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[photo] Before Lewis and Clark encountered the Three Forks of the Missouri, it had served as a campground for the Shoshone American Indians--Sacagawea's tribe
Photo courtesy of Travel Montana

The Corps of Discovery reached the Three Forks of the Missouri on July 25, 1805. More than 2,500 miles from their starting point on the Mississippi River, the expedition had once again come to a critical juncture, the confluence of three previously uncharted rivers. Lewis and Clark first set about finding suitable names for these Missouri tributaries, naming them in honor of the President and two of his cabinet members, Madison and Gallatin. The next challenge involved choosing the correct river to follow. Should they choose wrongly and be forced to backtrack, they faced the likelihood of getting caught in the Rocky Mountains at the onset of winter.

In an effort to ascertain the best future course and to avoid making an unwise decision, a small group marched ahead and scouted the surrounding areas while the rest of the camp nursed injuries for a few days. Looking out over the lands, Lewis noted in his journal that "the mountains are extreemly bare of timber and our rout lay through the steep valleys exposed to the heat of the sun without shade and scarcely a breath of air" (DeVoto 1997, 174). In essence, the land before them looked rough and unforgiving, foreshadowing the physically daunting terrain of the Rocky Mountains and beyond.

One of the earliest sketches (1867) of the Three Forks of the Missouri, viewed upstream
Lithograph and pencil sketch by A. E. Mathews, in his privately published pencil sketches of Montana (New York, 1868), Plate XXIV, Montana Historic Society

Three Forks had previously served as a campground for the Shoshone tribe, Sacagawea's people. It was at Three Forks that Sacagawea had originally been captured and carried away to live with the Mandan tribe of North Dakota. Upon hearing Sacagawea's account of the area, the Americans realized that they had successfully penetrated Shoshone land. Anxious to encounter the indigenous people, Lewis and Clark hoped to acquire much-needed assistance and information about the regions that lay ahead of them on their westward path. So on July 30, 1805, with unforgiving lands lying ahead, the Corps opted for the southwest flowing tributary and pushed onward, down the rough and shallow waters of the Jefferson River.

Three Forks of the Missouri, a National Historic Landmark, is a part of the Missouri Headwaters State Park, located four miles northeast of Three Forks, off of Hwy. 205, then onto Hwy. 286. Please call 406-994-4042, or visit the park's website for further information. You can also download (in pdf) the Three Forks of the Missouri National Historic Landmark nomination.

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