In the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark—Land&People

Lolo, Montana, sits astride Highway 93, one of the busiest roads in the state. Middle-class homes spread out behind the business strip that lines both sides of the highway, creeping up a hill to the west and a mile eastward to the banks of the Bitterroot River. The small burg doesn’t offer much in the way of scenic beauty, though it is the gateway to the picturesque Bitterroot Valley. And there’s little commerce going on–most residents either commute to jobs in Missoula or find agricultural work up the valley.

Yet the Trust for Public Land is at work here. At the edge of town a visitor finds one of TPL’s more curious land acquisitions in the wide-open West–a four-acre parcel crowded with trailer parks, homes, and old barns. Once past Lolo’s mile-long strip of truck stops, restaurants, shopping center, and motels, motorists get a view of the bald pate of Lolo Peak, anchor of the craggy Bitterroot Mountain front range. Soon Highway 93 crosses Lolo Creek–a clear, cold watercourse lined with towering cottonwood trees–and a quarter-mile farther, a benchland of grass rises toward the timbered lower slopes of Lolo Peak. Here, more and more travelers nowadays, are turning off the main thoroughfare onto a dirt road, making a pilgrimage to the home of Pat and Ernie Deschamps (pronounced Day-shaw), which adjoins the property TPL helped protect.

Both the TPL parcel and the Deschamps’ 15 acres are part of an area long known as Travelers’ Rest. Over the past two years, Pat and Ernie have escorted more than 2,000 visitors to their back pasture for strolls through the tall cottonwoods along the creek. From this vantage point, the modern world atop the bench is blocked from view, and the surroundings appear as they might have 200 years ago. Just as they looked to one of America’s most famous journal keepers, Meriwether Lewis–which explains the intense public interest in the site. Along with Captain William Clark, Lewis led the continent-opening expedi tion of the Corps of Discovery, better known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The Deschamps didn’t know they owned a piece of the treasured site until three years ago, when the local chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation told them about it– just before they began looking for a buyer. “If they hadn’t come and told us, we would have sold the place to a developer by now,” admits Pat Deschamps, who, along with her husband, looks forward to spending her retirement in a smaller home. “We agreed to save it until someone could raise the money to buy it,” she adds. “We want people to be able to come and see it.”

As the 2003 bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery’s 8,000-mile trek approaches, millions of Americans are growing enchanted by the great western adventure of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Many have already read about the trek in bestselling books or seen television documentaries. They know the story of how President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the duo to lead a party of men up the Missouri River across the Great Plains–then thought to be a vast desert–to find a water trade route that would allow quick and cheap transportation of goods between the Louisiana territory and the Pacific. Along the way, they would explore the unmapped Louisiana Purchase: newly acquired lands that doubled the size of the national domain.

After making final preparations in St. Louis in 1804 and wintering with the Mandan Indians in?North Dakota, the Corps of Discovery began forging westward in earnest in 1805, poling a flat-bottomed boat as far upstream as they could through Montana, then crossing the Rocky Mountains by foot and horse before reaching the Palouse Prairie in Idaho. From there they canoed to the mouth of the Columbia River. They returned the following year.

The expedition collected botanical and zoological specimens, drew maps of the countryside, and met many Indian tribes. Amazingly, only one member of the party died en route. “The Lewis and Clark expedition was a western drama,” explains Joe Mussulman, a retired professor from the University of Montana and a Lewis and Clark expert. “Usually western history centers around the bad guys–the bastards of the bunch–or fictitious Hollywood cowboys in white hats. Lewis and Clark is real-life stuff–all recorded in their journals.”

Nowadays Mussulman spends most of his time editing a 900-page Lewis and Clark web site. A former music teacher, he is also producing a compact disc of music from the Lewis and Clark era. In his spare time he leads tours to remaining segments of the actual Lewis and Clark trail. “Lewis and Clark were getting in touch with half a continent,” Mussulman says. “Almost anyone can identify with that. Today, people want to romance that legend.”

Preserving History, Reviving Economies

Many public and private enterprises, including TPL, are moving to preserve some of the most significant landscapes connected with the Corps of Discovery. TPL has helped safeguard more than 60 sites along the route–many in the Columbia Gorge, where Lewis and Clark traversed the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon.

