Lewis & Clark & Clark & Clark

The very last Lewis & Clark story this paper will publish this year.

By the time the Corps of Discovery reached St. Charles in the fall of 1806, its members were more concerned with pressing on to St. Louis than with socializing with the settlement's elders. Who could blame them? Led by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the corps had journeyed more than 7,000 miles through the Louisiana Territory, over the Bitterroot Mountains, through the then-unknown Oregon Territory to the Pacific Ocean — and back — over a 28-month period.

The corps knew it was returning to a hero's welcome in St. Louis, and in their excitement the men often clocked a beastly 60 river miles per day. It's a magnificent distance, made all the more remarkable when seen against the many unthinkable hardships the crew endured. Captain Lewis had been shot in the rear during a hunting accident only one month earlier. The crew had encountered hostile Indian tribes, eaten dogs and slaughtered horses to avoid starvation. They'd spent an entire winter with nothing to drink but water and were often plagued by clouds of mosquitoes. When St. Charles finally hove into sight on September 21, 1806, many of the men suffered from eye infections, not to mention the venereal diseases they'd picked up on the trail.

Many could no longer paddle their canoes, which had obliged the expedition to abandon two boats the day before. That same day, Captains Lewis and Clark were so desperate for a drink that they paid an exorbitant $8 for two gallons of whiskey.

Malcolm Gay
Malcolm Gay

Nonetheless, Corps members must have felt a swelling of pride as they paddled into St. Charles. The entire village came out to greet them, and Clark marveled that the residents were "much delighted at our return and seem to vie with each other in their politeness to us all."

On a cloudy day 200 years later, a similar crowd of well-wishers gathered on the very same Missouri River bank to meet the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, a Lewis & Clark re-enactment group. Just like the original Corps of Discovery, members of the Discovery Expedition were clad in a motley assortment of buckskin outfits, moccasins, fur hats, period uniforms and blue felt caps. The re-enactors touched land in St. Charles at 4 p.m. on the dot, just like their predecessors. Just like the original corps, the re-enactors paddled up in dugout canoes and a larger pirogue. And just like Lewis & Clark's original expedition, the re-enactors heralded their homecoming by firing the small canon at the helm of the pirogue.

Unlike the original expedition, whose average age was in the midtwenties (Lewis himself was 32, Clark, 36 years old), the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles is culled largely from the ranks of the semi- and fully retired. Whereas the original expedition paddled the entire length of the Missouri River, the re-enactors traveled much of the trail in automotive convoys. And while the original Lewis & Clark expedition was forced to hunt for their breakfast, lunch and dinner before sleeping in hastily set-up camps, the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles often dined out on the municipal tab of the towns along their route, before bedding down for a good night's rest in one of the many RVs that accompanied the voyage. Finally, unlike the original crew, whose boatmen "plyed thear ores with great dexterity" to reach St. Charles, the re-enactors' motorized pirogue got hung up on a sandbar and had to be pulled ashore.

But though members of the original Lewis & Clark expedition knew they were heading for a triumphant return, they also must have felt a pang of remorse. After all, they had failed in their primary mission. Namely, they were unable to find the legendary Northwest Passage, an interior waterway that linked the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. They had, however, discovered plenty along the way.

The corps had come face to face with grizzly bears, bison and pronghorn antelope. It had collected several species of unknown animals and even managed to send a few living examples back to President Thomas Jefferson. They'd discovered more than 130 previously unknown bird species, more than 175 plant species, and befriended several Indians of various tribes, including the now-mythic Shoshone girl, Sacagawea.

Perhaps most important, the young explorers returned home with the first maps of the obscure Louisiana and Oregon Territories. The Corps of Discovery was the first American detachment to travel deep into the unknown west. It was now returning with strange and fabulous tales of the bounteous country that would become the United States.

Two hundred years later, the Discovery Expedition had a less elaborate message when it finally straggled ashore in St. Charles:

"Hip, hip, huzzah! Hip, hip, huzzah! Hip, hip, huzzah!"

To reach the town of Lupus, Missouri, follow I-70 west past Rocheport and over the Missouri River until you reach Highway 179. Take 179 south about ten miles, until you reach a dirt track called East Splice Creek Road. Then hang a left. As you head east back toward the river, the road dips and the Missouri River Valley unfolds as a series of gently sloping horse farms carved from the verdant pasture. Rambling clapboard homes surrounded by barns and outbuildings sit at a distant remove from the road. Sows loll under mammoth oaks, and although slumping split-rail fences divide parts of the road from farmland, such barriers are rare. The valley is cooler than the surrounding area, and as dusk sets in, possums, raccoons and deer tentatively emerge from the foliage.

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