Bicentennial events to recognize Pittsburgh’s role in Lewis and Clark expedition
History, civic and education organizations have begun exploring Pittsburgh’s role in what has been called the “American odyssey” of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Events looking at the bicentennial of this trip will include the display of a 55-foot-long keelboat that will retrace a major part of the journey, and a computer-generated virtual tour of the head of the Ohio River in 1803.
“I can see that some of this information is big but unknown,” says Nancy Cain McCombe, family programming manager for the the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in the Strip District. “I’d like this to be as big as it can be.”
For drama, there’s even a bit of dispute. David Halaas, director of the museum division at the history center, says historical research indicates Meriwether Lewis launched his keelboat from Pittsburgh.
Ron Morgenstern, executive director of the Elizabeth Township Historical Society, insists the boat was built and began its trip in the Monongahela River borough about 20 miles upstream of Pittsburgh. He knows Lewis’ journal supports Pittsburgh as the place of construction, but maintains oral history and a newspaper story from the early 1800s backs Elizabeth.
“We don’t want to argue,” he says. “They’re going by the books. But we’re sticking to our guns.”
Gary E. Moulton, the Thomas C. Sorensen professor of American history at the University of Nebraska, is an expert on the Lewis and Clark journey.
Halaas asked him about the issue, and Moulton said he knows of no evidence that points to Elizabeth as the place the keelboat was built.
Peter Geery says the issue represents something else. He is ground commander for the present Corps of Discovery, a Missouri group that is going to mimic the Lewis and Clark keelboat trip. He says the debate is purely a “semantical problem.”
“This is an American odyssey, and everybody has a part in it,” he says.
Although dates and details have yet to be finalized, the commemoration of the beginning of the exploration will create a busy western Pennsylvania. It joins similar events from Monticello, Va., to Fort Clatsop, Ore. Already in the planning and development process:
“We’re trying to put all the pieces together as we talk to people in other cities,” says Tinsy Lipchak, executive director of cultural tourism. “We’re a pretty good conduit from a tourism perspective, but it’s pretty much stuff you wouldn’t see around here.”
The beginning of Lewis’ journey with William Clark and their command of soldier-explorers began to draw renewed attention when Stephen E. Ambrose wrote his book “Undaunted Courage” in 1996.
That interest has begun to soar from Virginia to Oregon as the bicentennial approaches.
“We want to tell the big story that also has a great local story,” says Andrew E. Masich, from the Heinz history center and president and CEO of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. “And there is a story to tell. This is where it started.”
Mapping the course
As historians, Masich and Halaas knew the Lewis and Clark expedition started in Pittsburgh and had strong, but generally overlooked, ties to the eastern United States.
Not everyone does, however.
For Patrick Hughes, a command historian from the Army’s 99th Regional Support Command who has a doctorate in history, it was something new.
“You know what?” he says with a little embarrassment in his voice. “No, I didn’t know. Most people don’t know it was a military expedition, either, that Lewis and Clark were leading soldiers.”
When Susie Kline heard of the Corps of Engineers Eastern Legacy project in 1999, she thought, “Oh, well, this isn’t going to involve a lot of time.” But, she says, “I didn’t know of Pittsburgh’s role.”
Masich looked at the story a little more than a year ago and saw it as the basis for a good program at the history center. The program would use the presence of the keelboat to be the focus of maps, theater programs and re-enactors. A display would be centered on historical artifacts.
Masich points out that the trip was far more than simply an exploration across the continent.
“When you think about the versatility of these men, it becomes amazing,” Masich says. “Not only did they know their men and what it took to survive, but they made scientific observations, developed maps, learned about ways of doctoring people.”
“Everybody interested in going west comes back to Lewis and Clark,” Halaas says. “But the thing to remember is that they did not go into a wilderness, but a land that was settled by hundreds of tribes. It was new land to people of European descent, but not to the Indians.”
The Lewis and Clark expedition was not only a geographical task, but one that involved science, botany and zoology. It also was an effort of the fledgling United States to establish some sort of military and political presence.
