USGS Logo Geological Survey Bulletin 611
Guidebook of the Western United States: Part A

SHEET No. 7.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
Elevation 1,880 feet.
Population 500.
St. Paul 402 miles.

Elevation 1,895 feet.
Population 372.*
St. Paul 413 miles.

The same rolling topography occurs in the vicinity of Steele and as far west as the western margin of the moraine. Outwash gravel is also abundant about Steele, as is indicated by the hills of gravel and by the pits from which the railway has procured gravel for ballast.

At Driscoll (see sheet 7, p. 54) is the highest land that is crossed by the Northern Pacific Railway east of Missouri River. Near milepost 163 an old drainage channel, including a chain of shallow lakes, crosses the moraine obliquely in a southwesterly direction. West of this gap and north of Sterling the hills rise again in a narrow morainic ridge which extends to the northeast for a long distance. Beyond Driscoll the railway gradually descends to Missouri River, which in the early days was the great highway to the northwestern part of the United States and which was first thoroughly explored by Lewis and Clark.1

1One of the most noteworthy explorations that was successfully carried out in the nineteenth century was that of the headwaters of Missouri and Columbia rivers by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the years 1804-1806, and as the Northern Pacific Railway follows in a general way a part of the same route and is the indirect result of their efforts it seems appropriate to give here a brief sketch of the expedition and of the commanders. It is so easy now to cross the continent in comfort and even in luxury that the difficulties and hardships of such a journey in 1804 can not readily be realized.

Meriwether Lewis was born August 18, 1774, near Charlottesville, Va., of one of the distinguished families of the State. He had been for two years the private secretary of President Jefferson and was serving in that capacity when he was selected by the President as commander of the exploring expedition to the Pacific coast. Upon the completion of his long trip Capt. Lewis returned to Washington, but soon afterward (Mar. 3, 1807) he was appointed governor of Louisiana and departed for St. Louis to assume the duties of that office. These occupied his attention for two years, when he again found it necessary to visit Washington. He first planned the trip by water, but after going as far down the river as Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis) he changed his mind and started east across the country. On the way he committed suicide or was murdered October 11, 1809, in Lewis County, Tenn.

William Clark was born in Caroline County, Va., August 1, 1770. He had a number of brothers and sisters, of whom George Rogers Clark, an elder brother, achieved distinction as a military commander. When William Clark was 14 years old the family moved to the place then called the Falls of the Ohio, now Louisville, Ky. The town at that time consisted merely of a few cabins clustered around a fortification which had been erected by Clark's elder brother. When the exploring trip to the Pacific coast was undertaken Clark was selected by Lewis as joint head of the party. Soon after his return he was made Indian agent for Louisiana, with headquarters at St. Louis, and on February 27, 1811, he was appointed by President Madison brigadier general of the militia of Louisiana. On July 1, 1813, he was made governor of Missouri, an office which he held until the Territory was admitted to the Union in 1821. In May, 1822, President Monroe appointed him Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and he held that post until his death at St. Louis September 1, 1838. His funeral was the most impressive that had ever been held in that city.

When Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated President of the United States, in 1801, our country did not extend west of Mississippi River, and already much friction had arisen between Spain and the United States regarding the navigation of that stream. Jefferson fully-realized that for the complete development of the Mississippi Valley it was necessary that we should control the mouth of the river. Accordingly he began negotiations with Spain for the purchase of New Orleans and the Floridas.

Louisiana was originally a French possession through the discoveries of La Salle. It had been an expensive and troublesome province for France and for this reason it was secretly conveyed to Spain in 1762. In the year 1800, however, it was by an other secret treaty ceded back to France. It was therefore a surprise to our negotiators to find that it was France and not Spain with which they would have to treat.

At the time negotiations were opened Napoleon was expecting a declaration of war by England and the seizure by her of the mouth of the Mississippi. This threatened his supremacy in America as well as in Europe, and in order to anticipate this move he decided to cede to the United States not only New Orleans and the Floridas but the entire province of Louisiana, which was an empire in extent. Out of it has been formed the States of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota; nearly all of Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming, and Montana, about one-third of Minnesota, and one-third of Colorado. The treaty by which all of this territory was acquired was executed in Paris April 30, 1803. The compensation was $11,250,000 and the assumption by the United States of the "French spoliation claims," estimated to amount to $3,750,000. It is an interesting fact that some of these claims are still in process of adjudication.

