It is just a small river, even by the standards of the western prairies it runs through. But it nearly cost the Corps of Discovery its very life. By assuming a frisky character known only during the late spring flood season, this river, masquerading as something much greater than it actually was, caused the Expedition to spend at least an extra week of precious time discovering its real nature.
A close examination of this river reveals a great deal about Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the entire project of “discovery of the interior of the continent of North America.” Such an examination reveals what sets this exploring party apart from all the others and why it was ultimately so tremendously successful in doing what it was supposed to do.
In his book, River of Promise, David Nicandri discusses geography considerations faced by the Expedition as they traveled through the mountains of Western Montana and Idaho. He appropriately points out the Expedition was totally at a loss in that area even with a native guide. The entire Expedition could have easily perished if it had not been for friendly natives who helped them through the area.
However, they were also struggling with their paradigm of “continental symmetry” so were not really using their full capabilities. This part of the journey was not a true representation of the Captains’ real abilities.
When the Corps of Discovery first saw this unknown river [we now call the Marias] on the evening of June 2, 1805, they were collectively baffled. For a thousand miles they had followed the Missouri River knowing they were on course with only cursory references to maps and notes they had to keep them on track. But this river was not in their collected references from St. Louis or their winter at Fort Mandan. Bernard DeVoto said that Meriwether Lewis had no rival in his ability to read the geography of the land, except for William Clark; a very bold statement considering all the other explorers who traversed the continent turning an unknown land into a known one.
By reading both Captains’ journal entries for the first few days of June we see how they studied the land and concluded that the South Fork was the Missouri River they should follow. Those journal entries show just how the Captains’ minds digested the evidence at hand. They reached their conclusion in one day’s time. We find in this episode one of the Expedition’s finest hours. If we continue to read the journal, we learn much more.