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Archive for the ‘Science and nature’ Category

Hessian fly

After doing the research for our novels about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, I can’t imagine a richer historical setting than early America. And though we included a lot of the period details that captivated us, inevitably there were some characters that ended up on the cutting room floor. Among these was the Hessian fly, which was ravaging America in 1794, the year that Lewis and Clark met and in which our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe is set.

The notorious pest was Mayetiola destructor, known also as the barley midge, and it suddenly appeared in the farm country of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in the late 1770s as the Revolutionary War raged. This tiny insect, scarcely visible to the naked eye, was capable of chewing through entire fields of wheat in a matter of days and was soon dubbed the “Hessian fly” after the notorious mercenary German soldiers hired by the British crown. Many believed that the fly had arrived in the United States in the filthy straw bedding of the Hessians. That is unprovable, but most scientists today believe the fly did arrive in straw, probably horse forage, shipped in by the British for use in putting down the revolution.

George Morgan, a revolutionary officer and farmer near Princeton, left a vivid description of the fly, which carried out its destruction in the larval stage:

…White Worms which after a few days turn of a Chestnut Color — they are deposited by a Fly between the Leaves & the Stalk of the green Wheat, & generally at the lowermost Joint, and are inevitable Death to the Stalks they attack.

Pending a scientific explanation, the destruction caused by the fly was an occasion for soul-searching. The Reverend Timothy Dwight suggested that “nothing can more strongly exhibit the dependence or littleness of man than the destruction of his valuable interests by such minute, helpless beings, nor can anything more forcibly display the ease with which his Maker punishes his transgressions.”

New England Farmer. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

After the Revolution, the fly embarked on a relentless flight westward, moving at a rate of about 20 miles per year. By the 1790s, American wheat exports had plummeted even as revolutionary France ramped up demand. Many of the big names in early American science worked to combat the fly, including Thomas Jefferson. In May 1791, Thomas Jefferson (then U.S. Secretary of State) and his colleague and close friend, James Madison, took a leisurely trip through New England where they mixed hiking and fishing with serious business matters. Jefferson had agreed to chair a special committee of the American Philosophical Society that would gather scientific data about the fly and develop methods of fighting it. During his trip he conducted interviews with farmers and townsfolk about their experiences and observations, and even traced the origin of the plague back to a spot in present-day Brooklyn.

Jefferson continued to fit his research in with his work as America’s top diplomat. In the summer of 1792, he pupated live Hessian flies, watched them hatch and lay their eggs, and examined them through his microscope. Unfortunately, Jefferson was then caught up in his intense feud with Alexander Hamilton and then in the Citizen Genet affair, which led to his resignation the following year. He never again took up his involvement with the fly’s saga, though that didn’t stop Federalists from lampooning him as an eccentric who interrupted the public business to write “dissertations on cockroaches.”

Interpreter Merritt Caposella of Colonial Williamsburg poses with an 18th-century microscope. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg.

The fly moved south and west, wreaking more destruction. Between 1796-99, America exported virtually no wheat at all thanks to the fly’s depredations. Though Jefferson was no longer in the lead, the fly’s menace proved the kick-starter for the development of American entomology. By the early 19th farmers were starting to adapt their practices to combat the fly, specifically by delaying their fall plantings until after the fly was done spawning, planting varieties of wheat observed to be fly-resistant, and diversifying to other crops, especially corn and rye. The Hessian fly continues to munch on wheat to this day, never eliminated, only controlled.

For more reading, check out these excellent articles:

Fighting the Hessian Fly: American and British Responses to Insect Invasion, 1776-1789 (PDF)

Hessian Fly (Monticello)

Seeing the Light: A Close Look at 18th-Century Optics (Colonial Williamsburg)

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Aurora borealis in Alaska, 2006. Courtesy of Dick Hutchinson.

One of the most popular posts we ever did on this site was about the aurora borealis (also known as the Northern Lights) that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark observed in the fall of 1804, when they were getting settled at their winter camp near the Mandan villages in North Dakota. The Little Ice Age explains how the aurora borealis that year may have been especially vivid due to the extreme climate conditions that prevailed that winter. Clark’s thermometer, which is considered reliable, routinely reached -40. After a while, as Clark wrote, a temperature of -9 “was not considered cold.”

