Archive for the ‘Lewis & Clark Expedition’ Category

Clarkia pulchella

Clarkia pulchella, the ragged robin

A few weeks ago, we learned about André Michaux, the great French botanist and explorer who was Thomas Jefferson’s first choice to explore the Missouri River to its source and find a route to the Pacific Ocean. As we found out, for a variety of reasons Michaux didn’t make it and ended up going back to France. The project languished for ten years until Jefferson became president and brought his dream of back to life, handing leadership of the western expedition to his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis.

As outlined by the 1793 proposal Jefferson put before the American Philosophical Society, the goals of the Michaux expedition had been purely scientific. Michaux was one of the premier scientists of his generation in the field of botany; he’d received classical training in the French royal gardens and had years of field experience under his belt. Ten years later, Lewis and Clark’s expedition shared many of these scientific goals. But Lewis was no botanist — in contrast to Michaux, he was an army officer, with only a few years of formal schooling. So what business did he have trying to discover and classify new plants?

Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks

The answer is, quite a lot. For openers, Lewis had grown up with a veritable expert on local plants. His mother, Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks, was a respected herb doctor in Albemarle County, Virginia, who treated patients with herbal remedies and “simples.” From his mother, Lewis learned to identify plants of medicinal value and how to use them for therapeutic purposes. An enthusiastic naturalist, Lewis developed, according to Thomas Jefferson, “a talent for observation which had led him to an accurate knowledge of the plants and animals of his own country.” This would turn out to be important, as Lewis needed to be able to tell what plants he found along the trail were “not of the U.S.”

Building on this foundation, Jefferson started Lewis on a rigorous course of botanical training as soon as he arrived at the White House in 1801 to take up his duties as Jefferson’s personal secretary. From April 1801 to July 1803, Lewis’s primary job duty was to prepare himself for the scientific aspects of the expedition. It is not known whether Jefferson outlined a formal course of study for Lewis, but Lewis’s subsequent botanical skill suggests that both of them took the studies very seriously. Lewis could not have had a more skilled instructor. A lifelong student of botany and natural history, Jefferson was personally familiar with the 130 plants he lists in his Notes on the State of Virginia, and upon returning from his post as Minister to France he had pioneered efforts to introduce beneficial European plants to the United States. Furthermore, he had a huge scientific library—undoubtedly the best in the United States at the time—and was untiring in his drive to experiment, observe, and inquire. Lewis had access to both Jefferson’s mind and his books.

Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus, father of plant taxonomy

Jefferson was also an expert on the relatively new Linnaean system for classifying plants. Developed by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, this system provided a way to identify animals and plants uniquely with class, genus, and species designations. Lewis spent some time studying the Linnaean divisions. It is known that among the reference works Lewis took with him on the expedition were two titles on plant classification, An Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus and An Illustration of the Termini Botanici of Linnaeus.

Benjamin Smith Barton

Benjamin Smith Barton

Lewis’s botanical training was rounded out by a visit with Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton during his crash course with the country’s leading scientific minds in Philadelphia during the spring of 1803. Dr. Barton was a professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, a friend of Jefferson’s, and the author of Elements of Botany: or Outlines of the Natural History of Vegetables, the first botany textbook produced in the United States. Lewis evidently got some training on how to preserve plant specimens from Barton and purchased the textbook as a reference to take with him on his trip.

So how well did Lewis perform as a botanist? While still not a scientist of the caliber of Jefferson, Barton, or Michaux, he was a careful, methodical, and competent observer of the plants he encountered on the trail. While he rarely attempted to name a plant with a full-fledged Latin name in the style of Linnaeus, he did have a very solid working knowledge of botanical terms for describing plants. Here is a case in point—Lewis’s description of the ragged robin, or “Clarkia pulchella:”

Clarkia pulchella

Original specimen of the Clarkia pulchella, preserved by Lewis

I met with a singular plant today in blume of which I preserved a specemine; it grows on the steep sides of the fertile hills near this place, the radix is fibrous, not much branched, annual, woody, white and nearly smooth.    the stem is simple branching ascending, 2½ feet high celindric, villose and of a pale red colour.    the branches are but few and those near it’s upper extremity.    the extremities of the branches are flexable and are bent down near their extremities with the weight of the flowers.    the leaf is sissile, scattered thinly, nearly linear tho’ somewhat widest in the middle, two inches in length absolutely entire, villose, obtusely pointed and of an ordinary green.    above each leaf a small short branch protrudes, supporting a tissue of four or five smaller leaves of the same apeparance with those discribed.    a leaf is placed underneath eah branch, and each flower.    the calyx is a one flowered spathe.    the corolla superior consists of four pale perple petals which are tripartite, the central lobe largest and all terminate obtusely; they are inserted with a long and narrow claw on the top of the germ, are long, smooth, & deciduous.    there are two distinct sets of stamens the 1st or principal consist of four, the filaments of which are capillary, erect, inserted on the top of the germ alternately with the petals, equal short, membranous; the anthers are also four each being elivated with it’s fillament, they are linear and reather flat, erect sessile, cohering at the base, membranous, longitudinally furrowed, twise as long as the fillament naked, and of a pale perple colour.    the second set of stamens are very minute are also four and placed within and opposite to the petals, these are scarcely persceptable while the 1st are large and conspicuous; the filaments are capillary equal, very short, white and smooth.    the anthers are four, oblong, beaked, erect, cohering at the base, membranous, shorter than the fillaments, white naked and appear not to form pollen.    there is one pistillum; the germ of which is also one, cilindric, villous, inferior, sessile, as long as the 1st stamens, and marked with 8 longitudinal furrows.    the single style and stigma form a perfect monapetallous corolla only with this difference, that the style which elivates the stigma or limb is not a tube but solid tho’ it’s outer appearance is that of the tube of a monopetallous corolla swelling as it ascends and gliding in such manner into the limb that it cannot be said where the style ends, or the stigma begins; jointly they are as long as the corolla, white, the limb is four cleft, sauser shaped, and the margins of the lobes entire and rounded.    this has the appearance of a monopetallous flower growing from the center of a four petalled corollar, which is rendered more conspicuous in consequence of the 1st being white and the latter of a pale perple. I regret very much that the seed of this plant are not yet ripe and it is proble will not be so during my residence in this neighbourhood.—

