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Archive for the ‘Missouri’ Category

Imagine being lost in an unfamiliar wilderness for sixteen days, without food, shelter, ammunition, or any way to let your companions know where you were. Such was the fate of Private George Shannon, the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Only 18 years old when he joined Lewis & Clark’s party in October 1803, Shannon literally grew up along the trail. In the course of the 2 ½ year journey, he suffered one of the most harrowing ordeals of all the men of the Corps of Discovery– facing the wilderness totally alone.

George Shannon

Artist’s rendering of George Shannon

George Shannon was born in 1785 in Washington County, Pennsylvania, an intelligent young man from a good family. He met Meriwether Lewis in Pittsburgh in 1803, while Lewis was awaiting the completion of the expedition’s keelboat.  Shannon was one of three men Lewis took along from Pittsburgh on a trial basis. He officially signed on at Maysville, Kentucky on October 19, 1803, and is usually considered one of the “nine young men from Kentucky,” although his ties to Kentucky were forged later. Shannon was hired onto the expedition as a hunter, at the rank of private. His salary was $25 per month.

Shannon wintered over at Camp Dubois with the rest of the Corps, and was placed in the first squad under Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor. He seems to have been considered a capable and reliable young man, who rarely caused the captains any trouble.The captains thought enough of Shannon’s abilities that they tapped him to discharge Pryor’s duties should Pryor need to be absent from the squad.

Shannon’s ordeal began on August 26, 1804, when he was detailed to search for two missing pack horses near Spirit Mound in present-day South Dakota. Shannon found the horses quickly and proceeded upriver, believing the rest of the Corps to be ahead of him. In fact, the Corps was actually trailing him. With only a rifle and a handful of ammunition, Shannon wandered alone in the wilderness for the next sixteen days, desperately trying to catch up to his companions.

A skilled hunter, Shannon was able to kill his own food until his ammunition ran out, several days after he went missing. He was forced to abandon one of the pack horses which gave out in the wilderness. Loading his rifle with a hard stick, he managed to bring down one rabbit. Otherwise, he survived by eating grapes, keeping the second pack horse in reserve as a last resort.

Finally, on September 11, 1804, Shannon spied the Corps of Discovery coming up the river. One can only imagine his emotions upon finally being reunited with his fellows. A relieved Captain Clark wrote in his journal:

here the man who left us with the horses 16 days ago and has been a head ever Since joined, us nearly Starved to Death, he had been 12 days without any thing to eate but Grapes & one Rabit, which he Killed by shooting a piece of hard Stick in place of a ball—. This man Supposeing the boat to be a head pushed on as long as he Could, when he became weak and feeble deturmined to lay by and waite for a tradeing boat, which is expected  Keeping one horse for the last resorse,—    thus a man had like to have Starved to death in a land of Plenty for the want of Bulletes or Something to kill his meat.

Private Shannon Lost Map

Children’s map – “Where in the World is Private George Shannon?”

Unfortunately for Shannon, it wasn’t the last time he got lost. On August 6, 1805, he was sent out to hunt near the Three Forks, a dangerous and confusing area inhabited by unfamiliar Indians. It was a stressful day for the Corps, with Clark ailing from a hurt ankle and Private Whitehouse seriously injured from almost being crushed by a canoe. A harried Captain Lewis wrote in his journal that night:

Shannon had been dispatched up the rapid fork this morning to hunt, by Capt Clark before he met with Drewyer or learnt his mistake in the rivers. When he returned he sent Drewyer in surch of him, but he rejoined us this evening and reported that he had been several miles up the river and could find nothing of him.    we had the trumpet sounded and fired several guns but he did not join us this evening. I am fearful he is lost again. this is the same man who was seperated from us 15 days as we came up the Missouri and subsisted 9 days of that time on grapes only.

