The men of the Corps of Discovery suffered piteously from the bitter cold, hunger and exhaustion in their search for a passage – any passage – over the Rocky Mountains as they crossed the continent in 1805. Game on the hoof had virtually disappeared and they were reduced to eating dogs and horses. The snows came early, penetrating their thin moccasins and slowing their progress. And to make matters worse, the promised half day portage between the headwaters of the Missouri and the Columbia had turned into a tortuous endurance test over endless mountain ranges as far as the eye could see.
Yet as they struggled over one mountain range after another, the lowest mountain pass between Canada and Mexico lay shrouded in mist and fog nearby. Marias Pass sits only 5,213 feet above sea level, just 20 miles from Lewis’ July 22-25, 1806 campsite.
Camp Disappointment was the northern-most camp of the entire expedition – disappointing because it was here that they realized that the Marias River they had been tracing did not reach the 50th parallel, the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. Although they spent several days in the area, the cloud cover masked the pass which could have changed the entire course of westward expansion. Such weather is so common, in fact, that the pass was not actually discovered (by non-Indians) until 1889 by the Great Northern Railroad seeking a navigable route from Minneapolis to the west coast.
The “what if” here is not so dramatic as in some instances, for the party was not even near Marias Pass until the return trip. But just for the sake of argument, what if Lewis & Clark had discovered the Marias Pass on their outbound journey, thus saving untold misery and certainly months of travel?
Far from blazing the best path across the continent, the Corps of Discovery may have forged the most difficult: witness the fact that no subsequent overland travelers in the ensuing years of westward expansion chose to follow in the their footsteps.
Instead, the discovery of South Pass in present-day Wyoming by William Becknell in 1812 ensured that westering emigrants followed a more southerly route to the Pacific.
Would things have been different if Lewis & Clark had discovered Marias Pass?
Would wagon trains of emigrants have headed west over the Lewis and Clark Trail instead of the more southerly Oregon/California Trail?
Would the 28 month journey have been shortened substantially, certainly making the passage of the men less arduous but perhaps diminishing its impact on the American consciousness?