Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Williston North Dakota

April 7, 1805
Our explorers survived the long cold Winter. They spent 5 months at Fort Mandan and must have been anxious to continue their journey.
Spring brought rain and they watched closely as the ice on the Missouri broke up and cleared.  Meriwether Lewis wrote with astonishment about the agility of the “Indians” jumping from one small piece of ice to another in order to retrieve buffalo that had fallen into the river and drowned.

They were as prepared to continue as they could be.

“Our vessels consisted of six small canoes, and two large pirogues. This little fleet altho’ not quite so rispectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook, were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers” Meriwether Lewis April 7, 1805

The Keelboat and crew left  with instructions to make their way down river to St Louis “without loss of time”. They took with them government dispatches, specimens for the Philosophical Society, reports for President Jefferson and private correspondence.
The 2 pirogues and 6 dugout canoes set a course that day to continue up the Missouri. Their party included 33 people. Captains Lewis and Clark, 3 sergeants, 23 privates, Clarks servant York, George Drulliard as hunter and interpreter, Toussaint Charbonneau and Sacagawea as interpreters and their baby boy Jean Baptiste.
The smaller vessels allowed them much less storage space so they carried considerably less. Trade goods, writing implements and books, navigational and surveying tools, as well as a tipi for officers and interpreters to sleep in were all packed aboard. They still carried Lewis' iron boat.
The explorers anticipated traveling more quickly without the heavy keelboat, expecting to make 20-25 miles a day. The canoes were described as clumsy and sometimes had to be dragged or poled through the water. When the wind was behind them they could raise square sails and travel at about three miles an hour. They made very good time, traveling over 90 miles in the first 4 days.
Food was obtained on a daily basis by hunting and fishing. Sacagawea proved her value as a team member by foraging for wild licorice, Jerusalem Artichokes and other edible plants. Her contribution to the groups diet likely kept them from suffering diseases like scurvy that are caused by nutritional deficiencies.
Confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers
On April 25, 1805 they reached the confluence of the Yellowstone River and were in what is now the state of Montana. They made camp about two miles south of the confluence and had a celebration. Private Joseph Field was sent one day’s journey up the Yellowstone River to bring back descriptions of the rivers nature and course.
The men were impressed with the landscape and with the plentiful game.

The land stretches on to the horizon with nary a tree in sight

“The country on both sides of the missouri from the tops of river hills, is one continuous level fertile plain as far as the eye can reach, in which there is not even a solitary tree or shrub to be seen.” Meriwether Lewis April 10, 1805

“Set out this morning at an early hour; the wind was favourable and we employed our sales to advantage. Captain Clark walked on shore this morning, and I proceeded with the party, we saw great quantities of game today; consisting of the common and mule deer, Elk, Buffaloe, and Antelopes; also four brown bear” Meriwether Lewis April 28, 1805

Lewis was impressed with the persistent hunting skills exhibited by western Grey Wolves and developed respect for the grizzly bear after several frightening encounters with the ferocious creatures.

Heading further west on May 8, 1805 they found and named the MIlk River.

Naming of the Milk River 
A few days later on May 14th, a frightening incident almost lost them the white pirogue and most of their equipment. The pirogue was steered by Toussaint Charbonneau when a “sudon squawl of wind struck her”. Charbonneau panicked and was unwilling or unable to correct the course until threatened at gunpoint by Private Cruzat to “take hold of the tiller” The pirogue containing the captain’s papers, instruments, medicine, books and trade goods was swamped with water and nearly lost. The Captains did not think much of Charbonneau prior to this incident calling him “the most timid waterman” but Lewis wrote of Sacagawea:

“the indian woman to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution, with any person onboard at the time of the accedent, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard.”

They spent two days camped and drying out the contents of the pirogue. Losses included a few medicines and gunpowder ruined by the water, and kitchen tools which sank.

North Dakota's Badlands
September 6, 2017
We have made it to our last stop in North Dakota. Williston is an oil boom town so close to the Montana border that we have crossed it without even realizing.  Our RV park is on the top of a hill overlooking the city and Montana in the distance. The drive here was beautiful through part of North Dakota’s Badlands. We enjoyed looking at those weather carved cliffs and stopped at a turnout to enjoy them while we ate a leisurely lunch. We plan to drive back down this way to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit. The entrance to it is right up this road.

September 7, 2017
Today we drove to the Missouri Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center. The Center has a wonderful Lewis and Clark exhibit but also serves to tell the story of the history of this part of North Dakota. The personal stories of the men and women that settled this state are astounding. Such perseverance and bravery were needed every day to make a life in this environment.
We walked a paved trail down to the water in order to see the rivers coming together. It’s a beautiful spot populated with ducks and white pelicans on the surface with huge catfish swimming in the shallows.

