HAMILTON – The front corner of an irrigated bench hangs over the bank of Blodgett Creek a few miles north of town.
Yonder to the east runs a busy Highway 93. Beyond that is the Bitterroot River. And beyond that, somewhere, is St. Louis.
Ron Wilkins has lived with his family on this bench for 15 years. He’d always heard Capt. William Clark and his party once slept somewhere around here.
“I’m pretty sure this is close to where they were,” Wilkins said last week.
You’d like to picture the scene of July 4, 1806, right here – sun rising over the Sapphires to shed light on Clark’s overnight camp as 50 horses graze on the creek bottom. Sacajawea and her 17-month-old son, Jean Baptiste, are among the 23 humans who shed their ground covers of recycled sails, yawn and stretch to greet the 30th birthday of the United States. Then they saddle up and ride south up the Bitterroot Valley.
The Lewis and Clark expedition was 2½ months from home after spending the winter on the Pacific coast. Confident and curious, the Corps of Discovery had made a daring division of forces the morning before at Travelers’ Rest on Lolo Creek, Meriwether Lewis heading north with nine men and his dog, Seaman, to explore the Marias River country almost to Canada, Clark bound for the Yellowstone River in southern Montana.
They wouldn’t meet again until Aug. 12 near today’s New Town, North Dakota, some 600 miles to the east.
“They still had a lot of important work to do,” said Ritchie Doyle, a long-time Captain Clark re-enactor and president of the Travelers’ Rest Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.
Doyle and Bruce Mihelish, past president of the Travelers’ Rest Preservation and Heritage Association, conducted a bus tour Sunday to mark the 210th anniversary of Clark’s 1806 journey up the Bitterroot to the Big Hole.
Among Clark’s goals, Doyle said, was to locate a shortcut to the Jefferson River through the Big Hole Valley, cutting off a couple days from the westward route of the year before through Salmon, Idaho.
To get there he’d have to get equipment and people across the Bitterroot River, which was running high in early July.
“When he’s thinking about crossing the river, he has men that can’t swim. We think only half the men on the expedition could swim, which is hard for me to believe,” said Doyle.
Clark’s party was diverse. Not only did it include a Shoshone woman and her toddler he’d nicknamed “Pomp,” but there were French-Canadians, French-Indians, Clark’s black slave York, German-born Pvt. John Potts, and young men from Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. At least three of the 23 were married with children – Sacajawea and her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, and Pvt. John Shields.
With Clark too was the expedition’s oldest soldier, Shields, who turned 37 in 1806, and its youngest, Pvt. George Shannon, who turned 21.
After covering 36 miles on July 3 from Travelers’ Rest to Blodgett Creek, they made 30 more the following day, to a point south of Darby on the West Fork of the Bitterroot near its confluence with the East Fork.
They’d knocked off early that morning for lunch, Doyle thinks a few hundred yards up Lick Creek – one drainage north of the Rock Creek that drains Lake Como. Clark didn’t name it but others did later, noting the wildlife “lick” on a natural mineral deposit higher up.
In preparation for Sunday’s bus trip, Doyle pulled out his copy of the Gary Moulton journals last week at Lick Creek and read the July 4 entry, written in Clark’s delightfully arbitrary spelling hand.
“This being the day of the decleraton of Independence of the United States and a Day commonly Scelebrated by my Country I had every disposition to Scelebrate this day,” Clark wrote.
No booze flowed. That supply had run out the previous Fourth of July during the portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri “save a little reserved for sickness.” Pierre Cruzatte, a master boatman and musician, was with the party but there’s no indication he pulled out his fiddle and rosined up the bow as he had at Great Falls.
The Fourth of July celebration, according to Clark, consisted of a “Sumptious Dinner of a fat Saddle of Venison and Mush of Cows.”
The saddle of a deer is the backstrap and tenderloin. In their 1983 “The L.L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook,” Judith Jones and Angus Cameron wrote, “The saddle is … a noble roast. If you prepare it, make sure all your guests deserve it.”
Clark clearly thought highly of his “guests.”
Whoever prepared the feast probably used venison juices in the “Mush of Cows,” which was Clark’s way of spelling “cous.” As he had explained a few weeks earlier, the “knobbed roots” of the cous were collected from early spring until the camas root was ready to be dug in mid-June. The roots were pounded into cakes that were best when boiled to “make a thick Musilage.”
Doyle said it must have been an especially significant day for Clark, whose five older brothers fought in the Revolutionary War. One, John, was captured in the Battle of Germantown and later died of tuberculosis contracted on a British prison ship in New York Harbor.
“I bet you he said something, besides writing later in the day in his journal,” Doyle said. “I would have loved to hear what he said.”
That same afternoon, 60 miles to the north, Lewis was leading his party through the Missoula Valley and up the Blackfoot River. After overnighting near the mouth of Grant Creek, the five Nez Perce guides who accompanied or followed the expedition through the Bitterroots bid Lewis adieu. They refused to go any farther, fearing ambush by the Blackfeet. Perhaps because of that trepidation, neither of the surviving journal writers in the group – Lewis or Sgt. Patrick Gass – noted any kind of Fourth of July celebration.
