The Lewis and Clark expedition across the present day United States began May 14, 1804. With the approval of President Jefferson and the U. S. Congress, Lewis and Clark gathered an exploration party of about four dozen men. These men headed off to discover Western America. On September 1, 1805, they arrived at the Bitterroot Mountains, near present day Idaho. This began a nightmare that would not end until they reached modern-day Weippe. September 1, 1805, the explorers set out traveling west, heading into rough, seldom traveled, mountainous country.
They stopped at todays North Fork of the Salmon River, known as Fish Creek to Lewis and Clark, where they caught five fish, and were able to kill a deer (MacGregor 125). Some of the mens feet and horses hooves were injured due to the rough, rocky terrain. The next day, they were entering mountains far more difficult to pass than any American had ever attempted (Ambros 284). Clark describes the route: “Throu thickets in which we were obliged to cut a road, over rocky hillsides where horses were in perpetual danger of slipping to their certain distruction and up and down steep hills” (De Voto 232).
Traveling along the steep hills, several horses fell. One was crippled, and two gave out. Patrick Gass described the trip that day as, “the worst road (If road it can be called) that was ever traveled” (MacGregor 125). To make conditions even worse, it rained that afternoon, which made the trail even more treacherous. The party was only able to travel five miles that day. On September 3, snow fell and the teams last thermometer broke. Several more horsed slipped and injured themselves. Later that day, the snow turned into sleet.
The expedition family consumed the last of their salt pork and fish and began their descent into the Bitterroot Valley. That night, was the coldest yet. The next day, the party went down a very steep descent to a river that Lewis named, Clarks River, (Today known as The Bitterroot River. ) There, they encountered a band of Salish Indians, whom the captains called Flatheads. They stayed there with the Indians the next couple of days to trade. They acquired thirteen new Appaloosa Horses, including three colts, for seven worn out horses. The Salish Indians shared berries and roots with the men for their meals.
On September 6, they set off traveling northward along the Bitterroot River for about ten miles. They camped that night with nothing to eat but some berries and corn. Along their travel they viewed the Saw-toothed Bitterroot Range to the west of the valley. The next two days were spent traveling north, trying to find a safe passage over the Saw-toothed Bitterroot Range. September 10, Captain Lewis sent out all of the hunters. They returned with some game. John Colter brought back three Indians from a tribe that lived across the mountains, probably Nez Perce.
The Indians were in pursuit of a band of Shoshones that had stolen more than twenty horses from the Nez Perce Indians. This was proof to Lewis and Clark that the Bitterroot Mountains could be crossed. One of the three Indians agreed to remain with the Americans to introduce them to his tribe. Their tribe resided in the plain below the mountains, on the Columbia River. The Indian said that it would require five sleeps to reach his tribe (De Voto 237). That evening, the party put their packs in order and made final preparations for crossing the Bitterroot Mountains. On September 11, two of the partys horses had strayed.
This delayed the explorers from leaving until late that afternoon. They were able to travel seven miles before they had to set up camp for the night. The hunters, who had been previously sent out, returned having killed nothing. Clark described the day as, “Verrey Worm” (De Voto 237). The next day, the terrain began to get really rough. They had reached the mountains, which were very steep. The road through the mountain was covered with fallen timber and undergrowth. Captain Clark described the road as, “intolerable” (De Voto 237). They traveled eight miles along the steep mountains without water.
They made camp on the hillside next to Travelers Rest Creek. Some of the party did not arrive until after ten that night. Both the men and horses were extremely fatigued. They had just finished the first day of the most agonizing part of the journey to the Weippe Prairie. On September 13, they passed several hot springs that were so hot the water was nearly boiling. Captain Lewis was curious about this naturally hot water, so he tasted it. The road that day was fairly level, except for a small part. Some of the mountains that they could see from the path were covered in snow.
On September 14, it began to snow. Old Toby, who was an Indian guide from the Shoshone tribe, got the party lost. He led the party down to a fishing camp, near a creek. Indians had recently been there, and their ponies had eaten all of the grass. The road they were traveling was much worse than the day before. It was covered with thick underbrush and fallen timber. Since the hunters were unsuccessful this day, the expedition party killed a colt for meat. They named the creek they found Colt Killed Creek. The next day, the party reached elevations as high as seven thousand feet, on todays Wendover Ridge.
Travel was incredibly difficult. There was a steep descent that was made even more difficult, by the excessive quantity of fallen timber. Several horses slipped and crashed down the hills. The horse carrying Captain Clarks field desk rolled down the hill for forty yards, until it lodged against a tree. The desk was smashed, but the horse was uninjured. Captain Lewis said, “Two of our horses gave out, pore and too much hurt to proceed on and left in the rear” (De Voto 239). When the party reached the ridgeline, they made camp. Having no water, the men had to melt snow to drink.
