Archive for the ‘Frontier exploration’ Category

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

George Shannon

Artist’s rendering of George Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private Shannon Lost Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

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

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

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

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One of the most difficult aspects of Lewis and Clark’s cross-continental journey was figuring out how to transport the tons of goods and supplies they had brought. As transportation conditions changed along the river, the logistics of handling so much baggage on land became impractical or downright impossible. At three major points along the route, Lewis and Clark were forced to build underground caches to store ammunition, supplies, or other articles too big and bulky to transport. They built three major caches in all during the course of the expedition, all in present-day Montana.

Native American cache pit

Typical Native American cache pit

The use of cache pits for storage would have been well-known to the Corps of Discovery. White settlers and Native Americans alike dug carefully constructed holes to store food for the winter, and fur trappers often dug caches to hide animal pelts until they could transport them somewhere to be sold. A cache pit functioned something like a cellar. Cache pits were typically six to eight feet deep and shaped like a jug, with a wide bottom and narrow mouth. They were often lined with animal hides and grasses, and shored up with sticks to prevent the cache from collapsing onto the food or goods stored inside.

Lewis and Clark built their first cache in early June 1805, on an island near the confluence of the Marias and the Missouri Rivers, a spot known as “Decision Point.” At that time, the Captains were facing the difficult dilemma of whether the muddy north fork or swift-flowing south fork was the true Missouri River. Choosing to follow the less navigable south fork, Lewis and Clark decided to leave the red pirogue and some of the heavier baggage behind. On June 9, 1805, Lewis wrote in his journal:

We determined to deposite at this place the large red perogue all the heavy baggage which we could possibly do without and some provision, salt, tools powder and Lead &c with a view to lighten our vessels and at the same time to strengthen their crews by means of the seven hands who have been heretofore employd. in navigating the red perogue; accordingly we set some hands to diging a hole or cellar for the reception of our stores. these holes in the ground or deposits are called by the engages cashes; on enquiry I found that Cruzatte was well acquainted this business and therefore left the management of it intirely to him.

The next day, Lewis reported that the deed was done. “In order to guard against accedents we thout it well to conceal some ammunicion here and accordingly buryed a tin cannester of 4 lbs. of powder and an adequate quantity of lead near our tent; a cannester of 6 lbs. lead and an ax in a thicket up the S. Fork three hundred yards distant from the point.    we concluded that we still could spare more amunition for this deposit    Capt. Clark was therefore to make a further deposit in the morning, in addition to one Keg of 20 lbs. and an adequate proportion of lead which had been laid by to be buryed in the large Cash.    we now scelected the articles to be deposited in this cash which consisted of 2 best falling axes, one auger, a set of plains, some files, blacksmiths bellowses and hammers Stake tongs &c.    1 Keg of flour, 2 Kegs of parched meal, 2 Kegs of Pork, 1 Keg of salt, some chissels, a cooper’s Howel, some tin cups, 2 Musquets, 3 brown bear skins, beaver skins, horns of the bighorned anamal, a part of the men’s robes clothing and all their superfluous baggage of every discription, and beaver traps.—    we drew up the red perogue into the middle of a small Island at the entrance of Maria’s river, and secured and made her fast to the trees to prevent the high floods from carrying her off    put my brand on several trees standing near her, and covered her with brush to shelter her from the effects of the sun.”

Replicas of Lewis and Clark's white and red pirogues

Replicas of Lewis and Clark’s white and red pirogues

Lewis and Clark hoped to be able to recover the stores and pirogue on the return trip. A few weeks later, in the midst of a grueling portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri River, they were forced to dig a second cache rather than transport more heavy equipment upriver. “Capt. C. also scelected the articles to be deposited in the cash consisting of my desk which I had left for that purpose and in which I had left some books, my specimens of plants minerals &c. collected from fort Mandan to that place,” Lewis wrote. “also 2 Kegs of Pork, ½ a Keg of flour 2 blunderbushes, ½ a keg of fixed ammunition and some other small articles belonging to the party which could be dispenced with.”

Also jettisoned at this point was the swivel gun that had been mounted on the expedition’s keelboat earlier in the expedition. Lewis wrote that they “deposited the swivel and carriage under the rocks a little above the camp near the river.” The white pirogue was dragged on shore and hidden in some willows below the Great Falls. On July 10, yet another deposit was made: the dismantled frame of Lewis’s ill-fated iron boat, which despite his tireless efforts could not be made watertight. “Had a cash dug and deposited the Fraim of the boat, some papers and a few other trivial articles of but little importance,” Lewis wrote with resignation.

The expedition’s third major cache was made about six weeks later, in mid-August 1805. After a long and anxiety-filled search, Lewis and Clark had finally found the Shoshone Indians and were negotiating for horses to carry them across the Rocky Mountains. Naturally, much of the remaining baggage had to be left behind. Near the Beaverhead River and the spot they called Camp Fortunate, they sunk their canoes in the river and buried everything they could not take across the Great Divide. On August 21, 1805, Sergeant John Ordway wrote: ” four men sent to dig a hole or carsh… this evening after dark we carried the baggage to the carsh or hole which we leave at this place.    we took it to hide undiscovred from the natives.    all the baggage which we carry with us packed up & pack Saddles made ready to cross the diveding ridge as soon as the horses return from the other Side.”

