Missouri not only sits in the middle of the country physically, but it’s often in the center of the country’s history. You can’t study slavery without coming across the Missouri Compromise for example. Studying the Western Expansion Movement, many of the trails began in Missouri as did the Pony Express. But first the country had do be explored and that leads us to todays subjects—Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery.
After the Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis to lead a military expedition through the new territory. He selected William Clark as his co-leader (Clark exercised equal authority on the journey, but he did not officially hold the title of captain). The Corps’ goals were to look for a passage to the Pacific Ocean, establish trade with the natives, and gain a U.S. foothold in the Oregon territory. The journey began at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in May of 1804 and they returned to St. Louis in September of 1806. Along the way they only lost one man, and he apparently died from acute appendicitis.
In 1813, William Clark was made governor of the Missouri Territory. When he failed to win the election for governor of the newly formed state of Missouri in 1820 he shifted to a new post—Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He remained in St. Louis until his death in 1838.
There are plenty of historical markers along the Missouri River dedicated to Lewis & Clark and the Corps. Traveling upstream they set up 51 campsites within the present-day boundaries of the state (the downstream return trip only required 14). [SKIP THE REST OF THE PARAGRAPH IF YOU’RE SQUEAMISH ABOUT BODILY FUNCTIONS] The most accurate way to locate or verify a campsite is to test for traces of mercury. In the Corps medicine box was were 600 capsules of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s “Thunderbolts” to be dispensed at the first “sign of an approaching disease” which could mean anything from a headache to upset stomach from unfamiliar foods. The good doctor believed illness was the result of poor flow of bile in the body and these strong laxatives would help the men expel any excess bile. A concentration of mercury in the soil would pinpoint the site of the camp latrine.
Here are a few places for any Lewis & Clark fan to visit when the come to visit the Show Me State.
The Museum of Western Expansion in the Gateway Arch
The museum houses the largest display of Peace Medals, tokens of friendship given to chiefs and tribal leaders by the Corps. You can also view a movie—Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West in the underground theater. Below the Arch on the riverfront is a giant statue of Lewis, Clark and Seaman (the dog) called The Captains’ Return. As I write this in July of 2014, the statue has been removed for cleaning (it has spent a lot of time under water due to flooding) and it will be relocated higher on the bank. Also, the Museum is scheduled to be closed after Labor Day and not reopened until 2016 with new exhibits and a new entrance. All this has to do with refurbishment for the 50th anniversary of the Arch.
Technically this site is in Illinois, just across the Mississippi River at the confluence with the Missouri, but it’s such a wonderful little museum I have to share it. Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1803-4 here preparing for their trek. The rebuilt fort hosts a variety of reenactments and educational events and the visitor’s center is open Wednesday-Sunday. My son loved all the interactive exhibits (you can read about our visit by clicking here). The site is owned by the state and doesn’t charge admission, although they ask for donations (and deserve them).
Lewis & Clark Heritage Days in St. Charles, MO
The third Saturday of May, St. Charles honors the anniversary of the reuniting of Lewis and Clark (Lewis had stayed in St. Louis to finish some business while Clark to the boats and men upriver). The Corps attended church on May 20th and set out the afternoon of the 21st. The annual event includes fifes and drums, firing cannons of the period, a grand parade and a re-enactors’ camp. Often they launch the boats built for the 200th anniversary trip retracing the journey. If not, you may see the boats at the Lewis & Clark Boat Hose and Nature Center just a brief walk away. The entrance fee is $5/adults, $2/under 17.
This same group of re-enactors holds a second camp/educational experience in Hermann, Missouri in early December. Fridays are reserved for school groups (including homeschoolers!) and Saturday is open to the public. Daytime events are free, but you must buy a ticket to attend the banquet and ball in the evening. You can read about our 2011 visit by clicking here.
As I mentioned before, William Clark stayed in St. Louis until his death and he is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery. It may seem a strange place for a field trip, but the cemetery does offer free educational tours (I went there for a school field trip). The monument was erected in 1904 (the centennial of of start of the expedition). As long as you’re at the cemetery you can visit the final resting place of James Eads (who designed and built the first bridge across the Mississippi River). Or visit “Millionaires’ Row” to see the mausoleums of Adolphus Busch (founder of the Anheuser Busch brewery) and other prominent St. Louisans –one mausoleum was designed to withstand earthquakes (more on that when we get to the letter Q.
The site for the second fort to be built in the Louisiana Purchase Territory was spotted by William Clark on the outward bound leg of the Voyage of Discovery. He returned to the spot in 1808 to build the fort after a treaty of peace had been signed with the Osage Tribe. There is a reconstructed fort on the original site with staff and volunteers acting as living history interpreters. The Educational Center is open year round ($7/adults, $4/ages 5-13) but it’s even better if you can come on one of their big event days: Flag Day, Independence Day, or the Grand Festival of Chez les Canses. The latter takes place in September and has re-enactors showing how early French fur trappers traded with the natives.
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