Two hundred years ago, Capts. William Clark and Meriwether Lewis and their Corps of Discovery made history, meeting with representatives of the Oto and Missouria tribes for the first time, in an area that would eventually be Fort Calhoun.
This weekend, the small town made history itself, welcoming tens of thousands of visitors who came to commemorate that historic meeting at one of the National Park Service's "Signature Events."
Months ago, as organizers met with local representatives at Fort Atkinson State Historical Park, estimates of 10,000 visitors a day were expected. But the steady stream of cars heading into Fort Calhoun from Highway 75, and the thousands of visitors who came to see re-enactors, displays and experience the event proved that those early estimates fell short of the actual attendance.
Despite estimated crowds of 42,000 for the first two days, organizers felt things were "running smoothly."
"This event far exceeded our expectations," said Paula Rhian, coordinator for the Nebraska Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commission. "I keep waiting to wake up and think it's a dream."
Rhian said she expected Monday to have the smallest crowd for the four-day event, but also said a variety of school and educational groups were planning to visit. "I anticipate crowds tomorrow (Tuesday, Aug. 3), with the nickel launch."
Local law enforcement also said the event went well.
"We had no reports of any crime at all," said Washington County Sheriff Mike Robinson. "There were some traffic delays, of course, but, overall, everything went smoothly. When you have 20,000 people each day in a town of about 900 people, that's pretty good."
For visitors, activities abounded throughout the area.
Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns and James Grant, tribal chair of the Otoe-Missouri tribe were special guests at an opening ceremony on Saturday morning. The ceremony opened and closed with prayers led by Aaron Gawhega of the Otoe-Missouria tribe.
Gov. Johanns thanked all those who made the Signature event possible.
"Words will never be able to express how much I appreciate and the state appreciates all the very quiet, diligent work you have done over the past few years. It's been wonderful."
Johanns told the crowd that one of his greatest honors was to welcome the Otoe-Missouri tribe back to Nebraska. Johanns noted that members of the tribe had traveled many miles to attend the event, and thanked them for their participation and attendance.
"This welcome home is long overdue in my estimation, and I hope this is the beginning of a lasting friendship," Johanns said. "This commemoration has been an opportunity for us to develop a working relationship but also a relationship based upon trust and friendship."
"I want to say it is an honor to be here today and come back to our homeland, where our ancestors once lived," said James Grant, tribal chair for the Otoe-Missouria Tribe. "The tribal members who made the journey up here want you to know that we feel that it's an honor, it's a privilege to come back here and be here throughout the four day s and share some information with you, to talk to you about the way we live today, what we've been taught about the past, and once again, be here where our ancestors came from."
Roger Kuhn, assistant director of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, expressed his thanks to the city of Fort Calhoun. He said that events such as the Signature Event don't just "happen," but were years in the making.
Throughout the weekend, Native American dancers and performers kept the crowds entertained and welcomed visitors to learn more about their traditional life in a special encampment.
Noted scholars, such as Drs. Gary Moulton, James Ronda and Hal Stearns drew enthusiastic and appreciative crowds to their talks on the Thomas Jefferson Educational Stage. Throughout the grounds, re-enactors answered questions and posed for pictures.
Top-name entertainment was also a highlight during the weekend. The nationally known Kevin Locke trio provided music and traditional dance, while the high-energy South Dakota band Brule drew an appreciative crowd of more than 1,000 on Saturday. Despite even higher temperatures , the concert Sunday was equally well attended.
Activities will be held through Tuesday at the Signature Site and at the Corps II site in Blair.