Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center

Well developed National Park Center; Explains all about the Lewis and Clark (government funded) Expedition, May 14, 1804 – Sept. 23, 1806, their ‘scientific discoveries’ along the way, and some of the issues they came up against. This location along the Missouri River, in what is now Great Falls Montana, marks the first major hiccup in the expedition — the falls themselves.

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For those who don’t REALLY know their US history, let me set the context: An issue I didn’t see discussed in much detail at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center (eeeie what a mouthful!), nor anywhere really (and that includes high school US history books), but one that’s highly relevant to understanding the Lewis and Clark Expedition has to do with the boundaries of the Louisiana purchase… because the fact is they were more than a bit vague. Everyone now a days assumes that Jefferson of course knew what he was buying, but the truth is far from it. Neither the French, nor the Spanish had ever carefully mapped what the thing was when passing it back and forth between them, and other than it’s eastern boundary being marked by the Mississippi River (whose northern end was as yet uncertain) but included various French settlements along it, and in the South by the Gulf of Mexico, it’s northern and western borders were kind of a murky topic — so that when the U.S. bought it, they had agreed to a contract of sale that had very vague language in it.

For the purposes of Lewis and Clark, one of the western/northern boundaries included in the contract was the entirety of the Missouri River — whose limits were UNDETERMINED!!! The further west and/or north they could mark it, the greater the size of what President Jefferson had purchased. Jefferson in fact went one step further (taking advantage of the contract’s vague language) by claiming that because of how the language in the contract was written, the western boundaries would include any and all rivers that drained into the Mississippi (so not just the Missouri, but also any of the waters that drained into it). As such, Lewis and Clark’s expedition also had to try to mark, by Jefferson’s interpretation of the language, just how far north and west that boundary lay.

In other words, BEFORE President Thomas Jefferson had even completed the purchase of the Louisiana territories from France in 1803, he had already begun the process of commissioning multiple explorations to map and explore the contents and boundaries of those unknown and newly acquired lands — as delineated by his definition, which was not likely to be accepted by our geographical neighbors. Lewis and Clark’s northern expedition, which extended beyond the purchase, to investigate what is now the ‘American’ west (territory that, at that time, hadn’t been claimed by anyone — think Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Wyoming), was therefore only one of many groups of explorers that Jefferson had sent out, albeit the must famous of them. In large part, he was hoping that they would find the long fabled (they’d been hoping to find one since Columbus) ‘western passage’– a practical, and easily negotiable route (preferably a waterway) across to the Pacific Ocean; but more importantly, he wanted to send settlers so that America could establish a presence in those unclaimed territories before the other European Colonial powers managed it. And of course, since they were going to be out there anyway, they were to document the resources that came along with those lands, new plants, animals, geography, and if possible open up trade with various tribal groups they met along the way.

As you can see from the above map, the total territory of the purchase, as ultimately marked out by the various explorers, including Lewis and Clark, using Jefferson’s interpretation actually crossed beyond the current 49th parallel borders over into the 50th parallel, or what is now Canada.

The attempt to get that little bit extra is what led to an historical incident between Lewis’s group and the “Blackfeet” tribe’s warriors, which for whites is only an interesting footnote in history, but for the Native Americans has continued to be a very sore point of contention to this day. As is often noted, history is written by the victors, and as such, the story, as told at the center, goes this way:

On the return trip (after having already crossed the Rocky Mountains and followed the Colorado River to it’s mouth) Captain Lewis’ group following the Marias River as far north as they could in an attempt to cross the 50th parallel. The farthest point north they got to was named “Camp Disappointment” because it didn’t go as far north as they had hoped. Retuning from their ‘disappointment’, they met a group of eight young Pikuni Blackfeet” warriors, who they had a friendly dinner with, but the next morning a fight broke out and two of the natives Americans were killed (shot in the back) in the only violent encounter with any native Americans during the whole trip.

However, as I learned later, the Blackfeet tribal members are STILL pissed off about this incident and blame it completely on the “invaders;” They in fact tell a different story of what happened, and the difference has let continuing ill will on the part of the Blackfeet tribe towards the American people. Additionally, the whole thing was for naught because the British, never accepted Jefferson’s headwaters interpretation of the contract and it remained a point of contention with the US government until the signing of the Treaty of 1818 (which actually has three more names, depending on whom you ask), by President James Monroe, at which time the agreed upon boundary was set to the 49th parallel, where it has remained ever since.

 

Returning to the attraction itself, apparently following the Lewis and Clark trail is a great favorite with the RV crowd, as I learned at this center, so the National Trails System has invested a lot of money into making the trip worthwhile for them. I also learned that this is not the only federally designated “drive,” but that there are in fact 30 different historic and Scenic ones (and no, I’m not including hikes in that number); Of those ‘drives,’ (other than this one) I’d only so-far spotted two.

The Trail of Tears, which is a bit amorphous due to it’s very nature; it wasn’t one trail; so, instead of a clearly marked path you get a load of signs located on pretty much every government road that existed at that time between the Cherokee territories and what is now Oklahoma, as well as a few waterways. As a result, I had spotted signs for it all over Georgia and Tennessee.

The Appalacian Trail, this one is sort of famous, with folks traveling from all over the world to either drive, or more often to hike it.

In the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center you will find the obligatory gift shop, an auditorium that hosts lectures, and shows two movies (one about the portage of the boats past the five waterfalls that give the town it’s name, and the other movie was especially made by Ken Burns for the center, and covers the whole history of the expedition). There was an elderly docent, who was a pretty funny guy, who also gave a not G rated speech about the expedition, that he said he’ll only do it when there are no kids in the auditorium (or they are with their parents). Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to stay for that because sidewalks roll up in this town at 5pm and I had other things I wanted to see before then. 

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Just about a mile or so west of the center are the first set of falls.  According to the national park staff person, when they built the dam they intentionally put it a bit back, behind the waterfalls so as to not destroy the “pretty” — there are in fact five of these along the Missouri River near Great Falls, MT (hence the name). These are what Lewis and Clark came up against in their attempt to find the source of the Missouri (which they believed would lead them to the non-existent ‘western passage to the Pacific Ocean’ that they were looking for). It forced them to pull their boats out of the river and move them over land till they got past the falls (uphill) …. only to discover the source of the river was the rocky mountains, and that they could pick up the Columbia once they got past there, but that there was no easy passage — as hoped.

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After you leave the Interpretive Center you should also check out the natural spring just down the road (east) from it (see 2nd map)

It is a natural spring that Lewis and Clark found, and they were able to use the clean water from it to help Sacajawea get over a very bad illness that they were afraid it was going to kill her before they had reached her tribe (they needed her as a translator).

Located directly adjacent to the Missouri River, the water that flows from the spring  (if you look into it you’ll see the water bubbling up), flows to the Missouri River — making it it’s own river, which has been “named” by the Guinness World book of Records as being the shortest river in the world (but there are a few other ones in Europe 1/2 as long that would argue that).

My national park pass came into use again, also I leaned that if you gave a disability (and proof of it) for $10 you can get a lifetime parks pass, had not heard about that before.

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