Lewis sent Reubin Fields in search of Shannon, but Fields returned on August 8 and “reported that he had been up Wisdom river some miles above where it entered the mountain and could find nothing of Shannon.”  But the next day, Lewis happily reported that Shannon had finally rejoined the group.

while we halted here Shannon arrived, and informed us that having missed the party the day on which he set out he had returned the next morning to the place from whence he had set out or furst left them and not finding that he had supposed that they wer above him; that he then set out and marched one day up wisdom river, by which time he was convinced that they were not above him as the river could not be navigated; he then returned to the forks and had pursued us up this river.    he brought the skins of three deer which he had killed which he said were in good order. he had lived very plentifully this trip but looked a good deel worried with his march.

Shannon suffered some minor mishaps during the remainder of the expedition, but was careful not to get lost on the return trip. He returned up the Missouri River in 1807, on an ill-fated fur-trading expedition that had the added goal of returning Mandan chief Sheheke to his village. The party was attacked by the Arikara Indians, and Shannon suffered a bullet wound that broke his leg. By the time the party straggled back down the river, gangrene had set in and Shannon was not expected to live. Shannon’s amputated leg was buried at Fort Bellefontaine on the bank of the Missouri River. The young man survived, but his exploring days were over. He was still only 22.

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

Shannon went on to study law in Lexington, Kentucky. In the spring of 1810, William Clark recruited him to travel to Philadelphia to assist Nicholas Biddle with editing the Lewis and Clark journals. Clark’s letter of introduction stated that Shannon “possesses a sincere and undisguised heart, he is highly spoken of by all his acquaintances and much respected at the Lexington University where he has been for the last two years.”

After his involvement with the Lewis and Clark journals, Shannon returned to Kentucky, married into a prominent Lexington family, fathered seven children, and embarked on a turbulent legal and political career in Kentucky and Missouri that spanned almost three decades. George Shannon died suddenly August 30, 1836 at the age of 51. A St. Louis newspaper reported that his masonic funeral was attended by “a large assemblage of the ladies and gentlemen of the town … to offer their last testimony of respect to the remains of a good man.” He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Massie Mill Cemetery near Palmyra, Missouri.

The compelling story of Shannon’s ordeal in the wilderness continues to resonate with students of the Lewis and Clark expedition, especially young people. Shannon is the subject of several children’s books, second only to the expedition’s dog, Seaman.

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The Lewis & Clark journals provide a fascinating snapshot of the U.S. frontier on the cusp of the 19th century, when the explorers were navigating through a roiling melting pot of attitudes, cultures and nationalities.  This rapidly changing world is perfectly illustrated in Lewis’s journal entry of November 23, 1803. The Corps of Discovery was still en route from Louisville to St. Louis. Clark was under the weather with stomach problems, and Lewis took a break from navigating the difficult and rapid currents of the Mississippi River to pay a visit to a settlement he called “Cape Jeradeau” (more commonly known today as Cape Girardeau, Missouri).

There Lewis encountered the commandant, a striking figure named Louis Lorimier. Born near Montreal in 1748, Lorimier and his father had established an Indian trading post known as “Laramie’s Station” on a branch of the Great Miami River in Ohio. Lorimier was loyal to the British during the Revolution, and even led raiding parties of Indians into Kentucky. Awkwardly, William Clark’s brother George Rogers Clark had burned Laramie’s Station to the ground in 1782, ruining his business and destroying $20,000 worth of goods.

War Council at Lorimier's Store, by Hal Sherman

War Council at Lorimier’s Store, by Hal Sherman

So it was perhaps just as well that Lewis went alone to visit Louis Lorimier. A few years after George Rogers Clark burned him out, Lorimier had moved to Spanish Louisiana in the 1780’s and obtained a large land grant from the Spanish to establish a settlement for Indians, partly as a defensive buffer against possible American invasion. Lorimier’s district was huge, extending, in Lewis’s words, ” the distance of sixty miles W. from the river as far as the river St. Francis.” Under the Spanish crown, Lorimier was authorized to administer land grants, hold court, take the census, and maintain the militia for Cape Girardeau. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, in spite of being no great friend to the United States, Lorimier continued in much the same role and served as U.S. Indian agent.

