Where can you most easily cross the wide Missouri? In central Montana, three tributaries join to form the start of the United States’s longest river.
The headwaters of the Missouri River are intimately connected with the Lewis and Clark expedition, and in particular, with the life of one of their members, the Lemhi Shoshone woman known to history as Sacagawea. It was here, as a young girl, that Sacagawea was taken captive by members of the Hidatsa tribe, and sold into forced marriage to Toussaint Charbonneau. In 1804, at Fort Mandan near Bismarck, North Dakota, Sacagawea and Charbonneau were hired by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery to provide translations through the next leg of the journey. It was in this part of Montana that Sacagawea helped provide guidance and direction for the expedition based upon the knowledge of her youth, the best evidence for the historical myth that she acted as the expedition’s guide.
The Corps of Discovery reached the source of the Missouri River on July 25, 1805. Capt. Clark found and named the three forks that flow into the river, and to this day, the area is known as Three Forks. The south fork was named the Gallatin River, after the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin. The middle fork was named for Secretary of State James Madison, while the western fork was named for President Thomas Jefferson. The expedition spent a few days at the site deliberating on what to do next. Perhaps spurred on by knowing who paid their bills, they chose to follow the Jefferson River route west four days later.
Later, in 1809, the headwaters were briefly the home of a fast, naked man. John Colter and John Potts, members of the Corps of Discovery, returned to the area for fur trapping and trading. During a skirmish with members of the Blackfeet tribe, Potts refused to surrender and was hacked to death. Colter was stripped of his clothes, and told to run for his life, pursued by hundreds of members of the Blackfeet nation. A fast runner, he allegedly outran all but one member of the tribe, who he overcame and killed. A fortnight later, he was found 200 miles away at Fort Raymond. The historical sign at the park notes that Montana hosts a marathon each year to commemorate Colter’s Run, only without the nudity and threat of imminent death.
As both the source of one of America’s great rivers, and for its historic value, the Founders Club of Montana bought up land during the 1950s and 1960s to establish a state park at the site. Today, the Missouri Headwaters State Park is more than 500 acres in size. There are many opportunities for hiking, recreational boating, and camping, or you can just enjoy the serene solitude and quiet found at the source of a mighty river.
Know Before You Go
The Missouri Headwaters State Park charges entrance fees to nonresidents of the state of Montana. Campsites and tipis may also be reserved for an additional fee.