Clark wrote a wondering passage about his first sight of the incredibly beautiful natural phenomenon:

last night late we wer awoke by the Sergeant of the Guard to See a nothern light, which was light, but not red, and appeared to Darken and Some times nearly obscered, and divided, and many times appeared in light Streeks, and at other times a great Space light & containing floating Collomns which appeared opposite each other & retreat leaveing the lighter Space at no time of the Same appearence. — William Clark, November 6, 1804

The aurora borealis is caused by solar flares which interact with the earth’s magnetic field. The subatomic particles of the flare are directed in streams to the earth’s magnetic poles, appearing in the sky as colorful trembling arches and streaks in a variety of colors. And as it turns out, many more of us will soon have the chance to witness what Lewis and Clark saw, because in 2013, the aurora borealis will be visible further south than it has been in over a decade.

Aurora borealis over Norway, by Ole C. Salomonsen

The reason is a phenomenon called the solar maximum, a period of increased activity by the sun that results in solar flares, intense magnetic loops (sunspots), and the flipping of the sun’s North and South poles. NASA scientists have issued varied predictions on how strong next year’s solar max is expected to be. Depending on how strong they are, the geomagnetic storms could cause disruptions in our cellphones, television, GPS, and power grids, and even expose air travelers to high degrees of radiation.

It will also produce fabulous auroras. The most powerful solar storm ever recorded came in 1859, and produced auroras visible as far south as Los Angeles and Mexico. The storm caused widespread disruption to telegraph lines, and it was reported that gold miners in the Rocky Mountains could work through the night and that townsfolk in New England could read a newspaper by the brightness of the lights (only in New England would people read the paper during the aurora borealis).

While next year’s storm isn’t expected to be that strong, it shouldn’t be underestimated. It is difficult to predict the aurora borealis, but it should be visible in many parts of Europe and the United States, and spectacular in places like Alaska, northern Canada, Siberia, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. The best months to see the aurora are August-April, with peak viewing around the equinoxes in September and March.

The Norwegian photographer Ole C. Salomonsen is an aurora chaser. The amazing video above is called Celestial Lights. Don’t skip this one.

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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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Among the many geographical features that Lewis and Clark were on the lookout for during their transcontinental trip was evidence of volcanic activity. Based on burned-out pieces of lignite coal that floated down the Missouri River, rumors of volcanoes in the Louisiana Purchase territory had reached Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was intrigued enough to purchase a copy of Claude Nicholas Ordinare’s Histoire naturelle des volcans in preparation for Lewis and Clark’s journey.

Illustration of a 19th century volcano eruption

Illustration of a 19th century volcano eruption

Still, the science of volcanology was still in its infancy, and Lewis and Clark were uncertain what to look for. On August 24, 1804, the Corps of Discovery was passing through present-day Dixon County, Nebraska, when Clark noted the “Great appearance of Coal” in the area  and investigated a burning bluff:

Some rain last night, a Continuation this morning; we Set out at the usial time and proceeded on the Course of last night to the (1) Commencement of a blue Clay Bluff of 180 or 190 feet high on the L. S. Those Bluffs appear to have been laterly on fire, and at this time is too hot for a man to bear his hand in the earth at any debth, gret appearance of Coal. An emence quantity of Cabalt or a Cristolised Substance which answers its discription is on the face of the Bluff—

The area Clark visited was later known as the “Ionia volcano,” after the now defunct town of Ionia, Nebraska. The burning bluff was not, however, due to volcanic activity, but rather to the heat released by oxidizing minerals on the rapidly eroding river bluff.

A few weeks later, on September 14, 1804, Clark again set out to investigate a possible volcano that had been referred to in the papers of fur trader and explorer Alexander MacKay. “I walked on Shore with a view to find an old Volcano Said to be in this neghbourhood by Mr. McKey,” Clark wrote. “I was Some distance out    Could not See any Signs of a Volcanoe, I killed a Goat, which is peculier to this Countrey about the hite of a Grown Deer Shorter, its horns Coms out immediately abov its eyes.” As there is no volcanic activity in this part of South Dakota, the phenomenon observed by Mackay (and not by Clark) was likely similar to the burning lignite bluff Clark had seen earlier.