Having entirely recovered his losses from the George Rogers Clark incident, Lorimier was now “a man of very considerable property.” Lewis witnessed this firsthand in a wild scene that was going on just as he arrived. He found Commandant Lorimier in the middle of a horse race, in which the prizes were the horses themselves. Lorimier lost four horses valued at $200 but “seemed to bear his loss with much cheerfulness.” But not everyone followed his example.

The Comdt. was busied for some time in settling the disputes which had arrisen in consequence of odds being given among the by betters; this seane reminded me very much of their small raises in Kentucky among the uncivilized backwoodsmen, nor did the subsequent disorder which took place in consequence of the descision of the judges of the rase at all lessen the resembleance; one fellow contrary to the descision of the judges swore he had won & was carrying off not only his own horse but that also of his competitor; but the other being the stoutest of the two dismounted him and took both horses in turn; it is not extrawdinary that these people should be disorderly    they are almost entirely emegrant from the fronteers of Kentuckey & Tennessee, and are the most dessolute and abandoned even among these people; they are men of desperate fortunes, but little to loose either character or property—

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, 1867

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, 1867

Once all disputes were settled, Lewis was able to present his credentials and found himself warmly received by Lorimier. He describe the commandant in vivid terms:

he is a man about 5 F 8 I high, dark skin hair and [e]yes; he is remarkable for having once had a remarkable suit of hair; he was very cheerfull & I took occasion to mention this to him    he informed me that it was on[c]e so long that it touched the grond when he stood errect—nor was it much less remarkable for it’s thickness; this I could readily believe from it’s present appearance, he is about 60 years of age, and yet scarcely a grey hair in his head; which reaches now when cewed (the manner in which he dresses it) nearly as low as his knees, and it is proportionally thick; he appears yet quite active—    this uncommon cue falls dow his back to which it is kept close by means of a leather gerdle confined around his waist—

Like many Canadian traders, Lorimier had taken metis wife, a French-Shawnee woman named Charlotte Bougainville. Lewis was invited home to meet Charlotte and the rest of Lorimier’s family. He found them to be remarkably “decent,” using the adjective three times in the course of one journal entry. “She is a very desent woman and if we may judge from her present appearance has been very handsome when young,” Lewis wrote of Lorimier’s wife. “She dresses after the Shawnee manner with a stroud leggings and mockinsons, differing however from them in her linin which seemed to be drawn beneath her girdle of her stroud, as also a short Jacket with long sleeves over her linin with long sleeves more in the stile of the French Canadian women.”

Lewis meets Lorimier - Mississippi River mural, Cape Girardeau

Lewis meets Lorimier – Mississippi River mural, Cape Girardeau

Lorimier and his wife had seven children. His eldest daughter caught Lewis’s eye: “The daughter is remarkably handsome & dresses in a plain yet fashionable stile or such as is now Common in the Atlantic States among the respectable people of the middle class.    she is an agreeable affible girl, & much the most descent looking feemale I hae seen since I left the settlement in Kentuckey a little below Louisville.”

Invited to stay for supper, Lewis wrote with approval, “The lady of the family presided, and with much circumspection performed the honours of the table: supper being over which was really a comfortable and desent onen I bid the family an afectionate adieu.”   It may have been the last decent meal the Captain would have for a while, at least until he reached St. Louis.

Plaque at Lorimier Cemetery, Cape Girardeau

Plaque at Lorimier Cemetery, Cape Girardeau

In 1806, Lorimier laid out the lots and streets for Cape Girardeau along the wide, flat riverfront. In 1808, the settlement was incorporated as the town of Cape Girardeau. Louis Lorimier, the Father of Cape Girardeau, died in 1812 and is buried in Lorimier Cemetery, on land that he donated to the community he founded. His wife preceded him in death in 1808 and is buried by his side.

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When the Mississippi Ran Backwards by Jay Feldman

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards by Jay Feldman

Every time I think I have read the last about James Wilkinson’s depredations during the days of the early republic, I turn over another rock and there he is. Our favorite scoundrel, heavily featured in our novels To the Ends of the Earth and The Fairest Portion of the Globe, had his sticky fingers in every land scheme and empire-building enterprise on the early American frontier. I recently came across another vintage Wilkinson story in a book by Jay Feldman entitled, When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes.