Lewis and Clark, Pioneering Naturalists

Lewis and Clark: Pioneering Naturalists by Paul Russell Cutright (1969)

As Paul Russell Cutright observed, “Lewis’s description of this plant is positive evidence of what he could do graphically with root, stem, leaf, and flower in one hand and pen in the other.” Lewis described plants completely, including details of taste, smell, sight, and touch. Cutright notes that Lewis employed more than 30 botanical terms in this description, and over 150 in various descriptions of other plants throughout the journals.

As Lewis crossed the western part of the continent, he described as best he could the geographical range of the plants, their size and dimension, and speculated on which plants had commercial possibilities and might make suitable transplants to the East. He described in detail the fruits and roots the Corps of Discovery added to their diet, some of which saved the Corps from starvation. Lewis’s knowledge of plants was helpful in this respect: aside from gas from eating wapato roots, there is no record in the journals of anybody suffering from eating a poisonous plant. At times he treated himself and other members of the Expedition with medicinal simples for fever and pain.

Lewis diligently collected seeds and pressed plant specimens throughout the trip. Regrettably, many of these were left in a cache at the Great Falls that was ruined by floodwaters and never made it back East. In spite of this, Lewis brought back over 150 carefully preserved plant specimens from the latter partof the trip, at least half of which were new to science. This Lewis and Clark Herbarium still exists; it is owned by the American Philosophical Society and kept at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Some of these plants bear Lewis’s name, as the Linnaean genus Lewisia and the species lewisii were created to honor what the explorer modestly referred to as his “slender botanical skill.”


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Captain William Clark Meeting the Northwest Indians, by Charles M. Russell (1897)

Consider the task ahead of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they set off up the Missouri River on May 14, 1804. In addition to incredible dangers and challenges of penetrating an unknown continent, and the mental rigor of conducting scientific research, they were tasked with delicate diplomacy. Dozens of Indian tribes lived along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers; many of the people had never before made contact with a white person. Lewis and Clark were supposed to meet the leaders of these people, make friends with them, and convince them that the Americans were “all that”; unlike, say, the British and Spanish.

Fortunately for Lewis and Clark, there were a few established tricks of the diplomacy trade. The Americans generally exchanged gifts with the tribal leaders. William Clark, who later earned his living as an Indian diplomat, eventually received so many pipes, robes, and other memorabilia that he opened his own museum. In return, Lewis and Clark had gifts for the Indians, including beads, American flags, woven clothing (much preferred over animal skins), and a special token of recognition known as  a peace medal.

Peace medals dated back to the days of the British crown, when representatives of the king would hand out large silver medals bearing the king’s likeness in order to cement friendships with tribal leaders. When the Americans won their independence, peace medals had become a well-established tradition, and new editions were created bearing the likeness of George Washington, John Adams, and, by 1804, Thomas Jefferson.

A few Lewis & Clark medals survive. This is the one presented to Yelleppit of the Walula people. Oregon Historical Society, OrHi 100141 and OrHi 100142.

The Jefferson peace medal, made of hollow silver, had a new design which was so simple and striking that it remained the standard for the medals until 1849. On one side was a bust of the president’s likeness. On the other, a pair of clasped hands and the words “Peace and Friendship.” While tinged with bitter irony today, the words and image fit the conception Jefferson had of the Indians he expected Lewis & Clark to meet. With no awareness of the technological revolution in steamboats and railroads that would supercharge westward expansion, Jefferson believed the Indians would be part of the power equation of the west for decades or even centuries to come. They were equals, or at least had to be treated as such.

