Reliving Lewis and Clark: At a Fork in the Missouri River

Anthony Brandt
for National Geographic News
July 13, 2005

Editor's note: This article is 11th in a series following reenactors as they retrace the trail of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery through the U.S. West. Two hundred years after the expedition made its portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri River in what is now Montana, author Anthony Brandt revisits the scene. In this article he recounts the early summer of 1805, when the Corps came to a fork in the Missouri without knowing which branch would lead them to the Pacific.

At the end of May the men reenacting the Lewis and Clark expedition followed the Missouri River through the scenery of the White Cliffs of the Missouri Breaks, in what today is central Montana. These were the cliffs that Meriwether Lewis found so magnificent. They still are.

But on June 3 the reenactors' boats came ashore and stayed there for a month. All but six of the reenactors went home.

Lewis and Clark had reached the Great Falls of the Missouri in early June 1805, and it took them some three weeks to make the portage around the falls.

The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission saw the 200th anniversary of the portage as an opportunity to stage a celebration. Accordingly, the month of June was dedicated to the Big Sky Signature Event, which included an Indian rock concert, a Lewis and Clark-themed ballet, an opera based on the life of the Blackfoot leader Scarface, and demonstrations of Plains Indian life.

The reenactors are only now setting out on the river once again, heading toward the stretch of the Missouri that Lewis dubbed Gates of the Mountains, not far from present-day Helena, Montana.

At the Fork

Lewis and Clark left the White Cliffs around June 1, 1805, and Lewis saw the mist rising from the Great Falls on June 13. The distance between the cliffs and the falls was not great, but the explorers were held up by an unexpected event. They had come to the junction of a river that the Indians had not told them about.

Up to that point they had known roughly where they were going. Mandan Indians had drawn pictures for them of the Yellowstone River, the Milk River, and some of the other streams entering the Missouri. The Indians had told them to expect the Great Falls and that it was a day's portage around them.

But they had neglected to mention this new river. And it was big. The north fork looked like the Missouri River. "Its waters run," explained Lewis in his journal, "in the same boiling and rolling manner which has uniformly characterized the Missouri." The south fork looked like a clear mountain stream. Which branch should they take?

All they knew was that the river they wanted had a set of falls. It was that river, the Indians had told them, that passed deep into the mountains and ran close to the Columbia River, which emptied into the Pacific.

Every man in the Corps of Discovery but two believed that the north fork, which looked and behaved like the Missouri they had been following, was the way to go.

Continued on Next Page >>


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