Western Detour: Three Forks, MT + Lewis and Clark

Missouri Headwaters State Park, Three Forks Montana

While I didn’t have time to stop at Three Forks, MT, I wanted to share some memories of this special spot – the birthplace of America’s Mighty Missouri

I am a history buff and have long enjoyed learning about The Lewis and Clark Expedition. In high school history we watched a documentary on Lewis and Clark and the images of Montana captured my explorer’s heart.

The Corps of Discovery was really a mission to discover the nature, science and cultural landscape of the American west. The mission was to find the long sought after Northwest Passage shortcut to the Pacific. Lewis and Clark all but disproved the Northwest Passage (at least via the Missouri River), but safely made it all the way to The Pacific Ocean (from Missouri (and really KY for pre-Corps prep). Only one corps member, Floyd died (in Iowa) and it was due to appendicitis which would have killed anyone during the 1800s.

While you can look for scars in the expedition over all it yielded great success, and much of that success came from my Native American hero Sacajawea.

For a deeper dive into Lewis and Clark and the Corps I recommend Ken Burns documentary. The only objection I have to the documentary is the portrayal of Lewis’s death (which was most likely a murder in TN). The documentary is based on Stephen Ambrose ‘Undaunted Courage’ – an excellent read

Better yet you can read the Journals of Lewis and Clark as well as other corps members (available online)

Finding the Headwaters of the Missouri was important for the Corps – but not simply due to geography. Sacajawea grew up in the Three Forks area and seeing the Three Forks – she knew she was nearing her homeland.

As the daughter of a Shoshone Chief, before being kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe when she was young. She eventually ended up marrying French fur trapper/trader Charbonneau. Sacajawea and Charbonneau met Lewis and Clark during their stay at Fort Mandan.

During the expedition, Sacajawea gave birth to son Jean Baptiste ‘Pomp.’ Mother and son were invaluable to the Corps; Sacagawea played a pivotal role securing horses from the Shoshone. The presence of a child proved useful by helping to convince the Natives they encountered that they the Corps was peaceful-no war party.

Lewis and Clark reached The Headwaters of the Missouri on July 25th, 1805. It was here that Sacajawea was originally kidnapped during the raid on her Shoshone camp.

Clark, who led a scouting party ahead of the main body, wrote, “we proceeded on a fiew miles to the three forks of the Missouri those three forks are nearly of a Size, the North fork [Jefferson River] appears to have the most water and must be Considered as the one best calculated for us to assend middle fork [Madison River] is quit as large about 90 yds. wide. The South fork [Gallatin River] is about 70 yds wide & falls in about 400 yards below the midle fork. those forks appear to be verry rapid & Contain Some timber in their bottoms which is verry extincive.” Lewis arrived two days later and wrote, “beleiving this to be an essential point in the geography of this western part of the Continent I determined to remain at all events untill I obtained the necessary data for fixing it’s latitude Longitude &c.”

The Corps spent several days exploring the area and making observations while the company hunted, rested, and refitted. Initially uncertain, Lewis and Clark determined the Jefferson River their best route forward in anticipation of meeting the Shoshone and gaining their assistance. Clark camped at the forks again on July 13-14, 1806, while en route to the Yellowstone River valley during the return journey. (source)

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Corps named The Three Forks after President Jefferson (whose administration commissioned the mission), (Pres.) James Madison – at the time Secretary of State, and Albert Gallatin (US Treasury Secretary)

Visiting the Three Forks:

From State Park website

Conveniently located right off I-90 by the town of Three Forks, The Missouri Headwaters State Park – is a Montana favorite for recreation, history and scenic beauty.

“Meriwether Lewis wrote the country opens suddenly to extensive and beautiful plains and meadows which appear to be surrounded in every direction with distant and lofty mountains.”

When I lived in Bozeman, this was a favorite day trip. The land is relevantly untouched since the time of Lewis and Clark allowing you to step back in time and imagine Sacajawea and The Corps of Discovery camping and exploring this historic area.

Camping and day use is available in the state park.

For more information click here.

Town of Three Forks:

If you want western hospitality and scenic views – don’t bypass Three Forks. This small town powered by wheat and cattle has a dynamic downtown which includes the historic and award-winning Sacajawea Hotel.

The Sacajawea Hotel is known for wonderful live music, spirited cocktails and delicious dining. To check-in for reservations click here.

In the area:

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park

Madison Buffalo Jump State Park

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