Continental Divide

The Rocky Mountains at the Continental Divide

That was the final significant deposit, save for two canisters of lead powder that Clark buried on the Weippe Prairie once the Expedition had crossed the great divide and was camping near the Nez Perce. There was nothing to do now but hope for the best that the goods could be recovered for the return trip.

All in all, Lewis and Clark’s caches made out fairly well. On May 7, 1806, the Corps was headed for home and was back among the Nez Perce. Lewis wrote, “a man of this lodge produced us two canisters of powder which he informed us he had found by means of his dog where they had been buried in a bottom near the river some miles above, they were the same which we had buryed as we decended the river last fall.” The honest man returned the powder to the captains.

On July 8, 1806, the Corps returned to Camp Fortunate and the Beaverhead River. Desperate for a smoke, the men were particularly impatient to get into this cache. Clark wrote:

Dried tobacco twists

Dried tobacco twists

after dinner we proceeded on down the forke which is here but Small    9 Miles to our encampment of 17 Augt.   at which place we Sunk our Canoes & buried Some articles, as before mentioned the most of the Party with me being Chewers of Tobacco become So impatient to be chewing it that they Scercely gave themselves time to take their Saddles off their horses before they were off to the deposit. I found every article Safe, except a little damp. I gave to each man who used tobacco about two feet off a part of a role    took one third of the ballance myself and put up ⅔ in a box to Send down with the most of the articles which had been left at this place, by the Canoes this evening. I examined them and found then all Safe except one of the largest which had a large hole in one Side & Split in bow.

The opening of the oldest caches on either side of the Great Falls proved to be a bit of a disappointment. On July 13, the Corps of Discovery had reached their old camp at White Bear Island on the upper part of the portage route. Lewis had the upper portage cache opened and found that there had been some casualties. He wrote disconsolately:

found my bearskins entirly destroyed by the water, the river having risen so high that the water had penitrated.    all my specimens of plants also lost.    the Chart of the Missouri fortunately escaped. [This map was apparently lost at a later date.]   opened my trunks and boxes and exposed the articles to dry.    found my papers damp and several articles damp.    the stoper had come out of a phial of laudinum and the contents had run into the drawer and distroyed a gret part of my medicine in sucuh manner that it was past recovery.

The next day’s dig yielded a little better news. Lewis wrote: “Had the carriage wheels dug up    found them in good order.    the iron frame of the boat had not suffered materially.” He dispatched Private Hugh McNeal to determine the state of the white pirogue and the cache at the lower portage camp. Fortunately, the white pirogue had survived the winter quite well. On July 27th, Sergeant John Ordway wrote, “we halled out the white perogue out of the bushes and repaired hir.    about 12 we loaded and Set out with the white perogue and the 5 canoes.”

The red pirogue and the cache on the Marias were not so lucky. On July 28, Lewis was hugely relieved to rejoin with other members of the Corps of Discovery after his ill-fated exploration of the Marias River and hair-raising flight from his encounter with the Blackfeet Indians. Lewis wrote that upon reaching the mouth of the Marias “we heared the report of several rifles very distinctly on the river to our right, we quickly repared to this joyfull sound and on arriving at the bank of the river had the unspeakable satisfaction to see our canoes coming down.” After reconnoitering to make sure the party was safe and unobserved, Lewis had the last remaining cache at the lower portage camp opened.

Grizzly bear hide

Lewis’s bear skins were damaged beyond recovery

“We found that the cash had caved in and most of the articles burried therin were injured,” he wrote. “I sustained the loss of two very large bear skins which I much regret; most of the fur and baggage belonging to the men were injured.    the gunpowder corn flour poark and salt had sustained but little injury the parched meal was spoiled or nearly so.    having no time to air these things which they much wanted we droped down to the point to take in the several articles which had been buried at that place in several small cashes; these we found in good order, and recovered every article except 3 traps belonging to Drewyer which could not be found.”

His disappointment at the loss of his bear skins was lessened by his strong desire to make tracks lest the Blackfeet catch up with them. Unfortunately, the red pirogue would not be making the trip. “Having now nothing to detain us we passed over immediately to the island in the entrance of Maria’s river to launch the red perogue, but found her so much decayed that it was imposible with the means we had to repare her and therefore mearly took the nails and other ironwork’s about her which might be of service to us and left her.    we now reimbarked on board the white peroge and five small canoes and decended the river about 15 ms. and encamped on the S. W. side near a few cottonwood trees.” They had recovered as much buried treasure as they could, and it was time to move on.

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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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Indian of the Nation of the Shawanoes, by Victor Collot (1796)

How many of us remember what we learned in school about the early Federal period in American history? Probably not much — because little is actually taught about this fascinating period in which the United States was struggling to be born. In many ways, the emerging nation was just a pawn in a wicked game between European powers for control of the North American continent — and manifest destiny was anything but.

Our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (on sale now, click the Buy Our Books tab at the top) centers around one such conspiracy in which both the Spanish and French were using (and being used by) some of the most famous Americans in the West in an attempt to break Kentucky loose from the United States and push the Americans back across the Alleghenies. George Rogers Clark, the brilliant, erratic, embittered hero of the American Revolution and beloved older brother of William Clark, was heavily involved in the French portion of the scheme. Its failure further blasted his reputation and led some in the United States to consider him something of a traitor.

