Sunday, August 2, 2015

Up River with Lewis & Clark

Having lived within the Missouri River watershed for much of my life (along the Colorado Front Range and in Columbia, Missouri), I decided it was time to read The Journals of Lewis and Clark.  Not interested in wading through the official volumes, I chose the version edited by Bernard DeVoto, first published in 1953.

After picking up a copy from the library, I managed to read Clark's account of their first four months yesterday afternoon.  The expedition left St. Louis on May 14, 1804; it would take them six weeks to cross Missouri, battered by thunderstorms and challenged by rapids but blessed with a plentiful supply of venison from the rich forests that bordered the river.  Commenting on the strong inflow from the Platte River, they heard their first wolves (perhaps coyotes) that evening; over the following weeks they discovered badgers, caught huge catfish in the Missouri and were overwhelmed by the large herds of elk and bison on prairies near the Nebraska-Iowa Border.  They suffered their one and only crew member loss at present-day Sioux City, Iowa; Sargent Floyd succumbed to a probable ruptured appendix.  The crew marveled at Spirit Mound, near Vermillion, South Dakota, where they also encountered their first pronghorns and "barking squirrels" (prairie dogs).

Personally familiar with the terrain of their journey, it's fascinating to read an account of the Missouri Valley from the early 1800s, when technology was limited, wildlife was abundant and Native Americans still ruled the territory.  More on their historic journey in future posts.

With the exception of St. Louis, reference to States and modern cities in these accounts is to place events in current geographic context; of course, at the time of the expedition, they had not yet been established.