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Commemorating a Journey That Opened the West

History: States along the Lewis and Clark route hope the upcoming bicentennial will lure tourists and their dollars to trek the trail.

July 21, 2002|MIRANDA LEITSINGER | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — On a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, a sandstone obelisk stands as a tribute to the only member of the Lewis and Clark expedition to die on the trek to the Pacific Ocean nearly 200 years ago.

Local history buff Bev Hinds said the monument marks the success of the 1803-06 journey even as it serves as a memorial to Sgt. Charles Floyd, who is believed to have died of appendicitis.

"The fact that they survived all the accidents that happened to them" was incredible, Hinds said. "You couldn't do it today."

States along the route are hoping that the upcoming bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery will lure tourists and their dollars to trek the trail.

Between 20 million and 30 million people are expected to retrace at least part of the trail between 2003 and 2007, said Mark Monson, chairman of the Iowa Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission.

"I think the reason that people are going to travel the trail is because it's about America," Monson said. "It's kind of like the genealogy of the United States."

On a recent summer afternoon, the Stauffer family of Roswell, Ga., stopped at Lewis and Clark State Park in Onawa, Iowa, about 30 miles south of Sioux City, their first stop in a three-week trip along the trail.

"We're just always amazed by the big sky of the West," said Kirk Stauffer, 44. "The discovery of the West, that sense of discovery, is what inspires me."

Bill "Buffalo Bill" Sanders, a park volunteer clad in an elk-skin coat and buffalo cap, estimates that nearly half of the park's visitors come because the explorers camped there in early August 1804.

In nearby Sioux City, organizers are planning a pageant and play to commemorate the trip. They'll also hold public lectures this fall about the area's people, plants and animals 200 years ago. An interpretive center, which will feature murals of the expedition and hands-on exhibits, is set to open in September.

President Bush unofficially opened the bicentennial celebration this month, declaring that the expedition "will stand forever as a monument to the American spirit, a spirit of optimism and courage and persistence in the face of adversity."

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and a corps of 33 men to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and the route to the Pacific Ocean.

When Lewis and Clark journeyed up the then-curvy Missouri, they labored against a strong downstream current and slogged through waves of mosquitoes. They also battled dysentery, struggled to find food and their way along parts of the route.

The explorers also were aided by American Indians, such as Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman who made the trip with her infant son and helped the expedition secure horses at a critical time.

"Lewis and Clark were successful because of the assistance they received from Native American tribes," Monson said.

That's why for some the bicentennial is seen as a commemoration, rather than a celebration: "It did change their culture, I would suspect for the worse," he said of the tribes. Many American Indians say the expedition was a prelude to an invasion of the American West that wiped out countless Indians and nearly destroyed their culture.

Daphne Richards-Cook, an Ogalala Sioux, is organizing a circle of tepees at Oacama, S.D., to represent nine tribes in the state.

"We want to clear up the misconceptions and stereotypical views they have about our Sioux tribes in South Dakota," said Richards-Cook, chairwoman for a tribal tourism group.

Lewis and Clark returned from their trip laden with journals describing the people, plants, animals and landscape they encountered.

In one respect, they returned empty-handed: They discovered that the Northwest Passage to the Pacific -- a long-dreamed of waterway through the U.S. that would link Europe to Asia -- didn't exist.

Experts said it took years before people understood what they really had brought back.

"It was the highway of the time that opened the West," Hinds said.

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