“He was in a hurry,” Mihelish speculated.
Clark was on familiar grounds as he made his way up the west side of the Bitterroot. The entire expedition had come down the same valley but on the other side of the river, the previous September.
Not everyone was on the same map page. Clark referred to it as “Clarks river.” Sgt. John Ordway, the other published journal keeper in the group at the time, called it the “flat head River.”
Clark counted eight streams crossed in the first 18 miles out of Travelers’ Rest – “4 of which were Small” – before taking dinner, probably on Kootenai Creek west of Stevensville.
Mihelish, the Travelers’ Rest Chapter’s Lewis and Clark horse specialist, pointed out that the large herd of fresh horses – more than two per man – made for faster travel but also dictated where the party stopped. Here, Clark and Ordway both referred to a field of clover, smaller than either the white or red clover they’d seen.
“The horses are excessively fond of this Species,” Clark wrote.
After dining on venison, they continued through a series of small open plains “covered with a great variety of Sweet cented plants, flowers & grass.”
The Salish, who had welcomed the expedition in the upper Bitterroot the previous year, call the Stevensville area the equivalent of “wide cottonwoods,” said Doyle, citing “The Salish People and the Lewis and Clark Expedition” published in 2005 by the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee and Elders Culturla Advisory Council of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Next Clark’s party came to “numerous clearings scattered amid trees and brush” (the Victor area) and either “Scattered Trees Growing on Open Ground” or “Trees Standing in Water” (the Hamilton area).
On up the river on July 4, they passed through Darby, an area that bears the Salish name translating to “Place Where They Would Lift Something.” According to the CSKT book, the name refers to a rock along an oft-used trail that passers-by would attempt to move. Sometimes, where strong men sometimes couldn’t budge the rock, smaller people moved it easily. Bets would be laid on who could move it the farthest.
“But it is said that when they would return to the spot, the rock would always be back in its previous location,” the book said.
According to the stories, the rock was destroyed by non-Indians trying to discover what made it move around.
The hum of a hot afternoon last week turned into occasional roars as cars and trucks passed by on the West Fork Road headed for Painted Rock Reservoir, Trapper Creek Job Corps and other points.
Doyle knelt on the pine-needled floor of a woods near the intersection of the Conner Cutoff Road and spread out laminated pieces of the vast map Clark produced from the expedition.
“He made four serious maps about his shortcut route to the Big Hole and, interestingly, they’re written on the back of Indian peace certificates,” Doyle said.
It’s a three-mile drive from U.S. Highway 93 to this cutoff road leading back to Highway 93 at Conner. The roads form a triangle inside which confluence of the Bitterroot’s East and West forks lies.
On the evening of July 4, Captain Clark and company turned up the West Fork and camped somewhere in the first three miles of the Conner Cutoff Road.
“I sent out 2 men to hunt, and 3 in Serch of a foard to pass the river,” Clark wrote.
As with the vast majority of the hundreds of Lewis and Clark camps across the West, the exact locations of the Fourth of July sites – Lewis eight miles up the Blackfoot, Clark here on the West Fork – are subject to interpretation.
Students of the expedition have come up with at least four possibilities for Clark, including Ted Hall’s proposed location on private property about 1½ miles short of the Conner Cutoff Road. Hall, a retired engineer, has spent years tracing the westward overland route of the expedition and published "The Trail Between The Rivers" in 2000. Doyle agrees with Butte geologist Bob Bergantino’s analysis that places the campsite near the cutoff road.
It would take extensive survey, peer review, tangible evidence and lots of luck to settle the debate in the eyes of the National Park Service, a process that Travelers’ Rest successfully went through 15 years ago to be designated a national historic landmark.
“That’s exactly why the Lewis and Clark campsites aren’t included in our inventory of historic and archaeological sites, because we don’t have enough certainty of location to put a dot on the map,” said Mark Baumler, the Montana state historic preservation officer in Helena.
The statewide database has 57,000 locations, and the idea of adding Lewis and Clark sites has been discussed.
“Ultimately we always come back to unless we have some evidence, it’s not going to help us to have these places come up in file searches if we don’t really know they’re there,” said Baumler. “I do think people should be discussing them when they’re looking at putting in projects. It still comes up when local historians are commenting on environmental impacts.”
So 210 years later, we’re left to wonder where exactly William Clark, John Colter, Sacajawea and the gang lay their heads that Fourth of July evening. Did they zonk out, dead weary from the 30-mile ride from Blodgett Creek? Did they toss and turn, worried about getting across the roiling river the next day? Were they within earshot of the horses snorting the ground for sweet-scented grasses? Did they lie awake pondering freedom, theirs as explorers of a vast uncharted country and that of a nation not many years off of its hard-won independence?
You’d like to picture that scene.