Archive for the ‘Book challenges’ Category

In January I signed up for Reading for a Cure, a great challenge issued by Wendy, doyenne of the book blog Caribou’s Mom. The idea behind the challenge is raise money for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, a renowned non-profit that funds research, state-of-the-art equipment and instruments, parent and patient care, and support for doctors at a number of leading pediatric hospitals. All you have to do is read–something most of us love to do anyway! 

I’ve been enjoying the challenge, and I think it would be a fun summer project with kids as well. In the first quarter, it seemed like I was batting 1.000 with my book selections. This spring, I wasn’t as lucky, for I didn’t find a single fiction book I liked much. But I made up for it by reading several terrific histories that I highly recommend!

Washington's Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer (2004)

Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer. 1776 wasn’t even over, and the Continental Army was on the ropes. It appeared the American Revolution was over before it had really begun. Then, in the dead of a New Jersey winter, George Washington crossed the Delaware to launch an audacious counter-offensive that turned the tables on the British and their Hessian mercenaries. David Hackett Fischer is one of my favorite historians, and this book includes many fascinating details on Washington’s momentum-changing campaign. But what makes this great book such a gem is the sweeping context that will make you ponder how character and individual decisions can have incalculable effects on world history. 

Landscape Turned Red, by Stephen W. Sears. I am going to visit the Antietam battlefield soon, so in preparation I read this classic study of the battle. In September 1862, the armies of Robert E. Lee and George McClellan met in a tiny town in southern Maryland; the result was the bloodiest day in American history, with over 3600 men killed, 17,000 wounded, and 1700 missing (most presumed dead). Sears does a great job from start to finish setting up the circumstances that led to the battle, relating a blow-by-blow of the ghastly fighting, and then detailing the unexpected aftermath, which included emboldening Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

When Elvis Died, by Neal and Janice Gregory (1992)

When Elvis Died, by Neal and Janice Gregory. Everyone in our family was a big Elvis fan. When Elvis died on August 16, 1977 (which happened to be Mary’s 10th birthday), we all felt we had lost someone really important. Elvis were more than another entertainer; he was a friend. I enjoyed reading this very interesting study of the media response to the King’s death and how it was anything but hype; rather, it was driven by intense public demand. In reading it, I was reminded of the recent movie “The Queen,” about how the royal family had to play catch-up after flubbing their initial response to Princess Diana’s death. The book ran out of steam as it moved on to the later commercial exploitation of the Presley phenomenon, but the chapters focusing on the enormous outpouring of emotion those few days in August are powerful and fascinating stuff.  

The Lost City of Z by David Grann (2009)

The Lost City of Z, by David Grann. This was by far the best book I read this spring. In 1925, famed British explorer Percy Fawcett disappeared in the Amazon jungle while on a quest for evidence of a lost Indian civilization. In the years that followed, finding Fawcett became something of an obsession, and several other adventurers lost their lives attempting to retrace his steps. As you might imagine, I love to read books about explorers, and this book gives great insight into Fawcett, a self-made man of proven ability who had taught himself to survive in one of the harshest terrains in the world. But by the time he mounted the “Z” operation, Fawcett was in his 50s, suffering from PTSD from his World War I experiences, and increasingly devoted to his interest in the occult. As a narrator, Grann is both interesting and unobtrusive, drawing us into his own quest without being intrusive or obnoxious in the vein of say, Tony Horwitz. A great read with a surprise ending. Highly recommended.


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Student protesters at the University of Virginia waved this sign at the base of Charlottesville's Lewis & Clark statue at a Columbus Day protest.

This month’s Social Justice Challenge for bloggers is to write on the topic of genocide, and you certainly don’t have to look far to find the topic raised in discussions of Lewis & Clark. In 2004, American Indian protesters stopped the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles in South Dakota during a bicentennial reenactment of Lewis & Clark’s journey. Their rhetoric included calling the Lewis & Clark Expedition “part of the great American lie” and the “dawn of genocide.”

