NPS Logo

Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading


Lewis and Clark
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark Three Forks of the Missouri (Missouri Headwaters State Park)

Location: Broadwater and Gallatin Counties, about 3 miles north of U.S. 10 along Route 286, some 4 miles northeast of the town of Three Forks.

This lush and beautiful area, lying on the northern edge of a vast, mountain-rimmed basin, is one of the key sites in western history, particularly in the fields of Indian intertribal relations, exploration, and the fur trade. Notable figures who were prominently associated with the place include Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea, John Colter, George Drouillard, and Cols. Pierre Menard and Andrew Henry. At this "essential point in the geography of this western part of the Continent," as Lewis termed it, the Gallatin flows into the Jefferson-Madison to form the Missouri approximately one-half mile northeast of the juncture of the Jefferson and the Madison.

Lewis and Clark, the first white men to visit the locale, found it teeming with otter, beaver, and other wildlife. For this reason, it was a meetingplace and disputed hunting ground—often a dark and bloody no man's land—for various Indian tribes. In this region, the Blackfeet and Minitaris raided the Shoshonis and Flatheads when they ventured eastward over the mountains to hunt. As a matter of fact, Sacagawea's village of Shoshonis had been camped at the same place as the expedition, near the confluence of the Jefferson and Madison, about 5 years earlier when she was about 12 years old. The Minitaris attacked the village and captured her about 4 miles farther up the Jefferson.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition, eagerly seeking the Shoshonis, who could help in crossing the mountains to the west, arrived at the Three Forks not long after completing the arduous portage of the Great Falls of the Missouri. Clark and an advance element of four men reached the forks on July 25, 1805, and explored the lower 32 and 20 miles, respectively, of the Jefferson and Madison. The boat party made its appearance 2 days later, set up a base camp on the south bank of the Jefferson a short distance from its juncture with the Madison, and reunited with the Clark group. The next day, some men probed a ways up the Gallatin. Nursing the ailing Clark and trying to decide which of the three streams led westward, the expedition stayed at the forks until July 30. The crucial decision was rather easily reached to follow the Jefferson, which the commanders named as well as the other two rivers.

On the return trip from the Pacific, the Clark contingent arrived at the Three Forks on July 13, 1806. That same day, Sergeant Ordway and nine men headed down the Missouri to join Sergeant Gass and his detachment of the Lewis party at the Great Falls; and Clark and the 12 people in his group headed eastward overland to explore the Yellowstone River.

Gallatin River
View to the northwest from the south bank of the Gallatin a few hundred yards from where it joins the Jefferson-Madison to form the Missouri. Lewis, when he arrived at the Three Forks on July 27, 1805, climbed the limestone cliff at the right. (National Park Service (Mattison, 1958).)

IN the spate of fur trade activity that occurred in the years immediately following the expedition's return to St. Louis, the Three Forks area was heavily trapped. Three of the participants were erstwhile members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: John Colter, George Drouillard, and John Potts. They all experienced some hair-raising adventures with the Blackfeet, which resulted in the death of the latter two.

Probably in 1808, a few months after he had become the white discoverer of the present Yellowstone National Park while on another venture, Colter was wounded in a battle in the Gallatin Valley near the Three Forks between a large party of Crows and Flatheads and hundreds of Blackfeet. The latter were repulsed. Colter, who was leading the Crows and Flatheads to trade at Manuel Lisa's Fort Raymond, on the Yellowstone River at the mouth of the Bighorn, had no choice but to join them in the fight. Nevertheless, his participation was apparently one of the major reasons for subsequent Blackfeet hatred of American traders and trappers.

No sooner had Colter recovered from his wounds than he and John Potts, operating out of Fort Raymond, were trapping on a creek flowing into the Jefferson River a short distance from the Three Forks when a band of Blackfeet surprised them and ordered them to bring their canoes to shore. Colter complied; Potts died when he refused, but not before he killed one of his adversaries.

The Indian chief decided to give his young warriors the sport of running Colter down on the prickly pear cactus-studded plain. He was stripped of his clothes and moccasins and given a hundred or so yards head start. Outdistancing the braves, who were in hot pursuit, though he was bleeding from the nose and mouth because of his exertion, Colter managed to reach the Madison fork, about 5 miles distant, killing one of his pursuers en route. Diving under a pile of drift logs and brush in the stream and finding a place where he could keep his head above water, through an opening he watched the Indians search for him and, on several occasions, walk over the driftwood. After dark, he swam downstream, crept to the bank, and started overland for Fort Raymond, about 200 miles eastward. Exhausted and almost starved, he made it in 11 days.

Back again at the Three Forks that winter, Colter once more almost lost his life, this time on the Gallatin fork, when Blackfeet nearly surprised him in his camp one night. But by another herculean effort he escaped to Lisa's post.

Colter made his last visit to the Three Forks in the spring of 1810, guiding there from Fort Raymond a party of 32 French, American, and Indian trappers under Col. Pierre Menard. Included in this group or in reinforcements who soon arrived and brought the total to some 80 men was George Drouillard. On April 3 the trappers began erecting a palisaded fort, either on a 2-acre or so elevated, rock-capped area between the Gallatin and Madison Rivers, or at the point of land at the juncture of the Madison and Jefferson not far from the Lewis and Clark campsite.

On April 12 a group of 18 men, Colter among them, who were trapping along the Jefferson, scattered from their base camp when Blackfeet discovered it. The Indians killed two men and three others were never found. Colter and the other trappers escaped back to the stockade at the Three Forks. After this episode, Colter apparently decided he had exhausted his luck with the natives. On April 22 he and two others set out eastward, but once again Colter foiled an Indian attack. He went back to St. Louis and never returned to the mountains.

Missouri River
Three Forks of the Missouri. (Travel Montana.)

In May, only a short time after Colter's departure from the Three Forks, Drouillard died along with two Shawnee Indian companions in an ambush while trapping along the Jefferson with a group of 21 hunters. His decapitated and mutilated body was buried at some unknown spot in the Three Forks area.

The continual Blackfeet threat, as well as trouble with grizzlies, caused Menard to abandon the post later that same year. He led part of his group back to the Yellowstone River. His second in command, Col. Andrew Henry, led the larger part of the trappers westward across the mountains to a point outside the range of the Blackfeet. He erected a small post on present Henrys Fork of the Snake River in Idaho, the first American fur trading establishment on the western side of the Continental Divide.

FEW modern intrusions mar the Three Forks area, an oasis-like delta. The drainage pattern is essentially as it was in the days of Lewis and Clark. And, unlike so many other parts of the route, dams do not obstruct the streams in the vicinity. The town of Three Forks, situated about 4 miles southwest of the river forks amidst the trees of the delta area, is unobtrusive and all but lost in the vastness of the scene. Other modern features include a bridge over the Gallatin near its mouth on the access road (Route 286) running to the forks; the Milwaukee Road, whose track follows the west bank of the Missouri to a point a short distance southwest of the juncture of the Gallatin with the Jefferson-Madison; and the Northern Pacific, whose line follows the other bank of the Missouri and proceeds along the Gallatin a ways before bending eastward.

All the property in the Three Forks area is in private ownership except for 9 acres of the 10-acre Missouri Headwaters State Monument; a cement company, whose plant is at Trident, a hamlet a few miles northeast of the Three Forks, owns 1 acre of the park. An overlook provides a panoramic view of the area, and interpretive trails give access to key points. A prominent physical landmark visible from the overlook, across the Gallatin River and about half a mile from its junction with the Jefferson-Madison, is the limestone bluff that Lewis climbed when his boat party first arrived at the Three Forks.

Last Updated: 22-Feb-2004