Dakota Datebook

Tracking the Grizzly

Friday, April 13, 2012


Discovering the tracks of a giant, unknown beast is a staple of monster stories. Fear can be heightened in that situation if one has an imagined notion of the ferocity of the being that left the tracks.

So, when Lewis and Clark, who had been told by their Indian friends about the great “white bear” and came across “tracks of white bear that was verry large “ (very spelled interestingly with two Rs), they could only imagine what might be lurking around them. They had seen a couple of the bears at a distance that week, but the bruin had run away.

On this date in 1805, 16 miles south of present day New Town, the corps came across a number of bison carcasses that had piled along the shore of the Missouri River. Lewis surmised that the buffalo, as he called them, had fallen through the ice and drowned.

The explorers had recently departed from the winter confines of Fort Mandan and were heading up river into the greater West. Two days previously, Clark observed fresh bear tracks as he walked along the shore near present day Garrison.

They speculated on the relationship of hunter and prey. They saw many tracks of the white bear, “of enormous size” Lewis emphasized, around the clump of bison carcasses. Lewis concluded the bears fed upon the dead bodies. His curiosity about the terrible bear was piqued. He wrote: “We have not as yet seen one of these animals, though their tracks are so abundant and recent. The men as well as ourselves are anxious to meet with some of these bears.

Accustomed to the size of bears near their homes in the East, it is likely the men were impressed by the enormity of the beast represented by the tracks. The grizzly bear was unknown to science at the time. Corps members had been warned by the Indians about the grizzly bear. The natives never attacked one unless they were in a party of six to eight men.

As the corps traveled up the Missouri, they continued to see bear sign. Toward the end of the month they finally encountered their first grizzlies in present day Montana. They shot them both, many times, but killed only one. They learned the Indians were right about the grizzlies.

Dakota Datebook written by Steve Stark


Tubbs, Stephanie Ambrose 200 Henry Holt & Co. The Lewis and Clark Companion



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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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