Archive for the ‘Road trips’ Category

Location: Natchez,  Mississippi

View from Emerald Mound near Natchez, Mississippi

Our recent blog on Cahokia Mounds described the culture of the mound builders, whose handiwork all over the American landscape would have been part of everyday life for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Cahokia Mounds is a great stop for those in the St. Louis area. Today I want to talk about a couple of sites that are equally fascinating and easily accessible to those retracing the last journey of Meriwether Lewis along the Natchez Trace.

Emerald Mound was constructed about 1400. Second only to Monk’s Mound at Cahokia in size, it would have been the site of an enormous temple that served the ancestors of the Natchez Indians. It is believed to have continued to be used for about three centuries. Studying the residents and how they lived is frustrating because much of the site, including a number of additional mounds, was destroyed by farming before the National Park Service stepped into  preserve it  starting in the 1950s. Today, you can easily walk to the top of Emerald Mound.

These ancestors would have been among the Native Americans who violently repulsed the first Europeans to visit the area back in1542, when Hernando de Soto and the Spanish came calling. Unfortunately, the Spanish probably had the last laugh, as foreign diseases swept through the people of the area in the next decades. By the time the French ventured up the river 140 years later, the earlier civilization had been replaced by the Natchez, who lived not far from Emerald Mound in a city known as the “Grand Village.” Other smaller villages of Natchez Indians were scattered in the surrounding area.

The Grand Village was impressive to the French, though its ceremonial plaza and temple mound were much smaller than those found at Emerald Mound and Cahokia (it is believed to have been constructed back around 1200 and then resettled.) At first it seemed that the French and the Natchez might have a lot in common. The Natchez were ruled by a man known as the “Great Sun” (not unlike the French Sun King) and his brother, the Tattooed Serpent. A highly complex and stratified society still held proudly to its traditions on a spot with some of the richest farmland in America and a well-tended forest loaded with deer, walnuts, and peaches, plums, and figs.The French established reasonably decent relations with the Natchez and documented many of their beliefs, ceremonies, and customs, which included human sacrifice, ritual suicide, and infanticide.

In 1716, after four French traders were murdered by Natchez, the French set up a garrison known as Fort Rosalie. A handful of soldiers maintained the fort to protect French traders, those tobacco farmers crazy or desperate enough to seek their fortune in one of the most remote areas on the planet, their families, and their African slaves.

Mary with one of the reconstructed dwellings at the Grand Village of the Natchez

The Great Sun died in 1728, and his successor, the Young Sun, lost any control over his people, who were fed up with the French demanding more land for tobacco farming. In an incident reminiscent of today’s headlines, Natchez warriors strolled into Fort Rosalie and asked to borrow the garrison’s guns. To the surprise of the French, they proceeded to slaughter some 200 men and take hundreds of women, children, and slaves back to their village, where they were held hostage. (The slaves were given the option of becoming Natchez and many did.)

The incident proved to the last stand for the Natchez. In the war that followed, the French, along with Choctaw allies, hunted down the Natchez and took a terrible revenge. The Natchez were driven from the Grand Village and other towns. Those not killed were sold into slavery in the West Indies. A handful escaped to join the Cherokee and Creek, but their civilization disappeared forever. The region was completely destabilized, and war continued among area Indians for years, with lasting consequences. The French chose to arm their slaves, leading to a path to freedom and a free black society that had a huge impact on the history of Louisiana.

Archeological work began at the site of the Grand Village in the 1930s. Today you can visit the site, explore the mounds, and take in a small but very informative museum.

I know there are many other surviving Indian mound sites in the United States, including other smaller mounds along the Natchez Trace. I’d love to visit many more sites. If you have a site you recommend, please leave a comment.

For more reading:

Ancient Architects of the Mississippi

Indian Mounds of Mississippi

Read Full Post »

Location: Across the river from St. Louis, between East St. Louis and Collinsville, Illinois

Liz at Cahokia Mounds. Once this was a metropolis.

That was an unplanned blogging break! Back now with regular blogging. This is the first of two posts I will do about sites of the early American culture known as the mound builders. I confess I never learned one particle of information about the mound builders in school, or in any documentary or book until we began our research into Lewis and Clark. I had no idea such an advanced civilization existed in North America. Cahokia Mounds is a gateway to an entirely different way of understanding the history of America before Europeans arrived on the scene.

The mound builders were the ancestors of the Indians that encountered Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and other European settles and explorers. They lived in sophisticated cities that centered around large temples and public buildings constructed as monumental earthen mounds. The earliest known mound city has been located near present-day Monroe, Louisiana and dates back to around 3400 B.C. For context, this was almost one thousand years earlier than the pyramids were built in Egypt.

The greatest surviving mound city can explored today at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. It seems that about 500 hundred years ago, Cahokia was the site of one of the largest cities in the world — far larger than, say, London in the time of Shakespeare. At its peak, Cahokia was home to over 20,000 people. It would be centuries before another city of comparable size (Philadelphia) arose in North America.

But of all the people that lived in this powerful center of human industry and imagination, nothing remains today but about 80 mysterious mounds. The largest of them, called Monk’s Mound, is 100 feet high and would have been topped by an impressive temple. It is the largest such structure found north of Mexico. The mound is named after a community of Trappist monks who made their home there in Lewis & Clark’s day (in fact, one of the monks baptized little Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea). The mounds, their shapes, and their layout are believed to have been governed by an ancient cosmology that is still only dimly understood.