The founding of New Madrid is an interesting story in itself. The settlement was the brainchild of Colonel George Morgan of New Jersey, a merchant, Indian agent, and land speculator who had been thwarted by the U.S. government in his attempts to claim and colonize millions of acres of valuable land in what is now northern West Virginia and Illinois. Frustrated in his attempts to make a killing as a western empresario, Morgan was disgusted with the U.S. government and national allegiances were highly negotiable. When Spain came calling, he bit.

Don Diego de Gardoqui

Don Diego de Gardoqui, Spanish ambassador

In the summer of 1788, Morgan was approached by Spanish ambassador Don Diego de Gardoqui, who had been dispatched to New York by the Spanish king to do what he could to counter America’s westward expansion. As owner of the vast Louisiana Territory, Spain was concerned about the horde of American settlers streaming over the Alleghenies and settling along the east bank of the Mississippi. In hopes of  creating a buffer zone on the sparsely populated Spanish west bank, Gardoqui’s was authorized to offer Americans free land and free trade on the Mississippi in exchange for allegiance to Spain.

Gardoqui knew of Morgan by reputation, and contacted him to float the idea that Morgan apply for a colony grant in Louisiana. After weighing Gardoqui’s offer, Morgan decided he had nothing to lose. He crafted an application for about two million acres of land in Spanish territory, opposite the mouth of the Ohio River. He promised to recruit a large number of Americans to populate the colony, who would bring with them their families, slaves, livestock, and farm implements. Morgan proposed that he himself would command the new colony, and that freedom of religion and self-government would be a condition of its founding. Most importantly, he would be allowed to profit from the sale of land to any settlers he recruited.

It is perhaps a measure of Gardoqui’s desperation that he endorsed this proposal and assured Morgan that speedy approval from the Spanish king would be forthcoming. On January 3, 1789, Morgan embarked down the Ohio River with his first recruits, seventy men on four flatboats. Both to honor and flatter his Spanish patrons, he decided to name his new colony New Madrid.  Six weeks of perilous river travel later, he reached the Mississippi and beheld the lovely, fertile prairie he intended to build into a personal empire. Confident of success, he began laying out a town and surveying the land he declared to be “superior to every other part of America.”

James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson, scoundrel extraordinaire

Enter James Wilkinson. Wilkinson was already a year or so into his own machinations to align Kentucky with the Spanish crown in exchange for exclusive trading rights in New Orleans. When he got wind of George Morgan’s New Madrid project, he rightly concluded that Morgan was an intolerable threat to his plans. If a Spanish-aligned New Madrid became a trading port for Kentucky by which they could sell their goods bound for foreign ports, his monopoly on trade in New Orleans would be useless.

There was no time to lose. Wilkinson dashed off a letter to Spanish Governor Esteban Miro in New Orleans, claiming that Gardoqui had “hurried into confidential communications with Persons undeserving of trust.” He cast aspersions on the settlers Morgan had recruited, insisting they were “generally Debtors & fugitives from Justice—poor and without priniciple.” In a subsequent letter, he went on to smear George Morgan himself: “This Colonel Morgan … is a man of education and understanding, but a deep speculator. He has been bankrupt twice, and finds himself at the present moment in extreme necessity.” Ironically, he questioned the sincerity of Morgan’s allegiance to Spain and asserted that Morgan was “ruled by motives of the vilest self-interest.” He cautioned that the settlers in New Madrid would not make good Spanish subjects, saying they would undoubtedly retain “their old prejudices and feelings” and would “continue to be Americans as if they were on the banks of the Ohio.”

