Crossing the Bitter Root Mountains

Disasters many kept pace with the unhappy explorers on their way back to Quamash flats after their rebuff at the base of the Bitter Root Mountains. One of the horses fell down a rough and rocky place, carrying his rider with him; but fortunately neither horse nor man was killed. Next, a man, sent ahead to cut down the brush that blocked the path, cut himself badly on the inside of his thigh and bled copiously. The hunters sent out for game returned empty-handed. The fishermen caught no fish, but broke the two Indian gigs, or contrivances for catching fish, with which they had been provided. The stock of salt had given out, the bulk of their supply having been left on the mountain. Several large mushrooms were brought in by Cruzatte, but these were eaten without pepper, salt, or any kind of grease,—"a very tasteless, insipid food," as the journal says. To crown all, the mosquitoes were pestilential in their numbers and venom.

Nevertheless, the leaders of the expedition were determined to press on and pass the Bitter Root Mountains as soon as a slight rest at Quamash flats should be had. If they should tarry until the snows melted from the trail, they would be too late to reach the United States that winter and would be compelled to pass the next winter at some camp high up on the Missouri, as they had passed one winter at Fort Mandan, on their way out. This is the course of argument which Captain Lewis and Clark took to persuade each other as to the best way out of their difficulties:—

"The snows have formed a hard, coarse bed without crust, on which the horses walk safely without slipping; the chief difficulty, therefore, is to find the road. In this we may be assisted by the circumstance that, though generally ten feet in depth, the snow has been thrown off by the thick and spreading branches of the trees, and from round the trunk; while the warmth of the trunk itself, acquired by the reflection of the sun, or communicated by natural heat of the earth, which is never frozen under these masses, has dissolved the snow so much that immediately at the roots its depth is not more than one or two feet. We therefore hope that the marks of the baggage rubbing against the trees may still be perceived; and we have decided, in case the guide cannot be procured, that one of us will take three or four of our most expert woodsmen, several of our best horses, and an ample supply of provisions, go on two days' journey in advance, and endeavor to trace the route by the marks of the Indian baggage on the trees, which we would then mark more distinctly with a tomahawk. When they should have reached two days' journey beyond Hungry Creek, two of the men were to be sent back to apprise the rest of their success, and if necessary to cause them to delay there; lest, by advancing too soon, they should be forced to halt where no food could be obtained for the horses. If the traces of the baggage be too indistinct, the whole party is to return to Hungry Creek, and we will then attempt the passage by ascending the main southwest branch of Lewis' River through the country of the Shoshonees, over to Madison or Gallatin River. On that route, the Chopunnish inform us, there is a passage not obstructed by snow at this period of the year."

On their return to Quamash flats the party met two Indians who, after some parley, agreed to pilot them over the mountains; these camped where they were, and the party went on to the flats, having exacted a promise from the Indians that they would wait there two nights for the white men to come along. When the party reached their old camp, they found that one of their hunters had killed a deer, which was a welcome addition to their otherwise scanty supper. Next day, the hunters met with astonishing luck, bringing into camp eight deer and three bears. Four of the men were directed to go to the camp of the two Indians, and if these were bent on going on, to accompany them and so mark, or blaze, the trees that the rest of the party would have no difficulty in finding the way, later on.

Meanwhile, the men who had been sent back for guides returned, bringing with them the pleasing information that three Indians whom they brought with them had consented to guide the party to the great falls of the Missouri, for the pay of two guns. Accordingly, once more (June 26), they set out for the mountains, travelling for the third time in twelve days the route between Quamash flats and the Bitter Root range. For the second time they ran up against a barrier of snow. They measured the depth of the snow at the place where they had left their luggage at their previous repulse and found it to be ten feet and ten inches deep; and it had sunk four feet since they had been turned back at this point. Pressing on, after they reached their old camp, they found a bare spot on the side of the mountain where there was a little grass for their horses; and there they camped for the night. They were fortunate in having Indian guides with them; and the journal says:—

"The marks on the trees, which had been our chief dependence, are much fewer and more difficult to be distinguished than we had supposed. But our guides traverse this trackless region with a kind of instinctive sagacity; they never hesitate, they are never embarrassed; and so undeviating is their step, that wherever the snow has disappeared, for even a hundred paces, we find the summer road. With their aid the snow is scarcely a disadvantage; for though we are often obliged to slip down, yet the fallen timber and the rocks, which are now covered, were much more troublesome when we passed in the autumn. Travelling is indeed comparatively pleasant, as well as more rapid, the snow being hard and coarse, without a crust, and perfectly hard enough to prevent the horses sinking more than two or three inches. After the sun has been on it for some hours it becomes softer than it is early in the morning; yet they are almost always able to get a sure foothold."