Artist’s rendition of Cahokia in all its glory. No one knows what the original inhabitants of the site called the city. Courtesy Cahokia Mounds Museum Society.

There is evidence that Cahokia was a walled city, and some of the stockade has been reconstructed. The inhabitants followed the sun calendar which they followed with a giant calendar, now reconstructed and called “Woodhenge.”

Cahokia is believed to gone into decline around 1300, and was abandoned before the first Spanish and French explorers arrived in the area. (The mound builders lived on elsewhere — a story that will be in the second post, coming soon.) In fact, the Indians seem to have suffered through some unknown catastrophe that left the region greatly depopulated from what it had once been. In any case, the locals really didn’t know much about their forebears who once lived in the great city, though they continued to venerate its remains.

Generations of white settlers found the mounds fascinating. Early St. Louis was nicknamed “Mound City” because there were so many Native American structures to explore. During his travels during the Revolutionary War, George Rogers Clark, William Clark’s older brother, viewed Cahokia Mounds and spoke with the Kaskaskia Indians about the complex. Clark wrote, “They say they were the work of their forefathers and that they were formerly as numerous as the trees in the woods.”

In fact, the entire eastern portion of the country hosted hundreds of mounds, which were explored by scientists and dedicated amateurs like future presidents Thomas Jefferson and William Henry Harrison. Unfortunately, the heyday of excavation and study of the mounds was short-lived. Most of them were destroyed by development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cahokia Mounds has only been systematically studied since the 1960s, when preservationists successfully stopped a plan to build an interstate highway through it. What has been discovered includes beautiful carvings, ceremonial graves, and evidence of human sacrifice similar to that practiced at corresponding sites in Mexico.

We spent an amazing, delightful day viewing and exploring the huge mounds and learning about the life of the people who lived around them.The visitor center has excellent exhibits and a good orientation movie, along with a tape that you can use to guide you on a walking/driving tour of the great city. I suggest bringing a picnic lunch which you can eat outside or inside in a spacious break area that also contains some vending machines.

Back in St. Louis after our day at the mounds, we walked in the park that surrounds the Gateway Arch. We watched ducks and bunnies playing in the park, people of all types enjoying the Arch and the river, and a stupendous pink sunset behind the Old Cathedral. The silvery Arch reflected the colors back at the sun. It was not unlike the mounds made by the mysterious Indians at Cahokia. Both are expressions of the highest aspirations of mankind.

More great reading:

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (State of Illinois)
Cahokia: America’s Forgotten City (National Geographic)

Read Full Post »

We never thought that Lewis & Clark would be mentioned in the same breath as a Meat & Potato Burrito, but then again we have never eaten at the redoubtable fast-food chain Taco John’s.  A few weeks ago, we were approached by a representative of the chain, asking if they could include a photo we had taken along the Lewis & Clark trail in a website promotion they were doing.

It seems that employees from Taco John’s are engaged in an epic online road trip. They are trekking across the country to every city where a Taco John’s is located, documenting a local legend in that city. Somehow they found our photo of the Sergeant Charles Floyd Monument in Sioux City. And now we (and Sergeant Floyd) are part of the Taco John’s legend. Stop #142, to be exact.

Taco John's Road Trip Stop #142 - Sergeant Floyd Monument, Sioux City, IA

Taco John’s Road Trip Stop #142 – Sergeant Floyd Monument, Sioux City, IA

Taco John’s are not big in our home state of Texas (the only three franchises here are located on military bases), so we have not actually ever eaten at Taco John’s. But next time we’re in Sioux City, after we get done visiting Sergeant Floyd, we will. Thanks for the 15 minutes of fame, Taco John’s!

Read Full Post »

Location: Great Falls, Montana

When I talk to people about traveling the Lewis & Clark trail, they often seem to imagine there is an actual walking trail carved across the land from St. Louis to Astoria, similar to the incredible footpath created by volunteers over the decades for the Appalachian Trail. But in fact, in many cases it is difficult to get close to the Missouri or the Columbia by car or even on foot unless you are a first-rate hiker, making spots where you can literally walk in the footsteps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark relatively rare.

However, one of the most visually dramatic and historically significant portions of the trails is accessible to just about everyone, thanks to a creative partnership begun in 1989 between local and state government and volunteer groups in Great Falls, Montana. The River’s Edge Trail is a work-in-progress that now encompasses 25 miles of graded path — much of it wheelchair accessible — that lets you hike, bike, skate, or otherwise navigate almost the exact route of the Corps of Discovery.

During our most recent visit to Great Falls, we stayed at a hotel (La Quinta) that was right along the Missouri River and the River’s Edge Trail. It was wonderful to be able to walk to nearby eateries and then stroll along the river watching the long, slow Montana sunset sparkle on the water. There were many benches just for sitting and people-watching and the grass was so soft and thick you could take off your shoes and rest your feet in its coolness — a far cry from the prickly pear that tormented Lewis and Clark and their men.

The River’s Edge Trail. Courtesy Great Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.

