Archive for the ‘South Dakota’ Category

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

George Shannon

Artist’s rendering of George Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private Shannon Lost Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

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

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

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

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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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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 White-Tailed Jackrabbit

The White-Tailed Jackrabbit

On September 14, 1804, while traveling through what is now western South Dakota, the Corps of Discovery encountered a creature they had never seen before. William Clark wrote in his journal:

Shields Killed a Hare weighing 6½ lb: verry pore, the head narrow and its ears 3 Inches wide and 6 long, from the fore to the end of the hind foot; is 2 feet 11 Inch. hite 1 foot 1¾ its tail long & thick white, clearly the mountain Hare of Europe.

It was not, however, the mountain hare of Europe, but a unique animal known today as the white-tailed jackrabbit. The white-tailed jackrabbit is found throughout west-central Canada and the northwestern United States. Not to be confused with its southwestern cousin, the black-tailed jackrabbit, the white-tailed variety is the second-largest hare in North America.

To Lewis and Clark, this was no ordinary rabbit. Accustomed to the eastern cottontail—which weighs all of a pound—they were surprised to encounter a hare of such impressive size—moreover, one that changed color with the seasons. On January 3, 1805, Private Joseph Whitehouse wrote, “One of the hunters killed a beautiful white hare, which is common in this Country.” The Corps had noticed that the animals changed from summer grey to winter white, the better to camouflage themselves against the snow at Fort Mandan.

A white-tailed jackrabbit changing to its winter coat

A white-tailed jackrabbit changing to its winter coat

Lewis and Clark were impressed enough with the new creature they had found to send specimens back to Thomas Jefferson with the return of the keelboat in April 1805. “We are all day ingaged packing up Sundery articles to be Sent to the President of the U. S.,” Clark wrote in his journal. Among the shipping manifest, he included these items:

  • Box 1: No. 99 The Skeliton of the white and Grey hare.
  • Box 2:  1 white Hare Skin &.
  • In a large Trunk:  2 Cased Skins of the white hare.

As they headed west, the hare was a common sight. Meriwether Lewis noted in his journal on May 26, 1805, “One of the party killed a bighorned , the head and horns of which weighed 27 lbs.    a hare was also killed which weighed 8½ lbs.    the hare are now of a pale lead brown colour.” Considering that Lewis and Clark’s experience with rabbits was mostly limited to the small eastern cottontail, an 8 ½ pound rabbit seemed like a bonanza. However, they rarely bagged the animals as game, since they usually traveled alone and foraged at night.  The rabbit was also very hard to catch. With its large ears, the white-tailed jackrabbit had excellent hearing, a good sense of smell, and keen eyesight. It was also adept at running away, traveling at the astonishing speed of up to 40 miles per hour.

White-tailed jackrabbit running away

Rabbit, run: the jackrabbit makes its escape

On February 28, 1806, Meriwether Lewis wrote this extensive description of the “prairie hare” from their winter encampment at Fort Clatsop:

The hare on this side of the Rocky mountains is exclusively the inhabitant of the great Plains of Columbia, as they are of those of the Missouri East of these mountains.    they weigh from 7 to eleven pounds.    the measure of one which weighed ten lbs. was as follows.    from the extremity of the hinder, to that of the fore feet when extended 3 F. length from nose to the extremity of the tail 2 F. 2 I. hight when standing erect 1 F. 3 I. girth of the body 1 F. 4 I. length of tail 6½ I. length of ear 5½ I. width of do 3⅛ I. from the hip to the extremity of toe of the hind foot 1 F. 4¼ I.—    the eye is large and prominent.    the pupil is circular, of a deep see green and occupys one third of the diameter of the eye, the iris is of a bright yellowish silver colour.    the ears are placed far back on the head and very near each other, they are flexable and the animal moves them with great ease and quickness, and can dilate and throw them forward, or contract and fold them on his back at pleasure.    the fold of the front of the ear is of a redish brown colour, the inner folds or those which lie together when the ears are thrown back, and which occupy ⅔rds of the width of the ears are of a pure white except the tips of the ears for about an inch.    the hinder folds or those which lie on the back are of a light grey.    the head neck, back, sholders, sides, & outer part of the legs and thyes are of a lead coloured grey; the sides as they approach the belley become gradually more white.    the belley, brest, and inner part of the legs and thyes are white, with a slight shade of the lead colour.    the tail is round and blontly pointed, covered with fine soft white fur not quite as long as on the other parts of the body.    the body is covered with a deep fine soft close fur.    the colours here discribed are those which the animal assumes from the middle of April to the middle of November, the ballance of the year they are of a pure white, except the black and redish brown of the ears which never changes.    a few redish brown spots are sometimes seen intermixed with the white, at this season, on their heads and upper part of the neck and sholders.    the body of this animal is smaller and longer in proportion to it’s hight than the rabbit.    when it runs it carrys it’s tail streight behind in the direction of it’s body.    they appear to run with more ease and bound with greater agility than any animal I ever saw.    they are extreemly fleet and never burrow or take sheter in the ground when pursued.    it’s teeth are like those of the rabbit as is also it’s upper lip which is divided as high as the nose.    it’s food is grass, herbs, and in winter feeds much on the bark of several aromatic shrubs which grow in the plains and the young willow along the rivers and other wartercourses.— I have measured the leaps of this animal and find them commonly from 18 to 21 feet.    they are generally found seperate, and never seen to asscociate in any number or more than two or three.—

Like most rabbits, the white-tailed jackrabbit excels at reproduction. A typical female jackrabbit has one to four litters with an average of four or five young each year. At birth, the baby jackrabbits have open eyes, full fur, and can start hopping around within half an hour. The young rabbits begin to forage at approximately 2 weeks of age and are fulled weaned at one month.