The protesters probably represented a minority view even among Native Americans, many of whom worked during the Lewis & Clark bicentennial to highlight both their history and their present-day cultural survival. But the controversy raises the interesting issue of how historical evaluation changes over time. Since completing two novels about Lewis & Clark, I’ve talked to a lot of people about the explorers and what their journey means in the context of American history. Many people I have talked to have not given Lewis and Clark much thought since grade school, and remember them only as being the men who accompanied Sacagawea to the Pacific Ocean. One person thought they conducted their expedition after the Civil War.

The most striking conversation I had was with a woman who told me she’d seen the IMAX movie, Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West. “I wanted to shout at the screen,” she told me, “and tell the Indians to kill them! Kill them now!” Both the organized protests and this casual remark pointed up to me two things: how political correctness and historical revisionism can poison people’s minds, and how little people really know about what Lewis and Clark did.

Mandan chief Sheheke is memorialized along with Lewis & Clark outside the Interpretive Center in Washburn, North Dakota. This shot reminds of the Kinky Friedman song Nashville Casualty and Life: I could almost see them standing in the rain. Their brown and blinded faces, reflecting all the pain. And all the cars and people, passing by. And all the ringing memories that can make a banjo cry.

It’s true that Lewis and Clark were white guys, sent forth by Jefferson into Indian country. It’s true that they took with them a boatload of presents and a patronizing attitude. It’s also true that the encroachment of whites onto Indian lands in the nineteenth century led to war, ruin, and arguably, genocide against the Indian people.

What isn’t clear is that it was Lewis and Clark’s fault, or even that their journey was the first step in the downward slide of U.S.-Indian cultural conflict. Lewis and Clark had contact with Indians on almost a daily basis throughout the journey. For the most part, relations were cordial. One has only to read their journals for the evidence. The captains didn’t always like the people they met, but they took them as they found them. The Indians seemed to feel the same about the white men.

Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes, edited by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. (2006)

Jefferson’s purpose in having Lewis and Clark approach the native peoples was somewhat naïve: he wanted to create trade networks, exchanging manufactured goods for valuable furs. What he didn’t realize is that powerful trade networks already existed among the Native American peoples and Europeans, chiefly the British in Canada. Some of the trading partners, such as the Teton Sioux and the Blackfeet, were nonplussed at the Americans horning in on the action. Lewis and Clark were slow to pick up on this, and surprised at the conflict and resistance they encountered.

There is no hint that Lewis and Clark ever anticipated that just fifty years later, many of the native peoples they met and traded with would be on the ropes. Instead, cut off from contact with the United States and thousands of miles from home, they dealt with the Indians as partners, not subjects. Goods were freely exchanged between the expedition members and the Indians, as well as more intimate exchanges, (sex, medical treatment, ideas). All involved with the expedition assumed that the western part of the continent would be wilderness for many years to come. It was imperative to maintain good relations with the people who inhabited it. I’m quite sure genocide never entered their minds.

What happened in the succeeding decades was a debacle for the native peoples, and a blight on the history of our country. Some of the Indian people who met Lewis and Clark remembered their promise of friendship and felt betrayed.  The friendship was genuine, but the promise was broken – and the native people paid the price.

Further reading: Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?

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Shoshone men in 1872. Courtesy First People.

This month’s Social Justice Challenge asks bloggers to write about the subject of hunger. Unfortunately, Native Americans have often borne the brunt of hunger and malnutrition, an issue that wrenched the heart of Meriwether Lewis just as it should people of conscience today.

On August 13, 1805, when Captain Lewis first found the Shoshone Indians after weeks of searching, his first feeling must have been overwhelming relief. Lewis and Clark’s whole plan for crossing the Rocky Mountains depended on befriending these Indians and buying horses from them. It was for this reason that they brought Sacagawea along. The young woman was a native Shoshone who had been kidnapped by the Hidatsas when she was about 12, and Lewis and Clark were counting on her to communicate with her people, who had never before made contact with whites.

But it didn’t take long for a cruel fact of Shoshone life to register on Lewis. Here in the game-scarce mountains, he himself had not eaten meat for several days, and was “hungry as a wolf.” But these people were literally starving, with nothing to offer their guests but a handful of berries. As Chief Cameahwait, “his ferce eyes and lank jaws grown meager for the want of food,” explained, the Shoshones had been constantly terrorized by the powerful Atsinas and Blackfeet, armed to the teeth by British traders. It was no wonder Cameahwait wanted to make friends with this new brand of white man; maybe he could sharpen up the odds in favor of his own people.

