The murky route used by the expedition might be clearer to historians today if Meriwether Lewis had continued to write in his journal. For reasons unknown, however, he ceased writing a daily record on Aug. 26 and, except for a few short stretches that total ten days, he will not resume his comments until January 1, 1806. While the route may be slightly in doubt, other journalists on the trip leave no question as to the severity of the trail experience.
Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse probably best reflected the feelings of the enlisted men when he wrote in his journal for Sept. 1 that the "we descended a Mountain nearly as Steep as the roof of a house." The next day the trail hugged a flooded creek, which the men called "dismal Swamp, and it is a lonesom rough part of the Country." Sgt. Patrick Gass considered the journey "fatiguing almost beyond description." One part of the trail was so rocky, lamented Whitehouse, that several of the horses "fell over backward with their loads; and rolled down to the foot of those hills, [and] we were obliged to carry the loads of our horses, on our backs up many of the hills, & amp; then load them again." Snow and sleet started to pelt the men at 3 pm on Sept. 3. After a modest dinner, writes Sgt. John Ordway, "we lay down wet hungry and cold." The temperature dropped to 19 degrees overnight.
In the morning, Lewis and Clark led the men "6 miles on a Direct Course over a high Snow mountain," which may have been Saddle Mountain. If so, it would have taken the expedition above 8,000 feet in elevation. Happily, at the conclusion of that difficult march, Old Toby, their Shoshone guide, recognized a creek and they began their descent into the Bitterroot Valley.
At the bottom of Lost Trail Pass, the expedition entered a Flathead (Oot-la-shoot or Salish) village of 33 lodges with an estimated 400 people and 500 horses. These Indians had likely never before seen a white man, but they nevertheless welcomed the corps. Oral history says that a Flathead warrior observed the corps as they struggled down the mountainside and he reported back to the camp that the black face of York, Clark's manservant, might be a sign of war, though their casual manner said otherwise. The villagers took a chance and met the visitors in peace, even giving them some of the berries and roots in their possession. The tribesmen had no meat to offer because they were, in fact, on their way to join the Shoshone for a buffalo hunt at the Three Forks of the Missouri.
The Salish language of the Indians puzzled the Euro-Americans. Lewis wrote down as many vocabulary words as he could. Ordway detected a lisp, but also a burr-sound rolling off the native tongue. He thought it might be a speech impediment. Or that the village might possibly be the legendary "Welsh Indians," a mythological tribe that supposedly left Wales in 1170 and disappeared into a mysterious, unnamed continent. William Clark knew that popular legend, too, but for his part he thought that if there was a "lost" tribe it was the Mandans on the Missouri River. Still, he agreed that the Salish speech pattern, which he described as a throaty, gurgling sound, was difficult to understand. As a result, when Clark called a formal council to meet with the Flatheads he devised a complex translation system that used five interpreters: Clark spoke in English to Francois Labieche, who then relayed it to Toussaint Charbonneau in French. Charbonneau, in turn, communicated the message to his wife, Sagacawea, in Hidatsa, so that she could repeat it in her native language, Shoshone, to a Shoshone boy who was a prisoner of the Flatheads, but fluent in their language.
On Sept. 6, the Flatheads headed south, then east, to hunt buffalo, and the Corps of Discovery rode north up the Bitterroot River Valley. Clark anxiously eyed the mountain range to the west. The Shoshone had earlier informed him that a gap through the mountains would make itself evident. But when? And would Old Toby recognize it in the maze of mountains?
Next Week: Finding and losing the Lolo Trail; snow-capped peaks come into view.
Robert Carriker has directed eight National Endowment for the Humanities seminars on the Lewis and Clark expedition and is author of Ocean in View! O! the Joy. When he's not out retracing the steps of the Corps of Discovery, he teaches history at Gonzaga University.