Though they did not know it, Lewis and Clark were destined to see some of the most spectacular volcanoes in North America.

On November 3, 1805, Sergeant Patrick Gass wrote in his journal:

The morning was foggy: one of the men went out and killed a fine buck. At 9 we proceeded on, but could not see the country we were passing, on account of the fog, which was very thick till noon when it disappeared, and we had a beautiful day. We at that time came to the mouth of a river on the south side, a quarter of a mile broad, but not more than 6 or 8 inches deep, running over a bar of quicksand. At this place we dined on venison and goose; and from which we can see the high point of a mountain covered with snow, in about a southeast direction from us. Our Commanding Officers are of opinion that it is Mount Hood, discovered by a Lieutenant of Vancoover, who was up this river 75 miles.

Mount Hood

Mount Hood

It was indeed Mount Hood, one of the volcanoes in the Cascade Volcanic Arc, which includes more than 20 volcanoes in present-day Canada, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.  Formed due to one tectonic plate sliding under another on the western edge of the continent, the Cascade volcanoes are among the most potentially dangerous in the world.

Lewis and Clark’s party observed five of these, including Mount Hood, Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Jefferson, named by the Corps in honor of their presidential patron. The last major eruption of Mount Hood occurred in 1781-1782, but a more recent eruptive episode had occurred shortly before Lewis and Clark’s arrival in 1805. At the downstream end of the Columbia River gorge, Lewis and Clark noted the rich bottomlands that had been partially formed by Mount Hood’s eruption less than twenty-five years earlier. But they did not realize that the bottomlands had been formed by Mount Hood, an active volcano.

Nor did they know that Mount St. Helens had recently undergone a significant eruption. An explosion at Mt. St. Helens around the year 1800 probably rivaled the 1980 eruption in size, spreading ash over central and eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana.

Mount St. Helens erupting, May 1980

Mount St. Helens erupting, May 1980

Lewis and Clark did know something of what to expect geographically when they got to the Cascade Range due to the explorations of George Vancouver, though they initially mistook a newly-sighted peak, Mount Adams, for Mount St. Helens, and mistook Mount St. Helens for Mount Rainier. By the time they had made winter camp at Fort Clatsop, however, Clark had sorted out his map and assigned the right names to the right peaks. Lewis and Clark noted the conical nature of some of the mountains, but they apparently did not draw the connection that they were in the midst of a chain of volcanoes. Minor eruptions in the 19th century filled in the gaps as explorers and settlers realized they were living in the midst of potentially explosive geologic giants.

Lewis and Clark’s last near-miss with volcanic activity came in the summer of 1806, when they passed to the north of the amazing thermal features of present-day Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone National Park is centered over the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest supervolcano on the continent. Like the Cascade volcanoes, the Yellowstone Caldera is considered an active volcano.

Boiling pots in "Colter's Hell"

Boiling pots in "Colter's Hell," Yellowstone National Park

In 1806, John Colter, a member of the Corps of Discovery, left the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Lewis’s consent to join a group of fur trappers. After splitting up with the other trappers, Colter passed through a portion of what later became Yellowstone National park during the winter of 1807–1808. He observed at least one geothermal area in the northeastern section of the park, near Tower Fall. After surviving wounds he suffered in a battle with members of the Crow and Blackfoot tribes in 1809, he gave a description of a place of “hidden fires, smoking pits, noxious steams, and smell of brimstone” that was dismissed by many people as delirium or exaggeration. Later, Colter’s observations were borne out by the reports of other mountain men who visited the area. The place he described was nicknamed “Colter’s Hell.”

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Location: 30 miles east of Portland, Oregon

Multnomah Falls

on our way to this village we passed several beautifull cascades which fell from a great hight over the stupendious rocks which cloles the river on both sides nearly, except a small bottom on the South side in which our hunters were encamped. the most remarkable of these casscades falls about 300 feet perpendicularly over a solid rock into a narrow bottom of the river on the south side.

it is a large creek, situated about 5 miles above our encampment of the last evening.    several small streams fall from a much greater hight, and in their decent become a perfect mist which collecting on the rocks below again become visible and decend a second time in the same manner before they reach the base of the rocks. — Meriwether Lewis, April 9, 1806

Multnomah Falls, a magnificent two-tiered waterfall with a total height of 620 feet, is the top tourist attraction in Oregon, so it’s hard to get a sense of how it must have appeared to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they passed the falls on their way down the Columbia River in 1805 and again on their way back east in 1806. Lewis & Clark did not name the falls; “multnomah” is believed to be a Chinook Indian word meaning “downriver” and has been in use since before 1860.

