I went on Shore, & passed thro the plain passed Several noles to the top of a high artificial Noal from the top of this noal I had an emence, extensive & pleaseing prospect, of the Countrey around, I could See the meandering of the Little River for at least 10 miles winding thro a meadow of 15 or 20000 acres of high bottom land covered with Grass about 4 1/ 2 feet high, the high lands which rose irregularly, & were toped with Mounds or antent Graves which is to me a Strong evidence of this Countrey haveing been thickly Settled. Captain William Clark, July 12, 1804 (excerpt from The Journals of Lewis and Clark)
So – how did you spend your summer vacation? I used to hate those “start of the year” school assignments where we were supposed to chronicle our adventures, family trips, or just spending time hanging out. This year, however, I’m happy to report that my summer vacation was actually pretty relevant to my work in the GCPO LCC. For at least the last 15 years, I’ve been interested in learning more about the Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804-1806: I’ve read the historical accounts of the Corps of Discovery, and have always been fascinated by the incredible challenges, successes, and stories that came out of the iconic expedition to explore the vast Louisiana Purchase. So, my family and I decided to explore the L&C National Historic Trail, driving the backroads along the Missouri River, and stopping at various historical and interpretive sites along the way.
Our trip started at the Gateway Arch and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in Saint Louis, MO, and proceeded up the Missouri River all the way to Fort Mandan in North Dakota, where L&C spent the winter of 1804-05. Along the way, we learned about some of the major stories of the Corps of Discovery, read L&C’s journal entries, and saw many of the same landscapes
that they saw and described in their journals. We learned about Sergeant Charles Floyd, the only man to be lost on the entire 3-year journey (most likely died from a ruptured appendix), and visited the monument in his memory in Sioux City, Iowa. We learned about Private George Shannon, who at 19 years old, was lost out on the prairies of present-day South Dakota for more than 2 weeks and nearly starved to death because he had run out of bullets for his rifle. We learned about Sacajawea and her French trader husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, and their infant son, Jean Baptiste, who Sacajawea would carry on her back from Ft. Mandan to the Pacific Ocean and back. Sacajawea’s importance to the Corps’ success has been written about extensively – being a member of the Shoshone tribe, she was familiar with much of the mountainous terrain they would have to traverse, and the Corps would also need to procure horses from the Shoshones for the arduous journey across the mountains.
On our trip, I was most struck by the landscapes that we drove through, seeing the vast acreages of fertile farmlands in Missouri and Iowa, and giving way to the more wide open plains of South and North Dakota. Reading through the accounts of L&C, and their descriptions of what they saw, it was fascinating to reflect on how those landscapes have been transformed over the last 200 years. The Missouri River itself has been transformed; its length is about 25% less than it was during L&C's expedition modified through channel alterations and dams, which have provided irrigation, flood control, and hydroelectric power. Along the Missouri River valley, we saw vast acreages of corn and soybeans, thousands and thousands of acres, and the infrastructure to support the huge agricultural system. The agricultural landscape is further being transformed by the need for new energy sources. Ethanol, the corn-based bio-fuel, has been an important factor in the ever expanding acreages of corn in the Midwest, and wind farms are springing up in many locations across the landscape.
I guess it goes without saying that the last 200 years have represented a continuum of landscape transformation, a continuum which began long before Lewis & Clark’s expedition, and will continue on into the future. Which makes me wonder: what will the Missouri River landscape look like in 2216? What forces of change will exert their influence on the region’s climate, and flora and fauna? How will the agricultural and energy systems that are having such a dominant influence on today’s landscapes change in response to new climatic, economic and political forces? These are large questions, obviously, and unanswerable for the most part I suppose. Nevertheless, they are fun to ponder.
For next summer’s vacation, our family plans to continue our exploration of the L&C Trail, picking it up again in Montana, and following it out to the Pacific Coast where they spent the winter of 1805-06. It will be another opportunity to learn about the history of our nation and its native cultures, read about the landscapes of 200 years ago, and ponder life’s larger questions. I can't wait!
Head to my L&C album on Flickr to see the rest of my photos.