Correction to This Article
A Nov. 5 article on the bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition misstated the date of their winter camp at Fort Mandan in what is now North Dakota. The expedition wintered there in 1804-05.
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Lewis & Clark Mapped It -- Then the Nation Remade the West

Exiting the Northern Plains

Reenactor Mike Caldwell celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
Reenactor Mike Caldwell celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. (By Ross William Hamilton -- The Oregonian)

A striking irony of the Lewis & Clark Expedition is that the Northern Great Plains -- the part of the West that the explorers praised as the most fertile, the most suitable for settlement and the most visually enchanting -- are now the least populated stretch of the United States and getting emptier.

There are fewer human beings living now in the Missouri River valley around Fort Mandan -- where the Corps of Discovery wintered with the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes -- than there were in 1803-04, according to David Borlaug, president of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation in Washburn, N.D.

Then there were about 5,000 Indians, Borlaug said, now there are about 2,500 North Dakotans.

All of North Dakota has been losing population for nearly a century, as has eastern Montana and much of the Northern Plains. The state of Washington, by contrast, now has more residents, 6.2 million, than the entire United States in the autumn of 1805, when Lewis and Clark canoed down the Columbia.

Yet, it was the Northern Plains and its staggering abundance of wildlife (buffalo and antelope, grizzly bear and elk, mule deer and prairie dog) that seized the imaginations and affections of the explorers.

"The game is gitting so plenty and tame in this country that some of the party clubbed them out of their way," wrote one member of the expedition, Sgt. John Ordway.

Lewis and Clark called the weather of the plains "salubrious," even after enduring a bitterly cold and windy winter at Fort Mandan. Traveling up the Missouri through the plains, Lewis wrote, "This immense river waters one of the fairest portions of the globe." He added, "It seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end."

Some of the explorers' enchantment with the Northern Plains derived from their nutritional status, the relatively dry climate and their as-yet unspoiled hopes of finding the Northwest Passage, according to John Logan Allen, chairman of geography at the University of Wyoming and a historian who has written books about the expedition.

"They are psychologically up on the plains," Allen said. "They are anticipating the discovery of a water route across the continent and nothing suggests to them, yet, that they won't find it. They are also better fed, eating fresh meat on nearly a daily basis."

Over the past 200 years, most settlers have found the Northern Plains far less salubrious. The most sizable sodbuster rush occurred about a century after Lewis and Clark, when railroads opened up the land and the federal government began giving it away in homestead tracts. A freakish spell of above-average rainfall dovetailed with the early homestead era, enticing many farmers to the Dakotas and eastern Montana. But the rain soon failed, and the Northern Plains have been bleeding people since the 1920s.

One of the few bright spots in the long, dismal depopulation of the region has been a boomlet of tourism triggered by the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

"For generations North Dakota hasn't really been on anyone's screen," said Borlaug, at the Fort Mandan Foundation in Washburn. "Now we are one of the last best places that people can't wait to get to. The heart and soul of tourism in North Dakota is heritage travel, with Lewis and Clark at the core."

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