ON THE TRAIL OF LEWIS AND CLARK
Computerized global positioning systems and calculators were unheard of when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made their historic overland expedition to the Northwest two centuries ago.
Still, the explorers handled numbers as skillfully as they did flintlocks.
When the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark estimated they had traveled 4,162 miles from the mouth of the Missouri River. Their guess was within 40 miles of the actual distance, according to the Yankton (South Dakota) Daily Press.
Ready for another noteworthy Lewis and Clark statistic?
Over the past five to eight years the number of museums, interpretive centers and other sites focusing on the Lewis and Clark expedition has doubled. Most have been created to celebrate the bicentennial of the expedition, which started in May 1804 and concluded in September 1806 in St. Louis.
The Lewis and Clark museums do more than share timeless historic information. They also reveal the perspectives of those running them and reflect the changing values and perspectives of society. This is one finding of Eastern Oregon University Anthropology Professor Kathleen Dahl, who is conducting a study of museums, interpretive centers and other sites devoted to Lewis and Clark.
Dahl visited close to 100 Lewis and Clark centers while on a sabbatical in 2004-05. Several of the museums are run by American Indian tribes. These museums recognize the significance of the Lewis and Clark journey, but not joyfully.
"They commemorate it but do not celebrate it,'' Dahl said.
The distinction is important. Dahl explained that in the eyes of American Indians and many others, Lewis and Clark did something significant but not great. The party, for example, did not find anything new since thousands of Indians were already living in the West.
"It was a crowded wilderness. They really didn't discover anything,'' Dahl said.
She noted that directors of many museums, not just Native American ones, are recognizing this and changing the wording on their panels to tone down the discovery emphasis. For example, Lewis and Clark identified several plants that people of European descent had never seen but Indians knew of. Many museum displays thus state that the "plants were new to western science'' rather than that they were discovered by Lewis and Clark.
"This indicates how conscious museum directors are of issues,'' Dahl said.
Another reason Indians do not celebrate the Lewis and Clark journey is because the appearance of the explorers was a harbinger of bad things to come. Lewis and Clark sparked the westward migration. That introduced diseases such as smallpox to tribes and damaged their environment.
Among the positive things many museums recognize is the role of Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark's Shoshone Indian guide. Statues of her are prominent at many museums. A number of statutes show only Sacagawea, an indication of her high standing today.
"You never see a statue of just Lewis or just Clark,'' Dahl said.
Sacagawea has been accorded high status despite that relatively little is known about her. What is known is that she was the wife of the party's interpreter, Toussaint Charbonneau, had an infant son and joined the expedition in 1805. References to her are sparse in the journals kept by Lewis and Clark party members.
Until about a century ago, Sacagawea was relatively obscure. Her rise in prominence coincides with the women's liberation movement.
"She was rediscovered in the early 1900s because of the women's right-to-vote movement,'' Dahl said. "It needed a heroine.''
Today, Lewis and Clark museums not only reflect indirectly the growing role of women in American society but also efforts to address racism. Several displays point out that York, the lone African American on the expedition, was a slave owned by Clark.
"Fifty years ago you would rarely see a panel at a museum which said this,'' Dahl said.
Clark was not kind to York and had him whipped at least once following the expedition, Dahl said. He also refused to grant him his freedom when he requested it soon after the expedition. Clark, though, may have later granted York his freedom.
There are other dark facts that are alluded to at the museums, Dahl said. For example, men falling asleep on guard duty would receive 100 lashings.
Museum visitors are also learning that sometimes Charbonneau treated his wife, Sacagawea, violently.
Unflattering information poses a dilemma for museum directors. They walk a fine line. They want to tell the truth but need to do it in such a way that visitors are not discouraged from coming back.
"There is always tension between being totally honest and wanting to please visitors,'' Dahl said. "Museums are wary of making visitors feel uncomfortable. They are afraid that if there is too much negative information they won't come back.''
One favorite thing she saw were the replicas of the winter forts Lewis and Clark built at Fort Mandan in North Dakota, River Dubois in Illinois and Fort Clatsop, which recently burned down.
Dahl was struck by how the design of each fort was different, and by their size.
"Each gives you a sense of the small structure several dozen people lived in,'' Dahl said.
Replicas of the living quarters of Indians Lewis and Clark encountered are also set up at some centers. Dahl's favorites are the earth lodges at a center near Bismarck. The earth lodges, made of mud and wood, were used by the Mandans and other tribes that farmed.
"They are major works of architecture,'' Dahl said. "Two or more families could live in them.''
The earth lodges even had fire sites where smoke went straight out the top.
The Mandans and the Nez Perce are among the American Indian tribes commemorating Lewis and Clark's journey. Many others, though, are choosing not to, Dahl said. The ones commemorating it are using the bicentennial as a means of telling their perspective of Lewis and Clark and how the expedition impacted them and their environment.
"They want to give the public their take on it, to tell their side,'' Dahl said.
Speaking of museums overall, Dahl worries that some may not survive once the bicentennial is over and interest in Lewis and Clark levels off. She is particularly concerned about the museums in isolated areas.
"Some are in very remote places.''
Dahl is continuing to visit Lewis and Clark museums and interpretive centers. She will later write a research paper on her findings.
Further insights from Dahl can be gleaned by reading a blog she is writing about the centers she has visited and her study at http://lewisandclarktrailwatch.blogspot.com.
Blog readers will find that Dahl is generally impressed with what she is finding.
"They are better than I thought they'd be," Dahl said. "I thought I would find shallow hero worshiping, but I found little of it. A lot of thought was put into portraying the negative and positive.''