billows of great hight which rise and again disappear in an instant.

this butment of rock defends a handsom little bottom of about three acres which is deversified and agreeably shaded with some Cottonwood trees; in the lower extremity of the bottom there is a very thick grove of the same kind of trees which are small, in this wood there are several Indian lodges formed of sticks. A few small cedar grow near the ledge of rocks where I rest.

below the point of these rocks at a small distance the river is divided by a large rock which rises several feet above the water, and extends downwards with the stream for about 20 yards.

I see several skelletons of the buffaloe1 lying in the edge of the water near the Stard. bluff which I presume have been swept down by the current and precipitated over this tremendious fall.

–Meriwether Lewis, June 13, 1805 (638 words)

Nicholas Biddle's paraphrase (1814) of
Lewis's description of the Grand Fall

Captain Lewis had gone about two miles, when his ears were saluted with the agreeable sound of a fall of water, and as he advanced a spray, which seemed driven by the high southwest wind, arose above the plain like a column of smoke, and vanished in an instant. Toward this point he directed his steps; the noise increased as he approached, and soon became too tremendous to be mistaken for anything but the great Falls of the Missouri. Having traveled seven miles after first hearing the sound, he reached the falls about twelve o'clock.

The hills as he approached were difficult of access and 200 feet high. Down these he hurried with impatience; and, seating himself on some rocks under the center of the falls, enjoyed the sublime spectacle of this stupendous object, which since the creation had been lavishing its magnificence upon the desert, unknown to civilization.

The river immediately at this cascade is 300 yards wide, and is pressed in by a perpendicular cliff on the left, which rises to about 100 feet and extends up the stream for a mile; on the right the bluff is also perpendicular for 300 yards above the falls. For 90 or 100 yards from the left cliff, the water falls in one smooth, even sheet, over a precipice of at least 80 feet.

The remaining part of the river precipitates itself with a more rapid current, but being received as it falls by the irregular and somewhat projecting rocks below, forms a splendid prospect of perfectly white foam, 200 yards in length and 80 in perpendicular elevation. This spray is dissipated into a thousand shapes, sometimes flying up in columns of 15 or 20 feet, which are then oppressed by larger masses of the white foam, on all which the sun impresses the brightest colors of the rainbow. As it rises from the fall it beats with fury against a ledge of rocks which extend across the river at 150 yards from the precipice.

From the perpendicular cliff on the north, to the distance of 120 yards, the rocks rise only a few feet above the water; when the river is high the stream finds a channel across them 40 yards wide and near the higher parts of the ledge, which then rise about 20 feet and terminate abruptly within 80 or 90 yards of the southern side. Between them and the perpendicular cliff on the south the whole body of water runs with great swiftness.

A few small cedars grow near this ridge of rocks, which serves as a barrier to defend a small plain of about three acres, shaded with Cottonwood, at the lower extremity of which is a grove of the same tree, where are several Indian cabins of sticks; below the point of them the river is divided by a large rock, several feet above the surface of the water, and extending down the stream for 20 yards. At the distance of 300 yards from the same ridge is a second abutment of solid perpendicular rock about 60 feet high, projecting at right angles from the small plain on the north for 134 yards into the river. After leaving this, the Missouri again spreads itself to its usual distance of 300 yards, though with more than its ordinary rapidity.

From [Nicholas Biddle, ed.], History of the expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark. . . . Philadelphia, 1814. Reprint; 2 vols. (New York: The Heritage Press, 1962), 1:159–60.

A comparison of Lewis's description with Nicholas Biddle's paraphrase serves to illustrate the stylistic contrasts between the two narrators. Biddle's orderly, thoughtful phrasing is smooth and articulate. Lewis's own words combine the emotion-soaked spontaneity of a friendly discourse with the energy of an on-the-scene report.

Yet after Lewis finished his description, he lamented that his words failed to do justice to the scene. He "wished for the pencil of Salvator Rosa or the pen of a Thompson," in order that he "might be enabled to give to the enlightened world some just idea of this truly magnifficent and sublimely grand object;2 . . . but this was fruitless and vain." So, he concluded,

I therefore with the assistance of my pen only indeavoured to trace some of the stronger features of this seen by the assistance of which and my recollection aided by some able pencil I hope still to give to the world some faint idea of an object which at this moment fills me with such pleasure and astonishment, and which of it's kind I will venture to ascert is second to but one in the known world.

His phrase "second to but one in the known world" could only have been a reference to Niagara Falls, between Lakes Erie and Ontario, near Buffalo, New York.

