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

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The two men who disagreed were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

The Corps spent a week exploring each fork, Lewis commanding a party that went up the north fork, Clark leading a party down the other. But both teams came back without having found the falls.

In the end it came down to a leadership decision. The fate of the expedition depended on choosing the correct fork. The two captains based their decision partly on what the Indians had told them: The waters of the Missouri were clear at the falls, not turbid. When Lewis and Clark told the Corps that they were taking the south fork, the men, Lewis wrote, "were ready to follow us anywhere we thought proper to direct."

It was one of the expedition's great moments, a sign that the men were united in their faith in their commanders. This was a very different group of men from the unruly frontiersmen they had been when the captains had recruited them in Kentucky two years before.

Around the Falls

Lewis set off on foot with a small party in the direction of the south fork. Clark followed in the boats. They soon found that the south fork was in fact the river that would take them to the falls.

When Lewis came upon the falls, he called them "the grandest sight I ever beheld." He described them as great sheets of water rolling over the cliffs and breaking into "a perfect white foam which assumes a thousand forms in a moment."

But the falls continued up the river, he soon discovered, for some 16 miles (26 kilometers), and it would take three weeks—three weeks of the hardest labor the men had yet endured—to get around them. They had literally tons of supplies, and the terrain they had to cross was rugged. The Great Falls were also the haunt of grizzly bears, which fed on the bison that the river constantly swept away and deposited, dead, at the bottom of the falls.

Before they could begin the portage, the day after Lewis reached the falls, he almost lost his life to one of these bears, the day after he reached the falls.

Lewis decided to walk upriver to determine how far the falls went and to find the river the Indians had told him to look for above the falls—the Medicine River. He set out alone across the plains and came upon a herd of buffalo. He chose a fat one and shot it for his dinner. While he was waiting for the animal to die, he forgot to reload his rifle.

Then Lewis noticed "a large white, or rather brown bear, had perceived and crept on me within 20 steps." He raised his rifle to fire but realized it was empty. The bear was too close to give Lewis time to reload. While he was looking for an escape route the bear charged.

"I ran about 80 yards [73 meters] and found he gained on me fast," Lewis wrote. "I then ran into the water. The idea struck me to get into the water to such depth that I could stand and he would be obliged to swim … accordingly I ran hastily into the water about waist deep, and faced about and presented the point of my espontoon [spear]." The bear was 20 feet (6 meters) behind.

The bear then suddenly turned and ran away. "The cause of his alarm," Lewis wrote, "remains with me mysterious and unaccountable."

Lewis reloaded his gun and determined never again to let it go unloaded longer "than the time she necessarily required to charge her."

It had been a very close call. But Lewis simply called it a "curious adventure." He resumed his walk, heading for the banks of the Medicine River. It was the same direction the bear had gone.

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