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From Fort Benton, Montana To The Judith River

James R. Kyle

A Voyage of 88 Miles on The Missouri River,

Traveled In The Historical Time Frame of 1808

The men of the expedition arrived at the point of departure, the banks of the Missouri river, at Fort Benton, Montana, on the night of the seventeenth of May, along with the rest of the expedition members by the usual conveyance. We secured rooms at the local inn to the north-west of town, and settled in for the night.

On the morning of the eighteenth, hunters Jed Smith and Daniel Hendricks would take the wagons to the terminus of our voyage at the mouth of the Judith river, some eighty-eight miles down stream. The remainder of the expedition, Captain Michael McMillan, camp-cook, Gerald Fahrenthold, the Reverend John Brooks and myself, cooks helper and camp-guard, would loiter about the settlement till Jed and Dan'l returned in the afternoon of that day. We visited the places that had interest, and met some people that would help us to locate certain points of interest of our trip.

Two of the men broke off from the others to frequent the local drinking establishments to have a last quaff of ale and ardent spirits. However, in their quest the two had succumb to the usual effects of over indulgence, and our Captain was set to find and recover them. He succeeded in finding them, in a most merry and lively condition three establishments down the pike. After trying, without much success, to pry them from the dram shop, he told them of a place of much interest to the reason of what and why they came to this place. They all the made a hasty exit for the place of his suggestion, only to be laid into the bed of a wagon and hauled back to the place of where the boats would be launched on the morrow. One of the hunters, Jed Smith, of the expedition, took charge of the more intoxicated fellow and together they spent the night under the large bateau.

In the morning all of the men changed into their proper attire for the business of placing the canoe and bateau down the River Missouri, and loaded the boats. A rather small gathering of the local inhabitance had gathered to see the expedition off from their port, and with a salute from the two pound swivel gun on the bow of the bateaux, we were off down the river. Captain McMillan took his place at the stern of the bateau, next I on the rear set of oars, then Gerald Fahrenthold on the amidship oars, and on the bow looking out for river hazards, was our good Reverend John Brooks. It was he who was the reason for this voyage of river navigation, being a student of the sciences wishing to make a study of the fauna, flora, geological formations, and a Calvinist to bring the Word of God to the wild Indians of the plains.

We made good time on the river, sometimes traveling at eight miles to the hour, and past the old encampment of those bold explorers Captains Lewis and Clark at the mouth of the Maria's river in 1805 on the north shore. It was here that the Corps of discovery spent almost a week and a half while determining which river was indeed the true River Missouri. The information from the Indians, as well as the charts from the French, did not indicate that the Maria's river existed. The Maria's river enters from the west-north-west, and the Missouri coming into a heading from the south, would cause one to mistake that the "true" Missouri was the Maria's river. However as we now faithfully know that the Missouri takes a turn at this point and heads east.

We put to shore to walk on the land and survey the area. We would not make camp here, for it was all too early for making camp, but in a very short time, we proceeded on.

When we did locate a suitable encampment, one that provided good wood and flat surface on which to sleep comfortable, all hands knew just what to do. Past practice with the same men under the command of any commander is easy and efficient when all know their station and position in the structure of a good camp. The procedure is attacked in this order:

First the area is scanned, not only by our Captain, but all that is in the party, rocks and sticks are removed from the sleeping area. Secondly the craft is unloaded, and baggage is sorted into food stuffs, bed-rolls, canvas covers and ground coverings, firearms, ammunition and powder. Thirdly the long canoe is brought up on land as to create a back-stop for any wind that usually arises; and while this is occurring, the cook and I gather the needed wood and start a fire. I, being the camp-keeper, gather firewood, start the fire and retrieve a trivet and coffee pot full of water and 'grind' the beans to make coffee. Our men drink great volumes of coffee and there is usually four pots consumed, this is for five men, as the Reverend does not imide in the use of stimulants of any kind. Next the canvas is brought tight to make it secure to the wind and ground cloths laid on the damp earth. Each man is in charge of his personal bed-roll, and knows just where it shall be placed in respect to each other. After all baggage is under canvas, the camp set up proper, and the first of the pots of coffee is consumed -- the captain and the hunters are sent into the plains to search for food. Our good Reverend Brooks, left to his studies and thoughts, roams the prairie. The cook and I start to prepare the main meal of the day, and the approximate time is that of just about six o'clock in the evening. The men only have time for one large meal, and breakfast is that of a hardtack biscuit, coffee and bacon; mid-day meal is taken on the move at rest from the oars. This consists of a hardtack biscuit and jerked meat, washed down with water. The meal tonight is that of a stew, made from dried corn, beans, peas, onions and potatoes -- along with what meat we have in our stores and gathered from the field by the hunters.