Lewis and Clark gave out three sizes of Jefferson medals, along with several of an older design, all along the trail. On October 29, 1804, Clark wrote a detailed description of a medal ceremony in which the captains cemented relations with seven chiefs of the villages of the Mandans and Hidatsas:

at 10 oClock the S W. wind rose verry high, we Collected the Chiefs and Commened a Council ounder a Orning and our Sales Stretched around to Keep out as much wind as possible, we delivered a long Speech the Substance of which Similer to what we had Delivered to the nations below.    the old Chief of the Grossanters was verry restless before the Speech was half ended    observed that he Could not wait long that his Camp was exposed to the hostile Indians, &c. &.    he was rebuked by one of the Chiefs for his uneasiness at Such a time as the present, we at the end of the Speech mentioned the Ricare who Accompanied us to make a firm peace, they all Smoked with him (I gave this Cheaf a Dollar of the American Coin as a Meadel with which he was much pleased)   

In Councel we prosented him with a Certificate of his Sincrrity and good Conduct &c.    we also Spoke about the fur which was taken from 2 french men by a Mandan, and informd of our intentions of Sending back the french hands—    after the Coun[c]i[l] we gave the presents with much Sere-money, and put the Meadels on the Cheifs we intended to make viz. one for each Town to whome we gave Coats hats & flags, one Grand Cheif to each nation to whome we gave meadels with the presidents likeness    in Councel we requested them to give us an answer tomorrow or as Soon as possible to Some points which required their Deliberation—    after the Council was over we Shot the Air gun which appeared to assonish the nativs much, the greater part them retired Soon after—

Peace medals were prized possessions among the Indians. They became tokens of hope in the face of tragedy. This photo shows Boss Sun of the Pawnee wearing his medal.

With one exception, Lewis and Clark exemplified the message of “Peace and Friendship” when they handed out the medals. Unfortunately, one medal was distributed as a raised middle finger to the Blackfeet Indians. In July 1806, Lewis and a small party of men got into a gunfight with a group of Blackfeet youths. Before they made a run for it, Lewis hung a Jefferson peace medal about the neck of a dead Blackfeet warrior, noting in his journal that he wanted the Indians to “know who we were.”

The government continued to strike and hand out peace medals through the presidency of Benjamin Harrison in the 1890s. A wonderful display of peace medals can be seen at the Museum of Westward Expansion beneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

More reading: “A Jefferson Peace Medal” – great article about the 89 peace medals distributed by Lewis & Clark

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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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Dan Slosberg performing as Pierre Cruzatte in St. Charles, Missouri

Please welcome our guest blogger, Daniel Slosberg, who has graciously written about his musical and historical journey to play the part of Pierre Cruzatte, Lewis & Clark’s much-esteemed one-eyed fiddler and boatman. In yesterday’s post, Dan described how a chance encounter transformed him from a man with no interest in history to developing a show about Cruzatte. Today, Cruzatte and Dan’s journey continues.

While on a field trip to the Knife River Indian Villages, I met Gary Moulton and of course told him about my project and about what a help his edition of the journals had been. “If you’re interested in the music of the expedition,” he said, “then you have to talk to Bob Hunt.” Robert Hunt had written my favorite music-oriented WPO article, “Merry to the Fiddle: The Musical Amusement of the Lewis and Clark Party,” (WPO, November 1988). If I had to point out one moment when I began to think that becoming Pierre Cruzatte could really happen, that would have to be the moment I came across Bob Hunt’s article. He was one of my biggest Lewis & Clark heroes; but I’d never imagined that I’d get to meet him. Yet there he was, as Dr. Moulton pointed out, wandering by one of the Knife River lodges.

In “Merry to the Fiddle,” Bob Hun postulates that one of the tunes expedition members might have played is “Fisher’s Hornpipe.” None of the Lewis & Clark journal-keepers mention tune names, so we’re left to make educated guesses about what tunes Cruzatte played, as Hunt had done in the article. As a result, “Fisher’s Hornpipe” became the foundation of my version of Cruzatte’s repertoire. I play a Metis version of it during every program. And when, on the final evening of the Bismarck meeting, I got to play the fiddle after Cindy Orlando’s induction as the new LCTHF president, I played “Fisher’s Hornpipe.” So there I was at my first LCTHF annual
meeting, playing the fiddle for the whole group at the final gathering. I couldn’t have had a better Pierre Cruzatte launching party.


Earlier in the meeting, I had met Janice Elvidge, a ranger at Fort Clatsop at the time. I of course told her about my Cruzatte ambitions. A member of the Living History section of the National Association of Interpretation, she said that I ought to sign up for the section’s meeting in St. Louis the following April.

Check out mp3s and purchasing information for "Pierre Cruzatte: A Musical Journey"

I checked out the schedule, and it turned out that the organizers had arranged for a field trip to the Lewis & Clark Center (what eventually became the Lewis & Clark Boat House and Nature Center). Cruzatte enlisted with the expedition on May 16, 1804, while the explorers spent a few days in St. Charles, so that’s as close to a home town for Cruzatte that we’re going to get. I called Mimi Jackson of the Center and asked if I could play some tunes as Cruzatte during the field trip. She agreed not only to that, but said that, if I wanted to, I could speak as Cruzatte as well. Which I did, learning an important lesson as a result (see below the bit about accents).

While fiddling outside the center, I met Nan Harms, who at the time booked programs for the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (NHOTIC) in Baker City, Oregon. Nan liked Cruzatte’s music and spirit so much that she asked if I could come up and do a program at the center. “I don’t really have a program,” I told her. “Well,” she said, “call me when you do.”