The National Park Service has catalogued many sites for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, some of which are protected through federal, state, and local ownership. About 3,700 miles long, the trail was approved by Congress in 1978. Trail director Dick Williams reports that all the states along the route–which begins at Woods River, Illinois–have set up some form of state committee to prepare for celebrating what he calls “the Bicentennial of the West.” The preservation work is of utmost importance, Mussulman says, since much of the trail is literally gone. “You can’t follow the [whole] Lewis and Clark trail now,” he says. “It’s too tough. Plus, much of the trail is now buried beneath the water of reservoirs. You can’t follow the trail, you can only intersect with it.”

But there’s more than just history involved in the upcoming bicentennial. Residents in Montana, Idaho, the Dakotas, and eastern Oregon–whose economies are depressed from low timber, cattle, and grain prices–are hoping that history will translate into dollars. Fort Benton, about 220 miles east of Lolo, is a prime example of a community pinning its hopes on Lewis and Clark. The tree-shaded agricultural town, sheltered in the Missouri River bottomlands below the vast plateau of grasslands and grain fields that stretches across north-central Montana, is rife with early Montana history. Fur trappers who followed the Corps of Discovery chose this spot to build a trading post later visited by steamboats. Wagons carried supplies from Fort Benton north to Canada, west to Oregon, and southwest to the Montana gold fields. “All roads lead from Fort Benton” was a popular saying in the mid-1800s.

During the past dozen years, grassroots organizations in town have developed the Museum of the Northern Great Plains, which includes an agricultural museum and historic re-creations of the town. A replica of the old fort’s storehouse now sits in a park by the river levee, not far from a heroic-sized bronze of Lewis and Clark with Sacagawea and her baby. A dozen interpretive signs mark the scenic levee, and two historic buildings are open to the public. The stately Grand Union Hotel, overlooking the river, is recently restored and once again in business.

The more people who visit these historic sites, the better, says Jack Lepley, a retired teacher who helped lead the drive to develop the museum. “Agriculture will never be enough to support the town as it did in the past,” he notes. “Our chance of saving Fort Benton hinges on tourism.”

Researchers at the University of Montana say towns that follow Fort Benton’s lead are making a wise decision. According to the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, Montana alone can expect almost nine million visitors to follow in the footsteps of the Corps of Discovery during the four-year bicentennial observation. That’s cream atop the 11 million that would normally visit the state. “Montanans need to reduce the negative social and environmental impacts of the additional visitors,” says research associate Kim McMahon. “And we want to make sure the positive economic impacts are spread across the state.”

Many towns are already gearing up for these modern-day explorers. “I’d say about 25 percent of all the communities along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers have somehow gotten on the Lewis and Clark bandwagon,” Joe Mussulman says.

Picking Up the Pieces

But preserving historic sites isn’t easy. “Saving these sites can be labor-intensive because they are often composed of small parcels with lots of owners,” says TPL project manager David Genter. “It’s also tough finding the appropriate management agency. Sometimes it’s the government, sometimes the local community.”

Travelers’ Rest, which covers an estimated 40 acres owned by half a dozen private landowners, fits that profile. Doug Skiba heads the Lolo Economic Development Initiative, which is trying to assemble the site in the hope that visitors will provide an economic boost for the town. He is working overtime to make sure that both the site and the town are ready. Funded by a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Skiba hopes to finish archaeological surveys on Travelers’ Rest soon. He also intends to close a deal to buy the Deschamps land this summer. At that time, the property TPL helped save from developers will be incorporated into the historic site.

Another four-acre chunk of Travelers’ Rest was saved through a stroke of luck and timing. When Ralph and Wendy Kulberg of Boca Raton, Florida, visited Montana for the first time last summer, they hooked up with a tour sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Because of growing suburbanization, the trust had just named Travelers’ Rest as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the nation.

Ralph Kulberg, a Lewis and Clark buff, describes the Corps of Discovery expedition as “one of the most incredible adventures.” As the couple got back on the tour bus, he asked the guide why NTHP didn’t just buy the land. She explained that the organization didn’t have the funds and that not all of the landowners were interested in selling. It was then that Kulberg de- cided he’d buy a piece of Travelers’ Rest that was threatened with development and hold on to it until proper protection was organized. This parcel, adjacent to the Deschamps’ property, will ultimately be added to the historic site.