And a far cry from the recent past as well. The powerful waterfalls that forced the epic portage were also irresistible targets for the development of hydroelectric power as far back as the 1890s, when the first dam was built at Black Eagle Falls. By the turn of the 20th century, Great Falls was a center for the smelting and refining of the copper, gold, and silver being stripped out of Montana’s mines. All five of the falls of the Missouri were dammed and turned to power generation, and major railroads, including the Great Northern and the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, moved the materials out to fuel the great industrial factories of the east. Anaconda Copper built the world’s largest smokestack in Great Falls (508 feet) and for decades was the city’s largest employer.

Vintage postcard view of Great Falls and the “Big Stack” of the Anaconda smelter

Many books have been written on the violent and dramatic history of Montana mining, and many news reports generated on the epic environmental damage at both the mines and the smelters, many of which are now federal “Superfund” sites in need of painstaking cleanup. The Anaconda plant was closed in 1980 and the “Big Stack” demolished two years later. The railroad tracks would have returned to the land if not for the foresight of local leaders who conceived of the old railroad right-of-way as an asset. In the last 20 years, the riverfront has been extensively cleaned up and a trail constructed that includes 13 trailheads, tunnels, bridges, and overpasses (many of which make use of fascinating old historic railroad structures), historic hiking spurs to Lewis & Clark sites, a maze of technical challenges for mountain bikers — even a dog park.

The website for the trail includes progress reports and recent goals. The 2012 plan includes a design of trail segments that will improve access to the north shore of the Missouri across from Giant Springs and applying for grant funding that would allow the extension of  the trail to connect Black Eagle Falls with Rainbow Falls, the cascade of which Meriwether Lewis wrote:

I now thought that if a skillfull painter had been asked to make a beautifull cascade that he would most probably have presented the precise image of this one; nor could I for some time determine on which of those two great cataracts to bestoe the palm, on this or that which I had discovered yesterday; at length I determined between these two great rivals for glory that this was pleasingly beautifull,while the other was sublimely grand.

For more reading:

The River’s Edge Trail (official site with lots of maps, history, and progress reports)
Fall of the Big Stack (extensive retrospective on Anaconda history by the Great Falls Tribune)

Lewis & Clark’s Portage Around the Great Falls

“All the beasts of the neighborhood had made a league to distroy me” (Meriwether Lewis’s very bad day on the River’s Edge Trail)
Lewis & Clark road trip: The  National Historical Trail Interpretive Center at Great Falls
Lewis & Clark road trip: Giant Springs

Read Full Post »

Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Historical drinking chocolate from the days of Thomas Jefferson

Now I admit that Santa Fe, New Mexico, which I was privileged enough to visit last week for the first time, might seem pretty far off the Lewis & Clark trail, and even further from the reach of the long arm of Thomas Jefferson. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, you can sample a very tasty part of the world of the Sage of Monticello right here, not far from the New Mexico State Capitol.

In 1775, even before he penned the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had fallen in love with chocolate, writing to fellow revolutionary John Adams that “the superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain.” And considering the events that were sweeping the colonies, a good alternative to tea  was not the least of concerns for Adams and his young friend from Virginia.

As the comments indicate, chocolate in those days was consumed in the form of a beverage; the candy form of chocolate would not be invented until the 1840s. Even since they began their conquest of Mexico in the early 1500s, the Spanish had been wild about chocolate (from the Mayan word xocoatl). Conquistador Hernan Cortez reported that he was offered a drink in a golden goblet by the Aztec ruler Montezuma,who “took no other beverage than the chocolatl, a potation of chocolate, flavored with vanilla and spices, and so prepared as to be reduced to a froth of the consistency of honey, which gradually dissolved in the mouth and was taken cold.” The Spanish exported the beverage back home and added their own innovations, such as heating it and adding milk and sugar to make it a palatable after-dinner delight.

This 18th century London chocolate house looks a bit more rowdy than your average Starbucks of today.

The Spanish soon noticed how good the chocolate made them feel and considered it both a health drink and an aphrodisiac. For almost a century the Spanish were able to keep a monopoly on cacao, guarding it as closely as the formula of Coca-Cola is today. Their chocolate drinks were so thick and rich that some of them were served with spoons to be eaten like pudding. Eventually, the secret leaked out and the drink caught on throughout Europe and eventually returned home across the pond to make it big in the colonies.

The idea of chocolate as health food might seem a little strange to us today, but not when compared with the American breakfast beverages of choice: ale, beer, and hard cider. And like a lot of health foods, it was difficult to prepare, with a long list of ingredients including expensive chocolate wafers that had to be hand-grated, milk, wine or rosewater, and sugar and spices (which also had to be grated). For ideal preparation, a special pot called a chocolate mill was needed.

Jefferson loved chocolate and served it both at Monticello and at his Philadelphia home when he was serving as the nation’s first secretary of state. In fact, exasperated by the lack of vanilla beans with which to flavor the chocolate, he once set away to Paris for the kind of pods he had enjoyed while serving as envoy to France. Jefferson was indulging in a characteristic extravagance, as vanilla was extraordinarily expensive at the time. Philadelphia taverns and chocolate houses probably flavored their chocolate instead with cinnamon.

