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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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Continuing our sculpture tour of the Lewis & Clark trail, let’s take a look at the Lewis & Clark monuments to be found in the Great Plains states.

"First Council" Monument at Fort Atkinson State Park, Nebraska, by Oreland C. Joe (2003)

This interesting monument depicts the first meeting between Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with the Native Americans. The captains, along with their dog Seaman and an interpreter (whose name was recorded by Clark as “Fairfong”), met with Shon-go-ton-go and We-the-e of the Missouria-Oto tribes. The sculptor, Oreland C. Joe, is himself a Native American of Navajo and Ute descent.

"Spirit of Discovery" by Pat Kennedy (2002) stands in front of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City, Iowa

Does this imposing statue look familiar? It should if you read Lewis & Clark in Sculpture, Part 1. It is identical to the statue that stands on the waterfront in St. Charles, Missouri. I read on the Internet (so it must be true) that there were three castings of this sculpture. Where is the other one? Let me know in the comments!

"Pointing the Way" by Tom Palmerton at the entrance of the Missouri River Basin Visitors' Center in Nebraska City.

I can’t seem to discover much about this monument. Anyone who knows more about its story and when it was dedicated is cordially invited to comment!

Mary poses with Tom Neary's "Mandan Winter" (2004) at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, North Dakota

This is truly one of my favorite Lewis & Clark sculptures. When we first arrived at the Interpretive Center (gateway to Fort Mandan and a huge milestone on our Lewis & Clark travels), it was raining lightly, and the powerful impression of the sculpture of the two captains with Sheheke of the Mandans (Big White), brought to mind some lyrics from a favorite song:

I could almost see them standin’ 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

Also, visit sculptor Neary’s site for some great photos of the fabrication of this statue and a separate one of Seaman that is near the replica fort.

Explorers at the Marias, by Bob Scriver (1976). This statue stands along the Missouri River in Fort Benton, Montana.

The sculpture at left by Bob Scriver depicts Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea at “Decision Point,” as they make the critical decision at a huge fork in the river as to which branch is the true Missouri and will lead them further to the west. There is some interesting history behind this monument. The site was selected as Montana’s official state memorial to the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1925. However, no money was ever appropriated to proceed. In 1972, the community of Fort Benton began a fundraising project that resulted in $400,000 and a commission to Bob Scriver, a sculptor mostly known for his western bronzes. The research for the Fort Benton work led Scriver to a life-long obsession with Lewis & Clark.

York, Seaman, Lewis & Clark gaze westward in Bob Scriver's "Explorers at the Portage" (1989) in Great Falls

Scriver’s prominence only grew with the passing years, and in 1989 he created this bronze for the city of Great Falls in honor of the centennial of Montana statehood.

If anyone has any additional details about these statues, or I have missed any in the Great Plains states (South Dakota, where are you?), please let me know. I’d also welcome any comments on how the summer floods affected these sites. In the final installment of this series, we will visit the statues from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific.

For more reading:

Lewis & Clark road trip: The Nebraska Trail
Lewis & Clark road trip:  The Sioux City Interpretive Center
Lewis & Clark road trip: Fort Mandan
Lewis & Clark road trip: Fort Benton, Montana

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The ongoing flooding disaster along the Missouri River in the Great Plains and Midwest is a sobering reminder of man’s tenuous relationship with nature. Despite all our engineering feats and illusion of control, the earth still conjures up torrential rains, ice packs and snowmelts that make our levies and floodgates look pretty puny indeed.

A home is taken by the flood in Minot, North Dakota, June 2011

A home is taken by the flood in Minot, North Dakota, June 2011

The evacuation and inundation of Minot, North Dakota – just the latest community to go under – calls to mind the horrific Missouri River flood of 1993, which destroyed more than ten thousand homes, killed fifty people, inundated millions of acres of farmland, halted river and rail transport, and resulted in billions of dollars in damage. As the flood and its consequences roll downstream, we may be looking at an awful repeat.

For some perspective on the 1993 flood and some background on the more recent state of the Missouri River, I recommend a thoughtful book called Rivers of Change: Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark, by water resources consultant Tom Mullen. (We had the pleasure of meeting Tom on a Lewis and Clark trip along the Columbia and Snake Rivers in 2005, where he was the guest historian.)

Rivers of Change by Tom Mullen, Roundwood Press (2004)

Rivers of Change by Tom Mullen, Roundwood Press (2004)

Around 2002,  Tom returned to the United States after years of helping developing countries set up water systems overseas. As a way of easing his “reentry” into life in the United States, Tom went on a six-month, cross country odyssey – following the rivers that Lewis and Clark traveled, the Missouri and the Columbia.