Doug Skiba envisions that by the start of the bicentennial, a visitors center will stand on the north side of Lolo Creek, across from the Corps’ campsite. “This project will help the depressed economy of Lolo,” Skiba states, “as well as have a regional impact.”

Native Americans Claim Their Role

As with Fort Benton, there is more to the story of Travelers’ Rest than just Lewis and Clark. The Salish and Nez Perce peoples, who camped in the area for thousands of years, have a deep cultural connection to this land. Although welcomed by the Indians, Lewis and Clark marked the beginning of the end of the native way of life. “Lewis and Clark never would have successfully completed their trek if not for the Indians they met,” says Doug Nash, a Nez Perce tribal member and director of TPL’s Tribal Lands Program. Yet to this day, he adds, most people have heard only the white man’s version of what occurred.

From Travelers’ Rest, Nez Perce Indians, heading home from hunting buffalo on the Great Plains with their Salish comrades, once followed a gossamer trail that threaded across mountain ridges westward to the Palouse Prairie in Idaho. Today Highway 12 parallels the course of the “Buffalo Trail” over Lolo Pass. The two-laner winds through thick spruce forest up to the pass, then follows the Lochsa River down the other side. Although a slow road by modern standards, it provides speedy access from Montana to the Nez Perce homeland, compared to what Lewis and Clark experienced.

The explorers found little game as they struggled for nine days through lodgepole pine forests as thick as dog hair, often losing the ephemeral trail that clung to the ridgetops. They emerged from the mountains starving and sick. As happened on more than one occasion, Indians came to their rescue–this time the Nez Perce, whose nation then extended from the Bitterroot Mountains through eastern Oregon.

The explorers met the Indians near the present-day town of Weippe, Idaho, where the Nez Perce at first counseled among themselves to kill the strangers. But that detail has often been overlooked, as it is on a highway marker that commemorates the encounter. The sign, quoting Clark’s journal, simply states that after some initial nervousness on the part of the Indians, they gave Clark “a horse load of roots and three salmon to send back to the main expedition.” In springtime, the pastures outside Wieppe are sprinkled with wildflowers, including the blue camas plant–possibly the source of the roots given to Clark. Nash speculates that the Indian village was situated by a creek that courses near the half-dozen buildings that now constitute the town.

“It’s important for the tribe to be able to claim its role in history,” says Nash, who is helping lead TPL’s efforts to protect Lewis and Clark sites that share an Indian perspective. Many of these are in the Columbia River Gorge, including the 35-acre Klickitat Landing at the confluence of the Columbia and Klickitat Rivers. Named by Lewis and Clark when they spent three days in the area resting and trading with local Indians, Klickitat Landing is an important ancestral Indian village and fishing ground. Until TPL purchased the site, development threatened to turn it into a 31-lot subdivision.

Dick Williams of the National Park Service has been working on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail for the last decade. “What’s exciting for me is that the Indian tribes are getting involved,” Williams says. “It’s really more their story than that of white Europeans. The bicentennial is forcing a reconciliation to begin between the two parties, creating a lot of opportunities for us to sit down with each other to talk about history and see where we’re going from here.”

The Indian way of life was not all that began disappearing soon after the Corps of Discovery reported back to President Jefferson. Many animals–including bison, grizzly bears, wolves, prairie dogs, and elk–began to dwindle, as well as plants that Lewis and Clark discovered on the trip. Like the Indians, some plants and animals were confined to their own kinds of “reservations.” People who still consider the West a wild place would be flabbergasted to see the landscapes Lewis and Clark traversed: grass and wildflower carpets of prairie teeming with wildlife, towering old-growth forests–all documented in the journals. “The bicentennial offers a great opportunity to see what has happened to the natural resources of the West by comparing what was there 200 years ago and what is there today,” says Williams.

During the bicentennial years, the National Park Service plans to operate a traveling classroom that will roughly follow the day-by-day route of the Corps of Discovery. Satellite uplinks and Internet connections will provide a virtual tour for students, history buffs, and others around the world who want to trace this American odyssey. “It’s a great opportunity to teach about history,” Williams says.

Land & People, Spring, 2001

Mark Matthews lives in Missoula, Montana, where he writes for the Washington Post, High Country News, Wildland Firefighter, and other publications. His opinion columns often are syndicated by Writers on the Range and appear in papers across the West.