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 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.
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 Serviceand 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.
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.
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.)
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.
“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 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 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 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 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 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.
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 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;
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.
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.
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.
A little-acknowledged and yet critically important 1,200 miles of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s route in 1803 was federally recognized March 12 as part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail—a move expected to increase public education and tourism throughout the Ohio River Valley and along the rest of the 1803-06 trail that goes to the Pacific Ocean in America’s Northwest.
The extended trail encompasses the Ohio River and a short segment of the Mississippi River as well the metropolitan areas of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Wheeling, West Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Louisville, Kentucky, and nearby Clarksville, Indiana. The total length of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is now 4,900 miles and goes from Pittsburgh to the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon.
“The extension of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail—the route of the most important adventure of exploration and discovery in our nation’s history—is a major win for all Americans,” said Lou Ritten, a Chicago area resident who is president of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation (LCTHF), based in Great Falls, Montana. The LCTHF was a major player in helping to move the trail extension through Congress.
“The 1,200 additional miles add a significant new chapter to the story of Lewis and Clark,” Ritten said. “It opens the way for more people now and in future generations to learn about the explorers and their important role in history.”
The trail extension traverses a large area of the East known as Lewis and Clark’s Eastern Legacy: 14 states and Washington, D.C. These are areas important in the expedition’s story or have historic sites or events related to the explorers before and after their journey.
The extended trail goes through portions of seven states: Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, as well as areas of Illinois and Missouri not previously considered part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail that was federally designated in 1978. Those states join 10 others that—until the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Actis signed into law—solely comprised the historic trail. Those states are Nebraska, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, as well as areas of Missouri and Illinois.
The trail now encompasses two more of the nation’s major rivers—the Ohio River and a short segment of the Mississippi River—along with the three other major waterways taken by the expedition: the Missouri, Snake and Columbia rivers.
Lindy Hatcher, LCTHF executive director, said the trail extension is important because it was along those 1,200 miles that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark organized, recruited and trained for their journey of more than three years. “The explorers got in their boats and, as they traveled the 1,200 miles of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, they began working together as a team,” Hatcher said. “This time was critical to the success of the expedition.”
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Without the inclusion of the 1,200 miles in Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, some historians and other Lewis and Clark aficionados have believed the expedition’s story has only been partly told in history books and guidebooks, most of which largely focus on the 3,700 miles from Wood River to the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon.
Paige Cruz, a Huntington, West Virginia, resident and chair of the LCTHF Eastern Legacy Committee that helped shepherd the legislation through Congress, said the extension “helps connect the dots all the way across the country that Lewis and Clark explored.”
Another committee member, Jerry Wilson of Versailles, Indiana, said the trail extension will encourage local groups and agencies to continue developing interpretive signage, historic sites, and public education. There are 22 states connected either directly to the trail or to historic sites and events related to the explorers before and after the 1803-06 expedition.
Wilson noted the newly recognized segment will encourage more tourists and history buffs to visit communities, landmarks and historic sites along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. As well, this new addition may result in more visitation along the other 3,700 miles of trail as tourists who visit the new mileage find that they want to visit the rest of the trail, he said.
“The most obvious immediate benefit of the extended trail will be to the tourism industry,” Wilson said. “It’s going to help restaurants, filling stations, hotels and motels, and many other businesses that rely on tourism.”
Phyllis Yeager, an LCTHF Eastern Legacy Committee member who lives in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, near the Ohio River, said the inclusion of the 1,200 miles will open the way for more historical markers, Lewis and Clark activities, museums, and statues.
“This will encourage the teaching of history in a valuable way that it is not taught in history books,” she said. “The value of the legislation goes beyond tourism dollars and economic value. It will result in public education that benefits our entire culture.”
The trail extension includes at least 26 significant sites related to the expedition’s journey along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from August 30, 1803, to Dec. 13, 1803, when the explorers began constructing a winter camp—they named it Camp Dubois—near Wood River. The following May the explorers left the camp to begin their arduous journey along the 3,700 miles federally designated in the 1978 version of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. They reached the mouth of the Columbia River in late 1805 and returned to St. Louis in September 1806.
