Year
1805
Month Day
June 13

Meriwether Lewis reaches the Great Falls

Having hurried ahead of the main body of the expedition, Meriwether Lewis and four men arrive at the Great Falls of the Missouri River, confirming that the explorers are headed in the right direction.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had set out on their expedition to the Pacific the previous year. They spent the winter of 1804 with the Mandan Indians in present-day North Dakota. The Hidatsa Indians, who lived nearby, had traveled far to the West, and they proved an important source of information for Lewis and Clark. The Hidatsa told Lewis and Clark they would come to a large impassable waterfall in the Missouri when they neared the Rocky Mountains, but they assured the captains that portage around the falls was less than half a mile.

READ MORE: Lewis and Clark: A Timeline of the Extraordinary Expedition

Armed with this valuable information, Lewis and Clark resumed their journey up the Missouri accompanied by a party of 33 in April. The expedition made good time, and by early June, the explorers were nearing the Rocky Mountains. On June 3, however, they came to a fork at which two equally large rivers converged. “Which of these rivers was the Missouri?” Lewis asked in his journal. Since the river coming in from the north most resembled the Missouri in its muddy turbulence, most of the men believed it must be the Missouri. Lewis, however, reasoned that the water from the Missouri would have traveled only a short distance from the mountains and, therefore, would be clear and fast-running like the south fork.

The decision was critical. If the explorers chose the wrong river, they would not be able to find the Shoshone Indians from whom they planned to obtain horses for the portage over the Rockies. Although all of their men disagreed, Lewis and Clark concluded they should proceed up the south fork. To err on the side of caution, however, the captains decided that Lewis and a party of four would speed ahead on foot. If Lewis did not soon encounter the big waterfall the Hidatsa had told them of, the party would return and the expedition would backtrack to the other river.

On this day in 1805, four days after forging ahead of the main body of the expedition, Lewis was overjoyed to hear “the agreeable sound of a fall of water.” Soon after he “saw the spray arise above the plain like a column of smoke…. [It] began to make a roaring too tremendous to be mistaken for any cause short of the great falls of the Missouri.” By noon, Lewis had reached the falls, where he stared in awe at “a sublimely grand specticle [sic]… the grandest sight I had ever held.”

Lewis and Clark had been correct—the south fork was the Missouri River. The mysterious northern fork was actually the Marias River. Had the explorers followed the Marias, they would have traveled up into the northern Rockies where a convenient pass led across the mountains into the Columbia River drainage. However, Lewis and Clark would not have found the Shoshone Indians nor obtained the horses. Without horses, the crossing might well have failed.

READ MORE: Lewis and Clark's Travels Included Dozens of Astonishing Animal Encounters

Three days after finding the falls, Lewis rejoined Clark and told him the good news. However, the captains’ elation did not last long. They soon discovered that the portage around the Great Falls was not the easy half-mile jaunt reported by the Hidatsa, but rather a punishing 18-mile trek over rough terrain covered with spiky cactus. The Great Portage, as it was later called, would take the men nearly a month to complete. By mid-July, however, the expedition was again moving ahead. A month later, Lewis and Clark found the Shoshone Indians, who handed over the horses that were so critical to the subsequent success of their mission.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Pioneer 10 departs solar system

After more than a decade in space, Pioneer 10, the world’s first outer-planetary probe, leaves the solar system. The next day, it radioed back its first scientific data on interstellar space. On March 2, 1972, the NASA spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a ...read more

Peasant army marches into London

During the Peasants’ Revolt, a large mob of English peasants led by Wat Tyler marches into London and begins burning and looting the city. Several government buildings were destroyed, prisoners were released, and a judge was beheaded along with several dozen other leading ...read more

Thurgood Marshall appointed to Supreme Court

President Lyndon B. Johnson appoints U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Thurgood Marshall to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Associate Justice Tom C. Clark. On August 30, after a heated debate, the Senate confirmed Marshall’s nomination by a vote of 69 to 11. Two days later, he ...read more

Alexander the Great dies

Alexander the Great, the young Macedonian military genius who forged an empire stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to India, dies in Babylon, in present-day Iraq, at the age of 33. Born in Macedonia to King Phillip II and Queen Olympias, Alexander received a classical ...read more

The Miranda rights are established

On June 13, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court hands down its decision in Miranda v. Arizona, establishing the principle that all criminal suspects must be advised of their rights before interrogation. Now considered standard police procedure, “You have the right to remain silent. ...read more

Some of the papers from the archive of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971

The New York Times publishes the “Pentagon Papers”

The New York Times begins publishing portions of the 47-volume Pentagon analysis of how the U.S. commitment in Southeast Asia grew over a period of three decades. Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst who had become an antiwar activist, had stolen the documents. ...read more

Thomas Jefferson subpoenaed in Aaron Burr’s treason trial

President Thomas Jefferson receives a subpoena to testify in the treason trial of his former vice president, Aaron Burr, on June 13, 1807. In the subpoena, Burr asked Jefferson to produce documents that might exonerate him. Burr had already been politically and socially disgraced ...read more

Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” released

“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” was the question posed by the posters advertising Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s famously controversial novel, released on June 13, 1962. Four years earlier, Kubrick, director of the big-budget Roman epic ...read more

Jurors begin deliberations in Susan Polk trial

On June 13, 2006, jurors began deliberations in the trial of Susan Polk, 48, for the October 2002 murder of her psychotherapist husband Felix Polk, 70, in a poolside cottage at the couple’s Orinda, California, home. Felix was stabbed and cut 27 times and had suffered blunt force ...read more

Lafayette arrives in South Carolina to serve alongside General Washington

On June 13, 1777, a 19-year-old French aristocrat, Marie-Joseph Paul Roch Yves Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, arrives in South Carolina with the intent to serve as General George Washington’s second-in-command. Silas Deane, during his service as the Continental Congress ...read more