In 1804, a hopeful Thomas Jefferson, sent Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find the fabled River of the West. From the time of Columbus, explorers and statesmen had dreamed of a Northwest Passage, an all-water route connecting the trade routes of the Pacific to the Old World of the Atlantic. As president of a still-young nation, Jefferson had pressed for the Louisiana Purchase to strengthen American trade and settlement. The final $15 million agreement with France doubled America's size overnight.
On April 25, 1805, the Corps of Discovery camped by the riverside near the future site of Fort Union. Lewis and Clark hoped they were only weeks away from the Pacific via an all-water route, the mythical Northwest Passage. The group rested and celebrated their arrival at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. The expedition journals noted the spot's potential as a trade location between two navigable rivers, the early highways of commerce. Entering what would be Montana led the expedition into the land of the Blackfeet. Their first contact with this tribe was less than promising.
The Northwest Passage was not Jefferson's only priority. In fact, of the tasks assigned them, Lewis and Clark accomplished the most within the modern borders of Montana. Contact and negotiations with native tribes, the reconnaissance of suitable sites for trading posts and forts, and scientific accounts of the land's plants, animals, and scenic resources were all in keeping with Jefferson's hopes for the expedition.
Near Missoula, Lewis and Clark camped near present day Lolo in an area called Travelers Rest. They wrote about Lolo Hot Springs and the trek across the Bitterroot Mountains along the Lolo Trail.