Multnomah is only the largest and most spectacular of a series of waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge. The falls are the results of one of the biggest geological cataclysms in the history of this planet: the Missoula floods sometimes called the “Bretz floods” after the geologist who uncovered them, J Harlen Bretz. In the 1920s, Bretz realized that the land in the Columbia River Basin was the product not of years of erosion, but of a cataclysmic event caused by the breaking of an ice dam near present-day Missoula. The dam’s failure unleashed floods of stupendous force, scouring out landforms in a matter of hours rather than millennia.

In the case of Multnomah Falls, the floods altered the Columbia Gorge so that the rock faces lining the river are sheer vertical drops rather than eroded cliff faces, allowing for the unique waterfalls that have delighted visitors to the area least as early as 1883, when a wooden pedestrian bridge was built, giving travelers on the newly completed railways a thrilling closeup view of the lush alcove and the falls therein.

The epic construction of the Columbia River Highway provided an opportunity to further enhance the visitor experience at Multnomah Falls. The engineer of the construction, Samuel Lancaster, wrote of Multnomah Falls, “the setting is ideal. It is pleasing to look upon; and in every mood, it charms like magic, it woos like an ardent lover; it refreshes the soul; and invites to loftier, purer things.” Logging magnate Simon Benson of Portland purchased the land around the falls and donated it to the city.

The cathedral-like expanse known as the “Benson Bridge” was built in 1914, and the adjacent lodge in 1925. These historic structures lend a warm and interesting human touch to nature’s handiwork at the falls. You reach the bridge by a slippery footpath — the falls are so mesmerizing that I almost went plunging to my death trying to walk and look at the same time, so be careful!

For more reading:

Lewis & Clark road trip: Palouse Falls (much more on the Bretz floods)
Lewis & Clark road trip: The Historic Columbia River Highway

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Having just endured the hottest, driest summer ever recorded in Central Texas, I admit I feel a certain reverse kinship with Lewis and Clark regarding the long, cold winter they spent at Fort Mandan. The winter of 1805-1805 was bitterly cold on the Dakota frontier. Clark started off the month of December noting in his journal that the days were “cold & windey,” “a Cloudy raw day,” and “a Cold raw morning … with some snow.” On December 6, Clark noted, “The wind blew violently hard from the N, N W. with Some Snow    the air Keen and Cold. The Thermometer at 8 oClock A, M, Stood at 10 dgs. above 0—.”

"Hunting with Sheheke: 'White Coyote' And An Expedition Member Approach Ft. Mandan Winter 1804-1805," by Michael Haynes

"Hunting with Sheheke: 'White Coyote' And An Expedition Member Approach Ft. Mandan Winter 1804-1805," by Michael Haynes

Unfortunately, it was only the beginning. The next day, Clark wrote:

The weather so excesive Cold wolves plenty, we only saved 5 of them, I with a party turned on the 8th out and found the Buffalow at 7 ms. distant    Killed 8 & a Deer, I returned with 2 Cows leaving men with remaining meat—    Several men badly frost bit—    The Themormeter Stood this morning at 44 d. below Breizing [freezing].

With temperatures dipping to – 44°F, frostbite became a major concern for Lewis and Clark. According to Or Perish in the Attempt by Dr. David J. Peck, frostbite occurs when the skin’s temperature drops to 24.8°F, the freezing point of pure, undiluted water. At that point, the fluids inside and outside the skin freeze, blood vessels spasm and leak fluid into the surrounding tissues, and circulation of blood slows down or even ceases altogether. In severe frostbite cases, the tissues are so oxygen-starved that major tissue damage occurs and the tissues can actually “die.” In milder cases, the skin becomes red, swollen, blistered, and extremely painful.

