Missouri Headwaters are Central to Montana History (Part 1 of 2)

A labyrinth of channels, willow bottoms, islands and a general mix of wetlands interact to piece together the headwaters of the Missouri River.


The point where the three forks – the Jefferson, Gallatin and Madison rivers – join as one, the great Missouri River begins an odyssey, heading out as having had the starring role in the creation of a state. As a route of western expansion, the Missouri River had few equals. Missouri Headwaters State Park, at the three forks, documents the river’s illustrious past in the chronology of our Montana through interpretive signs and displays.


History is vivid at the union of the three rivers. Long before whites trespassed, the place was a natural crossroad, camping spot, hunting area, meeting place and battleground for Native people, including the Hidatsa, Blackfeet, Shoshone, Crow, Nez Perce, Kootenai and Salish. Much blood was shed at the Missouri's birthplace. Today, faint pictographs – the only physical evidence of the passing of indigenous cultures at the forks – are found in a small cave.


Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery were the first documented white travelers to see the area. By the time they reached the headwaters, the explorers already had spent three months in what would become Montana. Time was running short, and anxious to trade for horses to enable them to cross the mountains, they had hoped to encounter the Shoshone Indians by now.


On July 25, 1805, Clark, in spite of feet painfully blistered and ravaged with prickly pear thorns, was traveling overland and a couple of days ahead of Lewis, when he arrived at the joining of the three rivers. Quickly choosing to explore the “North fork” (soon to be named Jefferson’s River), which in his estimation was the route to the Columbia, he left a note for Lewis and spent the next two days in search of the Shoshone. Instead he contracted “a high fever & akeing in all my bones.” Finding no sign of the natives, he reluctantly turned back, crossed over to the middle fork (to be named the Madison) and camped for the night explaining, “I continue to be verry unwell fever verry high.” Clark spent the nights of July 25-26 at two separate camps on “Philosophy River” (Willow Creek) near the present village of Willow Creek, just a few miles southwest of the Three Forks town site.


On the morning of July 27, Lewis and his men met up with Clark at the three forks. Lewis’ journal entry for that night read, “the country opens suddonly to extensive and beatifull plains and meadows which appeared to be surrounded in every direction with distant and lofty mountains; supposing this to be the Three Forks of the Missouri I halted the party.” Lewis then walked about a half mile up the Gallatin and “ascended the point of a high limestone clift (Lewis’s Rock) from whence I commanded a most perfect view of the neighbouring country.” The explorer was beholding the Spanish Peaks and Madison Range to the south, the Gallatin Range to the southeast and the Tobacco Root Mountains to the southwest. He could also see the Bridger Range directly to the east. In between was the lush, wide valley of the Gallatin River.


Good news came as Sacajawea recognized the area and informed them that this was the exact place her people were camped when the Hidatsa had captured her five years earlier.


There was no question in the two leaders’ minds that this was the headwaters of the Missouri. On July 28 Lewis wrote, “Both Capt. C. and myself corrisponded in opinion, with rispect, to the impropriety of calling either of these streams the Missouri and accordingly agreed to name them ... we called the S.W. Fork, that which we meant to ascend, Jefferson’s river in honor of Thomas Jefferson. the Middle fork we called Madison’s River in honor of James Madison, and the S. E. Fork we called Gallitin’s river in honor of Albert Gallitin.”


Rick and Susie Graetz

University of Montana


Photo: The rivers that birth the mighty Missouri are visible in this aerial image. (Photo by Larry Mayer)