Two hundred ten years ago tomorrow, May 14, at 4 p.m. three boats loaded with enough supplies to fill three modern semi trailers and about forty-eight men, crossed the Mississippi River into the mouth of the Missouri River beginning a historic expedition. In honor of Lewis and Clark, I’m repeating a past post. Enjoy! You can read all about my experiences working on the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition in my book A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History.
Most fans of explorers Lewis and Clark expect to find traces of them in St. Louis, the start and end of their 1804-06 expedition. The reality is that only a few sites in St. Louis evoke the explorers. Lewis spent much time in St. Louis in the winter of 1803, while Clark drilled the members of the expedition across the Mississippi River in Illinois at Camp DuBois. A replica of the fort stands today near the actual site, across from the mouth of the Missouri River. St. Louis was French territory that winter. In northern St. Louis, Clark’s grave sits on a hill in Bellefontaine Cemetery, overlooking the Mississippi River in the distance. At river’s edge in the shadow of the Arch stands a statue called Captains Return depicting the triumphant return of the expedition. [I just learned tonight that the statue has been moved so it won’t be subject to the Mississippi floods. Good idea!] In my opinion the best place in the St. Louis area associated with the explorers is St. Charles, a town on the Missouri River about thirty minutes west of St. Louis. With it’s tree-shaded brick streets and stone and brick buildings with real wood shutters, it feels historic. St. Charles was the first permanent settlement on the Missouri River. The French founders called it Les Petites Cotes (little hills). A sign in the town says it was first settled in 1769 (before the American Revolution) and officially founded in 1780 (a year before Yorktown). It’s historic district running nine or so blocks along the river is filled with restaurants and shops of all kinds – antiques, collectibles, crafts, goods from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (couldn’t find goods from France!) and tsochkes of all kinds. It oozes charm and character. When I lived in St. Louis and was missing access to the eighteenth century places I loved in the East, I decided that St. Charles was probably the closest thing to a Williamsburg I could find west of the Mississippi. William Clark arrived in town with his expedition on May 16, 1804. They stayed a few days awaiting Meriwether Lewis’s arrival from St. Louis. The journals record that “a number [of] spectators French and Indians flocked to the bank to see the party. This village is about one mile in length, situated on the north side of the Missouri at the foot of a hill from which it takes its name… This village contains about 100 houses… and about 450 inhabitants chiefly French, those people appear poor, polite, and harmonious.” During the brief stay, the town made them feel at home with dances and dinners. It was the last bit of “civilization” they would see until their return in September 1806. Several of the men were disciplined for being absent without leave and insubordination. Today the town is proud of its Lewis and Clark connection. A huge boathouse on the bank of the Missouri holds the replica boats used by the area’s Lewis and Clark re-enactment group. A small museum explains the expedition. A large statue of the two explorers with dog Seaman sits in a spacious park along the river. The dirty river is wide at this point and rolls along at a decent pace, carrying debris collected on the journey from its source in distant western Montana. I like when history sites don’t require me to tax my imagination, when they offer enough genuine evidence from a time period to help the mind paint a picture of what could have been. St. Louis lost a lot of its historic core when the Arch was built. St. Charles managed to keep its historic buildings. It cares for preservation and those that seek Lewis and Clark will be rewarded in St. Charles. Have you been to St. Charles? What did you think?