On the twenty-ninth of June the party were well out of the snows in which they had been imprisoned, although they were by no means over the mountain barrier that had been climbed so painfully during the past few days. Here they observed the tracks of two barefooted Indians who had evidently been fleeing from their enemies, the Pahkees. These signs disturbed the Indian guides, for they at once said that the tracks were made by their friends, the Ootlashoots, and that the Pahkees would also cut them (the guides) off on their return from the trip over the mountains. On the evening of the day above mentioned, the party camped at the warm springs which fall into Traveller's-rest Creek, a point now well known to the explorers, who had passed that way before. Of the springs the journal says:—

"These warm springs are situated at the foot of a hill on the north side of Traveller's-rest Creek, which is ten yards wide at this place. They issue from the bottoms, and through the interstices of a gray freestone rock, which rises in irregular masses round their lower side. The principal spring, which the Indians have formed into a bath by stopping the run with stone and pebbles, is about the same temperature as the warmest bath used at the hot springs in Virginia. On trying, Captain Lewis could with difficulty remain in it nineteen minutes, and then was affected with a profuse perspiration. The two other springs are much hotter, the temperature being equal to that of the warmest of the hot springs in Virginia. Our men, as well as the Indians, amused themselves with going into the bath; the latter, according to their universal custom, going first into the hot bath, where they remain as long as they can bear the heat, then plunging into the creek, which is now of an icy coldness, and repeating this operation several times, but always ending with the warm bath."

Traveller's-rest Creek, it will be recollected, is on the summit of the Bitter Root Mountains, and the expedition had consequently passed from Idaho into Montana, as these States now exist on the map; but they were still on the Pacific side of the Great Divide, or the backbone of the continent. Much game was seen in this region, and after reaching Traveller's-rest Creek, the hunters killed six deer; great numbers of elk and bighorn were also seen in this vicinity. On the thirtieth of July the party were at their old camp of September 9 and 10, 1805, having made one hundred and fifty-six miles from Quamash flats to the mouth of the creek where they now camped. Here a plan to divide and subdivide the party was made out as follows:—

"Captain Lewis, with nine men, is to pursue the most direct route to the falls of the Missouri, where three of his party [Thompson, Goodrich, and McNeal] are to be left to prepare carriages for transporting the baggage and canoes across the portage. With the remaining six, he will ascend Maria's River to explore the country and ascertain whether any branch of it reaches as far north as latitude 50'0, after which he will descend that river to its mouth. The rest of the men will accompany Captain Clark to the head of Jefferson River, which Sergeant Ordway and a party of nine men will descend, with the canoes and other articles deposited there. Captain Clark's party, which will then be reduced to ten men and Sacajawea, will proceed to the Yellowstone, at its nearest approach to the Three Forks of the Missouri. There he will build canoes, go down that river with seven of his party, and wait at its mouth till the rest of the party join him. Sergeant Pryor, with two others, will then take the horses by land to the Mandans. From that nation he will go to the British posts on the Assiniboin with a letter to Mr. Alexander Henry, to procure his endeavors to prevail on some of the Sioux chiefs to accompany him to the city of Washington.

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The Indians who had accompanied us intended leaving us in order to seek their friends, the Ootlashoots; but we prevailed on them to accompany Captain Lewis a part of his route, so as to show him the shortest road to the Missouri, and in the mean time amused them with conversation and running races, on foot and with horses, in both of which they proved themselves hardy, athletic, and active. To the chief Captain Lewis gave a small medal and a gun, as a reward for having guided us across the mountains; in return the customary civility of exchanging names passed between them, by which the former acquired the title of Yomekollick, of White Bearskin Unfolded."