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Scenic Missouri River

Relaxing by the river
Missouri River.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

Pioneer Graves Memorial
Pioneer Graves Memorial.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

"...surrounded in every direction with distant and lofty mountains"

- Lewis
27 July 1805

Clark was ahead of Lewis, looking for traces of Sacagawea's tribe, when on July 25, 1805, he reached the headwaters of the Missouri. Lewis' contingent, following written instructions Clark left on the river bank, arrived two days later.

For Sacagawea, the place may have been a difficult reminder. It was there, five years earlier, that she was kidnapped and taken from her people by the Hidatsa. Lewis remarked that if the memory was upsetting to her, he could see no sign of it:

"…I cannot discover that she shows any emotion of sorrow in recollecting this event, or of joy in being restored to her native country."

Her recognition of the area was, at any rate, comforting to the captains. She identified the place as an important hunting ground that had been in use by the tribes for centuries.

Lewis and Clark were at first unsure if they had actually reached the headwaters. When they decided that they had, they then had to determine which fork would take them to the mountains. The rivers were roughly the same width and appearance, so they picked the most westward-moving, naming it the Jefferson River for "the author of our enterprise."

Albert Gallatin, Jefferson's Treasury secretary, had been instrumental in gaining support for, and negotiating, the Louisiana Purchase. The eastern river was named for him. The middle river became the Madison for the Secretary of State, James Madison.

Despite being ill, Clark was once again forced to rescue the hapless non-swimmer Toussaint Charbonneau when deep water nearly washed him away.

A large stone outcropping called Fort Rock stands over the confluence of the three forks. Clark noted the precise location where many think later forts were built:

"Between these two forks, and near their conjunction with that from the southwest, is a position admirably well calculated for a fort. It is a limestone rock of an oblong form, rising from the plain perpendicularly to the height of 25 feet on three of its sides."

The headwaters saw another classic piece of Montana history called "Colter's Run." Private John Colter stayed behind in Montana when the expedition left. In 1808, with fellow former Corps member John Potts, he was trapping in the lower Jefferson River when a band of Piegan attacked. The Blackfeet forced them to shore and killed Potts immediately.

Colter was captured, stripped naked, and told to run for his life. This "game," sometimes called "Arrows," was practiced on captives by some tribes. In some versions, the subject was allowed a head start to run for weapons, usually arrows stuck in the ground. He could then run for his life or fight.

In Colter's case, he was allowed a 200-yard head start but no weapons. When one of his pursuers got close, Colter wrestled his spear away and killed him with it. Across prickly-pear cactus and through brambles, he outran the others and took shelter in bushes beside the Jefferson (some say Madison River). His pursuers continued to search until nightfall.

Colter waited for daylight, then began a 300 - mile barefoot walk across the Bozeman Pass and down the Yellowstone River to Fort Remon at the mouth of the Bighorn. He arrived sunburned and still naked, seven days later. He had survived by eating berries and seeds.

Two years later, fur trader Manuel Lisa sent 32 trappers from Fort Remon to the headwaters to establish a new post. George Drouillard who, with Lewis had fought Blackfeet for control of the horses and guns near Camp Disappointment, was one. He was killed by Blackfeet in 1810, near the headwaters, along with many of Lisa's other trappers. The forts were burned by the Piegan and never rebuilt. Beaver trapping continued in the area until the 1840s, when beaver hats began to fade in popularity, in part due to the scarcity of beaver.