1804 was long before the age of Gore-Tex, silk underwear, and goose-down coats. Lewis and Clark’s men had only buckskins, flannel shirts, wool trousers and army coats to protect them from the severe cold, putting them at serious risk. Furthermore, because of the necessity of hunting, guard duty, and fatigue work, they could not always limit their exposure to the damp, blustery winds, deep snow, and sub-zero temperatures. Despite Lewis and Clark’s measures to protect them – the captains rotated Fort Mandan’s guards every half-hour at one point — many of the men suffered from frostbite on their hands, feet, and ears. At one point, poor York was even forced to contend with “a little” frostbite on his penis. It was no wonder. On December 17, Clark recorded a mind-blowing, bone-shaking 74° below zero.

Winter at the Mandan villages, 1804-1805

Winter at the Mandan villages, 1804-1805

Under such extreme conditions, Lewis and Clark’s men were not the only ones suffering from the colder-than-average temperatures. The Native Americans were also feeling the cold. Clark reported on January 10, 1805:

The Indians of the lower Villages turned out to hunt for a man & a boy who had not returnd from the hunt of yesterday, and borrowd a Slay to bring them in expecting to find them frosed to death    about 10 oclock the boy about 13 years of age Came to the fort with his feet frosed and had layen out last night without fire with only a Buffalow Robe to Cover him, the Dress which he wore was a pr of Cabra (antelope) Legins, which is verry thin and mockersons—    we had his feet put in Cold water and they are Comeing too—

Lewis was the boy’s primary care physician, and regrettably, there was not a whole lot he could do to warm the boy’s feet and restore circulation. The boy hobbled around for a couple of weeks before the tissue on his feet started to turn black and it was clear the damaged tissue on his feet would never heal. The only recourse was frontier surgery.

On January 27, Clark wrote in his journal, “Capt Lewis took of the Toes of one foot of the Boy who got frost bit Some time ago.” Four days later, he made another entry: “Sawed off the boys toes.” It seemed the unlucky patient had lost more of his metatarsals. Fortunately, the boy escaped gangrene, infection, or further surgery. Less than a month later, on February 23, Clark recorded, “The father of the Boy whose feet were frose near this place, and nearly Cured by us took him home in a Slay—.”

By that time, the Corps of Discovery was already looking westward. They had begun to hack the keelboat and pirogues out of the ice. By February 25, Clark noted in his journal that “The Day has been exceedingly pleasant.” The worst of winter was over, and the men were anxiously looking forward to proceeding on.

More interesting reading: The Little Ice Age

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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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Dying Buffalo by George Catlin

Dying Buffalo by George Catlin

For many people, the Lewis and Clark Expedition is forever linked with the American bison as a symbol of the great, unspoiled American west. Lewis and Clark encountered numerous herds of buffalo on their travels, some of which numbered thousands of animals. Yet it is surprising to realize that when the Corps of Discovery set out from St. Louis in 1804, the buffalo was already a species in retreat.

The American plains bison (or buffalo) originally had a range that encompassed most of the continental United States, from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Appalachian Mountains in the east. In his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, author Charles C. Mann theorized that early Native Americans in the east not only lived off the bison, but kept the herds regulated. Mann suggested that decades of heavier-than average rainfall, and the devastation of Native populations by the arrival of European diseases, enabled the bison herds to flourish in artificially large numbers.

1491 by Charles Mann

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann

However, this didn’t last long. As European populations got established on the East Coast and hunters and frontiersmen pushed west over the Appalachian mountains, they drove the buffalo before them. By the time Lewis and Clark were born, buffalo had already disappeared from western Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. William Clark, who grew up in Kentucky and served in the militia in the Ohio River Valley, had no doubt seen and perhaps hunted buffalo as a youth. But the animals had all but disappeared from these places by the 1790′s. By the time the Corps of Discovery set out from St. Louis in 1804, a buffalo sighting east of the Mississippi River was an increasingly rare sight.

Still, Lewis and Clark knew that vast herds were out there to the west, and were on the lookout. On June 6, 1804, Clark noted in his journal, “Some buffalow Sign to day.” The first buffalo were spotted by the Corps’ hunters at the Kansas River on June 28.