I had been working on a script, but I’m a very, very, very slow writer. I was two years and at least 40 drafts into the project. Without a deadline, I probably could have gone another two years without finishing. I realized that this was my chance to impose a deadline, so I called Nan and asked her when she wanted me. “How about July?” she asked. So July it was.

Dan and a friend performing at Fort Mandan, while son Noah gets into the act.

Meanwhile, I was contacting others who I thought could help with the program. Since that first moment in St. Charles when I opened my mouth as Cruzatte and out came my California drawl, I knew that I needed an accent. Around that time, an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times describing two presidential impersonators from different parts of the country. One impersonated George W. Bush, the other Bill Clinton. Both swore by a dialect coach who happened to live just up the freeway from me in Northridge, CA. She turned out to be a Lewis & Clark aficionado herself. After a few sessions with her, and with the help of “Canajun, Eh?,” a recording of Canadian accents she happened to own, Cruzatte had found his voice.

Many other people helped with putting the program together. As a matter of fact, whenever I take the stage as Cruzatte, I feel the presence of a whole crowd of people up there with me. To name just a few: fiddlers Gary Francisco (a.k.a. Farley the Fiddler) and Donna Hebert helped me learn how to clog and fiddle at the same time; percussionist John Bergamo helped me with the jew’s harp; another percussionist, Aaron Plunkett, helped me with the bones. I took acting lessons from Dianne Hull; whenever Pierre Cruzatte takes aim at what turns out to be Captain Lewis’s backside, he (i.e. me) is really seeing an elk thanks to Diane.

Speaking of folks who helped, I can’t forget to mention my family, particularly my wife. Deborah supported me through the whole process, from early on when I left my job to work on the program full-time; then, later, when I spent weeks on the road performing the show, leaving her to care for our four kids. Those kids also helped with the show. When I needed live bodies for a test audience — after having performed the program many times for stuffed animals and for stick figures that I chalked on the inside of the garage door — they provided that  audience –for a fee. I had to pay each of them a buck or two to keep them in their seats.


With all these preparations, with the years I took to write the show, you’d think that the first programs would have been pretty good. But they were quite the opposite. They weren’t chronological — I’d reenact the accident somewhere in the middle, once even choosing a member of the audience to be Lewis, whence I quickly learned that it’s hard to get an audience member to reliably grab his rear end, jump up and down and scream; I had no map, so audience members couldn’t follow along geographically unless they had a good map in their head; and I sang all the songs a capella — though I have a decent voice, it’s not good enough to carry all the songs by itself. I’m amazed anyone sat through those early shows.

Pierre Cruzatte entertaining a room of wide-eyed kids

It must have been the music that kept people in their seats during those first programs. Without the fiddle tunes, Cruzatte would have been lost. Almost as soon as had learned about Cruzatte’s existence, I began hunting for tunes and songs that he might have played, i.e. pieces in musicians repertoires by 1800. I focused on tunes played by the Metis, who have their own unique versions of tunes, often with an extra few beats here and there. I found a number of great recordings but want to mention three sources in particular. From Anne Lederman’s priceless “Old Native and Metis Fiddling in Western Manitoba,” I got two of the tunes Cruzatte plays in the program. The “Red River Jig,” the tune with which Cruzatte ends every show, comes from another great album, Folkways’  “Plains Chippewa/Metis Music from Turtle  Mountain“. Michael Loukinen’s “Medicine Fiddle,”a documentary film about the “fiddling and dancing traditions of Native and Metis families on both sides of the U.S. and Canadian border” also proved invaluable. If you love the fiddle even the tiniest bit, you have to see this film.

During the early period of Cruzatte programs, I thankfully suffered a kind of constructive ignorance. As I mentioned before, early versions were a bit rough. But I thought they were great. I videotaped the program and sent off a copy to the Orange County Performing Arts Center (OCPAC) to try to get the program onto their roster of educational arts performances. They responded with a very kind letter: “your program has potential, but you need to work on the theatrical aspects of the show.” Still blissfully ignorant, I called OCPAC and asked what they meant by “theatrical aspects.” Rather than list everything that meant for my program, they told me that I should call actor/storyteller Carl Weintraub, who OCPAC often worked with when developing new shows.

I performed the Cruzatte program for him in front of a middle school audience, after which he gave me a two-page list of things I needed to do to make the program work. And Carl’s ideas DID make the program work. Every piece of advice he gave me was right on the money. For example, he told me that I had to have a map to show the audience the progress of the expedition. “But I don’t have an historically accurate map, and I don’t know how I’d get one,” I complained. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “You have to have one.” To fill out the sound on the songs, Carl told me that I had to sing and play the fiddle at the same time. “But I can’t do that,” I whined.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “You have to do it.” He told me that the program had to move chronologically and end with the accident. He suggested that, early on in the program, I tease the audience with allusions to the accident. He suggested that I make the description of Charbonneau’s recipe for boudin blank as yucky as possible, all the better to keep audiences of
young kids as rapt as possible.

If you’ve seen my program, you’ll recognize Carl’s ideas as integral parts of the show. Without those ideas, I’d still be a rambling Cruzatte, albeit one who plays a mean fiddle.

