Into the Unknown: The Lewis and Clark Museum in St. Charles, Missouri

If Lewis and Clark had a theme song, it would have been, “Into the Unknown,” from the movie frozen.

Or are you someone out there
Who’s a little bit like me?
Who knows deep down
I’m not where I’m meant to be?

Every day’s a little harder
As I feel my power grow
Don’t you know there’s part of me
That longs to go, into the unknown?

Into the unknown!

If you don’t know this song, I encourage you to Google it. Also, if you’re going to be a songwriter for kids, put lots of “ooohs” and “aaahs” in there because that makes them easy to sing. For example, my two- and four-year-old granddaughters belt out, at full volume, that part of the song that has lots of oohs and aahs. I sing it with them.

I recently reread, Undaunted Courage: The Lewis and Clark Expedition, by Stephen A. Ambrose. On our journey home from The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we stopped in St. Charles, Missouri, to visit the Lewis and Clark Museum at the point on the Missouri River where they began their journey into the unknown.

I love a good map. Whether it’s paper or digital, I will pour over a map to get my bearings of a new place, understand the major geography, waterways, highways, and any other landmarks. I like knowing where I’m going.

Lewis and Clark didn’t have a map. No one did.

In 1804, there was no accurate map that detailed the land from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. If you haven’t looked lately, there is a LOT of rugged country between point A and point B. Namely, the Rocky Mountains.

In 1804, the U.S. had just purchased the Louisiana Territory from France and President Thomas Jefferson wanted to know if there was a waterway that connected the vast continent from the east to the west. They had NO idea what the Rocky Mountains looked like since they highest mountains along the east coast were in the Appalachian range is 6,684 feet about sea level. The base of the Rockies begins at 6,000 feet and double in size rather abruptly.

He commissioned two good friends for a military expedition: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. They, in turn found forty-three soldiers and take off from St. Charles on the Missouri River to start paddling, poling, dragging, and portaging their boats upstream, over mountains, and down waterfalls for the next two years, four months and ten days. They even must build new boats along the way. He wanted America to expand from sea to shining sea.

Until the crossed the Rockies, it was all upstream. There was no such thing as a motorized engine in those days which was good because there were no Quik Trips along the river to fill up on gas and get a hot dog and chips. The fastest a person could travel any long distance at that time was eighteen miles-per-hour on horseback.

The museum in St. Charles is the first of many museums, signposts, and historical markings along the trail that Lewis and Clark took to the west coast. Someday, I’d like to follow that route in car. I’ll probably stop and get a hot dog or two along the way.

As I’m at the museum, and having just recently finished the book, here are five things that impress me most.

  1. Self-reliance on providing their own food. This Corps of Discovery could not pack enough food to sustain them for the next two years, so they had to believe they could fend for themselves, in the wild, on plants and animals. At one point in the trip, they nearly starved to death.
  2. They made their own map. To do so required the use of various rudimentary to us, but standard to them, tools like sextants, compasses, surveyor chains, and a chronometer, all anchored by the stars in the sky and a horizon line. As we traveled to and from Tennessee on our vacation, we relied heavily on the map on our phones and a woman’s voice telling us, “In five hundred feet, turn right at exit 3B.” Shortly later she would tell me, “No, I said to exit at 3B. Now do a U-turn and go back to exit 3B. Don’t you listen?”
  3. Unusual leadership model. This was a military mission that required strict adherence to chains of command and there is usually one top dog. Although technically – through political machinations or political mischief – Lewis was given command as captain, but Clark was given the lower status of lieutenant. However, Lewis insisted that they would share command equally so demanded that they both be called Captains. It worked exceedingly well throughout the journey, a model almost unheard of which is a testament to trust and friendship. Oddly enough, someone in the ranks didn’t believe it was going to be military and there was already a court martial the second day of the trip. Handing out, “50 lashes, put hard on,” was a common punishment. There wasn’t much rebellion after the first few weeks.
  4. Their diplomacy with the Native American tribes along the way were crucial to their success both in navigating to and from, but the simple act of staying live. Lewis and Clark understood their vulnerabilities and need for cooperation from those who lived on the land.
  5. Without Sacagawea, the trip would have been a disaster and, most likely, they would never have made it to the coast. One of the most remarkable women in the history of humanity, she was guide, interpreter, negotiator, new mother packing an infant along the trip, and worth every honor bestowed upon her legacy. She had been captured from her tribe, the Shoshones, when she was a child and raised by the Hidatsa.

The most remarkable story inside the overall story is when the Corps had reached the headwaters of the Missouri in present-day Montana and needed to cross the Rocky Mountains in the Bitterroot area of present-day Idaho to get to the western slope to find the Colombia River. They desperately needed horses since their boats were of no use, so they negotiated with the Shoshones who weren’t a bit interested in helping them. As Sacagawea was interpreting for the Corps and speaking to Chief Cameahwait, she suddenly recognized him as her brother. She had been in captivity so long that both she, and her brother, had changed significantly that they didn’t recognize each other at first, but then she recognized his voice. Once again, she saved their skins. Her navigation skills also proved valuable as she guided them through some of the most difficult terrain in America. And I’m sure, on occasion, she had to say, “No, I said to exit at 3B. Now do a U-turn and go back to exit 3B. Don’t you listen?”

Having spent a week in The Great Smoky Mountains of both Tennessee and North Carolina seeing old log cabins hewn by hand, running my hands over old plows that broke up rocky soil, touching the cutting edges of axes and adzes used to hollow trees into canoes, then to stand on the banks of the Missouri imaging Lewis and Clark pushing out into the unknown, I have come to the conclusion I am a sissy. I’m not sure I could build a structure to live in with a hand saw and an axe. I’m not sure what I’d do if I ran out of food after a week in the mountains and had to live for the next two years, four months and ten days.

My respect for the pioneers has deepened immeasurably on this journey. We are living today with the rewards of the risks they took yesterday. They weren’t perfect, but my goodness they were tough and without them, we most likely would be divided up into numerous countries like Europe rather that one United States of America.

I love America. I’ve been to other countries around the world, and I’ll take our country over them any day of the week. In fact, when I return from a foreign country, I find the first spot of bare ground and I bow and kiss the ground.

I’m grateful for those pioneers who ventured into the unknown, for their unknown became our known and I love our country, warts, and all, from sea to shining sea.