The Corps spent the bitter winter of 1804-1805 with the Mandans. On April 7, 1805, the expedition headed west down the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark were astonished by the dazzling wildlife they encountered, including herds of up to 10,000 buffalo as they entered Montana. They even killed an enormous Grizzly Bear that chased Lewis.
On May 31, 1805, The Corps sailed past what are now called “The White Cliffs of the Missouri” – beautiful sandstone formations that look like the ruins of an ancient city. Three days later, the Corps sailed on to a fork in the river that Lewis named “Marias” after a cousin in Virginia. After some initial confusion concerning which of the forks was the true Missouri, they took the northern fork (which proved to be correct). Eleven days later Lewis beheld “The grandest site [he]ever saw,” the Great Falls of the Missouri River. While the falls were beautiful, there was no easy way to get the boats through them. The Corps had to portage (carry the boats) 18 and a half miles around the falls!
In July of 1805, the Corps continued sailing westward until they reached the three forks of the Missouri. Lewis and Clark named them The Gallatin, The Madison, and The Jefferson. Soon, Sacagawea began to recognize landmarks of her old village (she was sold to Charbonneau as a prisoner of war). The Corps took the Jefferson Fork, which proved shallow and difficult to navigate. On August 8, Sacagawea recognized Beaverhead Rock, and informed Lewis and Clark that they were near the headwaters of the river and the location of her Shoshone tribe. Lewis decided to scout ahead on land with three men in the hopes of finding the Indians and their horses. Upon crossing Lemhi Pass (on the present-day border between Montana and Idaho), Lewis expected to see the passage that had tantalized explorers since the 1500’s – The Northwest Passage. Instead, all he saw were more mountains. Nevertheless, the Corps discovered the Shoshone village. Lewis and Clark were hopeful they could negotiate the acquisition of horses so the quest through the mountains could continue. When negotiations begin, the Shoshone chief, Cameahwait recognized Sacagawea as his sister! The negotiations turned out to be successful.
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