Along the way, Tom talked to dozens of people who live and work along those rivers: farmers, waitresses, small-town historians, freight boat captains, ecologists, Native Americans, Fish and Wildlife employees, dam operators. As the context for his conversations, Tom asked the people about the floods of 1993 and 1997 that devastated the areas along the Missouri River. He also asked them how the building of dams in the 50’s and 60’s had changed their lives.

The result is a fascinating picture of the effect on lives and ecosystems when man attempts to harness nature. What Tom found out is that we have made terrific strides in using the power of the rivers for energy production, literally making it possible to “make the desert bloom.” On the other hand, dams and levies have tamed wild areas of the river along the Lower Missouri, making river channels deeper and more consistent, the current faster, and commerce more predictable – but also making for fast rising waters in times of flood. Development and dams further up the Missouri have provided power for residents but destroyed unique wildlife habitat along the rivers, with surprising consequences. They have also cut Native American tribes off from an important part of their culture.

There are tradeoffs everywhere, and one of the most refreshing things about this book is that Tom does not attempt to moralize. Reading this book is like taking a rambling road trip with a friend. You might not think of water management as a fascinating topic, but your eyes will be opened by the effect of the great rivers on the communities that live along them. Especially at a time when the devastating power of water and our inability to control it is all too evident.

I-29 in Corning, Missouri, June 2011

I-29 barely above water in Corning, Missouri, June 2011

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The Missouri River flooding in Omaha, Nebraska. That is Interstate 29 underwater. Photo by Larry Geiger.

Though we usually don’t cover current events on this blog, no Lewis & Clark aficionado can ignore the incredible scale of the flooding now taking place on the Missouri River. In the past few weeks, the upper Missouri basin has received nearly a year’s worth of rainfall. In addition, the forecast snow melt runoff is 212 percent of normal across the upper portion of the river system. The result has been massive flooding across Montana, the Dakotas, and now Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri. The Gavins Point Dam floodgates near Yankton, South Dakota, are pouring out enough water to cover a football field with 156 of water every one minute.

For more of Larry Geiger’s photos of the incredible flooding, please visit his slideshow page.

The Great Missouri Flood of 2011

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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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The Wild Missouri at Niobrara State Park

The Wild Missouri at Niobrara State Park

After visiting Ashfall Fossil Beds, we headed north, back towards the Missouri River and another great Nebraska state park. Niobrara State Park lies at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers, once the homeland of the Ponca Indians. A sweeping hilly landscape looks exactly like a George Catlin painting. You keep expecting to see a buffalo herd in every valley.

Chief Standing Bear

Chief Standing Bear

Lewis and Clark had few dealings with the Ponca, who were out hunting buffalo at the time of their visit. Like most Native American tribes, the Poncas had a tragic history. They were relatively recent to the Niobrara area, having been forced to relocate there from Lake Winnipeg by the expansionist Sioux. The 1850s and 1860s saw the Poncas fall victim to unfair treaties. Ultimately their homeland was given to the Sioux in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and the Poncas were forced onto desolate reservations in Oklahoma.

After his son died, Chief Standing Bear became one of the heroes in the history of his people. He insisted on taking his son’s body back to Nebraska, but was arrested when he tried to leave the reservation. His case was taken up by two Omaha attorneys and eventually argued all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Indians were in the right. The struggle left the tribe divided and exhausted. About half of the Poncas returned to Nebraska while the others remained in Oklahoma.

Lewis & Clark campsite, Niobrara State Park

Lewis & Clark campsite, Niobrara State Park

We did a short driving loop through the park and stopped to view some beautiful vistas. Although the day was cloudy with the threat of rain, the river still sparkled with sandbars and wheeling birds. We took a short hike to the river and the location (approximate) where Lewis and Clark camped on September 4, 1804. You could almost imagine the keelboat and pirogues pulled up on a sandbar. The hike was fun and we met an adorable Yorkie and caught a glimpse of a young deer!

Mouth of the Platte River, by George Catlin

Mouth of the Platte River, by George Catlin

Next time, it would be fun to stay here in a park cabin. But after our hike we pressed on to Calumet Bluffs, where a nice visitor center overlooks Lewis & Clark Lake and the Gavins Point Dam (built 1957). Though it’s hard to visualize it now, Lewis and Clark held a four-day council and feast with the Sioux here in 1804. We took in some interesting exhibits about flood control and how the dam was constructed. The highlight, though, was meeting three beautiful live raptors–an osprey, a red-tailed hawk, and a great horned owl–that were being displayed by park rangers.

