Lost America

The Lewis & Clark Herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University houses almost all the plant specimens collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their journey, including many newly discovered species. The federal program Save America’s Treasures paid to rehouse the collection to modern standards.

We don’t usually editorialize or advocate here, but today I’m going to make an exception. As some of our fans may have noticed, blogging hasn’t been as regular around here as our usual standard. The reason has been a time-consuming job search for one-half of the writing team of “Frances Hunter.” Fortunately that’s now resolved. Hopefully that will free up time and emotional energy for fun things like this blog.

Anyone who has taken a peek at the bio section may have noticed that one of us has been fortunate enough to work in a history-related field. As of December 1, that will no longer be the case, for that job fell victim to the budget ax along with so many others in public history.

Consider the current state of this nation’s commitment to our own heritage (thanks to American Heritage magazine for their great editorial roundup of this information):

– Completely eliminated: Save America’s Treasures, the program that saved countless American courthouses, document collections, battleships, historic homes, Native American sites like the Acoma Pueblo, and artifacts like the Gettysburg Cyclorama, the Rosa Parks bus, and the Star-Spangled Banner itself.

– Completely eliminated: Preserve America, which helped small towns and ethnic neighborhoods plan how to preserve entire areas of historic character, developing programs like walking tours, markers, and historic drives.

– Completely eliminated: Teaching American History, which provides grants for public school teachers to undertake intensive study to better teach the American story to kids.

– Completely eliminated: We the People, which funded teacher training, purchased classic books and art for public schools, and sponsored the National Digital Newspaper Project, a program to digitize and put online historic American newspapers from the 1880s to the 1920s.

– Completely eliminated: The National Heritage and Scenic Byways program. Among many others, this ends support for the Heritage Area around the Knife River Village in North Dakota, where Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea, eliminated the chance for a National Heritage Area to preserve Lewis and Clark’s legacy on the West Coast, and ends support for scenic byways along the Lewis & Clark Trail including the Native American Scenic Byway in the Dakotas and the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway in Idaho — not to mention the Natchez Trace.

The Native American Scenic Byway guides visitors through four of the reservations of the Lakota Sioux. It encompasses many of the historic sites of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The program has been eliminated after a 20-year run.

I recently found a reprint of a great book called Lost America, by Constance M. Greiff. Originally published in 1971, Lost America is a pictorial tour of landmark buildings that had been destroyed by neglect and the wrecking ball. In her introduction, Greiff has an excellent analysis of what caused the wholesale destruction of thousands of architectural treasures in our country, particularly from the 1940s to the 1970s. Much of the demolition was the result of a promise made to the nation’s veterans. The GI Bill granted low-cost mortgages to the men who had fought so gallantly in World War II. To make way for the new homes, America’s small towns and villages were converted to suburbs. Urban renewal took much of the rest. After all, what were some crummy old buildings when people needed highways to drive in from their new homes and places to park once they got there?

Greiff identifies a particularly dangerous period for historical sites, writing, “We tend to denigrate the tastes of the generation or two immediately preceding our own at the same time we are attracted to the lifestyle of their predecessors, first, perhaps, as merely amusingly quaint, and then as the object of serious study and admiration … The buildings of [the] past were viewed with contempt as examples of crudity and bad taste. … They were objects to be discarded…” In another book from my library, The Gingerbread Age by John Maass (1957), the author writes of his efforts to photograph America’s Victorian heritage. There was a period of several years where Maass simply could not drive fast enough. He would get wind of a site to photograph and get there only to find out it has been torn down just days before.

The Genie Car Wash sign (1968), Austin, Texas.

My own city is a growing one in which the past is obliterated on an almost daily basis. Recently, citizens did battle to save a vintage neon car wash sign. The passion invoked by such an unremarkable object spoke volumes to the sense of loss experienced by ordinary citizens — again and again supporters  used the sad, desperate words: It’s all that’s left. (The sign was saved.)