Thomas Jefferson’s chocolate mill, nicknamed “the duck” in his family. Courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Also during his tenure in Philadelphia, Jefferson commissioned a local silversmith to make an amazing chocolate mill with a design based on an antique Roman pot he had viewed in the south of France. While in Europe, Jefferson had ordered a mahogany replica of the pot, and his silver design was nicknamed “the duck” by his family. A characteristically impractical Jeffersonian design, the chocolate mill was visually impressive but allowed the chocolate to get cold, unlike conventional pots. It is fun to imagine Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis discussing the westward expedition while enjoying their delicious (lukewarm) treat.

By the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were coming of age, coffee was overtaking chocolate as the American beverage of choice.

The hot chocolate we enjoy today bears little resemblance in taste or texture to the thick, grainy beverages of Jefferson’s time. The Kakawa Chocolate Bar in Santa Fe serves authentic historical drinking chocolate, prepared with organically grown ingredients and using recipes based on historical and anthropological sources. You can order rich cups of chocolate prepared  Mesoamerican style, with no sweeteners but seasoned with flowers, chilis, agave, vanilla, and other spices. You can also try elixirs based on old Spanish, French, and Italian recipes, along with something called the “Jeffersonian,” a simple American recipe that includes chocolate, milk, sugar, nutmeg, and vanilla. This recipe, thinner and sweeter than the European chocolates, is considered the direct ancestor of modern hot chocolate, which is also available at Kakawa.

I only wish I lived in Santa Fe so I could try all the chocolates! I highly recommend a visit to Kakawa for anyone wishing to take a chocolate time machine back into America’s delicious past. Their chocolate mixes are also available by mail.

Kakawa Chocolate House

Read Full Post »

Location: Portland, Oregon

I behold the grandest and most pleasing prospect which my eyes ever surveyed. — William Clark, January 8, 1806

The Oregon Historical Society's building features an eight-story trompe l'oeil mural of the Lewis & Clark Expedition by Richard Haas (1989).

Portland, Oregon is a great city and a great place for the Lewis and Clark buff. This weekend I was remembering a near-perfect day I spent a few years ago in The City of Roses. It happened to be my 40th birthday and what a great day it was.

For breakfast, we found a great little place near our hotel called the Sunshine Cafe. The staff was Asian but did biscuits and gravy to perfection! It was balm to the soul for traveling Texans. After a yummy meal we headed off to explore downtown Portland.

Bishop's House in downtown Portland.

We started in Pioneer Square, then headed north to take a look at some of Portland’s ornate historic buildings. Portland has been fortunate in preserving many of these and would make a wonderful place to make a film noir movie. Among the most interesting buildings we saw were the Dekum Building (1892), the New Market Theater (1875), and the Bishop’s House (1879), which in its day has housed a rectory, a headquarters for a Chinese tong, and a speakeasy. It’s near the old police headquarters, and evidently wires ran between the two buildings. Legend has it that it’s unclear who was bugging whom. Today it is home to a Middle Eastern restaurant.

We spent some time in the Old Town neighborhood admiring Ankeny Square, which was undergoing a major renovation (which I am told has never been completed. Portlanders, is this true? What happened or didn’t happen?) It looks like there are some neat stores and some fun eateries in Old Town. We also saw all kinds of people, from yuppies to hippies to disreputable types. One thing that we both noticed during our stay in Portland was the number of people wandering around who were obviously high on something. By casual observation it appeared that this city is not much for enforcing public intoxication laws.

Mary at Waterfront Park.

Portland is also a place of tremendous civic willpower. We walked along the beautiful Waterfront Park, which had been reclaimed from the interstate highway some years ago. This is a great place to run or relax. We were interested to see the mast of the battleship Oregon, a hero ship of the Spanish-American War, and the enormous and impressive Salmon Street Fountain. Learned that Waterfront Park was the scene of a tremendous volunteer effort in 1996, when thousands of ordinary citizens pitched in to save the city from flooding.

We took our tired feet to the Park district and the main event of the day, the Oregon Historical Society. It’s great that more and more states have made the effort to create museums where citizens and visitors can go learn about the history of the place. At the time of our visit, we saw a very interesting temporary exhibit entitled “A Fair to Remember,” which recreated the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland. It was fun to learn how the Expedition was commemorated 100 years ago and how the fair really put Portland on the map. Of all the attractions, I would especially liked to have seen the flaming fireworks portrait of Meriwether Lewis. I looked on the society’s website and it looked like there were some amazing exhibits currently on display, including one of amazing art kites commemorating the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Wish I could make it to Portland to see that!

The permanent exhibit, “Oregon My Oregon,” detailed the state’s history from Indian times through early explorers, missionaries, Oregon Trail pioneers, and early industries such as mining and logging. This exhibit is very well-done, providing you with a substantive look at many facets of the state’s history without being overwhelming.

Had a great lunch at a burrito place called Maya’s Taqueria, then went back to the museum to view more exhibits, including a very interesting exhibit about the battleship Oregon which we had been so intrigued with earlier in the day at Waterfront Park.