The White-Tailed Jackrabbit by John James Audubon

The White-Tailed Jackrabbit by John James Audubon

Lewis and Clark were impressed by the animals’ “deep fine soft close fur,” especially the white winter coat. Later travelers to the west agreed, and found that the jackrabbit served a lucrative economic purpose as well as providing food for their families. The white-tailed jackrabbit was a staple of the fur trade well into the 20th century. From the 1930s through the 1950s, jackrabbit fur in North Dakota was second only to mink in terms of value and profitability. Some hunters and trappers were reported to have taken in excess of 1,200 jacks over the course of a season. With the decline in the jackrabbit population and the changing tastes in fur, the economic incentive to hunt the white-tailed jackrabbit has finally faded away.

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Geology and mineralogy, as well as anthropology, botany, and zoology, were part of Meriwether Lewis’s job description when he set out on his expedition to the Pacific Ocean. In the extensive marching orders he received from Thomas Jefferson, Lewis was ordered to document more than just the Native American tribes, plant, and animal life he observed along the route.  “Other objects worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country,” Jefferson wrote. “…the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly metals, limestone, pit coal & salpetre; salines & mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last, & such circumstances as may indicate their character.” Lewis took these instructions very seriously—so seriously that he endangered his own life.

Missouri River bluff

Missouri River bluff

Clark’s journal entry of August 22, 1804 tells the tale. The Corps of Discovery was passing along some bluffs near present-day Vermillion, South Dakota, when Lewis’s scientific investigations went awry.

the High land near the river for Some distance below. This Bluff contain Pyrites alum, Copperass & a Kind Markesites also a clear Soft Substance which Capt lewis was near being Poisened by the Smell in pounding this Substance I belv to be arsenic or Cabalt.

Capt. Lewis took a Dost of Salts this evening to carry of the effects of (arsenec) or cobalt which he was trying to find out the real quallity.

Lewis had evidently taken a mineral sample from the bluff, and in attempting to analyze it by pulverizing the rock, either inhaled or ingested enough of the resulting powder to poison himself.

So why would Lewis do such a thing? Before leaving for the west, Lewis had studied geology and mineralogy with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Smith Barton, and Andrew Ellicott. For reference, he brought along Richard Kirwan’s two-volume Elements of Mineralogy to consult during the expedition. In the absence of the equipment and chemicals necessary to do a proper mineral analysis, smell, and taste were (and still are) legitimate scientific techniques to determine a rock’s composition. But they can also be dangerous.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

As Lewis found out, the rocks he ingested contained some poisonous substance. Based on current mineral analysis in the area of the bluffs he was sampling, it is unlikely that the mineral was cobalt, as Clark suspected. However, South Dakota is loaded with pyrite and marcasite, and under the right circumstances, especially when combined with iron sulfides, these two minerals can produce traces of arsenic. Low exposures of arsenic can produce headaches, vertigo, nausea, and acute diarrhea—the last symptom probably not alleviated by the “Dost of salts” Lewis took “to work off the effects of the Arsenic.”

Lewis was lucky. In more serious cases, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning can include difficulty in swallowing, burning pain, vomiting, throat constriction, diarrhea, dehydration, renal failure, liver failure, pulmonary edema, gastrointestinal distress, headache, drowsiness, confusion, delirium, seizures, and finally, death.

In spite of his efforts to purge his system, Lewis was still feeling poorly two days later, though it didn’t stop him from accompanying Clark and a number of other men to see the famous “Spirit Mound” supposedly populated by tiny devils with large heads. Clark wrote in his journal on Saturday, August 25, 1804:

a Cloudy morning    Capt Lewis & my Self Concluded to go and See the Mound which was viewed with Such turrow by all the different Nation in this quarter  droped down to the mouth of White Stone River where we left the Perogue with two men and at 200 yards we assended a riseing ground of about Sixty feet, from the top of this High land the Countrey is leavel & open as far as Can be Seen, except Some few rises at a Great Distance, and the Mound which the Indians Call Mountain of little people or Spirits    this mound appears of a Conic form & is N. 20° W. from the mouth of the Creek, we left the river at 8 oClock, at 4 miles we Crossed the Creek 23 yards wide in an extensive Valley and continued on    at two miles further our Dog was So Heeted & fatigued we was obliged Send him back to the Creek, at 12 oClock we arrived at the hill    Capt Lewis much fatigued from heat the day it being verry hot & he being in a debilitated State from the Precautions he was obliged to take to provent the affects of the Cobalt, & Minl. Substance which had like to have poisoned him two days ago, his want of water, and Several of the men complaining of Great thirst, deturmined us to make for the first water which was the Creek in a bend N. E. from the mound about 3 miles—

Spirit Mound

Spirit Mound, South Dakota

Despite the fatigue and strain of the day, Lewis made it to the top of the hill, as well as walking nine miles back to camp in the blazing heat. He was slowly getting back to his old self, as evidenced by his own journal entry for the day:

on our return from the mound of sperits saw the first bats that we had observed since we began to ascend the Missouri—        also saw on our return on the Creek that passes this mound about 2 M. distant S. a bird of heron kind as large as the Cormorant short tale long leggs of a colour on the back and wings deep copper brown with a shade of red.    we could not kill it therefore I can not describe it more particularly.

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The plesiosaur, the largest predator on earth

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

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

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

juvenile plesiosaur skeleton

Skeleton of a juvenile plesiosaur

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

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

Plesiosaur battling Icthyosaurus

Fanciful battle between an Icthyosaurus and a Plesiosaur

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

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