August 23, 1804, was a red-letter day for the Corps. Joseph Fields shot and killed a large buffalo bull. It took Lewis and about a dozen men to butcher and carry the buffalo meat to a bend in the river so it could be picked up by the Corps’ boats. The Corps salted two barrels of buffalo meat that day. Sergeant John Ordway, a native of New Hampshire, was in Lewis’s party and was especially excited because he had never seen a buffalo before. Ordway wrote in his journal, “I walked about 1 mile & ½ in it when I went for the abo. ment. Buffelow, I Saw the beds & Signs of a great many more Buffelow But this was the first I ever Saw & as great a curiousity to me.”

"Immence herds" of buffalo

"Immence herds" of buffalo were spotted on the plains

As the Corps pushed up the Missouri through Nebraska and into present-day South Dakota, the herds grew in number. In early September, Clark noted a herd which numbered about 500; a couple of weeks later, Lewis observed a herd which he estimated at 3000.

Lewis and Clark had their share of close encounters with buffalo, including a buffalo bull that charged Lewis and another that rampaged through their camp, coming precariously close to stepping on the heads of sleeping men. On April 22, 1805, Lewis recorded probably his most charming encounter with a buffalo:

I asscended to the top of the cutt bluff this morning, from whence I had a most delightfull view of the country, the whole of which except the vally formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing to the first glance of the spectator immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, & Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture.    we saw a number of bever feeding on the bark of the trees alonge the verge of the river, several of which we shot, found them large and fat.    walking on shore this evening I met with a buffaloe calf which attatched itself to me and continued to follow close at my heels untill I embarked and left it.    it appeared allarmed at my dog which was probably the cause of it’s so readily attatching itself to me.

A buffalo calf

Lewis attracted the attention of a buffalo calf

Buffalo meat became a staple in the Corps’ diet, and they relished the rich, nutritious meat during their travels in the great plains. Lewis recorded that he even “ate of the small guts of the buffaloe cooked over a blazing fire in the Indian style, without any preperation of washing or other clensing, and found them very good.”

To the Corps’ dismay, the “immence herds” of buffalo disappeared as they crossed the Rocky Mountains. After a long winter at Fort Clatsop subsisting on elk meat and fish, they were drooling for the taste of buffalo by the time they finally recrossed the Rocky Mountains and descended back into the Great Plains in the summer of 1806. On July 8, 1806, Lewis wrote happily in his journal:

Josh. Fields saw two buffaloe below us some distance which are the first that have been seen.    We saw a great number of deer goats and wolves as we passed through the plains this morning but no Elk or buffaloe.    saw some barking squirrils    much rejoiced at finding ourselves in the plains of the Missouri which abound with game.—

The Corps ate hearty on buffalo as they descended the Missouri River. In August, near present-day Chamberlain, South Dakota, Lewis noted with awe that he had seen the biggest herd yet: “I must have Seen near 20,000 of those animals feeding on this plain.”

1901 Bison Note

Symbols of the disappearing west: The 1901 Bison Note

Lewis and Clark would have been staggered if they had known that within 75 years of their expedition, the bison would be driven to the edge of extinction. At the time of the expedition, the supply of bison west of the Mississippi seemed inexhaustible. But considering the rate at which the bison had disappeared from the East, the decline of the “immence herds” of bison in the west seems almost inevitable. Towns, farms, and railroads are incompatible with grasslands and giant free-roaming bands of large animals. As people had already seen in the east, the doom of the bison was written in the relentless western expansion of the frontier.

More great reading:

Discovering Lewis & Clark: The American Bison

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Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, keeper of the French botanical gardens, was known for his theory of degeneracy. He also thought that the Earth was formed by the collision of a large body with the Sun and that it might be up to 75000 years old, rather than the 6000 year limit set by the Bible.

It is difficult to imagine now the depth of ignorance that European scientists possessed about the Americas back in Lewis & Clark’s day. The greatest and most influential naturalist of the 18th century, French scientist Georges Louis LeClerc, the comte of Buffon, published extensively on the New World and essentially trashed it. Buffon wrote that the New World had emerged much later from the biblical flood and was thus still in the process of drying out. It was possessed of an unhealthy climate and rife with underdeveloped animals that couldn’t hold a candle to the lions and elephants in the Old World. Worse still were the people, Buffon wrote. The Indians were hairless and cold-blooded, like reptiles, and possessed of tiny and weak genitals. And black people were becoming lighter, their African glory fading away from some mysterious environmental cause. (As Dave Barry used to say, I am not making this up.)