Dinner was a great birthday treat at Jake’s Famous Crawfish, a very busy and lively restaurant. I got stuffed catfish and Mary got crab cakes. Finished it off with a fabulous chocolate truffle cake! What a great birthday! I loved Portland and am more than ready to return to this great city with so much history and close ties to the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

Read Full Post »

Mary and Liz in front of the old armory building, which houses the Meriwether Lewis exhibit

There are a few spots on Planet Earth where I have left thinking I had just experienced a superior place. A place that is visually stunning, awe-inspiring, and tranquilizing, yet full of special historical and cultural significance that engages the mind as well as the senses. One such place is Hawaii. Another is Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Most people know Harpers Ferry because of John Brown’s notorious raid on the Federal Arsenal in 1859. A self-styled Old Testament prophet and avenger, Brown conceived his daring plan as a way to seize massive quantities of weapons and spark a slave uprising that would end the barbaric institution of slavery forever. I am fascinated by Brown, and you can view an excellent movie and exhibits on John Brown and his raid and visit the old fire engine house (known as John Brown’s Fort) where he held out against the siege of U.S. Army troops after the raid’s failure.

Harpers Ferry got its name from a ferry run by one Robert Harper, who began in the 1760s to serve travelers wanting to cross the Potomac to settle in the Shenandoah Valley. Situated at the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers, the spot was a natural for commerce in the age of river travel and for industry in the age of water mills. In 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited the town and climbed to an observation point now known as Jefferson’s Rock. The rave review he gave in his book Notes on the State of Virginia would put Harpers Ferry on the map:

The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea. …

But the distant finishing which nature has given the picture is of a very different character. It is a true contrast to the former. It is as placid and delightful as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountains being cloven asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in that plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around to pass through the breach and participate in the calm below. Here the eye ultimately composes itself; and that way, too, the road happens actually to lead. You cross the Patowmac above the junction, pass along its side through the base of the mountain for three miles, the terrible precipice hanging in fragments over you, and within about 20 miles reach Frederictown and the fine country around that. This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.

Talk about a five-star review on Tripadvisor! You reach Jefferson Rock by climbing a steep set of hand-carved stone steps that are themselves a historic landmark dating back to the early 19th century. Along the way, a worthwhile stop is St. Peter’s Catholic Church, constructed in the 1830s.

View from Jefferson Rock

The entire town of Harpers Ferry is carved out of a steep hillside and has winding streets that must give natives the calves and thighs one associates with San Francisco pedestrians. You can find a good exhibit on Meriwether Lewis’s time in the town in the old armory building. George Washington had designated Harpers Ferry as a federal armory in 1794, and mass production of military weapons had begun shortly thereafter. Lewis arrived in March 1803 and began working with superintendent Joseph Perkins on the guns, powder horns, bullet molds, tomahawks, knives, and other weapons the Expedition would need to make it across the continent, as well as his personally designed iron boat, a project he called “my favorite boat.”

Other historic buildings house special exhibits on the Civil War, the role of the rivers in manufacturing, and the fascinating history of Storer College. Founded in 1865 to educate newly freed slaves, Storer operated primarily as a teacher’s college, a vital service that is easy to underappreciate today. Though the education offered at Storer was basic by today’s standards, it was a lifeline for the African-American community of the whole region, who desperately needed teachers to provide children and adults with the basic tools to survive.

I was shocked to learn of the opposition to Storer from the white community in Harpers Ferry. Harassment and vandalism were commonplace. It is difficult to imagine the kind of racism that would compel someone to try to turn young people away from a chance to better themselves. In 1906, Storer hosted an historic conference of the Niagara Movement, a group started by educator W.E.B. Dubois to push for full civil rights for African-Americans. The group met with strong opposition even among some blacks, but eventually helped give rise to the NAACP. Spitefully, the state of West Virginia withdrew all support from Storer after being forced to integrate state colleges in the wake of the landmark Brown decision, and the college closed its doors in 1955.

Harpers Ferry street scene

There isn’t much in the way of dining in Harpers Ferry, but we got a great lunch at the Cannonball Deli. Many of the historic buildings host adorable shops, so the non-history buff in your family will have plenty to see and enjoy while you are trekking up hill and dale taking in all of the wonderful historic character of this beautiful spot.

We wanted to get a little more up-close and personal with the river, so while staying in Harpers Ferry we also went on an amazing raft ride on the Shenandoah River. It was beautiful, and we had the chance to see old ruins of mills that once used the river’s power to ply their trade, as well as ruins of a bridge destroyed by the Confederates. The river was alive with damsel flies (similar to dragonflies) and we spotted lots of herons and Canada geese.

River and Trail Outfitters did a great job, and our guide, a big crazy guy reminiscent of Seth Rogen, couldn’t have been nicer. We even got to swim in the river. I will say that because of water levels the paddling seemed harder and more strenuous than I expected for a  beginner-level ride. Our raft was hung up on rocks several times and I got a little scared in the strong current. Something to keep in mind if you want to go.

On our way out of Harpers Ferry we stopped and toured the small but interesting Civil War site known as Bolivar Heights. This peaceful spot was once the scene of horror and despair for over 12,000 Union troops trapped here by Stonewall Jackson’s forces in 1862. The debacle was compounded by the fact that many of the troops died of disease in Confederate prisons. The loss for the Union was not considered fully avenged until Gettysburg a year later.

I highly recommend Harpers Ferry to the Lewis & Clark buff or anyone who enjoys beauty and history. It is truly one of the most special places I have visited. And one last plug: we adored the Jackson Rose Inn, a beautiful and peaceful bed and breakfast on a quiet street. Stonewall Jackson used this house as his headquarters during the battle and apparently we stayed in his room. I hope he found a little peace here too.

