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Joseph Whitehouse Describes Crossing the Rocky Mountains

These selections from Joseph Whitehouse'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 explore the vast territory of the Louisiana Purchase, recently acquired from France. The Lewis and Clark Expedition 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. Whitehouse was a Private in the expedition who sometimes acted as the group's tailor.

September 01, 1805

in the afternoon we descended a Mountain nearly as Steep as the roof of a house.

September 02, 1805

the mountains on each Side of the Creek is verry Steep and high. the bottoms on the Creek narrow and Swampy a nomber of beaver dams. we Call this place dismal Swamp, and it is a lonesom rough part of the Country. we were obledged to climb Several hills with our horses, where it was So Steep and rockey that Some of the horses which was weak and their feet Sore they fell back 3 or 4 fell over backwards and roled to the foot of the hills. we were then obledged to carry the loads up the hills and then load again.

September 03, 1805

Some of the mountains was So Steep and rockey that Several of the horses fell back among the rocks and was near killing them. Some places we had to cut the road through thickets of bolsom fer...passed down a Steep hill in to the head of a cove and branch where we Camped after a dissagreeable days march of only 11 miles with much fatigue and hunger as nothing has been killed this day only 2 or 3 fessents, and have no meat of any kind. Set in to raining hard at dark So we lay down and Slept, wet hungry and cold. Saw Snow on the tops of Some of these mountains this day.

September 04, 1805

the morning clear but verry cold our mockersons froze hard. the mountains covred with Snow. 2 mountain Sheep Seen by one of the men. we delayed untill about 8 oClock A. M. then Set out and assended a mountain without any thing to eat. the Snow lay on the mout. So that it kep on our mockisons the air verry cold our fingers aked with the cold. we [de]scended the mountain down a rough rockey way and along through a large thicket of bolsom fer timber in which we killed a dozen fessents then descended down in to a large valley on a branch and halted to dine our hunter killed a Deer. Saw fresh Indian Sign. we Eat our deer. ...
towards evening we arived at a large Encampment of the flat head nation which is a large band of the nation of about 40 lodges. they have between 4 and 500 well looking horses now feeding in this valley ... they received us as friends and appeared to be glad to See us.... the natives are light Complectioned decent looking people the most of them well cloathed with Mo. Sheep and other Skins. they have buffalow Robes leather lodges to live in, but have no meat at this time. but gave us abundance of their dryed fruit Such as Servis berrys cherries different kinds of roots all of which eat verry well. they tell us that we can go in 6 days to where white traders come and that they have Seen bearded men who came [from] a river to the North of us 6 days march but we have 4 mountains to cross before we come on that River.

September 05, 1805

... we could not talk with them as much as we wish, for all that we Say has to go through 6 languages before it gits to them and it is hard to make them understand all that we Say. these Savages has the Strangest language of any we have ever Seen. they appear to us to have an Empeddiment in their Speech or a brogue or bur on their tongue but they are the likelyest and honestst Savages we have ever yet Seen.

September 06, 1805

we take these Savages to be the Welch Indians if their be any Such from the Language. So Capt. Lewis took down the names of everry thing in their Language, in order that it may be found out whether they are or whether they Sprang or origenated first from the welch or not.

September 07, 1805

high mountains on the L. Side of the creek which are covred with pitch pine. Some of the highest are covred thick with Snow.

September 08, 1805

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

September 09, 1805

the Snow continues on the Mount. each Side of the valley. ... the afternoon pleasant, but the Snow Still continues on the Mountains as usal.

September 10, 1805

as our road leads over a mountain to our left, we conclu[de] our Captains conclude to Stay here this day to take observations, and for the hunters to kill meat to last us across the mountain and for our horses to rest &c. ... theo [though] the day is warm the Snow does not melt on the Mo. a Short distance from us. considerable of pitch pine on the mountains, but the Snow makes them look like the middle of winter. the valley and plains are pleasant. ... our guide tells us that these waters runs in to Mackinzees River as near as they can give an account, but he is not acquainted that way. So we go the road he knows.

September 12, 1805

... assended a high rough mountain rockey & a verry rough trail to follow. we proced. on along the ridge which was covred with pitch pine timber. night came on and we had to go through the thickets of pine and over logs &c. untill about 10 oClock at in the evening before we could git any water. then descended a Steep part of the mountain down on the Creek which we left at noon, and Camped on the bank of the creek where we had Scarsely room to Sleep. Came 17 1/2 miles this day. Saw high Mountains to the South of us covred with Snow, which appears to lay their all the year round. Scarsely any feed for our horses.

September 13, 1805

... passed a warm Spring, which nearly boiled where it Issued out of the rocks a Short distance below the natives has dammed it up to bathe themselves in, and the water in that place is considerable above blood heat. it runs out in Sundry places and Some places cooler than others. Several of us drank of the water, it has a little sulp[h]ur taste and verry clear. these Springs are very beautiful to See, and we think them to be as good to bathe in &c. as any other ever yet found in the United States.

September 14, 1805

a cloudy morning. we eat the last of our meat, and Set out as usal. ascended a mountain covred with pine. abt. 4 miles we descended it down on the Creek at a fork where it ran very rapid and full of rocks. we then ascended a verry high mountain, about 4 miles from the forks of the creek to the top of it went Some distance on the top then descended it about 6 miles. Some places verry Steep. ... Eat a little portable Soup, but the men in jeneral So hungry that we killed a fine Colt which eat verry well, at this time. ... Saw high mountan. a little to the South of us, which are covred with Snow.

