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The Great Falls of the Missouri

Thusday, June 13, 1805

They left camp at sunrise, and ascending the river-hills went for six miles in a course generally southwest, over a country which though more waving than that of yesterday, may still be considered level. At the extremity of this course they overlooked a most beautiful plain, where were infinitely more buffalo than we had ever before seen at a single view. To the southwest arose from the plain two mountains of a singular appearance, more like ramparts of high fortifications than works of nature. They are square figures with sides rising perpendicularly to the hieght of 250 feet, formed of yellow clay, and the tops seemed to be level plains. Finding that the river here bore considerably to the south, and fearful of passing the falls before reaching the Rocky Mountains, they now changed their course to the south, and leaving those insulated hills to the right, proceeded across the plain.

In this direction Captain Lewis had gone about two miles, when his ears were saluted with the agreeable sound of a fall of water, and as he advanced a spray, which seemed driven by a high southwest wind, arose above the plain like a column of smoke, and vanished in an instant. Toward this point he directed his steps; the noise increased as he approached, and soon beame to tremendous to be mistaken for anything but the Great Falls of the Missouri. Having traveled seven miles after first hearing the sound, he reached the falls about twelve o’clock The hills as he approached were difficult of access and 200 feet high. Down these he hurried with impatience; and, seating himself on some rocks under the center of the falls, enjoyed the sublime spectacle of this stupendous object, which since the creation had been lavishing its magnificence upon the desert, unknown to civilization.

The river is immediatly at this cascade is 300 yards wide, and is pressed in by perpendicular cliff on the left, which rises to about 100 feet and extends up the stream for a mile; on the right the bluff is also perpendicular for 300 yards above the falls. For 90 or 100 yards from the left cliff, the water falls in one smooth, even sheet, over a precipice of at least 80 feet. The remaining part of the river precipates itself with a more rapid current, but being received as it falls by the irregular and somewhat projecting rocks below, forms a splendid prospect of perfectly white foam, 200 yards in length and 80 in perpendicular elevation. This spray is dissapated into a thousand shapes, sometimes flying up in columns of 15 or 20 feet, which are than oppressed by larger masses of the white foam, on all which the sun impresses the brightest colors of the rainbow. As it rises from the fall it beats with a fury against a ledge of rocks which extend across the river at 150 yards from the precipice. From the perpendicular cliff on the north, to the distance 120 yards, the rocks rise only a few feet above the water; when the river is high the stream finds a channel across them 40 yards wide and near the higher parts of the ledge, which then rise about 20 feet and terminate abruptly within 80 or 90 yards of the southern side. Between them and perpendicular cliff on the south the whole body of water runs with great swiftness. At a distance of 300 yards from the same ridge is a second abutment of solid perpendicular rock about 60 feet high, projecting at right angles from the small plain on the north for 134 yards into the river. After leaving this, the Missouri again spreads itself to its usual distance of 300 yards, though with more than its ordinary rapidity.

Friday, June 14, 1805

This morning one of the men [J. Fields] was sent to Captain Clark with an account of the discovery of the falls, and after employing the rest in preserving the the meat which had been killed yesterday, Captain Lewis proceeded to examine the rapids above. From the falls he directed his course southwest up the river. After passing one continued rapid, and three small cascades, each three or four feet high, he reached at a distance of five miles a second fall. The river is about 400 yards wide, and for the distance of 300 yards throws itself over the depth of 19 feet, so irregularly that he gave it the name of Crooked Falls. From the southern shore it extends obliquely upward about 150 yards, and then forms an acute angle downward nearly to the commencement of four small islands close to the northern side. From the perpendicular pitch to these islands, a distance of more than 100 yards, the water glides down a sloping rock, with a velocity almost equal to that of its fall. Above this fall the river bends suddenly northward.

While viewing this place Captain Lewis heard a loud roar above him, and crossing the point of a hill for a few hundred yards, he saw one of the most beautiful objects in nature.

The whole of the Missouri is suddenly stopped by one shelving rock, which, without a single niche, and with an edge as straight and regular as if formed by art, stretches itself from one side of the river to the other for at least a quarter mile. Over this the water precipitates itself in an even, uninterrupted sheet, to the perpendicular depth of 50 feet, whence dashing against the rocky bottom it rushes rapidly down, leaving behind it a spray of the purest foam across the river. The scene which it presented was indeed singularly beautiful, since, without any of the wild, irregular sublimity of the lower falls, it combined all the regular elegances which the fancy of a painter would select to form a beautiful waterfall. The eye had scarcely been regaled with this charming prospect, when at the distance of half a mile, Captain Lewis observed another of a similar kind. To this he ammediatly hastened, and found a cascade stretching across the whole river for a quarter mile, with a descent of 14 feet, though the perpendicluar pitch was only six feet. This too, in any other neighborhood, would have been an obfect of great magnificence; but after what he had just seen, it became a secondary interest. His curiosity being, however, awakened, he determined to go on, even should night overtake him, to the head of the falls.

