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The Two Rivers of Lewis & Clark
Entries For May 29:
Captain Lewis (current)
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Last night we were all alarmed by a large buffalo bull which swam over from the opposite shore and coming along the side of the white pirogue, climbed over it to land. He, then alarmed, ran up the bank in full speed directly toward the fires, and was within 18 inches of the heads of some of the men who lay sleeping, before the sentinel could alarm him or make him change his course. Still more alarmed, he now took his direction immediately toward our lodge, passing between 4 fires, and within a few inches of the heads of one range of the men as they yet lay sleeping
When he came near the tent, my dog saved us by causing him to change his course a second time, which he did by turning a little to the right, and was quickly out of sight leaving us by this time all in an uproar with our guns in our hands, inquiring of each other the cause of the alarm, which after a few moments was explained by the sentinel. We were happy to find no one hurt.
The next morning we found that the buffalo, in passing the pirogue, had trodden on a rifle which belonged to Captain Clark's black man, who had negligently left her in the pirogue. The rifle was much bent. He had also broken the spindle, pivot, and shattered the stock of one of the blunderbusses on board. With this damage I felt well content - happy, indeed, that we had sustained no further injury. It appears that the white pirogue, which contains our most valuable stores, is attended by some evil genius.
This morning we set out at an early hour and proceeded as usual by the cord. At the distance of 2 1/2 miles, passed a handsome river which discharged itself on the larboard side. I walked on shore and ascended this river about a mile and a half in order to examine it. I found this river about 100 yards wide from bank to bank, the water occupying about 75 yards. The bed was formed of gravel and mud, with some sand. It appeared to contain much more water than the Musselshell River; was more rapid, but equally navigable. There were no large stones or rocks in its bed to obstruct the navigation. The banks were low, yet appeared seldom to overflow. The water of this river is clearer, much, than any we have met with.
Great abundance of the Argalia or big-horned animals in the high country through which this river passes. Captain Clark, who ascended this river much higher than I did, has thought proper to call it Judith's River. The bottoms of this stream, as far as I could see, were wider and contained more timber than the Missouri. Here I saw some box alder intermixed with the cottonwood willow; rosebushes and honeysuckle, with some red willow, constitute the under-growth.
On the Missouri, just above the entrance of the Big Horn (Judith) River, I counted the remains of the fires of 126 Indian lodges which appeared to be of very recent date, perhaps 12 or 15 days. Captain Clark also saw a large encampment just above the entrance of this river on the starboard side of rather older date; probably they were the same Indians. The Indian woman with us examined the moccasins which we found at these encampments and informed us that they were not of her nation, the Snake Indians. But she believed they were some of the Indians who inhabit the country on this side of the Rocky Mountains and north of the Missouri, and I think it most probable that they were the Minnetarees of Fort de Prairie.
At the distance of 6 l/2 miles from our encampment of last night, we passed a very bad rapid to which we gave the name of the Ash Rapid, from a few trees of that wood growing near them. This is the first ash I have seen for a great distance. At this place, the hills again approach the river closely on both sides, and the same scene which we had on the 27th and 28th in the morning, again presents itself, and the rocky points and riffles rather more numerous and worse. There was but little timber. Salts, coal, &c., still appear.
Today we passed, on the starboard side, the remains of a vast many mangled carcasses of buffalo, which had been driven over a precipice of 120 feet by the Indians, and perished. The water appeared to have washed away a part of this immense pile of slaughter, and still there remained the fragments of at least a hundred carcasses. They created a most horrid stench. In this manner, the Indians of the Missouri destroy vast herds of buffalo at a stroke. For this purpose, one of the most active and fleet young men is selected and disguised in a robe of buffalo skin, having also the skin of the buffalo's head with the ears and horns fastened on his head in form of a cap. Thus caparisoned, he places himself at a convenient distance between a herd of buffalo and a precipice proper for the purpose, which happens in many places on this river for miles together. The other Indians now surround the herd on the back and flanks and, at a signal agreed on, all show themselves at the same time moving forward toward the buffalo.
The disguised Indian or decoy has taken care to place himself sufficiently near the buffalo to be noticed by them when they take to flight, and running before them, they follow him in full speed to the precipice; the cattle behind driving those in front over and, seeing them go, do not look or hesitate about following until the whole are precipitated down the precipice, forming one common mass of dead and mangled carcasses. The decoy, in the meantime, has taken care to secure himself in some cranny or crevice of the cliff which he has previously prepared for that purpose.
The part of the decoy, I am informed, is extremely dangerous. If they are not very fleet runners, the buffalo tread them underfoot and crush them to death, and sometimes drive them over the precipice also, where they perish in common with the buffalo. We saw a great many wolves in the neighborhood of these mangled carcasses. They were fat and extremely gentle. Captain Clark, who was on shore, killed one of them with his espontoon.
Just above this place we came to for dinner, opposite the entrance of a bold running river 40 yards wide which falls in on the larboard side. This stream we called Slaughter River. Its bottoms are but narrow and contain scarcely any timber. Our situation was a narrow bottom on the starboard, possessing some cottonwood. Soon after we landed it began to blow and rain, and as there was no appearance of even wood enough to make our fires for some distance above, we determined to remain here until the next morning, and accordingly fixed our camp and gave each man a small dram. Notwithstanding the allowance of spirits we issued did not exceed one-half gill per man, several of them were considerably affected by it. Such is the effect of abstaining for some time the use of spirituous liquors. They were all very merry. The hunters killed an elk this evening, and Captain Clark killed two beaver.
Reprinted by permission of the American Studies Programs at the University of Virginia.
The complete text can also be downloaded for printing from their website.