Geography and History of the Travels of Lewis and Clark Part 3

About the history and geography of the travels of Lewis and Clark, a modern look at their expedition through then uncharted parts of the United States.


Footsteps Now. Lewis and Clark's starting point, Fort Dubois, has vanished. Today, its location is somewhere near East Alton, Ill., on the Wood River. If we follow Lewis and Clark, their footsteps lead down the Wood River from East Alton to the Mississippi and 15 mi. south to the Missouri River's mouth, north of St. Louis, which in 174 years has grown from a village of 1,000 people into a city of more than 700,000. From St. Louis, the path of the Corps of Discovery follows the Missouri River 270 mi. west through the central heartland of the state of Missouri to the Kansas River. Today, where the Kansas flows into the Missouri and where Lewis and Clark saw only prairies, the well-planned metropolis of Kansas City sprawls out in every direction. Turning north on the Missouri now, Lewis and Clark would pass the Kansas City Municipal Airport and miles of buildings and homes lining the riverbanks.

Northward on the Missouri, the route follows the present-day borderlines between the states of Missouri and Iowa to the east, and Kansas and Nebraska to the west. Along the riverbanks, where Lewis and Clark saw only grasslands, buffalo, and Indians, there are now fields of corn and whet, dairy and beef cattle, farmhouses, barns, grain silos, and cities like Omaha, Neb. The expedition's path comes to Sioux City, Ia., where Sergeant Floyd was buried, then winds northwest into South Dakota. Through the middle of South Dakota, the trail passes through the Crow Creek, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Indian reservations.

Into the flat wheat plains of North Dakota, the explorers' trail runs north between the state capital of Bismarck and the town of Mandan. Nearby, the Mandan villages that the explorers visited have been recreated at the Double Ditch Indian Village State Park (the Mandans themselves died off in the last century from smallpox, brought by the white man). Forty miles upriver from Mandan is Fort Mandan State Park, where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-1805 and met Sacagawea. The original fort is gone, and in its place are a monument and picnic tables for vacationers. Proceeding on, Lewis and Clark's route is now obstructed by the long rock-and-earth-filled Garrison Dam, beyond which the path is submerged below the waters of the Lake Sacagawea reservoir all the way to Williston, N.D.

From Williston, it is some 20 mi. to the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers near Buford, N.D., where Lewis and Clark met their first grizzly bear. Today, Lewis and Clark's footsteps lead into Montana, past oil rigs and herds of antelope to the Fort Peck Dam. Behind Fort Peck Dam, the route is now covered by Fort Peck Lake as it proceeds westward through the Charles Russell National Wildlife Range, which is a refuge for deer, elk, and small numbers of buffalo. The explorers' trail continues to the agricultural and cattle town of Great Falls, Mont., where they discovered the Great Falls of the Missouri. The waterfalls and rapids after which Great Falls was named have now disappeared beneath yet another reservoir on the Missouri River.

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