Considering that Buffon in his day had a reputation akin to that of Charles Darwin in a later era, these were devastating charges. Among educated Europeans, America essentially had a reputation as a degenerated land full of barbarous and debased people and animals. These notions filtered down to the man on the street as well: Hessian mercenaries who fought with the British in the American Revolution wrote home of their surprise to find their opponents to be white men not so different from themselves. Literary critics even blamed America’s climate for the continent’s alleged failure to produce a decent artist or writer.

In what has been called the most important American book written before 1800, America’s leading intellectual — Thomas Jefferson — took on Buffon and the European scientific establishment. First published in France in 1785, Notes on the State of Virginia would be the only book Jefferson ever wrote. He requested that one of the first copies off the press be delivered personally to Buffon.

Jefferson the surveyor overlooks the north grounds of the University of Virginia campus.

The first section of Notes is usually omitted from modern reprints, but Jefferson considered it to be the heart of his argument. Side by side in table after table, Jefferson compared the animals of the Old World and the New World by weight. In almost every instance the American animal was larger, in many cases astoundingly so. The American cow weighed in at 2500 pounds vs. 763 for a European heifer. The bear tipped the scales at 410 pounds vs. 153 for a European bear. And so on. Jefferson even estimated the weight of the extinct prehistoric mammoths being uncovered in the United States to counter Buffon’s jibe about the New World’s lack of elephants. Among those who helped Jefferson gather this data on American animals were Doctor Thomas Walker, explorer of the Cumberland Gap and relative of Meriwether Lewis, and George Rogers Clark, conqueror of the Old Northwest and brother of William Clark.

Jefferson also refuted Buffon’s statements about the Indians who were, he wrote, “neither more defective in ardor nor more impotent with his female than the white.” Indians were “in body and mind the equal of the white man.” Indians were at an earlier stage of the civilization process, it was true, but that was not due to a lack of native genius; in fact, Jefferson could cite numerous instances in which Indians had assimilated, a process which was bound to continue as they became more familiar with “husbandry and the household arts.”

This folk art piece was created between 1790 and 1800 and is known as "The Old Plantation." Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia.

Unfortunately, Jefferson decided to weigh in on the merits or lack thereof of the African-American race, and these statements hang over Notes of the State of Virginia today. His statements on the character and appearance of slaves are all the more tragic because of what we know to be his hypocrisy on the puzzlement as to just why those Africans were lightening up in the New World. In the interest of not letting Jefferson off the hook, a brief excerpt of his views on skin color:

And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

The underlying tone of the narrative section of Jefferson’s Notes is confrontational. In it, Jefferson submitted questions designed to embarrass and expose the great Buffon for his pseudo-science. Who, Jefferson wanted to know, were the European travelers who had supplied the naturalist with his information? Where was the data about the animals they encountered? Could it be examined?

A primo New Hampshire moose

Shortly after the publication of Notes, Jefferson was named United States minister to France. Though Jefferson generally avoided personal confrontations, he courted one with Buffon, calling upon him to present him with the hide of an exceptionally large American panther. Jefferson repeated many of his questions to Buffon in person, finally telling him that the American moose was so large that a European reindeer could walk under its belly. Buffon called Jefferson’s challenge, telling the upstart Virginian that if he could produce moose antlers that corroborated his story, he would retract his statements about the degeneracy of New World animals.

Jefferson swung into action, bombarding his contacts back in the States with requests for moose and other American animals that would essentially bludgeon the smirk off Buffon’s face for good. Governor John Sullivan of New Hampshire was deputized to get the moose, but unfortunately bungled the job and ended up sending Jefferson a hodgepodge of several animals. However, Jefferson apparently wore Buffon down with his dogged pursuit of the truth. Reportedly, Buffon promised Jefferson to set the record straight on New World animals, but he died in 1788 before he had the chance to write further on the subject.

