Monday, June 30, 2008 -- near Edwardsville, IL
Yesterday, Sunday, dodging rain showers and flooded roads, we found the point where, in May of 1804, the Corps of Discovery -- The L&C Gang, as I've been referring to them -- more or less formally began their trip into the unknown western lands of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. They had wintered over on land near the L&C Discovery Center at the mouth of a small stream known as Wood River, or Riviere DuBois at the time -- Camp River DuBois as one of them wrote in their journal. Because the formal transfer of the Louisiana Purchase hadn't taken place yet, they stayed for the winter, here, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi (the western edge of the United States at that time) close to the mouth of the Missouri River.
For the Gang, Camp DuBois was a beginning. For us, it was an end. Our beginning was at their destination -- the mouth of the Columbia River, where the Gang stayed during the winter of 1805 - 1806. The path led us back up the Columbia, past what is now Portland, OR. and Vancouver, WA., past Beacon Rock, through the Cascades into the much drier and desert-like high plains of Eastern Oregon and Washington. Near today's Pasco, WA., the path followed the Snake River to it's confluence with the Clearwater River at Lewiston, ID., then up past our campsite in Orofino, ID, beyond, and into the area, the high Weippe Prairie, where they were helped by the Nez Perce Indians. Then up and through the rugged Bitterroot Mountains, through Lolo Pass and down the hill, following Lolo Creek, to a flat clearing near the Bitterroot River where they camped to rest -- the place they called Travelers Rest. Travelers Rest is their only camp along their entire path that's been positively identified as the exact site.
After crossing the Continental Divide we again picked up the trail at Three Forks, MT. -- at the point the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallitin Rivers meet to form the Missouri. From this point, for the rest of our L&C Tour, we'd follow the Missouri River -- from beginning to end. We'd see the Gates of the Mountains, the Great Falls, and the confluence of the Missouri with the Yellowstone River. It was along the Yellowstone where we saw William Clark's name, carved into the rock at Pompey's Pillar by the man himself during the return trip in 1806 -- the only physical evidence that remains of their passing anywhere along the trail.
We saw what was left of the Mandan Villages in North Dakota, where the Gang built a small fort in order to survive the winter of 1804 -1805, and where they added the interpreter Charbonneau, his wife, Sacagawea, and their 4 month old son, Jean Baptiste to the group. We visited the grave site of Sgt. Charles Floyd, the only person to die during the entire duration of the expedition. We closely followed the river along the border of Iowa and Nebraska, then Kansas and Missouri before it turns eastward, cutting through it's namesake State before dumping into the Mississippi -- near the point they started in 1804... and where we're camped today as I write this.
The abilities and skills of each of the members, and the way they developed into a bonded unit, got them through the many difficulties and challenges encountered along the way. But they were also extremely lucky. Jefferson, of course, would say that luck is 92% preparation. On their own in the rugged and wild west, where a broken leg or a snake bite was a death sentence, they spent two winters in small shelters they build for themselves, they encountered grizzly bear and rattlesnakes, walked for miles on prickly pear cactus with only moccasins for their feet, suffered many illnesses, and dragged tons of goods over numerous portages. Their transportation was powered only by muscle, with a little help at times from wind and water. They were an amazing collection of people.
So that's it. Our trip took us about 60 days and we stayed in 20 different camps between the Pacific Ocean and here. We've learned a lot about the L&C Gang, about Jefferson and the politics at the time, about the different forces forming the west, about the native peoples who lived on this land for thousands of years.
What we learned about L&C and the Corps of Discovery has stimulated interest in learning more about some of it's key members. I think I'll be looking for biographies on John Ordway, Patrick Gass, John Colter, and a few others who's contributions are continuously mentioned in the journals. This handful of guys must have been the core of the corps. So many of the others faded into obscurity after the expedition and little is known about them.
Our sense of completion is joined by the question of "what's next?". It's good to have a project... a sense of mission and purpose. There are some ideas rolling around up there but for the next month or two we're going to reconnect with our Wisconsin Family and celebrate with Justin and Kaytlyn before we settle on the theme for the next leg of our exploration of the USA.