Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism
"...overjoyed at the sight of this stranger."
11 August 1805
Near what is now Dillon, on August 11, 1805, Lewis made the first contact with a member of the Shoshone, but two of his men inadvertently frightened the man away:
"I discovered an Indian on horse back about two miles distant coming down the plain towards us. with my glass I discovered from his dress that he was of a different nation from any that we had yet seen, and was satisfyed of his being a Sosone;"
"I was overjoyed at the sight of this stranger and had no doubt of obtaining a friendly introduction to his nation provided I could get near enough to him to convince him of our being whitemen... I now called to him in as loud a voice as I could comand repeating the word tab-ba-bone, which in their language signifyes white-man."
Actually, "tab-ba-bone" meant "stranger" in Shoshone. Compounding the man's confusion, two of Lewis' men kept moving toward him:
"I now made a signal to these men to halt, Drewyer obeyed, but Shields who afterwards told me that he did not observe the signal still kept on. the Indian...suddenly turned his hor(r)se about, gave him the whip leaped the creek and disapeared in the willow brush in an instant and with him vanished all my hopes of obtaining horses for the preasant."
On August 13, 1805, Captain Clark climbed the high bluff that would bear his name to look out over the Beaverhead Valley. Unknown to Clark, Lewis had met with 60 warriors of the Shoshone and was working to establish a meeting at what would become Camp Fortunate. Through much of the expedition, Lewis was the point man, with Clark bringing up the rear.
While Clark was using the lookout to get a sense of his surroundings, Lewis was struggling to gain the trust and cooperation of the Shoshone. The longer Clark remained behind, the harder it became for Lewis to keep the tribe with him. Low on food, the Shoshone were anxious to move on and hunt. Some suspected Lewis and his men might be luring them into a trap in cooperation with an enemy tribe.
A beaver had thrown Clark off the trail, adding to the delay. Lewis had left a note on a tree directing Clark to follow the Beaverhead branch of the Jefferson River. Unfortunately, the beaver felled the willow to which the note was attached, and Clark's group set off on the more tumultuous Big Hole. George Drouillard, sent out by Lewis to find Clark, set him right.
By the night of August 16, Lewis was near despair:
"I now entertained various conjectures myself with rispect to the cause of Capt. Clarks detention and was even fearfull that he had found the river so difficult that he had halted below the Rattlesnake bluffs. I knew that if these people should desert me that they would immediately disperse…of course we would be disappointed in obtaining horses, which would vastly retard and increase the labour of our voyage and I feared might so discourage the men so as to defeat the expedition altogether."
The very next day, Clark's party entered the camp near future Clark Canyon Reservoir. On the 1806 return trip east, Clark explored the Big Hole Valley nearby.
The land around the current town of Dillon was settled quickly after a gold strike at Grasshopper Creek that created the first territorial capital at nearby Bannack. Gold towns sprang up and disappeared. Ranching came next. The Big Hole Valley saw battle between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perces during their 1877 attempt to reach Canada.
In 1879 the Utah and Northern Railroad pushed into Montana. A rail spur connecting Montana to the Union Pacific's Utah line arrived at the Beaverhead River. The president of the railroad was named Sydney Dillon. Montana, like so many other Western states, named many of its towns after people, rather than geographic features.