This year begins the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark

Sunday, January 12, 2003


With sunset light gleaming on his paddle, the young man in the old-fashioned military uniform pushes the canoe against a current as determined as the passing of time.

There's a camp knife at his waist, tucked into the red sash that is a sign of captain's rank -- and the captain is smiling as he launches into an old boat song. It's one Lewis and Clark's crew might have sung when they passed this point near St. Louis.

"Haul away," he sings loudly to the rhythm of the stroke. "Haul away, boys ..." Bluffs thick with woods, like the ones they saw, swallow the sound.

Scott Mandrell, portraying Meriwether Lewis, has his height and the same dark hair flecked with gray. Most of all, he has the bearing of a leader -- even though he knows it's going to be tricky to complete the job he and the other members of a living-history group are undertaking.

They plan to retrace the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during its bicentennial, which officially kicks off Saturday at Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, in Virginia.

The all-but-impossible things Lewis and Clark did with their all-American band -- a few dozen white men, a black slave, an American Indian woman and her infant, and the rest -- have long inspired admiration; but on this 200th anniversary they're getting extra attention.

Millions are paying tribute to the Corps of Discovery, and in remarkable ways. Later this year, for instance, Mandrell plans to start on horseback from the White House and, with other members of his group, continue aboard boats and on foot, all the way to Oregon's Pacific coast, as the real Lewis and Clark did.

Even now, it's a long, arduous trip -- and yet the physical rigors are only part of the challenge.

The hardest part, for all of us, may simply be remembering.

This was "our epic voyage," as historian Stephen Ambrose called it. How can we "remember" something so deeply absorbed in our national identity?

An incalculable part of what we are as a nation -- of the size and strength we have and of the burdens we carry -- followed, and to some extent flowed, from Lewis and Clark's long trip.

Before Lewis and Clark, European nations occupied parts of what would become the United States; it was by no means certain the narrow string of states along the Atlantic coast would grow into a continental power. Before the explorers, some tribes they'd encounter had never met white people, with all that portended.

Before them, no one from the United States had set foot in much of this vast land of plenty and of heartbreak. Their descriptions of inviting "bowling-green" plains, of "turrible" charging grizzlies, of mountains' majesty and the treacherous snowy passes where they nearly died helped establish a defining view of the West -- and of America itself as an optimistic journey.

"No matter how often I return to it I'm struck again and again, 'How did these guys pull it off?' The ingenuity, the integrity, the doggedness," says Gary Moulton, a University of Nebraska professor who edited a 13-volume edition of Lewis and Clark's journals.

The clay of the nation was still wet then, barely a generation after the Revolution. Today, that clay has been molded into the shape of a superpower that endured civil war, world wars, terror attacks.

How can we "remember," when so much has changed?

As we take their route again, we find pavement and dammed streams. Still, we follow them, feeling the rivers' familiar draw, that defining American call to shake loose, to seek something better up ahead, to walk the boundaries of this land, now stretching sea to sea.

We follow them, remembering but asking ourselves: How did the big, new America turn out, anyway?

A park in Iowa, a county in Montana, a river in Oregon, dozens of schools and businesses: Namesakes are everywhere along the route. Lewis & Clark Pest Control Services in North Dakota. Lewis & Clark Theater Company in Nebraska.

In Idaho, not far from where the explorers first met the Nez Perce, that tribe's tongue is taught in the language lab of a college called Lewis and Clark.

So this is one way we remember. There are many others.

At the spanking new, $7 million Illinois historic site near where the explorers launched up the Missouri River, local development officials calculate that each Lewis and Clark tourist will spend $146.

They're planning an extravaganza at a NASCAR track. Nonetheless, tourism director Doug Arnold cautions, "We're avoiding the word celebration."

That's because of Indian sensibilities. But many natives are energized, too, hoping to present a non-Hollywood picture of their heritage.

Tribal storytellers are getting ready, their themes: land, loss, survival.