I continued making small changes over the next few years, especially when audience members suggested ways to improve the program — a visiting grade-school teacher from France told me the proper way to pronounce “guimbarde” (French for jew’s harp) and the French way to count to three on my fingers (i.e. starting with the thumb rather than the index finger); Luke from Tacoma (whose last name I can’t recall) recommended that, when reenacting the scene in which Charbonneau drops the rudder of one of the pirogues, I act as if the strong winds buffet me around the stage; and Dr. Moulton chipped in when he mentioned to me that I could get more than the one tone I had been playing on the sounden horn. He was right, of course; now I can get three and a half, which makes the sounden horn much more interesting for everybody.


One bicenntennial and one haircut later

Since July of 2000 and those first baby steps along the trail, I’ve been lucky enough to appear as Pierre Cruzatte to wonderful, appreciative audiences across the U.S. — from the University of Virginia to the University of Oregon, from New Orleans, Louisiana, to New Town, North Dakota,  and to hundreds of places in between. Being Pierre was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I feel incredibly blessed have lived in the right place and the right time to have done it. Life has slowed down for Cruzatte since the end of the bicentennial, but he still appears now and
then, mainly at schools in the L.A. area. Now that his heyday is over — at least until the tricentennial — I’m looking for other five foot four, one-eyed fiddling boatmen to portray.  As you might imagine, they are pretty hard to find.

Don’t worry, though. While I wait for a new boatman to paddle by, I’m not just hanging around treading water. Because finding the right word for Cruzatte to use for “butt” (i.e. one that made sense for the character, that was easy to understand, and that would be appropriate for elementary school use) proved to be one of the most interesting conundrums in writing the Cruzatte show, I’ve begun a series of poems using different words for derriere. Ideally, I’ll eventually have a backside synonym and associated verse beginning with each letter of the alphabet, a kind of alpha-butt. I tentatively call it Aft, Bumper, Can.

Also, I’ve put together a new program about Dr. William Beanes, a Maryland doctor who the British imprisoned aboard a ship during the War of 1812. His good friend, a lawyer named Francis Scott Key, sailed out into the Chesapeake Bay to negotiate for his release. Key eventually brought home not only his friend, but also a poem that he called “The Defense of Fort McHenry” and which a publisher subsequently renamed “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Dr. Beanes may not be the fiddling boatman I was searching for, but he does continue in the tradition of relatively unknown historical figures who play important roles in U.S. history. I haven’t abandoned hope yet, though. So, if you come across any other interesting fiddlers, please let me know. And if you know any synonyms for “derriere” which begin with I, Q, X, Y, or Z, contact me immediately.

Dan Slosberg’s website

A note from Frances: Again, thank you so much, Dan, for your great insights into music, history, and creativity. Many people think that a creative endeavor just kind of “happens.” It’s hard work that brings it all together!

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Daniel Slosberg as Pierre Cruzatte

Today and tomorrow, we are delighted to welcome our first guest blogger! Daniel Slosberg is a musician and reenactor who plays the part of Pierre Cruzatte, the much-valued boatman and fiddler of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Dan’s journey is fascinating in terms of history, music, and personal growth. Please welcome Dan!

Pierre Cruzatte was the one-eyed, half-French, half-Omaha main boatman of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Cruzatte had more experience on the river than anyone else in the Corps. So, whenever a difficult navigational problem arose, the captains always consulted with him. He also hunted, served as an interpreter, and played his fiddle. But most people remember him for one thing: the accident in which he mistook Captain Lewis for an elk and shot him in the butt.

Back in November of 1997, when Ken Burns’ Lewis & Clark documentary aired for the first time, I knew nothing about Pierre Cruzatte; I didn’t even know that a Pierre Cruzatte existed. And I knew next-to-nothing about the Lewis & Clark Expedition. I didn’t watch the Burns documentary because, at the time, I had practically no interest in history.

However, Robbie Trombetta, the music teacher at the school where I worked, watched the show. She knew that I played the fiddle, so when we ran into each other at work the day after the program, she asked me if I knew that Lewis & Clark had a fiddle player. “Who are Lewis & Clark?” I asked. “Don’t they have a college named after them?” (I was thinking of William & Mary.)

Robbie didn’t remember much about the fiddler other than that his name sounded French. This piqued my interest because — knowing as little as I did about the time and place of the expedition — it seemed odd to me that a Frenchman would be involved.

So I began poking around a bit on the web to see what I could learn about this French fiddler. Couldn’t find much — this was 1997 after all, well before the explosion of  L & C sites leading up to the bicentennial. So I e-mailed two people I found on the web, folks who I thought might know something about this mystery musician. Both got back to me within just a few hours. One of these folks, Jay Rasmussen, who at the time ran the Lewis & Clark on the Information Superhighway web site, told me that the expedition included two fiddlers and that the main one’s name was Pierre Cruzatte.

My other correspondent, Keith Edgerton of Montana State University, wrote that, “…as far as finding out more about [Cruzatte] and the music he might have played, start with Stephen Ambrose’s UNDAUNTED COURAGE.” “Read a book?” I thought. “Not likely.” With four young kids and a more-than-full-time job, not to mention a healthy lack of interest in all things historical, I couldn’t imagine using my spare time to read a treatise about the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

Somehow — I can’t remember exactly why — I took a peek at the thing, and within a page or two, Stephen Ambrose had me hooked. I would read during every spare moment I could find. And, as I read, an idea began to blossom. I used to work with a group called the Aman Folk Ensemble. We would go to schools and give assemblies about International folk music and dance. Why not a similar kind of program — but about the music, dance and song of the Lewis and Clark Expedition?