September 15, 1805

we crossed a creek a Small pond a little below, then assended a high mountain. Some places So Steep and rockey that Several of the horses fell backward and roled down among the rocks 20 or 30 feet but did not kill them. we got on to the ridge of the mot and followed it riseing over Several high knobs, where the wind had blown down the most of the timber. we found a Small Spring before we came to the highest part of the mountain where we halted and drank a little portable Soup, and proceeded on up on the top of the mountain, which is covred with timber Spruce &c. and Some Spots of Snow and high clifts of rocks. it is about 10 miles from the foot of this mountain to the top and the most of the way verry Steep. we marched on top of this mountain untill after dark in hopes to find water, but could not find any, So we Camped on the top ridge of the mountain without finding any water, but found plean[ty] of Snow, which appear to have lain all the year we melted what we wanted to drink and made or mixd. a little portable Soup with Snow water and lay down contented.

September 16, 1805

when we awoke this morning to our great Surprise we were covred with Snow which had fallen about 2 Inches the latter part of last night, and continues a verry cold Snow Storm. Capt. Clark Shot at a deer but did not kill it. we mended up our mockasons. Some of the men without Socks raped rags on their feet, and loaded up our horses and Set out without anything to eat, and proceeded on. could hardly See the old trail for the Snow. kept on the ridge of the mountain Several high knobs to pass over but had more down hill than up. about one oClock finding no water we halted and melted Snow and made a little more Soup, and let our horses graze 1 hour & a half. then proceeded on the Snow is fell So fast that it is now in common 5 or 6 Inches deep. Some places is considerable of old Snow on the moutn. towards evening we descended the mountain down in a lonesome cove on a creek where we Camped in a thicket of Spruce pine & bolsom fir timber. all being tired & hungry, obledged us to kill another colt and eat the half of it this evening. it has quit Snowing this evening, but continues chilley and cold. Came about 15 miles to day over a rockey rough road.

September 12, 1805

the mare which owned the colt, which we killed, went back & led 4 more horses back to where we took dinner yesterday.
the Snow melted So that the water Stood in the trail over our mockasons in Some places. verry Slippery bad travvelling for our horses. we assended verry high mountains verry rockey. ... we being hungry obledged us to kill the other Sucking colt to eat. one of the hunters chased a bear in a mountn. but killed nothing. we expect that their is game near a head. we hear wolves howl & Saw Some deer Sign &c.

September 18, 1805

about 3 oClock P. M. we halted on a ridge of the mountn. to let our horses feed a little, and melt a little Snow as we found no water to make a little Port. Soup as we have nothing else to eat. ... the mountains appear a head as fer as we can See. they continue much further than we expected. we proceeded on down a verry Steep part of the mount. then up on the side of another before we found any water, and Campd. at dark on the Side of the motn. where we found a Spring by going down a Steep hill where it was dangerous to take our horses to water. we Suped on a little portable Soup and lay down on this Sideling mountn.

September 19, 1805

a clear pleasant morning. we Set out as usal and assended up to the top of Sd mout. and discovered a plain in a valley about 20 miles from us where we expect is the Columbian River. which puts us in good Spirits again. we descended down the mountn. which was verry Steep descent, for about three miles. then assended another as bad as any we have ever been up before. it made the Sweat run off of our horses & ourselves. on the top the ground was froze a little and the ground mostly covred with Snow. ... halted to bate our horses and to drink a little portable Soup. one of the men killed a fessent. their is not any kind of game or Sign of any to be Seen in these mout. Scarsely any birds itself. ... one of our horses fell backward and roled about 100 feet down where it was nearly Steep and a Solid rock & dashed against the rock in the creek, with a load of Ammunition. but the powder being in canisters did not git damaged nor the horse killed, but hurt. we proceeded on. ... we Suped [on] a little portable Soup. the most of the party is weak and feeble Suffering with hunger. our horses feet are gitting Sore and fall away in these mountains, but we are in hopes to git out of them Soon.

September 20, 1805

a cold frosty morning. we eat a fiew peas & a little greece which was the verry last kind of eatables of any kind we had except a little portable Soup.... dined Sumptiously on our horse meat. ... the mountains not So high as back but verry broken. Came about 14 miles this day. the plains appear Some distance off yet. it is twice as far as we expected where we first discovred it from a high mountain.

September 21, 1805

on Some of the ridges the timber has been killed by fire and fell across the trail So that we had Some difficulty to git a long the trail. ... Capt. Lewis killed a wolf. Some of the men killed a duck and three Phesants. we caught Some craw fish in the creek, and eat them.

September 22, 1805

met R. Fields who Capt. Clark Sent back to meet us with Some Sammon and other kinds of food which they had purcd. from Some Indians which they found Encamped about 8 miles from this. we halted and divided out the food and eat it found it verry good. ... these Savages was verry glad to See us the men women & children ran meeting us & Seemed rejoiced to See us. we Camped near [the] village ... the natives gave us Such food as they had to eat, consisting of roots of different kinds which was Sweet and good also red & black haws &c. the principal roots which they made use off for food are pleanty. this praries are covred with them they are much like potatoes when cooked, ...
(Long description of how to cook camas)
the natives gave us Some excelent fat Sammon to eat with the root or potatoe bread.

Source | University of Nebraska, The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, September 9-22, 1805,
Creator | Joseph Whitehouse
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | Joseph Whitehouse, “Joseph Whitehouse Describes Crossing the Rocky Mountains,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed February 24, 2024,

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