This image shows a Nez Perce woman with her camas roots. This potato-like root was a reliable staple of the mountain people.

Lewis immediately assigned two men, including his best hunter, George Drouillard, to bring in some game. Even the intrepid Drouillard had trouble finding anything to shoot, but what happened when he did shocked Lewis as much as anything he had ever witnessed:

when they arrived where the deer was which was in view of me they dismounted and ran in tumbling over each other like a parcel of famished dogs each seizing and tearing away a part of the intestens which had been previously thrown out by Drewyer who killed it; the seen was such when I arrived that had I not have had a pretty keen appetite myself I am confident I should not have taisted any part of the venison shortly.    each one had a peice of some discription and all eating most ravenously.    some were eating the kidnies the melt [spleen] and liver and the blood runing from the corners of their mouths, others were in a similar situation with the paunch and guts but the exuding substance in this case from their lips was of a different discription.    one of the last who attacted my attention particularly had been fortunate in his allotment or reather active in the division, he had provided himself with about nine feet of the small guts one end of which he was chewing on while with his hands he was squezzing the contents out at the other.

As the famished Indians tore  at the raw meat, Lewis’s revulsion turned to compassion:

I really did not untill now think that human nature ever presented itself in a shape so nearly allyed to the brute creation. I viewed these poor starved divils with pity and compassion    I directed McNeal to skin the deer and reserved a quarter, the ballance I gave the Chief to be divided among his people; they devoured the whole of it nearly without cooking. I now boar obliquely to the left in order to interscept the creek where there was some brush to make a fire, and arrived at this stream where Drewyer had killed a second deer; here nearly the same seene was encored.    a fire being kindled we cooked and eat and gave the ballance of the two deer to the Indians who eat the whole of them even to the soft parts of the hoofs. Drewyer joined us at breakfast with a third deer.    of this I reserved a quarter and gave the ballance to the Indians.    they all appeared now to have filled themselves and were in a good humour.  

Shoshone boy, a grandson of Chief Washakie. Courtesy First People.

In a land of plenty — in a land where at leasat 30 million buffalo and 10 million elk roamed the nearby plains — these Shoshones fought and scrambled for every last scrap of meat. And unlike “Dances with Wolves,” the Indians neither reaped the benefits of the land’s bounty, nor shared it equally among themselves. Starvation had trumped the usual Native American ethics. Lewis wrote:

I observed that there was but little division or distribution of the meat they had taken among themselves.    some families had a large stock and others none.    this is not customary among the nations of Indians with whom I have hitherto been acquainted    I asked Cameahwait the reason why the hunters did not divide the meat among themselves; he said that meat was so scarce with them that the men who killed it reserved it for themselves and their own families.   my hunters arrived about 2 in the evening with two mule deer and three common deer. I distributed three of the deer among those families who appeared to have nothing to eat.   – August 23, 1805

Then as now, reality fell far short of the Hollywood ideal. Dominant and well-armed tribes — the Sioux, the Blackfeet, the Apaches, the Comanches — were well-fed, while other tribes were forced on into marginal territory and existed on the edge of survival. The dominant tribes faced Lewis & Clark and later white pathfinders with hostility. After all, they were in charge. Who were these new people coming in and claiming to be everyone’s father? Like hell!

The Wind River Reservation

As everyone knows, eventually it didn’t matter anymore whether you were a Shoshone or a Blackfeet Indian. All met the same fate, with surviving remnants of the people forced on to reservations. In the case of the Lemhi Shoshones, they ended up at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. It was one of the great acts of injustice in American history that victorious Americans took the best land for themselves and left the Native Americans with the most poor, remote, and undesirable land. The buffalo were virtually exterminated, and the Indians were forced into dependence on weekly government-issued rations of beef or bacon, flour, coffee, and sugar. Shamefully, these rations were often inadequate, and the Indian families would spend several days being hungry before the next ration day. The cycle of dependency was devastating for Indian culture.