The extent and boundaries of the province of Louisiana were never definitely stated. In the treaty the territory was described merely as being the same as that ceded by Spain to France by the treaty of San Ildefonso. From this it appears that the territory sold to the United States comprised that part of the drainage basin of the Mississippi which lies west of the river, with the exception of such parts as were then held by Spain. The lack of precise definition was not objected to by the American commissioners, as they probably foresaw that it might prove of service in future negotiations with other powers.

At that time all the territory on the Pacific coast now included in the State of California was claimed by Spain, and the great region later to be embraced in the States of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho was a sort of no man's land. Subsequently, in treating with Great Britain regarding the northern boundary of the United States, this region was claimed by the United States on three grounds: (1) Discovery and occupation, (2) Louisiana purchase, and (3) cession from Spain. At first none of these claims were recognized by Great Britain, and by the treaty of peace in 1818 it was agreed that the country immediately south of the forty ninth parallel and west of the "Stony" (Rocky) Mountains should remain open to both parties. In 1846 the Webster-Ashburton treaty with Great Britain fixed the northern boundary of the United States west of the Rocky Mountains at the forty-ninth parallel as far as the Strait of Fuca, and thus Oregon, Washington, and Idaho finally were recognized as belonging to this country.

On the acquisition of Louisiana an expedition was planned by President Jefferson "to explore the Missouri River and such principal streams of it as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon [another name for the Columbia], Colorado, or any other river, may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across the continent for the purpose of commerce." After receiving the requisite instructions Capt. Lewis left Washington July 5, 1803, and proceeded to Louisville, where he was joined by Capt. Clark. They arrived at St. Louis in December, but found that the Spanish commandant of the province, not having received an official account of the transfer, was obliged by the general policy of his Government to prevent strangers from passing through Spanish territory. The party therefore camped on the east side of the Mississippi, where they passed the winter in making the necessary preparations for setting out early in the spring, but they did not leave until after the cession of Louisiana had been formally announced.

The party when it left St. Louis comprised, besides the two officers, nine young men from Kentucky, fourteen soldiers of the United States Army who had volunteered their services, two French water men, an interpreter and hunter, a black servant belonging to Capt. Clark, and a corporal, six soldiers, and nine water men who were to accompany the party as far as the Mandan villages.

The party finally embarked on the momentous voyage of discovery up Missouri River on May 14, 1804. The letter from President Jefferson instructed them to gather information on a great variety of subjects, including "the soil and face of the country, its growth and vegetable productions; the animals of the country, and especially those not known in the United States; the mineral productions of every kind, but more particularly metals, limestone, pit coal, saltpeter, salines, and mineral waters * * *; volcanic appearances; and climate." They were particularly advised to cultivate friendly relations with the Indians and to make exhaustive notes regarding their habits and customs, their family and tribal relations, and the extent and limits of their territorial possessions. They carried out these instructions so fully that the summer was passed and the autumn well advanced before they reached the North Dakota region. By October 26 the weather had become so severe that they went into winter quarters 7 or 8 miles below the mouth of Knife River and 50 miles or so above the present town of Bismarck. Here they built a stockade which they called Fort Mandan, after the tribe of Indians inhabiting this part of the country.

They spent the winter in procuring supplies for the camp, in friendly intercourse with the Indians, and in visiting the scattered French and English traders who were dealing with the Indians on both sides of the Canadian line. On April 7, 1805, the permanent party, which had been increased by the interpreter, Toussaint Charboneau, and his Indian wife, Sacajawea (sak-a-ja-we'a, meaning bird woman), again set out on their journey up the great river. They were soon beyond the range of the fur trader and they saw no white man until they returned to this region the following year. All went well until they came to the Great Falls of the Missouri, which the Indians had described to them. After a laborious portage around the falls they proceeded onward, searching for a path through the "Shining Mountains," which lay in rugged masses before them.

Their instructions were to explore the best route from the Missouri to the Columbia, but, although they had fairly reliable information from the Indians regarding the headwaters of the Missouri, they were completely at sea regarding the source of the Columbia. For this reason they desired very much to find Indian guides to pilot them across the mountains. Sacajawea, a member of the Snake tribe, who had been captured by the Mandans when she was a young girl and carried off to the Indian towns in North Dakota, hoped that she might see some of her people inhabiting the mountain region at the head of the Missouri and procure from them the necessary information and assistance.