The wanton destruction of the post-war era was symbolized most dramatically by the mindless demolition of the fabulous Penn Station in New York, which eventually led to the modern preservation movement. A lot of time has passed since then. The elimination of federal funding for historic preservation says it all about the nation’s current level of commitment to its heritage — it’s not worth a dime. Similarly, states are starving their historic parks and monuments with reduced hours and maintenance, and cutting back on access and preservation of historic archives. Though the battle is ongoing, budget cuts in Georgia aim to eliminate their state archives altogether, ending public access to hundreds of years’ worth of historical documents and artifacts.

A number of Lewis & Clark sites are seriously endangered. Just to cite the most recent example, a high-ranking official of the National Park Service warned that Lewis & Clark National Park in Astoria (site of Fort Clatsop) will be forever changed if a proposed terminal for liquified natural gas is built just three miles away. Visitors will no longer be able to experience the Lower Columbia River with a sense of the beauty that Lewis and Clark experienced.

Paddlers experience the Lower Columbia River Water Trail. Courtesy Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

What do you think? It’s all up to us, and we can’t count on any help from Uncle Sam this time around. If I ever saw a time when “think global, act local” applied, it is in the siege now underway on America’s historical treasures. What books will go unresearched and unwritten when archives are shuttered? What architectural treasures will be neglected, burned, or razed for short-term economic gain? Which of the post-war buildings, now aging themselves, will be labeled monstrosities and meet the fate of their Victorian predecessors? What sites of the Lewis & Clark Trail will be despoiled? What photographs will represent our era in a future Lost America? What will our children and grandchildren say about us?

Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever: Penn Station, 1910-1963. The New York Times wrote, “Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.”

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.

Location: Natchez,  Mississippi

View from Emerald Mound near Natchez, Mississippi

Our recent blog on Cahokia Mounds described the culture of the mound builders, whose handiwork all over the American landscape would have been part of everyday life for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Cahokia Mounds is a great stop for those in the St. Louis area. Today I want to talk about a couple of sites that are equally fascinating and easily accessible to those retracing the last journey of Meriwether Lewis along the Natchez Trace.

Emerald Mound was constructed about 1400. Second only to Monk’s Mound at Cahokia in size, it would have been the site of an enormous temple that served the ancestors of the Natchez Indians. It is believed to have continued to be used for about three centuries. Studying the residents and how they lived is frustrating because much of the site, including a number of additional mounds, was destroyed by farming before the National Park Service stepped into  preserve it  starting in the 1950s. Today, you can easily walk to the top of Emerald Mound.

These ancestors would have been among the Native Americans who violently repulsed the first Europeans to visit the area back in1542, when Hernando de Soto and the Spanish came calling. Unfortunately, the Spanish probably had the last laugh, as foreign diseases swept through the people of the area in the next decades. By the time the French ventured up the river 140 years later, the earlier civilization had been replaced by the Natchez, who lived not far from Emerald Mound in a city known as the “Grand Village.” Other smaller villages of Natchez Indians were scattered in the surrounding area.

The Grand Village was impressive to the French, though its ceremonial plaza and temple mound were much smaller than those found at Emerald Mound and Cahokia (it is believed to have been constructed back around 1200 and then resettled.) At first it seemed that the French and the Natchez might have a lot in common. The Natchez were ruled by a man known as the “Great Sun” (not unlike the French Sun King) and his brother, the Tattooed Serpent. A highly complex and stratified society still held proudly to its traditions on a spot with some of the richest farmland in America and a well-tended forest loaded with deer, walnuts, and peaches, plums, and figs.The French established reasonably decent relations with the Natchez and documented many of their beliefs, ceremonies, and customs, which included human sacrifice, ritual suicide, and infanticide.

In 1716, after four French traders were murdered by Natchez, the French set up a garrison known as Fort Rosalie. A handful of soldiers maintained the fort to protect French traders, those tobacco farmers crazy or desperate enough to seek their fortune in one of the most remote areas on the planet, their families, and their African slaves.

