Comparing Notes With Lewis And Clark

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One night under a full moon, I awoke in my tent to the insistent lowing of cattle. That was followed by the high, piercing barks and songs of a coyote pack near our tents. It was chilling, but a far cry from the uproar at one of Lewis and Clark’s nearby campsites when a large buffalo bull suddenly charged through in the middle of one night after swimming over from the opposite shore.

The game animals the Corps of Discovery encountered were unafraid of humans. The “immence herds” of bison are long gone, as are the Great Plains grizzlies that gave the expedition several close calls. The wolves have also been displaced. Lewis and Clark marveled at the “bighorned anamals” that scampered across the Breaks’ dizzying precipices, and spent hours describing them in their journals. New to science then, what became known as Audubon bighorn sheep were hunted to extinction in a little more than a century. Still, for travelers retracing the route today, the Missouri Breaks remain rich in wildlife, with some 60 mammal species, more than 230 birds, and dozens of other animals. In the most desolate areas, we watched great blue herons stalking the riverbanks on reedy legs and heard noisy gaggles of Canada geese on midstream islands. Beneath a formidable rampart of cliffs in the Badlands, we came upon two clans of Rocky Mountain bighorns—introduced successors to the extinct Audubons—and maneuvered our canoes to within a few yards of where they grazed on a thin patch of grass by water’s edge.

You’ll also see deer, elk, antelope, prairie dogs, and—most important of all to Lewis and Clark—beaver. An inventory of fur-bearing animals was a major goal of the expedition, for Jefferson realized that an influx of American trappers and fur traders to the region would bolster American claims to the Louisiana Territory’s northern reaches and secure its murky boundaries. It didn’t take long for commerce to start working its way upriver behind the Corps of Discovery. In 1806, as Lewis returned eastward along the Upper Missouri, he met two American fur trappers heading west and told them where to hunt beaver, which was then prized for hats by fashionable Europeans. By the 1840s fortified trading posts had sprung up here and there along the river. Then, as the fur trade ebbed, gold strikes brought new booms. But transportation remained primitive until the first steamboat made it through the shallows to the mouth of the Marias River in 1859. By the 1860s crusty miners, citified merchants, horse thieves, and increasing numbers of hopeful settlers were jockeying for deck space. In a single year 70 steamboats ferried 10,000 passengers upriver. One vessel carried $1.25 million in gold dust back East, mostly in passengers’ money belts. Railroads finally killed off the river traffic in 1890.

 

There is little to suggest those busy decades as you canoe through the Missouri Breaks now. Most of the forts are gone, and the steamboat era survives only in place-names like Pilot Rock and Woodhawk Creek. Cow Island Landing, once a busy little steamboat port, is again a gentle stretch of broad, grassy bottomland. There Cow Creek meets the Upper Missouri, beneath broad openings in the endless bluffs and cliffs providing the first hint in at least 25 miles of Badlands canoeing that you could actually hike out to the prairie above.

This was once a well-known fording area. On September 23, 1877, Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perces, crossed the river at Cow Island, desperately fleeing toward Canada ahead of a pursuing U.S. Army—and nearing the end of a four-month 1,170-mile hegira. The Indians tried to negotiate for food and supplies at Cow Island, where the Silver City had just unloaded 50 tons of freight the day before. Soldiers guarding the boat eventually relinquished a little hardtack and bacon; refused more, the Indians attacked, taking what they needed and burning the rest. Then they marched on, up Cow Creek. Less than two weeks later Chief Joseph uttered his famous surrender speech—“I will fight no more forever”—just 45 miles short of the Canadian border. It was a tragically ironic moment for the peaceable Nez Perces, whose aid to Lewis and Clark more than seven decades earlier had helped assure the expedition’s success.

Local tribes, though, had skirmished with whites along the river for years. For the Indians, the woodcutters who supplied passing steamboats were easy marks, and they killed several. By cutting off the boats’ fuel supplies, the Indians hoped to slow the flow of whites into the region.

Woodhawks, as the woodcutters were called, led difficult lives, even when not under actual attack, as the diary for 1869 and 1870 of a young Dane named Peter Koch attests:

December 11. Sick yet. Bill, Joe and Mills went to Musselshell, said Indians had attacked and stolen 3 horses and mule but lost one man.… Jan. 16. Awful cold. Froze my ears.… Mar. 22. Saw three geese. (Spring has come, gentle Annie.) Martin sick. May 9. One hundred and seventy cords on the bank. We put fire to the brush piles. The fire spread and burnt up 50 cords. …Nothing to eat.