From Deadman's Trail

Along the Modern Lewis and Clark Trail

Bill Eckert

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Colorado Springs, between the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails, is within President Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase--which included all of Colorado east of the Continental Divide and cost about 4 cents/acre. This strict-constructionist President acknowledged that our Constitution didn’t give the federal government specific authority to purchase territory, but it did give him authority to negotiate treaties, which the Louisiana Purchase was. Jefferson took this initiative because it would (1) double the size of the United States, (2) remove historic French threats from the American frontier, (3) protect American use of the entire length of the Mississippi River, and (4) give us ownership of the key port of New Orleans. Congress agreed with him, authorizing the $15 million price. Napoleon used the money to help finance his preparations to invade England--a plan canceled after the July 1805 Battle of Cape Finisterre convinced him that British Navy control of the English Channel could not be broken. These were huge decisions.

Put another way, what if Napoleon had been smarter and invested in his North American properties instead of trying to invade England--since he didn’t do it anyway--or invading Russia in 1812--a huge costly disaster for him? Perhaps today Colorado Springs would be part of a New France with New Orleans as its capital? You’d be reading your Gazette in French--no need to change the newspaper’s name, since the word is French to start with. No need to change street names such as Bijou…Cache La Poudre…Willamette… Cascade…Fountain…or St. Vrain (fur trader Ceran St. Vrain was born in 1802 at French-owned St. Louis, son of a former commander of the King of France’s personal galley)—all French names already! Instead of Pike’s Peak, perhaps it would be Mont Josephine. Bienvenu à la Ville Pour Champions! You get the idea….

President Jefferson appointed his Secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, a bachelor who lived in the East Room of the President’s Mansion (largest room in the building—you’ve seen it on TV used for major presidential press conferences, concerts, et al), to “explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by its course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce….In all your intercourse with the natives treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit….” In other words, Jefferson hoped he’d find a Northwest Passage. Lewis asked his former rifle company commander, Captain William Clark, to serve as his co-commander of what the President dubbed the “Corps of Discovery,” a mixed military and civilian unit which varied in size with their needs during the 28-month expedition between 35 and 45 people. Lewis departed Washington, D.C. on July 5, 1803, making stops at Harper’s Ferry Federal Armory to get weapons and other supplies, then at Pittsburgh to oversee construction of a 55-ft keelboat, then down the Ohio River to Louisville, KY where he and men he’d recruited met with Clark and his recruits.

On July 21, 1969, many of us stepped outside to gaze at the moon after watching TV coverage of Neil Armstrong walking up there. In various ways, the Corps of Discovery’s success in traversing a dangerous long distance and returning home had similar dramatic impact across American consciousness. Fortunately for Lewis and Clark, a lot of resident Indian tribes helped them along the way.

During the 2003-2006 Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commemoration, many cities and towns, 16 states, and the big federal Lewis and Clark Interagency Partnership generated a great number of creative initiatives, including visitor centers, museums, boat replicas, reenactments and literature that we benefit from today.

Many folks have since traveled the Corps of Discovery routes out and back, or parts of them, by boat, car, horse, and/or on foot. Over eight days in August 2014, I drove from Colorado Springs to follow their route between Cahokia, IL and Billings, MT, primarily to learn firsthand about potential opportunities for safe boating along this route—intending to see parts of it as Lewis and Clark did, given the changes made to many rivers by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—such as six big dams and lakes in the upper Missouri.
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Click for larger imageYou can visit today’s replica of Camp River Dubois, their 1803-4 wintering camp on the Illinois shore of the Mississippi River opposite its confluence with the Missouri River, 20 miles north of St. Louis. This site’s half-section full-length replica gives you a great view of how they loaded and occupied their keelboat and two pirogues (like a large rowboat—red one 41 ft and white one 39 ft). Nearby, you can look over the current confluence—both rivers have moved since 1804—from Hartford, IL’s big Lewis & Clark Memorial Tower. A short drive from here is Illinois’ Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, where a beautiful modern museum is on the grounds of what, about the year 1250 A.D., was a town of some 20,000 corn-growing people of the Mississippian Culture—largest town on the continent north of Mexico, and larger than London at the time. While Clark focused on training the Corps to work as a team for the upcoming trek, Lewis spent much of his time in St. Louis and in the village of Cahokia procuring supplies. During this 1803-4 winter, the French-owned town of St. Louis was still under the administration of a Spanish officer, by odd agreement between those two nations. It was not until March 8, 1804 that the Spanish flag was officially lowered and the French flag raised; then, on March 10, the French flag was officially replaced by the 15-star American flag, with Lewis attending. The Corps was now free to go see what President Jefferson had bought, and Clark started them up the Missouri River on May 14, 1804. You can see more about St. Louis, the Corps, and other western pioneers in the fine museum at the base of the Gateway Arch on the riverfront in downtown St. Louis.

