Gateway to the West is an apt name for our annual community festival because the exploration of the American West began in 1804 right here along the banks of Missouri River.
On the morning of May 14, 1804, a keel boat and two pirogues crossed the Mississippi River and started up the Missouri on an expedition to follow the river to its source in the western mountains and then on to the Pacific Ocean. President Thomas Jefferson’s orders to Lewis and Clark were to map the new territory, assess the natural resources and make contact with the inhabitants.
On July 30, 1804, the expedition set up camp on some high ground above the river at a place we know as Fort Atkinson. At this site, the Corps of Discovery held the first council with members of the Otoe and Missouria tribes. Fourteen years later, Fort Atkinson was established as the first military post west of the Missouri.
The expedition of Lewis and Clark first kindled my imagination when I was 5 or 6 years old. Around that age I remember a family road trip to Sioux City, Iowa, and seeing a pointed monument high on a bluff above the highway. The obelisk marks the spot where Corps of Discovery Sgt. Charles Floyd was buried after becoming ill from what was probably appendicitis. The monument is the first designated historical monument in the United States.
One of the most memorable events I have covered while working for the Enterprise was the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial “Tribal Council” signature event in 2004. This reenactment of the first council with the Otoe and Missouria Tribes and related activities over that weekend in August drew thousands of visitors to Fort Atkinson, Fort Calhoun and Washington County.
This summer, there will be another bicentennial celebration. Events and activities are scheduled to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the establishment of Fort Atkinson as a military post.
A visit to the Desoto National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center to view the Steamboat Bertrand exhibit is another trip back in time. The center is the home of a collection of more than 200,000 artifacts excavated from the hull of the vessel which was heading for the gold fields in Montana. The Betrand hit a snag or submerged log and sank in 1865. The cargo ranged from cannon balls and shovels to men and women's hats, fine clothing and glassware. Food packed in jars and butter were perfectly preserved in the river mud for more than 100 years.
Learning about the local connections with the exploration and settlement of the American West gives me the itch to follow the river and travel along the Lewis and Clark trail to the headwaters of the Missouri River in Montana and then on to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park in Oregon near the mouth of the Columbia River. Along the way, I will document my journey with lots of pictures and weekly columns in the Enterprise.
While I plan to travel as the spirit moves, my first scheduled stop is Fort Benton, Mont. Fort Benton is a National Historic Landmark City and the starting point for my three-day canoe trip to view the White Cliffs of the Missouri, which are accessible only by water. In next week’s Enterprise column I hope to show you some pictures and share my story of the first week of my adventure.
Joe Burns is a photographer for the Washington County Pilot-Tribune and Enterprise.