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An unexpected fork in the Missouri River presented a monumental challenge to the leadership of Lewis and Clark.

On August 18, 1804, after a conference with some Oto chiefs near present-day Homer, Neb., Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark court-martialed Moses Reed, who had deserted their Corps of Discovery and been caught. Leniency was not an option—as veteran Army officers themselves, Lewis and Clark knew that any dissension in  the ranks threatened to sabotage the entire expedition and cast doubts on their ability to lead it. At the trial Reed confessed and was sentenced to run the gantlet of the entire corps four times. Since there were more than 40 men, each armed with a cat-o’-nine-tails, that amounted to more than 160 lashes on his bare back. He was also no longer counted among the permanent party, who would go all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The Oto chiefs objected to the punishment and urged the captains to pardon Reed, but “after we explained the injurey Such men could doe them,” wrote Clark in his journal, “by false resentation [Clark was the worst speller], & explang. the Customs of our Countrey they were all Satisfied with the propriety of the Sentence & was witness to the  punishment.”

Courts-martial were not frequent events, but they occurred often enough and, as the expedition worked its way up the Missouri River, men unused to military discipline came to understand it and adjust to it. One such man was John Newman, who was arrested for “having uttered repeated expressions of a highly criminal and mutinous nature.” He got 75 lashes and was, like Reed, expelled from the company, although neither could be abandoned in the wilderness. Both Reed and Newman had to be taken all the way to the expedition’s winter quarters, Fort Mandan  in present-day North Dakota. Unlike Reed, however, Newman worked hard there and begged to be allowed back into the permanent party. It didn’t happen.

Lewis and Clark were after a corps with a single spirit, devoted to its mission with one mind. The mission was certainly worthy of devotion. They were making history with a capital H, crossing North America to find a route to the  Pacific Ocean. Turning a bunch of wildly individualistic, independent frontiersmen, plus some of the least disciplined members of the little U.S. Army’s frontier forces, into the astonishingly effective Corps of Discovery is one of the great feats of American leadership—and one of the less celebrated of Lewis and Clark’s accomplishments.

They did it, furthermore, as co-leaders, and they were very different men. Lewis was moody, intellectual and distant; Clark was down-to-earth, friendly and outgoing. But despite their differences in temperament, Lewis, who was the senior officer, insisted that Clark be treated as his equal,  and the two made all the important decisions together. Each respected the other for his particular abilities and they divided their responsibilities accordingly, their egos never getting in the way of their judgment. And this high level of cooperation became a model for the rough crowd of soldiers and new Army recruits they started out with.

Gathered on the River Dubois in present- day Illinois to be trained over the winter of 1803-04, their men fought with each other and with local residents, went on drinking sprees, disobeyed orders, slept on guard duty, disrespected their superiors; in short, they were derelict in most ways they could be. The word unruly falls far short of the reality.

But a remarkable transformation took place over the course of the following winter at Fort Mandan, built by the men themselves near the Mandan and Hidatsa villages along the Missouri. James P. Ronda, a leading Lewis and Clark scholar, attributes the change to “the way shared work binds people one to the other….Building the fort demanded cooperative effort. Men who had once snarled at each other now put arms and shoulders together lifting and setting heavy sixteen-foot eave beams.” The toil, then, and the daily routine, cooking, cleaning—housework, in a word—all of it shared, made them a family. Ronda quotes  Sergeant John Ordway, who described Fort Mandan, sitting on the high plains in winter temperatures that reached 30 below, as “warm and comfortable.” In such circumstances survival depends on cooperation, and the men learned the value of it. The test of how well the lesson had been learned would come that summer at the Marias River in Montana.

The expedition left Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805, as soon as was practicable after the river ice had broken up, and began the actual discovery phase of its voyage. They were venturing into country no white man had seen before, and the unknown was much on their minds. Over the winter Lewis and Clark had consulted with the Mandans and Hidatsas about the nature of what they would face, and in particular the course of the Missouri. White men, mostly fur trappers, had been up the river to the Mandans, but there were no maps (none, that is, based on observation) of the area to the west. There was only speculation.

Not that this stopped the geographical theorists. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that the Missouri ran all the way up to the Rocky Mountains, which consisted of a single low ridgeline running north to south, and that it was only a short portage across this ridge to the source of the Columbia River, which had been discovered by an American sea captain on the Pacific coast in 1792. If this were  true, the voyage from Fort Mandan would be easy. Once they reached that single ridgeline, it might take a week for the expedition to drag canoes, pirogues, supplies and themselves across it. The theory also held that the Columbia and the Missouri arose within a short distance of each other, so finding the portage would not be difficult. The  river route across the continent would thus be relatively straightforward: hard going, but not so hard that the route itself would prove useless.

