The Lewis & Clark Expedition in North Dakota

January 13, 2009 by  

There is a great piece of history located right here in North Dakota that until recently, I really knew nothing about. A year ago, outdoor writer Curt Wells called to ask me some questions about goose hunting along the Missouri River. He was tasked to write a segment on ND and the Lewis & Clark journey for a major publication and was looking for some specific information. We talked for awhile and he told some of the stories that they faced and I was hooked from the start to want to learn more. I’m a history buff, and was ashamed to call myself one and to have avoided this subject altogether. Heck, I’ve lived and hunted within a couple miles of the exact location of where they wintered here; but can only plead ignorance as to my knowledge of the topic. But once the book was opened, it didn’t take long to finish.

The sun setting on the Missouri River, just across from Fort Mandan.

The sun setting on the Missouri River, just across from Fort Mandan.

Exactly 200 years ago, to the month, an expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were preparing their departure and travelling north from Fort Mandan (close to present day Washburn, ND). They arrived in late October, 1804 and spent the entire winter there under some brutal conditions. When the change of seasons came, and spring was upon them, they prepared to begin their journey up the Missouri in search of the Pacific Ocean.

What amazes me the most about this leg in their journey, was the vast abundance of game that they found in the Dakota prairies. There are endless entries about wildlife they encountered, and I’m going to quote some of their journal entries, from this month of April, exactly 200 years ago on what they found for game. I am going to paraphrase the edited journal version by Bernard DeVoto, and I by know means mean to disrespect the original versions of the journals, I only intend to make these entries easier to read and for others to learn. You can find the exact copy mentioned here.

April 9th [Clark]

“…great numbers of Brant flying up the river (I’m assuming snow geese). But few resident birds or waterfowls which I have seen yet. Saw great numbers of geese feeding in the prairies on the young grass.”

April 13th [Lewis]

“We found a number of carcasses of the buffalo lying along shore, which had been drowned by falling through the ice in winter and lodged on shore by the high water when the river broke up about the first of this month. We saw also many tracks of the white bear of enormous size (grizzly), along the river shore and about the carcasses of the buffalo, on which I presume they feed. We have not as yet seen one of these animals, though their tracks are so abundant and recent…the indians give a very formidable account of the strength and ferocity of this animal, which they never dare to attack but in parties of six, eight, or ten persons…”

The Garrison Tailrace, a dam along the Missouri R. along Lake Sakakawea.

The Garrison Tailrace, a dam along the Missouri R. along Lake Sakakawea.

“Observed more bald eagles on this part of the Missouri than we have previously seen…great quantities of geese are seen feeding in the prairies. Saw a large flock of white brant or geese with black wings pass up the river; there were a number of gray brant with them.”

April 20th [Clark]

“…our party shot in the river four beaver & caught two, which were very fat and much admired by the men. After we landed they killed 3 elk, 4 geese, & 2 deer…saw several buffalo lodged in the drift wood which had been drowned in the winter in passing the river.”

April 22nd [Lewis] – by present day Williston, ND

“I ascended to the top of the cut bluff this morning, from whence I had a most delightful view of the country, the whole of which exept the valley formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing the first glance of the spectator immence herds of buffalo, elk, deer, & antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture….Captain Clark informed me that he saw a large drove of buffalo persued by wolves today…”

April 25th [Lewis]

“I determined to encamp on the bank of the Yellowstone River which made it’s appearance about 2 miles south of me. The whole face of the country was covered with herds of buffalo, elk, & antelopes; deer are also abundant, but keep themselves more concealed in the woodland. The buffalo, elk and antelope are so gentle that we pass near them while feeding, without appearing to excite any alarm among them; and when we attract their attention, they frequently approach us more nearly to discover what we are; and in some instances pursue us a considerable distance apparently with that view.”

April 28th [Lewis]

“We saw great quantities of game today; consisting of the common and mule deer, elk, buffalo, and antelopes; also four brown bear, one of which was fired on and wounded by one of the party but we did not get it…”

April 29th [Lewis]

Some geese off the sandbars by present day Fort Mandan.

Some geese off the sandbars by present day Fort Mandan.

“Game is still very abundant, we can scarcely cast our eyes in any direction without percieving deer, elk, buffalo, or antelopes. The quantity of wolves appear to increase in the same proportion; they generally hunt in parties of six, eight, or ten; they kill a great number of the antelopes at this season…Capt. Clark walked on shore this evening, killed a deer, and saw several of the big-horned animals (bighorn sheep).”

And just days after April, they still report, “Great numbers of buffalo, elk, deer, antelope, beaver, porcupines, & waterfowl seen today such as geese, ducks of different kinds and a few swan…”

There are a lot of places to find the journals of Lewis & Clark. The raw journals itself are vast in length, and poor in grammer, so there are edited versions available. I personally found great satisfaction in the edited journal editions by Bernard DeVoto, published by Mariner Books. You may find that same book here.

I cannot stress enough how fascinating the history of this expedition is, and how much you’ll learn about our nation’s history. A lot has changed in 200 years, a lot of it hasn’t, I’ll let you decide where that fine line is drawn. No matter how you approach the topic, there is a lot to learn during this amazing anniversery of the Lewis & Clark expedition.

Mariner Books. “The Journals of Lewis and Clark”. 1953 (revised edition). New York, New York. [p.891-104


2 Comments on "The Lewis & Clark Expedition in North Dakota"

  1. shannon blanchfield on Thu, 4th Feb 2010 9:47 am 

    well i am doing a report for history and it so happens to be on the topic lewis and clark expo and i am wondering if the the deer was aboundant there or not and other animals as well

  2. admin on Thu, 4th Feb 2010 10:26 am 

    From my memory, and you should check out your local library for exact citations, but it’s a yes/no question. Yes, before Lewis & Clark hit the Rocky Mountains, they had a vast abundance of game. All kinds of big game, even grizzlies. Once they hit the mountains, and before they hit the salmon rivers, they relied heavily on eating dogs (which they noted as they’re favorite meal, actually).

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