“We left our establishment at the mouth of the river du Bois or Wood river, a small river which falls into the Mississippi, on the east-side, a mile below the Missouri, and having crossed the Mississippi proceeded up the Missouri on our intended voyage of discovery… The day was showery and in the evening we encamped on the north bank six miles up the river. Here we had leisure to reflect on our situation, and the nature of our engagements: and, as we had all entered this service as volunteers, to consider how far we stood pledged for the success of an expedition, which the government had projected; and which had been undertaken for the benefit and at the expence of the Union: of course of much interest and high expectation.”
—Patrick Gass, May 14, 1804
The Lewis and Clark Expedition started a year before it began. Meriwether Lewis immersed in crash courses in Philadelphia for medicine, botany, zoology, and surveying, plus he learned how to take celestial observations necessary to determine latitude and longitude. He oversaw construction of the keelboat and engaged in the biggest shopping trip in then-American history. Lewis and Clark independently recruited men for the expedition and migrated slowly westward. However, they were not allowed to cross west of the Mississippi, since the Louisiana Purchase had not yet transferred from Spain to France to the United States. The expedition wintered over at the starting gate, building a small fort named Camp Dubois on the Wood River in today’s Illinois, officially launching the Corps of Discovery from there on May 14, 1804.
While they sat at the starting line, our Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery stalled near the finish line, camping for three days in St. Charles through a storm. We took the opportunity to tour Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site on the east side of the Mississippi in Illinois with my friend Larry Kinsella.
Cahokia is the largest pre-Columbia archaeological site north of Mexico. The city covered six square miles, including about 120 earthen mounds constructed to different sizes and shapes. The mounds were solid, used as platforms for ceremonial houses, burials, sacrifices, and home sites for city leaders.
Building all the earthen mounds required an estimated 55 million cubic feet of soil, mostly hauled in woven pack baskets by thousands of laborers over many decades. The largest mound rises 100 feet high. It’s base is of similar size as the Great Pyramid of Giza. At its peak around 1100 A.D., Cahokia was home to up to 20,000 people, bigger than London at the time.
Cahokia fits a common theme among horticultural peoples worldwide. Surplus food led to population booms and idle citizenry. Building mounds, temples, and pyramids for purported religious purposes was an effective jobs creation program to keep people occupied and maintain social order.
Our civilization is not so different. We portaged around several great earthen mounds as dams on the Missouri River. Interpretive displays at the corresponding visitor centers touted the benefits of building the dams, including flood control, irrigation, hydro-electricity, and “to create jobs,” the raison d’etre always tacked onto the end of the list. Thousands of workers were employed building the dams, our society’s means of keeping people occupied to maintain social order.
Cahokia declined for unknown reasons around 1300 and was abandoned by 1350. William Clark visited the northern edge of the city on January 9, 1804, where he noted an Indian fortress consisting of nine short mounds in a circle and “great quantities of Earthen ware & flints.”
Larry Kinsella has volunteered at Cahokia Mounds for more than forty years, working on archaeological digs, reconstruction projects, and interpretive displays. He made some of the stone axes and knives featured in interpretive displays, which is how I know him, through our mutual background teaching Stone Age living skills.
We also toured the Mastodon State Historic Site south of St. Louis. While mammoths lived in grassland steppe habitat near the glaciers, mastodons lived in forests farther south and ate woody browse, the distant cousins having vastly different teeth from each other. Larry helped excavate a mastodon tusk on display and he made a series of spear points displayed there to illustrate the flintknapping process from start to finish.
Scott’s girlfriend Margie flew in from Colorado and joined us for dinner with Mark Fingerhut. Mark also paddled the Missouri River this year, starting upstream where the Madison River exists Yellowstone National Park. He paddled by Three Forks, Montana two weeks ahead of our launch, so we were behind him all the way.
Bedded down in our tents below the Boat House Museum, people passing by wouldn’t have known we were there. However, someone encountered a friendly puppy and dog-napped Jubilee as a lost dog. Chris spent the following day at a coffee shop searching lost pet notices online and fortunately got her back. She was dog-napped again a day later, only minutes after being released to run off some puppy energy. Chris had to pay $35 to retrieve her from the pound, this time adding a dog tag and phone number to her collar.
Margie joined Scott in the canoe as we paddled out of St. Charles, doing an easy 25-mile day to Columbia Bottom, only 3.5 miles from the end of the Missouri River where it joins the Mississippi.