Though much has changed in the last century, one fact remains: Native Americans are too often poor. On Indian reservations, the poverty rate is 32.2%, almost three times the national average. On some reservations, the lifestyle and infrastructure is still more like a third-world country than like the rest of America; in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, home of the once-mighty Oglala Sioux, one-third of the homes are still lacking electricity or running water.

Shoshone dance shield. Courtesy Chief Washakie Foundation.

And they are too often hungry and still dependent on government aid. Since food stamps do little good in remote areas — there aren’t many grocery stores around at which to use them — many Native Americans receive modern-day rations in the form of the Food Distribution Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This means that families still show up to get a monthly box, stocked with items such as juice, canned veggies, frozen or canned beef and chicken, dry beans, evaporated milk, flour, peanut butter, mac and cheese, and breakfast cereal.

It’s difficult not to feel helpless when faced with the long-standing, intractable, and devastating problems faced by Native Americans today. Many of the Native American charitable groups have dubious reputations: two that are outstanding are the American Indian College Fund, which funds more than 30 tribal colleges and dispenses more than 6000 scholarships a year, and Futures for Children, which provides mentoring and training to help young people graduate from high school and go on to college or vocational training.

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This month’s Social Justice Challenge asks bloggers to write on the topic of domestic violence. This issue was something that affected William Clark and his family on a very personal level.

No portraits of Fanny Clark are known to exist. We were inspired by this unknown woman by an anonymous artist of the period. From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Frances Eleanor Clark — Fanny to her family — was the youngest sister of the famous Clark family and the closest to William in age. While her brother was rugged and soldierly, Fanny was willowy and sensitive. She grew to be one of frontier Kentucky’s great belles, “the black-eyed beauty of Louisville.” It seemed she could have her pick of any man. But somehow, at age 17, she was persuaded to marry James O’Fallon, a 42-year-old Irish physician and rabble-rouser nicknamed “the divine physical.” It seems that O’Fallon had helped Fanny and William’s beloved older brother, the legendary George Rogers Clark, fight his alcoholism and other demons, and together the two men were hatching schemes that would make them rich and enable George to recover his lost greatness.

Unfortunately for Fanny and George alike, O’Fallon turned out to be a con man and a bully. Following their marriage in 1791, he first isolated Fanny from her family, then beat her every time she “stepped out of line.” Like many battered wives, Fanny concealed the abuse from George, William, and her parents, not wanting to ruin her brother’s chances for a comeback. But as it so often does, the abuse worsened. While pregnant with her second child, Fanny suffered a mental breakdown in which she heard tormenting voices telling her to kill herself. There was no longer any way to conceal the truth from her family.

George Rogers Clark by Charles J. Mulligan, 1909. Riverfront Park, Quincy, Illinois.

There are rumors—perhaps true, perhaps not—of an epic fistfight between George Rogers Clark and his abusive brother-in-law. The next time the historical record speaks of the not-so-good doctor, is the courts settling his estate. O’Fallon’s fate and resting place is unknown, but it is impossible not to wonder if he may have met Fanny’s brothers on a dark night on an isolated country lane.

The Dixie Chicks’ Goodbye Earl

Fanny is the lead female character of The Fairest Portion of the Globe, and in weaving her story into the larger narrative we had to learn quite a  bit about domestic violence. I read widely on the ordeals of victims, their mindsets, and what determined whether or not they ever tried to break free of abuse. I also read about abusers. O’Fallon, at least, fit the general description of a sociopath. I tried to find some accounts by former abusers, to try to learn what made them tick. Disturbingly, I never found a single one, leading me to believe that self-insight and reform are very rare.

The human capacity for brutality and sudden violence would have been much less shocking to Fanny than to most of us today. After all, she grew up during the American Revolution and came of age on the Kentucky frontier. All of her brothers were soldiers, and two of them had died serving their country. Part of being a gentleman who commanded respect, like Fanny’s father and brothers, was the ability to defend one’s family and community against Indians and outlaws. The men she loved were good with guns, knives, and their fists.

The same capacity for violence was intended to extend a shield of protection over women and children. Then as now, men who beat their wives and abused their children were despised by decent people. But that was small consolation during the terror of a beating, with no 9-1-1 and no emergency room to turn to, much less a women’s shelter. If a community had an almshouse (which Louisville did not until the 1830s), a battered woman might take shelter there until her husband cooled off. Like most American cities, Louisville did not even have a police force in the modern sense until the 1850s.