The trek began shortly after President Jefferson put together the Louisiana Purchase, which extended the nation to the Continental Divide. The president was a man seeking a North American empire. He wanted Lewis (1774-1809) to explore that area and to find the Northwest Passage, a non-existent gateway that was thought to be an easy-to-navigate river route to the West Coast. Ultimately, Jefferson wanted to establish the United States as the most important power broker in an area constantly visited by French, Spanish and English explorers and soldiers.
Lewis chose as his partner William Clark (1770-1838), whom he had met in the Army in 1795.
The trip began Aug. 31, 1803, and was a journey in which the group that called itself the Corps of Discovery encountered a new part of the New World. Not only did they encounter people unknown to those back East, but they came into contact with unusual animals such as prairie dogs and grizzly bears and found plants such as the Sitka spruce.
Only one of the 33 members of the corps died — of appendicitis — and the expedition generally made great inroads in dealings with American Indians. Two members of the Blackfoot tribe were killed in an encounter on the way home in 1806, but, overall, Masich points out, Lewis and Clark were able to act as emissaries and traders.
Masich says their “sophisticated social skills” that allowed this social interaction are sometimes overlooked.
He says the scope of the journey and its achievements are overdue for close re-examination.
“Lewis and Clark had their Corps of Discovery,” he says. “Maybe we can call this the Corps of Rediscovery.”
Paths of a journey
The Lewis and Clark expedition is treading down many routes.
Some are historical, some scientific. Some involve film, animation and arts of the 21st century, while others are rooted in the year 1803.
Peter Geery from the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles is leading his Missouri group’s efforts at recreating the Lewis-captained keelboat trip from Elizabeth to Wood River, Ill. The 1,200-mile, 3 1/2-month trip will be done as close to the original trip as possible and will include stops in many towns, including Rochester, Beaver County.
He is building upon the efforts of the late Glennon Bishop, who was fascinated with the expedition and started building a replica of the keelboat in his St. Charles, Mo., front yard. That boat burned in a boatyard fire in 1997, but Bishop was undaunted and led the construction of a replacement.
The keelboat was launched last year and is ready for its big cruise, Geery says. He is trying to assemble enough people to have a full Corps of Discovery even when modern-day jobs get in the way. (Information about the trip or participation is at www.lewisandclark.net.)
Besides stirring the dispute about the birth site of the keelboat, the trip also is sparking plans for events in river towns.
Elizabeth’s Morgenstern says the historical society there has invited 116 high school bands to its parade, and is planning on an American Indian encampment, craft exhibits and an information display from the Corps of Engineers.
Funding isn’t in place yet, he points out, but he would like to hold this event around Aug. 25 next year, when he contends the keelboat left Elizabeth, shortly before its Aug. 31 departure from Pittsburgh.
Similarly, Sam Kovolenko, chairman of the Beaver County Lewis and Clark Eastern Legacy Project, says there will be a Labor Day weekend festival in Rochester.
The boat will be making a stop there as it did in 1803, and Kovolenko plans to meet it with re-enactors, education programs and an Army band.
“We’re looking for a way to promote the country and focus on our history,” he says.
While they are involved, the city of Pittsburgh is not at this point, says Craig Kwiecinski, a spokesman for Mayor Tom Murphy. Yet many other groups in this area are. In many ways.
Hans Westman, department director for media arts and animation at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, is taking a high-tech approach in working on a virtual-reality experience of the beginning of the trip. “We are creating a visual experience so that people can move down the river and see the town and the river as it looked then,” he says.
Putting this together involves building models of buildings to create three-dimensional images, photography and multimedia projections. “This is a community-oriented project that allows us to deal with new areas in arts and animation as well as dealing with something realistic,” Westman says.
There’s something appropriate about doing this work in a Lewis and Clark project, he says. The explorers who found new territory now are “helping the students explore virtual technology.”
Meanwhile, student Norman Huelsman from the North Side and his graphic design instructor, Steve Butler, have produced a logo that will serve as an identifying image for regional events.
“I was really excited to work on it,” says Huelsman, who has about a year to go at the school. “It’s a real thing instead of just doing a classroom project.”