We offered tobacco to the big rivers on behalf of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa of North Dakota, whom we met at their community pow wow at Trenton Lake back in early August. Brett and Anita Williamson sent the tobacco pouch with us containing the community’s prayers for the river and our journey. We added our own prayers for special people we met along the way, and gave final thanks to the river at our last camp of the journey.
Our final day of paddling was largely symbolic. We awoke to heavy frost, a sure sign to wrap up the trip. We paddled out into the chilly morning, soon reaching the confluence where the Missouri joins the Mississippi. There isn’t any significant turbulence where the waters merge, just two great rivers flowing together like a slow-moving lake.
The original Corps of Discovery continued fifteen miles down the Mississippi to end their 28-month expedition at St. Louis on September 23, 1806, where William Clark reported, “We Suffered the party to fire off their pieces as a Salute to the Town. we were met by all the village and received a harty welcom from it’s inhabitants.”
We followed their lead, paddling to the Gateway Arch, the iconic symbol of St. Louis. Conceived in the 1940s and completed in 1965, the 630-foot-tall stainless steel arch was created as a “memorial to the men who made possible the western territorial expansion of the United States, particularly President Jefferson, his aides Livingston and Monroe, the great explorers, Lewis and Clark, and the hardy hunters, trappers, frontiersmen and pioneers who contributed to the territorial expansion and development of these United States.” In today’s more politically correct terms, that would make it a monument to colonialism and the subjugation of Native American peoples.
That’s the great challenge in celebrating American history. Thomas Jefferson and William Clark both owned slaves, and Meriwether Lewis supervised slaves on his mother’s plantation. All three men helped bring about the subjugation of Native Americans, especially William, who continued the work of his elder brother George Rogers Clark to ethnically cleanse Indians from all lands east of the Mississippi. We cannot and should not bury our history, but we can own it and re-interpret it.
I grew up with Montana history where General George Custer was slaughtered by wild Indians at the Custer Battlefield National Monument, otherwise known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” In a re-appraisal of our history, Congress renamed the site as the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1991. The revamped park includes a memorial to the Indians who fought and died there, as well as a telling of their side of the story. Piece by piece we are telling a more authentic narrative of our history, and that is an achievement to be appreciated and honored.
In St. Louis, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was renamed Gateway Arch National Park in 2018. We planned our arrival for Sunday, the least busy day to mingle with the big ships in the Port of St. Louis. First we paddled over the notorious “chain of rocks,” submerged so deeply below flood waters that the river flows over the obstacle as a smooth wave.
Shortly thereafter, we were joined by Mike Clark of Big Muddy Adventures for the final gauntlet through the port. Headwinds kicked up turbulence, aggravated somewhat by passing barges, but manageable overall. We paddled to the Arch, tied off the canoes, and ascended the stairs with our arms and paddles outstretched in victory at the conclusion of our five-month descent of the Missouri River!
That was the fantasy anyway. But waves threatened to batter the canoes against the flooded stairway, forcing us to abort the landing. We paddled another quarter-mile downriver to the boat ramp, while our greeting party and Channel 4 News crew raced to their cars to catch up. We completed our journey on November 3rd, five months and three days after we launched from Three Forks, Montana. John Gentry, also from our group, completed his journey two weeks earlier, having paddled ahead from Nebraska.
Many people are under the illusion that we worked hard and suffered greatly on our expedition. I would describe the experience as akin to turtles drifting down the river on a log. John, Chris, and I all had extensive prior expedition experience. Scott seemingly gained the most from the journey, transitioning from an office cubicle to canoe to a new life of adventure. For all of us, it was a great privilege to paddle through the heart of America, see beautiful scenery, study our history, and meet some of the nicest people on the planet.
With little fanfare, we loaded the canoes and bid hasty goodbyes. Scott and Margie rushed home to Colorado while Chris, Jubilee, and I enjoyed Mike Clark’s hospitality for two days while awaiting a ride back north.
The Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery joins a surprisingly short list of all known Missouri River expeditions since 1962, maintained as a database by Norman Miller of Livingston, Montana. Thanks for reading along and being part of the journey!
Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. The full story of the Missouri River expedition, along with hundreds of photos, will be published as “Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe,” available from www.hopspress.com in March 2020.