Self-serving or not, the allegations stuck. When an unsuspecting Morgan arrived in New Orleans in December 1789, he found Governor Miro not at all favorably disposed towards his colony at New Madrid. Miro informed Morgan curtly that he would not, after all, be allowed to sell land in the colony for his own profit. It would be given to settlers for free. Furthermore, while settlers were free to practice their own religion at home, the only public observance of religion allowed would be Roman Catholic. He expressed offense that Morgan had named the settlement New Madrid without the king’s express permission. Finally, he informed Morgan that he was appointing a Spanish commandant to rule New Madrid, instead of Morgan himself.

Esteban Rodríguez Miró

Esteban Rodríguez Miró, Governor-General of Louisiana

Morgan left New Orleans cursing Wilkinson’s name and returned back east, never again to see the colony he founded. He did, however, have the chance to strike his enemy one last glancing blow. In 1806, George Morgan was visited in Pennsylvania by Aaron Burr, who made veiled references to a bizarre scheme to raise a private army to seize Mexico and the Louisiana Territory. Morgan immediately wrote to Thomas Jefferson, warning him about the scheme, and Burr was arrested. The subsequent scandal led to a court-martial for General Wilkinson, in which his alleged involvement in the scheme was publicly discussed. However, both Wilkinson and Burr were acquitted.  George Morgan died in 1810, without ever seeing Wilkinson brought to justice.

As for Morgan’s colony at New Madrid, it soldiered on in spite of the setbacks. Although Morgan’s utopian plan for the layout of the city was quickly discarded, the settlement continued to grow at a respectable pace. When the Treaty of San Lorenzo opened the Mississippi River to U.S. trade in 1795, boats coming down from the Ohio River were required to stop at New Madrid to be inspected and pay duties on their cargo, making New Madrid a key location for trade between the U.S.’s western settlements and the port of New Orleans. By 1791, there were 200 new settlers in New Madrid. By 1803, the town had over 800 residents.

As it turned out, however, what had seemed initially like the perfect location for a town turned into a swampy nightmare. The wild, unpredictable Mississippi often overflowed its banks, tearing away yards of riverbank at high water and taking part of the town with it. Heavy rains turned the flat prairielands of New Madrid into a stagnant swamp, rife with water-borne diseases.  When the U.S. purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, New Madrid lost its strategic position in Mississippi trade.  With both sides of the river now in U.S. hands, New Madrid became just another frontier river town.

Clearing the river after the New Madrid earthquakes

The final coup de grace came in 1811 and 1812. As it turned out, New Madrid was situated directly above an active seismic fault zone, three miles deep in the earth. A series of four devastating earthquakes between December 1811 and February 1812 literally shook the town to ruins.

More interesting reading:

The Spanish Conspiracy

An Artist in Treason

William Clark and the New Madrid Earthquakes

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Meriwether Lewis by John Lanzalotti (2000). This bust was placed in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond in 2008.

You might think that after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from the West to great acclaim as national heroes, that every city and town associated with the Expedition would have wanted to erect a monument to their achievement. But in fact, outdoor public sculpture was unheard of in the United States until about the 1830s, many years after the Corps of Discovery had faded from memory. The real golden age of public monuments began in America after the Civil War, when almost every community wished to build a memorial to the dead.

The pace of building monuments reached its zenith around the turn of the 20th century. Since then, a number of very interesting Lewis & Clark monuments have been erected all along the trail, with a fresh wave coming recently for the Bicentennial commemoration.

In this series, we’ll take a look at some of the Lewis & Clark sculptures. Today I’ll begin with several monuments in the “Eastern Legacy” states where Captain Lewis prepared for the Expedition and William Clark recruited early members of the Corps, as  well as the way the Expedition is remembered along the first segment of the Lewis & Clark Trail in Missouri.

As many historians like to say, the Lewis & Clark Expedition actually began in the mind of Thomas Jefferson, so what better place to begin our sculptural journey than Charlottesville, Virginia, the home town of Jefferson and of Lewis himself.

