Looking back at all of our travels in 2014, I realize that we followed a lot of the route that the Corps of Discovery—a.k.a., the Lewis and Clark expedition—traveled from 1805 to 1806. The Corps of Discovery left St. Louis in 1804, made their way up the Missouri River to a Mandan village on the Missouri River in the middle of North Dakota, spent the 1804-1805 winter there, traveled up the Missouri River, went across the Rocky Mountains in western Montana and northern Idaho, floated down the Salmon and Snake rivers into the Columbia River, went to the Pacific Coast, stayed there during the winter of 1805-1806 at Fort Clatsop in Oregon, and then turned around and went home again. Considering only one person of the Corps died on the trip (likely of appendicitis shortly after they left St. Louis), their journey was an amazing feat. What is more amazing is that a young mother and her infant son went along with them, endured all the hardships that the men did, and survived.
The Louisiana Purchase was for all the land drained by the Missouri River and President Jefferson wanted to know just what kind of land deal he’d made. So he sent out his men, Lewis and Clark, to follow the Missouri River; and as long as they were out that way, why didn’t they go ahead and find a route to the Pacific Ocean. They were to record everything they found: tribes, languages, flora, fauna, geology, and anything else interesting. And map the way as you go. No small task order.
This past summer, we followed the Missouri River downstream, past Bismarck, North Dakota which is very near where they spent the winter of 1804-1805 with the Mandan Indians. There they met Charbonneau and his wife, Sacagawea who went along with them on their journey. Sacagawea was a teenage girl who had her first child in February 1805. That child, nicknamed Pompey, was 2-months old when the Corps of Discovery started out for the Pacific coast that spring.
We visited Pompey’s Pillar National Memorial east of Billings, Montana where William Clark carved his name and date (July 25, 1806) in the sandstone formation beside the Yellowstone River. The carving is the only tangible evidence of the expedition on the route. His name is still there, protected from the elements by a glass frame. You can climb stairs to the top of Pompey’s Pillar and look out over the Yellowstone River plain.
In Great Falls, Montana, we visited the Lewis and Clark Cultural Interpretation Center in Great Falls, Montana. The river had five large cataracts within a short distance that forced the Corps on a 24-day long, 18-mile long portage around them. In present times, all of those cataracts have been inundated by hydroelectric dams. The falls that caused such stress on the expedition can only be seen in old pictures.
Last April, I took my last work trip to Hungry Horse Dam in Montana. The area is mountainous and absolutely gorgeous. On our way back to Boise, we followed part of the Lewis and Clark trail as it went through the mountains of Montana and past the gates of the Missouri River. We also drove over Lolo Pass where Lewis and Clark struggled over the mountains through the snow before reaching the Snake River. About 20 feet of snow was still on the ground when we were there. Believe me, struggle is the correct word here. The terrain is extremely rugged and steep and had to be horrible to cross on horses and on foot. And with a baby strapped to your back.
We went to Fort Clatsop on the Oregon coast this past week so see where they spent the winter of 1805-1806. The small fort they built was built in a rainforest on the south bank of the Columbia River near its confluence with the Pacific Ocean. Clatsop was the name of the tribe who welcomed them to their territory for the winter. In return, the Corps members dismantled a “deserted” village to use in making their fort. What they didn’t know was that they had dismantled the summer homes of tribal members. Before leaving to start home, they stole a canoe, not knowing that canoes were considered sacred to the tribes of the Oregon coast. So they left some disgruntled Clatsop behind. Ignorance is not always bliss for everyone affected by it.
We saw the salt works, the place where members of the Corps of Discovery boiled ocean water for salt for their return trip. They made about 200 pounds of salt that they stored in small barrels. When they heard of a whale that was harvested on the coast, Lewis and Clark bartered for 300 pounds of blubber. Sacagawea wanted to see the “big fish” so she joined them in their journey to the shore to see the whale. I wonder what she thought when she saw it. I don’t remember hearing what they did with the blubber, but I’m not sure they ate it. They might have used it to make candles or something.
Several towns in the area have statues of Lewis and Clark stating this spot was the end of their journey. Not really. The spots mark the halfway point of their journey. They got out there, then had to go back. Going back was much easier since they knew the country and going down the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers was easier than going up them. They left Fort Clatsop in March 1806 and were home by September.
If you haven’t read much about Corps of Discovery (Lewis and Clark expedition), you’re missing out on some interesting history. If it hadn’t been for the tribes along the way, they would have never made it. Several books have been written about the expedition from the Indians’ point of view. Looking back, it was the beginning of the end of their lifestyles. Within 50 years, the region was being settled and developed by whites who took over their land. Reading history from several viewpoints gives a truer picture of history. Expand your mind and read some history this winter!