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The Missouri Forks


William Clark, along with a small contingent of men, reached the three forks of the Upper Missouri on this date in 1805. The Lewis and Clark Expedition had been traveling for over three months in search of the forks, guided by the Mandan and Hidatsa directions given to them near Fort Mandan. After wintering with the Mandan, the Expedition set out in April for the Upper Missouri. Leaving the fort, the group would be in largely uncharted territory, guided only by the Mandans’ directions, and accompanied by the Shoshone woman, Sacagawea. They hoped that once they reached the forks, they would find the Shoshone and, with the help of Sacagawea, be able to gain their assistance. They knew they would need the Shoshone to provide horses for the long trek over the Rocky Mountains, as well as directions and advice.

With two pirogue boats and six canoes, the expedition slowly made its way up the Missouri. On April 25th, they reached the Yellowstone River, near the present-day boundaries of North Dakota and Montana. The next three months they wound their way through much of Montana, battling mosquitoes and grizzlies. Although they greatly feared an Indian ambush, they encountered not a single native. A much greater danger was posed by winds, hail, and prickly pear cactus, which pierced their soft moccasins.

They also saw species that were new to them, including prairie rattlesnakes, horned owls, and ground squirrels. Following landmarks described by the Hidatsa, the expedition moved west; for a time, they believed themselves lost, only to stumble upon the Missouri’s Great Falls on June 13th, which had been described to them by the Hidatsa.

However, they became increasingly agitated that they had not spotted any members of the Shoshone tribe. In mid-July, Lewis and Clark split up, hoping to improve their chances. On July 25th, Clark and four men discovered the river’s three forks, the last landmark given by the Hidatsa. He immediately sent word to Lewis, two days behind with the main party. “The captains decided to name the three forks the Jefferson, the Madison, and the Gallatin, after the President and his Secretaries of State and Treasury.” In his journal, Clark noted that the rivers were full of beaver, the banks covered with all varieties of berry, and that the mosquitoes were quite a bother.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme Job