It certainly made for a pretty picture, but the expedition would erase it, demonstrating, in the hundreds of miles, range after range of the Rockies the corps had to cross, that it was nothing more than wishful thinking. But first  the Corps of Discovery had to get to that ridgeline, which meant that they had to be sure to follow the Missouri, and not some tributary. Only the Missouri would take them to that portage.

Their Indian informants had assured them that it would, although they also made Lewis and Clark understand that the single ridgeline was a myth. There were a lot more mountains out there than the theorists thought. The Indians did not have personal knowledge of huge geographical areas, to be sure; none had traveled all that far from their own tribal areas. But the Indians had enough contact with people from surrounding tribes, and they in turn with other, more distant tribes, to have a general sense of the lay of the land. Sacagawea, who joined the expedition at Fort Mandan when Lewis and Clark hired her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, as an interpreter and a cook, was a Shoshone, a tribe native to the front range of the Rockies, and understood that the Missouri came out of the mountains. She did not know the route, but their Mandan and Hidatsa informants did, and enumerated for Lewis and Clark all the major streams running into the Missouri from both the north and the south, told them about the great falls they would have to portage around just before they reached the mountains, even told them about the fork where three streams came together to form the Missouri and which one led deepest into the mountains.

Based on this information, the expedition set out with some confidence that cold April day, with the wind blowing against them from the northwest. They had sent back the keelboat that had brought them north, along with six of the party (including Moses Reed and John Newman), and numbered 32, 33 if we count Sacagawea’s baby, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, born that winter, who would grow up to become a well-known trapper, guide and eventually hotelier in the American West. Most of the French-Canadian  engages, river men they had hired to help them up the Missouri to Fort Mandan, had been let  go. Only two of them were left, Charbonneau and George Drouillard, whose skills as a hunter and wilderness expert were indispensable. Except for Clark’s black slave, York, all the rest were members of the U.S. Army. Looking  over the scene as they left, Lewis compared his flotilla—six canoes, two large pirogues carved  out of cottonwood tree trunks—to those of  Columbus and Captain Cook, “though not so grand.” He wrote in his journal, “We were now  about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civillized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves.”

For the next two months the voyage was much like the voyage up the Missouri to the Mandan villages the previous summer and fall: hard, tedious work paddling, poling or dragging their boats, often against the wind, always against the current, up the muddy Missouri, with occasional moments of high drama. Two of those came on the same day, May 14, a little over a month into the voyage.

The Indians had told them, with a mixture of awe and fear, of the power and speed of grizzlies, but the men, putting faith in their Kentucky long rifles, had laughed at them. On the  14th the men in the rear canoes had seen a big male bear lying in the open about 300 yards from the river’s edge and pulled ashore to kill it. The expedition used what it killed; bear meat was gamy but edible, the pelts made warm coats, the fat made fuel. A slight rise concealed their approach and the six men got  within 40 yards of the bear, then four of them shot at once. All four balls hit their mark, two passing clean through the  animal’s lungs. Instantly he charged. The two other men then fired, and one ball broke the grizzly’s shoulder. This  only renewed his rage, and the men, unable to reload quickly enough, ran for their lives. Two of the six got into a canoe and made for the middle of the river; the other four hid in the reeds, reloaded and shot again. Again, four balls struck  the bear, but only served to draw his attention back to the men. He charged again, chasing two of them into the river off a 20-foot cliff; the bear dove in right on their heels. Finally one of the men still on shore shot the bear in the head and killed it. This was their first real lesson in grizzly bear.  

Then Charbonneau lost control of one of the pirogues and it capsized. It was a windy day, the water was rough, Charbonneau was an incompetent waterman. Lewis and Clark looked on from shore in a panic; this was the boat that carried their records and the scientific instruments.  The bowman, Pierre Cruzatte, famous in the annals of the expedition for his skill with a fiddle, quickly cut loose the  sails, righted the boat and brought it to shore. Sacagawea, sitting in the back, had calmly gathered up the boxes and equipment that were floating away and saved almost everything. The loss of the records and the scientific equipment  would have cost the expedition most of its value. Lewis took latitude and longitude readings at every opportunity with these instruments; it was from these readings that Clark would construct his great map of the route across America.

But otherwise the voyage was a steady grind, up at dawn, toiling upriver; buffalo, deer, beaver tails, bear, antelope for food; sometimes Cruzatte’s fiddle at night; with an occasional reward of a dram of rum for each man. They passed the rivers the Indians said they would pass, in the order they had given them: the Little Missouri; the Knife; then the Yellowstone, which Clark would explore with a small party on the return trip; after that the Milk River, so called because its waters were “about the colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a teaspoonful of milk.” Huge calcite deposits on the high plains leached the white mineral into the river, lightening its color and making its water too salty to drink. This they assumed was what the Indians had described as “the river which scolds at all the others.” They reached a river Clark named the Judith, after the woman who would later become his wife. Naming places is one of the privileges of explorers.

