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John Ordway Describes Crossing the Rocky Mountains

These selections from John Ordway's journal describe the crossing of the Rocky Mountains, a particularly hazardous stretch of the Lewis and Clark expedition. In 1804 President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead explore the vast territory of the Louisiana Purchase, recently acquired from France. Lewis and Clark followed the path of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers through eleven present-day states to the Pacific Ocean. Both Lewis and Clark, along with several other members of the "Corps of Discovery," recorded their impressions of the expedition's often-perilous journey in carefully-detailed journal entries. Ordway was a U.S. Army sergeant who was responsible for issuing provisions, assigning guard duty, and keeping records of the journey.

September 02, 1805

passed through verry bad thickets where we were oblidged to cut a road for our horses to pass through. handsom tall strait pine and balsom fer and a little cotton [wood] intermixed. crossed Several branches. Some places muddy. we call this place dismal Swamp. Several beaver dams in it &C. Some places Steep along the edge of the mountains and verry rough and rockey. the mountains make close on each side of the creek and [are] high covred with pine. this is a verry lonesome place. some opf our weak horses fell backward climeing the steep rockey hills, and mountains. we had considerable of trouble this day carr[y]ing several of the horses loads up the steep rockey mont one of the horses gave out so that he could not carry his load. ... nothing killed this day by the hunters only a fiew fessents [pheasants]. no game of any kind to be seen in these mountains.

September 03, 1805

went up and down rough rockey mountains all day. Some places so steep and rockey that some of the horses fell backwards and roled to the bottom. one horse was near being killed. ... eat the last of our pork &.C. some of the men threaten to kill a colt to eat they being hungry, but puts it off untill tomorrow noon hopeing the hunters will kill Some game. ... so we lay down wet hungry and cold came with much fatigue 11 miles this day

September 04, 1805

the morning clear, but very cold. the ground covred with frost our mockasons froze the mountains covred with snow. ... the Snow over our mockasons in places. we had nothing but a little pearched corn to eat the air on the mountains verry chilley and cold. our fingers aked with the cold
(Flathead Indians) -- these natives are well dressed, descent looking Indians. light complectioned. ... they have the most curious language of any we have seen before. they talk as though they lisped or have a bur on their tongue. we suppose that they are the welch Indians if their is any Such from the language. ... they tell us that they or Some of them have Seen bearded men towards the ocean, but they cannot give us any accurate accoun of the ocean, but we have 4 mountains to cross to go where they saw white men which was on a river as we suppose the Columbian River.

September 05, 1805

the Indian dogs are so ravinous that they eat several pair of the mens Moccasons. ... our officers took down Some of their language found it verry troublesome Speaking to them as all they Say to them has it go through Six languages, and hard to make them understand. these natives have the Stranges language of any we have ever yet seen. they appear to us as though they had an Impedement in their Speech or brogue on their tongue. we think perhaps that they are the welch Indians, U. C. they are verry friendly to us. they Swaped to us some of their good horses and took our worn out horses, ...

September 07, 1805

high mountains a little to the Lard Side which is covred thick with Snow.

September 08, 1805

Saw Snow on the mount to our left. high barron hills to our right.

September 09, 1805

this creek has got to be a Small handsome River and gentle current we have to wade it often and find it as deep as the horses bellys.

September 13, 1805

... came to a warm Spring which run from a ledge of rocks and nearly boiled and issued out in several places it had been frequented by the Savages. a little dam was fixed and had been used for a bathing place. we drank a little of the water and washed our faces in it.

September 14, 1805

(Colt-Killed Creek) had nothing to eat but Some portable Soup we being hungry for a fat colt which eat verry well at this time a little Thunder hail and rain. Saw high Mountains covred with Snow and timber.

September 15, 1805

Some places so Steep and rockey that Some of our horses fell backwards and roled 20 or 30 feet among the rocks, but did not kill them. ... we travvelled untill after dark in hopes to find water. but could not find any. we found Some Spots of Snow so we Camped on the top of the Mountain and melted Some Snow. this Snow appears to lay all the year on this Mount we drank a little portable Soup and lay down without any thing else to Satisfy our hunger.

September 16, 1805

when we a woke this morning to our great Surprize we were covred with Snow, which had fell about 2 Inches deep the later part of last night, & continues a cold Snowey morning. Capt Clark Shot at a deer but did not kill it. we mended up our mockasons and Set out without any thing to eat, and proceeded on could Scarsely keep the old trail for the Snow. ... the Snow is now about 4 Inches deep ... the clouds so low on the Mount that we could not see any distance no way. it appeared as if we have been in the clouds all this day. we all being hungry and nothing to eat except a little portable soup which kept us verry weak, we killed another colt & eat half of it.

September 17, 1805

the Snow melted of[f] the timber. ... we came up and down bad Steep places of the Mountain, the afternoon clear and pleasant & warm. the snow melted fast. the water Stood on the trail over our mockns Some places Slippery. ... we being verry hungry oblidged us to kill another colt the last we had one of the hunters chased a bear up the Mountain but could not kill it. we hear wolves howl some distance a head.

September 18, 1805

the Mountains continues as fer as our eyes could extend. they extend much further than we expeted.

September 19, 1805

a clear morning. we eat the verry last morcil of our provision except a little portable Soup, and proceeded on to the top of Sd mountain and as we were descending the Same we discovred a very large plain a long distance a head, which we expect is on the Columbia River, which puts us in good Spirits again. ... one of our horses fell backwards out of the trail and rolled down over the steep rocks abt 200 feet with 2 boxes of Ammunition and plunged in to the creek with Some difficulty we got the horse up again and load it hurt the horse but did not kill him.

September 20, 1805

a cold frosty morning we found a handful or 2 of Indian peas and a little bears oil which we brought with us we finished the last morcil of it and proceeded on half Starved and very weak. our horses feet gitting Sore.

September 21, 1805

Capt Lewis killed a wolf Some of the party killed three pheasants and a duck. we eat them and caught a fi[e]w craw fish in the creek and eat them.

September 22, 1805

we met Reuben fields who Capt Clark Sent back to meet us, with a bag of Sammon and excelent root bread which they purshed from a nation of Indians who are Camped on a plain at the foot of the Mount about 8 or 10 miles distance from this place we halted about one hour and a half eat hearty of the Sammon and bread, and let our horses feed. then we proceeded on ...these natives have a large quantity of this root bread which they call Commass. the roots grow in these plains. they have kills engeaniously made where they Sweet [sweat] these roots and make them Sweet and good to the taste.

Source | University of Nebraska, The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, September 9-22, 1805,
Creator | John Ordway
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | John Ordway, “John Ordway Describes Crossing the Rocky Mountains,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed March 27, 2023,

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