There is a tradition among the river men of the Missouri, one that has gone on through time. That being, when a man, for the first time, is to pass the Platte river, he shall enter the above section in the state of a "clean shaven face". It is for that reason of which I have taken my razor and joined into that proud rank and file, as this is my first voyage above the Platte river and here I am above the Platte a considerable distance. This point of river navigation is ½ mile above Crow Coulee Bar on the south bank of the river. The expedition has come about 31 miles from our disembarkation.

The weather is cool, overcasting skies look as to rain. However, it is difficult to determine to what could occur, as the temperature is falling as the sun is setting, and it is known to snow and hail in these regions at this time of the year. The wind is picking up, and out of the east. I, being from the lower section of this river, feel a bit uneasy about this. In the lower Missouri valley this means very ill weather, not conducive for traveling; either by land or river.

It was soon after supper that all the men settled down to their respective bedrolls and fell into a restful sleep, I being the new-comer to this certain geographical location, was hard pressed to fall into a state of sleep -- but soon did. Until soon after 2:00 a.m., or there about, I was awoken by the wind. The estimate force of over thirty miles per hour winds came in waves of gusts and had untied the tie-downs that held fast our overhead canvas. There was no rain assorted with this wind, as yet anyway, but the force was that of unnerving, and I was once again hard pressed to fall asleep.

In the morning, to get the fire going, I was compelled to dig a rather deep hole to shelter the embers from the wind, so as to not let the heat run sideways and effectively bring the pot to a boil. At this time of year there is a good amount of dry long blade grasses in and around the encampment, so starting the fire was of little concern. What was the concern was the containment of a small fire as not to let it get out of control and set the surrounding prairie ablaze. I was continually compelled to stop from my duties and stomp the blaze in order to gain control. All hands are well as we begin our decent into the "White Cliffs" area.

We loaded each of the craft, and proceeded on a downward course of the river in an easternly direction. The river bends most frequently but the main course is set to the east. Going about five miles we took note of the old Lewis and Clark encampment on the north side of the river. Here the Corps of Discovery camped the night of May 31, 1805 and Morning of June 1st.

In the journals Lewis writes of the days activities:

"Capt. C. Walked on shore this morning but found it so excessively bad that he shortly returned......"
"The hills and river clefts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance. The bluffs of the river rise to the hight of from 2 to 300 feet and in most places nearly perpendicular......"

Passing the "Coal Banks" he again writes:

"The stone of which these walls are formed is black, dense and durable, and appears to be composed of a large portion of earth intermixed or cemented with a small quantity of sand and a considerable portion of chalk or quarts....."

The wind on the section of the river became very strong, causing the canoe, and the bateaux to drift sideways to the current. It is with difficulty that we can maintain the course and to fight the wind is becoming rather a chore. With only seven miles from when we started, we are compelled to put to shore and discuss the possibility of making encampment and wait out the wind, or for the night. We talked to a native of the area that said that when the wind is from the east, as it is today, it will die off and rain will come. After the rain, the sky will clear and be calm. I can see in the western horizon dark clouds, as the temperature is dropping. We have decided to set camp for the night, and make supper, early. All hands join in for the unloading of the bateaux and the large canoe -- and once again the procedure is followed as explained earlier. Our encampment is two miles up stream from the "Coal Banks". The native suggests that we replenish our fresh water supply at his location, for it is much better than farther down. He provides us a ferry across to his "camp".

After a supper of stew of vegetables, hardtack, sausage and buffalo tongue, we secure the canvas for a night of wind and rain. The nights have been very bright as in comparative to that of the lower elevations, as of what I am accustom to.

In the morning we took stock of what occurred the night before. It had rained about 1 ½ inches and Dan'l received a good part of the wind and cold. We prepared our breakfast of salt pork and hardtack, as the canvas and some of the bedrolls dry in the sun. The native was correct in the weather, as the wind died off the rain came, and today it is a good clear day. We how load the boats and proceed down the river, to a north course for about 3 miles to the "Coal Banks".

