Why May 14 is an important day in our history

By Gary Kimsey

May 14 has an important role in our country’s history. It wasn’t a day of a great battle that changed the course of our nation or of a landmark political speech. Nor a day of a great discovery of technology. Yet, it was a day that helped carry America into a new era.

May 14 of 1804 was the day when the Lewis and Clark Expedition departed Camp Dubois near Wood River, Ill., for a journey up the Missouri River that took the explorers into the unexplored Pacific Northwest and across the Rockies to the mouth of the Columbia River.

The Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Hartford, Ill., commemorates Camp Dubois, where the Lewis and Clark Expedition stayed from December 1803 to May 14, 1804. The site includes a top-notch museum and a replica of the camp. Here, interpretive coordinator, Ben Pollard, offers historical information to Linda Vogt, a volunteer for Lewis and Clark activities in Jefferson City, Mo.
The Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Hartford, Ill., commemorates Camp Dubois, where the Lewis and Clark Expedition stayed from December 1803 to May 14, 1804. The site includes a top-notch museum and a replica of the camp. Here, interpretive coordinator, Ben Pollard, offers historical information to Linda Vogt, a volunteer for Lewis and Clark activities in Jefferson City, Mo.

The main purpose was to discover what was out there in the Louisiana Territory that the United States had just purchased…and what was beyond. Was there a waterway to China? What was the land like? Good for farming? Mineral deposits? Was it possible to start commerce with the natives? Were some natives actually giants? Did woolly mammoths live out there? Such questions and many more were answered through the exploration, giving millions of future Americans new opportunities.

Nearly two and a half years after their May 14 departure, the explorers arrived back to the tiny outpost of St. Louis, Mo., not far from Camp Dubois. Their return was a surprise. Not having heard from the explorers for more than a year—since they had headed into unexplored country west of Fort Mandan in North Dakota—many people incorrectly assumed the explorers had ended as bleached bones somewhere in the wilderness.

The museum at the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site is well-worth a visit. Among its many displays are ones that shows the types of equipment and supplies taken on the expedition.
The museum at the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site is well-worth a visit. Among its many displays are ones that show the types of equipment and supplies taken on the expedition.

In recent decades—and in the minds of some historians, government officials, makers  of brochures, and Lewis and Clark fans—May 14 was “the official day” when the expedition was launched. Well, there’s a yes and there’s a no to their belief.

The expedition did depart on May 14 in a 55-foot keelboat and two pirogues, smaller boats. However, in 2019 the recognized eastern terminus of the expedition was changed from Camp Dubois, in the St. Louis area, to Pittsburgh, Pa., where Meriwether Lewis departed on August 31, 1803, in the keelboat that was constructed there. The keelboat moved slowly down the Ohio River, picking up recruits along the way, and reached Wood River at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, near St. Louis, late in the year.

The federal change of the expedition’s eastern terminus was an important accomplishment supported by the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, National Park Service and other organizations. The effort to extend the trail to include a large part of the Eastern Legacy—this large part being the Ohio River and a small stretch of the Mississippi River—took considerable time of working closely with local and state governments, and elected federal officials to extend the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail from 3,700 to 4,900 miles—from Pittsburgh to the mouth of the Columbia River. The extension of the trail happened when congress approved legislation in 2019 and the president signed the legislation into law.

There is also a good case to be made that the official “start” of the expedition occurred on Oct. 15, 1803, when Lewis joined William Clark in Clarksville, Indiana, near the Falls of the Ohio. Some folks believe this was when the expedition began in earnest. Others think the journey began when the full contingent of soldiers departed on May 14, 1804, from Camp Dubois. The “start” of the expedition will likely continue to be a topic of healthy debate for years to come.

Setting aside the issues of where the expedition actually started and how many miles the trail now includes, just think about that single day of May 14, 1804.

Photographed from the private collection of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation by Kristopher Townsend.
Photographed from the private collection of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation by Kristopher Townsend.

Camp Dubois had been the home of the men since December. They trained there, gathered supplies, improved the keelboat, and, importantly, honed military discipline to become an effective team. They were leaving the safety of their home.