Above Great Falls the river swings far to the west, approaching the mountains, and the leaders looked anxiously for signs of Indians, but none could be found. To make the matter worse, the river here changes its course and they were forced to travel away from the mountains for a long distance; but on coming to the three forks of the Missouri Sacajawea remembered the country and saw the spot where she had been captured many years before. The expedition proceeded up Jefferson River to its head and crossed the Continental Divide (at Lemhi Pass) into Idaho. Here they met the Snake Indians, Sacajawea even finding her brother and sister, but after repeated efforts they decided that it was impossible to make their way down Salmon River to the Columbia, so they turned northward, crossing the range again, and followed down the Bitterroot Valley until on September 10 they came within 8 miles of the place where Missoula, Mont., is now situated. Here they turned to the left up what is now known as the Lolo trail and crossed the Coeur d'Alene Mountains, arriving at the mouth of Snake River October 16. From this point they rapidly drifted down the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean and went into winter quarters December 7 in a stockade which they named Fort Clatsop, near the site of Astoria, Oreg. They remained here, without seeing any vessel from which they could obtain supplies, until March 23, 1806, when they left Fort Clatsop on their eastward journey.

The party returned over practically the same route to the Bitterroot Valley, where it was divided, Capt. Lewis making his way by Missoula and up Blackfoot River, along the route followed by the Indians in going to the plains to hunt buffalo, and Capt. Clark going back to the head of Jefferson River to recover their canoes, which had been cached at that place. Capt. Lewis crossed the Continental Divide at Lewis and Clark Pass and then made an attempt to explore the pass at the head of Marias River (now utilized by the Great Northern Railway), but trouble with the Indians prevented him from reaching the mountains, so he embarked on the Missouri and floated down to the mouth of the Yellowstone, where the two parties were to meet again on their homeward journey.

Capt. Clark crossed through the Bighole country and, after getting the boats, floated down Jefferson River to Three Forks, where his party again divided, some going on down Missouri River to join Lewis, while Capt. Clark and a few others, including the faithful Sacajawea as guide, started across the country to Yellowstone River. They crossed Bozeman Pass July 15, 1806, and reached Missouri River at Livingston the same day. They passed rapidly down the stream, reaching the mouth of Tongue River (Miles City) on July 29 and the mouth of Yellowstone River August 3. They were slightly ahead of Capt. Lewis and the party was not united until August 12, when they all came together at the mouth of Little Knife River, N. Dak. The rest of the journey was uneventful and they reached St. Louis September 23, 1806.

Elevation 1,834 feet.
Population 198.*
St. Paul 421 miles.

The village of Sterling is situated at the outer border of the Altamont moraine, at the western limit of the great ice sheet that occupied this region in the last stage of the glacial epoch. Below it and stretching far to the west is a plain which was formed of clay, sand, and gravel that were accumulated by the ice and swept along to its outer margin. From Sterling may be obtained an extended view of the outwash plain, toward the south, and far beyond the more rugged country bordering Missouri River.

Elevation 1,725 feet.
Population 191.*
St. Paul 427 miles.

The outwash plain with its silty soil is well adapted to the raising of flax, wheat, oats, and barley and supports a thriving farming community, the center of which is McKenzie, the junction point of a branch line of railway running south to Linton, 45 miles distant. West of McKenzie the railway follows down Apple Creek to Missouri River. The width of the Apple Creek valley, which is much greater than that of even larger streams in the vicinity, indicates clearly that at some time in the past this stream must have been much larger than it is at the present time. The increased volume of water in Apple Creek was due to the fact that it received a large part of the drainage of the ice sheet that piled up the Altamont moraine. Much of the clay, sand, and gravel washed out from the ice was carried down to Missouri River and swept southward by its mighty current, but a large amount was dropped along Apple Creek, filling the valley to a considerable depth. Since the disappearance of the ice the stream has cut a channel in this material 70 or 80 feet deep. The uplands on both sides of the valley of Apple Creek have only a thin veneer of glacial drift. (See footnote on p. 54.)

The great amount of cutting done by Apple Creek when it was flooded by water from the melting ice is shown by the width of its flood plain where the valley joins that of Missouri River. At the State penitentiary 2 miles east of Bismarck the valley of Apple Creek has a width of 4 miles, whereas the width of the Missouri Valley rarely exceeds 3 miles. On this flood plain, known as the "second bottom," is Fort Lincoln, to the left (south). This is the only military post now maintained near the Canadian border between Fort Snelling, at St. Paul, and Fort Assinniboine, at Havre, Mont. Opposite the penitentiary the Northern Pacific crosses a branch of the Soo Line which extends up the river as far as Washburn.

Elevation 1,692 feet.
Population 5,443.
St. Paul 446 miles.