Click for larger imageLewis rode up from St. Louis on May 20 to rejoin the Corps in the riverfront village of St. Charles. At you can learn about the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, which built replica boats and log canoes for the Bicentennial and, over the four years of that celebration, sailed, paddled, rode and walked the Corps’ route from Pittsburgh to Oregon, being featured on ABC News, National Public Radio, and hundreds of local media stations and publications. These modern reenactors paddled canoes up the Yellowstone River and along the Columbia River, rode horses over the Continental Divide at Lolo Pass, camped in the same locations as the original Corps, hosted over half a million visitors to their boats and campsites, and built the interesting riverfront Lewis & Clark Boat House and Nature Center that you can visit today in St. Charles. When I visited, they were hosting the finish line of the annual Missouri River 340-mile boat race from Kansas City to St. Charles, which you can read about—and register for—at Impressive group of modern-day adventurers—and you’re welcome to join them, too.

Click for larger imageHeading west from St. Louis along the river, an optional diversion through beautiful rolling countryside is to swing by the big stone house near Defiance, MO where Daniel Boone spent the last of his 86 years. Boone was living in this area when the Corps came by, but there’s no record of any interaction. For a Coloradan, the sweet smell of broadleaf forest and the many tunes of birds and bugs of Midwest meadows out here are pleasant temporary experience. The lush countryside has bright green grass like Lexington, KY, and looks like the Cotswolds with cornfields. Farther west, I dropped into the ongoing Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, MO, and enjoyed paying 40 cents less for gasoline than here in Colorado Springs.

Click for larger imageIn Independence, MO, the excellent little National Frontier Trails Museum hosted an Indian dancing performance during my visit, and the ladies there were most generous with National Historic Trails literature for future travels. Independence’s courthouse square was a primary outfitting and stepping-off point for the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, and paintings you might see of these wagon trains forming often have the same Jackson County Courthouse, with its beautiful twin chimneys, in the background. In 1926, Harry Truman was elected presiding judge of this county court. The same year, he was elected president of the National Old Trails Road Association, honoring our pioneers.

Click for larger imageIn Kansas City, overlooking the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers, the hilltop Lewis and Clark Point, close to downtown, has a fine statue of Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea and her baby “Pomp,” Lewis’s slave York, and Lewis’s Newfoundland dog Seaman. At 18 ft tall, this is the largest statue in their honor in the nation. During my entire trip, not only was Seaman included in every statue, but Seaman’s Park, near Washburn, ND, has a big statue of just Seaman alone! Along the way, I also found five different books dedicated to Seaman’s perspective of the expedition—three of which were written “by” Seaman. We Americans do like our dogs….

Click for larger imageNorth of Kansas City is the Lewis and Clark Pavilion in Riverfront Park, Atchison, KS, where the Corps camped. From her birthplace home just up a hill overlooking the river, young Amelia Earhart could walk down to this site. You can tour that pretty house today. Also in Atchison is a handsome Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad museum. Then, a little way up the river is St. Joseph, MO, where the excellent Pony Express National Memorial and Museum is worth a look. St. Joe was a base for the Oregon and California Trails, as well as a key riverboat and railroad town. The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad was the first railroad across Missouri. This pioneering railroad company, formed in 1846 in the Hannibal office of John Clemens, father of Samuel Clemens, reportedly on April 3, 1860 brought the first letter from the East to be delivered to California by the Pony Express. In 1861, the first Civil War assignment for Colonel Ulysses S. Grant was to protect this railroad. St. Joe also hosts the little house where Bob Ford shot and killed Jesse James in 1882, after which he fled the state and later operated a saloon in Creede, CO, until he was murdered there in 1892 with a shotgun load to the throat.

