Lewis & Clark Expedition in Lemhi County
by J. Wilmer Rigby
The first event recorded in the history of Lemhi County and the State of Idaho occurred August 12, 1805 with the passage of four members of the Lewis and Clark expedition over the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass. Captain Meriwether Lewis, George Drouillard, John Shields and Hugh McNeal, in advance of the main party, were searching for the Shoshone Indians; Sacajawea’s people. Contact with her people was essential to the success of the expedition because the Indians owned horses which had to be purchased for the portage over the mountains to the waters of the Columbia River Drainage. The Continental Divde marked both the western border of the recently acquired Louisiana Territory, and the United States. Lemhi County and the entire northwest was unclaimed land at that time.
Descending to the head of Agency Creek, the party drank from the waters of the Columbia, climbed a very steep draw out of the canyon, and camped for the night at a spring which feeds Flume Creek. Next morning they began their search for the Shoshone. Lewis was anxious because a lone Indian encountered earlier on Horse Prairie would not let them approach, and Lewis was concerned that the Indian might have alarmed his people causing them to hide. The party soon encountered two women and a man with some dogs, but was not allowed to come near them. This group fled to the village, causing much concern and a bank of armed warriors set out to intercept the intruders. A little later the explorers came upon three women; so suddenly that the women could not flee. Lewis befriended them with presents, and while the women were leading them to the village, the band of about sixty warriors appeared, traveling near full speed. The women informed the warriors, led by Chief Cameahwait, that the newcomers were friendly. Cameahwait accepted them as friends, taking them to has village and treating them with as much hospitality as was possible, considering the tribe’s impoverished condition. The village was located near the mouth of Kenney Creek. Consideralbe persuasion was required before the Indians would accompany the party, with horses, back to the “forks of the Missouri”, the present site of Clark Canyon Reservoir. The Indians were suspicious of Strangers, with good reason, as they had been attacked that spring by raiders from the Blackfeet Nation, with heavy loss of life and property. The year before, many Shoshone had been killed in a battle on the upper western part of Horse Prairie. The Indians returned with Lewis to the main expedition, which was being lead up the Beaverhead River in canoes by William Clark. They met at the forks (north of and below the island in the present Clark Canyon Reservoir) where an emotional and dramatic reunion occurred when Clark arrived and Sacajawea was reunited with her people. Chief Cameahwait proved to be her brother.
The Indians were awed by Capain Clark’s black slave, York, as well as the “sagacity” of Lewis’s dog. A council was held; the pipe was smoked, greetings and welcomes extended and geography discussed. Plans for trade were reviewed and gifts distributed to Cameahwait, his subchiefs, and principle warriors. The conversation then turned to the logistics of the grea portage ahead of them.
The Shoshone said the Salmon River could not be navigated, and the other option would be to travel north on a mountain trail traveled by the Nez Perce. They urged the Captains to winter with them, and to pursue the yourney to the coast in the spring. Lewis and Clark suspected that the Indians might wish to detain them as protection from their enemies. It was decided that Clark would lead a detachment to ascentain the conditions of the Salmon River and the terrain bordering it. They would carry sufficient tools to construct dugout canoes, find timber to make the canoes and appraise the availability of game to sust6ain them. Lewis would remain east of the Divide to cache all equipment not needed, pack the remainder for travel by horse, buy horses and buld pack saddles. He would later come with the men and baggage to meet Clark on his return from the proposed reconnaissance
Captain Clark left on August 18th with eleven men and two horses loaded with boat building tools and what baggage they could carry. Traveling with them were Sacajawea, her husband Troussaint Charbonneau, their six month old baby, and all but four of the Indians. The Charbonneaus were to encourage members of the village to return with sufficient horses to accommodate the portage. The detachment camped on Pattee Creek the night of the 19th, arriving the following day at the upper Indian village. This village had been moved about two miles south of the previous site, to a place just above Warm Springs road, on the valley floor. There were about thirty-two lodges, all made of brush except one, constructed of skins. After a short council, Clark obtained a guide, Toby, and departed at 3 o’clock, leaving Pierre Cruzatte at the village to purchase a third horse and overtake them later. They moved down the east side of the river, crossing just below Seventeen Mile Creek to the west side of the valley and camped at Withington Creek.
The morning of August 21 they arrived at a small salmon fishing village, about halfdway between Withington Creek and the forks of the Salmon and Lemhi Rivers. The village, which was the place where Toby lived, consisted of a few brush lodges inhabited by about seven families. The villagers were very friendly and gave them as much boiled salmon as they could eat plus dried salmon to use later. Clark described and sketched, in great detail, the fish weirs near there, before proceeding to cross the Lemhi River and Kirtley Creek, to continue through the foothills northeast of Salmon. This route, leaving the valley bottoms, avoided crossing the Salmon River. Entering the Carmen Creek drainage near the present Grange building. One of the men shot a large salmon; consequently they named this stream Salmon Creek. The Indian road from there carried them directly to the Tower Creek bluffs by an island. They were able to pass around the end of the mountain spur and encamped under the first bluff. This was Clark’s first encounter with the main Salmon River, which he named Lewis’s River, “. . . in just to Capt Lewis who was the first white man ever on this fork of the Columbia . . .”. The Lemhi was named the East Fork of Lewis’sRiver, and the present Salmon River, the West Fork of Lewis’s River. When the expedition arrived at the area near Lewiston, Idaho, the present Snake River was called Lewis’s River because they recognized it as part of this drainage. Years later the Snake became known as the South Fork of Lewis’s River, and the Salmon the North Fork of Lewis’s River.
