The Great Falls Portage

In an unprecedented journey, the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled nearly 8,000 miles across the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase of the Northwestern half of the United States. Yet, of those 8,000 miles, the 21-mile on-foot portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri River were possibly the most gruesome and tiring of the entire voyage.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition—or the Corps of Discovery, as it was officially known—reached the Great Falls of the Missouri River on June 13, 1805. The company was elated to arrive at the falls, becoming the “first white men to see the Great Falls of the Missouri River.” However, the grandeur and majesty of the falls meant that the company’s original path along the Missouri River was temporarily unsuitable for their trek. Consequently, they, along with all their cargo, would have to travel by land to circumvent the cascades.

The portage posed several challenges from unwelcome wildlife encounters to cached cargo and extreme physical exertion and injuries. When the corps realized that they would be unable to proceed by water, they spent several days creating wagons to tow their canoes, equipment and supplies. They cut small sections of tree trunks for the wheels, and used ropes, like they had on the water, to haul their canoes and cargo over steep and rough terrain. After only a few miles, the company was tormented by prickly pear cactus spines that easily poked through their moccasins into their feet, heatstroke, hail storms, and a plague of pests. On July 24, 1805, Meriwether Lewis lamented that "our trio of pests still invade and obstruct us on all occasions, these are the Musquetoes eye knats and prickley pears, equal to any three curses that ever poor Egypt laiboured under.” He continued: “at every halt these poor fellow tumble down and are so much fortiegued that many of them are asleep in an instant. In short their fatiegues are incredible; some are limping from the soreness of their feet, others faint and unable to stand for a few minutes, with heat and fatiegue, yet no one complains. All go with cheerfulness . . . “

If the 21-mile path through the Great Falls had been an ordinary stretch of the Missouri River, it would have taken only one or two days to travel; however, the portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri took the company over a month between June 13, 1805 and July 15, 1805.

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