Click for larger imageUpriver in Nebraska City is the pretty Missouri River Basin Lewis and Clark Interpretive Trail and Visitor Center, with a part-replica keelboat and pirogue. I had dinner nearby at the gorgeous Lied Lodge & Conference Center, and walked around Arbor Day Farm—built by the Morton family that also initiated Arbor Day and founded Morton Salt. As an indicator of how much they like trees, the Lodge’s parking lot alone has over 400 varieties of trees that you park under. Keeps the car cool! Farther upriver, Council Bluffs, IA has an excellent Western Historic Trails Center. But this is not the Council Bluffs site across the river in Nebraska where Lewis and Clark had their first meeting with Native Americans—Oto and Missouri Indians—about 15 miles north of today’s Omaha, where Fort Atkinson State Historical Park is now. Speaking of Indians, at each of these meetings Lewis impressed them by demonstrating his Girandoni repeating air rifle, which was used by the Austrian army against Napoleon--it impressed me, too, especially after watching this video from the NRA National Firearms Museum:

Click for larger imageNorthward by the little town of Onawa, IA, Lewis and Clark State Park has a gorgeous set of full-scale keelboat and pirogue replicas—reportedly the best in the country. This park is located on an oxbow lake with a marker where the Corps camped, but where the oxbow is now separated from the main river channel. It has big trees and lots of camping spaces, and the lake is busy with swimmers, boaters and water skiers. Farther up, Sioux City, IA has a nice Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, co-located with a pretty park, a big Hilton Garden Inn, restaurants, a marina, and a wide double boat ramp. For folks like us looking to take their motor boat safely down the Missouri to St. Louis, I was repeatedly told to start no farther up than Sioux City, due to the river’s notorious moving sandbars, hidden tree-root snags, false channels, ubiquitous floating logs, and lack of Corps of Engineers or Coast Guard channel maintenance or marking above here. And this park/hotel/restaurant/marina combination looked like a fine launching point for a Coloradan. Just outside Sioux City is Sergeant Floyd Monument, a 100-ft obelisk built in 1901 on a hill overlooking the river, where Lewis and Clark buried the only Corps member who died during their dangerous 28-month expedition—it is commonly thought by a burst appendix. This monument was the first-ever site in the United States designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Click for larger imageNebraska along the Missouri River appears to be mostly rolling. When you enter South Dakota, suddenly things get pretty flat. But the farmland remains gorgeous this year, and you can expect record national crops of corn, wheat, soybeans, and sunflower seeds. North of the town of Vermillion, SD is Spirit Mound, which local Indians told the Corps was populated with 18-inch-tall spirits that would kill any human approaching the hill. Of course, Lewis and Clark had to check it out, and from its peak they saw their first large herds of bison. You can climb the Mound, as it’s now part of a South Dakota “historic prairie.”

Click for larger imageReaching Yankton, SD, you arrive at Gavins Point Dam and its Lewis and Clark Lake, one of the six big dam and lake complexes built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to minimize annual spring flooding and to generate electricity. These long lakes are a pretty blue, and not silt-laden like the naturally-flowing segments of river, but way out here in the countryside their banks are pretty much left natural—very little human presence. They’re notorious for high winds and big waves, so you don’t want to get too far out there in a boat alone. Overlooking this dam is the excellent USACE Lewis and Clark Visitor Center, and nearby is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium that encourages visitors and lets you feed the fish. Right by the dam is also the big Lewis & Clark Marina and the pleasant Lewis & Clark Resort with motel units and cabins—but open only mid-April to mid-October. It’s best to check their website at

Northward at the intersection of I-90 and the Missouri River, and near Big Bend Dam, the town of Chamberlain, SD’s Lewis and Clark Information Center has a keelboat replica overlooking the river. Farther west is the state capital, Pierre, pronounced by locals PEER. The city was named after the original 1831 Fort Pierre across the river, a trading post built by and named for Pierre Cadet Chouteau, son of wealthy fur trader and presidentially-appointed Indian Agent Jean Pierre Chouteau, who hosted Lewis & Clark in St. Louis before their 1804 departure. Unlike normal American practice, Mr. Chouteau’s first name was used to name the fort and city. Aren’t you glad that our Nation’s Capital (just up the Potomac from Fort Washington, MD) isn’t named “George, D.C.?”Click for larger image It was here in the Pierre area that Lewis and Clark had a guns-drawn/arrows notched confrontation with three Teton/Brule Sioux chiefs and an estimated 200 warriors, ended satisfactorily only after Lewis & Clark refused to back down in the face of their demands that the whites were not allowed to go upriver unless they gave up one of their pirogues with all its cargo. Near the State Capitol in downtown is the excellent South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center, celebrating the state’s centennial in 1989. Driving north toward the big Oahe Dam and Lake, at the edge of Pierre you’ll pass a historical marker at the field where Charles Lindbergh landed The Spirit of St. Louis during his 1927 tour visiting all the state capitals—after rocks and cattle had been removed from the field. Later, the city bought this field and made it Pierre’s first airport. In his welcoming speech, Governor Bulow said that it was time for all cities to develop airports, and predicted that, someday, a man would fly to the moon and return to tell about it.

