BLOG: A Camp at the Foot of the Rockies
Updated: Jun 26
While traveling out west this month, I received the sort of news that authors LOVE to get. My debut novel, Antonius: Son of Rome, received 1st Place in the Chanticleer International Book Awards/Chaucer Division. I'm thrilled beyond measure and so very thankful. Becoming an author has been a dream come true for me and my goal is to continue writing excellent historical fiction for my readers. Please continue to help me spread the word about the Antonius Trilogy to friends and family who have a taste for historical fiction!
That's how I'm feeling after two fabulous weeks in the wilderness of Montana and Idaho. Now that I'm an author, I find it hard not to wander without purpose--for research. Though my husband and I did enjoy a much-needed vacation hiking and viewing wildlife, he indulged me by adjusting our itinerary to include Lolo Pass and Traveler's Rest--important spots where Lewis and Clark journeyed as they crossed the Rockies.
Historical fiction authors have to have a firm comprehension of back-story facts to write the fictitious portions of novels. And the Corps of Discovery--whose adventure took place between 1804-1806 is the back-story to my new project's main plot. So I couldn't wait to stand in the footsteps of the explorers to get a feel for the area in which they traversed. Truly, it was a joy to learn more and see these sites with my own eyes.
Most of Lewis and Clark's eight-thousand mile journey was done via boat--whether that craft was a pirogue (keel boat), canoe, or bull-boat (circular Native American craft made of hides). However, as the men were faced with the Rocky Mountains, they resorted to portaging and traded for horses among the Shoshone--Sacagawea's people. One of the Shoshone elders, a guide known as "Toby" became responsible for leading the Corps over Lolo Pass. Then on the return trip, Nez Perce guides led them back, along a slightly different route, which saved the explorers precious time.
On our trip this summer, my husband and I visited an archaeologically excavated camp of Lewis & Clark at the foot of the Rockies. Their Journals mention them staying here on both the west and east-bound portions of their trip. The place became known as Traveler's Rest, and had already been used for centuries by the Salish (Flathead) Indians as a trading area, long before Lewis & Clark came along. Now it's a Montana State Park, surrounded by lofty cottonwood trees and is located less than 100 miles from Lolo Pass.
On September 9, 1805, the Corps of Discovery camped at Traveler's Rest for three days before tackling the Pass. After that, they proceeded to use the Clearwater River to link their passage on to the Columbia, which led them to the Pacific coast, near Chinook, Washington. In the following season, they backtracked from the coast and revisited Traveler's Rest again from June 30 until they parted on July 3, 1806, heading in separate directions.
Clark took a more southerly route, skirting what is now the Yellowstone National Park region. However, another member of the expedition--John Colter--would be the man responsible for its actual "discovery" only two years later, when he stumbled across bubbling hot springs and mud pots. It's said that when he returned to civilization, people thought he'd gone mad, hearing his wild descriptions of geysers and colorful mineral deposits.
In his best-selling narrative on the Corps of Discovery, Stephen Ambrose admitted that Lewis made a real mistake by splitting up the party after Traveler's Rest. Lewis led his group northward into Blackfeet country and this foray resulted in the only real violence that the Corps was forced to take against indigenous people. One Blackfeet warrior was killed outright, and another probably died of wounds near what is now Cut Bank, Montana. Though the Journals reveal that the natives initiated this attack by trying to steal horses and guns from Lewis's party, it's still a tragic end to what could have been a round trip without any escalating incident. And shortly before reconnecting with Clark's party, Lewis was shot in the buttocks by a visually compromised member of the Corps--Pierre Cruzatte--who thought he was firing at an elk!
What amazed me the most about Traveler's Rest was the solid proof that archaeology had yielded up back in 2001-02, even after two-hundred years. Fire pit sites were discovered along with heat-damaged rocks, as Lewis relates in his entry for July 3, 1806: "The musquetoes were so excessively troublesome this evening that we were obliged to kindle large fires for our horses these insects torture them in such manner untill they placed themselves in the smoke of the fires that I realy thought they would become frantic." (The Journals of Lewis & Clark, edited by B. DeVoto)
Another fascinating find (above, at right) was a tiny bead found in the excavations. It's a blue, glass trading bead resembling a blueberry--one of the thousands that Lewis purchased before the expedition started.
But even more amazing was what was discovered in soil samples! Traces of mercury appeared in dirt that should have been free from such contaminants. In his July 2nd entry from Traveler's Rest, Lewis wrote: "Goodrich and McNeal are both very unwell with the pox which they contracted last winter with the Chinnook women this forms my inducement principally for taking them to the falls of the Missouri where during an interval of rest they can use the murcury freely." (The Journals of Lewis & Clark, edited by B. DeVoto) Here was actual proof of mercury being used on the Corps of Discovery as a cure for syphilis during the trip. In a September 8, 2016 online edition of the Pharmaceutical Journal, Szu Shen Wong explains how mercury was used in the treatment of this disease from the 16th through 19th centuries. So not only did the findings at Traveler's Rest confirm Lewis's Journal writings, but the exact location of the explorers' latrines was also determined! Such discoveries might make people laugh and shake their heads, but are indeed remarkable in the locating of historical sites such as this one, where few man-made items were left behind to trace.
Inside the visitor center is an impressive museum where more artifacts are displayed, along with this rifle (below), which was originally a flintlock and later converted to a percussion cap. It's a short-barrelled, .54 calibre "Model 1803" which was just adopted by Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn as the Continental Army's official rifle. Lewis purchased fifteen of them, and according to extant serial numbers, the rifle at Traveler's Rest was probably used by men in the Corps of Discovery.
I'll end by stating that the Lewis & Clark expedition--for all of the Pandora's Box worth of problems it released--was the official advent of America's westward expansion, though westward movement had been happening even before that. It introduced new flora and fauna to science, gave a clearer insight into otherwise unexplored territory, and initiated relations with indigenous peoples who had not yet made contact with white Americans. Arguably, the journey these men and one woman took, traveling all the way to the Pacific Ocean on nothing but rough-hewn boats, Indian ponies, and their own feet, is the most fantastic adventure in American history.
And every step of the way was fully documented.
I look forward to sharing portions of Lewis & Clark's journey in my next book through Julia Hancock Clark's point of view. Read ON, everyone!