For more reading:

Meriwether Lewis’s Iron Boat
Harpers Ferry Armory and Arsenal (great photos and history)

Read Full Post »

Location: Orange, Virginia, 28 miles north of Charlottesville

James Madison's Montpelier, near Orange, Virginia

The first time we visited Monticello on a Lewis & Clark research trip, we wanted to pay a visit as well to Montpelier, the equally grand home of James Madison and his fabulous wife Dolley. At that time, the home was closed for an extremely extensive renovation. But on our most recent trip to Virginia, the home had reopened, providing a fascinating, multi-faceted look at the “Father of the Constitution” and a terrific example of historical restoration.

James Madison’s career is inexorably intertwined with that of his mentor, Thomas Jefferson. Over the years, Madison, who was eight years younger than Jefferson, became much more than a protege to the “Sage of Monticello.” He became a close personal friend and a political alter ego, often using his calm insight and deep understanding of government to save Jefferson from his own more radical tendencies.

When he became president in 1801, Jefferson named Madison as his Secretary of State, with a standing if secret order to be on the lookout for additional territory into which the new nation could expand. Jefferson already foresaw that the United States would dominate the North American continent, though he believed the expansion would take several centuries rather than mere decades. Nonetheless he was ready to get started, with his top priority being the purchase of New Orleans from the French, which would give Americans much better access to the world’s sea lanes.

James and Dolley Madison by Ivan Schwartz (2009)

As detailed in our earlier post on James Monroe (Lewis & Clark road trip: Ashlawn-Highland), what began as a negotiation with Napoleon’s government for New Orleans turned into the fire sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15 million — over one million square miles of land. The Louisiana Purchase gave Jefferson legal cover to fulfill a dream he had harbored for decades: to send explorers west on a scientific and diplomatic mission to discover and map the western part of the continent and negotiate alliances with the Indians that would give America entree into the world fur trade and access to the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, whatever Jefferson’s critics then and now might care to say about him, you certainly couldn’t accuse him of thinking small.

As Jefferson personally oversaw the preparations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark for the Expedition, Madison had little involvement with the launch of the historic exploration. In fact, his wife Dolley took a more active role. As her niece Mary E.E. Cutts later recalled, Dolley had a huge heart, and believed that Lewis & Clark “could never could return from that land of savages.” Determined to supplement the miserly congressional appropriation of $2500 for equipment, she organized the ladies of Washington and conducted a fundraiser to provide the Expedition with sack cloth, candle wax, lamps and lamp oil, cooking spices, canned goods, dried goods, writing materials, clothing, and silver cooking utensils.

It would be interesting to know whether Meriwether Lewis remembered Dolley’s kindness on July 28, 1805. In what is still one of the more remote and beautiful spots in Montana, the Missouri River divides into three mighty streams, and Lewis named one of them after the Secretary of State, writing:

In pursuance of this resolution we called the S. W. fork, that which we meant to ascend, Jefferson’s River in honor of 〈that illustrious personage〉 Thomas Jefferson. the Middle fork we called Madison’s River in honor of James Madison, and the S. E. Fork we called Gallitin’s River in honor of Albert Gallitin [Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury].

the two first are 90 yards wide and the last is 70 yards.    all of them run with great valocity and thow out large bodies of water. Gallitin’s River is reather more rapid than either of the others, is not quite as deep but from all appearances may be navigated to a considerable distance. Capt. C. who came down Madison’s river yesterday and has also seen Jefferson’s some distance thinks Madison’s reather the most rapid, but it is not as much so by any means as Gallitan’s.

The Madison River in Montana. Courtesy Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

According to Dolley’s niece, when Lewis returned to Washington in December 1806, he returned the surviving silver service to Dolley and regaled the ladies with tales of “hair breath escapes and marvelous adventures,” along with “as many specimens as they could bring from so far off in the wilderness!” Lewis’s memos to Dolley’s husband also give a flavor of the expenses the Expedition had incurred (the final cost of the Lewis & Clark Expedition ended up being about $39,000):

“One Uniform laced Coat, one silver Epaulet, one Dirk, and belt, one hanger and belt, one pistol and one fowling piece, all private property in exchange for Canoe, Horses and c. for public service during the expedition – $135.”— Meriwether Lewis to James Madison, March, 1806

In spite of Dolley’s excitement about the Expedition, it appears that her husband was not nearly as enamored with Lewis as she or his mentor Jefferson. When Madison became president in 1809, he was less than supportive of Lewis’s efforts in his new and difficult political job, that of governing the huge territory he had heroically explored. The essential conflict is articulated in our novel To the Ends of the Earth by none other than our old friend James Wilkinson:

“Well, if you are not angry about it, then I am, sir!” Wilkinson smacked the table with his hand. “President Madison cares nothing for your fame. To him, your entire expedition—what do you call it, you’re so clever with names—the Corps of Volunteers for Northwestern Discovery? Only the greatest feat of exploration ever attempted on this continent—” He paused in mid-sentence and fixed Lewis with a disconcerting look. “Well, in Madison’s petty mind, it was a colossal waste of money.”

“That’s because he doesn’t understand what we discovered. When the expedition journals are published, he’ll see that it wasn’t a waste—”

“But that’s not the point!” Wilkinson cut him off. “The point is, Madison has no vision for what this country could be! But you do, Lewis, and so do I.”