The Jefferson County Poor Farm for Whites, Louisville, Kentucky, 1930. Courtesy University of Louisville.

However, it is a myth that the legal system in early America condoned wife beating. If a woman and her family were willing to press charges and brazen out the resulting scandal, the courts were fairly responsive, imposing fines against a man convicted of “excessive violence” against his wife. Worse, the convicted wife-beater faced a loss of public reputation that was very damaging in the small, close-knit society of the frontier. But the wife was still stuck with her abuser. Divorces were not unheard of, but obtaining one was difficult to say the least. As demonstrated by the famous case of Rachel Donelson, the future Mrs. Andrew Jackson, Kentucky required the passage of a special law by the state legislature for a divorce to be granted.

Charlton Heston and Susan Hayward as Andrew and Rachel Jackson in "The President's Lady" (1953). Rachel, who was not obedient and demure, fled her violent first husband. Her choice was so unusual that the resulting scandal dogged the Jacksons for the rest of their lives.

Other options were even more unpalatable. Few women with children would choose suicide, murder, or running away, especially not into a world where a woman alone had no status and no honest way to make a living.  Most battered women simply had to learn to endure whatever abuse their husbands chose to dish out.

I was interested to learn that this was the situation until well into the middle of the 20th century. To most Americans, a wife beater was a drunken bum, an easily recognizable “Stanley Kowalski” type to be despised and his wife pitied. In the worst cases, abusers were prosecuted for assault, but most of the time, police and the courts looked the other way. The reason was that if an abusive husband were thrown in jail, the wife and children would be left without their primary wage earner. At least Fanny Clark had somewhere to run to and brothers to “take care” of her mean husband. For untold thousands, there was no escape.

In fact, in the 1960s, many jurisdictions essentially decriminalized domestic abuse. At the time, there was a great faith in the emerging disciplines of counseling and conflict mediation. Police were no longer supposed to “bust heads,” but try diffusing disputes without making arrests. Finally, in the 1970s, the feminist movement brought to light the full extent of domestic abuse in America. Books and studies revealed that some two million women a year (and thousands of men, for that matter) suffered severe violence from their spouse, such as punching, kicking, or choking. And as the Clarks could have testified, it happened in the best of families.

The first women’s shelters opened in the 1970s, along with a sterner approach by law enforcement to the problem. Police were empowered for the first time to make arrests for domestic violence they had not personally witnessed, even if the victim refused to swear out a complaint. By the late 1980s, men were being prosecuted for domestic violence as rigorously as they were for assault cases on a non-family member. (Which is not as good as it sounds; as it turns out, only 11% of assault cases result in any jail time.)

Domestic abuse hurts everyone. See the links at the end of this article for how to help someone, or get help.

Domestic violence remains one of society’s most intractable and painful issues. Statistics gathered from the Department of Justice indicate that the rate of domestic assaults is dropping. In the middle of the 20th century, it is estimated that some 16% of women were battered in the course of a year, a figure now estimated at 2-3%. Even so, some 200,000 women and 40,000 men go to the emergency room each year because their spouse beat them up. The heartache and pain of Fanny Clark is not history, but all too often, a terrible part of the present.

Convince a battered woman to seek help
Assist domestic violence shelters
Are you being abused? Get help and get out

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In January I signed up for Reading for a Cure, a great challenge issued by Wendy, doyenne of the book blog Caribou’s Mom. The idea behind the challenge is raise money for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, a renowned non-profit that funds research, state-of-the-art equipment and instruments, parent and patient care, and support for doctors at a number of leading pediatric hospitals. All you have to do is read–something most of us love to do anyway! 

You can go to Wendy’s site for details, but in a nutshell, you don’t have to read any certain type of book to participate. To raise the money, you simply pledge money per book or per page, and you can participate for any period from a month to a year. It occurs to me that this might be a rewarding challenge to do with your kids. 