The Argo Hotel in Crofton, Nebraska

The Argo Hotel in Crofton, Nebraska

We beat it back to Crofton, a true small Nebraska town, just ahead of a big rainstorm! We stayed in a  cute room at the unique Argo Hotel, a restored 1912 building with many past lives. The current owners have given it something of the feel of the Long Branch Saloon. We had a nice supper in their great dining room (especially good salads, and chai latte for dessert!), and their lounge rocked with laughter and old-timey music well into the night. We sat next to a family out celebrating the birthdays of two old ladies, ages 97 and 101!

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Fossil under excavation at Ashfall

Fossil under excavation at Ashfall

At the time of the Lewis & Clark expedition, scientists (then often called natural historians or natural philosophers) were just beginning to unravel the fossil records they found scattered at their feet. William Clark’s brother, the military hero George Rogers Clark, happened to live at one of the richest deposits of fossils in the United States at the Falls of the Ohio near Louisville, and had developed ideas years ahead of his time about the warm ocean that had once covered Kentucky and Indiana. Likewise, Lewis’s mentor Thomas Jefferson collected fossils sent to him by G.R. Clark and others and avidly corresponded with scientists all over the world about ideas that were then radical, such as evolution and extinction.

Lewis and Clark themselves had both participated in digs at the fantastic Kentucky site called Big Bone Lick, where dozens of skeletons of Ice Age mammoths and mastodons had been discovered. So it was no surprise that when Thomas Jefferson conceived the westward expedition, one of the things he asked Lewis and Clark to do was look for fossils. (He even held out hope that creatures such as woolly mammoths might still exist in the unknown West).

Like many of Jefferson’s edicts, the mandate proved difficult to carry out under the pressure of keeping the expedition on the move. Lewis and Clark did make several fascinating finds, including the 45–foot-long backbone of a “fish” (later determined to be a pleisosaur). But it would remain for later generations of paleontologists to discover that Nebraska and the Dakotas were among the world’s treasure troves for prehistoric fossils.

Spring Turning by Grant Wood

Spring Turning by Grant Wood

Excited to see for ourselves, we had a great breakfast of eggs and biscuits and gravy at the hotel buffet, bagged a picnic lunch, and headed out west on the beautiful ribbon of highway known as Nebraska 20. A few miles out of Sioux City, the landscape transforms into a splendid fantasy straight out of a Grant Wood painting, with gently rolling green hills covered with a lush patchwork carpet of cornfields and soybeans and dotted with silos, red barns, and rambling farmhouses.  During our two-hour drive to Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park, we encountered very little traffic and passed through only a few very small towns.

Ashfall Fossil Beds is the site of a local apocalypse. About twelve million years ago, a huge volcano in what is now southern Idaho erupted, spewing an enormous plume of ash over a huge swath of North America.  It was just one of many such explosions in the history of this planet. But for the residents of this little patch of present-day Nebraska, it was the end of the world.

 Here was a waterhole that drew all the local forms of life. Mammoths came to drink here. So did rhinos, three-toed horses, small camels, majestic cranes, saber-toothed deer, and bizarre predators called bear-dogs. When the ash came, the animals sought refuge at their beloved waterhole. The birds were the first to die. Others, like the rhinos, lingered for days. Finally, the local creatures passed into the ruins of their old world and were covered by the ash, preserved and forgotten like the citizens of some prehistoric Pompeii.

In the 1970s, a paleontologist found a rhino jawbone on a Nebraska farm.  His discovery led to the discovery and continuing excavation of this amazing site, now a state park. Ashfall Fossil Beds is set up for visitors with an interesting visitor center and a lab where you can see the progress of work being done by Nebraska students. But the big attraction is the Rhino Barn, a structure built to enclose an amazing array of fossilized skeletons lying where they fell. Rhino mothers lay next to babies. Horse bones lay scattered by scavengers who themselves would soon die.

The Ashfall Fossil Beds park is fun and fascinating for anyone with an interest in our prehistoric planet, but it is more than that. Seeing this place has far more impact than seeing a fossil in a museum case. For the first time I truly grasped that creatures come, have their day in the sun, and go on, never to be seen again on this old world. I hope there is someone around to puzzle over our bones, millions of years hence.

At the picnic shelter, we met a cute pug out out on his first-ever car trip! We had a nice picnic at the beautiful park — lots to talk about here! 

Fossils and the Lewis & Clark Expedition

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