Though the plot of Fairest has as many twists and turns as a John Le Carré novel (or at least it seemed that way when we were working on it and trying to to control the plot), I have to admit it is simplified from the real McCoy. In reality, Clark’s restless spirit could not be contained. Just two years after the failure of the plot described in our novel, he was involved in yet another French conspiracy, this one spearheaded by a military and political officer by the name of Georges Henri Victor Collot.

Tall, dark-haired, and intensely patriotic, Collot was in his 40s when he was recruited to undertake an intelligence mission for France to understand the political climate of the American West. If conditions were right, the French hoped they might learn enough to take possession, by either political or military means, of two key North American cities. Pittsburgh, under American control, and St. Louis, under Spanish control, were the keys to the interior of the continent. Eventually, the French hoped to drive the Spanish out of New Orleans and control the entire continent west of the Atlantic seaboard.

To that end Collot recruited an expert mapmaker, Joseph Warin, and several Canadian voyageurs and American boatmen. He set off down the Ohio River in March 1796 and made extensive notes on the topography, frontier settlements, Indians, and wildlife. Collot professed that geography was his true interest, but in reality he paid special attention to the placement and situation of American and Spanish forts throughout the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. He also stopped in for a chat with George Rogers Clark, to find out if the aging general might still be interested in leading a mercenary mission to storm down the Mississippi and seize New Orleans, as Clark had attempted to do earlier (read all about it in Fairest).

George Rogers Clark on his way to Kaskaskia, by Howard Pyle

What Collot found when he arrived in Clark’s hometown of Louisville resulted in perhaps the most wrenching yet compassionate account of Clark ever written. Later printed in Collot’s book Journey in North America, it is worth relating in full:

We cannot leave Louisville without relating a circumstance which does honor to the American character, and which would not disgrace the annals of the finest days of Rome.

A person of great military talents, and who had acquired considerable reputation in the war which procured independence to America; who had also gained from the natives almost the whole of the immense country which forms now the Western States; the rival, in short, of General Washington; had retired to Louisville after the peace, either from caprice or discontent against the government at that time, in the hope of ending his days tranquilly in the middle of his family, and on the spot which had been the scene of his achievements.

But unhappily, idleness and listlessness, inseparable companions, followed him in his retreat. He who is conversant only with military affairs, who knows nothing of agriculture or commerce, and has no taste for the charms of nature, is soon wearied of still life. Drinking and intoxication became the sole resource of this officer, and he carried this degrading passion to such an excess, that he was often found lying in a state of stupified drunkness in the streets.

We were the witnesses of a scene the most humiliating for a man who once inspired sentiments of high veneration, but now excited only those of pity. We returned about seven in the evening from taking a walk in the environs of Louisville, when we perceived, in the midst of the square, a number of persons who were crowding around something that lay extended on the ground, on which a blanket had been thrown, and which a man was about to take up and carry off.

Drawing near to satisfy our curiosity, I asked the man, who appeared to me to be a shoemaker, what was the matter. He turned towards me with a look expressive of sorrow, and said, “Do you not see, sir, that it is that hero, that great man; he has forgotten at the moment the important services which he has rendered us; but it is our duty to remember them; I cover him thus, to preserve him from the contempt of the people.” He had, indeed, as soon as he saw him fall, run out of his shop with a woolen blanket, which he threw over him, and carried him into his house, where we were witnesses of the affectionate care with which he treated him.


Map of St. Lewis (St. Louis) by Victor Collot and Joseph Warin (1796)

By this time, Collot had begun to attract attention as a potential spy, with “Mad Anthony” Wayne, commanding general of the United States Army (and a major character in Fairest) issuing orders that he be detained and arrested. Collot was stopped at Fort Massac by Zebulon Pike (father of the explorer) and searched, but managed to talk his way out of the jam, especially since his papers were all written in French which no one at the fort was able to read. He proceeded down river, compiling what was then the most accurate and detailed description and maps of the river systems of the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi. Along the way, Collot had adventures to rival his successors Lewis and Clark, including digging up fossils, being caught in titanic thunderstorms, being chased by bears, and enduring an Indian attack which gravely injured mapmaker Joseph Warin.

For his troubles, Collot was arrested again upon his arrival in New Orleans, this time by the Spanish governor. Warin was also arrested and died of his wounds while awaiting release. Eventually, Collot was allowed to leave. By the time he got back to France, the government had lost interest in his work. He died in 1805, but eventually the importance of his maps and manuscript were recognized. His Journey in North America was published in 1826. Collot’s writing is fascinating and delightfully acerbic. The book may be read in its entirety online thanks to the Wisconsin History Society and is available at their American Journeys site.

For more reading:

The Spanish Conspiracy
The André Michaux Story – Part 1
The Citizen Genet Affair – Part 1

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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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Jefferson's Instructions to Meriwether Lewis, 1803

Jefferson's Instructions to Meriwether Lewis, 1803

On your arrival on that coast endeavor to learn if there be any port within your reach frequented by the sea-vessels of any nation, and to send two of your trusty people back by sea, in such way as shall appear practicable, with a copy of your notes. and should you be of opinion that the return of your party by the way they went will be eminently dangerous, then ship the whole, & return by sea by way of Cape Horn or the Cape of good Hope, as you shall be able. as you will be without money, clothes or provisions, you must endeavor to use the credit of the U. S. to obtain them…

So wrote Thomas Jefferson in his instructions to Meriwether Lewis at the outset of the Lewis and Clark expedition. If Lewis and his party were successful in reaching the Pacific Ocean, Jefferson instructed, he was hopeful that Lewis could hitch a ride home on a friendly ship, or at least send back a couple of trusted members of his party and his precious journals by sea, if returning by land seemed too dangerous.

