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Lolo Trail

Travelers' Rest Creek
Travelers' Rest Creek.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

" we were compelled to kill a Colt."

- Lewis
13 September 1805

This Indian trail across the Bitterroot Mountains was used by western indians to reach the eastern plains buffalo hunting grounds for centuries before Lewis and Clark arrived. The expedition found the trail through the cold, high ground difficult, rocky and steep. One of their horses fell 300 feet down a mountainside. As the Indians had told them, there was no game. They were forced to eat candles, bear oil, horsemeat, and packaged "portable" soup they'd brought from the east.

Patrick Gass noted on September 14, only three days from the valley they set out from, that the men had to resort to the soup already, and it was not popular:

"without a miracle it was impossible to feed 30 hungry men and upwards, besides some Indians. So Capt. Lewis gave out some portable soup, which he had along, to be used in cases of necessity. Some of the men did not relish this soup, and agreed to kill a colt; which they immediately did, and set about roasting it; and which appeared to me to be good eating."

Lewis went further:

"here we were compelled to kill a Colt for our men and Selves to eat for the want of meat and we named the South fork Colt killed Creek, the Flathead name is Koos Kooske. our men and horses much fatigued."

Over the next few days, they would go through soup, parched corn, 20 pounds of tallow candles, several horses, berries, fish, roots and more. One of their horses fell down a 100-foot precipice, fortunately into water and was uninjured. Lewis and Clark conferred, agreeing that the men had reached the physical limits of endurance. Almost the entire group was ill, probably from the change in diet, when they finally completed the passage. They would begin to construct canoes on September 27, after getting food from another native band.

In Idaho the expedition received help and food from the Nez Perces, or Nimipu. This friendly tribe provided information and assistance even though they had never seen the like of them before. Seventy-two years later, the U.S. government would force the non-treaty Nez Perces out of their Wallowa Valley homes, and onto a reservation. That was the outcome for most of the tribe, but the U.S. Army had to catch them first. Chief Joseph and the other leaders of the non-treaty Nez Perces led their people across the same Lolo Pass in an attempt to reach Canada. They hoped to join Sitting Bull and his people, already there. Across the steepest parts of Lolo Pass, through battle in the Big Hole Valley, through Yellowstone Park, and north to the Bears Paw Mountains, they would outfight and outmaneuver the American army. In the end, they came within 40 miles of the Canadian border before an unexpected military force from the east intercepted them at what is now Chief Joseph Battlefield near Chinook.