Last week we told you how Captain Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition climbed a certain bluff near Dillon to see beyond the willows that lined the Beaverhead River, the same river which was at the time throwing cold water onto their otherwise pleasant adventure. Perhaps you wondered at the name. Why is it the Beaverhead River, and not the Elephanthead, or Bisonhead River? There’s a funny story, and a bit of trivia, about that.
The funny story wasn’t funny at the time. “Someday we’ll look back and laugh” is probably more accurate.
Lewis and Clark had been following the Missouri River for a long while, all the way from St. Louis to a little place now known as Threeforks, MT, where the Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson Rivers merge to become the Missouri. At that location they continued up the Jefferson River. After a while, Lewis and Sacajawea went on ahead of the main party to scout as easy a route as possible for their canoes that were heavily laden with supplies. After a time, they came to a fork in the river. It seemed natural to go right, up the larger and more westerly river (the Big Hole River), but Sacajawea was clear that they must keep to the smaller river. The one which had the rock formation in the shape of a beaver’s head, just visible about ten miles upstream. That made an excellent and unmistakable landmark. “We must go left!”
Knowing that Clark would probably go right (since that was, after all, the direction they needed to go, and it was the 'main' channel), Lewis wrote out a sign and placed it where it couldn’t be missed.
“Follow the Beaver Head”
Thus, the River's name came from the unmistakable rock formation, not from the presence of beavers in the vicinity.
In a bit of irony though, there were plenty of beavers in the vicinity. And, the tree where Lewis posted his sign … it was just perfect for some beaver with a misplaced sense of humor. This particular beaver waited with a gleam in his eye until Lewis and Sacajawea were out of sight, then rapidly felled the tree, taking it (and Captain Clark's directions) to contribute to his dam.
True to form, Clark reached this location and chose the larger and more westerly river. Also the more swift flowing and turbulent river, in which they swamped two of their canoes before Clark decided it was time for his sodden men to take their saturated supplies back to the fork, and this time keep left.
Once back to the mouth of the Big Hole, he did indeed “follow the beaver head.”
That’s the story. The trivia is this: Just 10 miles upstream, Clark climbed to the lookout we mentioned, and was able to see two other rock formations located about five miles further on (as the crow flies). One bore a striking resemblance to an elephant head, and the other was clearly a bison head (and hump). There’s no record that he recognized this nature-made public art, but they’re available for anyone to see when driving south on I 15 at Barrett’s junction, 5 miles south of Dillon.
The formal trivia answer, in case the question ever comes up: “This section of the Beaverhead River has the most dense population of animal head rock formations of any place on earth.” This designation is unofficial, but we stand by it until proven otherwise.
Here's the hidden gem entry from our Clue Me! map.
A rock named after a river?
The "Beaverhead" Rock formation, for which the nearby river was named
Why It's Interesting
Well, it's a neat rock formation. And it has been a trail landmark for long before the white folks arrived.
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