The temperature at Sunrise on May 14 was 42 degrees. The day was cloudy, rainy and a bit windy. By 4 p.m., the temperature had risen to 64 degrees and the sky had cleared. We know these details from the Lewis and Clark journals. Final preparations were made during the day. Supplies were loaded on the keelboat and pirogues.

The 42 soldiers and French engages (men hired to help man the keelboat) were hardened to outdoor living. They were tough and skilled. Even so, there had to have been natural apprehensions and smatterings of unspoken fear. It’s possible that some of the men paused on shore and pondered the future. What is ahead? What is out there? And perhaps some wondered the greatest of all personal questions: Will I survive?

A few local people were present to wish them well. The keelboat’s swivel cannon was fired to mark the departure. Sails were hoisted. The adventure began.

 

To learn more about May 14, 1804:

Visit DiscoveringLewisandClark.com (it can also be reached at Lewis-Clark.org). This is the most comprehensive site for learning what there is to know about the expedition. Among many other features and educational opportunities, the site has a rotating home page for each day of the expedition: articles, photographs and artwork, links, and a day-by-day audio-cast. The site is operated by the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.

 

Other excellent sites:

  • About Camp Dubois: Lewis and Clark State Historic Site.
  • May 14 journal entries by expedition members.
  • About the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, events, exploring the trail, other very useful information: National Park Service.
  • Learn about events, travel routes and other important information at the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation’s website and nonprofit organization Facebook page. Sign up to become a member of the foundation—membership is not required to use the sites but it is a valuable benefit for you and your kids for increasing one’s educational repertoire and experiences.

(The author, Gary Kimsey, is a member of the Missouri-Riverbend Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. In 1973, he and four other men spent six months retracing the expedition’s trail by canoe and foot. Back then, the official trail—3,700 miles—was from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia.)

NPS honors Lewis and Clark volunteers in Kansas City

Five members of the Missouri-Kansas Riverbend Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation were recently honored by the National Park Service for their volunteer work to enhance the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The 4,900-mile trail of the 1803-06 expedition follows the Missouri River through the Greater Kansas City Area.

At the chapter’s semiannual meeting in February, attended by 56 members, Karla V. Sigala, the National Park Service’s interpretive specialist for the historic trail, presented volunteer pins and award certificates to Yvonne Kean, Karen McKeever, Jimmy Mohler, Diane Pepper Pickman, and Dan Sturdevant.

Karla V. Sigala, the National Park Service’s interpretive specialist for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, presented the awards to the five Riverbend Chapter member in Kansas City. Photo by Kay Schaefer.

“A lot of important work happens that would not happen without the efforts of volunteers,” said Sigala, who is based in the National Park Services’ Omaha, Neb., headquarters for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

The value of volunteerism for the national trail and local trail segments is significant. On the national stage, for example, 2,600 volunteers from 52 Lewis and Clark sites and partnerships contributed 164,593 hours of service in the fiscal year 2019, an equivalent of 78 full-time NPS staff members and a labor value of more than $4 million, according to the recently released National Park Service annual report.

The backgrounds of volunteers widely range from people with a personal interest in history, college history professors and researchers to interpretive re-enactors, biologists, natural resources specialists, and, among many other fields, students and educators in public and private schools.

Here’s a brief look at the volunteer work of each of the five Riverbend members:

Yvonne Kean
Yvonne Kean

Yvonne Kean is the Riverbend Chapter treasurer and former president. She is also the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation’s treasurer, a position she has held for three years. She is responsible for email communications that alert Riverbend members about programs and communications. She had a primary leadership role in the planning and hosting of the national foundation’s 2015 annual meeting in Kansas City, Mo.

 

Karen McKeever
Karen McKeever

Karen McKeever provides extensive administrative services for Riverbend’s programs and communication efforts. She prepares mailings for events, maintains records of event reservations and coordinates with restaurants where meetings are held.

 

 

Jimmy Mohler
Jimmy Mohler

Jimmy Mohler is the chairperson of a Riverbend committee that oversees, maintains and replaces historical roadside displays and other wayside information related to the expedition. This is a hefty volunteer workload. There are dozens of Lewis and Clark displays in Riverbend’s geographical region, which includes large portions of northeastern Kansas and northwestern Missouri in and around the Greater Kansas City Area.

