Up the Wide Missouri With Lewis and Clark
Up the Wide Missouri
The wild lands of the upper Missouri River had a profound impact on the early explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark back in 1804 as captains of President Jefferson's exploratory expedition to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. The wild and open prairies, thundering waterfalls, high, snowy Rocky Mountains as well as vast herds of bison (buffalo) and antelope, and fierce and wild bears inspired the explorers with a deep sense of awe. At times mere words of description seemed feeble and frail to these two captains.
Early in their Journals, Clark describes a mound which he climbed above the Nemaha River to view their surrounding plains which "afforded one of the most pleasing prospects I ever beheld." As a result of this, he takes it upon himself to climb many other bluffs along the wide river away from his crew. From another bluff, he records, "The most beautiful prospect of the river, up and down, and the country opposite, presented itself, which I ever beheld." William Clark seemed more attracted to Native tribal peoples than was Meriwether Lewis, probably because he was more of a social extrovert than was Lewis. As they made necessary contacts for purposes of fur trade with various Plains Indian tribes, William Clark gained added insights into this wild, new country through native mythology which he came to realize was so much a part of the landscape itself.
At Vermillion (in present day South Dakota), he jotted down a myth concerning devilish "little people" of Spirit Mound: "In the northerly direction from the mouth of this creek, in an immense plain, a high hill is situated, and appears of a conic form, and by the different nations of Indians [Mahas and Sioux] in this quarter, is supposed to be the residence of devils: that they are in human form with remarkable large heads, and about 18 inches high, that they are watchful, and are armed with sharp arrows with which they can kill at a great distance. They are said to kill all persons so hardy as to attempt to approach the hill." Though he does give a scientific explanation for the myth, Clark began to sense a certain mystique of the land through tribal legends and myths that he heard and recorded.
Farther upstream, Clark discovers that river rocks among the Mandan people were not just rocks but omens of the future. He describes one large rock along the upper Missouri River as being twenty feet in circumference, thick and porous; it was known by the Mandans as a medicine stone because it informs them of everything which is to happen, and they visit it every spring and sometimes in the summer." After they offer it smoke and go to sleep nearby, they read its messages "raised on the stone" the next day.
The magic and poetry of Indian myths began to take effect. Even Meriwether Lewis became somewhat Indianized when he refers to one particular white supply boat of theirs that escaped all harm as being "attended by some evil genius." And a bit later Lewis writes, "The towrope of the white pirogue--the only one, indeed, of hemp, and that on which we most depend--gave way today at a bad point. The pirogue swung and but slightly touched a rock, and yet was very near oversetting. I fear her evil genius will play so many pranks with her that she will go to the bottom one of these days."
The effect of the vast western land seeps into the Journals off these two early explorers. William Clark expresses his genuine sense of joy at seeing for the first time the distant, snowy Rockies. And his companion Lewis describes Yellowstone country as "beautiful in the extreme." But perhaps a sense of awe is aroused most fervently by the Great Falls of the Missouri River. Lewis, all by himself far from any other human, climbed to the top of some rocks to gain a fine view of the falls which robbed him of his capacity for words:
"After writing this imperfect description, I again viewed the Falls, and was so much disgusted with the imperfect idea which is conveyed of the scene, that I determined to draw my pen across it and began again, but then reflected that I could not perhaps succeed better than penning the first impressions of the mind."
He goes on to say that these waterfalls gave him such pleasure and astonishment as he never experienced before; they were a veritable eye feast. But Clark's sense of a truly sublime wilderness was then stimulated or, should I say jolted, by an incredibly violent thunder and hailstorm:"The first shower was moderate, accompanied with a violent wind, the effects of which we did not feel. Soon after, a torrent of rain and hail fell, more violent than I ever saw before." He was amazed to see great masses of mud and rock tumble into the river.
The wildlife of the Great Plains and Rockies continually delighted and astonished the captains and their crew. They saw hundreds of pelicans, wolves, elk, antelope, grizzly bears and huge bison. The West had become a land of titanic proportions. Clark describes his first view of a gigantic bison herd: "I ascended to the high country, and from this eminence I had a view of a greater number of buffalo than I had ever seen before at one time. I must have seen near 20,000 of those animals feeding on the plain."
Another time he records waiting for a half hour for a herd yo thunder across a stream. Meriwether Lewis devotes many a page of his Journal to wildlife descriptions. Antelope, coyotes, wolverines, rattlesnakes, and brown bears constantly divert his eyes from such practical matters as useful minerals, navigable river routes, and friendly versus unfriendly Indians. He takes time out to describe predator-prey relations of wolves and anterlopes with the accuracy of naturalists like John Muir and Aldo Leopold. He noted that as antelope and deer populations increased, so did that of the wolves.
Lewis, all by himself and far from the help of his crew, almost became a victim of a predator-prey relationship when he encountered a rather large brown bear that followed him far too closely:
"In this situation, I thought of retreating in a brisk walk as fast as he was advancing until I could reach a tree about 300 yards below me, but I had no sooner turned myself about but he pitched at me, open-mouthed and full speed. I ran about 80 yards and found he gained on me fat. I then ran into the water. The idea struck me to get into the water to such a depth that I could stand, and he would be obliged to swim, and that I could, in that siuation defind myself with my espontoon.[large stick]."
Fortunately the bear turned around and left him standing all alone in waist-deep water. While the wilds of the West could be joyous and beautiful, they could most certainly be fearful. But Lewis and Clark and crew were more than prepared to move westward (with the help of the Shoshone Indians) across the Rocky Mountains beyond the wide Missouri to the Columbia River Valley and the Pacific Ocean by 1806.
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© 2014 Richard Francis Fleck