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1,000 miles in Lewis & Clark footsteps

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Some people enjoy reading history. Some enjoy it so much, though, that they choose to relive it.

Jim Swanson of Sioux City relived the journeys of Lewis and Clark, exactly 200 years to the day, as a member of the Corps of Discovery reenactment group that started first in Pittsburgh where Captain Meriwether Lewis picked up his 55-foot keelboat and floated downstream to the confluence of the Mississippi and the junction of three states - Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky. From there, the keelboat traveled north, as far as Fort Mandan at Bismarck, N.D.

Swanson, speaking to students in Storm Lake Friday, related how he had traveled a good part of the journey, 1,000 miles in fact. While it certainly wasn't as grueling or life-threatening as the original journey of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, it was still an adventure in its own right.

Swanson pegged the distance from Pittsburgh to Louisville, Ky., at 623 miles. Captain Meriwether Lewis made the same trip starting out with a keelboat and pirogue, a smaller vessel, on Aug. 31, 1803, at a time when there were no dams or locks on the Ohio as there are now. The water ran shallow and there were times Captain Lewis would have to hire a farmer to tow the keelboat out o the mud.

At Massac, Ill., the expedition stopped to pick up George Droulliard and another pirogue. While he successfully completed the expedition with Lewis and Clark, Droulliard was killed by the Blackfoot Indians on another foray into the mountains.

Just as they did in 1803-04, 200 years to the day later, some of the Corps of Discovery reenactment group "wintered over" at Wood River.

Like many historical reenactors, Swanson chose a real-life character, Pierre Dorian, to focus on in his presentations. Born in Canada in the mid-1750s, Dorian was well into his fifties when he met up with the Corps of Discovery June 12, 1804.

Dorian was a valuable member to bring on since he had lived with the Yankton Sioux for 20 years. Lewis and Clark asked Dorian to be their interpreter with the Yankton.

For Swanson, even though it was a recreation of the original trip, his time with the Corps of Discovery reenactors was the trip of a lifetime. He smiles as he recalls the reception the group received in Rochester, Pa., where they were treated to a hog roast with sweet corn and homemade pies. "The public that we met, they were tremendous," Swanson said.

In Wheeling, W.V., schools were even let out for the day to see the Corps of Discovery reenactors.

While historical reenactors are renowned for their attention to detail, one big difference was that the boats used on the 200th anniversary of the Corps of Discovery expedition had marine radios, fire extinguishers, and were motorized.

Another difference Swanson noticed from Lewis and Clark's time to now was how the Missouri has been channelized.

Since they were officially considered a military expedition, Swanson said the Army Corps of Engineers gave them a higher priority in traveling through locks.

Despite having traveled nearly 8,000 miles by water, Lewis and Clark lost only one member. Sergeant Charles Floyd died from what was to believed to have been a ruptured appendix. He was buried on a hill just south of a river named for him flowing northeast from the Missouri at Sioux City.

Lewis and Clark had various experiences with the different tribes. With the Teton Sioux in current day South Dakota, for example, "They found out they were not a tribe to be messed with at all." However, Captain Lewis stood firm and the Sioux backed down after trying to demand exorbitant payment for the party tried to move upriver.

Things were far better with the Mandan Indians with whom Lewis and Clark wintered over in 1804-05. The Indians the original Corps of Discovery met when they stayed for the winter at Fort Clatsop exactly 200 years ago were also far more friendly than the Sioux. However, the Chinook Indians seemed to be shady traders.

It was when Lewis and Clark reached the West Coast that a woman or Black man first voted in a Democratic effort in America. Sakagawea, their Shoshone guide, and Clark's servant York, voted with the rest of the group to remain at Fort Clatsop for the winter.

Swanson, who has done voluminous research on Lewis and Clark, said Lewis was described by one author as egotistical and self-centered. Lewis is believed to have committed suicide about four years after successfully completing the journey. Not all historians agree as to whether he did commit suicide.

One man who didn't get enough of the wilderness was John Colter. When Lewis and Clark met another party going upriver, Colter requested and received permission to go along. Colter signed on with the party and later became the first white man to see what is now Yellowstone National Park. He later told his good friend Daniel Boone about Yellowstone and the elderly Boone decided to walk there with Colter. Boone was in his seventies.

Just as Lewis and Clark started their return journey from the Pacific Ocean March 1806, Swanson plans on joining up with the return party again at some point when they turn downriver. While it most likely won't be in the Bitterroot Mountains straddling Idaho and Montana, the place where the original Corps of Discovery was lost both when they were headed for and returning from the West Coast, Swanson will likely pick a point where he can join the entourage as they return.

It appears as though his trip of a lifetime isn't over yet.



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