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The Expedition

Rivers, Boats, and Hazards

Rivers Traveled by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in Montana

by Dean Culwell

About the Author

Dean Culwell is commander of the Montana Coast Guard and has floated more than 2,000 miles of Montana waters and the routes of Lewis and Clark.



Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their group of explorers traveled more miles in what is now Montana than any other state in their historic trek to and from the Pacific Ocean.

Most of the exploration party's traveling time in Montana was spent in boats. Their 167 days and nearly 2,200 miles boating through Montana were not without peril. Thirty boating mishaps are recorded in their journals including capsizings, swampings, men overboard and even a few injury accidents, fortunately none too serious.

Most of the types of hazards encountered by the Expedition still exist and continue to plague modern-day boaters.

The westbound Corps of Discovery entered Montana on April 27, 1805, boating up the Missouri River some 734 miles to Three Forks. Eighteen accidents are recorded in the journals in this stretch, mostly related to river hazards and weather.

Even the short trip up Belt Creek to the portage around the Great Falls had problems, with a canoe overturning and two men nearly drown.

From Three Forks the party boated up the Jefferson River 83 miles and then 80 miles up the Beaverhead River to Camp Fortunate, at the confluence of the Red Rock River and Horse Prairie Creek at what is now Clark Canyon Reservoir.

Near Twin Bridges, they took an errant side trip up the Big Hole River about 9 miles. This mistake nearly resulted in a broken leg as a canoe overturned and the heavy log boat swept over a crewman. From Camp Fortunate until they reached the Clearwater River in Idaho, they traveled by horse, graciously provided by Sacajawea's people, the Lemhi Shoshone.

On the eastbound trip through Montana in 1806, the party split up several times to explore additional country. The first split occurred in the Bitterroot Valley, where Captain Lewis and a small party headed off by horse to explore a short-cut to the plains. Until meeting the boats coming down the Missouri, their only time on the water was rafting the Clark Fork River near present-day Missoula. Lewis was "drawn off the raft by a bush" and had to swim to shore.

Clark's party returned by horse to the canoe cache at Camp Fortunate on the Beaverhead River. They retrieved the canoes and retraced the route down the Beaverhead and Jefferson Rivers to the Three Forks where Clark's party split.

Sergeant Ordway and his party continued by canoe down the Missouri, hooking up with Lewis' group near the Great Falls. Clark and his party traveled by horse over Bozeman Pass striking the Yellowstone River near present-day Livingston. Since trees were not sufficiently large to construct canoes until they reached present-day Park City, the Yellowstone was floated by canoe from this point downstream 381 miles to the confluence with the Missouri (just east of the Montana-North Dakota Border) where Clark's party rendezvoused with Lewis' party.

In total, the Expedition boated just under 2,200 miles in Montana on seven different rivers and streams. Most of this was on the Missouri River with 1,468 miles traveled. Second was the return trip on the Yellowstone with 381 miles. The Jefferson totaled 166 miles and the Beaverhead 160 miles. The side trip up the Big Hole added 18 miles.

Belt Creek and the raft trip across the Clark Fork River each added a couple more miles and some excitement to the trip.

Boats used on the Lewis and Clark Expedition in Montana

by Dean Culwell

Decision- painted by Robert F Morgan.

Painted by Robert F. Morgan (MT Historical Society Collection)

Five types of water craft were used or attempted to be used by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in Montana: pirogues (pronounced PEE-rows), canoes, rafts, bullboats and an iron-framed boat with an animal hide covering.

When the westbound expedition entered what is now Montana in late April 1805, the flotilla consisted of two pirogues and six canoes.

The keelboat, the largest vessel in the fleet, had already returned downriver to St. Louis from the Mandan Villages in North Dakota.

The pirogues, the larger one was red and the smaller was white, were the largest remaining boats. Although the journals give very little information about their design, they were likely between 25 and 45 feet long and five to seven feet wide. Means of propulsion included rowing by six or seven men, poling, cordelling (towing with rope by men on shore or in shallow water) and, on those days with favorable wind, by sailing as each pirogue was fitted with a mast and sail.