Statue in Charlottesville, Virginia of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacagawea (kneeling), by Charles Keck (1919)

The Charlottesville monument seems to have been the first permanent memorial to Lewis & Clark in the United States. Here, Charles Keck captured the manly beauty and virility of Lewis and Clark in this statue that shows them very much as frontier soldiers, perhaps not so different from the American doughboys who had recently returned from World War I. From the awkward pose, it is difficult not to think that Sacagawea was a last-minute addition to Keck’s commission, and indeed her posture has been interpreted as subservient or cowering, drawing student protests in recent years. In 2009, a plaque was added to the statue recognizing Sacagawea’s contribution to the Expedition’s success.

"When They Shook Hands," by Carol Grende (2003). Statue located at the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, Indiana.

This bronze was commissioned by the Southern Indiana Visitors’ Bureau and several local boosters to commemorate Clarksville’s role as the home of William Clark in 1803 and the place where the two captains met that fall and began the planning of the Expedition and recruitment of members of the Corps of Discovery. Interestingly enough, sculptor Carol Grende of Montana accepted the commission in spite of an extremely tight seven-month deadline to complete the project before the bicentennial event in Clarksville, and the statue arrived in town just 30 hours before the ceremony began.

"Captain's Return," by Harry Weber (2006). This St. Louis statue of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their dog Seaman stands in the waters of the Mississippi near the Gateway Arch.

This bronze by St. Louis sculptor Harry Weber was commissioned for the final “signature event” of the Bicentennial, which commemorated the September day in 1806 when the Corps of Discovery returned, about a year later than expected and after most people had given them up for dead. It has become iconic as a gauge of how high the river’s waters flow every spring and summer in flood stage:

The Lewis & Clark statue on the St. Louis riverfront in flood stage. I have seen photos in which only Clark's hat is still visible.

Lewis and Clark monument on the waterfront in St. Charles, Missouri, by Pat Kennedy (2003)

Lewis, Clark, and Seaman were a common trio in Bicentennial commemorations. It is interesting to compare how bulked-up Lewis and Clark are here compared with their 1919 portrayal in the Charlottesville statue.

This grouping on the grounds of the Missouri state capitol in Jefferson City includes York, Lewis, Seaman, Clark, and George Drouillard. Bronze by Sabra Tull Meyer, 2008.

A day in the life early in the Lewis & Clark Expedition is depicted in this grouping. The artist who made this arrangement, Sabra Tull Meyer, has a fascinating website that tells the story of the monument’s creation along with great photographs of how the statues were created. Check out The Making of a Monument.

The Corps of Discovery by Eugene Daub (2000). This statue stands in Case Park on the Kansas City waterfront, and depicts Lewis, Clark, York, and Sacagawea with her baby Jean-Baptiste on her back.

The Kansas City monument was the centerpiece of the renovation of Case Park, a showpiece of urban renewal in downtown Kansas City. The monument is 18 feet high and is believed to be the largest Lewis & Clark memorial in existence.

Are there any outdoor sculptures of Lewis and Clark in the eastern states or in Missouri that I have missed? If so, let me know. In the next installment of this series, we’ll trek onward and see how Lewis and Clark are remembered on the Great Plains.

More reading: William Clark’s grave

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The ongoing flooding disaster along the Missouri River in the Great Plains and Midwest is a sobering reminder of man’s tenuous relationship with nature. Despite all our engineering feats and illusion of control, the earth still conjures up torrential rains, ice packs and snowmelts that make our levies and floodgates look pretty puny indeed.

A home is taken by the flood in Minot, North Dakota, June 2011

A home is taken by the flood in Minot, North Dakota, June 2011

The evacuation and inundation of Minot, North Dakota – just the latest community to go under – calls to mind the horrific Missouri River flood of 1993, which destroyed more than ten thousand homes, killed fifty people, inundated millions of acres of farmland, halted river and rail transport, and resulted in billions of dollars in damage. As the flood and its consequences roll downstream, we may be looking at an awful repeat.

For some perspective on the 1993 flood and some background on the more recent state of the Missouri River, I recommend a thoughtful book called Rivers of Change: Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark, by water resources consultant Tom Mullen. (We had the pleasure of meeting Tom on a Lewis and Clark trip along the Columbia and Snake Rivers in 2005, where he was the guest historian.)

