In August of 1805, after 16 months of arduous travel, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery were encamped near the Shoshone Indians along the Lemhi River south of today’s Salmon, Idaho.  They were bartering for horses and guidance westward over the Bitterroot Mountains.  This parley was made much safer by the presence of Sacajawea, as she was also a Shoshone with relatives there who recognized her,  Accompanying the Corps, she gave assurance of peaceful intent to every group of Indians they encountered; no war party ever brought women along.  After the talks Clark reconnoitered the Salmon River, apparently as far as present-day Shoup, Idaho, but found it to be impassable because of "steep canyon walls and a rapid, rocky river".

Their Shoshone Indian guide, “Old Toby”, unaware of a trail out of the Salmon River canyon leading over Horse Creek Pass, missed an opportunity to follow an easier and more direct passage west — the southern Nez Perce Trail.  Instead Toby led the Corp of Discovery up the North Fork of the Salmon River, a more difficult and dangerous route over Lost Trail Pass and down into the Bitterroot Valley.  Steven Ambrose, in “Undaunted Courage” describes ‘’country so remote and rugged that nearly two full centuries later it remains basically uninhabited”.  Lewis & Clark were obliged to travel a hundred miles further north, all the while viewing, in the words of Sergeant Patrick Gass, “the most terrible mountains I ever beheld”.  Lewis wrote of ‘’those unknown formidable snow clad mountains’’.  Said William Clark as the Corps traversed Lolo Pass, "I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life.’’  At the northern end of the valley they crossed today’s Lolo Pass, (then the northern Nez Perce Pass) traveling 160 dangerous, grueling miles in 11 days to emerge, at long last west of the Rocky Mountains.

If they had chosen the shorter southern route over the Bitterroot Crest at Horse Creek Pass, the trail would have taken them down the West Fork of the Bitterroot River, perhaps camping in present day Alta Meadow.  It’s likely the corps would have had a considerably easier passage across the Bitterroot Mountains if they had chosen this route.  

Coming down from Lost Trail Pass along the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, the Corps stopped at "Ross’s Hole" where they encountered a band of 400 Salish Indians.  They were friendly and generous; the expedition acquired more horses and food for their approaching ordeal over Lolo Pass.  As Lewis and Clark descended into the Bitterroot Valley, the first of those "formidable snow clad mountains", now called Trapper Peak, appeared in the west.  It's no wonder they were worried.

Ross’s Hole near Sula, Montana

Trapper Peak just south of Darby, Montana


The Corps of Discovery’s journey in present day Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

Journey west is in burnt orange, return east in green.


Depicted on the southern edge of this map is the Salmon River and the hamlet of Shoup, Idaho.  From there a backcountry road  (formerly an ancient trail) leads northward over Horse Creek Pass, through Alta Meadow Ranch, and into the West Fork Valley.  A short distance downstream from the ranch is the Nez Perce Fork, and along that river was a trail leading westward over the Southern Nez Perce Pass into Idaho.  The trail then followed a stream now called Deep Creek, eventually leading to the headwaters of the Selway River.  From there it was downstream to the Clearwater River, then the Snake River at Lewiston, Idaho, and on to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean.  This route would have saved the Corps hundreds of miles of arduous travel and likely offered an earlier and easier crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains.  Earlier would have been much better because in 1805 the northern hemisphere was still in the grips of the so-called Little Ice Age, which resulted in much colder weather from about 1300 to 1850.  The extra time they spent trekking through the Bitterroot Valley certainly prolonged their approach to Lolo Pass.  September weather in the Bitterroot Mountains is often mild nowadays, but in 1805 the snow was deep along their route over the pass.  There was little or no game and the Corps were forced to eat their horses to avoid starvation.

So much for what might have been.  The fact that they survived and completed their quest is awe-inspiring.  Their venture has been compared to an early 19th century version of the moon landing.  The Corps' primary mission was to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory and to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean.  They were also tasked with seeking trade relations with Native Americans, and during that endeavor they attempted to negotiate peace between the various tribes, albeit with limited success.  Simply put, Lewis & Clark were given a mission that was monumental in scope and complexity, and they were successful despite tremendous hardship.  They were a hardy and resourceful band of adventurers whose exploits never cease to amaze, and to whom America owes a great debt of gratitude.