Their journey along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers was documented by journal entries written mostly by Lewis. At the time, some local residents also recorded meeting the explorers. Lewis’ journal during this time covered a wide range of topics, Cruz said. “He wrote about natural features, the wildlife and weather, plants, Indian burial grounds, the level of the river and the temperature of the water, and the people he met.”
Here are summaries of a few of the sites visited by Lewis and Clark along the two rivers:
Pittsburgh: Lewis spent six weeks in this booming town of 2,400 people while he waited for the construction of a 55-foot keelboat to be completed. He talked to locals about the Ohio River, checked inventory and recruited 11 men to join the voyage down the river. It was in Pittsburgh that Lewis purchased Seaman, a Newfoundland dog, for $20. The dog became a member of the expedition and today—for kids and many adults alike—is almost as famous as Lewis and Clark. As he was leaving Pittsburgh, Lewis began writing in journals that would be maintained by him and Clark. Their journals are insightful records that give historians of today a magnificent window into the past. Lewis departed in the new keelboat on August 30, 1803, to travel down the Ohio River for the next month and a half to meet up with his friend and expedition co-leader at Clarksville, Indiana.
Wheeling, West Virginia: When Lewis and his companions reached there on Sept. 8, 1803, the community consisted of about 50 houses. Lewis spent time talking politics with a Revolutionary War veteran, Thomas Rodney, whom the current U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, had appointed as a judge to adjudicate land claims. Lewis and Rodney talked while eating “watter millions”—the spelling of watermelons in the rough-hewed, versatile spelling methods back in those days. Lewis demonstrated a specially designed 51-caliber barreled air gun—a pneumatic weapon—that he brought along specifically to complement flint-lock muskets and pistols used on the expedition. The air gun could fire 22 times a minute. The judge admired it as a “curious piece of workmanship not easily described.”
Cincinnati, Ohio: Lewis and his companions reached there Sept. 28, 1803, and remained several days to gather more supplies and give his fatigued men a rest. At that time of the year, the Ohio River was extremely low and the men had to push and pole the keelboat, a grueling task. About 1,000 people resided in Cincinnati, a growing community that provided supplies to travelers. While in Cincinnati, Lewis wrote a long letter to Thomas Jefferson and took a 17-mile overland side trip to Big Bone Lick in Kentucky to gather fossils for the president. Lewis sent fossils to Jefferson on a passing river boat, but they never arrived because they were lost in transit.
Cairo, Illinois. After leaving the mouth of the Ohio River and moving up the Mississippi River, the expedition camped near Cairo on Nov. 14, 1803. They paused for six days while the captains honed their surveying and mapping skills by practicing the technique of celestial observations. Clark used a surveyor’s compass and chain to determine the widths of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers: the Mississippi, 1,435 yards; Ohio, 1,274 yards. The confluence of the two rivers sprawled over 2,002 yards; in today’s comparisons, the length of almost seven football fields.
A few wording changes open the way for major opportunities…
In comparison to the wording of some of the 100 projects in the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, the extent of wording in the section related to the Lewis and Clark trail extension was minor: six words replaced four words in of the National Trails System Act that in 1978 originally designated the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
The word “3,700” was struck as the mileage length of the Lewis and Clark trail and replaced with “4,900” for the mileage. The words “Wood River, Illinois,” were replaced with “Ohio River in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” as the trail’s eastern boundary.
The amended section also revised the official trail map, created in 1977, by showing the national historic trail now goes from Pittsburgh to the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. Previously, the eastern boundary of the map was Wood River.
Although the wording changes seem minor, they were huge in terms of positive impacts that may occur in the coming years. There will likely be revisions of history books and tourist maps, websites, and historic guidebooks about Lewis and Clark and their companions.