Rivers of Change by Tom Mullen, Roundwood Press (2004)

Rivers of Change by Tom Mullen, Roundwood Press (2004)

Around 2002,  Tom returned to the United States after years of helping developing countries set up water systems overseas. As a way of easing his “reentry” into life in the United States, Tom went on a six-month, cross country odyssey – following the rivers that Lewis and Clark traveled, the Missouri and the Columbia.

Along the way, Tom talked to dozens of people who live and work along those rivers: farmers, waitresses, small-town historians, freight boat captains, ecologists, Native Americans, Fish and Wildlife employees, dam operators. As the context for his conversations, Tom asked the people about the floods of 1993 and 1997 that devastated the areas along the Missouri River. He also asked them how the building of dams in the 50’s and 60’s had changed their lives.

The result is a fascinating picture of the effect on lives and ecosystems when man attempts to harness nature. What Tom found out is that we have made terrific strides in using the power of the rivers for energy production, literally making it possible to “make the desert bloom.” On the other hand, dams and levies have tamed wild areas of the river along the Lower Missouri, making river channels deeper and more consistent, the current faster, and commerce more predictable – but also making for fast rising waters in times of flood. Development and dams further up the Missouri have provided power for residents but destroyed unique wildlife habitat along the rivers, with surprising consequences. They have also cut Native American tribes off from an important part of their culture.

There are tradeoffs everywhere, and one of the most refreshing things about this book is that Tom does not attempt to moralize. Reading this book is like taking a rambling road trip with a friend. You might not think of water management as a fascinating topic, but your eyes will be opened by the effect of the great rivers on the communities that live along them. Especially at a time when the devastating power of water and our inability to control it is all too evident.

I-29 in Corning, Missouri, June 2011

I-29 barely above water in Corning, Missouri, June 2011

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The Missouri River flooding in Omaha, Nebraska. That is Interstate 29 underwater. Photo by Larry Geiger.

Though we usually don’t cover current events on this blog, no Lewis & Clark aficionado can ignore the incredible scale of the flooding now taking place on the Missouri River. In the past few weeks, the upper Missouri basin has received nearly a year’s worth of rainfall. In addition, the forecast snow melt runoff is 212 percent of normal across the upper portion of the river system. The result has been massive flooding across Montana, the Dakotas, and now Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri. The Gavins Point Dam floodgates near Yankton, South Dakota, are pouring out enough water to cover a football field with 156 of water every one minute.

For more of Larry Geiger’s photos of the incredible flooding, please visit his slideshow page.

The Great Missouri Flood of 2011

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Location: Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri

Years ago, I read a wonderful article in American Heritage about the great jazz singer Ethel Waters. The author speculated as to why Waters sometimes wasn’t given her due alongside legendary greats such as Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. She concluded that living to old age does little to fascinate fans. Holiday was tragic and doomed; Waters was a fat old lady who hugged Nixon.

"His life is written in the history of his country."

William Clark is in much the same boat. Though Clark lived out a full, eventful, and historic life for decades after the Expedition, and survived Meriwether Lewis by thirty years, his fate is often lost in the controversy that rages on over Lewis’s death. A good place to pay tribute to the life and legacy of William Clark is by taking a pilgrimage to his gravesite at Bellefontaine Cemetery, a very large, beautiful Victorian cemetery that is the last resting place of many prominent St. Louisians.

Though Clark’s hair turned white at a fairly young age, he contined to be vigorous and active well into his 60s as one of the nation’s most important Indian diplomats, not to mention pater familias to his huge brood of children, stepchildren, and nieces and nephews. In 1832, Clark granted an interview to the famous author Washington Irving, who penned these notes:

General arrives on horseback with dogs — guns. His grandson on a calico pony hallowing and laughing. Gov. Clark fine, healthy, robust man — tall — about fifty, perhaps more — his hair, originally light, now grey — falling to his shoulders — frank, intelligent.

