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Image of Lemhi Pass.
Pvt. Hugh McNeal joined Meriwether Lewis on a scouting trip in August 1805 near Lemhi Pass, above, when he came upon the beginnings of a stream that Lewis determined was the headwaters of the Missouri.

For a man fortunate enough to be the first white explorer to stand astride the headwaters of the Missouri River on the Continental Divide, Pvt. Hugh McNeal remains a mystery outside his appearance in the journals of Lewis and Clark.

We know that McNeal was born in Pennsylvania and joined the permanent party of the Corps of Discovery in 1804. On Clark’s 1825-1828 "List of Men on Lewis and Clark’s Trip, McNeal is listed as deceased. And that pretty much covers the information on McNeal outside the expedition. Still, he appeared enough times in the captains’ journals to show that he was considered a valuable member of the Corps.

Two incidents stand out, though. First, Lewis chose McNeal to accompany him in August 1805 along with John Shields and George Drouillard on a scouting trip to find the Shoshone Indians. On Aug. 10 Lewis named McNeal’s Creek, which enters today’s Beaverhead River at Dillon, MT.

On Aug. 12 Lewis wrote one of his more famous journal entries, describing his excitement at having found the headwaters of the Missouri. McNeal accompanied the captain and made Lewis’ journal: "… two miles below McNeal had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri."

Image of a grizzly bear.
Grizzly bears proved dangerous and troublesome to the entire Lewis and Clark expedition. One of the bears treed Hugh McNeal.

McNeal’s other claim to fame came with those troublesome grizzly bears. On the return trip in 1806, McNeal was directed to the lower portage camp to check on the cache. Near the Willow Run camp, McNeal surprised a grizzly. His horse, spooked by the bear, threw McNeal. As the bear lurched at McNeal, the private swung his musket. The stock whacked the bear in the head, breaking the stock and stunning the bear. McNeal used the opening to scurry up a willow tree. McNeal eventually outwaited the bear, which left in the evening, allowing McNeal to get on his horse and return to Lewis. As the captain reported, "There seems to be a sertain fatality attached to the neighbourhood of these falls, for there is always a chapter of accedents prepared for us during our residence at them." Yes, indeed.


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