Click for larger imageNorth of Bismarck is the town of Washburn, ND, near which you find the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and the excellent modern replica of Fort Mandan, which the Corps built for their 1804-5 wintering-over near the five Mandan, Minitari/Hidatsa and Amahami Indian villages on both sides of the river, among which some 4,400 people lived. It is here that French-Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife Sacagawea (est. age 14-17) joined the Corps. In her Idaho Lemhi Shoshone language, the name is pronounced Sah-cah-ja-WE-ah. You often hear the harder North Dakota Mandan pronunciation Sa-KAH-ka-we-ah, and see the matching spelling for the 178-mile Lake Sakakawea above Garrison Dam. She helped the Corps in many ways, not least of which being that no Indian war party would take a woman and baby along, which helped Indians they met decide that the Corps’ intentions were peaceful. On April 7, 1805, Lewis and Clark sent the keelboat crewed by 11 men back downriver to St. Louis, with botanical and biological specimens for President Jefferson, then departed upriver with a total of 33 people in the two pirogues and six dugout canoes.

Click for larger imageJust west of Williston, ND, close to Montana—and right in the middle of today’s fracking oil rush in the Bakken Formation where wheat threshers mix with countless crude oil tanker trucks and Burlington Northern tank-car trains—the Fort Buford State Historic Site hosts the nice Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Center. In 1881, Sitting Bull surrendered at this cavalry and infantry fort. Two miles from Fort Buford is the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. Fort Union trading post was originally built in 1828 by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company—and was part of the Missouri River segment of that company later bought by Pierre Cadet Chouteau, mentioned above. A key crossroads in early western exploration, Fort Union was visited by mountain man Jim Bridger, artists George Catlin and John James Audubon, European naturalist Prince Maximilian, and Belgian Jesuit missionary Father Pierre De Smet.

Click for larger imageWrestling along two-lane country roads full of trucks loaded with crude oil or dirt, I got into Montana and onto I-94 for my last stop on this trip: Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, beside the Yellowstone River east of Billings, MT. Here you can see William Clark’s signature carved by him into the big stone, which he originally named “Pompy’s Tower” (Clark was an especially creative speller) in honor of Sacagawea’s now 17-month-old son, whom Clark later hosted and educated in St. Louis. Atop the tower, having raced up against ferocious mosquitoes (spray mandatory—and offered free in the visitor center), you can look down at a riverside campsite used by Custer’s 7th Cavalry battalion on their way to the Little Bighorn.

Click for larger imageThe drive home to Colorado Springs from Billings took most of a day. My entire trip beginning and ending in Colorado Springs amounted to 3,300 miles over eight days—covering only a fraction of what the Corps of Discovery did out and back over 28 months, and leaving much to look forward to seeing in the future. To prepare and get the most out of such a trip, I recommend reading three books in this order: (1) Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage because it’s a fun read, (2) the Journals of Lewis and Clark so that you know you’ve seen exactly what they wrote, and (3) Julie Fanselow’s Traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail, which was my key reference for what’s out there to see by car today. No need for a passport, language dictionary, or hundred-dollar park-hopper tickets. Made in America. Real stuff that matters. And fun.

The author, former speechwriter for five different four-star commanders of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command here in Colorado Springs, is a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy whose 30-year Air Force career included duties as military assistant/aide to the vice president, vice commander of a cruise missile wing, and commander of a 5,000-person combat support wing, with assignments in five foreign countries, HQ U.S. Air Force, Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense, White House, State Department, and United Nations Headquarters. Bill was appointed by Governor Owens to a two-year term as a member of the Colorado Emergency Planning Commission, and led a civilian consulting team working with New York State’s ten major agencies involved in disaster response six months after 9/11. He and his wife Sue enjoy exploring America. Contact him at

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