The explorers had now passed south, between the Big Belt range of mountains on the cast and the main chain of the Rocky Mountains on the west. Meagher County, Montana, now lies on the cast of their trail, and on the west side of that route is the county of Lewis and Clark. They were now-- still travelling southward--approaching the ultimate sources of the great Missouri. The journal says:--
"We are delighted to find that the Indian woman recognizes the country; she tells us that to this creek her countrymen make excursions to procure white paint on its banks, and we therefore call it Whiteearth Creek. She says also that the Three Forks of the Missouri are at no great distance--a piece of intelligence which has cheered the spirits of us all, as we hope soon to reach the head of that river. This is the warmest day, except one, we have experienced this summer. In the shade the mercury stood at eighty degrees, which is the second time it has reached that height during this season. We camped on an island, after making nineteen and three quarters miles.
"In the course of the day we saw many geese, cranes, small birds common to the plains, and a few pheasants. We also observed a small plover or curlew of a brown color, about the size of a yellow-legged plover or jack-curlew, but of a different species. It first appeared near the mouth of Smith's River, but is so shy and vigilant that we were unable to shoot it. Both the broad and narrow-leaved willow continue, though the sweet willow has become very scarce. The rosebush, small honeysuckle, pulpy-leaved thorn, southernwood, sage, box-elder, narrow-leaved cottonwood, redwood, and a species of sumach, are all abundant. So, too, are the red and black gooseberries, service-berry, choke-cherry, and the black, yellow, red, and purple currants, which last seems to be a favorite food of the bear. Before camping we landed and took on board Captain Clark, with the meat he had collected during this day's hunt, which consisted of one deer and an elk; we had, ourselves, shot a deer and an antelope."
The party found quantities of wild onions of good flavor and size. They also observed wild flax, garlic, and other vegetable products of value. The journal adds:--
"We saw many otter and beaver to-day [July 24th]. The latter seem to contribute very much to the number of islands, and the widening of the river. They begin by damming up the small channels of about twenty yards between the islands: this obliges the river to seek another outlet, and, as soon as this is effected, the channel stopped by the beaver becomes filled with mud and sand. The industrious animal is then driven to another channel, which soon shares the same fate, till the river spreads on all sides, and cuts the projecting points of the land into islands. We killed a deer, and saw great numbers of antelopes, cranes, some geese, and a few red-headed ducks. The small birds of the plains and the curlew are still abundant: we saw a large bear, but could not come within gunshot of him. There are numerous tracks of the elk, but none of the animals themselves; and, from the appearance of bones and old excrement, we suppose that buffalo sometimes stray into the valley, though we have as yet seen no recent sign of them. Along the water are a number of snakes, some of a uniform brown color, others black, and a third speckled on the abdomen, and striped with black and a brownish yellow on the back and sides. The first, which is the largest, is about four feet long; the second is of the kind mentioned yesterday; and the third resembles in size and appearance the garter-snake of the United States. On examining the teeth of all these several kinds, we found them free from poison: they are fond of the water, in which they take shelter on being pursued. The mosquitoes, gnats, and prickly pear, our three persecutors, still continue with us, and, joined with the labor of working the canoes, have fatigued us all excessively."
On Thursday, July 25, Captain Clark, who was in the lead, as usual, arrived at the famous Three Forks of the Missouri. The stream flowing in a generally northeastern direction was the true, or principal Missouri, and was named the Jefferson. The middle branch was named the Madison, in honor of James Madison, then Secretary of State, and the fork next to the eastward received the name of Albert Gallatin, then Secretary of the Treasury; and by these titles the streams are known to this day. The explorers had now passed down to their furthest southern limit, their trail being to the eastward of the modern cities of Helena and Butte, and separated only by a narrow divide (then unknown to them) from the sources of some of the streams that fall into the Pacific Ocean. Under the date of July 27, the journal says:--
"We are now very anxious to see the Snake Indians. After advancing for several hundred miles into this wild and mountainous country, we may soon expect that the game will abandon us. With no information of the route, we may be unable to find a passage across the mountains when we reach the head of the river--at least, such a pass as will lead us to the Columbia. Even are we so fortunate as to find a branch of that river, the timber which we have hitherto seen in these mountains does not promise us any fit to make canoes, so that our chief dependence is on meeting some tribe from whom we may procure horses. Our consolation is that this southwest branch can scarcely head with any other river than the Columbia; and that if any nation of Indians can live in the mountains we are able to endure as much as they can, and have even better means of procuring subsistence."
The explorers were now (in the last days of July, 1805) at the head of the principal sources of the great Missouri River, in the fastnesses of the Rocky Mountains, at the base of the narrow divide that separates Idaho from Montana in its southern corner. Just across this divide are the springs that feed streams falling into the majestic Columbia and then to the Pacific Ocean. As has been already set forth, they named the Three Forks for President Jefferson and members of his cabinet. These names still survive, although Jefferson River is the true Missouri and not a fork of that stream. Upon the forks of the Jefferson Lewis bestowed the titles of Philosophy, Wisdom, and Philanthropy, each of these gifts and graces being, in his opinion, "an attribute of that illustrious personage, Thomas Jefferson," then President of the United States. But alas for the fleeting greatness of geographical honor! Philosophy River is now known as Willow Creek, and at its mouth, a busy little railroad town, is Willow City. The northwest fork is no longer Wisdom, but Big Hole River; deep valleys among the mountains are known as holes; and the stream called by that name, once Wisdom, is followed along its crooked course by a railroad that connects Dillon, Silver Bow, and Butte City, Montana. Vulgarity does its worst for Philanthropy; its modern name on the map is Stinking Water.