Gates of the Mountains on the Missouri River Montana

On the Trail of Lewis and Clark and the Gates of the Mountains

Gates Of The Mountains

Upon leaving “canoe camp” just above the Great Falls, on July 15, Lewis and dark, along with two privates, walked onshore to lighten the burden of the excessively loaded canoes. The next day they found willow shelters and horse tracks which appeared to be about 10 days old. They supposed these to be signs of the Shoshones, whom they were anxious to meet and bargain with for horses. Lewis, two privates, and York went ahead of the party in an unsuccessful attempt to find these Indians.

On July 18, Clark, with a small party, ventured out along an Indian road in search of the natives. The next day they saw where the Indians had peeled the bark off pine trees. Sacagawea later informed them that her people obtained sap and the soft part of the wood and bark for food.

Meanwhile, Lewis and the main party were using tow lines and poles to ascend the evermore challenging Missouri. On July 19 they reached the .” most remarkable cliffs” they had yet seen. It looked as though the river had worn a passage just the width of its channel through these 1,200-foot-high cliffs for a distance of three miles. Lewis called this the Gates of the Rocky Mountains.

The Rocky Mountains

On July 20, Lewis saw smoke up a creek near Gates of the Mountains, and on the same day Clark saw smoke up Prickly Pear Creek. The officers determined that these fires were set by Indians to alert distant tribesmen. However, the Indians kept themselves hidden. Clark’s party followed the Indian road up Prickly Pear Creek. As they walked they left items of clothes, paper, and linen tape along the trail to inform the Indians that they were white men and not their enemies.

On July 22, Sacagawea, for the first time since leaving Fort Mandan, began to recognize the country. Lewis wrote: “The In-dian woman recognizes the country and as-sures us that this is the river on which her relations live and that the three forks are at no great distance, this piece of information has cheered the sperits of the party…”

On this same day, Lewis’s party reunited with Clark’s. In the four days they were out, Clark’s detachment was unable to make contact with any Indians.

The following morning, Clark, with Charbonneau and three privates, again went in pursuit of the Shoshones. Certain they were getting close to the Indians, Lewis ordered small U.S. flags hoisted on the canoes so the natives would understand they were not enemy Indians.

The river became ever more difficult as the days passed. With growing fatigue, the men struggled to pull the boats over rapids. Not only was the river forbidding, but Lewis also noted that, “our trio of pests still invade and obstruct us on all occasions, these are the musquetoes eye knats and prickly pear, equal to any three curses that ever poor Egypt laiboured under, except the Mahometant Yoke.”

On July 24, they passed a remarkable bluff of red-colored earth. Sacagawea told them this was the clay the Indians used for paint. For her people, red was emblematic of peace.

On July 25 Lewis’s party reached the “Little Gates of the Mountains,” also referred to as the “second range of mountains.” The Indians at Mandan had informed them of this place.

Excerpted from U.S. Forest Service pamphlet “Lewis and Clark in the Rocky Mountains.”