10 Corps of Discovery-Great Falls

12 06 2009
Bitterroot Range beyond

Bitterroot Range beyond

The Corps of Discovery- Great Falls

Lewis and Clark are so fundamental to the growth and development of the northwest that I wanted to bring thoughts and experience related to the places touched by Lewis and Clark into some continuity. If you’re from Missouri, you probably have some if not more perspective on their adventures than I.

. Most of us have visited the museum in the base of the Saint Louis Arch. It sets t the character of river life in the early 1800’s. You can see the tools, the men, and the river environment along the Missouri, in Missouri, at the time. Certainly, we can better understand Jefferson and his vision for westward expansion. (I find the sculpture of Jefferson there inspirational) The Louisiana Purchase formalized boundaries for one of those social forces that builds such momentum nothing can stop the movement. The west was going to be settled.( I sense the same forces at work as Mexico migrates into the States).


Great Falls is the second leg of a four step journey I followed along the trail of the Corps of Discovery. In each case, there has been a State Interpretive Center that helped me understand the mission and men a bit better.


You may have read the very excellent book-“Undaunted Courage”. It’s a historic novel about Meriwether Louis’s and William Clark’s great adventure into the northwest. If you haven’t read it, do it now. You will be with me on the adventure. That book was the foundation of my understanding of their journey, before I traveled their route. (I bypassed South Dakota). Do Cliff notes exist on the document? I understand there are more primitive cliff notes painted by Native American on canyon walls along the way.

The Corps of Discovery was the name coined by Jefferson to identify the group of men who were assembled for the expedition. The historic challenge was to find a water passage to the west coast; the Missouri River was its focus.  The Corps were not only pathfinders, clarifying  limited and uncharted terrain, but they were to gather undocumented botanical specimens, contact  Indian tribes in anticipation of trade opportunities, but most importantly, find the northwest passage to the Pacific. The fur industry and competition for its resources appears to dominate decisions regarding this and other ventures of the era. The personalities that were involved directly and indirectly in fur trade become primary players:  Astor, and the Astorian’s, Stuart (Who is credited with finding the first land route to the west), Bridger, Coulter, Sacagawea are examples. Their lives integrate into the Corp expedition and add continuity to events and accomplishments.

Jefferson has great ambitions for the expedition: Find a water route to the Pacific, befriend Indian tribes along the way, especially the hostile Sioux, discover the many volcanoes anticipated, Wooley Mammoths, and other unknown species. When it was over, fifty tribes had been contacted, and befriended, 300 new species were discovered, (animal and plant life). The northwest was charted. There was no water trail to the Pacific. The treaties with the Sioux, especially  the Teton Sioux in South Dakota failed.

While the Corps of Discovery launched its mission with high expectation, the true heroic action was in ordinary people working doing their best every day for two and a half years;, hard work, courage, and commitment; Ordinary people, doing what needed to be done, achieved the extraordinary. Throughout it all, apparently spirits remained high, only one died, apparently appendicitis, Charles Floyd, Sioux City, Iowa.

Imagine how cold forty below zero would be.  That was the temperature Lewis measured while encamped in Fort Benton. It was the winter of 1805. (Meriwether declared it was too cold for the men to hunt this day.) Their number had been reduced to thirty two, as twelve were sent to retrace the paths taken to date, reporting on progress and delivering acquired bootie. French trapper Charbonneau was hired on in the Dakota Territory, accompanied by is sixteen year old Shoshone squaw, Sacajawea and newborn baby. She was sick. Lewis was administering sulfur water.(Apparently Sulfa based drugs were the  bacterial treatment until antibiotics developed during WWII.) Charbonneau they could do without. They couldn’t afford to lose Sacajawea. She was the linkage for acquiring horses from the Shoshone should they reach river headwater. The Shoshone were sophisticated horsemen with an accccumulated herd of over 1500 mounts.

The Corps had taken a big gamble. At the confluence of the Missouri and __ it was unclear which channel to take. The Indian tribes have assured them that there would be “great falls” on the route that represented the primary channel. If the route they were on proved to be wrong, an entire season would be lost. By April, the ice on the Missouri begins to break up and the Corps was on their way.

On June 13, 1805 Lewis left camp on what is now Belt Creek. About four miles upriver, Lewis heard the great roar of falls, then it was in sight; what is now called Rainbow Falls; “The grandest sight I have ever beheld”.  To his surprise there were five falls to negotiate. Relieved, the falls were as reported, discouraged as each of the falls required portage.

Each of the falls is now topped by a dam. The first, 1891, Black Eagle Dam. The last, 1958, Cochran Dam. The total output is 220,000 KW productions. Residents at Great Falls say they are “Dam poor”.

The portage of the five falls took over a month, and represents a herculean effort by the men. They fought underbrush, cactus thorns in the feet, swamp mud, mosquitoes, and yes, grizzlies. More than once they were chased up trees. Once they tried to stop a grizzly by shooting him. Ten rounds were fired before the resorted to the trees. Lewis himself was confronted by a grizzly. After missing with the rifle he was chased into the river where he fended the bear off with his rifle. Fortunately, the bear lost interest and abandon the chase. (I love a good bear story).

Next stop, the Missouri Breaks. Remember the Jack Nicholson movie by the same name?

road to Great Falls, Mt 007

Crazy Woman Mountain Range

Entering Lewis and Clark National Forrest
Entering Lewis and Clark National Forrest

road to Great Fallsroad to Great Falls, Mt 010

This falls is in the City. Not the one Lewis saw first.

This falls is in the City. Not the one Lewis saw first.

The twelve mile ride across the agricultural belt with bad paving was a challenge

The twelve mile ride across the agricultural belt with bad paving was a challenge

"..The grandest sight I ever beheld"

"..The grandest sight I ever beheld"

"Were dam poor in Great Falls"

"Were dam poor in Great Falls"




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