The most fascinating part for me of visiting Montpelier was learning about the home’s incredible restoration. The Madisons lived an opulent and genteel lifestyle with over 100 slaves, but following James’ death in 1836, Dolley fell on hard times. Her only son, Payne Todd, was an alcoholic wastrel who had spent time in debtor’s prison. Dolley had already put up the mansion as collateral to pay Payne’s debts. She lost everything, and was forced to depend on friends for their kindness until her death in 1849 at the age of 81.

The Annie Dupont Formal Garden at Montpelier

After going through several owners, the house was acquired in 1901 by the duPont family, which remodeled it beyond recognition and used the property for their competitive equestrian pursuits. When Marion duPont Scott died in 1983, she donated the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation along with the money to restore it to the Madison era. After a protracted court battle with several heirs, the work began in 2003. The architects were surprised and delighted to find that some 80% of the original Madison home was intact beneath the duPont renovations. The structural renovation was completed in 2008 and work is underway to restore the interior to the appearance it would have had in Madison’s day.

We had a wonderful time in the home and gardens, along with a great lunch in the cafe. Montpelier is a very enjoyable stop for any history buff and illuminates a very human side of one of the Founding Fathers and his unforgettable wife.

More great reading: James Madison’s Montpelier (blog)

Read Full Post »

Location: 30 miles east of Portland, Oregon

Multnomah Falls

on our way to this village we passed several beautifull cascades which fell from a great hight over the stupendious rocks which cloles the river on both sides nearly, except a small bottom on the South side in which our hunters were encamped. the most remarkable of these casscades falls about 300 feet perpendicularly over a solid rock into a narrow bottom of the river on the south side.

it is a large creek, situated about 5 miles above our encampment of the last evening.    several small streams fall from a much greater hight, and in their decent become a perfect mist which collecting on the rocks below again become visible and decend a second time in the same manner before they reach the base of the rocks. — Meriwether Lewis, April 9, 1806

Multnomah Falls, a magnificent two-tiered waterfall with a total height of 620 feet, is the top tourist attraction in Oregon, so it’s hard to get a sense of how it must have appeared to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they passed the falls on their way down the Columbia River in 1805 and again on their way back east in 1806. Lewis & Clark did not name the falls; “multnomah” is believed to be a Chinook Indian word meaning “downriver” and has been in use since before 1860.

Multnomah is only the largest and most spectacular of a series of waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge. The falls are the results of one of the biggest geological cataclysms in the history of this planet: the Missoula floods sometimes called the “Bretz floods” after the geologist who uncovered them, J Harlen Bretz. In the 1920s, Bretz realized that the land in the Columbia River Basin was the product not of years of erosion, but of a cataclysmic event caused by the breaking of an ice dam near present-day Missoula. The dam’s failure unleashed floods of stupendous force, scouring out landforms in a matter of hours rather than millennia.

In the case of Multnomah Falls, the floods altered the Columbia Gorge so that the rock faces lining the river are sheer vertical drops rather than eroded cliff faces, allowing for the unique waterfalls that have delighted visitors to the area least as early as 1883, when a wooden pedestrian bridge was built, giving travelers on the newly completed railways a thrilling closeup view of the lush alcove and the falls therein.

The epic construction of the Columbia River Highway provided an opportunity to further enhance the visitor experience at Multnomah Falls. The engineer of the construction, Samuel Lancaster, wrote of Multnomah Falls, “the setting is ideal. It is pleasing to look upon; and in every mood, it charms like magic, it woos like an ardent lover; it refreshes the soul; and invites to loftier, purer things.” Logging magnate Simon Benson of Portland purchased the land around the falls and donated it to the city.

The cathedral-like expanse known as the “Benson Bridge” was built in 1914, and the adjacent lodge in 1925. These historic structures lend a warm and interesting human touch to nature’s handiwork at the falls. You reach the bridge by a slippery footpath — the falls are so mesmerizing that I almost went plunging to my death trying to walk and look at the same time, so be careful!

For more reading:

Lewis & Clark road trip: Palouse Falls (much more on the Bretz floods)
Lewis & Clark road trip: The Historic Columbia River Highway

Read Full Post »

Location: The French Quarter in New Orleans

Highly desired for gracious living today, the courtyards in the French Quarter homes of the Creoles were more practical affairs, where you would find carriages parked and slaves working on household tasks.

In 1801, when Thomas Jefferson became president and Meriwether Lewis joined him at the White House as his private secretary, few could have imagined the dramatic turn that history was about to take. The United States was still a fragile experiment in representative democracy, and France dominated the North American continent, in possession of the entire central portion between the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, a place they called Louisiana. Not only that, but Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France, was on his way to conquering all of Europe, and planned to rebuild Louisiana as a breadbasket to service his empire with meat, wheat, leather, and fur.

What a difference a couple of years makes. By 1803, Napoleon sold Louisiana to Jefferson’s envoys for the bargain basement price of $15 million (just $215 million even in today’s dollars — less than the cost of the new Batman movie!). And the United States found itself in possession of the most exotic city on the North American continent — the port of New Orleans. It was here that the deal finalizing the Louisiana Purchase was signed on December 20, 1803. Representing the U.S. were William C.C. Claiborne, former governor of the Mississippi Territory, and our old friend General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson and his colorful, checkered relationship with New Orleans figure prominently in our novel To the Ends of the Earth (yeah, click Buy Now at the top of the page. You know you want to).

