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200th Anniversary

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

When the dream is planted, be it in a person’s imagination or in the psyche of a whole nation, it grows to desire. Given time, the desire grows to a myth that hope nurtures to a belief. Eventually, reality sweeps in and frequently mows it down, only to have the seed of another dream take its place. So it was with the realities discovered 200 years ago by acouple of young army captains and their Corps of Discovery. The epic expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark wiped out a widely held belief that took root with the first visionaries who landed on this continent. But in its wake more ambitious dreams were created — founded this time on fact — that went far beyond those of the early visionaries.

Thomas Jefferson, our country’s third president, accepted the popular belief that there was a water route across this continent — the fabled Northwest Passage. And he had reason to believe it. Ship captains, who plied trade routes along the coasts of what are now Oregon and California, reported a distant mountain range to the east and a giant river — the Columbia — that flowed from it. And Indians on our western prairies, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, told of tall mountains far to the west. The eastern mapmakers held that the mountains reported were not two, but one in the same, a single range, something like the Allegheny Mountains, with which they were well familiar. Consequently, their maps showed a single range of mountains west of the Mississippi, about 100 miles from the Pacific, running parallel to the coast. It looked great on paper. The Northwest Passage was a cinch.

Certainly the Missouri River, which Lewis and Clark were to follow west from St. Louis, cut through a gap in those mountains. Or, if no gap existed, a short portage over a mountain divide would bring them to the Columbia River. The Northwest Passage existed because they wanted it to be so. Dreams of a lucrative trade route created an immense desire that took on a life of its own. So, on May 14, 1804, at President Jefferson’s behest, Lewis and Clark, with 45 men in a 55-foot keelboat and two pirogues, set out to find the Passage. The first leg of their journey ended in what is now central North Dakota. There they wintered with the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians. The following spring they sent their keelboat and several men back to St. Louis.

On April 7, 1805 –200 years ago this month — the 33-member expedition began its journey west. The party included Clark’s slave, York; a young Shoshone Indian woman named Sacajawea; her infant son, Jean Baptiste; and Clark’s Newfoundland dog, Seaman. Their Corps of Discovery, however, was on a mission impossible. Still, they accomplished great things. They expanded the knowledge of our young nation, and opened immense territorial horizons. Their 28-month expedition laid claim to new land that grew into a nation bordered by the Earth’s two great oceans. More importantly, they planted fresh seeds of hope, and dreams of adventures and untold riches. Trappers and traders were the first to turn these dreams into reality. But their mission failed in its principal objective, of course.

They found no Northwest Passage; it does not exist. As we now know, the Pacific seafarers were reporting the Cascade Range. The Indians were reporting the Rocky Mountains of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, into which some early trappers may have ventured, but no white man had ever crossed. Between those mountains today is a whole time zone, and much of what we know as Idaho, and eastern Washington and Oregon. On August 8, 1805, the Corps of Discovery was a few miles south of present-day Twin Bridges, Montana, at the foot of the Rockies. Lewis, with three men, set out into the mountains on foot ahead of the main party. Days later, they reached the Continental Divide. Lewis indeed had dreamed of that moment. Surely the watershed of the Columbia River lay on the other side.

Maybe they would see the river itself, or a broad plain stretching toward the sea. Cresting the rise at Lemhi Pass, myth would become reality — Lewis would see confirmation of the Passage. Instead, he saw more mountains — broad, unruly, towering ranges, many still snow-topped. They looked endless. And he was yet to discover that between them and the Pacific Coast spread the Cascades, high and daunting in their own right. Geography founded in hope, drawn on maps created from half-truths, was shattered by the reality. Lewis and Clark reached what is now the town of Three Forks, Montana, in late July of 1805. As far as the expedition was concerned, this was where the Missouri River ended. In reality, this is where it begins.

Here, three rivers flow into one, creating the Missouri, the longest river system in the world. They named the rivers Jefferson, for the President; Madison, for the Secretary of State; and Gallatin, for the Secretary of Treasury. They followed the Jefferson until it, too, divided into three tributaries. These they called Wisdom, Philosophy and Philanthropy — “for Jefferson’s virtues,” Lewis wrote in his journal. Fur traders who came later did not think much of these names — too many syllables, maybe — so they renamed the rivers Big Hole, Beaverhead and Ruby. But if you ever pass through the little ranch town of Wisdom, on the Big Hole, remember it was Thomas Jefferson’s wisdom that was meant by those who named it.

Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected].

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