We find a most suitable encampment a little under 17 miles from where we spent last night in the wind and rain. It is here where Captains Lewis and Clark spent the night of May 30th and morning of the 31st, 1805; in the journals Lewis writes:

"this day we proceeded with more labor and difficulty than we have yet experienced; in addition to the imbarrasments of the rappid courant, riffles, and rockey point[s] which were as bad if not worse than yesterday,"

((Lewis writes about today's Kipp Rapids JK)) "the banks and sides of the bluff were more steep than usual and were now rendered so slippery by the large rain that the men could scarcely walk...." He than goes on to state that they had past several encampments of Indians, 100 strong, along the north bank. Although the banks have been stripped of all wood for as far as one and two miles back from the rivers edge for the fuel for the steamboats, Lewis reports that there are a few scattered groves of cottonwood here and there. And states that they are encamped at a small grove of cottonwood where we are now encamped, just opposite "LaBarge Rock". ((This prominent landmark is named for the most famous river pilot and captain of the history of steam boating on the Missouri river, and the founder of the town of Fort Benton, Montana., Captain Joseph M. LaBarge -- my wife's great-great-grandfather. JK))

It was planned from the beginning of the voyage that we spend two days here at this encampment, in order to observe many things that the area is noted for. Geological, fauna flora and Native American encampments. We found information while at Fort Benton, that pictographs existed just up the Eagle creek from where we were encamped, and wished to find it. I started the fire to boil water for coffee, and went for firewood, after helping unload the boats. The others were engaged in the setting up of the camp, and sleeping arrangements. After a good amount of wood was piled before the firepit, I took coffee beans and placed them into a elk-skin bag, and with the back end of my belt hatchet pounded the beans into a course meal. After the water was boiling, I emptied the bag into the hot water, and placed it once again on the trivet over the fire. Brought it to a boil once again and served it to the men. We had a late lunch of cheese, hardtack and buffalo tongue, with fresh boiled coffee.

This is a lovely encampment. I made many "sketches" of the area where we are camped, and found it very peaceful. I do suppose that it is a favorite among the travelers of this river, as there are many other campsites along the shore on this, the north side. In the afternoon, all the members of the expedition took a walk up Eagle creek, just to the west of where we were encamped, to locate Native American pictographs. After a time of about one hour we were successful in locating one. The depiction was that of an Indian on a horse carrying a lance, inscribed into the stone wall. We could tell that it was an original one as the weathering was complete and undisturbed. There was also a date of unclear notation.

After we got back he said that he wanted to lay down and rest, perhaps he would feel better after a while. I wrote in my journal and decided that I would have a look around on top of the high hills that were to the north, just above our encampment. Once there I found the remainder of our party busy in digging out an ant hill, finding some seed beads. They all pointed out to me that where we were standing was an old encampment of over 30 lodges of the Blackfeet Indians -- all along the hill to the east from where I was standing. This evidence was in the form of "lodge rings", 12 to 16 foot diameter circles of rocks, open on the east side, that were moved to provide a even and comfortable floor. The ant hill, which we were dismantling, was almost in the middle of one. I could almost feel the presence of those people, looking over the edge at the Corps of Discovery coming up river in 1805 to set camp at the river's edge at Eagle creek, or the name that Lewis gave to it, "Stone Wall Creek". It was here that Lewis and Clark, as well as the other men who could write, gave the most poetic lines of the voyage.

All returned to camp and we made our supper, a southwest treat of chili, hardtack, salt-pork, and all washed down with boiled coffee. Just as the supper was finished, rain started to fall, and did so almost throughout the night. In the morning, the rain had passed, and an overcast sky covered the area.

All hands were up at about ten o'clock a.m. Except for Dan'l, who said that he preferred to spend time in his bedrolls. I started coffee, and Gerald prepared some fired salt-pork. We all took a late breakfast. All hands scattered their bedrolls out in the breeze and some intermit sunlight to dry the light moisture from the cloth.

We all spent the day re-sighting our firelocks and cleaning them. Some of the men partook in a little target practice. I was very content to do absolutely nothing, enjoying the day walking the shore and observing the sight of the large dark rock just across the river from our encampment. I walked back to camp and washed two of my shirts that so needed it. All hands retired to the bed-rolls early, and soon fell into a good sleep. I have taken to an illness, and have a tight feeling in my chest. I fear that I have succumb to the dreaded "river fever".

