Return Journey: March 1806 to September 1806

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On March 23, 1806, the explorers started back up the Columbia in newly acquired Indian canoes. At the Great Falls of the Columbia they bartered with local Indians for pack horses, and set out up the north shore of the river on foot. Obtaining riding horses from various tribes along the way, the party reached the Nez Perce villages in May. While camped among the Nez Perce for a month, waiting for the high mountain snows to melt; the captains gave frontier medical treatment to sick and injured Indians in exchange for native foods.

The Nez Perce rounded up the Expedition's horses that they had cared for over the winter, easing the captains' concern for adequate transportation as the party resumed its eastward travel in early June. Retracing their outbound trail through the Bitterroots, they were turned back by impassable snowdrifts and made their only "retrograde march" of the entire journey. After a week's delay, they started out again and successfully crossed the mountains. On June 30, they arrived at their outbound "Travelers Rest" camp, eleven miles south of modern Missoula, Montana, where they enjoyed a welcome rest from their toils.

On July 3, 1806, the party separated. Lewis, with nine men, rode directly east to the Great Falls of the Missouri. Then with three men, he traveled north to explore the Marias River almost to the present Canadian border. Lewis and his companions camped overnight with some Blackfeet Indians, who at daylight attempted to steal the explorers' guns and to drive off their horses. In describing the ensuing skirmish, Lewis related that he was fired upon by an Indian, which resulted in a near-miss that "being bearheaded I felt the wind of the bullet very distinctly." Lewis afterward would elaborate that two of the Blackfeet were killed during the brief encounter, but that he and his companions miraculously escaped unharmed.

Meanwhile Clark, with the balance of the party, proceeded southeasterly on horseback, crossing the Rockies through today's Gibbons Pass. Returning to the Jefferson River (now the Beaverhead River in its upper reach), the submerged canoes were recovered and repaired. Clark placed some men in charge of the canoes while he and the others continued on with the horses, all following the river downstream to the Three Forks junction of the Missouri River.

Here, the group divided. The canoe travelers continued down the Missouri to White Bear Island, where they recovered their cached equipment and portaged back around the falls. Clark with the remainder rode their horses easterly to explore the Yellowstone River. While the Expedition was again passing through the Shoshone lands that Sacagawea remembered from her childhood, Clark praised her "great service to me as a pilot."

Upon reaching the Yellowstone, new canoes were made. Clark assigned three men to drive the horses overland while he and the others drifted down the river. On July 25, 1806, Clark named an unusual rock formation on the south bank of the Yellowstone River (Montana) "Pompy's Tower" in honor of Sacagawea's son.

The parties were reunited on August 12 near the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Missouri rivers. Here, Clark learned that Lewis had been shot while searching for game in the brushy shoreline of the Missouri. In his buckskin clothing, Captain Lewis was mistaken for an elk by Pierre Cruzatte. Clark treated and dressed the wound with medicines they carried.

Arriving at the Mandan villages on August 17, the Charbonneau family was mustered out of the Expedition. Private John Colter was discharged, at his own request, to join a fur trapping party bound back up the Missouri. The remainder of the party, accompanied by a Mandan chief and his family, headed down the Missouri on the last leg of the homeward journey.

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Notes

  1. Adapted from an article by Irving W. Anderson
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