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#17 Arrival at Fort Benton

We left Stevens and his surveying crews having just arrived at Fort Benton, on the eastern bank of the Missouri, near the Great Bend [large turn in the river]. Stevens wrote “The river here is perfectly transparent at most seasons of the year. The Teton river empties into the Missouri six miles below Fort Benton; the Marias river twelve miles below; and Mil river 200 miles below. The Falls of the Missouri are 18 miles above this fort. The muddy character of the Missouri has its commencement at the mouth of the Milk river, which takes its name from the whitish muddiness of its waters. The ascent from the wide grassy plain in which the fort is located to the high table-land is somewhat abrupt, the only passage on a level with the plain being close to the river on the south, and very narrow. Fort Benton is smaller than Fort Union. Its front is made of wood, and the other sides of adobe or unburned brick. It usually contains about a dozen men and the families of some of them.”[1]

"Fort Benton" Plate #23 by John M. Stanley

Stevens spent the entire day (September 2, 1853) interviewing voyagers and Indians about passes through the mountains, specifically to the Bitter Root Valley. He wrote that their estimations about the quantity of snow on the passes were not in agreement with each other, even if from the same confederacy of tribes. Some claimed the “snow would be so deep in the second moon after this that the route would be utterly impracticable. One Piegan, the Three Bears, told me there would be snow in the mountains the latter end of October”[1], while White Crane, a Blood Indian, said the snow would simply be on the mountain peaks. Stevens also ran into varying accounts of the time it would take to get to Bitter Root Valley. It seemed that White Crane had the most reliable information, explaining that the “Flatheads, who travel very fast, can go to St. Mary’s in four days” (50-60 miles per day) but it would take the survey teams with their wagons almost two weeks, providing road conditions were favorable.

White Crane, who seemed most knowledgeable, sketched out an itinerary for Stevens, which Stevens recorded:

“Sun river in three days, keeping at the head of the coulees leading into the Missouri river. First night he would encamp at a spring; second night at a lake; water good, but no wood; third night on Sun river. Go up Sun river one day and strike towards the mountains. Four days to ridge, where difficult parts occur; plenty of wood; water and grass improving all the time from this point. Ninth day. Ascent to the ridge difficult; requiring labor for wagons; descent good; camp on a stream, tributary of the Missouri; but west of this is mountain. Tenth day. Pass over a level plain and camp on another tributary of the Missouri, called Red Shell river. Eleventh day. Go over Prickly Pear prairie and reach foot of next dividing ridge. Twelfth day. Go over dividing ridge and reach a creek, which flows into the Columbia. Pine timber, no rocks, and good road through. Thirteenth day. Follow creek down, and camp a little distance this side of its entrance into the large river. Fourteenth day. Follow creek down to the Big river, and then follow Big river; it is a plain, good road. From this point it takes seven days of slow marches; good road, to go to the St. Mary’s village.”[1]

All of the Indians Stevens spoke with who had traversed over the mountains to the upper waters of the Platte and Snake rivers agreed that the whole country was open and there would be “no difficulty in moving from Fort Benton, over quite a number of trails, to the emigrant route from the States [United] via Fort Laramie and South Pass, to Salt Lake; and they described the country as being, for the most part, a very desirable one, excellent for voyaging.”[2]

Stevens wrote that a voyager, Hammell, provided him with an account of Cadotte’s Pass, a pass on the Rocky Mountains located on the Continental Divide. [Montana] Hammell told Stevens to follow along the Missouri until reaching the Sun or Medicine river, a distance equal to “three days’ journey of 24 miles each.” (Stevens 1853) The road was described as goo, but Stevens’ teams would need to march at a pace that would get them to certain springs for camping, water and grasses. Hammell told Stevens that Cypress mountain was another three days’ journey, forty miles each day, and an additional eight days, for Indians on fast horses, ten days on slow; to the Kontenay [Kootenai] country [Southeastern British Columbia]. Stevens wrote “I began, now to feel a good deal of apprehension…” not having heard from Grover, Lander and Stanley, who had separated from the main train several days prior, and he determined not to send out an advance party. Fortunately September 3rd saw the arrival of the overdue team who provided a report of their journey and findings.

Grover, Lander and Stanley’s journey experienced several difficulties, beginning with being unable to locate Stevens’ trail at which point they were to join the main train. Believing they’d arrived too early they traveled in a northern direction, but seeing no tracks aside from their own, turned south. Due to the falling darkness the group set up a camp and tethered the horses to eat from the abundant grasses. They were out of horse feed, food, and the gentlemen did not have coats with them so they suffered through a unpleasantly cold night and no dinner. On the 31st of August, they decided that since there was no trail to follow, the would return to Bear’s Paw where they had parted from the main train. With no spare ammunition, they felt it comforting that they would likely find a party of friendly Blackfeet who would certainly guarantee their safe passage. During that morning’s journey, they spotted two antelopes which Mr. Stanley was selected to fire one round to hopefully obtain meat. While Stanley laid prone in a buffalo wallow [dried water hole], he had placed a handkerchief on a stick to arouse the antelopes’ curiosity. Stanley reported that the animals approached warily and when they came within range, Stanley fired but missed; the bullet flew over their heads and off they ran. The next couple of days were cold, rainy, and they were down to their last two matches for fires. When they reached the Milk River, they finally found Stevens’ trail, and determined not to sacrifice one of the horses for food and soldier on toward Fort Benton. They were fortunate that within three miles they came upon a portion of the expedition under Lieutenant Donelson where they received fresh horses and three days rations, enough to catch up with Stevens. Unfortunately, their guide who had professed to be familiar with the region, was not. When they thought they were camping at the edge of the Missouri; they were actually on the Teton river. Having realized the error and that they had passed Fort Benton, they managed to correct their course and made their way to the fort; just as a command of fifteen men were about to depart in search of them.

Lieutenant Cuvier Grover (4th Artillery). Born in Bethel, Maine, 24 July, 1829; died in Atlantic City, New Jersey, 6 June, 1885. Graduate of the United States Military Academy in 1850, entered the 1st artillery, and served on frontier duty till 1853, and on the Northern Pacific railroad exploration from 14 April, 1853, till 17 July, 1854.

John Mix Stanley, Esquire (artist). Born in the Finger Lakes region of New York, January 17, 1814; died in Detroit on April 10, 1872. An artist-explorer, an American painter of landscapes, and Native American portraits and tribal life. In 1853–54 Stanley accompanied Isaac Stevens’s Pacific Railway Survey as photographer and artist. Stanley spent the rest of his life repainting his lost works and organizing their exhibition, sale, and reproduction.

Frederick W. Lander (Engineer, Soldier, Poet). Born in Salem, Mass., December 17, 1821; died March 2, 1862 from complications of pneumonia at Camp Chase, Paw Paw, Virginia (later, WVA) while serving as a brigadier-general of United States volunteers. Landers was hired by the U.S. Government to serve as an estimation engineer for the 1853-54 surveys and explorations under Isaac Stevens. Participated in and/or lead five transcontinental surveying journeys.

[1] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 100.

[2] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 102

[3] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 101. [4] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 101.


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