"There came a point in our history ... when our land became desirable" to outsiders, says Rose Ann Abrahamson, a Lemhi Shoshone who teaches school near the Idaho-Montana line, where the expedition might well have failed or even perished without help.

There, Sacagawea, the young Shoshone woman who made the trip, fortuitously met her brother, a chief, and helped secure horses and guidance as winter bore down.

The Lewis and Clark hoopla has helped leverage long-sought funds for a commemorative center, says Abrahamson, a descendant of the chief. It's a way of guaranteeing tribal members jobs, land and a chance to preserve their history.

At a river bluff encampment of Discovery Expedition, members of the St. Charles, Mo.-based re-enactment group talk about the difficulties of maneuvering replica boats and about friendships they've made.

Mandrell, a schoolteacher trained in drama and a former military officer, tells of the personal expedition he's making through Lewis.

"I'm a greater patriot than I was, and patriotism doesn't mean the same to me," he says. "It's not, 'My country, right or wrong.' It's, 'My country -- make it the way it should be."'

On Jan. 18, 1803, President Jefferson wrote a secret letter to Congress, requesting $2,500 for a cross-continent expedition. To lead it, he appointed Lewis, the 28-year-old Army officer who was his private secretary.

Jefferson hoped the explorers would find a convenient water route, but he wanted more.

Keep notes on animal, plant and soil types, he said (Lewis recorded some 300 plants and animals new to science). Make maps (Clark's detailed maps "brought the American West together for the first time," Ambrose said). Observe the customs of Indians (the explorers described dozens of tribes).

Treat the Indians in a "friendly & conciliatory manner," he directed.

Jefferson had notified the ambassadors of France and Spain of the route. The Louisiana Purchase, transferring much of this land to the United States, was not finalized until shortly before the explorers set out.

Lewis invited his army friend William Clark to help lead the trip. From Pittsburgh, where boats were built in mid-1803, the expedition moved down the Ohio River, then up the Mississippi to the Missouri.

They spent the winter of 1803-04 near present-day Wood River, Ill., and the following winter in what is now North Dakota, among the welcoming Mandan Indians.

In the spring of 1805, they followed the Missouri River west, reaching its headwaters in the Rockies on Aug. 12.

Then came a harsh discovery: Seemingly endless mountain ranges separated them from Pacific-flowing rivers. The portage would be brutal. At times near starvation, they hauled tons of gear over treacherous mountain trails, then risked all on whitewater rapids.

On Nov. 7, Clark's field notes finally cheer: "Ocian in view! O! the joy."

They built a stockade, Fort Clatsop, and wintered near present-day Astoria, Ore. Turning east in spring, they retraced the route, and in September 1806 re-entered St. Louis -- where friends were astonished.

"We were supposed to have been lost long since," Clark said, "and were entirely given out by every person."

What did the trip accomplish?

Some, exasperated by bicentennial hype, say Lewis and Clark didn't matter. The West would have been settled anyway; and they failed to find the cross-continent water route (it doesn't exist, of course).

For others, the expedition is a mirror. It may reflect pro-diversity views or an environmental agenda.

How we see the trip has always varied, says Bob Archibald, president of the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.

He researched school history texts and found a pattern. "What's changed is us," Archibald says.

Texts mostly ignored the expedition at first, when the nation was busy taming the wilderness. When the frontier seemed to have been conquered, "textbooks started to get nostalgic." Later, Sacagawea's place grew with the women's movement, York's with the civil rights movement.

Today, Lewis and Clark are still a vehicle for teaching, but that doesn't mean the lessons are easy.

At the Chemawa Indian School near Salem, Ore., teacher Debbie LaCroix, a Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, says the lesson is "a story of invasion... a story of crossing of boundaries, boundaries of sacredness."

Gerard Baker is a Mandan-Hidatsa who is in charge of a National Park Service exhibit that will travel the expedition route.

"We need to discover what's out there today," Baker says. "What happened to those rivers that Lewis and Clark traveled? ... What happened to those species? ... What was it like to lose your language?"

