The Importance of Old Toby Banner
Merle Wells

Merle Wells was one of the West’s prominent historians. For many years he served as Idaho’s State Historian. Before his death, Mr. Wells penned these comments about the role of the Lemhi-Shoshoni Indian guide who took the Expedition from present-day Salmon, Idaho, through the Bitterroot Valley, and over the Lolo Trail.

By Merle Wells
In their remarkable effort to find their way past Idaho’s notable mountain ranges, Lewis and Clark concluded that they would have to rely entirely upon Toby, a highly competent Lemhi-Shoshoni explorer and guide.

Like Sacajawea, Toby belonged to Idaho’s Lemhi-Shoshoni band, which had gained horses for transportation and hunting, and which traveled over a wide western area. Along with his own country, Toby also had essential experience in travel across North Idaho’s Lolo Trail through Nez Perce mountain lands and ranges.

He knew that Lewis and Clark would be unable to take canoes down Idaho’s impassable Salmon River canyon, but that he could show them a Bitterroot valley and Lolo Trail route to a Clearwater River canoe route to lower Snake and Columbia navigable waters.

When William Clark wanted to go from Lemhi valley to examine Salmon River canyon obstacles, he employed Toby as his guide to demonstrate Toby’s assurance that any such Salmon River route was impossible. But Toby explained that he could take Lewis and Clark to an acceptable Lolo Trail route to canoe waters farther north; and they decided that they had no realistic alternative to Toby’s suggestion.

No regular well-traveled trail was available for Lewis and Clark to use on their way from Salmon River’s North Fork to Bitterroot Valley, so Toby had to escort them along a high, difficult climb over Saddle Mountain. (This is called “Lost Trail Pass,” when perhaps it should be called “No Trail Pass”!) Then they picked up a trail from Gibbon’s Pass north toward a Lolo Trail connection only a few mils above present-day Missoula. Then Toby took them up Lolo Creek past Lolo Hot Springs and had them ascend to Lolo summit and cross to an Idaho camping area at Glade Creek.

Rather than utilize some exceptionally difficult Lolo Trail grades to Rocky Point (where he might well have thought they never could have succeeded in climbing that otherwise ordinary route), he had them descend to Powell and Whitehouse Pond. They did not catch enough edible salmon to solve their food problem, but that route variation provided them an easier Lolo Trail access via Wendover Ridge.

From there on, Toby took them along their Lolo Trail route until he could show them how to reach their Clearwater destination. At that point, he decided that he had better return home before deep snows (already about to descend) blocked his trip back.

By then, he had accomplished a feat that no one else could manage. Lewis and Clark clearly understood how important he had been to them. Meriwether Lewis, in a brief summary of his expedition’s success, 26 September, 1806, after his return to St. Louis, gave Toby a great deal of credit for that accomplishment. He reported that Toby “informed us he would in 15 days take us to a large River in an open level country, west of these Mountains by a Route some distance to the north of the River on which they lived & that by which the Natives west of the Mountains visited the Plains of the Missouri for the purpose of hunting the Buffalo, pleased with this Information, after doubting from our observations as well as the corroborating testimony of many Indians that a passage was practicable thro’ those Mountains to the west, we hastened the preparations for our departure & set forward with our Guide” Toby.

Holding to Toby’s schedule for reaching a navigable Clearwater campsite by September 14 proved to be impossible for Lewis and Clark, but Toby’s plan worked, and he deserved full credit for that success considering that without him, Lewis and Clark had not been able to figure out a practical way to complete their journey.

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