I’m having fun participating in this; it’s making more mindful of what I read and encourages me to set aside time for reading instead of goofing off in other ways. And this month, there are some great book giveaways going on through March for everyone who has either signed up for the challenge, is sponsoring someone in the challenge, or makes a donation in March to the Pediatric Cancer Foundation. Upcoming prizes include Emily St. John Mandel’s debut literary novel, Last Night in Montreal; Shanghai Girls, Lisa See’s novel of two Chinese sisters sold to husbands in the United States in the 1930s; two “Jack McClure” thrillers by Eric Van Lustbader, First Daughter and Last Snow; and a set of Patrick Taylor’s heartwarming tales: An Irish Country Girl, An Irish Country Village, and An Irish Country Christmas.  Here’s where you sign up.  

As for me, I’ve read some especially good books since the challenge started in January. Maybe it’s good luck as well as a good cause.   

Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold (2002)

Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold. In 1923, washed-up magician Charles Carter gets a new lease on life when he becomes a suspect in the strange death of President Harding. This hilarious, suspenseful novel combines mystery, offbeat humor, great period details, and genuine human emotion.

Across the Endless River, by Thad Carhart. The life of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, a young frontiersman who happens to be the son of Sacagawea, is forever changed when he is invited to travel to Europe as the guest of a German nobleman. This literary novel is light on plot but long on intricately described historical settings, three-dimensional characters, and thoughtful meditations on life’s compromises and the price of changing vs. resisting change. Link to my review.

The Commodore, by Patrick O’Brian. Everything is not what it seems in this 17th installment in the Aubrey-Maturin seagoing series. Roles are reversed as Stephen finds unexpected joy in first-time fatherhood, while Jack and his wife find their marriage coming a-cropper from jealousy. A new adventure begins as Jack takes command of a squadron charged with stopping the African slave trade, then makes sail for Ireland to stop Bonaparte’s invasion.

Trail of the Spanish Bit, by Don Coldsmith (1980)

Trail of the Spanish Bit, by Don Coldsmith. In the 1540s, young Spanish officer Juan Garcia becomes separated from an exploring party on the Great Plains. To survive, he is forced to make common cause with the Indians, who have never met a white man or seen a horse. This terrific novel, first in a series by Coldsmith (who died in 2009), takes a little-known period of history and makes it come alive through delightful details, humor, action, and insight into human nature. Young adults would enjoy this book too. I’m thrilled to have discovered this series.

High Spirits, by Dianne Salerni. Maggie and Kate Fox are just two bored young girls in Victorian-era New York when they decide to start communicating with the dead. Soon their “spirit rapping” becomes a sensation, launching them into lives of celebrity and deception. Salerni’s straight-forward, fast-paced writing makes this little-known true story a page-turner. Who knew that spiritualism was so closely entertwined with the intellectuals behind abolitionism and women’s rights? Originally published by the author, the book has been picked up by a traditional publisher and will be re-released in May with the new title We Hear the Dead — a success story, and well deserved.

Boone, by Robert Morgan. Ever since I started learning about George Rogers Clark and the early settlement of Kentucky, I’ve wanted to learn more about Daniel Boone. I’m about halfway through this recent biography, which paints Boone as a lively, thoughtful romantic. Far from being caught up in the tides of the history through which he lived, he blazed his own trail — literally and figuratively — on his way to becoming a legend.

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William Clark, an expert waterman, led the Corps of Discovery through the rapids of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Scene from National Geographic's "Lewis & Clark: The Great Journey West"

The Social Justice Challenge encourages bloggers to write on a monthly theme related to contemporary issues. When I saw the theme this month of “Water,” I knew that nothing could be more relevant to the topic of Lewis & Clark and their exploration of the west than water, and what has happened to the rivers they explored.

Rivers of Change, by Tom Mullen (2004)

On Monday, we took a look at The Changing Missouri River, and today I wanted to do the same for the Columbia River. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first arrived at the Rocky Mountains, they hoped to find a version of the famous “Northwest Passage.” That is, they hoped that the Missouri River had its headwaters in the mountains very near the headwaters of the Columbia. That way, Americans traveling across the continent would have an easy river route to the Pacific coast, with perhaps only a short portage between the two rivers.

