At the turn of the 19th century, the good ol’ USA was still a young nation—and suddenly found itself doubled in size with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. President Thomas Jefferson decided it would be in everybody’s best interest to have a look at this huge stretch of land which, up to that point, was largely a blank page to the European newcomers.
Thus began the Lewis and Clark expedition. They set out from St. Louis in 1804, battling the Missouri upriver in their wooden keel boat, hopeful that the waterway would provide an unbroken highway to the Pacific. When winter closed in, the explorers erected a fort on the banks of the river in what is now North Dakota. They named their log home Fort Mandan, after the hospitable native people who had villages nearby.
The expedition left Fort Mandan that spring and spent their next winter at their hard-earned destination, the Pacific Ocean. They made the return journey in a single season, and on the way home discovered that their first winter quarters, Fort Mandan, had been mysteriously burned. Today, a replica stands in the vicinity of the old site and is open to tourists year-round.
When Molly and I visited last weekend, the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation was celebrating the grand opening of its newly expanded interpretive center, including a brand new conference facility. (Can anyone say, “History symposium”? Oooo …)
For such a large interpretive center, the fort it interprets is … surprisingly small. Inside the triangular palisade of cottonwood logs, a dozen or so rooms line the wall—of which some are for storage. Gary, the tour guide, informed me that 44 men from the Corps of Discovery spent the winter here. I’m thinking that was close quarters.
Amongst the many events going on that weekend was a demonstration on how to achieve fire through flint and other early means. “Some of the nicest flint in the world,” Gary said, “comes from right here in North Dakota—Knife River flint.” Knife River flint was a highly valued trade item amongst the native peoples. Cool as this flint was, I was impressed to learn that petrified wood can also strike sparks. (I’m sure that knowledge will save my life someday.) Maybe once I get good at building fire with a grill lighter I’ll move on to the next challenge.
Between the fort, two interpretive centers, nature trails, and demonstrations, my favorite part of the experience was actually this meager bit of metal:
It’s a hasp off the journal of Merriweather Lewis. In the late 1800s, a careless 19th-century historian broke it off as a souvenir for a friend.
The two captains of the expedition were charged by President Jefferson to keep a detailed record of their explorations—from the landscape, to the plants and animals, to the native peoples and their customs. This hasp was part of a valuable document—in many ways, the journals were the essence of the expedition. They would have been diligently guarded from the hundreds of mishaps that could have destroyed them.
But more than a technical record, a journal becomes a human’s heart on paper. Yes, the Lewis and Clark journals contain long figures of latitude and longitude, supply lists and data. But they were also a place for the expedition members to express themselves on this incredible journey. Upon first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, William Clark penned in his journal, “Ocean in view! O! The joy!”
What a bit of history. This hasp traveled a continent at Merriweather Lewis’s side, survived the voyage, and eventually arrived in the hands of President Jefferson. And now it has returned to North Dakota, where it spent that first long, memorable winter in a tiny log fort in the middle of America.
Pawnotes from Molly
Let’s not forget the dog! THE most famous member of the expedition was Seaman, Captain Lewis’s Newfoundland. The humans credit Sakakawea with getting Lewis and Clark to the Pacific and back, but we dogs know they would have been lost without Seaman.
This canine is one of my personal heroes. Can you imagine, sniffing two thousand miles of virgin wilderness teeming with deer and bunnies, boldly peeing where no dog has peed before??? I get giddy just thinking about it.
Granted, I was also deeply impressed with the fort—particularly the buffalo skin blankets on the beds. I buried my muzzle in all that fur and filled my nose with the aroma. Animal skins are to a dog what coffee in the morning is to a human.
But my girl kept saying I was as much of an attraction as the fort itself. We kinda lost count how many people—kids and adults alike—asked to meet me. One little girl ran her hands down my coat and said, “She feels like the bear fur.” I consider that a compliment.
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