Clark’s journal of August 22:
We set out early passed a small creek (Tower Creek) on the right at one mile and the points of four mountains verry steap high & rockey,the assent of three was so steap that it is credable to describe the rocks in maney places loose & sliped from those mountains and is a (solid) bed of rugid loose white and ark brown loose rock for miles. The Indian horses pass over those Clifts hills sids & rocks as fast as a man, the three horses with me donot detain me any account of those difficuelties, passed two bold runs. Streams on the right and a Small river . . .
Captain Clark here describes Fourth of July Creek, Waggonhammer Creek, and the Northfork of the Salmon River respectively.
Arriving at the mouth of the North Fork, which Clark named Fish Creek, they surprised a small fishing village, terrifying them. Calrk and two hunters, traveling in advance of the others, did not have their guide, to reassure these people.
They offered eyerything they possed (which was verry little) to us, some run off and hid in the bushes The first offer of theirs were Elks tuskes from around their Childrens necks, sammom &c. my guide attempted passifyed thos people and they set before me berres, & fish to eate, I gave a fiew Small articles to those fritened people which added verry much to their pasification but not entirely as some of the women & Childn. Cried dureing my Stay of an hour at this place. . .
One man accompanied the party on down the river, and they camped that evening on a small island in Deadwater because there was no other level place nearby. Sometime during the day’s travel, Clark discovered and described the Clark’s Nutcracker, Nucifraga Columbiana, thus
…a bird of the wood pecker kind which fed on Pine burs its bill and tale white the wings black every othert part of a light brown, and about the Size of a robin.
August 23rd was the day of truth as the hostility of the terrain became apparent to them. Sergeant Patrick Gass’s journal states. “We proceeded down the river through dreadful narrow, where the rocks were in some places breast high, and no path or trail of any kind.” Clark writes,
We set out early proceed on with great dificuelty as the rocks were so Sharp large and unsettled and the hill sides Steep that the horses could with the greatest rissque and dificulty get on, no provisions as the 5 Sammons given us yesterday by the Indians were eaten last night….
It was necessary to go into the river in order to pass around some clifts half way between Dump Creek and Moose Creek. The water was described as very rapid and deep for a short distance forcing the horses to swim. The many sharp rocks so impaired the horses’ feet that the animals were left, with eight men, on a flat across from the mouth of Moose Creek. The men were left with instructions to hunt and fish, while Clark, Toby and three men continued down the canyon to Indian Creek, which Clark named Berry Creek. Having had nothing to eat that day, they spent two hours catching some small fish, picking berries, and writing in his journal. Three things were observed here that caused Clark to continue with his exploration. First, there was a well beaten trail on Indian Creek and Squaw Creek with evidence of recent travel and camping, so the Captain knew the expedition could reach this point with horses. Secondly, an abundance of timber was being seen for the first time on the north side of the river. Thirdly, in communicating with Toby, which could only be done in sign language, he learned of a sizable flat a few miles below on the river. He could very well have thought that the terrain was changing for the better.
Continuing on the trail up Squaw Creek to escape the terrible mountainside bordering the river, they traveled to where Papoose Creek intersects and Squaw Creek begins to bend northward away from the river. Here they passed over a low saddle on the ridge to the left, and on to the river, passing through a well timbered bottom (the River of No Return Ranch). Lewis writes:
They passed this bottom and asscended a steep and elivated point of a mountain, from whence the guide shewed him the brake of the river through the mountains for about twenty miles further.
The mountain spur they climbed is the one through which Transfer Gulch passes, and is located a short distance above Spring Creek.