In the morning everyone, except I, being late in rising and let the Captain make his own coffee. The smell of fried bacon, saltpork and boiled coffee drifted to my nostrils and I had to get up. The two smells that cause one to arise from the warmth of the bed-rolls was in the air, and nothing, but nothing, could keep me from the cook fire. After getting a few sticks of fire wood, I joined my comrades in arms around the fire.

After about one hour of just sitting there, we all set about with the business of loading the bateau and canoe. Dan'l too has a cold, even though he is much worse than I, I felt as a bad cold was invading my inner-self, so I knew that Dan'l was not at all feeling better than I. After loading the boats, and resumed our downward progression of travel. With the good Reverend Brooks at the stern oars and I on the amidship set, Jed Smith on the stern guiding us to where we would leave the river for the wagon that was placed there some five days ago.

We soon past Eagle Rock, and Kipp Rapids, merely a little "rude water" and nothing more. On to Citadel Rock and Hole-In-The-Wall, passed Steamboat Rock and Dark Butte. I feverishly took "sketches" of all that we encountered as we rowed past. For I this was one trip that I wanted to do for the past twenty years, and it is truly a jewel in the crown of my 1500 miles of water trekking.

Passing the Lewis and Clark encampment of May 30, 1805 on the north shore and on to Pablo Island. Pablo Rapids, 1 ½ miles down, is perhaps the most narrow of the river thus far, and the roughest, but not to disrupt the craft that we have or that of the canoe, and we proceeded on.

Three and one half miles down from Pablo Rapids, on the south shore, is Slaughter River and just up stream on the north is the encampment for Clark and Lewis for May 29, 1805 and again on June 29, 1806 -- when they were on the way down the Missouri toward home. On the way up on the evening of May 29, Lewis writes:

" we passed on the Star. Side the remains of a vast many mangled carcasses of Buffalow which had been driven over a precipice of 120 feet by the Indians and perished; the water appeared to have washed away a part of this immense pile of slaughter and still their remained the fragments of at least a hundred carcases they created a most horrid stench....."
Then goes on to say:
.... we came too for dinner opposite the entrance of a bold river 40 yrds. Wide which falls in on the Larb. Side this stream we called Slaughter river."
((Today visitors will see that the river is called, Arrow creek JK))

We did not stop here, but pressed on as it was raining, to get to the takeout port of the Judith river landing. However I shall return to step ashore here and make "sketches" and notes of what I view. For it was here that a buffalo came charging through the Corps of Discovery's encampment on the early morning of May 29, 1805.

As Captain Lewis relates in his journal:

Last night we were all allarmed by a Large buffaloe Bull, which swam over from the opposite shore and coming along side the white perogue, climbed over it to land, he then allarmed ran up the bank in full speed directly towards the fires, and was within 18 inches of the heads of some of the men who lay sleeping before the centinel could allarm him or make him change his course, still more alarmed, he now took his direction immediately towards our lodge, passing between 4 fires and within a few inches of the heads of one range of the men as they yet lay sleeping, when he came near the tent, my dog saved us by causing him to change his course a second time, which he did by turning a little to the right, and was quickly out of sight leaving us by this time all in an uproar with our guns in o[u]r hands enquiring of each other the ca[u]se for the alarm, which after a few moments was explained by the centinel; we were happy to find no one hurt."

((One can tell by the exceptionally long run-on sentence, that Lewis was truly excited and wanted to get this incident down as quickly as possible. JK))

By far the most narrowest part of the voyage was the passing of "Deadman's Rapids". ((named so by the falling in, and death, of a drunkard from a steamboat. JK)) Now, with the coming of Judith Landing we beach our craft for the final time. Dan'l, much in a weakened condition, was shaking. He was entering the first stages of hypothermia. We got him into some warm clothes and put him into the truck as the rest of the men loaded the gear into the bed, and the bateau onto the trailer. After a ride back to Fort Benton our voyage of the "White Cliffs" area was at an end. However, not in the minds eye, where we shall all relive the experiences over and over again through the years -- As we, the "Brothers of The River", proceed on.

This voyage was taken and completed in the historical time frame of 1808.