Commanding Officer's Quarters at Fort Buford. Sitting Bull negotiated the terms of his surrender here.
Fort Buford, a military fort and supply depot, is close by. This place was noted as a defensible position by Lewis and Clark, although it was not built until 1866 during the years of westward expansion. The fort is most well known for being the place that Sitting Bull surrendered to the United States Army after the Battle of Little Bighorn.
13 striped ground squirrels inhabit the grounds of Fort Buford.
We noticed holes and hills in the grounds and thought they were prairie dogs until seeing small chipmunk like animals. The 13 striped ground squirrels are the only current residents of the fort.

September 9, 2017
A reconstruction of Fort Union Trading Post sits on the Montana-North Dakota border where the Missouri once flowed right outside its gates. This National Historic Site looks as it did in 1851 when John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company owned it. There is even a large fur press on the dock area that was used to bundle the traded furs into bales for shipment down river to Missouri. This is our first experience of a whitewashed wood fort and it is an impressive sight.

Camping area at Fort Union Trading Post
The side of the fort away from the river has a large expanse of land where native American trappers camped while negotiating with the fur traders. Exhibits inside describe the elaborate trade rituals of pipe smoking and gift exchanges that preceded those dealings.

The Assiniboine, Crow, Hidatsa, Cree, Mandan, Sioux, Arikara  and Ojibwa people traded here for 60 years before aggressive western expansion after the Civil War destroyed the native American way of life.
The river is now miles in the distance but you can still imagine the busy place this must have been when steamboats and keelboats pulled up to the dock.
Fort Union Trading Post is in North Dakota but the grounds include a portion of Montana. We took the opportunity to stop for a photo op "on the line"
Stopping on the state line.
Driving back to the RV Park we saw signs for a Lewis and Clark Trail Museum and followed them into the small town of Alexander, North Dakota. The museum is housed in an old 3 story brick schoolhouse built in 1914.
Eerie looking petrified wood tree stumps
The grounds contain an interesting display of petrified wood in the form of tree stumps. They were found during excavation of a local highway and moved to the museums lawn. The large stumps have the color of driftwood and the texture of stone. Neither tree nor stone they are visually disturbing and look as though they came from another world.
The museum's first floor contains a wall sized map of the Lewis and Clark Trail. It was fun to trace our steps on such a large scale and to realize that we have only covered about 30% of the distance they traveled. We took a quick walk through the rest of the museum. Collections include a Country Store, a Post Office, a Millinery Store and a Shoe Repair Shop. The Lewis and Clark portion of the museum was no different than those we have already seen. The beauty of their collection is the glimpse that it gives you of local life at the time of the pioneers in McKenzie County.

September 13, 2018
We have entered Big Sky Country and it is living up to its name. The great northern plains continue with sightlines to the horizon and unless you are near a home that has planted a windbreak there is hardly a tree to be seen. It is no wonder as he traveled this huge area that has become Montana that Meriwether Lewis wrote that he longed for his first glimpse of the great rocky mountains.
The city of Glasgow sits at the spot where the Milk River enters the Missouri. The explorers named because of its slightly opaque appearance “like tea with a tablespoon of milk in it”. The explorers spent 2 weeks in this area camping along the portion of the Missouri that is now swallowed up behind the dam in Fort Peck Lake. Today is our first real experience of smoke conditions from the fires in western Montana and visibility was limited.

Fort Peck Lake with smoke conditions
We visited the Fort Peck Dam and its interpretive center where a small Lewis and Clark exhibit is surrounded by dinosaurs.

Peck's Rex discovered 20 miles south of Fort Peck Dam
Fort Peck Dam is on Montana’s Dinosaur Trail and the evidence to prove that lives here in the skeletal remains of a T-Rex and many other dinosaur species.

The size of the Xiphactinus fish was frightening especially his teeth.
The city of Glasgow is home to a Pioneer Museum that has a life sized exhibit of Lewis and Clark naming the Milk River.
Our favorite find there was an old covered wagon labeled as an early style camper.  It made us feel right at home.

I think the ride was a little rougher than what we are used to.

Look at the size of the stove in this early camper
We have decided to head north and leave the trail for a few days. We are very close to Canada and the Wild Horse Border Crossing so are going to take the opportunity to spend some time in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Who knows when we will be this close again!

Poppies at the confluence center

Fort Buford and the Missouri Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center
15349 39th Lane NW
Williston, North Dakota

Fort Union Trading Post
15550 ND-1804
Williston, North Dakota

The Lewis and Clark Trail Museum
102 Indiana Ave E
Alexander, North Dakota

Glasgow Valley County Pioneer Museum
816 US Hwy 2 W

Glasgow, Montana


  1. Charbonneau was lucky he was married to Sacajawea, or he might have been on the keel boat back to St. Louis! 😉