Lewis and Clark
Although numerous native tribes have populated Montana for several thousand years, the first written account of the region comes from the 1805 journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Commissioned in 1803 by President Jefferson to explore the recently purchased Louisiana Territory, the expedition followed the Missouri River through Montana to its source in search of a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition entered Southwest Montana on July 18, 1805 near present day Craig. Although the explorers noted the incredible beauty of the area in what is now the Helena Valley, one of Lewis' most memorable journal entries complains of the “mosquitoes, eye knats, and prickly pears, [that are] equal to any three curses that ever poor Egypt labored under.”1
Upon reaching the source of the Missouri at the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers (near present-day Three Forks), the company followed the Jefferson westward. Along the Jefferson, two branches of history came together. While in Montana, the explorers had encountered evidence of Native habitation, but not a single Indian. By the time the expedition reached the Twin Bridges and Dillon area, the desire to find Indians was becoming desperate. The Jefferson was narrowing, and it was becoming obvious that the company would need to cache their boats and continue the expedition overland. For that they needed Indian guides and, hopefully, horses. As they travelled down the Beaverhead River, Sacagawea, the company's Shoshone guide (and the only woman on the trip) pointed out the distinctive Beaverhead Rock formation and assured the captains that Shoshone would be nearby. Sacagawea's competence and her enormous value to the expedition were proven once again a few days later when the company encountered a band of Shoshone led by her brother. Lewis and Clark negotiated for supplies, horses, and guides with the Shoshone, cached their boats, and continued their epic journey over the Continental Divide and on the Pacific Ocean. Overall, the expedition spent almost a quarter of their trip in Montana. Today, a series of highway markers and state parks allow modern visitors to follow the path set by these explorers.
1 Quotation taken from Lewis’s journal, July 24, 1805. Spelling and punctuation modernized.