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Reading 2: Lemhi Pass and Lolo Trail
With both the trials of the first six months and the security of the Mandan Village in North Dakota behind them, the Corps of Discovery pressed onward with the realization that Indian guidance would be a necessity in the upcoming months. Soon, the Americans would enter the Rocky Mountains, an uncharted range that had the ability to prevent Lewis and Clark from reaching the Pacific. Realizing the need for help, Captain Lewis and a small complement of men broke off from the main body in early August, 1805, and pushed ahead, in search of Sacagawea's people. In his journal, Lewis imparted the reasoning behind his pointed pursuit of the Shoshone:
[S]he [Sacagawea] assures us that we shall either find her people on this river or on the river immediately west of it's source; which from it's present size cannot be very distant. ... it is my resolusion to find them or some others, who have horses if it should cause me a trip of one month. for without horses we shall be obliged to leave a great part of our stores, of which, it appears to me that we have a stock already sufficiently small for the length of the voyage before us.1
Lewis and his men traveled westward through a well-traveled Indian trail across Lemhi Pass, a small, grassy gap extending approximately two miles, and located along the present-day border of Montana and Idaho. It was along this trail that momentous steps were made in the realm of American exploration, two of which were the discovery of the western-most extension of the Missouri River and waters flowing into the Columbia River, which flows to the Pacific Ocean. Finally arriving at the western reaches of the mighty Missouri, Lewis noted the importance of the day:
[T]he road took us to the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in surch of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights. thus far I had accomplished one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for many years, judge then of the pleasure I felt in all[a]ying my thirst with this pure and ice-cold water … here I halted a few minutes and rested myself. two miles below McNeal had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri. after refreshing ourselves we proceeded on to the top of the dividing ridge from which I discovered immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow. … here I first tasted the water of the great Columbia river.2
Furthermore, by crossing through Lemhi Pass, Lewis and his men became the first Americans to reach and negotiate the Continental Divide, which follows the crest of the Rocky Mountains in North America. By crossing the Continental Divide, Lewis and his crew left United States territory and journeyed into Oregon Country, the disputed lands claimed by Great Britain and the U.S. However, Lewis gazed on the snow-covered mountains from Lemhi Pass and realized that a water route to the Pacific was not feasible--thus, a major component of the expedition was deemed a failure. The crew had now effectively entered into Columbia River drainage lands, drawing ever closer to the nearby Shoshone. Making contact in early August, Lewis and his men held council with the tribal leaders, buying time until Clark's group arrived with the much-needed skills of Sacagawea as interpreter.
Having reunited with the rest of the corps, they continued their westward exploration. After determining the Salmon River not navigable, they continued on horseback with the aid of the Shoshone people supplying horses and providing a guide that the expedition members called Old Toby. The terrain continued to get worse as they rose higher and higher in elevation. Even more daunting, Lewis learned from Cameahwait-Sacagawea's Shoshone relative--that even the Indians had trouble getting through this area, especially with the onset of winter just around the corner. Before they had even reached the most difficult point of their journey, the expedition was already suffering major setbacks. Joseph Whitehouse, a member of the expedition noted in early September that:
Some of the mountains was So Steep and rockey that Several of the horses fell back among the rocks and was near killing them. Some places we had to cut the road through thickets of bolsom fer...passed down a Steep hill in to the head of a cove and branch where we Camped after a dissagreeable days march of only 11 miles with much fatigue and hunger as nothing has been killed this day only 2 or 3 fessents, and have no meat of any kind. Set in to raining hard at dark So we lay down and Slept, wet hungry and cold. Saw Snow on the tops of Some of these mountains this day.3
With only crippled horses, and 2 to 3 pheasants to feed a company of more than 30 individuals, the corps stumbled into "Flathead," or Salish territory, about 75 miles northwest of Lemhi Pass along the Montana-Idaho border. Readily welcomed into the fold of the Salish tribe, the crew received lodging, an abundance of dried fruit and edible roots, and more horses. In six days time, the Americans, under the guidance of Old Toby--their Shoshone guide--would set out on the most difficult leg of their journey thus far: the crossing of the Lolo Trail, an old Indian route. The Lolo Trail was an 11-day harrowing struggle against nature. With hardly any provisions and winter coming, the Corps of Discovery followed the footsteps of their trusted guide. At times however, the hunger became too much and the group was forced to make certain sacrifices to stay alive. William Clark documented one such occasion:
began to Snow about 3 hours before Day and continued all day the Snow in the morning 4 inches deep on the old Snow, and by night we found it from 6 to 8 inches deep, ... I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life, indeed I was at one time fearfull my feet would freeze in the thin Mockirsons which I wore, ... men all wet cold and hungary. Killed a Second Colt which we all Suped hartily on and thought it fine meat.4
The crossing of the Lolo Trail was a turning point in the expedition to the Pacific. On the verge of starvation and defeat, the brave explorers, under the guidance of their Indian guide, survived the Rocky Mountains. Emerging from the mountains, Meriwether Lewis put into words what all members of the expedition must have been feeling:
the pleasure I now felt in having tryumphed over the rockey Mountains and decending once more to a level and fertile country where there was every rational hope of finding a comfortable subsistence for myself and party can be more readily conceived than expressed, nor was the flattering prospect of the final success of the expedition less pleasing.5
For the Lewis and Clark expedition, August and September 1805 held some of the more momentous achievements. Overcoming the challenges of difficult terrain, navigation, and near starvation, the explorers had successfully entered the final leg of their journey to the Pacific. Without the successful crossing of the Lolo Trail, the corps would never have discovered a route connecting the navigable Missouri and Columbia headwaters. Now locating the Columbia River and following it to the Pacific would no longer seem like such a daunting challenge.
Questions for Reading 2
1. Why was it necessary for the Lewis and Clark expedition to find the Shoshone upon approaching the Rocky Mountains? What were the most pressing needs of the corps and how would the Indians be able to provide assistance?
2. Who are the Lemhi Shoshone, where are they located, and how did they help the expedition?
3. Why is Lemhi Pass considered to be a significant landscape in American history? According to Lewis, what was achieved by a few days of travel?
4. Do you think the corps would have made it so far without Indian assistance? Why or why not?
5. What kinds of hardships did the expedition face in late August and early September 1805? Do you think reading the journals is more or less interesting than the third-person narrative? Why? How does reading primary sources such as the journals contribute to the understanding of the experiences of the corps?
6. Both Lemhi Pass and Lolo Trail were designated as National Historic Landmarks. National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. How are the sites significant? Do you agree with the designations? Explain your answer.
Reading 2 was compiled from Robert G. Ferris, ed., Lewis and Clark: Historic Places Associated with Their Transcontinental Exploration (1804-06) (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975); Robert E. Appleman, ed, The National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings, The Advance of the Frontier: 1763-1830, The Lewis and Clark Expedition (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1958); Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (New York: Antiquarian Press LTD, 1959); Merle W. Wells, "Lemhi Pass" National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1988) ; and Merle W. Wells, "Lolo Trail" National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1988).
1 Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol 2. (New York: Antiquarian Press LTD, 1959), 321-322.