The more I thought about it and the more I learned about Cruzatte, the more he seemed like the perfect character to portray in such a program. He was almost too good to be true — a one-eyed fiddler with a French father and Omaha mother who did all sorts of important things on the trip but was best known for that accident. Also, the ideal height for a voyageur — a French or Metis boatman — was five feet, four inches tall:

They are short, thick set, and active, and never tire…. There is no room for the legs of such people, in these canoes. But if he shall stop growing at about five feet four inches, and be gifted with a good voice, and lungs that never tire, he is considered as having been born under a most favourable star. (Thomas L. McKenney, quoted in Grace Lee Nute, THE VOYAGEUR, p. 14)

I’m 5′ 4″; until discovering Pierre Cruzatte, I had never felt like the ideal height for anything.

So I started reading whatever I could find about the expedition, combing through the Moulton edition of the journals, through back issues of “We Proceeded On,” through Jackson’s LETTERS OF THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION, etc., for anything that mentioned music, song, dance or Pierre Cruzatte.

Pierre Cruzatte lightened the load for the hard-working men of the Corps of Discovery

I began calling people who knew a lot about the expedition. Ludd Trozpek, who was I believe treasurer of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation (LCTHF)  at the time, turned out to live in Claremont, my home town, less than an hour from where I live now. This may not seem like a big deal; but, since the majority of Lewis and Clark aficionados live close to the trail, finding one so nearby seemed pretty miraculous.

(Of course, I learned later that a whole bunch of Lewis & Clark fans lived nearby, namely  members of the California Chapter of the LCTHF. They have always been incredibly supportive of my Cruzatte endeavors, even to the extent of underwriting the brain-tanned buckskin  trousers that I wear as Pierre.)

So I visited Ludd. If I recall correctly, he was preparing to head out to an LCTHF annual meeting. He told me that I ought to go to one, but I couldn’t see why I’d want to. He showed me his magnificent vault of Lewis & Clark books. (He also politely pointed out, after he’d seen a number of photos of me as the eye-patch adorned Cruzatte, that I needed to decide which eye was blind.) I also visited George Rion, who lived a few hours south of me in San Diego. He showed me his Lewis & Clark trunk, giving me some great ideas for the Cruzatte program. I spoke with Joe Musselman, who had written about the music and sounds of the expedition, and filled me in on much about the songs of the French boatmen, the voyageur songs, two of which Cruzatte sings in the show.

Jew's harps - the ultimate in portable music

As the research progressed, I gradually collected items that I might use in a Cruzatte program: I found a source for jew’s harps that look like the kind that the expedition might have carried — the Black Fires at MouthMusic.com; I found a source for replicas of the “sounden horns”; I discovered Aquila USA, a place to get gut strings, the kind Cruzatte would have used on his fiddle. I found a fellow in Nevada who made rough, baroque style bows (i.e. bending outward from the hair rather than inward), perfect to double as Cruzatte’s rifle. Finally, on a research trip for old violin cases, I stumbled over the mother lode: a local violin shop had a violin so roughly made that they felt they couldn’t sell it — while the varnish on the tops of most violins leaves them with a color like maple syrup, the top of this fiddle had turned almost black, as if someone had left it hanging over a fire for many years. They sold me the fiddle for the almost negligible cost of setting it up. I now had the perfect instrument for Cruzatte.

Somewhere along the trail, I began to feel like I had to go to an LCTHF annual meeting. So in July of 2000 I, along with my son Ben (who was four at the time) and my mom flew to Bismarck where we got kick-started into the world of Lewis, Clark and Cruzatte, (and where I fell in love with North Dakota, but that’s a story for another day).

As anyone who has been to an LCTHF annual meeting knows, it’s the place to be if you’re into Lewis and Clark. The moment we got to the hotel, we started meeting folks I had up to then only read about. I was thrilled to meet Porter Williams, sculptor and York portrayer, in the hotel lobby while we checked in. During the meeting, I chatted with the delightfully quirky food author Leandra Holland about whether or not the expedition members ate candles. During a break, I found Carolyn Gilman, author of WHERE TWO WORLDS MEET: THE GREAT LAKES FUR TRADE. When I told her about the Cruzatte project, she recommended that I read Tanis Thorne’s THE MANY HANDS OF MY RELATIONS: THE FRENCH AND INDIANS ON THE LOWER MISSOURI, the only book about the coming together of the French and Indians at the time of Cruzatte. I later contacted Dr. Thorne, who recommended that I read Peter Bowen’s Gabriel Du
Pré mystery novels
, a series I’d never heard of. Bowen has Du Pré — himself a product of French and Indian ancestors — speak with the kind of patois that I wanted for Cruzatte.

Coming tomorrow: Cruzatte takes the stage!

