Our Lewis and Clark Journal – Day 13
Day 13: Encountering Native Peoples (August 8)
At the showers this morning in the Lewis and Clark State Park, August and I met a guy who was biking the Lewis and Clark Trail in reverse. He had started on the shores of the Pacific Ocean many weeks ago, and was in the final stretch to St. Louis, Missouri and Alton, Illinois. We had greeted him when he came in last night, but heard a bit more of his story this morning. This is not the first time he has biked the trail. (For a brief moment we thought he might be the guy from the New York Times who is biking the trail this summer with his kids). His encouragement of us this early in our journey was an indicator, especially for August, that our interest in the Corps of Discovery is neither weird nor unique. We will meet many people on the same trail over the next few weeks.
Our first stop today is St. Joseph, Missouri – home of the Pony Express! This is not really part of the Lewis and Clark Trail (St. Joseph being founded some years after the expedition passed through), but before leaving on our trip, August and I had read a really good children’s book about the race to create a transcontinental mail system, so we had planned a short visit to the museum and stables. We had no idea the museum would be so outstanding. Noelle and I agreed that this ranks as one of the best historical museums for children we have ever visited. August pumped water from the (recently discovered) original well used to water the horses for the likes of Johnny Fry, Buffalo Bill and Bronco Charlie. He toured the stables, sat in saddles, viewed artifacts of riders, made wax rubbings of coins, and dressed up in period costumes. The women running the gift shop were more than generous in providing activity sheets for our use on the road and a teacher’s packet that August can use in class presentations and share with his second grade teacher this year. August was having such a good time that the women even threw in a free book and DVD.
Near the museum is the home where Jesse James was shot by “that dirty rotten coward Robert Ford.” One can still see where the bullet that passed through Jesse entered the wall. But we ran out of time.
Our next stop was in Council Bluffs, Iowa, for a scenic overlook. Council Bluffs is where the former railroad lawyer turned President, Abraham Lincoln, would one day announce plans and congressional support for the first transcontinental railroad, supplanting the rivers and steam boats, Pony Express and telegraph, Oregon and California trails, as the physical means of uniting this enormous nation. For Lewis and Clark, it was the place where they met the first Native Americans, the Otos. One of the explicit goals of the expedition was to learn as much as possible about the life and culture of the native peoples living in the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson had instructed them, “In all your intercourse with the natives treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit. … Allay all jealousy as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of its innocence, make the acquainted with the position of the U.S., of our wish to be neighborly, friendly and useful to them, and of our disputations to a commercial intercourse with them.” The meeting went reasonably well. The actual place where the council was held is somewhere on the other side of the river, but the name stuck to the eastern shore.
For August, Council Bluffs was an occasion to stretch his legs and run. From the amazing scenic overlook where the above representation is but part of a dioramic display, August heard the sound of peepers in the trees, and he took off down steep paths in pursuit. We ran through the woods, following maze-like trails until we were nearly upon the railroad tracks. Having finally caught a peeper, we started the long trek back up the paths to mom.
From Council Bluffs we crossed the river to Omaha, Nebraska in order to follow the Loess Scenic Highway north. Eighty miles later we crossed the river again to visit the Lewis and Clark State Park in Onawa, Iowa. The park is located on on Oxbow Lake and features another great museum. On the lake we got to climb aboard a replica keel-boat like that used by the Corps of Discovery. August demonstrated how the boat was really a floating fortress, complete with swivel guns and cannon, and could be quickly transformed for battle.
The expedition shot the swivel gun twice on the Fourth of July-they never shot in warfare, though there was a standoff with the Teton Sioux, which was resolved when the chief said they’d stand down if L&C gave a boat tour to the tribe’s women and children. Inside we found another replica, as well a model pirogues (the other boats they brought) and dug-out canoes. August demonstrated his command of the narrative as he played out scenes from the L&C journals.
From Onawa we continued up the Iowa side of the river to Sioux City, IA, where we quickly paid our respects to the William Floyd Monument. Floyd was the only casualty of the expedition, dying on this spot from what was most likely a burst appendix. No one, anywhere, could have done anything for him, not even Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia.
From Sioux City we entered South Dakota. Just past Vermillion, near present day Yankton, L&C met with the Yankton Sioux. This was another friendly meeting with a First Nation people, though the Corps was warned that the Teton Sioux to the north would not be so welcoming. The expedition left feeling confident, but cautious.
With a threatening thunderstorm filling the sky with light, and daylight fading, we sought out the Spirit Mound north of Yankton. This natural formation was a spiritual center for the Sioux, an elevated view of the entire Eastern South Dakota landscape, a holy place. Our GPS led us astray, and we wasted precious time driving in circles through “minimum maintenance” dirt roads to find the entrance to the Mound park as it rained intermittently. The path to the mound was choked with overgrowth, leaving us all wet before we reached the ascent. I reached the top first, and had adequate silence for contemplative and reverential prayer before being joined by my family. (Yes, that’s me way up at the top).
The sunset was absolutely stunning, and we enjoyed it fully. We descended in silence – August riding on my shoulders. When we were all aboard “West Crasher” again, Noelle and August changed into dry bed clothes, and I had a quick snack. I drove for a few more hours to reach our campsite, as first August and then Noelle fell asleep. But before nodding off, Noelle spotted one of our coveted creatures – a grey wolf – running alongside the highway.
Our final destination, reached late at night, was Snake Creek Recreation Area, near Platte, South Dakota. Our campsite was just dozen of feet from the Missouri River. Upon arrival I woke Noelle up to gaze at the stars with me for a while. Coming from years in New York, I treasure nights like this: far, far more stars than I am used to seeing, and the band of the Milky Way stunningly visible. Though our weather was simply amazing throughout our trip, a clear night like this was rare. And we enjoyed it.
This was a long day, but one filled with experiences which will be long remembered.
Recommended Reading: Cheryl Harness, They’re Off: The Story of the Pony Express. (Troll: Simon and Schuster for Young Readers, 2002). In fact, we saw the original artwork for this book in the museum. August also read to us Bronco Charlie and the Pony Express by Marlene Targ Brill and illustrated by Craig Orback, and Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express, by Eleanor Coerr.