Jefferson and his proteges continued lifelong work on examining the creatures, geology, and native peoples of America. Some twenty-five years later, the naturalist Alexander Wilson, a close friend of Meriwether Lewis’s, was still excoriating Buffon. In his landmark nine-volume American Ornithology, Wilson calls special attention to Buffon as a man who committed countless errors “with equal eloquence and absurdity.”

More great reading: Notes on the State of Virginia (full text)
Thomas Jefferson’s Archaeological Dig

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Approaching the Rocky Mountains (Montana)

Approaching the Rocky Mountains (Montana)

July 4, 1805 was an eventful day for the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The men were busily engaged in portaging their boats, supplies and equipment around the Great Falls of the Missouri. To celebrate the Fourth, they were going to end the day with a dance and a feast. Captain Meriwether Lewis, hard at work on his ill-fated attempt to build an iron boat, was planning to issue the last of their liquor supply. Despite the busy day, Lewis took the time to record the following curiosity in his journal:

since our arrival at the falls we have repeatedly witnessed a nois which proceeds from a direction a little to the N. of West as loud and resembling precisely the discharge of a piece of ordinance of 6 pounds at the distance of three miles. I was informed of it by the men several times before I paid any attention to it, thinking it was thunder most probably which they had mistaken    at length walking in the plains the other day I heard this noise very distictly, it was perfectly calm clear and not a cloud to be seen, I halted and listened attentively about an hour during which time I heard two other discharges and tok the direction of the sound with my pocket compass.

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park

At first Lewis thought the noise might be caused by water under pressure—an “Old Faithful” type phenomenon. “I have thout it probable that it might be caused by runing water in some of the caverns of those immence mountains, on the principal of the blowing caverns,” he wrote. “But in such case the sounds would be periodical & regular, which is not the case with this, being sometimes heard once only and at other times, six or seven discharges in quick succession.    it is heard also at different seasons of the day and night. I am at a loss to account for this phenomenon.”

Weather was an obvious culprit, as the area around the Great Falls seemed to be a magnet for volatile storms. The next day Lewis recorded, “In the couse of last night had several showers of hail and rain attended with thunder and lightning.    about day a heavy storm came on from the S W attended with hail rain and a continued roar of thunder and some lightning.    the hail was as large as musket balls and covered the ground perfectly.” However, Lewis found that the strange noises were heard at odd intervals, including when the weather was perfectly calm. Clark, the expedition’s weatherman, also noted with puzzlement that on clear, cloudless days, “a rumbling like Cannon at a great distance is heard to the west if us.” Clark added, “the Cause we Can’t account.”

On July 11, Lewis recorded that he had heard the noise again:

this evening a little before the sun set I heared two other discharges of this unaccounable artillery of the Rocky Mountains proceeding from the same quarter that I had before heard it. I now recollected the Minnetares making mention of the nois which they had frequently heard in the Rocky Mountains like thunder; and which they said the mountains made; but I paid no attention to the information supposing it either false or the fantom of a supersticious immagination. I have also been informed by the engages that the Panis and Ricaras give the same account of the Black mountains which lye West of them.    this phenomenon the philosophy of the engages readily accounts for; they state it to be the bursting of the rich mines of silver which these mountains contain.

Though he had initially pooh-poohed the accounts given by the Minnetare Indians, personal experience had convinced Lewis that the noise was real, even if his scientific mind could not immediately discern the cause. He wrote confidently, “I have no doubt but if I had leasure I could find from whence it issued.”

Black Hills of South Dakota

Another booming western place: The Black Hills of South Dakota

Lewis and Clark moved on and never did account for source of the noise. Later, other travelers corroborated the Corps of Discovery’s account of mysterious booming noises in the area of the Great Falls and the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Rocky Mountains are not unique in inspiring reports of unaccountable noises; it is not uncommon in mountain regions throughout the world. The rumbling, thunder-like noises heard in mountain regions are sometimes attributed to sudden avalanches, though it seems likely that Lewis would have readily identified this if it had been a plausible cause. Another possible explanation for sudden mountain booms is the natural creaking, groaning, and settling of the mountains themselves, as geographic forces converge and tons of rock presses in upon itself.

This is, however, as much a theory as Captain Lewis’s speculation. No definitive explanation for the cannon-like booms Lewis and Clark described has ever been found. The “artillery of the Rocky Mountains” remains a mystery to this day.

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