Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

On the Trail of Lewis and Clark: The Missouri

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A river is a restless thing. The Missouri is constantly gnawing at its banks as it twists and turns along its route. You can see evidence of it in places like Cross Ranch State Park near Washburn, North Dakota. There large cottonwood trees lie in the water at the foot of ten-foot-high banks. More of these trees stand precariously on the edge of the bank, waiting for the current to undercut them too.

The river has changed significantly since 1804-6 when Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery traveled up the Missouri and back. As the river meanders along, it creates large bends that eventually double back on themselves and leave oxbow lakes along its valley. At the Lewis and Clark State Park near Onawa, Iowa, what was the river bed two hundred years ago is now a lake.

The town of Washburn, North Dakota, is not far from the site of the Mandan Indian villages where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-5. The prairie at the Knife River Historical Site still bears evidence of Mandan huts, which were made of wooden poles covered with sod. These huts were part of a Mandan village beside the Knife River and were visited two hundred years ago by Lewis and Clark and their men. But nearby, the bank of the Missouri on which the white explorers built their winter quarters has long since been undercut and fallen into the river.

Erosion along the river is a constant process. In his journal entry for September 21, 1804, Captain Clark reports how a falling bank of the Missouri almost swamped the boats in which the men were sleeping: “the motion of the boat awakened me; I got up & by the light of the moon observed that the Sand had given away both above and below our camp & was falling in fast. . . we had pushed off [only] a few minits before the bank under which the Boat [keelboat] & perogues lay give way.”

Of course, not all the changes in the river are natural. At Great Falls, Montana, the waterfall that Captain Lewis described in such glowing terms no longer offers a spectacular view, thanks to a dam built just upstream from the rocky drop in the river bed. And at Fort Peck, Montana, the world’s largest earthen dam was built in the 1930’s; it now holds back the waters of the Missouri for more than a hundred miles.

But the most remarkable story of the Missouri’s naturally restless ways involves the river steamboat Arabia which sank in the river in the year 1856. It was headed upstream, loaded with all sorts of merchandise for frontier people who lived in Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Montana. The water was not very deep, but salvage of valuables from her cargo was too difficult and expensive to attempt at the time. Gradually sand came to replace the water and the steamboat was forgotten–until the 1990’s when some enterprising men began to look for the wreck.

Using old maps, they found the Arabia about twenty feet under a cornfield beside the river. And the things they have recovered from her are various and numerous–and in pristine condition. I was in Hannibal, Missouri, a few years ago and visited a museum there which was displaying a portion of the recovered cargo. Those objects are thought to constitute the best collection of pre-Civil War artifacts ever found in one place. Among the items are shoes, glassware, household goods, tools and implements of all sorts, and–amazingly–a barrel full of Wedgewood china with not one broken piece in the set.

Yes, the Missouri has changed in many ways. Still, there are places that must be very much as Lewis and Clark saw them. One of these places is Three Forks, Montana. There at the headwaters the Missouri is created by the joining of the three small rivers which supply cold water from the Rocky Mountains: the Jefferson, the Madison, and the Gallatin. Lewis and Clark named these rivers for the President and two members of his cabinet.

At the junction, a tourist can see where the Corps of Discovery camped while trying to decide which river to follow. Also, one can see a ridge where Captain Lewis climbed to survey the surrounding country. I camped one night a few years ago near the junction, and the next morning I walked along the Madison which in that place is not much deeper than the South Toe (a little river in western North Carolina). But the section of the Missouri which must be most like the river that Lewis and Clark knew begins at Fort Benton, Montana. Downstream from the town, a hundred and fifty miles of the Missouri has been preserved as a wild and scenic river.









My bride and I paddled a canoe for six miles on the Missouri at Fort Benton. Our outfitter offered to take a picture of us after we took the canoe out into the current. That went well enough. Next, we had to paddle back close enough to shore to get our camera from him. It involved paddling against the current. In that effort I gained new respect for Lewis and Clark and their party who had paddled upstream more than a thousand miles to reach the headwaters of that mighty river.


Written by polemicscat

August 16, 2008 at 9:39 am

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