Every place has history, and we tend to take it for granted. Here in Maryland, Defenders Day is a state holiday that commemorates the 1814 Battle of North Point. Toward the end of the War of 1812, it was one of the battles in which the Maryland militia fought off the British who had just burned Washington and were looking to capture Baltimore, a strategically valuable port and home to a “nest of privateers.” (True. It was a nest of privateers.)
The Brits were defeated at North Point, and that fight segued into the Battle of Baltimore—the bombardment of Fort McHenry that inspired the writing of The Star Spangled Banner. (The bombardment is cheerfully reenacted every September with a Coast Guard cutter shooting blanks, plus lots of fireworks being set off. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Baltimore )
This history is well known to most school kids, but still, there are lots of local people who have never visited Fort McHenry, now a national shrine and really quite a cool place to wander around in. Just like tons of New Yorkers have never been to the Statue of Liberty and not all Texans have visited the Alamo, etc. Some history is just too familiar to be exciting. We take it for granted.
For me, the Lewis and Clark expedition was in that category: boring fourth grade history. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson bought the rights to a huge chunk of North America from the French who weren’t doing much with the territory since Napoleon was busy trying to conquer Europe. Yawn. Jefferson got the rights for a bargain price, thereby keeping the French from building an empire at the U. S.’s back door. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louisiana_Purchase Many Americans thought the whole thing was a bad idea.
Wanting to check out just what the nation had bought (even the French weren’t exactly sure what they were selling), Jefferson organized the Lewis and Clark Expedition to cross the continent and see what was there. They wanted to find the legendary “Northwest Passage,” a water route to the Pacific, but didn’t because there isn’t one unless you go up to the Arctic, where the ice tends to get in the way. But even if L&C didn’t find a Northwest Passage, they made it to the Oregon coast and back. Yawn.
Except that fourth grade history doesn’t begin to do justice to what was really an amazing feat. The Mayhem Consultant (MC for short <g>) saw a National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions catalog listing a cruise called “In the Wake of Lewis and Clark” and thought it would be fun. I’d’ve preferred a cruise to the Greek Isles and Dalmatian coast, but I’m easy, and I love water and the Pacific Northwest. In particular, I wanted to see the desert interiors of Washington and Oregon.
So we booked tickets on the cruise, which would start in Portland, Oregon, head north on the Willamette River to the Columbia River, east on the Columbia and Snake Rivers as far as Idaho, then working back down the Columbia to the mouth before ending back in Portland. The staff would include historians and naturalists—people who really know stuff.
We prepared for the trip by watching the Ken Burns Lewis and Clark documentary. (http://tinyurl.com/6jwrkl ) Done in typically fine Ken Burns fashion, it was a great overview of the reasons for the expedition, the people, the route, and the hauntingly lovely scenery the Corps of Discovery saw along the way. I began to develop consider respect for the expedition and its people.
Our boat, the Sea Lion, was small and could carry only about 60 passengers, a far cry from the big ocean cruisers. And did I mention that it was SMALL?! We had one of the four largest cabins, meaning there was a queen sized bed, but it was still so small that we had to take turns using the floor.
The bathroom was roughly the size of a phone booth, with a toilet and shower sharing the space so closely that if you took a shower, you needed to remove the toilet paper so it wouldn't get saturated. <g> I was amazed at the size of the small cabins! There was major culture shock since we’d spent the night before the cruise at a gorgeous, spacious, and very Pacific Northwestern hotel overlooking the Willamette. I think the bathroom there would have held our whole Sea Lion cabin. <g>
But the Spartan conditions are part of traveling on a boat small enough to go interesting places, and that we did. The high point was the zodiac rides on the Palouse River, gliding through huge stone canyons on mirror-like water, admiring the birds and bighorn sheep and whispering cattails. Lovely. Noisier but equally fun was the jet boat ride up Hell's Canyon on the Snake River. <g>
The tour included groups from both the Smithsonian and Johns Hopkins University, and the educational level of the group was through the ROOF! I'd say half the people on the boat had PhDs or MDs, if not both. I was downright uneducated by contrast.
It was a pretty mature crowd, and a very well traveled one. People were comparing their trips to Antarctica, for example. There was one retired professor of 83, and while she needed a cane for balance, she was sharp as a blade mentally and interested in everything. I've never been on any kind of trip where there were as many really interesting, enjoyable people.
For me, the cruise could have been called “More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Lewis and Clark,” <g> but I still learned lots of good stuff even though my interest was only moderate and I didn’t go to all the lectures.
For example, the expedition is considered a rare successful example of shared leadership. Meriwether Lewis, well-educated, moody, introverted and scientifically inclined, was the official leader (he was an aide to Jefferson when he was chosen for the expedition, but he always treated William Clark as an equal even though Clark was technically of a lower rank. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meriwether_Lewis )
The men had very complimentary skills, with Clark, Lewis’s one time commanding officer, being calm, extroverted and pragmatic. Not much at spelling, but a great co-leader. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Clark_(explorer)
As the MC likes to point out, the Corps of Discovery crossed two thousand miles of unknown territory by dead reckoning and arrived within 4 miles of their target destination. The party consisted of 33 individuals. Amazingly, only one died and that was apparently of appendicitis and not related to the expedition.
The members were mostly young males with an adventurous spirit and military experience, but also included the young Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, Clark’s slave, York, and a dog. Everybody got geographical features named after them. Including the dog.
While Sacagawea was sometimes useful as a guide and translator, she was even more valuable because of her gender, and the baby son she had not long after she and her French trapper husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, joined the expedition. War parties never traveled with women and children, so her presence reassured the Native American tribes they encountered.
The Corps'r second winter was spent in the cold, wet, hastily built Fort Clatsop in what is now Astoria, Oregon. Since they had run out of “ardent spirits,” they had to subsist on elk and water. They were not happy campers. In honor of their situation, the MC bought a packet of elk jerky along to distribute to our fellow passengers. It tastes about as you’d expect. <g>
The Corps of Discovery returned to their starting place in Missouri in September 1806, having spent about two and a half years on the road. Besides making maps of the territory, they had accumulated all kinds of scientific information on flora and fauna, and had even sent specimens back during the journey. One such specimen that was delivered to Jefferson was a live prairie dog in a box. <g>
I suppose one reason I used to take this particular piece of history for granted was because the Corps did such a great, efficient job. The Alamo is memorable because so many people died. Quiet competence and survival are less dramatic.
Have you had times when history you dismissed turned out to be fascinating? Are there incidents or places you’re yearning to explore? Or ones you have explored and been enchanted by? Once in Colchester, England, the MC and I stayed in a B&B, and we mentioned to the proprietor that we wanted to see the old Roman wall from the days when Colchester was founded as legionnaire camp. He said, “There’s a bit in the back garden.” So we went out and looked, and sure enough, there was a nice sized chunk of Roman wall in his back garden.
He might have taken it for granted. But we didn’t!