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The Two Rivers of Lewis & Clark
Entries For June 3:
Captain Lewis (current)
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This morning early we passed over and formed a camp on the point formed by the junction of two large rivers. An interesting question was now to be determined: Which of these rivers was the Missouri, or that which the Minnetarees call Amahte Arzzha, or Missouri, and which they had described to us as approaching very near to the Columbia River. To mistake the stream at this period of the season - - two months of the traveling season having now elapsed - - and to ascend such stream to the Rocky Mountains or perhaps much farther 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 lose us the whole of this season but would probably so dishearten the party that it might defeat the expedition altogether.
Convinced we were that the utmost circumspection and caution was necessary in deciding on the stream to be taken. To this end, an investigation of both streams was the first thing to be done - - to learn their widths, depths, comparative rapidity of their currents, and thence the comparative bodies of water furnished by each. Accordingly, we dispatched two light canoes with three men in each up those streams. We also sent out several small parties by land, with instructions to penetrate the country as far as they conveniently can, permitting themselves to return this evening, and endeavor, if possible, to discover the distant bearing of those rivers by ascending the rising grounds. Between the time of my A.M. and meridian, Captain Clark and myself strolled out to the top of the heights in the fork of these rivers, from whence we had an extensive and most enchanting view. The country, in every direction around us, was one vast plain in which innumerable herds of buffalo were seen, attended by their shepherds, the wolves. The solitary antelope, which now had their young, were distributed over its face. Some herds of elk were also seen. The verdure perfectly clothed the ground. The weather was pleasant and fair. To the south we saw a range of lofty mountains which we supposed to be a continuation of the S. mountains, stretching themselves from S.E. to N.W., terminating abruptly about S. west from us. These were partially covered with snow. Behind these mountains, and at a great distance, a second and more lofty range of mountains appeared to stretch across the country in the same direction with the others, reaching from west, to the N. of N.W., where their snowy tops lost themselves beneath the horizon. This last range was perfectly covered with snow. The direction of the rivers could be seen but little way, soon losing the break of their channels to our view in the common plain.
On our return to camp, we bore a little to the left and discovered a handsome little river falling into the N. fork on larboard side about 1 l/2 miles above our camp. This little river has as much timber in its bottoms as either of the larger streams. There are a great number of prickly pears in these plains. The chokecherry grows here in abundance, both in the river bottoms and in the steep ravines along the river bluffs. Saw the yellow and red currants, not yet ripe; also the gooseberry, which begins to ripen. The wild rose, which grows here in great abundance in the bottoms of all these rivers, is now in full bloom, and adds not a little to the beauty of the scenery.
We took the width of the two rivers, found the left-hand or S. fork 372 yards, and the N. fork 200. The north fork is deeper than the other, but its current not so swift. Its waters run in the same boiling and rolling manner which has uniformly characterized the Missouri throughout its whole course so far. Its waters are of a whitish brown color, very thick and turbid, also characteristic of the Missouri, while the south fork is perfectly transparent, runs very rapid, but with a smooth, unruffled surface, its bottom composed of round and flat smooth stones like most rivers issuing from a mountainous country. The bed of the N. fork composed of some gravel but principally mud.
In short, the air and character of this river is so precisely that of the Missouri below that the party with very few exceptions have already pronounced the N. fork to be the Missouri. Myself and Captain Clark, not quite so precipitate have not yet decided, but if we were to give our opinions I believe we should be in the minority.
Certain it is that the north fork gives the coloring matter and character which is retained from hence to the Gulf of Mexico. I am confident that this river rises in and passes a great distance through an open plain country. I expect that it has some of its sources on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, south of the Saskatchewan, but that it does not penetrate the first range of these mountains, and that much the greater part of its sources are in a northwardly direction toward the lower and middle parts of the Saskatchewan in the open plains. Convinced I am that, if it penetrated the Rocky Mountains to any great distance, its waters would be clearer, unless it should run an immense distance indeed after leaving those mountains through these level plains in order to acquire its turbid hue. What astonishes us a little is that the Indians, who appeared to be so well acquainted with the geography of this country, should not have mentioned this river on right hand, if it be not the Missouri. The River That Scolds at All Others, as they call it - - if there is in reality such a one - - ought, agreeably to their account, to have fallen in a considerable distance below. And, on the other hand, if this right-hand or north fork be the Missouri, I am equally astonished at their not mentioning the south fork, which they must have passed in order to get to those large falls which they mention on the Missouri. Thus have our cogitating faculties been busily employed all day.
Those who have remained at camp today have been busily engaged in dressing skins for clothing, notwithstanding that many of them have their feet so mangled and bruised with the stones and rough ground over which they passed barefoot that they can scarcely walk or stand. At least, it is with great pain they do either. For some days past, they were unable to wear their moccasins. They have fallen off considerably, but notwithstanding the difficulties past or those which seem now to menace us, they still remain perfectly cheerful.
In the evening, the parties whom we had sent out returned, agreeably to instructions. The parties who had been sent up the rivers in canoes informed that they ascended some distance and had then left their canoes and walked up the rivers a considerable distance farther, barely leaving themselves time to return. The north fork was not so rapid as the other and afforded the easiest navigation, of course. Six  feet appeared to be the shallowest water of the S. branch, and 5 feet that of the N. Their accounts were by no means satisfactory, nor did the information we acquired bring us nigher to the decision of our question, or determine us which stream to take.
Joseph and Reuben Fields reported that they had been up the south fork about seven miles on a straight course, somewhat N. of W., and that there the little river which discharges itself into the north fork just above us, was within 100 yards of the S. fork; that they came down this little river and found it a bold running stream about 40 yards wide, containing much timber in its bottom, consisting of the narrow- and wide-leafed cottonwood with some birch and box alder, undergrowth willows, rosebushes, currants, &c. They saw a great number of elk on this river, and some beaver.
Those accounts being by no means satisfactory as to the fundamental point, Captain Clark and myself concluded to set out early the next morning with a small party each, and ascend these rivers until we could perfectly satisfy ourselves of the one which it would be most expedient for us to take on our main journey to the Pacific. Accordingly, it was agreed that I should ascend the right-hand fork and he the left. I gave orders to Sergeant Pryor, Drouilliard, Shields, Windsor, Cruzat, and Lepage, to hold themselves in readiness to accompany me in the morning. Captain Clark also selected Reuben and Joseph Fields, Sergeant Gass, Shannon, and his black man, York, to accompany him. We agreed to go up those rivers one day and a half's march, or further if it should appear necessary to satisfy us more fully of the point in question. The hunters killed 2 buffalo, 6 elk, and 4 deer today. The evening proved cloudy. We took a drink of grog this evening and gave the men a dram, and made all matters ready for an early departure in the morning. I had now my sack and blanket wrapped in readiness to swing on my back, which is the first time in my life that I had ever prepared a burden of this kind, and I am fully convinced that it will not be the last.
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.