Mike Loesch, a Mason, Ohio, resident who sits on the LCTHF’s Eastern Legacy Committee, said the designation may open the way for more federal, state and local funding possibilities for developing historic sites, signage and educational programs. “The trail extension tremendously raises the visibility of the trail,” he said. “This will help in the long run to develop partnerships among agencies and citizen groups interested in furthering public education and tourism.”
As an example, Loesch pointed to the possibility that, in the future, partnerships among agencies and volunteer groups might be developed to create a major trail system that loops from the East and west into North Dakota by connecting existing historic trails. Among the trails that could connect to make the loop are the 4,600-mile North Country National Scenic Trail, 1,444-mile Buckeye Trail, 78-mile Little Miami Scenic Trail, and the extended Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
“All sorts of possibilities have become possible,” Loesch said. “The extension of the Lewis and Clark trail creates tremendous opportunities.”
The 4,900-mile trail, which includes the newly approved 1,200 miles, remains the nation’s second-longest national historic trail behind the 5,665-mile California National Historic Trail. The route forged by Lewis and Clark, however, is the nation’s longest trail that relied upon waterways. The explorers followed the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Snake, and Columbia rivers, in addition to three smaller streams: the Jefferson and Beaverhead rivers in Montana, and the Clearwater River western Idaho.
The journey that led to federal approval of the trail extension could easily be used as a case study for a school civics class learning how ideas can evolve into a law of the land.
Thoughts about broadening the scope of the historic trail accelerated during the 2003-06 national bicentennial commemoration of the expedition. More than 100 groups of citizens and government agencies were organized back then—many of them in Ohio, Indiana and other Eastern Legacy states—to plan and carry out the bicentennial.
For many Lewis and Clark enthusiasts, it was a long journey to the signing of the trail extension into law.
More than two decades ago, for instance, Yeager was surprised to find that many local people along the 1,200 miles knew little, if anything, about their communities’ associations with the expedition. So she began actively promoting the idea that more attention should be given to Lewis and Clark’s presence in Clarksville and Louisville. “I was determined to do something about it,” Yeager said. “It became a passion for me.”
Yeager and others living in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky began promoting the presence of Lewis and Clark sites in their areas. Yeager recalled: “People started asking the question of what did Lewis and Clark have to do with this area? They had not learned this in school. They became curious and started finding out how their areas were involved in the Lewis and Clark story.”
In 2009, the National Park Service launched an extensive study that looked at extending the official historic trail to include all or parts of the Eastern Legacy. The NPS study thoroughly reviewed historical sites and information, and existing public sites related to the expedition. The agency also held extensive public hearings in an attempt to narrow down options, one of which was extending the historic trail to Pittsburgh.
In February 2018, the NPS released its findings, which noted the historical and cultural importance of the Ohio River to the expedition. Subsequently, at the request of Lewis and Clark advocates, a proposal to extend the trail to Pittsburgh moved into the congressional arena.
Legislation was introduced in 2018 in the House of Representatives by Rep. Luke Messer (R-Indiana) and co-sponsored by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Kentucky), importantly making it a bipartisan bill that would appeal to both sides of the political aisle. Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Indiana) and Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) also became co-sponsors.
The Lewis and Clark Heritage Foundation was a significant player in the legislation’s journey through the House in 2018. Hatcher testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands. Members of the Eastern Legacy Committee and other LCTHF members also wrote congressional representatives.
“Many people urged Congress to support the trail extension,” Loesch said.
The House passed the legislation in July 2018. It was then introduced in the Senate by Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Indiana) and co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana). However, the Senate legislation was not acted upon prior to the end of the congressional year.
How it happened this year…
In the current Congress, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. The act was a bipartisan package of land bills: projects involving wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, national parks, historic sites, trails, tribal lands, and heritage areas throughout the nation.
Included within the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act was the Eastern Legacy Extension Act, introduced in the Senate in January by Sen. Young. In the House, Rep. Johnson (R-Ohio) introduced similar legislation. The plan was to move forward with these stand-alone pieces of legislation if, for some reason, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act wasn’t signed into law.