Mary with one of the reconstructed dwellings at the Grand Village of the Natchez

The Great Sun died in 1728, and his successor, the Young Sun, lost any control over his people, who were fed up with the French demanding more land for tobacco farming. In an incident reminiscent of today’s headlines, Natchez warriors strolled into Fort Rosalie and asked to borrow the garrison’s guns. To the surprise of the French, they proceeded to slaughter some 200 men and take hundreds of women, children, and slaves back to their village, where they were held hostage. (The slaves were given the option of becoming Natchez and many did.)

The incident proved to the last stand for the Natchez. In the war that followed, the French, along with Choctaw allies, hunted down the Natchez and took a terrible revenge. The Natchez were driven from the Grand Village and other towns. Those not killed were sold into slavery in the West Indies. A handful escaped to join the Cherokee and Creek, but their civilization disappeared forever. The region was completely destabilized, and war continued among area Indians for years, with lasting consequences. The French chose to arm their slaves, leading to a path to freedom and a free black society that had a huge impact on the history of Louisiana.

Archeological work began at the site of the Grand Village in the 1930s. Today you can visit the site, explore the mounds, and take in a small but very informative museum.

I know there are many other surviving Indian mound sites in the United States, including other smaller mounds along the Natchez Trace. I’d love to visit many more sites. If you have a site you recommend, please leave a comment.

For more reading:

Ancient Architects of the Mississippi

Indian Mounds of Mississippi

On a cold, rainy Sunday in December 1805, William Clark was dealing with sick men, hard-bargaining Indians, and spoiled elk.  However, he was quick to note in his journal that a welcome bit of novelty had crept into the dreary routine at Fort Clatsop. “We were informed day before yesterday that a whale had foundered on the coast to the S. W. near the Kil a mox [Tillamook] N. and that the greater part of the Clat Sops were gorn for the oile & blubber,” Clark wrote. “The wind proves too high for us to proceed by water to See this monster, Capt Lewis has been in readiness Since we first heard of the whale to go and see it and collect Some of its Oil, the wind has proved too high as yet for him to proceed.”

Beached blue whale carcass

Beached blue whale carcass

The sight of a whale would indeed have been a novelty. In 1805, the ascent of the New England whaling industry was still 15 years away, and Lewis and Clark would have known whales mostly as a source for lamp oil and candle wax.

One week after first hearing about the whale, Lewis and Clark got their first taste of the big fish from a couple of their own men who were employed at the Salt Camp. On January 5, 1806, Clark noted, “At 5 p. m. Willard and Wiser returned, they had not been lost as we expected.    they informd us that it was not untill the 5th day after leaveing the fort, that they Could find a Convenient place for makeing Salt; that they had at length established themselves on the Sea Coast about 15 miles S. W. from this, near the houses of Some Clat Sop & Kil a mox families; that the Indians were very friendly and had given them a considerable quantity of the blubber of the whale which perished on the Coast Some distance S. E. of them.”

Willard and Wiser had brought some of the whale blubber to Fort Clatsop. Ever the epicurean, Lewis was anxious to sample the whale meat. “It was white & not unlike the fat of Poark, tho’ the texture was more spongey and somewhat coarser,” he wrote. “I had a part of it cooked and found it very pallitable and tender, it resembled the beaver or the dog in flavor.”


“the Indian woman was very impotunate to be permited to go”

His curiosity piqued, Clark determined “to Set out early tomorrow with two canoes & 12 men in quest of the whale or at all events to purchase from the indians a parcel of the blubber.” The next day, he picked up one additional passenger. Sacagawea had heard about the whale and was not about to be left behind. Lewis recorded, “Capt Clark set out after an early breakfast with the party in two canoes as had been concerted the last evening; Charbono and his Indian woman were also of the party; the Indian woman was very impotunate to be permited to go, and was therefore indulged; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be permitted to see either (she had never yet been to the Ocean).”