The red pirogue was hidden near the mouth of the Marias River with hopes of retrieving it on the return trip. Unfortunately, it didn't survive the winter of 1805-1806 and was abandoned.

The white pirogue, frequently used by Captains Lewis and Clark when they weren't exploring on shore, was cached in some willows below the Great Falls. It was recovered on the return trip in summer 1806 and completed the downriver trip.

The white pirogue was involved in so many mishaps that, after a tow rope broke and the pirogue almost overturned after hitting a rock, Captain Lewis worried that "her evil gennii will play so many pranks with her that she will go to the bottom some of these days."

Seems the "evil gennii" abandoned the white pirogue after this incident and moved to the red pirogue which didn't survive to make the return trip.

Lewis actually expected that the pirogues would not be able to make the entire trip, so the explorers hauled the collapsible frame of an iron boat. They put together the 36-foot-long by four-foot-wide iron frame above the Great Falls and several days were spent constructing a hide covering for the iron frame. Once launched, it "lay like a perfect cork on the water." The caulking used to seal the hide covering was a mixture of charcoal, beeswax and buffalo tallow and, as a summer storm battered the "Experiment," the caulking failed and the boat sank.

Lewis summed up his feelings in his typically elegant way. "I need not add that this circumstance mortified me not a little," he wrote. His mortification was due, in part, because the iron boat was designed to carry about a ton of cargo. Its loss meant that some valuable items, including trade goods that would be missed later in the expedition, had to be cached. It also meant that more time had to be spent constructing additional canoes to haul part of the gear.

The party used six dugout canoes 22 to 28 feet long constructed from cottonwood trees from the Mandan villages in North Dakota to just above the Great Falls. The arduous portage of these six canoes around the Great Falls is a story in itself.

With the failure of the "Experiment," two additional canoes were constructed. Canoes were used to ascend the Missouri, Jefferson and Beaverhead rivers until they were cached in August, 1805 at Camp Fortunate.

The canoes were retrieved on the eastbound trip on July 9, 1806. One canoe was cut up for paddles and firewood and the group cast off down the Beaverhead River. They portaged the canoes around the Great Falls; the availability of horses made the portage easier than on the westbound trip, when the men were the beasts of burden.

Captain Clark and his group split off from the group traveling down the Missouri River to explore the Yellowstone River. They found suitable trees to construct canoes near present-day Park City. Here, they built two small canoes 28 feet long and about two feet wide from cottonwood trees. Since the canoes were so narrow and subject to capsizing, they lashed the two together for stability.

They continued down the Yellowstone, finally meeting up with Lewis' group some distance below the confluence with the Missouri on August 12, 1806.

A small group led by Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor left Clark's party on the Yellowstone near present-day Billings and set out on horseback. The following night, their horses disappeared. The evidence indicated that some local inhabitants, most likely of the Crow Nation, determined that the horses would better serve their purposes. Forced with a choice of walking or building a boat, they opted to build bullboats, a tub or barrel like craft used by the Mandan in North Dakota. Using small sticks, they formed the circular top and bottom of the frame and lashed the ribs perpendicular to the top and bottom. The frame was covered with a buffalo hide. At only 16 inches deep, the round bullboats bullboats were amazingly effective, going through rapids "without takeing in a drop of water, and waves raised from the hardest winds dose not effect them."

Sergeant Pryor and his party traveled about 400 miles in their bullboats of which 314 were on the Yellowstone River in Montana. Bullboats were also used to cross the Missouri River above the Great Falls on the return trip.

Rafts of lashed-together logs were used on the return trip when Captain Lewis' group had to cross the Clark Fork River near present-day Missoula. Lewis, however, became an inadvertent swimmer when knocked off the raft by a bush.

Hazards encountered by Lewis and Clark Boating on Montana Rivers

by Dean Culwell

Rock cliffs.

Rock cliffs

Rapids, rocks, high water, sloughing banks, and floating and fixed woody debris were common river hazards encountered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Montana's often unpredictable spring and summer weather, including wind, temperature extremes and thunderstorms, offered exciting boating experiences.