Then they encountered a large river, seemingly almost as large as the Missouri itself, coming in from the northwest. It was early June by now. They had traveled 500 miles, and things had generally gone well, but this new river was puzzling. The Indians had said nothing about it, and it looked like the Missouri. It was muddy, for one thing, and it had a roiling current like the Missouri, while the other fork, its course tending southwest, was clear, indeed transparent. Cruzatte, the expedition’s most experienced waterman, and the rest of the men decided that the northern branch was the Missouri. They had spent more than a year toiling up the river; they knew what it looked like.

It was a critical choice: Which river would take them to the Rockies? Which river was the Missouri? Lewis called it “an interesting question.” To say the least. “To mistake the  stream,” he wrote in his journal, “at this period of the season, two months…having now elapsed, and to ascend such stream to the rocky Mountain or perhaps much further before we could inform ourselves whether it did approach the Columbia or not, and then be obliged to return and take the other stream would not only loose us the whole of this season but would probably so dishearten the party that it might defeat the expedition altogether.” Essentially, the whole enterprise was at stake.

Both Lewis and Clark believed the south fork was the true Missouri, the north a tributary, but they knew it would be unwise to make a snap judgment. The south fork was mountain water, transparent and running a little more swiftly than the north fork, over fat smooth stones, “like most rivers issuing  from a mountainous country.” To be that muddy and turbid, the water flowing down the north fork had to have passed a  long distance through the plains. It only made sense that the south fork was the river to follow.

But what if they were wrong? Historian John L. Allen puts it this way: “Lewis and Clark were good enough officers to realize the potential deterioration of their command situation should they go against the opinion of their men—some of whom were trained rivermen and wilderness experts—and then be proved wrong.” They were 500 miles from the Mandan villages, they were few in number, and timber on the plains with which to build shelters was almost nonexistent. Another winter on the plains—and the wrong choice might have meant that—would have been extremely difficult if the men, now questioning their leaders’  judgment, no longer confident of their ability to keep them  safe, reverted to the unmanageable state Lewis and Clark had found them in at the beginning.

The next day, June 3, they sent a party of three up each of the forks to see if, from the highest land they could find, they could learn more about where the rivers led. That told them next to nothing; so the following day Lewis took the north fork, Clark the south, and each went with a larger party on foot for a 50-to-60- mile trek upriver. It rained, the ground was covered with prickly pear cactus, they had to wade up to their chests sometimes to get through the toughest spots. Clark was gone three days, Lewis five. Neither found anything that  would provide a definitive answer, although they were  both more convinced than ever that the south fork was the Missouri. Lewis was confident enough of this that he named  the north fork Maria’s (now Marias) River, after a cousin he was especially fond of.

When they all returned, the two captains gathered the men and Lewis explained why he believed the south fork was the true Missouri: the transparency of the water; the information the Indians had given them; the fact that the north fork was too turbid to have descended recently from mountains. It was in vain. “Cruzatte who had been an old Missouri navigator,” Lewis wrote, “and who from his integrity knowledge and skill as a waterman had acquired the  confidence of every individual of the party declared it as his  opinion that the N. fork was the true genuine Missouri and could be no other.”

This, then, was their test, and it was as critical a moment as any the expedition faced during its entire trek across America. Had the winter at Fort Mandan indeed made these men into a single unit? An expeditionary force operating in isolation in unknown and sometimes dangerous territory does need independent-minded individuals who can act quickly in circumstances that require it, but at the same time they have to know their limits and respect lines of authority. Without question these men had shown that  they could act independently. But what would they do now? Follow Cruzatte up the north fork?

It was over in a minute. Lewis and Clark were not the type to put their feelings in writing, but the satisfaction they felt must have been deep. “All of them,” Lewis wrote, “being still firm in the belief that the N. Fork was the Missouri and that  which we ought to take,” nevertheless “they said very cheerfully that they were ready to follow us any where we thought proper to direct.”

The men had faith in themselves and in Cruzatte. But even more they had faith in Meriwether Lewis and William Clark themselves. There were no hard feelings. “In the evening,” Lewis noted, “Cruzatte gave us some music on the violin and the men passed the evening in dancing singing &c and were extreemly cheerfull.”

Four days later Lewis and a few others, traveling on foot ahead of the party, came within hearing of the falls the Indians had told them about, and then within view of the spray from the falls, rising above the plains. By noon Lewis was standing on a rock gazing “on this sublimely grand specticle”; it was the “grandest sight I ever beheld.”

The captains had chosen right. The south fork was indeed the Missouri. By November they would be in sight of the Pacific Ocean and looking for a place to spend the  winter. Ten months after that they would pull their little vessels into the docks in St. Louis, and America, which had given them up for dead, would never be the same.


Anthony Brandt edited The Journals of Lewis and Clark for the National Geographic Society. He is the author of The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage.

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.