Jefferson worried about assimilating New Orleans into the United States, and for good reason. New Orleans and the district surrounding it (the present-day state of Louisiana) brought over 50,000 new citizens to the United States who were French-speaking, Catholic, and last but not least, racially mixed. Free blacks and mixed couples abounded, with expectations of rights unheard of in the rest of the United States, such as going around armed and serving in the militia. The relations between the races were governed by an elaborate cultural code that was all but impenetrable by the Americans who arrived to take over governance. American ideas about separation of the races did not completely take hold in New Orleans until after the Civil War.

Creole woman with maid, by Edouard Marquis (1867)

Recently, we enjoyed a fantastic vacation in the Crescent City and had the opportunity to immerse ourselves for several hours in the lost world of Creole New Orleans. There are a lot of walking tours in the French Quarter, but Le Monde Creole (the Creole World) specializes in history tours focusing on the old Creole culture of the city through the lives of one family, the Locouls. As was typical, this family spent the growing and harvest seasons at their sugar plantation outside of town, then kicked up their heels all winter in their French Quarter townhomes.

Our tour guide was Bill, who is also the owner of Le Monde Creole Tours. The first thing we learned was worth the price of the tour, because Bill explained to us what a Creole actually is — something I’ve never understood.

As Bill explained, the confusion over the word Creole and the people it applies to arises because “Creole” has actually had three different meanings over the years. In the early 18th century, when Louisiana was first being settled by French and Spanish colonists, creole (from the Spanish criar – “to breed” or “to raise”) meant anyone or anything that was born in the New World. A person of French, Spanish, or African descent born in the New World was a creole. It was as simple as that. A horse or a dog or even a plant could be a creole as well. Over the decades, a caste system began to develop in which creoles were denied plum positions of leadership over newcomers sent from the mother country; this was one of the factors that led to revolutionary wars in Central and South America.

When the Louisiana Purchase rolled around, the meaning of creole shifted. The Creoles of Louisiana had developed a culture that was utterly unique, an amalgam of music, food, lifestyle, marriage customs, and social mores that bore no resemblance to that left behind in France, Spain, or Africa, let alone the brash American culture that abruptly descended on them. At that point, the word Creole came to mean anyone of any race who had been in Louisiana before the Purchase and followed the old lifestyle.

This lifestyle included a degree of racial mixing that left the Americans speechless and set the stage for the tortured race relations that still plague Louisiana today. As Bill took us through shady courtyards and down every little street you can imagine, we learned how elite white Creole men traditionally had two families: a white family headed by a white wife, and a black family headed by a mistress of mixed race. These arrangements were formal and worked out in detail, generally by the girl’s mother, who ensured that the daughter was provided for materially with a home, clothes, jewelry, and support for any children born to the marriage. An entire vocabulary described the children born to these unions: mulatto (half white and half African), quadroon (one-fourth African), octoroon (one-eighth African), griffe (one-fourth white), and sacatra (one-eighth white).

Creole men of New Orleans in a vintage photograph

If the mother of one of African families was a slave, it was common for the children of the relationship to be freed. As you can imagine, Americans were generally horrified by the presence of these free blacks, as it was impossible to know how to treat them. Many of them were the children and grandchildren of elite ruling families and expected to be treated with similar courtesy as that accorded to whites. Even more unnerving from the American point of view, it was often impossible to tell whether someone was of African descent just by looking at them. The danger of intermarrying with a black person was viewed with such distaste that eventually, an entire legal code was written to try to prevent that from happening.  Bill told us about extremely elaborate laws that involved having to produce birth certificates going back for generations to prove that you were white.

I was surprised to learn that Canal Street, the major New Orleans thoroughfare that divided the French Quarter from the Garden District, had its roots in the hostility between the Creole world and the American newcomers. Americans were blocked from building anywhere in the city (today’s French Quarter) and had to establish their own settlement next to it, which they called Lafayette or “the American Quarter.” There was very little assimilation or intermarriage between the two peoples until after the Civil War.

After that point, with massive German and Irish immigration into the city and military occupation, the old Creole culture faded — except for one group that strongly upheld the old Creole ways. These were the descendants of the Creole black families. Faced with a racially divided world in which they could never be white, yet abhorring the notion of mixing with the throngs of freed slaves flocking into the city, they clung to their unique culture for dear life, thus preserving it for future generations to discover again. For this reason, when most of us hear the world Creole today, we think of the French-speaking black families of New Orleans and their culture.

We spent several hours in the delightful company of Bill, learning about the multi-cultural origins of voodoo, jazz, and New Orleans’ infamous Storyville. A huge highlight was getting to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1, the famed above-ground cemetery that is the final resting place of dozens of the Creole families.

So as not to give away the tour, I’ll refrain from gushing about the storytelling thread that ran through the entire trek about the Locoul family and the many secrets, lies, and tribulations that emerged to illuminate these fascinating historical times. But as you can probably tell, I highly recommend that you spend a morning with Bill the next time you are in New Orleans (you might even get to meet a parrot), and also take a ride out to Laura Plantation, where the tour of the house and sugar plantation of the same family will illuminate the other side of the story.

Le Monde Creole Tours

Laura Plantation

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »