West of the Divide: July 1805 to November 1805

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Great Falls to the Pacific Ocean [1]

On July 25, the Expedition arrived at a place where the Missouri divided into three forks. The southeast branch they named the Gallatin, for the Secretary of the Treasury. The southerly one was named the Madison, for the Secretary of State. The westerly branch became the Jefferson River, "in honor of that illustrious personage Thomas Jefferson President of the United States."

Because it flowed from the west the captains decided to follow the Jefferson. Learning from Sacagawea that they were now within traditional food-gathering lands of her people, Lewis went ahead to look for the Shoshones. In mid-August, he reached a spring in the mountains, which he called "the most distant fountain" of the Missouri. Just beyond was a saddle in a high ridge (today's Lemhi Pass), from which Lewis saw towering, snow-covered mountains to the west. A brook at his feet ran westward and he knew he had crossed the Continental Divide. The brook was one of many tributary streams of today's Snake River, which in turn joined the Columbia.

Immediately west of the Continental Divide, Lewis came upon two Shoshone women and a girl who were digging edible roots. Lewis gave them presents and soon they were joined by a large number of Shoshone men on horseback. Returning from this scouting trip accompanied by a number of Shoshones, Lewis rejoined Clark and the main party. The explorers formed a camp with the Indians a few miles south of present-day Dillon, Montana, which they named "Camp Fortunate." Here, Sacagawea found a childhood girlfriend. The girl had been with Sacagawea when both were captured, but had escaped and returned to her people. Sacagawea learned that her own brother, Cameahwait, was now chief of the tribe. It was an emotional scene when brother and sister were reunited.

Thinking ahead to their return journey, Captain Lewis ordered the canoes submerged to "guard against both the effects of high water and that of fire the Indians promised to do them no intentional injury." The party then proceeded across the Continental Divide to the main village of the Shoshones. With Sacagawea providing vital service as interpreter, a Shoshone guide was hired and trading with the Indians for riding and pack horses was successful. After a short stay, the now horse-mounted corps followed their guide, Old Toby, into the "formidable mountains."

Lolo Trail
September found the half-starved explorers surviving on horse meat while following an ancient Indian route, the Lolo Trail, across the Bitterroot Mountains in modern Montana and Idaho. Here, they encountered fallen timber, bone chilling cold, and slippery, hazardous travel during an early season snowstorm. Descending the west slope of the mountains, they reached a village of the Nez Perce.

Here, the natives provided a feast of salmon, roots, and berries. The ravenous explorers found, to their dismay, that this unaccustomed diet made them extremely ill.

The group reached today's Clearwater River where they branded and left their horses in the care of the Nez Perce until their return. They built new canoes and proceeded through boulder-strewn rapids, making speedy but risky progress. In early October they reached the Snake River, and then on October 16, the Columbia. Down that mighty river they floated reaching the now inundated "Great Falls of the Columbia," (Celilo Falls) near the modern Oregon town of The Dalles. Here, and also when confronted by the raging rapids within the Cascade Mountains that Clark called the "Great Shute," they again were forced into toilsome portages.

On November 2, they drifted into the quiet upper reaches of tidewater on the Columbia. Clark, on November 7, wrote: "Great joy in camp we are in View of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we been So long anxious to See." They were still 25 miles upstream and what they actually saw were the storm-lashed waves of the river's broad estuary.

For the next nine days savage winds blew, ocean swells rolled into the river, and the rain poured down, stranding them in unprotected camps just above the tide at the base of cliffs. In mid-November, the captains finally strode upon the sands of the Pacific Ocean near the Columbia's mouth, the western objective of their journey. Clark recorded that 554 days had elapsed, and 4,132 miles had been traveled since leaving Wood River.

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See also from our companion site Discovering Lewis & Clark®


  1. Adapted from an article by Irving W. Anderson
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