 

Diane Pepper Pickman
Diane Pepper Pickman

Diane Pepper Pickman arranged for a successful Riverbend meeting in June 2019 in Atchison, Kansas. She also volunteers on communication efforts. She played a primary role for the Riverbend Chapter in planning and hosting the national foundation’s 2015 meeting.

 

 

Dan Sturdevant
Dan Sturdevant

Dan Sturdevant is the Riverbend Chapter president. He is the former president of the national foundation. He has a leadership role in recruiting new members to the Riverbend Chapter and the national foundation. In addition, he is a frequent speaker to local groups interested in Lewis and Clark. He had a leadership role in the foundation’s 2015 national foundation meeting in Kansas City.

Check out:

 

Canoe into a magical land in July

History buffs, outdoor enthusiasts, wildlife watchers, educators, and others have a special opportunity this coming July to take a canoe trip through the most magically beautiful area traveled by the Lewis and Clark Expedition more than two centuries ago: the White Cliffs of the Missouri River in Montana.

The non-profit Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and its Portage Route River Chapter in Great Falls, Montana, as well as the Montana River Outfitters, are sponsoring a July 13-15 river trip through the White Cliffs and an accompanying July 16-17 tour of important historical sites.

Enjoy more views like this along the White Cliffs. Photo by Lewis-Clark.org

The White Cliffs, located in the Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument, flank a scenic stretch of river that flows steadily and usually slowly, and has only minor ripples and rapids. This is a remote area that has seen little change since the Lewis and Clark Expedition moved through there in late May 1805 in six small cottonwood dugout canoes and two larger canoes.

Designated a National Wild and Scenic River, this river segment is fairly clear and unencumbered with muddy water as the river is in its lower reaches where it is nicknamed the Big Muddy.

After completing the river journey, participants will tour these sites in or near Great Falls, Montana, on July 16 and July 17:

  • the archaeologically important First Peoples Buffalo Jump, a Montana state park and National Historic Landmark believed to be North America’s largest bison cliff jump;
  • Lewis and Clark National Interpretive Center that offers in-depth information about the expedition and its importance in America’s westward expansion; and
  • Two Medicine Fight Site, where Meriwether Lewis and three companions had a bitter encounter with Native Americans that ended in a fatality. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Looking down on the Missouri River from the White Cliffs Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management
Looking down on the Missouri River from the White Cliffs. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

The canoe trip through the uninhabited White Cliffs will be a glamping journey—an outdoor experience more glamorous and luxurious than traditional campouts.

Tents with cots and air mattresses will be set up ahead for the canoeists. Meals will be prepared by outfitters. All of this will allow the travelers time for hiking, exploring, campfire chats, wildlife and bird watching, fishing, taking photographs, and reading Lewis and Clark’s journals. The trip will be led by guides knowledgeable about the country and history.

Lewis and Clark and the other expedition members and even Lewis’ Newfoundland dog, Seaman, would likely have loved such a glamping experience. The explorers lived ruggedly, sometimes on the edge of starvation and occasionally barely with any clothes to protect them from freezing temperatures, blizzards and cold winds. Their journey went along a 4,900-mile route now federally recognized as the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The trail goes through 16 states from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.

One of many scenic views along the White Cliffs of the Missouri River. Photo by the Bureau of Land Management.

When the explorers reached the White Cliffs, they were delightfully surprised to see the enchanted landscape. Lewis wrote a journal entry that some historians consider one of the most classic pieces of American travel literature ever written.

His journal entry described 300-foot-tall white sandstone cliffs, some perpendicular to the river, carved into a thousand different shapes by the vagaries of the waterway. He noted that with the help of a little imagination it was possible to see lofty buildings and statues among the cliffs.

“A most romantic appearance” was how Lewis described it.

For members of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, the cost for the July excursion is $1,500; for non-members, $1,600, which includes a year-long foundation membership. A $500 non-refundable deposit is due with RSVP by May 31.

Canoeing skills are little cause for concern; beginners are welcomed. Age requirement: If people are capable enough to paddle a canoe for three days, they are old enough to take the trip.

For more information, go to the foundation’s website (lewisandclark.org) or call the foundation at 888-701-3434.

