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.

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