Dan Slosberg’s website

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The prairie dog, Lewis's "barking squirrel"

The prairie dog, Lewis's "barking squirrel"

On September 7, 1804, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark climbed a round, high knoll in present-day Boyd County, Nebraska, now known as “Old Baldy.” According to Sergeant John Ordway, the captains “pronounced it a curious place, as if it had been made by the hand of man.” When they reached the top, Lewis and Clark were greeted by an amazing sight. Clark described it in his journal:

near the foot of this high Nole we discovered a Village of an annamale the french Call the Prarie Dog which burrow in the grown & with the rattle Snake and Killed one & Caught one Dog alive    caught in a whole 2 frogs    near the hole Killed a Dark Rattle Snake with a P[rairie] do[g] in him

The Village of those little dogs is under the ground a conisiderable distance    we dig under 6 feet thro rich hard clay without getting to their Lodges    Some of their wholes we put in 5 barrels of water without driveing them out, we caught one by the water forceing him out.    ther mouth resemble the rabit, head longer, legs short, & toe nails long    ther tail like a g[round] Squirel which they Shake and make chattering noise    ther eyes like a dog, their colour is Gray and Skin contains Soft fur

"Old Baldy," near Lynch, Nebraska

"Old Baldy," near Lynch, Nebraska

This was, of course, the prairie dog, or “petite chien” (little dog) as it was known by the French trappers and voyageurs. Private John Shields killed one of the comical little creatures and had it cooked for the captain’s dinner. Fascinated, the captains decided to try to catch one of the animals. It proved to be easier said than done. Clark wrote, “we por’d into one of the holes 5 barrels of water without filling it.” The men worked until nightfall and only managed to catch one measly prairie dog. No doubt terrified, the animal was carried off to the keelboat. Little did the prairie dog know he (or she) was about to embark on an extraordinary odyssey.

Prairie dogs sharing a smooch

Prairie dogs sharing a smooch

Prairie dogs are the most social of rodents, living in large colonies or “towns” of interconnected underground burrows. A single prairie dog town can span many acres and contain thousands of individuals. They are mostly herbivores, eating grasses and some small insects, and aggressively defend their territory and warn one another with high-pitched whistles if danger approaches. Prairie dogs converse in small barks or chirps and greet each other by touching their lips or teeth, making it look as though they are kissing.

This particular prairie dog would never share a kiss again. He became a pet of the Corps of Discovery, riding along with the rest of the crew all the way to the winter camp of 1804-1805 at Fort Mandan, North Dakota. Fortunately, prairie grasses were in heavy supply, and the animal ate well and no doubt got plenty of attention. Social creatures that they are, prairie dogs can be readily tamed, at least when it is not the mating season. At some point, the captains determined that the prairie dog should be sent as a live specimen back to President Jefferson.

On April 7, 1805, the prairie dog departed with Corporal Richard Warfington and his crew on the keelboat, heading back down the Missouri River with a boatload of specimens, artifacts, and papers for the president.  He was accompanied by four live magpies and a live prairie hen. Only one of the magpies and the prairie dog survived the trip.

Jefferson was reportedly delighted and entertained by the prairie dog, and kept him as a pet for a time before turning him over to Charles Willson Peale to display at his museum in Philadelphia. There the prairie dog lived out his days, being doted on by visitors who had come to gawk at the curiosities Lewis & Clark brought back from the west.

P.T. Barnum's American Museum fire, 1865

P.T. Barnum's American Museum goes up in smoke, 1865

The prairie dog lived for several years at Peale’s museum, which shared its quarters with the American Philosophical Society. When the animal finally passed away, Peale stuffed and mounted him and kept him as part of the exhibit. The stuffed prairie dog was still at the museum when Peale’s collection was broken up and sold after his death, with the bulk of the collection going to showman and promoter P.T. Barnum. The prairie dog mount likely perished by fire when Barnum’s New York museum went up in smoke in 1865.

More interesting reading: The Lost Artifacts of Lewis & Clark

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Shooting the Rapids, by Arthur Heming (1906)

Class V (from the U.S. Scale of River Difficulty): Extremely difficult. Long and violent rapids that follow each other almost without interruption. River filled with obstructions. Big drops and violent currents. Extremely steep gradient. Even reconnoitering may be difficult. Rescue preparations mandatory. Can be run only by top experts in specially equipped whitewater canoes, decked craft, and kayaks.

Even people who know little else about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark have often heard that the explorers shot Class V rapids in their dugout canoes. Whitewater rapids are rated according to difficulty from Class I (easy flow and small waves) to Class VI (virtually unrunnable). Even in today’s era of fiberglass kayaks and self-bailing rafts, Class V rapids are not included on most commercial river trips. Negotiating the large rocks, colossal waves, treacherous currents, and steep drops of Class V rapids requires careful scouting, expert-level paddling skills, and nerves of steel. The adrenaline rush is huge, and the risk of death is real.