But nothing about traveling the Missouri River upstream was easy, and at its headwaters Lewis & Clark found only the “tremendious mountains” of the Bitterroot range. Their ordeal crossing the mountains is a story for another time. For now, suffice to say that eventually they reached the spectacular valley of the Columbia, a raging and magnificent river that tumbled its way through rugged gorges and volcanic peaks. It was here that Lewis & Clark performed their most daring feats of river navigation, shooting Class V rapids in dugout canoes while Indians cheered from the shore (probably hoping the suicidal white men would crack up on the rocks so they could help themselves to all their cool stuff).

Salmon fishing at Kettle Falls. These falls were inundated in 1940.

The Columbia River roars about 1200 miles from its headwaters in British Columbia to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. Besides its beauty and violence, perhaps its most notable characteristic to Lewis & Clark was the salmon. The river teemed with an overwhelming number of the fish, the staple food of the Indians for hundreds of miles around. As Clark wrote:

The number of dead Salmon on the Shores & floating in the river is incrediable to Say and at this Season they have only to collect the fish Split them open and dry them on their Scaffolds on which they have great numbers. – October 17, 1805

It is estimated that some 16 million salmon made the annual journey upstream to spawn in those years. The Indians could harvest thousands of fish and dry them for the off-season without even making a dent in the population. For the men of the Corps of Discovery, who were red meat eaters, the salmon soon wore out their welcome as a dietary mainstay. They even resorted to trading with the Indians for dogs for the stewpot just for the sake of variety. They never could have imagined that one day, both the raging rapids and the salmon would be all but gone.

Celilo Falls in 1957, shortly before the falls were inundated by The Dalles Dam.

The extermination of the Columbia River salmon can be compared with the slaughter of the buffalo. Beginning in 1866, large numbers of people from the eastern United States emigrated to the Pacific Northwest via the Oregon Trail. With them came ruthless commercial fishing of the river. Giant mechanical scoops resembling ferris wheels were built to hoist the fish out of the river by the thousands. By 1896, some forty canneries had sprung up and were supplied with over three million fish a year, a number that was sustained until about 1934, when the numbers began to fall in alarming proportions. Quite simply, the seemingly inexhaustible supply of fish had been harvested until it could no longer sustain its own numbers. By 1990, the total catch was a mere 257,000, and several species had become extinct. The total salmon population in the river is about 10% of what it was in Lewis & Clark’s time.

Still beautiful: the Columbia River Gorge today.

The other dramatic change on the Columbia (and, along with overfishing, a major cause of the decline of the salmon) was the construction in the 1930s and 1940s of eighteen major dams on the river and its major tributary, the Snake. These dams submerged stupendously beautiful landscapes, drowned Lewis & Clark’s rapids, and and converted the river into a series of placid lakes.  The trade-off was to harness the great power of the Columbia in exchange for irrigation and the electricity that runs Portland and Seattle and fueled the rise of the Pacific Northwest as an economic powerhouse.

Although most of the dams are equipped with so-called “fish ladders” to allow salmon to continue to pass upstream, the juveniles need artificial management to make the trip the other way, back to the ocean. Most of the fish eggs are managed in hatcheries, and the Army Corps of Engineers uses giant pipes to suck young fish into barges and give them a ride down to the coast to begin their lives as adults.

So what can we learn about water from the rivers of Lewis & Clark? As our friend, water resources engineer Tom Mullen, wrote after an epic solo trip along the Lewis & Clark waterways:

Ultimately, rivers mirror our own values and culture. To mistreat their flow is to abuse our collective integrity. When cities and communities turn their backs on rivers, residents turn away from topology, wild grass, pelicans, and battling eddies that formed reasons why they built cities along the water in the first place. … To improve the overall quality of the rivers for the future, we have to get creative, not frantic. We waste time and energy if we consider the past as a source of material for complaining about.

In other words, what’s past is past. What the future holds makes Lewis & Clark’s journey look like a cakewalk. The hard decisions ahead are up to us.

More great reading: The Evolving Landscape of the Columbia River Gorge (great pictures and lots of comparisons between what Lewis & Clark reported and what came after)

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The Social Justice Challenge encourages bloggers to read and write monthly on social justice issues. This month’s theme is Water, and I can’t think of any theme more relevant to Lewis & Clark and the usual topics we post about on this blog.