By Tuesday, January 7, Clark’s party had reached the sea coast, about 35 miles from Fort Clatsop. Clark hired an Indian guide to pilot them to the location of the beached whale. On the way, he noted that “we met 14 Indians loaded with blubber.” Unfortunately, the Corps of Discovery was a johnny-come-lately to the party. When they reached the Tillamook Nation on Wednesday the 8th, the Indians were busily boiling blubber and siphoning the whale oil into a canoe. The whale itself, called E cu-la by the natives, was lying on “a very large Rock” and had been dead for more than a week. It was “nothing but a Sceleton.”

Clark estimated the skeleton’s length to be 105 feet. According to Private Whitehouse, the head was shaped “like the bow of a Vessell nearly.” Based on that description, it could have been a blue whale, the largest mammal on the planet.

Makah Indians cutting up a whale, 1910

Makah Indians cutting up a whale, 1910

Finding no blubber left on the carcass, Clark’s next task was to try to strike a bargain. “We tok out a few bones and returned to the Cabins at the mouth of the Creek, and attempted to trade with thos people who I found Close and Capricious, would not trade the Smallest piece except they thought they got an advantage of the bargain,” Clark complained. Clark and the men were finally able to purchase about 300 pounds of blubber and a few gallons of whale oil. Clark wrote testily, “Finding they would not trade I Deturmined to return home with what we have.”

The next day, Clark divided the load among the men in his party and set out on the return trip to Fort Clatsop. They found it tough going until they chanced upon a party of Indians, also transporting a heavy load of blubber.  “On the Steep decent of the Mountain I overtook five men and Six womin with emence loads of the Oil and blubber of the Whale,” Clark recorded. “One of the women in the act of getting down a Steep part of the mountain her load by Some means had Sliped off her back, and She was holding the load by a Strap which was fastened to the mat bag in which it was in, in one hand and holding a bush by the other, as I was in front of my party, I endeavored to relieve this woman by takeing her load untill She Could get to a better place a little below, & to my estonishment found the load as much as I Could lift and must exceed 100 wt.” He added, “Estonishing what custom will do.”

Jonah and the whale

Jonah and the whale

Clark’s weary party returned home to Fort Clatsop on Friday, January 10 with their precious oil and whale meat. Clark reflected in his journal, “Small as this Stock is I prise it highly; and thank providence for directing the whale to us; and think him much more kind to us than he was to jonah, having Sent this monster to be Swallowed by us in Sted of Swallowing of us as jonah’s did.”

Location: Across the river from St. Louis, between East St. Louis and Collinsville, Illinois

Liz at Cahokia Mounds. Once this was a metropolis.

That was an unplanned blogging break! Back now with regular blogging. This is the first of two posts I will do about sites of the early American culture known as the mound builders. I confess I never learned one particle of information about the mound builders in school, or in any documentary or book until we began our research into Lewis and Clark. I had no idea such an advanced civilization existed in North America. Cahokia Mounds is a gateway to an entirely different way of understanding the history of America before Europeans arrived on the scene.

The mound builders were the ancestors of the Indians that encountered Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and other European settles and explorers. They lived in sophisticated cities that centered around large temples and public buildings constructed as monumental earthen mounds. The earliest known mound city has been located near present-day Monroe, Louisiana and dates back to around 3400 B.C. For context, this was almost one thousand years earlier than the pyramids were built in Egypt.

The greatest surviving mound city can explored today at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. It seems that about 500 hundred years ago, Cahokia was the site of one of the largest cities in the world — far larger than, say, London in the time of Shakespeare. At its peak, Cahokia was home to over 20,000 people. It would be centuries before another city of comparable size (Philadelphia) arose in North America.