Captain Robert Gray

Captain Robert Gray

How practical a plan was this? The Pacific Coast or “Northwest Coast,” as it was called back in the early 19th century, was well known to ship captains engaged in the fur trade. The first American trading vessels recorded as having been in the area were the Columbia Rediviva and the Lady Washington of Boston, which arrived on the Pacific Coast in September 1788. Under Captain Robert Gray, the Columbia Rediviva made a second voyage from Boston to the Northwest in September 1790, spending the winter of 1791-92 at an encampment just north of Nootka Sound (on present day Vancouver Island). While there, Gray and his fifty crew members explored the area and collected sea-otter furs for sale in China.

Also in the area at that time was British Captain George Vancouver, in the British sloop Discovery. When Gray and Vancouver met, Gray showed Vancouver his map pin-pointing the location of the then-unnamed Columbia River. Although Vancouver had noted “river-colored water” in the sea as the Discovery had passed a spot off the coast just two days earlier, he dismissed Gray’s discovery as the outflow of a few minor streams.

On May 11, 1792, Gray navigated the Columbia Rediviva across the treacherous sand bar at the mouth of the Columbia River and became the first western trading vessel to actually enter the Columbia waterway. Gray and Vancouver are both credited with the “discovery” of the Columbia River, though Vancouver deemed it “not suitable for major commerce.”

George Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia

George Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia

The next decade saw an increase in trading ships along the Columbia, with several ships a year visiting the coast to engage in fur trading with the coastal Indians. By the time Lewis and Clark reached the coast in 1805, there was a thriving trade in furs centered at Nootka Sound. Ships sometimes encountered in Pacific Northwest waters included Boston traders, French expeditions, British, Russian, and Spanish explorers and merchantmen, New England whalers, and even an occasional Japanese junk.

So, it was not unreasonable for Jefferson, Lewis and Clark to hope that a ship might happen by to carry the explorers home. In fact several ships were in the area that year. Most notably, the American ship Lydia of Boston, under Captain Samuel Hill, entered the Columbia River in 1805 to acquire timber for spars. The Lydia entered the lore of coastal legend not because it picked up Lewis and Clark, but because it picked up another famous, unlucky passenger. In his book The Way to the Western Sea, historian David Lavender sums up the story:

In the spring of 1803, a trading ship hunting for sea-otter pelts sailed into Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Resentful of several years of mistreatment by white traders, the Indians massacred all the crew except the ship’s twenty-year-old, English-born armorer (blacksmith) John Jewitt, and the sailmaker, John Thompson. Those two languished as prisoners until rescued on July 19, 1805, by Captain Samuel Hill of the brig Lydia, out of Boston. The salvation was effected without bloodshed, and on departing for further trading operations along the Northwest Coast, Captain Hill said he would return to Nootka within a few months to pick up whatever pelts the Indians gathered during his absence.

The Columbia Rediviva

The Columbia Rediviva

The Lydia traded along the Pacific Coast until August 1806 before heading for China, so it could have, in theory, been within hailing distance during Lewis and Clark’s time on the coast. On November 6, 1805, Clark reported, “we over took two Canoes of Indians going down to trade one of the Indians Spoke a fiew words of english and Said that the principal man who traded with them was Mr. Haley,and that he had a woman in his Canoe who Mr. Haley was fond of &c.    he Showed us a Bow of Iron and Several other things which he Said Mr. Haley gave him.” The “Mr. Haley” the Indians were speaking of was, presumably, Captain Samuel Hill.

As it turned out, “Mr. Haley” was a popular figure along the coast. On November 11, 1805, Clark reports talking with a Cathlama Indian dressed in a “Salors Jacket and Pantiloons,” who reported trading with white people. Sergeant John Ordway wrote balefully, “they tell us that they have Seen vessels in the mouth of this River and one man by the name of Mr. Haily  who tradeed among them, but they are all gone.”

On January 1, 1806, Clark made a list of “the names of Sundery persons, who visit this part of the Coast for the purpose of trade &c. &c. in large Vestles; all of which Speake the English language &c.—as the Indians inform us.” He again mentioned Mr. Haley, recording that the Indians said that he “Visits them in a Ship & they expect him back to trade with them in 3 moons to trade — he is the favourite of the Indians (from the number of Presents he givs) and has the trade principaly with all the tribes.”

Lewis and Clark at Celilo Falls, Columbia River (Mural from the Oregon State Capitol)

Lewis and Clark at Celilo Falls, Columbia River (Mural from the Oregon State Capitol)

Captain Hill/Mr. Haley’s well-supplied ship certainly would have been a welcome sight, but unfortunately for Lewis and Clark, he proved to be elusive. But was the Lydia really anywhere near Fort Clatsop? In 1815, when the Lydia‘s rescued sailor John Jewitt’s secret diary of his captivity was published – under the potboiler title Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt – the narrative contained a surprising factoid not in Jewitt’s original diary. According to David Lavender, Jewitt related that “the Lydia had crept about ten miles into the Columbia estuary in search of a convenient stand of timber from which to cut a new mast and spars. While the traders were there, visiting Indians showed the mariners medals given them by Lewis and Clark, who, they said had arrived by land with a small party and then, only a fortnight earlier, had started home, again by land.”