Butler, who teaches a class in corporate identity, says he is pleased with Huelsman’s results and believes the logo conveys an appropriate image. He is particularly satisfied with the portrayal of an image of the Three Rivers, which identifies the area but does not overwhelm the logo.
He adds, however, that he “had to really brush up on my history,” because he wasn’t too familiar with the eastern connection to the famous journey.
The expedition also is feeding the center for science teachers in its efforts to put together programs that promote science education by integrating other areas of study.
Executive director Jane Konrad says history can be blended with a wide variety of areas in this case, including geography, river studies, geology and the examination of wildlife and plants.
Last summer, 17 teachers from schools all over the county participated in setting up teaching modules to do this, she says, adding she expected eight or nine more to join them in the fall.
“We’re always looking for programs that have some length,” she says. “This one lasts for years.”
The Lewis and Clark initiative also is setting a new course for the river-studying Voyager. The North Side-based boat generally takes students on science-oriented trips. Now, however, planners are broadening its outlook to add history and its participants to include adults from a Squirrel Hill elderhostel. Those programs are set for next summer, just before the keelboat begins its trip.
“We’re known mostly for our environmental program, but now we’re going in a different direction on the rivers,” says Trish Radford, Voyager outreach education manager.
Pittsburgh long has been known as Gateway to the West, and that role is emerging steadily as the Lewis and Clark trip is being observed.
“This city played a critical role in what is perhaps the most important expedition in the history of the United States,” Konrad says.
|Lewis and Clark: Timeline|
A look at a 28-month, 8,000 mile expedition across North America.
July 5, 1803 : Meriwether Lewis leaves Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello, Va., bound for Pittsburgh and the beginning of his expedition with William Clark.
July 15 : Lewis arrives in Pittsburgh.
Aug. 31 : He and 11 members of the Corps of Discovery begin their trip down the Ohio River, going three miles to what he called “Bruno’s” Island the first day.
Oct. 14 : At the falls of the Ohio near Louisville, Lewis is joined by Clark, who was staying at the home of his Revolutionary War hero brother, George Rogers Clark.
Nov. 13 : The Corps of Discovery reaches the Mississippi River.
Dec. 8 : It begins its winter encampment near St. Louis, part of the area acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.
May 16, 1804 : After a spring of difficulties and logistical problems, the Corps of Discovery pulls into St. Charles on the Missouri River. The members begin their ascent from there May 22.
June 26 : They complete a trek of about 400 miles and arrive at the mouth of the Kansas River.
Aug. 27 : The explorers approach what is now Yankton, S.D.
Oct. 20 : Near present-day Bismarck, N.D., the crew encounters a grizzly bear for the first time.
Dec. 21 : They begin winter encampment at their Fort Mandan site in what is now North Dakota.
April 7, 1805 : The keelboat is sent back to St. Louis, and the crew begins to continue in the pirogues and canoes.
April 15 : They pass the farthest part of the Missouri River believed known to white men.
April 25-26 : Explorers reach the Yellowstone River and enter the area that is now the national park.
June 3 : Lewis and Clark make a crucial and correct decision to follow a fork on the Missouri in what is now Montana. Following the other stream could have led them away from the Rocky Mountains and the Columbia River.
June 22 : The group begins a 16-mile portage at the Great Falls of the Missouri.
Aug. 13 : The group has a peaceful first encounter with Shoshone warriors near the Continental Divide.
Oct. 16 : Advance party reaches the mouth of the Columbia River.
Nov. 7 : Clark sees the Pacific Ocean for the first time and writes “Ocian (sic) in view! O! The joy.”
Nov. 18 : At Cape Disappointment in what is now Washington, Clark carves on a tree: “By Land from, the U. States in 1804 & 1805.”
Dec. 8 : The explorers begin a winter stay at what they called Fort Clatsop in what is now Oregon.
March 23, 1806 : After a winter of exploring the Pacific Northwest, the expedition begins its return to St. Louis — what it knew as civilization.
Sept. 23 : The company returns to St. Louis.
Source: “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson ,and the Opening of the American West” by Stephen E. Ambrose.