Lewis and Clark Expedition Through Dakota Country


The expedition left the common boundary of Nebraska and South Dakota on September 8, 1804. Moving north in South Dakota, large herds of bison were seen, as well as elk and deer. They passed the mouth of the White River on September 15, soon encountering "multitudes" of prairie dogs and vast herds of bison and antelope. By September 20 they had reached the Big Bend of the Missouri River, sending two men by horseback across the narrow peninsula to hunt and await their arrival around the enormous bend. Here the first female pronghorn was killed, as well as several mule deer. A coyote was also killed, and was identified as a small species of prairie wolf. On September 24 they reached what they called the "Teton" River (now known as the Bad River, its original English name), so named by the group because of the Teton (Brule) Lakotas who lived along it. Several days were spent interacting with this tribe, including some distinctly unfriendly encounters, and it was not until September 28 that they again departed upstream. They soon passed several abandoned villages of the Arikaras ("Rickaras"), and by October 8 met the first band of that group near the mouth of the Grand River. By the 13th they were on their way again, passing the mouth of Spring Creek (now Campbell County), a short distance below the present North Dakota boundary. That night was their last South Dakota campground, and on October 14 they camped near Blackfoot Creek, virtually on the present North Dakota-South Dakota boundary.

They passed the mouth of North Dakota's Cannonball River on October 18, in what is the present-day Standing Rock Reservation, and on the 19th counted 53 herds of bison and 3 elk herds, all in view at a single time. They soon began to encounter abandoned Mandan villages as well as old Arikara villages. There were also active Awatixa Hidatsa ("Minnetaree") villages in the area, along the Knife River. It was at one of these Hidatsa villages that the teenaged Shoshone woman Sacagawea was living with a French fur trader, Touissant Charbonneau. She had been captured and abducted near Three Forks about five years earlier by the Hidatsas, and had been won by Charbonneau on a wager.

On October 26 Lewis and Clark arrived at an active Mandan village site, a location they selected for their winter quarters and named Fort Mandan. Later known as Fort Clark, it was located in what is now the southeastern corner of Mercer County. They were approximately 1,600 river miles up the Missouri from their starting point and roughly halfway across their transcontinental route.

The expedition spent the winter of 1804-5 at Fort Mandan, not departing again until April 7, 1805. At that point the Corps of Discovery consisted of 32 persons. Besides their basic exploratory party of 28 men, they had added 2 interpreters, including Touissant Charbonneau as well as Sacagawea and her infant son, Baptiste, born only about two months previously. The keelboat and its crew of eleven men were sent back to St. Louis, along with many specimens and artifacts that were destined for Washington DC. Among them were live prairie dogs and magpies, 60 preserved plant specimens, a variety of Native American materials, and various skins and skeletons.

The Corps then headed upstream, passing the mouth of the Little Missouri River on April 12 and reaching the mouth of the Yellowstone River on April 26, where they were only a few miles from the present-day boundary of Montana. Between this point and the present boundary, Fort Union was built in 1830 and operated as a frontier trading post for some time before being abandoned. They entered what is now eastern Montana on April 27, 1805, camping just a few miles upstream.

The return trip was much more rapid and far less rewarding in terms of biological discovery. Little time was wasted during this phase, especially after Captain Lewis's narrow escape from eight Blackfoot men during his independent exploration of the upper Marias River of western Montana, together with three of his men. After that hazardous encounter the four men quickly returned to the Missouri River. There they rejoined the rest of their party and continued downstream, reaching the mouth of the Yellowstone River and the approximate boundary of present-day North Dakota on August 7.

This confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers (approximately at the current Montana-North Dakota border) was the agreed-upon rendezvous point for rejoining Captain Clarkand his men after their separate route down the Yellowstone River. However, by the time Lewis and his party finally arrived at the planned meeting point, Clark's group had already departed downstream and had left an explanatory note. Lewis and his men thus moved quickly downstream to catch up. Lewis's party finally caught up with that of Captain Clark about 150 miles below the mouth of the Yellowstone River on August 12, 1806, at a location now flooded by Lake Sakakawea but that was probably near Crow Flies High Butte.

The combined Corps then descended the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota. They passed the mouth of the Little Missouri River on August 13, and reached Fort Mandan by the 17th. On August 22 they passed the mouth of the Grand River, and thus were about 25 miles into present-day South Dakota, and on August 25th they passed the mouth of the Cheyenne River. By September 1 they had passed the mouth of the Niobrara River, and had the present-day Nebraska shoreline on their south side. On September 4th they passed the mouth of the Big Sioux River, and were then entirely out of South Dakota and had entered what would eventually become Iowa and Nebraska.

In the course of the expedition the group lived off the land, killing and eating almost anything they could. Burroughs compiled a list of game killed in the course of the expedition, largely for human consumption. At minimum, it included 1,001 deer, 35 elk, 227 bison, 62 pronghorns, 113 beaver, 104 geese and brant, 48 shorebirds ("plovers"), 46 grouse, 45 ducks and coots, and 9 turkeys. They also killed 43 grizzly bears, 23 black bears, 18 wolves, and 16 otters. This level of resource exploitation marked the beginning of a century of unrestrained wildlife slaughter in America, ending in the elimination of the bison, elk, gray wolf, and grizzly bear from the Great Plains, and the complete extinction of the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, and Eskimo curlew.

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