The impression Clark gave Irving is all the more striking considering that Clark was 62 at the time, not fifty, recently widowed, and that the “grandson” was his own eight-year-old son, Jefferson. Similarly, the artist George Catlin, whom Clark sponsored in going up the Missouri to paint his famous Indian pictures, wrote that Clark’s “whitened locks are still shaken in roars of laughter, and good jest among the numerous citizens, who all love him, and continually rally around him in his hospitable mansion.”

William Clark, by Chester Harding (1820). Courtesy St. Louis Mercantile Library.

A young lawyer named Salmon P. Chase, later to go on to fame as Lincoln’s Secretary of Treasury and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, met Clark two years later at a dinner party in Cincinnati. Chase didn’t know who Clark was, but wrote an arresting description in his diary:

This gentleman resides far up the Missouri, between the State of that name & the Rocky Mountains. He was attired in a brown hunting shirt, which opened a little upon the breast. It was furnished with a small cape which was copiously fringed. A quantity of fringe also lined the back of the sleeve from the shoulder to the wrist. The skirts were also fringed. The whole was confined to the body by a crimson sash which was tied at one end and the ends hung down to the thigh. The whole dress was extremely picturesque and the whole appearance of the old veteran highly interesting. He was asked if there was a post office in his neighbourhood, & answered with perfect naivete, that there was one about a hundred miles off to which he sent twice a month. He described several peculiar plants & flowers, & and proved as interesting in conversation as he was in appearance.

Not everyone was such a fan of Clark’s in his later years. A travel writer who lambasted Clark as “the shadow of a man, scarcely sane,” echoed others who considered Clark to be a man of the past, whose concern and friendship for the Indians was outweighed by the injustices that were actually befalling the Native Americans as a result of the treaties so painstakingly negotiated by Clark and others. Over the course of his career, Clark personally negotiated 37 Indian treaties that resulted in the extinguishment of Indian title to over 419 million acres of Western land.

The journalist’s cruel comment heralded a sudden downturn in Clark’s health. Late in 1834, Clark seems to have suffered a small stroke that left him with palsy and ended his lifelong habit of keeping a journal and writing letters. He was never really well again.

Physically, he was weak and unsteady on his feet. Emotionally, he was as big-hearted as ever, but he could not longer act as his family’s rock. Financial problems preyed on his mind as never before, and the many troubles of his sons (especially William Preston, who was a raging alcoholic) left him upset and drained. Though he kept his job as superintendent of Indian affairs, his assistant took over most of the complex work.

William Clark's monument was dedicated in 1904 for the centennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and rededicated in 2004.

By early 1838, Clark was suffering dizzy spells and had fallen several times. He moved in with his son Meriwether Lewis Clark and his wife Abby, but his health declined rapidly in the course of the summer. He died on September 1, 1838, just one month past his 68th birthday.

Clark was buried in the family tomb at the farm of his nephew, a wealthy St. Louis businessman named John O’Fallon. His funeral revealed his status and popularity in the community; it was the largest ever held in St. Louis, with thousands lining the four miles between downtown and the O’Fallon farm (present-day O’Fallon Park). Ironically, although the people prized Clark as a beloved representative of the past, they’d long since rejected most of what he tried to stand for, especially decent treatment of the Indians. Even as Clark lay dying, the Cherokee removal disaster known as the “Trail of Tears” was underway.

In the 1850s, after Bellefontaine Cemetery opened, Clark’s sons bought a large family plot on a bluff overlooking the Missouri. The graves of William Clark, his wife Harriet, and several of their children were moved to the new cemetery. The impressive obelisk and bust depicting a handsome and dignified Clark in the prime of life were unveiled in 1904 during the centennial of the Expedition with funds donated by Clark’s youngest son, Jefferson. It was restored and rededicated in 2004.

On our visit, we paid our respects by placing a Texas flag on the grave. I was struck by the fact that servants were also buried in the plot. Undoubtedly these were family slaves, and it was both touching and sad to realize how intertwined were the lives of masters and slaves in those years. It was also moving to see that some of the graves were recent, testifying to the family unity that still binds together the Clark descendants. Overall, this great American could not ask for a better resting place: a serene and peaceful spot surrounded by his family.

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