A few weeks ago, Michael Petty, 55, a professor of American history at Montgomery College's Rockville campus, spent eight days traveling part of the route (1,346 miles) of legendary explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. On the 200th anniversary of the start of the expedition, Petty followed the first leg of the trip from Missouri to North Dakota, traveling alone. Following are excerpts from his journal about the adventure.
"The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river and such principal streams of it, as, by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce."
So said President Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, captain of the newly formed Corps of Discovery, in l803. In August, Lewis, a fellow Virginian and neighbor of Jefferson's, took his keelboat down the Ohio River to reconnoiter with William Clark, his co-captain on the two-year journey.
I had no such directive. But I can drive, hike, bike and canoe, so on May 22, I flew to St. Louis, rented a car and spent eight days following Lewis and Clark's incredible trip up the Missouri River.
Ever since I read Stephen Ambrose's best-selling "Undaunted Courage," I have always wanted to get out and actually see some of the same country that Lewis and Clark saw 200 years ago, to walk where they walked and, if possible, to see what has changed and what has remained the same. As a history teacher at Montgomery College in Rockville, I feel very strongly that we instructors need to refresh our memories and studies of important historical events.
The story of Lewis and Clark is an incredible story and represents a wide range of people involved now and then (thousands of people are expected to travel some of Lewis and Clark's route over the next two years).
There is the story of York, a slave owned by Clark who confounded the Native Americans along the way with his skin color. There is the Shoshone woman Sacagawea, who helped guide the Corps of Discovery across the vast country. There were numerous guides, trappers and hunters of French and Indian descent who were instrumental in the ultimate success of the trek.
It took the Corps of Discovery five months to travel from St. Charles, just outside of present-day St. Louis, to reach Fort Mandan, their winter quarters in l804-05, located in what is today central North Dakota. Crossing Missouri alone took those men two months as they fought a strong downstream current. It took me one day by car, and though I walked and biked portions of their route, I always felt a tinge of guilt considering how easy it was for me to go upstream by land rather than water.
The Modern Corps
I reached the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and gazed out at the enormous intersection of waters that together drain one-fifth of the United States. It was here at Camp Wood that the Corps spent the winter of l803-04 preparing for the upcoming mission. Most of the men were young and accustomed to life in the wilderness, but also restless. They could see the mouth of the Missouri awaiting them, and they could also sneak off and be merry in St. Louis. There were a few cases of insubordination, and lashes were laid on the backs of a few of the men even before they went upriver. Discipline was vital to the success of the endeavor.
I visited the National Park Service's Museum of Western Expansion in St. Louis, located underground beneath the gleaming 630-feet high arch. I enjoyed a tour of the museum given by U.S. Park Ranger James Mayhew. He told our small group about Pierre Cruzatte, a one-eyed trapper who brought along his fiddle and would sometimes play at night when the Corps was encamped along the river. He also had the dubious distinction of shooting Lewis in the rear end during the return trip, mistaking him for an elk.
At St. Charles, I had the pleasure of speaking with several members of a modern-day Corps of Discovery. A group of some 50 men were taking a replica keelboat and pirogues upstream in a reenactment of the expedition.
This keelboat, however, had an engine in it as a concession to modern technology. I teased a boatman about that, and he said there was more water coming downstream these days. The river has been channelized, made straighter by the Army Corps of Engineers and dammed in places.
I spoke with Charlie Clark, the great-great-great grandson of William Clark, and he was very generous with stories of his past and his mission.
It was hard to leave this historic and yet so authentic gathering of men and women along the banks of the Missouri. It was here in May 1804 that Lewis joined the boats by horseback from St. Louis after finishing up some lingering business there. I noticed a large black dog frolicking in the muddy river water and sure enough, it was a modern Seaman. While in Pittsburgh, Lewis bought the Newfoundland-breed dog for $20 and aptly named him Seaman. Seaman went the distance across the country and back as well.
Echoes of the Past
I awoke on a rainy day and deemed it "Clatsop weather" because during the winter of l805-06, when the Corps was camped at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River in what is today Oregon, it rained almost every day for four months. I followed a state highway that paralleled the river halfway across the state of Missouri, and after a few hours of driving, I stopped in Defiance, a region formerly inhabited by the famous trailblazer Daniel Boone. I rented a bicycle for two hours and pedaled along some of the Katy Trail, a rails-to-trails route that extended 150 miles across the state.
Though damp, the scenery revealed bluffs rising above the river and an occasional view of the muddy turgid water rushing by. It was inspiring to look out and see the river so relatively unchanged, yet also disheartening when at the same overlook, the view was dominated by a steaming power plant.
In Independence, Mo., birthplace of President Harry S. Truman, I stopped for the night and slept not under a tent fighting the "trublesum miskitoes," as one boatman described those winged pests, but in a Best Western Hotel. I paid a visit to the National Frontier Trails Center and arrived just before closing time. I asked two volunteers behind the desk if the number of visitors had changed because of this bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark trip.
"Yes indeed, we've had plenty of people already, and it's not really summer yet," one of them said.
"Why the interest?" I asked.
"People come for the history of the event, the stories, true or untrue, and to travel."
Near Fort Atkinson, I reached a famous spot where in 1804 Lewis and Clark held their first council with the local Native Americans, the Oto and Missouri. The encounter went peacefully. Gifts were exchanged and the Corps continued upstream, pleased with their initial success but apprehensive over future meetings with the more hostile Sioux farther north.
I passed the spot where Sgt. Charles Floyd died of a ruptured appendix. He was the only casualty of the entire trip. It is amazing that given the uncertainty of where they were going, the obstacles they faced, the length of the trip and of course the constant fear of attacks by Indians, only one man died. Floyd was buried on a bluff, and today you can stand at the same spot and look over the Missouri flowing below and see a tributary named Floyd's River across the way.
The End of the Road
At the end of my trip and the end of Lewis and Clark's first leg of their journey in Fort Mandan, N.D., I stopped to view a fort (a replica of the one built by the explorers) and to assess my and their trips. The visitors center and replica fort were both built with private funds. The original fort washed away years ago and was located miles upstream. Here at the replica fort, I shared the guide with a large group of senior citizens, following the Lewis and Clark trail in RVs.
In 1804, the winter was bitter cold and one day the temperature plummeted to minus 45 degrees. On this day in May, it was 52 degrees with a strong westerly wind howling, but that was pleasant considering that I had tornado warnings in Iowa, hail in Nebraska and heat and humidity in Missouri.
Along my route, I noticed many new or spruced-up state parks dedicated to the Lewis and Clark event. There were numerous Lewis and Clark road signs along the interstates, state routes and back roads. If you play golf, there is a Lewis and Clark golf network along the way. Many hotels and inns are named after members of the Corps and at one visitor center, I noticed Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark candy bars.
During my trip, I constantly ran into fellow Americans and non-Americans also following the route of the explorers. Whether in RVs, buses or motorcycle groups or as individuals like me, people were filling the byways, visitor centers, museums and important sites. I spoke with many, and the consensus seems to be that what Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery accomplished was a truly American experience. It represents a story of hope, of survival, of camaraderie and of exploration.
For me, the journey reinforced my interest in history, in Americana and in particular this incredible trek of 1804-06 that had so many ups and downs and twists and turns. I learned a great deal about Lewis and Clark's trip. America's Heartland, as it is sometimes called, has a lot of heart and natural beauty as well.
People were generous with help, information, directions and infectious enthusiasm everywhere I stopped, so much so that next summer, I plan to return and follow the Corps route from Mandan to the Pacific Ocean, its route of l805.