Bismarck, the capital of the State, was named in honor of the great German chancellor. This town was the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railway from 1873, when all construction work was stopped by the financial panic, to 1878, and was originally called Edwinton, for Edwin F. Johnson, the first chief engineer of the road.

Those who are in the habit of reading the daily weather reports may have noted that Bismarck has about as great a range of temperature throughout the year as any other place where observations are recorded. In summer the thermometer occasionally registers 100° or more, and in winter it is frequently as low as 40° below zero. The precipitation is only 18 or 19 inches a year, compared with 28 inches at Minneapolis. This difference in the amount of moisture received is largely the cause of the difference in the appearance of the two regions.

West of the station at Bismarck the railway skirts the eastern bluffs of the river for a distance of 2 miles upstream and then crosses on a steel bridge to the west side.1

1At present Missouri River has little effect on the commercial and industrial life of the northwestern part of the United States, but before the construction of the transcontinental railways it was a most important factor, first in the exploration of that part of the country and second in its commercial development.

The country about Bismarck and Mandan was formerly inhabited by the Mandan Indians. The surviving remnant of this tribe occupies the Fort Berthold Reservation, some 60 or 70 miles farther up the river, but almost every day groups of these Indians can be seen about the station at Mandan or on the local trains of the river branch.

The earliest recorded visit of a white man to these Indians was that of Verandrye in 1738-1742, when he attempted to cross the continent to the Pacific coast. David Thompson, of the Northwest Fur Co., was here in 1797, and Lewis and Clark wintered about 50 miles north of Bismarck in 1804-5. After that date many explorers and traders came this way, gradually extending their operations westward until they finally overran the whole region, even including the rougher parts of the Rocky Mountains. Supplies were sent to the fur-trading stations by boat up the Missouri from St. Louis, and the furs obtained from the Indians found their way to the outside world by the same route. The river at that time was a silt-laden shifting stream, just as it is to-day, and great difficulty was experienced in getting supplies to its upper waters. The river traffic was greatly stimulated by discoveries of gold in Montana in 1863, and light-draft steamboats were employed in the trade. This traffic continued to increase until the completion of the Northern Pacific Railway, when the slow and unsatisfactory method of boat transportation was abandoned, so that to-day vessels are seldom seen upon the muddy waters of the river.

The Missouri is one of the great drainage channels of the United States. Its total length is about 2,400 miles, and that part above the crossing of the Northern Pacific has a length of about 1,160 miles. The total area drained by this river is 527,155 square miles, a territory as great as that embraced in the States of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Although Missouri River may never again be utilized as a means of communication and transportation, it is destined to play a most important part in the better development of its drainage basin by furnishing water for irrigation and for the development of power.

Elevation 1,667 feet.
Population 3,873.
St. Paul 451 miles.

The town of Mandan, named for the tribe of Indians that formerly occupied this part of the country, is on the west side of the Missouri. It is essentially a railway town, being a division terminal. In coming from the east the traveler has had very few opportunities to see the rocks underlying the glacial drift, but west of Mandan the drift is thin or lacking and the bedded rocks are much more conspicuous than they are east of that place. In places about Mandan they are exposed in badlands, as shown in Plate IV, A.

A deep well that was drilled at Mandan a number of years ago with the hope of obtaining water for railway and town use penetrated sandstone and shale much like the surface rocks to a depth of 470 feet and then nothing but shale like that seen at Jamestown to a depth of 2,000 feet. The drill probably went nearly to the Dakota sandstone, which furnishes artesian water farther east in North and South Dakota, but as it did not reach that rock the exact depth of the Dakota is not known.

In 1876, when the railway extended westward only as far as Bismarck, this town was a mere frontier settlement with a wide stretch of Indian country to the west. On the west side of the river was Fort Abraham Lincoln, one of the important military posts of the time. Although the days of Indian warfare in this vicinity had passed, it was the starting point for many military expeditions into the Indian country. An expedition of this kind which left the fort in 1876 was the most eventful in the history of the border warfare of the region, as it resulted in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the slaughter of Gen. Custer and his immediate command. The Northern Pacific Railway has been built along or closely parallel with the route followed by the troops. (Seep. 71.) At Mandan the railway changes from Central to Mountain time, and the westbound traveler should set his watch back one hour.