River hazards and weather were the major causes of the 30 boating accidents while the Expedition was in Montana. Because these hazards still confront Montana boaters, those planning to retrace Lewis and Clark's water route can learn much from the experiences of the Expedition.

Most the water-related mishaps occurred on the westbound, upriver trip. Strong currents, rapids and rocks are mentioned in several incidents, causing the canoes to ship water, become swamped or overturn. Rapids caused a canoe to overturn and swamped two others on August 6, 1805 while descending the Big Hole (Wisdom) River.

Private Whitehouse, in the canoe that overturned, wrote: "I was in the Stern when She Swang & jumped out to prevent hir from turning over but the current took hir round So rapid that caught my leg under hir and lamed me & was near breaking my leg."

Overhanging brush and logs, in combination with current or wind, were factors in at least two incidents. One incident involved Captain Clark's group descending the Jefferson River. They had trouble keeping the canoes from being blown against the shore because of strong winds. According to Captain Clark:, "the Canoe in which I was in was driven by a Suden puff of wind under a log which projected over the water from the bank, and the man in the Stern Howard was Caught in between the Canoe and the log and a little hurt after disingaging our selves from this log the canoe was driven imediately under a drift which projected over and a little abov the Water, here the Canoe was very near turning over we with much exertion after takeing out Some of the baggage hauled her out."

Weather was a primary cause of troubles. Wind regularly caused large waves, knocked over boats under sail, and impeded progress. One of the more harrowing incidents occurred on May 14, 1805 on a stretch of the Missouri River now inundated by Fort Peck Reservoir.

Toussaint Charbonneau, described by Lewis as "perhaps the most timid waterman in the world" was at the helm of the white pirogue. As Lewis recounts, "with utmost trepidation and horror," the pirogue was under sail when "a sudon squawl of wind struck her obliquely, the wind was so violent that it instantly upset the perogue and would have turned her completely topsaturva, had it not been from the resistance mad by the oarning against the water."

For a moment, Lewis, who was ashore, thought about swimming to the floundering pirogue. He dropped his gun, threw aside his shot pouch and unbuttoned his coat. The he "recollected the folly of the attempt I was about to make, which was to throw myself into the river and indevour to swim to the perogue; the perogue was three hundred yards distant the waves so high that a perogue (person) could scarcely live in any situation, the water excessively could, and the stream rappid; had I undertaken this project therefore, there was a hundred to one but what I should have paid the forfit of my life for the madness of my project."

Fortunately, the crew was able to row the boat to shore and Sacajawea, praised highly by Lewis, " caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard."

It turned out that losses were minor, but one can only imagine what would have happened to the Expedition had gear and lives been lost or if Lewis perished attempting a rescue.

Thunderstorms, too, frequently made life dangerous for the Expedition. During the portage of the Great Falls on June 29, 1805, Captain Clark "perceived a Cloud which appeared black." He, along with Sacajawea, Charbonneau and Pomp sought shelter in a deep ravine. According to Clark, "Soon after a torrent of rain and hail fell more violent than ever I Saw before, the rain fell like one voley of water falling from the heavens and gave us time only to get out of the way of a torrent of water which was Poreing down the hill in the rivin with emence force tareing every thing before it takeing with it large rocks & mud." The ravine was dry before the storm by the time the group made it to the top, the water was 15 feet deep.

At about the same time Clark was experiencing a Montana gully washer, a group portaging the gear was caught by the thunderstorm out in the open prairie. Clark "met the party who had returned in great Confusion to the run leaveing their loads in the Plain, the hail & wind being So large and violent in the plains, and them naked, they were much bruised, and Some nearly killed one knocked down three times, and others without hats or any thing on their heads bloodey & Compalined verry much; I refreshed them with a little grog." It's no wonder that the men were battered and bloody as Private Whitehouse recorded the hailstones "were 7 Inches in Sircumference and weighed 3 ounces."

Given the hazards existing in 1805-1806, the type of boats used, the remoteness of the area and the lack of familiarity with both the boats and the waters traveled, it is remarkable that more serious accidents were avoided. It attests to the leadership, hardiness, ingenuity, resolve and competency of the Expedition members that they could so successfully complete such a journey. A measure or two of luck undoubtedly helped.