Speaking in sign language, Toby informed them that the country below is much more difficult than that through which they had just passed. He went on to say that if Captain Clark wished, he would take him to that place where the mountains open and the river passes through, where the mountains are not like those already seen, but straight up and down like the sides of a tree, and the water of the river rushes viciously from one side to the other. This is descriptive of Pine Creek Rapids. It would require one day to get there and another to return. Clark could see, in the distance Dome Mountain, a part of the Crags, covered with snow and one of the loftiest he had ever seen. He was now satisfied that this route, whether by land or water, was impractical. Clark told Toby that they would now return to the village from whence they had set out, where he expected to meet Captain Lewis and the rest of the party, meaning the upper village near Warm Springs. They camped that night near the mouth of Papoose Creek arriving an hour after dark. There was no moon and no supper to give them comfort. Clark’s group left early next day, stopping at the mouth of Squaw Creek to carve Clark’s initials on a pine tree, pick some berries and catch a few fish for breakfast. Continuing back to the flat where he had left the other men and horses, he arrived at 4p.m. He wrote a letter to Captain Lewis recommending that the party not travel the river, but take a road up Fish Creek out of the valley northward to the Lolo Trail, which they should travel through the mountains westward. He dispatched John Colter (the man who later discovered Yellowstone Park and the Teton Valley) on horseback with the letter to Lewis. Colter was waiting for Lewis when he arrived at the upper Indian village on August 26. Lewis was very uneasy, as the natives were becoming reluctant to sell horses, claiming horses were needed for the buffalo hunt. The Indians were eager to leave in order to assemble with other bands for protection as they traveled into the dangerous country at the Blackfeet, in pursuit of their game. The season was late, and it was with difficulty that Lewis was able to persuade the Shoshone not to abandon the explorers and move to the hunting grounds. As fewer Indians were willing to sell their horses, the price began to rise, and bartering and negotiations became stiffer. Lewis wrote:
…matter being thus far arranged I directed the fiddle tobe played and the party danced very merily much to the amusement and gratification of the natives, though I must confess that the state of my own mind at thei moment did not well accord with the prevailing mirth as I somewhat feared that the caprice of the indians might suddenly induce them to withhold their horses from us without which my hopes of prosicuting my voyage to advantage was lost….
This was the last time he wrote in his journal that year on a regular basis.
At Clark’s camp on the river, shortly after Colter’s departure on the hight of the 24th, he and his men followed, experiencing much difficulty rounding cliffs above camp. They had to swim the horses upstream, soaking their bedding. They camped, wrapping themselves in damp blankets and went to bed supper less.
On the evening of August 24th Clark’s reconnaissance party camped below the Tower Creek bluff. Next day they returned by way of the forks of the Salmon and Lemhi River: probably to inspect the big fishing operation and possibly hoping to purchase some fish from the natives there. Arriving at the lower village near the weirs, they encamped there. The men, hungry and discouraged, complained continually. Clark kept them busy hunting but without success, except for one Salmon short. The men complained that they would surely perish in this great mountain desert. The Indians gave them salmon eggs which they dried, pounded, and made into a soup. A native from the upper village arrived early on the 27th with news that Lewis would be there about noon.
Clark waited, but when Lewis failed to arrive he dispatched Gass the next day on horseback. Gass returned that evening with news that Clark was needed to help purchase horses. Clark left the next day, August 29, leaving Gass and one other man behind to watch the baggage and build pack saddles.
When he was delayed Clark went to join him. With the two captains now traveling together, the expedition, consisting of thirty horses and thirty-four people, departed the upped village at 2 p.m. on August 30, and the Indians left immediately afterwards. The party camped that night about a mile above the weirs, to take advantage of better grazing for the horses. The following day they began their exodus from the valley following the same trail Clark had pursued down the river as far as Tower Creek. Here they traveled up Tower Creek eastward, taking the north fork. They noted the peculiar rock formation to the left at the turn of the trail and so named the run Tower Creek. About two miles above where the trail leaves the creek for the high country, on August 31st6, they spent the night in some abandoned brush lodges. The open areas of the valley were reported to be on fire that day for the purpose of attracting surrounding bands to assemble for the fall buffalo hunt. Snow could be seen on the peaks of the Beaverheads.
They left early, September 1st, climbing to the head of Kriley Gulch, where they drank from a spring and continued on to Fourth of July Creek. Crossing that stream and the next, Little Fourth of July Creek, and then Wagonhammer Creek, they pressed on probably up Thompson Gulch, across the head of Burns Gulch, through the upper areas of Big Silverlead and Little Silverlead Creeks and down, in the vicinity of Trail Gulch to Fish Creek (Northfork). Moving north to about Hull Creek, they made camp during a rain storm, and two men were sent back to the mouth of Fish Creek to buy fish from the Indians there.
Next morning they proceeded to the forks of the Northfork River and Dahlonega Creek. Here the main Indian road went east up the Dahlonega drainage. Wishing to travel westward, they chose the left fork of these merging streams. This was a fateful decision. With no trail to follow., they soon found themselves thrashing through the thick brush bordering the stream in the narrow canyon. At other times they clambered over steep, talus sloped, into thick timber and over and around dead fall. Often the horses tumbled backwards, severely injuring themselves and damaging their cargo. Much controversy exists at this writing as to the exact route followed over the higher terraine. Hence the name, Lost Trail Pass. The exact locations of the camps those nights is still open to conjecture and may never be known. On September 3, they camped near the summit in two inches of snow and a rain which deteriorated into sleet. Toby was lost! The next morning they reported an inch of ice on the water containers. Their guide managed to locate the desired drainage that took them down to Ross’s Hole, where they camped for two days with the Flathead Indians. They purchased and traded with these people for horses, upgrading their badly stressed herd.
In conclusion, Sacajawea opted to remain with the expedition, traveling with them to the Pacific. Upon their return in 1806, the captains separated at Lolo, Montana. Lewis traveled north to explore the Marias River country and Clark went south to retrieve the caches and the canoes before returning by way of the Yellowstone River. He did not pass through the Salmon River Valley on his return, but went through the Big Hole Valley.
Reprinted By Permission of Lemhi County History Committee
Hon. Fred Snook, Chairman