He therefore pursued the southwest course of the river, which was one constant succession of rapids and small cascades, at every one of which the bluffs grew lower, or the bed of the river became more on a level with the plains, At the distance of 2 1/2 miles he arrived at another cateract, of 26 feet. The river here is 600 yards wide, but the descent is not immediately perpendicular, though the river falls generally with a regular and smooth sheet; for about on-third of the descent a rock protrudes to a small distance, receives the water in its passage, and gives it a curve. On the south side is a beautiful plain, a few feet above the level of the falls; on the north, the country is more broken, and there is a hill not far from the river. Just below the falls is a little island in the middle of the river, well covered with timber. Here on a cottonwood tree an eagle had fixed her nest, and seemed the undisputed mistress of the spot, to contest whose dominion neither man nor beast would venture across the gulfs that surround it, and which is further secured by the mist rising from the falls. This solitary bird could not escape the observation of the Indians, who made the eagle’s nest part of their description of the falls, which now proves to be correct in almos every particular, except that they did not do justice to the height. Just above this cascade of about five feet, beyond which, as far as could be discerned, the velocity of the water seemed to abate.

Captain Lewis now ascended the hill which was behind him, and saw from its top a delightful plain, extending from the river to the base of the Snow [Rocky] Mountains, to the south and southwest. Along this wide level country the Missouri pursued its winding course, filled with water to its even and grassy banks, while, about four miles above, it was joined by a large [Medicine or Sun] river, flowing from the northwest through a vally three miles in width, and distinguished by the timber which adorned its shores. The missouri itself stretches to the south in one unruffled stream of water, as if unconscious of the roughness it must soon encounter, and bearing on its bosom vast flocks of geese; while numerous herds of buffalo are feeding on the plains which surround it.

Wednesday, June 19, 1805

Captain Clark spent the day in examining the coutry both above and below the Whitebear islands, and concluded that the place of his camp would be the best point for the [upper] extremity of the portage. The men were therfore occupied in drying the meat to left there. Imense numbers of buffalo were everywhere around, and the men saw a summer-duck, which is now sitting. Next morning, the 20th, he crossed the level plain, fixing stakes to mark the route of the portage, till he reached a large ravine, which would oblige us to make the portage farther down the river. After this, ther being no other obstacle, he went to the Missouri river where he had first struck it, and took its courses and distances down to the lower potage camp. From this draught and survey of Captain Clark’s, we had now a clear and connected view of the falls, cascades, and rapids of the Missouri.

This river is 300 yards wide at the point where it receives the waters of the Medicine [Sun] river, which is 137 yards in width. The united current continues 328 poles to a small rapid on the north side, from which it gradually widens to 1,400 yards, and at the distance of 548 poles reaches the head of the rapids, narrowing as it approaces them. Here the hills on the north, which had withdrawn from the bank, closely border the river, which had withdrawn from the bank, closely border the river, which, for the space of 320 poles, makes its way over the rocks, with a descent of 30 feet. In this course the current is contracted to 580 yards, and after throwing itself over a small pitch of five feet, forms a beautiful cascade of 26 feet 5 inches; this does not, however, fall immediately or perpendicularly, being stopped by a part of the rock, which projects at about one-third the distance. After desending this fall, and passing the cottonwood island on which the eagle has fixed her nest, the river goes on for 532 poles over rapids and little falls, the estimated descebt of which is 13 1/2 feet, till it is joined by a large fountain, boiling up underneath the rocks near the edge of the river, into which it falls with a cascade of eight feet. This is of the most perfect clearness, and rather of a bluish cast; even after falling into the Missouri, it preserves its color for half a mile. From this fountain the river descends the distance of 214 poles, during which the estimated descent is five feet. From this, for a distance of 135 poles, the river descends 14 feet 7 inches, including a perpendicular fall of 6 feet 7 inches. The river has now become pressed into a space of 473 yards, and here forms a grand cataract, by falling over a plain rock the whole distance across the river, to the depth of 47 feet 8 inches. After recovering itself, the Missouri proceeds with an estimated descent of three feet; till, at the distance of 102 poles, it is again precipitated down the Crooked falls of 19 feet perpendicular. Below this, at the mouth of a deep ravine, is a fall of five feet; after which, for the distance of 970 poles, the descent is much more gradual, not being more than ten feet. Then succeeds a handsome level plain, for the space of 178 poles, with a computed descent of three feet, making a bend toward the north. Thence it descends during 480 poles, about 18 1/2 feet, when it makes a perpendicular fall of two feet, which is 90 poles beyond the great cataract, in approaching which it descends 13 feet within 200 yards. Now gathering strength from its confined channel, which is only 280 yards wide, the river rushes over the fall to the depth fo 87 feet and three-quarters of an inch. Afterraging among the rocks and losing itself in foam, it is compressed immediatly into a bed of 93 yards in width. It continues for 340 poles, to the entrance of a run or deep ravine, where there is a fall of three feet; which, joined to the decline of the river during that course, make the descent six feet. As it goes on, the descent within the next 240 poles is a second descent of 18 feet; thence 160 poles is a descent of six feet; after which to the mouth of Portage creek, a distance of 280 poles, the descent is ten feet. From this survey and estimate it results that the river experiences a descent of 352 feet in the course of 2 3/4 miles, from the commencment of the rapids to the mouth of Portage creek, exclusive of the impassable rapids which extend for a mile below its entrance.