Way out west, looking for Lewis and Clark

What better day to reach the heartland of America than 4th July? After my transatlantic crossing, I took a short hop from Chicago to St Louis, Missouri, taking off shortly after dusk at 9pm and landing at 9.40. The towns and cities, glittering in the darkness were given added life with an impressive number of fireworks going off, from down town to every suburb.

From the air the fireworks were small, silent and very much part of the city’s lights. As we came in to land, they appeared larger and higher, finally reaching up into the night sky. As we came over St Louis, there below was the dark strip of the Mississippi river and, coming into focus, the arch, gateway to the west, blooming and flourishing with colour and light.

I am here in Missouri looking for Lewis and Clark  – or, more precisely, looking at objects and manuscripts relating to Merriweather Lewis, William Clark and their 1804-06 expedition from St Louis, down the Missouri river and to the Pacific coast. Their aim was to see if a navigable river route could be found that connected the east and west coasts of the continent, providing access to the lucrative fur trade of the north Pacific. The expedition was also about staking a claim to and exploring lands that, with the Louisiana Purchase, were now part of the United States.

The expedition was created by Thomas Jefferson who, a fellow of the American Philosophical Society and inspired by the legacy of Cook’s voyages, ensured that this expedition was, as far as possible, also one of scientific exploration. Lewis, his personal secretary, was prepared with personal tuition from acknowledged experts, that included training in astronomical observation for ascertaining latitudes and longitudes, local time and magnetic variation. Clark, an army friend of Lewis’s, carried out the bulk of cartographic work through dead-reckoning. Records of weather, geography, flora, fauna, local people and their manufactures were also duly recorded, collected and sent home.

While largely unfamiliar to British audiences, Lewis and Clark are what every schoolchild knows in Missouri and beyond. Trails, exhibits and place names recall their expedition and longer presence in the region (both were to play roles in the further development, or exploitation, of the lands they had explored). There are also some wonderful artefacts and manuscripts relating to the expedition, many of which you can explore in this online version of the 2004 bicentenary exhibition.

This started life at the Missouri History Museum, where I was this afternoon, seeing material that had belonged to the Clark family. Yesterday I was Columbia, Missouri, at the State Historical Society of Missouri, where a great manuscript has survived – a notebook of step-by-step, how-to instructions for astronomical navigation, prepared for Lewis by the University of Pennsylvania’s professor of mathematics, Robert Patterson. Many thanks to all the curators, archivists and librarians in both institutions, who were extremely helpful and welcoming to a slightly disorientated and very hot traveller.

Travelling in Missouri, for those without a car, seems hardly easier than it was for Lewis and Clark. Despite Columbia MO being a university town, there is no train station and – as I discovered this morning – getting a seat on the twice-daily Greyhound buses to St Louis is something of a lottery. This led to a great deal of waiting around, a certain amount of discomfort and some hefty taxi fares.

On the plus side, I did enjoy my initial foray from St Louis by Amtrak, and couldn’t resist taking a picture showing a view that you just don’t get travelling on British trains (I swear there’s a stagecoach chasing in the distance…)

The line runs alongside the Missouri river, and it was nice to think that I was following the direction of Lewis and Clark, just briefly.

Apologies that this is a little fuzzy, but it was taken through the train window, and hastily as a gap in the trees appeared. I also can’t resist adding this one, with a genuine UFO captured:

(Actually, later identified as one of a number of spheres placed on the power cables strung across the river…… I think.)

Amtrak got me as far as Jefferson City – which was somewhat less metropolitan than the name had led me to expect. The train station was staffed entirely by volunteers. Nevertheless, it is home to the State Capitol, an impressively large building with some interesting decorations. Those on the interior I didn’t have time to see (though more, perhaps, anon), but I caught a glimpse of those on the outside, as a taxi whisked me past, which included a bronze group celebrating the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

And yes, whatever inaccuracies here, there was a dog, a sextant, a female native American interpreter – and her newborn baby. Sacagawea, local guides and those who drew or described maps for Clark were as essential to their enterprise as the scientific instruments they took with them. It led to the first published map of the interior of the American west, recording local names, adding not a few ‘Lewis’ and ‘Clark’ rivers and hills, and removing all trace of the villages and significant sites described by the locals.

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