The greatest rapids of the entire Lewis & Clark journey were found at the site where the Columbia River contracts from one-half mile wide to a narrow chute of basalt slabs, confining the entire flow of the river into only 240 feet. What erupted from this chute was three miles of horrifying violence. Clark writes:

in those narrows the water was agitated in a most Shocking manner boils Swell & whorl pools, we passed with great risque It being impossible to make a portage of the Canoes, about 2 miles lower passed a verry Bad place between 2 rocks one large & in the middle of the river    here our Canoes took in Some water, I put all the men who Could not Swim on Shore; & Sent a fiew articles Such as guns & papers, and landed at a village of 20 houses on the Stard Side in a Deep bason where the river apprd. to be blocked up with emence rocks 

I walked down and examined the pass found it narrow, and one verry bad place a little in the narrows    I pursued this Chanel which is from 50 to 100 yards wide and Swels and boils with a most Tremendeous manner. – October 25, 1805

The Short Narrows or Petite Dalles of the Columbia in 1950

This set of two rapids, known to Lewis and Clark as “the Long Narrows” and “the Short Narrows” of the Columbia, would later be dubbed by French fur trappers as “Le Dalles de la Columbia.” Dalles (rhymes with “pals”) means flagstones; the town of The Dalles, Oregon, gets its name from the rapids.

The Dalles was also the dividing point between two great Indian cultures, and thus the center of a trading operation that had lasted for at least 10,000 years. A few days before getting to the Narrows, Lewis and Clark had begun to encounter Indians with European clothing, beads, and ironware. They were obtaining these, along with vast quantities of dried salmon, from the Pacific Coast people who traded with British and Russian ships plying the coastal waters. From the Indians of the Rockies, horses, buffalo robes, hide clothing, and even bear grasses (good for making baskets) flowed the other way. Controlling all of this trade were the Wishram and Wasco tribes, who occupied either side of The Dalles.

Wishram Girl, by Edward S. Curtis

Lewis and Clark arrived too late to get the full flavor of the fall trading days at the Dalles, though they certainly noticed the evidence of the massive trade in fish. They also noticed something else about the shrewd and aggressive trading people of the region — they stole. While petty theft had been an occasional problem when the Corps of Discovery had stayed among various Indian tribes in the past, at the Dalles it reached epidemic proportions.

As the men undertook a grueling portage around the Short Narrows at Celilo Falls, they were forced to strip naked due to the thousands of biting fleas that infested the discarded salmon skins littering the entire area of the recent fair-like campground of the Indians. As if that wasn’t enough, they found themselves accompanied by a large crowd of Indians, who literally rifled through the Corps’ belongings at will, helping themselves to axes, blankets, and knives. Native American historians believe that the Indians considered the “liberation” of Lewis & Clarks goods a kind of tax or tribute to which they were entitled.

Celilo Falls in 1899

The steep and rugged ground did not permit the portage of the heavy, unwieldy canoes. They had to go through the Short Narrows. Clark writes:

as the portage of our canoes over this high rock would be impossible with our Strength, and the only danger in passing thro those narrows was the whorls and Swills arriseing from the Compression of the water, and which I thought (as also our principal watermen Peter Crusat) by good Stearing we could pass down Safe, accordingly I deturmined to pass through this place notwithstanding the horrid appearance of this agitated gut Swelling, boiling & whorling in every direction (which from the top of the rock did not appear as bad as when I was in it. however we passed Safe to the astonishment of all the Inds: of the last Lodges who viewed us from the top of the rock.   

Wasco man

Though Lewis and Clark armed their party in case the Indians decided to attack, they were able to preserve relative calm. After all, they were vastly outnumbered by the Indians, and had nowhere to run. They were not even in American territory anymore, and they were there to make peace, not war. Clark and Lewis both went visiting, met some chiefs, and invited them to visit their camp for a smoke and some music. As Clark writes in his usual delightful manner:

one of our Party Pete Crusat played on the violin which pleased the Savage, the men danced, Great numbers of Sea Orter Pole Cats about those fishories.

The next morning Clark and Lewis scouted the Long Narrows. What happened next is best told by Clark:

We found difficuelt of passing without great danger, but as the portage was impractiable with our large Canoes, we Concluded to Make a portage of our most valuable articles and run the canoes thro    accordingly on our return divided the party Some to take over the Canoes, and others to take our Stores across a portage of a mile to a place on the Chanel below this bad whorl & Suck, with Some others I had fixed on the Chanel with roapes to throw out to any who Should unfortunately meet with difficuelty in passing through; great number of Indians viewing us from the high rocks under which we had to pass, the 3 first Canoes passed thro very well, the 4th nearly filled with water, the last passed through by takeing in a little water, thus Safely below what I conceved to be the worst part of this Chanel, felt my Self extreamly gratified and pleased.   

The Long Narrows or Grand Dalles in 1951

He should have been. The Long Narrows was the graveyard of the Columbia, a place where untold numbers of Indians, trappers, and voyageurs would meet their Maker. As much as any other incident, the shooting of the Dalles rapids illustrates the character of William Clark, as well as the qualities that draw people to whitewater sports today: a calculating focus and intensity; a strong sense of personal responsibility and willingness to accept the consequences of his actions; a deep and hard-won confidence in his equipment, skills, and conditioning; and the ability to deal intelligently and courageously with danger.

Today, The Dalles remains a beautiful place, but the incredible beauty and risk of Celilo Falls and the Narrows are just memories. They were inundated by The Dalles Dam in 1957.


Great pictures of The Dalles from The Columbia River: A Photographic Journey
The Long Narrows – Native American perspective by Pat Courtney Gold

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