This would seem to have been a heartbreaking miss of an easy ride home. But, the historical record and common sense shows that Jewitt’s recollection of the timeframe, especially almost ten years out, is suspect. Given the talkative nature of the coastal Indians. it is highly unlikely that any ship in the area would have gone unreported by the Indians and unnoticed by Lewis and Clark. Besides, according to Mary Malloy, author of Devil On The Deep Blue Sea: The Notorious Career of Captain Samuel Hill of Boston, Hill’s reputation as a sea captain was decidedly mixed, with murder, rape, kidnapping, and madness among his rumored capabilities. So even if Hill had shown up, it might not have been an easy ride home after all.

In the end, no trading ship appeared during the entire long winter of 1805-1806, captained by “Mr. Haley” or anybody else. There was no way to communicate with anyone back home, no safe passage for the journals, and no new supplies for the Corps of Discovery. Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson had considered just such an eventuality. His instructions provided Lewis with a Plan B:

Should you find it safe to return by the way you go, after sending two of your party round by sea, or with your whole party, if no conveyance by sea can be found, do so; making such observations on your return as may serve to supply, correct or confirm those made on your outward journey.

On March 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery began the long walk home.

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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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William Clark stands guard as the men wrestle the boats up the Missouri River in this scene from National Geographic's "Lewis & Clark: The Great Journey West"

It is often said that the journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark into the American West was the equivalent in its day of a journey to the moon. The preparations, the dangers, the marriage of science and politics, the geopolitical implications, and of course, the individual heroism, all invite comparisons between the explorers and the astronauts so many of us grew up idolizing.

It is impossible to overstate the excitement and national pride engendered by the astronaut program. No less than six ticket-tape parades wound their way through Broadway’s “Canyon of Heroes.”  The press coverage, especially that delivered by Walter Cronkite and by the ubiquitous Life magazine, tied the astronauts strongly to a sense of national renewal, and promoted an image that was an irresistible combination of aw-shucks modesty, toughness, courage, and brainpower.

Ticker-tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts, 1970

There was no mass media in Lewis & Clark’s day, no television to transmit their images around the world, no Life to package and spin their achievements. In fact, Lewis could have used a little help from the boys at Life, who had exclusive rights to tell the personal stories of the astronauts when they returned from space. Lewis had to write his own report, and as Stephen Ambrose details in Undaunted Courage, he neglected to mention his own scientific discoveries.

The report Lewis produced concentrated not on “the right stuff” but “show me the money.” Specifically, Lewis wrote a detailed treatise on the river systems he and Clark had explored and how they might be exploited to build an American fur-trading empire. And for fortune-seekers on the brink of the great era of the fur trade, it was an electrifying document: “The Missouri and it’s branches from the Cheyenne upwards abound more in beaver and Common Otter, than any other streams on earth, particularly that portion of them lying within the Rocky Mountains.”

Lewis & Clark Alive! First report in the Frankfort Palladium, October 9, 1806

In a separate document, Lewis and Clark wrote a letter to Clark’s brother Jonathan in Louisville, with instructions to publish the letter in the newspapers. It was in this letter that the explorers first detailed the exciting adventures experienced by the Corps of Discovery: shooting the rapids, getting chased by bears, dancing and romancing with the Indians, traversing the perilous Rocky Mountains. First published in Frankfort on October 11, 1806, by mid-November it had flashed all over the country, creating the indelible portrait of Lewis & Clark as rugged adventurers that persists to this very day.

In the meantime, Lewis and Clark were welcomed home with all of the pageantry available in Jeffersonian America.  There were parties and celebrations everywhere they went. A legendary bash at Christy’s Tavern in St. Louis featured 17 toasts. Clark’s hometown of Louisville threw a huge banquet and ball, and Lewis’s hometown of Charlottesville put on a huge bash at the Stone Tavern for their prodigal son. On January 14, 1807, a terrific party in Washington honored Lewis and Clark and their “victory over the wilderness.”

To continue the parallel with space exploration, even as Lewis & Clark were being honored, a backlash was developing against the Expedition. In part, this came from Lewis’s decision to hold back any discussion of the intensely laborious work he had done on the scientific front. He publicized nothing of his amazing ethnography among the Indians, many of whom had never before met a white person; nothing of his discovery and descriptions of dozens of new plants, birds, reptiles, fish, and fossils; little of Clark’s extensive mapping of the entire route.

Lewis was saving it all for the book he planned to write. But as Lewis’s life slipped into politics (and, according to many historians, out of control personally), the book project never materialized. To Federalist detractors, then, the Lewis & Clark Expedition was fair game to criticize as a big waste of money, an expensive adventure for a few well-connected individuals, with the American taxpayer footing the bill.