West of Mandan the railway follows the valley of Heart River, and for the first time in North Dakota the westbound traveler can see the hard rocks well exposed. These consist of shale and sandstone (Lance formation), partly of marine origin, and represent the bottom of the sea that through later Cretaceous and part of Tertiary time covered the region.1

1The rocks exposed along Missouri River from the vicinity of old Fort Pierre in South Dakota to and beyond the crossing of the Northern Pacific Railway at Bismarck dip slightly to the north or northwest and are encountered in going up the stream in ascending order. First is the Pierre shale, which consists of a great mass of fine dark shale that carries marine shells wherever it has been found from the Canadian line to New Mexico. It was doubtless laid down when the entire Rocky Mountain and Great Plains regions were sunk below the level of the ocean.

This formation is overlain by a coarse, generally clean white or brownish sandstone, called Fox Hills, which was evidently at one time the sandy shore that followed the retreat of the Pierre sea. Sandstone as a rule is not good material for the preservation of fossils, but here and there the Fox Hills sandstone contains marine shells and almost everywhere the casts of sea weeds, which now resemble fossil corncobs. Until very recently this has been regarded as the last formation in this region that was laid down in sea water.

The Fox Hills sandstone is followed by the Lance formation, which consists of sandstone, shale, and coal beds. Few shells occur in the Lance, but those that have been found in the larger part of the area are fresh-water forms. The presence of many coal beds (composed of vegetation that once grew on the land and was buried in swamps) and of fossil leaves and trunks of trees in the sandstone and shale shows clearly that the Lance formation accumulated above sea level as material either brought down by streams and spread out over the even surface of the land or deposited in lakes. This formation covers much of the mountain and plains country north of Colorado, and in most of this broad area it contains nothing but fresh-water material. Recently, however, marine and brackish-water shells have been found in the upper part of the Lance in south-central North Dakota and also along Little Missouri River in the southwest corner of the State, which indicate that after the recession of the sea to the east at the close of Fox Hills time it reappeared and reached as far west as the Montana line. Then at the close of Lance time the sea again disappeared from this region, never to return, as all succeeding formations are of fresh-water origin.

For many years the age of the Lance formation has been in dispute. The fossil shells and the great dinosaurs (see p. 73) indicate that the formation is Cretaceous in age, but the fossil plants are Tertiary in their relations, almost identical with those of the overlying Fort Union formation. Although the question is not finally settled, it seems probable that the Cannonball member of the Lance formation is Tertiary and that the Cretaceous fauna which occurs in it is merely a surviving remnant of an old Cretaceous fauna which formerly lived in the open sea but which as this sea became more and more restricted and eventually inclosed by land preserved its old form even into Tertiary time.

Elevation 1,971 feet.
St. Paul 473 miles.

The railway follows Heart River for some distance and then turns to the right and climbs to the upland along Sweetbriar Creek. Here large bowlders of granite and other similar rocks may be seen on both sides of the track. These are particularly numerous and very large, some as much as 8 feet in diameter, in the vicinity of Judson, but scattered bowlders can be seen from the car window beyond New Salem.

Rocks of this kind are not known to crop out in the State, so it is supposed that the bowlders must have been brought here by ice, but as little or no other drift accompanies them, they are supposed to represent an earlier ice invasion than that which brought the drift east of Missouri River—an invasion so long ago that most of the clay in the drift has been washed away, leaving only the coarser material.1

1West of the Altamont moraine, which marks the greatest extension of the glacial lobe that occupied the Red River valley in Wisconsin time, there is only a thin veneer of drift on the upland and in some of the valleys. This outer drift is not bordered by any well-marked moraine, but here and there indications of such a feature occur along its outer margin on the west side of Missouri River. In the vicinity of the Northern Pacific Railway the moraine is characterized by a low bowldery ridge which trends nearly south from Judson. Outside of this moraine there is a marginal fringe of bowlders which extend as far west as Almont.

The general thinness of the drift west of the Altamont moraine indicates that the material which was brought by the ice has almost all been washed away, except the large bowlders; and this means that a much longer time has elapsed since it was deposited than there has since the material east of the Altamont moraine was laid down. Some geologists have argued that this outer drift represents a stage of glaciation very much older than the Wisconsin and have assigned it provisionally to the Kansan (one of the earliest stages known). Others have maintained that the granite bowlders which can be seen from the Northern Pacific Railway are too fresh and unweathered to have been dropped here during the Kansan stage, many thousand years ago; but the unweathered condition of the granite is due to the dryness of the climate and therefore is not a reliable criterion as to the age of the drift.

From all the facts at hand it is evident that the glacier which crossed Missouri River was older and thinner than the one which occupied the Red River valley, but the difference in age is problematic.

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Last Updated: 28-Mar-2006