Patrick Gass said, “There was here no water; but a bank of snow answered as a substitute” (MacGregor 130). September 16, began with snow falling three hours before dawn, and would continue all day. The snow piled up to six to eight inches in depth. Captain Clark walked in front to find the trail, which was near impossible, due to the snow. Captain Clark wrote, “I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life” (De Voto 240). At noon, the party halted on the top of the mountain to warm and dry themselves a little while the horses grazed on some near by grass. All of the men were in fear of freezing.
They were able to hike six more miles before setting up camp. Here, they were forced to kill a second colt to eat. That night, while the men slept, the horses, which were near starvation, strayed in search of grass. September 17, it took the men the whole morning to find the horses and bring them in. At one in the afternoon, the expedition team set out again. The road was extremely bad, so the entire day, they were only able to travel ten miles forward. That night, the men killed the last of the three colts to fulfill their appetites. That same evening, at the camp, Lewis and Clark got together to evaluate their situation.
The mens spirits were low. They were approaching the limits of physical endurance, the food supply was extremely low, and they were in no hope of finding game. Lewis and Clark realized that the men, and they themselves, had reached a breaking point (Ambros 289). They found they had no choice but to press on, but to do so would require desperate measures. They concluded that in the morning, Clark would move on ahead with six hunters. Lewis wrote, “To hurry on to level country ahead in their hunt to provide some provisions,” to send back to the main party (Ambros 289).
The main party would follow Lewis. The morning of September 18, Clark left with his band of hunters at first light. They covered thirty-two miles that day. During travel, they found a stray Indian horse and killed it. After eating what they could, they hung the remainder of it for the main party, which would be along later. Lewis and his men ate what was left of the colt, which they had killed the previous night, and broke camp at 8:30 a. m. Lewis and his men covered eighteen miles that day and set camp on the side of the mountain. The situation was critical.
Lewis wrote, “The only recourses being our gun and pack horses” (Ambros 289). That night, the men feasted on small portions of portable soup. The next morning, Lewis was able to get the party started shortly after sunrise. After traveling about six miles, the ridge came to an end at present day Sherman Creek. Here is where the party caught sight of a plain, which seemed to be about sixty miles away. However, the Indian guide assured Lewis that they would be at the border of the plain by the next day. Lewis pushed his weakened men on. The road was extremely dangerous.
It had a narrow and rocky path to travel on, with a dangerously steep cliff off to one side. By this time the men had become sick with dysentery, suffering from breaking out of the skin. September 20, after traveling two miles, Lewis and the main party found the greater part of the horse, which Clark had left behind. Clark left a note on the horse saying that he and his party intended to proceed to the plain and hunt, until Lewis met him there. Lewis described the horsemeat: “The party made a hearty meal on the horse meat much to the comfort of our hungry stomachs” (Ambros 292).
While they ate, Lewis discovered that his packhorse had strayed away. He sent two men in search of the horse, and proceeded on with the rest of the party. That night, the men finished the horse that Clark had provided. Meanwhile that same day, Clark and his six men entered modern day Weippe Prairie, which he called, Camas Flats. There, he and his hunting party met some hospitable Nez Perce Indians, who resided in two villages, about two miles apart. The following day after the Lewis horses were all brought in, the party set out on the trail.
The trail was a heavily timbered creek bottom, where fallen trees were so bad that it was almost impractical to proceed. After eleven miles, Lewis and the main party came to a small opening, and made camp. Captain Lewis ordered all of the horses be tied up that night, to prevent any further delays. Lewis was determined to march the next day to reach open country. Lewis wrote, “I find myself growing weak for the want of food, and most of the men have complained of a similar deficiency and have fallen off very much” (Ambros 293).
September 22, despite Lewis order, a few horses strayed during the night. The party was not able to get started until 11:30 a. m. The main party had only proceeded about two miles, when they encountered a member of Clarks hunting party. He provided Lewis with some dry fish and roots, which were obtained from the Nez Perce Indians. The provider, Reubin Field, told Lewis of an Indian village seven miles further. He also told him that Clark had made friendly contact with the Nez Perce Indians. After eating, the party proceeded to the village, which they reached at 5:00 p. . They had covered 160 miles in eleven days, marking one of the greatest forced marches in American History. When Lewis arrived at Weippe, he tried to describe his emotions: “The pleasure I now felt in having triumphed over the Rocky Mountains and descending once more to a level in fertile country where there was every rational hope of finding 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 pleading” (Ambros 293).
Lewis and Clarks amazing leadership kept the men together in the face of adversity. The men never sulked, lashed out, or demanded to retreat. They followed the captains without question, which helped them reach the Weippe Valley. From the Weippe Valley the party was able to continue on to the Pacific Ocean with little trouble.