Archive for the ‘Kansas’ Category

William Clark's drawing of the manitou spirit, a Missouri River petroglyph, June 5, 1804. Courtesy American Philosophical Society.

passed a Projecting Rock called the Manitou a Painting   from this Deavel to the Pt. on the Lbd Side N 23° W 7½ Ms. — William Clark, June 5, 1804

With this casual notation very early in the Lewis & Clark Expedition, somewhere in present-day Moniteau County, Missouri, William Clark made note of a rock painting which he termed a “deavel” (devil) or manitou, a French version of an Algonquian Indian word meaning “spirit.” Undoubtedly, it was only the first of many encounters the Corps of Discovery would have with Indian rock art; in fact, it seems likely that rock art was so common in the regions traversed by Meriwether Lewis and and William Clark that it was seldom thought worthy of special note.

There are actually two types of rock art: petroglyphs, or carvings made in rock; and pictographs, or paintings made on rock. Over the years, erosion has weathered away many of the rock art images that Lewis and Clark would have seen, but remarkably sites survive in Kansas, Montana, and the Columbia River Basin.

Kansas petroglyph on the Lewis & Clark trail. Courtesy Kansas History Society.

Kansas is rich in petroglyphs, especially on the sandstone bluffs and cliffs in the central part of the state. Examples can still be found depicting men on horseback and people wearing headdresses and carrying spears and shields. Animal tracks are another common theme. More rare is a monster, spirit, or “deavel” such as the one Clark described. Very little is known about the cultures that made these images, and many of them have never been documented or studied, making them a mysterious and intriguing subject for hikers and modern-day explorers.

An Elk pictograph near The Dalles. Courtesy Marysville Pictograph Project.

On the other end of the trail, the Columbia River Gorge is the site of hundreds and hundreds of ancient petroglyphs, made by tribes like the Warm Springs, Yakima, Umatilla, and Nez Perce and their ancestors. One area with thousands of drawings was named Petroglyph Canyon. Unfortunately, Lewis and Clark did very little ethnographic work while in this region (they were racing the calendar to make it to the Pacific Coast before winter set in.) And unlike in Kansas, these ancient expressions are obscured today by more than erosion. Though some can still be seen high on the cliff faces, most of them were buried under millions of gallons of water when the area was flooded by the construction of massive dams in the 1950s.

She Who Watches

A few drawings were hacked out of the rock before the floodings and stored near the fish ladder of the John Day Dam until 2004, when an amazing outdoor trail display was built for them at Columbia Hills State Park in Oregon. In addition to the 43 petroglyphs on the trail, the park is home to Tsagaglalal, “She Who Watches,” one of the most famous rock images in North America.

Further down river at The Dalles, both petroglyphs and pictographs were made by the Chinook, Clackamas, Watlala, Multnomah, Wasco, and Wishram peoples and their ancestors. A number of these rock art pieces were rescued and can be seen at The Dalles Visitor Center, the Maryhill Museum, and Roosevelt Petroglyph State Park in Washington. In addition, rubbings of many petroglyphs can be seen at the Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Washington.

Image found in Pictograph Cave State Park, Montana

Finally, a site rich in rock art is also one of the few sites remaining that has incontrovertible evidence that the Corps of Discovery passed that way. And all because William Clark decided to make some rock art of his own. At Pompey’s Pillar near present-day Billings, Montana, and nearby Pictograph Cave State Park, hundreds of red, white, and black pictographs exist from cultures dating back some 10,000 years. In his own matter-of-fact way, Clark gives a clue as to the inspiration for a petroglyph of his own:

the wind Contined high untill 2 P M. I proceeded on after the [rain] lay a little and at 4 P M arived at a remarkable rock Situated in an extensive bottom on the Stard. Side of the river & 250 paces from it.    this rock I ascended and from it’s top had a most extensive view in every direction. This rock which I shall Call Pompy’s Tower is 200 feet high and 400 paces in secumphrance and only axcessable on one Side which is from the N. E the other parts of it being a perpendicular Clift of lightish Coloured gritty rock on the top there is a tolerable Soil of about 5 or 6 feet thick Covered with Short grass. The Indians have made 2 piles of Stone on the top of this Tower. The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals &c. near which I marked my name and the day of the month & year. — William Clark, July 25, 1806

Clark's signature carved on Pompey's Pillar near Billings, Montana

I have not visited any of these sites except Pompey’s Pillar, and that was back in 1996 before I was into Lewis & Clark. I look forward to another trip to Lewis & Clark country to see these interesting and mysterious messages from the past.


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The plesiosaur, the largest predator on earth

On a cloudy Monday morning in September, 1804, the Corps of Discovery was passing by a cedar-covered island in present-day Gregory County, South Dakota when they came across something extraordinary. On the top of some black sulphur bluffs, they found the skeletal remains of an enormous animal. “We found a back bone with the most of the entire laying Connected for 45 feet,” William Clark wrote in his journal. “Those bones are petrified, Some teeth & ribs also Connected.”

What were Lewis and Clark to make of the creature they had found—the animal Joseph Whitehouse dubbed a “monstrous large fish?” Since the term “dinosaur” literally had not been invented yet, they had no way of knowing they had stumbled on the fossilized remains of a plesiosaur, a carnivorous, predatory marine reptile that flourished in the warm inland sea that covered the Great Plains over 65 million years ago.

A number of varieties or sub-species of plesiosaur have been identified in the 200 years since Lewis and Clark found their specimen. Though the size and characteristics differ somewhat, they all have  a long neck, a broad, rounded body, flippers, and a relatively short tail. The largest plesiosaur specimen ever found was over 60 feet long, larger even than the Tyrannosaurus rex. Some scientists believe that plesiosaurs may have been the biggest predators that ever lived.

juvenile plesiosaur skeleton

Skeleton of a juvenile plesiosaur

Plesiosaur fossils have been found on every continent on earth, including number of specimens in the midwestern United States (six different varieties have been found in Kansas alone). Dwelling in the warm-water ocean that covered the Midwest during the Mezozoic era (250 million to 65  million years ago), the plesiosaur cruised below the surface of the water, using its long neck to pivot its head into position to snap up fish and mollusks, as well as octopus, squid, and cuttlefish.

Like many large reptiles, mammals, and dinosaurs of the era, the plesiosaur perished during the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, or K-T extinction, which occurred approximately 65.5 million years ago. Some scientists believe a series of catastrophic events, such as  massive asteroid impacts or volcanic explosions, caused a huge disruption to earth’s ecology that resulted in the sudden death of thousands of species. Other researchers believe that extinction occurred more gradually, with species dying off as the sea level fell and the climate grew cooler. It is estimated that 30-40% of marine animals died off during this time.

Plesiosaur battling Icthyosaurus

Fanciful battle between an Icthyosaurus and a Plesiosaur

As for Lewis and Clark, they carefully gathered up the specimen they found atop the sulphur bluff. The remains of the fossilized plesiosaurus backbone was among the items they shipped back to Thomas Jefferson in the spring of 1805. According to the notes in the Moulton edition of the Lewis and Clark journals, the specimen still exists. Some of the bones are believed to be in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection today.

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