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Spirit Mound and the Visitor Experience - Living History

August 25, 2013 Posted by: Chris Wilkinson

Spirit Mound, a site connected with the Missouri National Recreational River, is one of the premier attractions associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It is one of the very few places along the 3,700+ mile Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail where visitors can stand in the exact same place where members of the Corps of Discovery did over two hundred years ago. On August 25, 1804 Lewis, Clark and ten other men of the expedition journeyed north from the Missouri River to explore a "mysterious hill," known today as Spirit Mound. Lewis and Clark had heard stories of Spirit Mound from the Otoes, Missouria, Omaha, and others concerning little people who inhabited the hill. Lewis and Clark chose to journey to Spirit Mound so that they might understand why the Indians revered this location.

They did not find any little people on Spirit Mound, but after a hot and thirsty journey, they topped the hill and saw, for the first time, a panoramic view of the Great Plains grasslands and an expansive, relatively treeless prairie inhabited by large herds of bison and elk. Today visitors to Spirit Mound also get an expansive, 360 degree view, albeit a quite different one.For those of us who work at the park or live near Spirit Mound it makes a nice short hike, especially this time of year. Yet perhaps it is the shortness of the hike or the relatively benign scenery of acre upon acre of corn and soybean fields stretching across the horizon, which seem to tamp down the WOW factor when visiting the site. This is not the way it should be. Spirit Mound is one of THE most important sites on the entire trail. This is due to the simple fact that it still exists.

Why is the existence of a place where Lewis and Clark actually stood such a rarity? The short answer is that Spirit Mound is not on or near the Missouri River. The Missouri, which was the highway of discovery for Lewis and Clark, has also been the great destroyer of an overwhelming majority of the expedition's campsites. Even before the Pick-Sloan Plan dammed much of the Middle Missouri and drowned many historic campsites under thousands of cubic feet of water, the untamed Missouri was cutting new paths over, across and through the expedition's campsites.

To try and state definitively that Lewis and Clark camped or were in an exact place with any kind of certainty is pretty much in an historical guessing game. Conversely, Spirit Mound is a place where the expedition really did stand. Today, the grasses on the mound's slopes may be different, the surrounding prairie all but sub-divided, hemmed in by fences and covered with fertile fields of grain, yet visitors can still get a rough approximation of what those twelve men saw on that historic day so long ago. It is not what really happened at Spirit Mound 209 years ago that matters so much, instead it is the power of this place which transcends time and transports the visitor back into history.

And not only can visitor's stand in the footsteps of the Expedition, they can also have relatively the same visitor experience that Lewis and Clark did. These explorers were visitors to the mound as well, staying there an hour or two at most. They were there for a short visit, to look, discover, learn and then move on. Visitors today do the same. The main difference is that those men standing atop Spirit Mound on August 25, 1804 were making history, while the visitors of today are experiencing it!


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