John Quincy Adams

Chief among the detractors was John Quincy Adams, then a senator from Massachusetts and a prominent critic of President Jefferson. Known for his rapier wit, Adams published (anonymously in keeping with the tradition of the era) a blistering satiric poem about the Expedition:

Good people, listen to my tale
‘Tis nothing but what true is
I”ll tell you of the mighty deeds
Atchieved by Captain Lewis
How starting from the Atlantick shore
By fair and easy motion
He journied, all the way by land,
Until he met the ocean …

And must we then resign the hope
These Elements of changing?
And must we still, alas! be told
That after all his ranging
The Captain could discover naught
But Water in the Fountains?
Must Forests still be formed of Trees?
Of Rugged Rocks the Mountains? …

Let Dusky Sally henceforth bear
The name of Isabella;
And let the mountain, all of salt
Be christened Monticella–
The hog with navel on his back
Tom Pain may be when drunk, sir–
And Joel* call the prairie dog
What once was called a skunk, sir.

* [biblical prophet]

It is sometimes said that Lewis & Clark were forgotten for much of the 19th century. This is not strictly true. The parallel with the space program turns out to be an apt one. The Apollo program dissolved in budget cuts and irresolution about the worth of manned space exploration. It’s hardly forgotten, but the rocket ships and lunar landers that fueled playground adventures are long gone. Children want to be hip-hop stars and basketball players, not astronauts. NASA taped over the moon landing, for crying out loud.

Faded dreams. Few of these great old rocket ship slides survive. Photo by Lauren Orchowski.

In a similar manner, the memory of Lewis & Clark faded in the rush of events, especially the new technology of steamboats and railroads that soon made their rugged journey hopelessly obsolete. But interestingly enough, Lewis & Clark were rediscovered with a vengeance around the turn of the century, first by historians Elliot Coues and Reuben Gold Thwaites, who rescued the entire story from the long-ignored journals and published it again for the world to appreciate, and then by popular novelists and the public, who responded warmly to the courage, brilliance, and individual achievement embodied in the Lewis & Clark story.

As America gained enough distance to look back in awe at the taming of the West, Lewis & Clark were permanently enshrined as American heroes. It will be interesting to see if such a phenomenon ever occurs with the fading memories of Apollo. Maybe … if, with time, we once again consider going forth into the wilderness, to touch the stars.

More great reading:

One Giant Screw-Up For Mankind (Wired article about how NASA lost the videotape of the moon landing)

Rocket Science, photo essay by Lauren Orchowski of great old space-age playgrounds

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Andre Michaux week on Frances Hunter's American Heroes

Join us all this week as we learn about André Michaux, the French botanist who played a little-known but pivotal role in the history of North American exploration. Leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy of The Fairest Portion of the Globe!

André Michaux left Philadelphia on July 15, 1793, accompanied by two non-commissioned French officers of artillery. On August 14, he took a keelboat down the Ohio to Limestone (now Mayesville), Kentucky, observing plants and animals along the way. There Michaux he took leave of his companions, got horses for his journey, and headed into the interior of “Kaintuck.”

American oak documented by Andre Michaux

American oak documented by Andre Michaux

Michaux started visiting the people Citizen Genet had instructed him to see, for whom he had letters of introduction. On his way to Lexington, he spent time looking at the deposits of fossil shells and bones at Buffalo Lick, an area of bitter saline springs. On September 13, Michaux presented himself to Kentucky Gov. Isaac Shelby. Michaux did not record Shelby’s reaction in his notes, but later Shelby sent a letter to Jefferson expressing his opposition to the Louisiana Scheme and predicting its collapse.

On September 16, Michaux reached Louisville and finally made contact with George Rogers Clark. Unlike Shelby, he found Clark “very eager for the undertaking.” Michaux waited a month for Clark to frame a reply to Genet, spending his time botanizing around Lexington and Danville. On October 21, 1793, he finally received Clark’s note to Genet, in which he enthusiastically accepted his commission and concluded: “I will surmount every obstacle and pave my way to Glory which is my object.”

But there was one problem – “no bucks, no Buck Rogers.” Though Clark was confident he could recruit as many men as they needed, first he had to get boats and provisions, and he needed cash. “Without it our Scheams may be Ruined, and for so fair a prospect to meet with any difficulty of that nature would be lamentable,” he told Michaux. Michaux got busy soliciting donations from merchants in Lexington and Danville. “They have all promised to advance me so much money as possible,” he wrote Clark, but for immediate funds “I shall be in the necessity to have recours to Philadephia.”

On November 10, Michaux set out once more for the East. He traveled the 130-mile Wilderness Trail to Cumberland Gap and down to the Tennessee settlements on the Holston River, noting plants and ferns along the way. He arrived in Philadelphia in December to find that all hell had broken loose. The city was recovering from a terrible outbreak of yellow fever and thousands had fled, leaving government offices, newspapers, postal services, and businesses almost at a standstill. Michaux also learned that across the sea in his native France, the Reign of Terror was taking its fearful toll, with Robespierre in control, a civil war raging, and the French army embattled on every front.

Robespierre's Reign of Terror

Robespierre's Reign of Terror took a fearful toll

As for Genet, he’d spent the last four months in New York, desperately trying to commandeer for his Louisiana scheme the ships of the French fleet which had fled to New York harbor in the wake of the terrible insurrection in Santo Domingo. Genet was chagrined and disappointed when the ships returned to France, but this was nothing compared to his shock when he learned that the Washington administration had formally requested his recall. The official document, prepared by none other than Thomas Jefferson, had reached Paris in October. The French Committee on Public Safety agreed without protest, already well-aware of Genet’s indiscreet behavior. They did, however, agree to allow Genet to stay in his post until a replacement arrived.