Traversing the expedition route, Baker says he's constantly learning, as Lewis and Clark did.


Events marking the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition will be held at hundreds of places along the transcontinental route. Below are "signature events," designated by the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.

JAN. 18, 2003. CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.: Inaugural ceremony at Monticello.

OCT. 14-26, 2003. LOUISVILLE, KY., AND CLARKSVILLE, IND.: Re-enactment of expedition leaders' meeting at the Falls of the Ohio.

MARCH 12-14, 2004. ST. LOUIS.: Three Flags Ceremony, marking bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase.

MAY 13-16, 2004. HARTFORD AND WOOD RIVER, ILL.: Commemoration of the expedition's entry into the mouth of the Missouri River.

MAY 14-23, 2004. ST. CHARLES, MO.: Festival marking expedition's sojourn as it started west.

JULY 3-4, 2004. ATCHISON AND FORT LEAVENWORTH, KAN.: Independence Day events in the Kansas City area.

JULY 31-AUG. 3, 2004. FORT CALHOUN, NEB.: First Tribal Council: re-enactment of meeting between expedition and Otoe and Missouria tribes.

AUG. 27-28, 2004. OACOMA, S.D.: Bicentennial events sponsored by Yankton Sioux and other tribes.

OCT. 22-31, 2004. BISMARCK, N.D.: Circles of Culture, events at the sites where the expedition spent the winter.

JUNE 1-JULY 4, 2005. GREAT FALLS, MONT.: Festival commemorating events in the area, including portage around falls.

NOV. 24-27, 2005. ASTORIA, ORE.: Observance of the expedition's arrival at the Pacific Ocean, with many events at Fort Clatsop National Memorial.

JUNE 14-17, 2006. LEWISTON/LAPWAI, IDAHO.: Commemoration sponsored by the Nez Perce tribe.

JULY 22-25, 2006. BILLINGS, MONT.: Commemoration at Pompey's Pillar National Monument, where Clark carved his name on eastbound return journey.

AUG. 17-20, 2006. NEW TOWN, N.D.: Events sponsored by tribes, focusing on Sacagawea's contributions to the expedition.

SEPT. 23, 2006. ST. LOUIS.: Bicentennial of expedition's return to St. Louis.


William Clark

William Clark was born on Aug. 1, 1770, in Caroline County, Va. He was a frontier militiaman and Army officer but had returned to his home near Louisville, Ky., when he was asked by Meriwether Lewis to join him in leading an expedition to the Pacific. Though he shared command equally and was called captain by Lewis and others, Clark was commissioned a lieutenant. He produced most of the journey's maps.

After the expedition, Clark became superintendent of Indian affairs for the Louisiana Territory and was governor of the Missouri Territory from 1813 to 1821, when it achieved statehood; after that, he resumed his Indian affairs position, sometimes meeting with delegations from tribes he had met on the expedition.

He helped raise and educate Sacagawea's son and daughter. He named his own son Meriwether Lewis Clark.

William Clark died in St. Louis on Sept. 1, 1838.

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis was born Aug. 18, 1774, in Albermarle County, Va., a neighbor of Thomas Jefferson. He was an Army officer when Jefferson, as president, named him his private secretary in 1801; two years later, he appointed him to lead the expedition to the Pacific. Lewis prepared by studying botany, medicine and other subjects under the leading scientists of the day.

After the expedition, Lewis became governor of the Louisiana Territory, but his fortunes declined. He also failed to make any progress on a promised edition of the expedition journals.

Lewis died mysteriously of gunshot wounds on Oct. 11, 1809. At the time, he was in rural Tennessee, en route to Washington to justify some expenses that federal auditors declined to pay. He had been troubled by that and had a history of intermittent depression, but whether he committed suicide has long been debated.

Hours before he died, an innkeeper said, he sat on a porch at sunset and looked "wishfully towards the West."

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