On July 16, 1806, Lewis and his three companions, en route from White Bear Islands to explore the upper Marias River, paused at the "handsom fall"—now Rainbow Falls. That night they camped under the "shelving rock" in the "little wood" below the "grand falls" . . . after evicting two bears from the premises. The falls, Lewis noted as he sketched the scene, "have abated much of their grandure since I first arrived at them in June 1805, the water being much lower at prese[n]t than it was at that moment, however they are still a sublimely grand object." He arose early the next morning and made a second drawing of the falls before proceeding on to the Marias River.

Upon his return to Philadelphia in 1807, Lewis hired an "able pencil," John James Barralet for forty dollars to make "two Drawings water falls."3 Lewis probably showed the artist his own sketches of the "stronger features" of the grand falls and did his best to refine the details verbally, striving to recapture the essence of the "sublime" he had recognized in the scene.4

On January 26, 1810, Clark wrote to William D. Meriwether that he was in Philadelphia "serching for the Materials left in this City by the late Govr. Lewis, reletive to our discoveries on the Western Tour." Among his findings he mentioned "imperfect drawings & made of the falls of the Missouri, & Columbia."5 It is not clear whether he had in mind Barralet's drawings, or Lewis's and perhaps his own sketches. If the former, that might explain why Barralet's illustrations were not included in the 1814 Biddle-Allen edition of the captains' journals. Indeed, compared with Salvator Rosa's depiction of a waterfall, or G. Beck's 1802 painting of the Great Falls of the Potomac River, Barralet's effort appears coarse and graceless. In any case, none of the original copies of any of the drawings have yet been found.6

Barralet's picture, "Principal Cascade of the Missouri," appeared only in the Irish reprint of the History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clarke published in Dublin in 1817.7 Since Bradford and Inskeep underwrote that printing, it may be that the American publisher urged the inclusion of the Irish artist's work.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust

  • 1.

    Barralet has discreetly but imperfectly depicted them as living bovines of questionable lineage.

  • 2.

    Throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th the grand and the sublime were qualities one dreamed of encountering somewhere in nature's scenery, sometime. It would be a peak experience. Descending the Ohio River on the morning of September 15, 1803, Lewis passed the beautiful Blennerhasset Island, a then-well-known landmark that since 1798 had been the home of Harman Blennerhassett (who was soon—in 1805—to be the principal co-conspirator in Aaron Burr's plot to foment a rebellion against the United States). Fortescue Cuming later drew attention to the island in his Sketches of a tour to the western country (1810). But there was something lacking. It was, he said, "a situation perhaps not exceeded for beauty in the world." However, it needed "the variety of mountain—precipice—cataract—distant prospect, &c. which constitute the grand and sublime." The Monthly Anthology, and Boston Review, Vol. 7 (September 1, 1809), 7.

    As the British critic Lord Henry Home Kames had written, there was "a real, though nice, distinction between these two feelings"—between grandeur and sublimity. The distinction was a matter of literary expression, of mastery of style. To illustrate, he compared a passage from the Iliad as a simile for grandeur with one from Milton for sublimity. Meriwether Lewis recognized them both, and he knew when he was in their presence. The right side of the Great Fall was grand; the left was sublime. Kames, Elements of Criticism (Dublin: Charles Ingham, 1772), 128-129; Google Books.

  • 3. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1873-1854 (2nd ed., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 2:463n. Barralet (c. 1747-1815) emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in 1795 and eventually set up shop at Eleventh and Filbert Streets in Philadelphia.
  • 4.

    Noah Webster, in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), defined "sublime" simply as "lofty or grand style." An engaging essay on the history of this Enlightenment-era concept is Albert Furtwangler's "The American Sublime," in Acts of Discovery: Visions of America in the Lewis & Clark Journals (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 23-51.

  • 5.

    Jackson, 2:490.

  • 6.

    An undated note of Clark's, to which Jackson referred in connection with a letter from Nicholas Biddle to Clark dated July 7, 1810, reads: "The two Drawings of the Falls of the Columbia and Missouri are in the possession of Mr. Murray and Mr. Lawson Engravers . . . Mr. Lawson lives in Pine Street between 8th and 9th Streets. Mr. Lawson will direct Mr. Clark to Mr. Murray." It is likely that this reference is to Clark's diagrams of the two falls, which Biddle included in his edition of the journals. Jackson, 2:554.

  • 7.

    Stephen Dow Beckham, et al, The Literature of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: A Bibliography and Essays (Portland: Lewis & Clark College, 2003), 156.