The artist and the explorers

Steven Sitton, administrator of the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site in Kansas City, Mo., will give a February 14 presentation in Topeka, Kansas, about Thomas Hart Benton’s artistic interests in the wild lands seen along the Missouri River by the members of the 1803-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition.

When he was at the age of 76, a time when most folks are whiling away in their twilight years, Benton decided to take a three-week trip along the Missouri River to make sketches of lands seen by the explorers.

Thomas Hart Benton's "Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek."
Thomas Hart Benton’s “Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek.”

Benton’s journey was in 1965. By then, he was a well-known artist whose fluid style mostly portrayed everyday Americans and their plights set within the context of the history of our country.

Benton traveled with staff members of the National Park Service and the Army Corps of Engineers on the trip up the Missouri River. Not only did he want to view Lewis and Clark sties, he also wanted to visit corresponding sites painted by Karl Bodmer in 1833.

Benton became fascinated by the White Cliffs of the Missouri River. Located in what is still a remote area of Montana, the White Cliffs—spectacular white sandstone formations etched into many different shapes over eons by water and wind—flank the river, with some cliffs towering up 300 feet. In his journals, Meriwether Lewis described the White Cliffs as having “a most romantic appearance.”

Benton’s time in the White Cliffs resulted in the painting “Lewis & Clark at Eagle Creek” that shows the White Cliffs along the river, as well as stands of trees and buffalo contently grazing. The large landscape is painted in Benton’s extraordinary style.

Sitton’s presentation, titled “Thomas Hart Benton paints Lewis and Clark,” will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Kansas Museum of History, 6425 SW 6th Avenue in Topeka. The lecture is one in a Museum After Hours lecture series. Sitton’s presentation is free. The regular $10 museum admission fee will be half-price from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. More info: 785-272-8681.

The artist and the explorers

Steven Sitton, administrator of the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site in Kansas City, Mo., will give a February 14 presentation in Topeka, Kansas, about Thomas Hart Benton’s artistic interests in the wild lands seen along the Missouri River by the members of the 1803-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition.

When he was at the age of 76, a time when most folks are whiling away in their twilight years, Benton decided to take a three-week trip along the Missouri River to make sketches of lands seen by the explorers.

Thomas Hart Benton's "Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek."
Thomas Hart Benton’s “Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek.”

Benton’s journey was in 1965. By then, he was a well-known artist whose fluid style mostly portrayed everyday Americans and their plights set within the context of the history of our country.

Benton traveled with staff members of the National Park Service and the Army Corps of Engineers on the trip up the Missouri River. Not only did he want to view Lewis and Clark sties, he also wanted to visit corresponding sites painted by Karl Bodmer in 1833.

Benton became fascinated by the White Cliffs of the Missouri River. Located in what is still a remote area of Montana, the White Cliffs—spectacular white sandstone formations etched into many different shapes over eons by water and wind—flank the river, with some cliffs towering up 300 feet. In his journals, Meriwether Lewis described the White Cliffs as having “a most romantic appearance.”

Benton’s time in the White Cliffs resulted in the painting “Lewis & Clark at Eagle Creek” that shows the White Cliffs along the river, as well as stands of trees and buffalo contently grazing. The large landscape is painted in Benton’s extraordinary style.

Sitton’s presentation, titled “Thomas Hart Benton paints Lewis and Clark,” will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Kansas Museum of History, 6425 SW 6th Avenue in Topeka. The lecture is one in a Museum After Hours lecture series. Sitton’s presentation is free. The regular $10 museum admission fee will be half-price from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. More info: 785-272-8681.

The artist and the explorers

Steven Sitton, administrator of the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site in Kansas City, Mo., will give a February 14 presentation in Topeka, Kansas, about Thomas Hart Benton’s artistic interests in the wild lands seen along the Missouri River by the members of the 1803-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition.

When he was at the age of 76, a time when most folks are whiling away in their twilight years, Benton decided to take a three-week trip along the Missouri River to make sketches of lands seen by the explorers.

Thomas Hart Benton's "Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek."
Thomas Hart Benton’s “Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek.”

Benton’s journey was in 1965. By then, he was a well-known artist whose fluid style mostly portrayed everyday Americans and their plights set within the context of the history of our country.