Ever optimistic, Genet received Michaux and his report about events in Kentucky enthusiastically. He instructed Michaux to report to George Rogers Clark that the plan was on, but would have to be deferred until the spring of 1794 because of the difficulty of obtaining the needed French ships. Michaux wrote Clark about this, telling him excitedly about recent French military successes (“All the Troops under Duck of York taken prisoners … the Queen of France paid for her treasons of her head”). He enclosed 400 dollars for the cause, all he could pry loose from Genet.

With the liberation of Louisiana postponed, Michaux had hopes of resurrecting his plans for his journey to the Pacific. He visited with Jefferson and others in the American Philosophical Society to discuss the planned Western journey. He seems to have been broadening his interests during this time to include birds and animals.

In mid-January 1794, news of Citizen Genet’s official recall reached Philadelphia. By this time, much of Genet’s rude and insolent conduct toward the U.S. government had been made public. Michaux recorded nothing in his journal about this, but he did report a meeting in which he returned all the blank commissions entrusted to him. Genet, still in his post until a replacement arrived, permitted Michaux to return home for a visit to Charleston, promising to send him on another mission to Kentucky in the spring.

With a sigh of relief, Michaux headed toward Charleston and home. He was not on hand for the February 1794 arrival of the new French minister to the U.S., Jean Fauchet. Almost immediately, Fauchet quashed Genet’s Louisiana plans. Responding to protests by the Washington administration and disturbed by wild rumors of large-scale military recruitment by Clark in Kentucky, Fauchet issued a proclamation in March 1794, canceling all commissions conferred by Genet and instructing French citizens in America to abide by American neutrality. The Louisiana scheme was officially dead.

Manuel Luis Gayoso de Lemos y Amorín

Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, Governor of Natchez

As for Michaux, he was probably glad to lay down his role as secret agent and go back to what he loved best: botany. He set out on one more major American expedition, in the spring of 1795, traveling across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Tennessee. Near Nashville, he stopped at the plantation home of Andrew Jackson, then an obscure lawyer. He visited Kentucky and dined with Governor Shelby, and discussed with him the idea of an overland journey to the Pacific. He traveled through Indiana and Illinois. During the following autumn, he roamed the Mississippi as far north at St. Louis, and as far south as Fort Massac. One night, he camped on the shores of the river where the Belle Riviere falls into the Mississippi. On the opposite shore was the camp of the Spanish Governor of Natchez, Don Manuel Gayoso. Gayoso sent a boat to find out who he was, and told him the news of the peace between France and Spain. Michaux probably didn’t tell Gayoso of his involvement in the late plot to dispossess him and take Louisiana for France.

Weathering harrowing winter storms, Michaux’s last port of call before turning for home was Louisville, where he conferred for the last time with George Rogers Clark, who was still trying to obtain reimbursement from the French government for all his expenses raising and equipping an army on their behalf. Michaux couldn’t help him out there, as he himself hadn’t been paid in years, and had all but exhausted his own estate supporting his country’s enterprise.

Flora Boreali Americana, by Andre Michaux

Flora Boreali Americana, by Andre Michaux

It is no doubt with regret that André Michaux turned his back forever on his dream of exploring the Missouri River. He arrived back in Charleston in early summer. In August 1796,  he sailed for France. Though many of his specimens were tragically lost in a shipwreck, upon returning home he produced two landmark books on North American plants, the Histoire des chenes de l’Amerique septentrionale (“Oaks of North America,” 1801) and the Flora Boreali-Americana (“Flora of North America,” published posthumously in 1803). Michaux never returned to American shores. He died during an expedition to Madagascar in 1802.

Michaux’s contributions to botany cannot be overestimated. He is credited with the discovery and description of over 300 plant species, and his work and that of his son Francois, also a famous botanist, is still well-known today. He was an outstanding scientist, a loyal Frenchman, and an able diplomat. I wonder how the history of North American exploration might have been different if this brilliant botanist had blazed the trail up the Missouri River, instead of Lewis & Clark?

Previous: André Michaux Part I: The King’s Botanist

André Michaux Part II: The Reluctant Secret Agent

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Andre Michaux week on Frances Hunter's American Heroes

Join us all this week as we learn about André Michaux, the French botanist who played a little-known but pivotal role in the history of North American exploration.  Leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy of The Fairest Portion of the Globe!

One of my favorite characters in our new book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe, is the French botanist turned revolutionary agent André Michaux. Few people know that Michaux was Thomas Jefferson’s first choice for the feat of exploration that eventually became known to history as the Lewis & Clark expedition. Michaux has a bit of a shady reputation as a spy, which is entirely unfair. In fact, Michaux was more qualified than either Meriwether Lewis or William Clark to undertake such a trip.

The Great Park at Versailles

The Great Park at Versailles

André  Michaux was born in 1746 in the royal domain of Sartory in the great park of Versailles. He was the son of a farmer in the service of the king, Louis XV. His father’s fields bordered magnificent royal gardens, so it’s not surprising that André  became interested in botany. After four years of boarding school, Michaux went to work for his father and developed a passion for the science of agriculture and horticulture.