Beyond the Stony Mountains, by Daniel B. Botkin (2004)

As ecologist Daniel Botkin has written, “the Lewis and Clark expedition is a powerful aid to us as we try to understand what we have done to our surroundings.” As the first scientific explorers to venture into the great American West, Lewis and Clark recorded in detail what the wildlife, landscape, and rivers were like before modern civilization changed it all. For today’s post, I will write a bit about what has happened to the Missouri River since Lewis & Clark’s time, then follow it up later this week with another post about the changing Columbia.

Meandering some 2300 miles from its source in the mountains of Montana to its mouth in St. Louis, the Missouri River posed a major physical, emotional, and technological challenge to the Corps of Discovery. On their journey west, the Corps of Discovery battled every inch of the way upstream, with nothing more than poles, paddles, and human grit and endurance. Even more so than most wild rivers, the Missouri was exceptional for constantly wandering out of its banks, carving out new channels through the plains and leaving behind oxbow lakes, banks that caved in on the explorers, and strong current filled with dangerous snags and sandbars.

Cordelling the Keelboat, 1804, by Michael Haynes

It was all in a day’s work for Lewis & Clark, as well as the Indians who had made their homes near the river for millennia. Many of the Plains Indians were nomadic, meaning if the river got ornery, they could pack up their lodges and move. Even town-dwelling tribes like the Mandans regularly moved to higher ground in response to the river’s moods. But as Americans arrived in the wake of the explorers, they wanted to put down permanent towns and farms, build roads and bridges, and travel up and down the river on new-fangled steamboats. They couldn’t do that if they were constantly being wiped out by huge floods. That meant the wild Missouri had to be tamed.

The snagboat General Barnard at work

The first government projects on the Missouri began in the 1830s with the removal of snags and overhanging limbs. By 1838, more than 2000 trees had been removed from the river. I was amazed to learn that snag removal continued on the Missouri until 1950! But it was the work done in the 20th century that would transform the Missouri into a river that Lewis & Clark wouldn’t even recognize. Beginning in the 1930s, six gigantic dams were constructed on the upper Missouri, changing the river into a series of calm lakes. And in 1945, Congress instructed the Army Corps of Engineers to scour and straighten the the lower Missouri from Sioux City to St. Louis, and build the levees and walls necessary to transform the river into a man-made channel.

The levees and dams allowed for flood control, irrigation, electricity, safe waters for commercial boat traffic, and great fishing and recreation. They also had costs that people at the time did not foresee, at least not as problems. In some places, they inundated hundreds of thousands of acres of fish and wildlife habitat (as well as traditional Indian homelands), while in others they ended the seasonal floods on which plants and animals depended. Over 90% of bottomlands, islands, and sandbars were eliminated. As a result, bird species like the white pelican and the least tern, common in Lewis & Clark’s time, became rare or endangered. Even the elimination of snags, which seemed harmless, reduced the insect life on the river so dramatically that species like catfish and sturgeon dwindled away.

Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, at the height of the Great Flood of 1993

The levees and dams also allowed for human development in floodplains in which the Missouri had once wandered at will. The consequences of this were thrown into stark relief in July and August 1993, when the Missouri was hit with a flood of biblical proportions. It turned out that the channelization of the river actually increased the devastation of the flooding, as the river barreled through the channel with no way to spread out into its historic wetlands. The flood became one of the most expensive natural disasters in the history of the United States. It destroyed more than 10,000 homes, killed fifty people, inundated 15 million acres of farmland, suspended barge and railroad traffic for weeks, and caused $15 billion in damage. At their peak the floodwaters covered an area created than the combined areas of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. With nowhere for the water to go, some locations remained flooded for close to 200 days.

The channelized lower Missouri River

Since the 1993 floods, there has been debate about restoring the river to a more natural state, but little has been done. In fact, after several years of drought, development in floodplains is once again booming with new strip malls, office parks, and homes. New and enlarged levees are under construction. In the meantime, aging old levees remain in place, at risk for breakage in the next massive flood. East St. Louis, Illinois, in particular, is considered vulnerable to a New Orleans-style flood.

On the plus side, there is hope for the birds and fish of the lower Missouri, as major restoration projects in bottomland areas have succeeded in providing habitat for wildlife, enabling several species to rebound from the brink of extinction.

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