Benton traveled with staff members of the National Park Service and the Army Corps of Engineers on the trip up the Missouri River. Not only did he want to view Lewis and Clark sties, he also wanted to visit corresponding sites painted by Karl Bodmer in 1833.

Benton became fascinated by the White Cliffs of the Missouri River. Located in what is still a remote area of Montana, the White Cliffs—spectacular white sandstone formations etched into many different shapes over eons by water and wind—flank the river, with some cliffs towering up 300 feet. In his journals, Meriwether Lewis described the White Cliffs as having “a most romantic appearance.”

Benton’s time in the White Cliffs resulted in the painting “Lewis & Clark at Eagle Creek” that shows the White Cliffs along the river, as well as stands of trees and buffalo contently grazing. The large landscape is painted in Benton’s extraordinary style.

Sitton’s presentation, titled “Thomas Hart Benton paints Lewis and Clark,” will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Kansas Museum of History, 6425 SW 6th Avenue in Topeka. The lecture is one in a Museum After Hours lecture series. Sitton’s presentation is free. The regular $10 museum admission fee will be half-price from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. More info: 785-272-8681.

Ancient maps that influenced Lewis and Clark

The public is invited to a February 8 luncheon presentation in Kansas City, Mo., about ancient maps that shaped civilization’s view of huge unexplored regions of North America three centuries ago and influenced the 1803-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Dr. Don McGuirk, an author and retired pediatrician who lives in Kansas City, will focus his presentation on antiquarian maps from the 1700s. This will be a valuable learning experience for academic and amateur historians, as well as anyone interested in early quests for westward expansion in North America.

McGuirk’s presentation is sponsored by the non-profit Missouri-Kansas Riverbend Chapter of the national Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. The Riverbend chapter is headquartered in Greater Kansas City.

Don McGuirk: “A map is a snapshot of the world at that moment, of what people knew in those days.”

Among the maps that McGuirk will discuss are ones that influenced the thinking of President Thomas Jefferson, as well as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, leaders of an 1803-06 expedition into the unexplored Pacific Northwest. Lewis and Clark went on to create more accurate maps from their own on-site observations, including cartographic details of the Missouri River through Kansas City area.

Among the McGuirk maps will be one that focuses on the Mer de l’Ouest, the French name for a great inland sea—believed to be the size of the Mediterranean Sea—that supposedly existed west of the Great Lakes.

Early fur-trappers, traders and mapmakers, as well as the French, Spanish and British governments that governed eastern parts of America in the 1700s, were largely convinced that such a sea existed and was an easy route to lucrative trading markets in China.

The inland sea, however, was “only wishful thinking,” said McGuirk, the author of a non-fiction book, The Last Great Cartographic Myth: Mer de l’Quest. The Lewis and Clark Expedition disproved the theory about an inland sea.

“A map is a snapshot of the world at that moment, of what people knew in those days,” McGuirk pointed out. “Mapmakers were very educated people who used what information they had. Sometimes, though, they just made up a detail because they wanted it to be there.”

Mer de l’Ouest: The early map drawn with the mistaken belief that an inland sea—the size of the Mediterranean Sea—existed in America.

“What fascinates me is where and why they were wrong, and what information or dreams they had to create cartographic myths on their maps,” he said.

McGuirk began his own map quest when he was a boy of about 8 years old and read a back-page comic book advertisement selling three early map reproductions. He mailed in the $2 payment for the maps and thus launched his lifelong interest in maps.

He now owns more than 200 antiquarian maps, some of which were made on cloth paper rather than wood-pulp paper used today. Thanks to the hardier cloth paper, some of McGuirk’s maps from 300 or 400 years ago remain in such good shape that they look like they were printed yesterday, he said.

Register now for the event:

The presentation will follow lunch at Cascone’s Restaurant, 3733 N. Oak Trafficway. Cost for lunch and presentation: $25 a person. To register, mail a check before February 5 made out to the Mo-Kansas Riverbend Chapter LCTHF to Karen McKeever, 912 N.E. Karapat, Kansas City, Mo., 64155. Seating is limited, so please email McKeever at 912KLM@gmail.com prior to mailing your check to ensure seating is available.

For more information about the February 8 event: lewisandclarkkc.org.