Both his parents were dead before he was twenty. He married in 1769, but his wife died giving birth to their son after less than a year of marriage. Shattered, André  threw himself into his work and found mentors among the royal court who were willing to help him cultivate his talents. He resolved to become a naturalist explorer and collector, in the service of his king. He began formal studies in botany in 1777 and moved to Paris in 1779 to study at the famed Jardin du Roi.

Jardin du Roi, Paris

Jardin du Roi, Paris

Michaux traveled to England, the Auvergne region of France, and Spain, collecting seeds and plants for the royal gardens and nurseries. In 1782, he was commissioned by Marie Antoinette to visit Persia (now Iran) to collect plants and trees for the garden at Trianon. He had a difficult time getting there, braving wild animals and hostile Arabs and Turks. At one point Michaux was kidnapped by Arabs and held for eight days before his consul could arrange for his release. He arrived in Persia in 1783 and spent an amazing year collecting plants and mineral specimens and documenting the animal life of the Persian desert. He was back in France by spring 1785, with a magnificent collection of seeds and plants for the royal gardens.

Michaux was immediately commissioned the “king’s botanist.” He expected the King to order him to expand his eastern travels farther into Asia, but instead, Louis XVI sent him across the Atlantic to America. The French were flush with their success in helping the colonies beat England in the American Revolution. The presence of Ben Franklin and his successor, Thomas Jefferson, in Paris fostered an enthusiasm for intellectual and scientific exchange between the two countries. It is probable that Michaux first met Jefferson in the summer of 1785, though there is no record of it. Michaux sailed for the New World in the fall of 1785, landing in New York after a stormy passage of 47 days.

Michaux prepared hundreds of plant and tree specimens to be shipped back to France, where people were clamoring for American plants. By special permission of the General Assembly of New Jersey, he was permitted to purchase 200 acres for use as a garden for cultivating plants for the French king. He traveled around the eastern seaboard, recording that in Connecticut a stranger like himself was welcomed only after he had answered the following questions: “Who are you? Whence do you come? Where are you going? What is your business? What is your religion?”

Rhododendrons, introduced to America by Andre Michaux

Rhododendrons, introduced to America by Andre Michaux

He visited George Washington at Mount Vernon in June 1786, and Washington offered to let him keep some of his collections there until he was ready to go back to France. Michaux continued on to the Carolinas, where he was warmly welcomed in Charleston but found the cost of living too high to bear. He rented (and later purchased) a country home near Charleston with 111 acres for cultivating plants to take home. He also made plans to send partridges, ducks, deer, wild turkeys, and even buffalo home for the King’s hunting grounds!

Michaux brought his teenage son Francois over from France to live with him. Accompanied by Francois, Michaux botanized along the coastal regions of Carolina and Georgia in 1787, then moved up into the mountains and the Cherokee Nation, where he engaged Indian guides to lead him along steep and rocky trails. In 1788, he visited Florida. Throughout his travels, Michaux kept a detailed journal of his adventures and the people and plants he encountered. In 1789, he spent 8 weeks in the Bahamas.

King Louis XVI of France

King Louis XVI of France

For some time, Michaux had become uneasy about the difficulty of obtaining funds for his gardens in New Jersey and Charleston and for financing his journeys. In July 1789, he learned of the storming of the Bastille, hardly reason for confidence that the check was in the mail. Adding insult to injury, Francois was shot in the eye by an errant partridge hunter and partially lost his vision. Michaux sent his son back to France in early 1790, along with fourteen chests of trees, seeds, and acorns. While Michaux was on botanizing tour of Georgia and Cumberland Island, he learned that Louis XVI made a desperate attempt to escape from Paris and was brought back and imprisoned.

Michaux feared he would be recalled before he could complete his darling project, a botanical geography of eastern America, and he wanted to carry his research on botanical topography northward into Canada. In the spring of 1792, he spent the summer exploring among the rivers and lakes of Quebec, engaging Indian guides to help him traverse difficult mountain trails and portage around river obstacles. He barely made it back before winter engulfed the Hudson Bay.

In the meantime, France abolished the monarchy and officially proclaimed the Republic of France. After seven years living in a free society, Michaux probably didn’t shed many tears over the fall of the monarchy. It did, however, throw his financial situation into chaos. He was not certain that the French Republic would renew his services, let alone honor his unpaid back salary. He was destitute.

Ever resourceful, Michaux approached the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, proposing a journey to the sources of the Missouri River, for geographical knowledge. His offer piqued the interest of Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State. At Jefferson’s urging, some of the most prominent men of the age became subscribers for the trip, including Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton. President Washington pledged 100 dollars. Surprisingly, Michaux turned down the subscription, telling the Society he preferred to travel at his own expense. Any money raised would be used to pay off his back drafts on his salary. He quite clearly did not want to be obligated to the U.S. government.

American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

In March or April 1793, Jefferson submitted instructions to Michaux, very similar to those he wrote out later for the Lewis and Clark expedition. (It is documented that Jefferson’s 18 year old neighbor, Meriwether Lewis, learned of Michaux’s planned trip and begged to be allowed to go. Jefferson turned him down.) Michaux was getting ready to leave for the west when who should arrive on the scene but the first diplomatic envoy from the new French Republic, the minister plenipotentiary “Citizen” Genet.

Little did our unassuming botanist friend know that he would soon become a reluctant secret agent.

André Michaux Part II: The Reluctant Secret Agent

André Michaux Part III: Scientist and Patriot

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