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Plotting the Course of Lewis

and Clark through Idaho

Four documents from the J. Neilson Barry collection at Boise State University

A web exhibit marking the 200th anniversary of the Corps of Discovery's exploration of Idaho, August-October 1805

Senator William E. Borah and Congressman Compton White, Sr., at North Fork, Idaho, in the late 1930s, standing before the monument to Old Toby (Swooping Eagle), the Lemhi-Shoshoni guide who led Lewis and Clark from the Salmon River to the Lolo Trail.  Photo from the J. Neilson Barry collection, affixed to a flyleaf of Barry's personal copy of the Hosmer edition of Lewis and Clark's journals (1902).

The trail of Lewis and Clark back and forth across the continent has been of interest to the American public since the Corps of Discovery completed its epic journey in 1806.  While most general readers are satisfied with the small-scale maps that accompany popular printed editions of the Corps' journey, intense Lewis and Clark scholars, as well as local historians who have lived along the route, have wanted to know their exact path of travel down to the footstep.  Even though the Lewis and Clark journals contain a wealth of geographic detail, the numerous references to unnamed creeks, hills, meadows, and mountains have presented challenges to all who have wanted to trace their path with precision.

Generations of scholars have worked with Lewis and Clark's journals and notes to pinpoint these details.  One of them was J. Neilson Barry (1870-1961), a retired Episcopal clergyman who lived in Portland, Oregon.  He did not travel much, so he never actually saw much of their trail beyond Washington and Oregon, but he corresponded widely with historians, forest rangers, and local people who knew the country.  He took Lewis and Clark's survey notes and plotted them out against the highway and topographic maps that were available to him in his day, questioned people who knew the terrain, and meticulously as possible tried to trace the footsteps of the explorers.  In the pre-email, pre-Internet era in which he worked, research could be slow and painstaking, involving exchanges of letters over the course of years. But he was persistent, and he made real contributions to the knowledge of the Lewis and Clark trail.

In 1957, Mr. Barry donated his notes, papers, and correspondence to the library of Boise Junior College, now Albertsons Library of Boise State University.  Among those papers are his letters, notes, and sketch maps documenting his study of the Lewis and Clark trail. This web exhibit presents four sample documents from the Barry collection that illustrate his research methods.   They pertain to the expedition's foray into the Salmon River country of Idaho in August of 1805 and the Corps of Discovery's perilous journey across the Bitterroot Mountains in September and October.  The entire Barry collection, covering a wide range of topics of Pacific Northwest history, is available for research in the Special Collections Department of Albertsons Library.

Click on the thumbnail images below to see the entire documents

J. Neilson Barry annotated his copy of Lewis and Clark's journals, adding modern names of geographic features and drawing tiny sketch maps in the margins.  Here are pages 426 and 427 from Hosmer's edition of the Lewis and Clark journals (1902) with Barry's annotations. The journal entry describes, in Lewis' words, the day in August 1804 when Clark learned from the Lemhi Indians that the Salmon River was not a practicable route to the Pacific.

This is Barry's retained carbon of a letter he wrote to John N. Kinney, Supervisor of the Salmon National Forest, in 1932.  Barry was trying to pin down the site of an "eighty acre bottom" that Clark passed through on August 22, 1805, in the Salmon River country.  Barry kept carbon copies of many, but not all, of the letters he wrote. The journal entry to which Barry refers is found on page 154 of Volume 5 of The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. by Gary E. Moulton (1988).

In this 1940 letter to Barry, Roy A. Phillips, supervisor of the Nez Perce National Forest in North Idaho, discussed his work plotting the course of the Lewis and Clark expedition on its return trip eastward through Idaho in June 1806.  Phillips explains that he spent much time early in his career in the Forest Service "surveying, mapping, and cruising timber," and had definite ideas on how Lewis and Clark did their survey work.

J. Neilson Barry took the "course distance and remarks down the KosKoskee River" recorded by William Clark on October 10, 1805, and plotted them out to trace the expedition's progress down what is now known as the Clearwater River on their journey westward.  See pages 256-258 of Volume 5 of The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1988).

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