But of all the people that lived in this powerful center of human industry and imagination, nothing remains today but about 80 mysterious mounds. The largest of them, called Monk’s Mound, is 100 feet high and would have been topped by an impressive temple. It is the largest such structure found north of Mexico. The mound is named after a community of Trappist monks who made their home there in Lewis & Clark’s day (in fact, one of the monks baptized little Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea). The mounds, their shapes, and their layout are believed to have been governed by an ancient cosmology that is still only dimly understood.

Artist’s rendition of Cahokia in all its glory. No one knows what the original inhabitants of the site called the city. Courtesy Cahokia Mounds Museum Society.

There is evidence that Cahokia was a walled city, and some of the stockade has been reconstructed. The inhabitants followed the sun calendar which they followed with a giant calendar, now reconstructed and called “Woodhenge.”

Cahokia is believed to gone into decline around 1300, and was abandoned before the first Spanish and French explorers arrived in the area. (The mound builders lived on elsewhere — a story that will be in the second post, coming soon.) In fact, the Indians seem to have suffered through some unknown catastrophe that left the region greatly depopulated from what it had once been. In any case, the locals really didn’t know much about their forebears who once lived in the great city, though they continued to venerate its remains.

Generations of white settlers found the mounds fascinating. Early St. Louis was nicknamed “Mound City” because there were so many Native American structures to explore. During his travels during the Revolutionary War, George Rogers Clark, William Clark’s older brother, viewed Cahokia Mounds and spoke with the Kaskaskia Indians about the complex. Clark wrote, “They say they were the work of their forefathers and that they were formerly as numerous as the trees in the woods.”

In fact, the entire eastern portion of the country hosted hundreds of mounds, which were explored by scientists and dedicated amateurs like future presidents Thomas Jefferson and William Henry Harrison. Unfortunately, the heyday of excavation and study of the mounds was short-lived. Most of them were destroyed by development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cahokia Mounds has only been systematically studied since the 1960s, when preservationists successfully stopped a plan to build an interstate highway through it. What has been discovered includes beautiful carvings, ceremonial graves, and evidence of human sacrifice similar to that practiced at corresponding sites in Mexico.

We spent an amazing, delightful day viewing and exploring the huge mounds and learning about the life of the people who lived around them.The visitor center has excellent exhibits and a good orientation movie, along with a tape that you can use to guide you on a walking/driving tour of the great city. I suggest bringing a picnic lunch which you can eat outside or inside in a spacious break area that also contains some vending machines.

Back in St. Louis after our day at the mounds, we walked in the park that surrounds the Gateway Arch. We watched ducks and bunnies playing in the park, people of all types enjoying the Arch and the river, and a stupendous pink sunset behind the Old Cathedral. The silvery Arch reflected the colors back at the sun. It was not unlike the mounds made by the mysterious Indians at Cahokia. Both are expressions of the highest aspirations of mankind.

More great reading:

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (State of Illinois)
Cahokia: America’s Forgotten City (National Geographic)

We never thought that Lewis & Clark would be mentioned in the same breath as a Meat & Potato Burrito, but then again we have never eaten at the redoubtable fast-food chain Taco John’s.  A few weeks ago, we were approached by a representative of the chain, asking if they could include a photo we had taken along the Lewis & Clark trail in a website promotion they were doing.

It seems that employees from Taco John’s are engaged in an epic online road trip. They are trekking across the country to every city where a Taco John’s is located, documenting a local legend in that city. Somehow they found our photo of the Sergeant Charles Floyd Monument in Sioux City. And now we (and Sergeant Floyd) are part of the Taco John’s legend. Stop #142, to be exact.

Taco John's Road Trip Stop #142 - Sergeant Floyd Monument, Sioux City, IA

Taco John’s Road Trip Stop #142 – Sergeant Floyd Monument, Sioux City, IA

Taco John’s are not big in our home state of Texas (the only three franchises here are located on military bases), so we have not actually ever eaten at Taco John’s. But next time we’re in Sioux City, after we get done visiting Sergeant Floyd, we will. Thanks for the 15 minutes of fame, Taco John’s!

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)