Last updated: April 10, 2015
The 209th anniversary of the side trip by the Lewis and Clark expedition to Spirit Mound occurred. That day quickly passed into history and just as time always moves forward so did the expedition during the summer of 1804. The side trip to Spirit Mound was just that, a side trip, a long day hike into history. The following day the Corps of Discovery was back along the Missouri heading upriver towards not only unknown destinations, but also unknown fates. From the modern vantage point of hindsight, a kind of all-knowing after the fact clarity, it is easy to look at the rest of the expedition as one long successful adventure. Of course, the expedition would end two years later, but life and history did not end for member of the Corps of Discovery. For these men who had spent hundreds of days together the end of their journey was also a beginning. Something new, something good, something bad and by all turns just like the expedition they had just completed, unpredictable. Those who had helped make history went on to widely varying fates. From what we know, almost certainly none of the twelve men ever returned to revisit Spirit Mound. This is something the overriding majority of the visitors today have in common with the Corps of Discovery. It is a destination site, a one off visit. Whereas the river itself was and still is a likely candidate to be revisited.
The Missouri River was the one common natural thread that ran through the lives of everyone on that expedition. Yet, only a few of the twelve ever ventured back up the Mighty Mo and one of those who did, suffered a very different fate from that first successful foray. The fates of those who went to Spirit Mound serve as a reminder of the precariousness of life in the early 19th century. In the early 1800's the life expectancy of the average person in the United States was somewhere around 40 years of age. (Today it is 81 for females and 76 for males). The men who went up Spirit Mound had reason to believe that they had already lived the majority of their life. And for some, this would definitely be the pinnacle of their life, for others it would be just one of many accomplishments.
Nowhere is this clearer than the differing fates of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Lewis, beset by debt and depression, would take his own life a mere three years after the expedition ended. On the other hand, Clark would continue in service to the U.S. Government for the next three decades, finally dying in 1838. His death occurred in the same city, St. Louis, in which the expedition had completed their journey.Four of the other men who went up Spirit Mound are known to have lived long lives, either into the 1830's or 1840's. These included William Bratton. A miracle when one considers that later during the expedition in early 1806, Bratton was waylaid for months by severe back pain that threatened his very well being. He was miraculously cured by a sweat bath custom made for him by another Spirit Mound veteran, John Shields. Bratton would go on to fight in the War of 1812 and lived nearly another thirty years. He was 63 years old when he died in 1841.
Some of the men have been lost partially or wholly to history, reminding us not only of the constant threat of mortality, but also of historical anonymity. After all, history for the majority of people and events during this period comes down to the written record. Men such as Francois Labiche are only known by bits and pieces of information, the detritus of historiography. Labiche, the half Omaha/half French interpreter, and experienced frontier trader was crucial to the expedition's success. His life after the expedition is known to us only in fragments. He married and had a family while also continuing in the fur trade. His date of death - thought to be sometime in the 1830's - is like his date of birth, unknown to us as well. His presence is more akin to an act of magic: appear from the unknown, perform fantastic feats and then disappear.
Many lives became scattered or incoherent after the journey was done. These include one Robert Frazier. Frazier kept a journal during the expedition, but it was lost. Too bad for Frazer that the details of his life after 1806 were not lost as well. He spent much of the time cultivating a violent streak, he was charged with assault multiple times and finally murder in 1812. Oddly, he then managed to turn his life around as a watch repairer and clockmaker. He died in 1837 as an upstanding citizen, perhaps this feat was greater than anything he had done with the expedition. John Shields, the only married man who was part of the Corps, ended up only living three more years after the expedition ended. Thus his life afterwards, hardly lasted any longer than the expedition he had been a vital part of as a blacksmith and carpenter. Another man, identified as E. Cann or Cane was actually said to be one Alexander Carson, who lived for so long among the French that he was mistaken as such.
The slave York's after expedition experience is relatively well known up to a point. He gained a new sense of independence from his role as part of the Corps. In 1811 he gained his freedom from Clark. At this point, history tells us his life took one of two paths. Either he operated a wagon freight business in Tennessee and Kentucky or he became a revered member of the Crow Indian tribe, back out west. Historians have largely ruled out the latter. It is said in the former role, his business eventually went bankrupt and he succumbed to cholera. That may be so, but York had journeyed far beyond his proscribed station in life. He had gained his freedom and in hindsight that is what matters most.
Then there was John Colter, a man who played an outsized role in the history of the American West. He is thought to have been the first white man to have ever seen what is today Yellowstone National Park. It became known as "Colter's Hell." Today that supposed hell has become a haven for wildlife and tourists the world over. It has become and as it will always remain, the world's first National Park.
And that leaves us with a couple of tragedies along two mighty rivers that are connected and yet separate at the same time. The first involves Sergeant John Ordway, who became a landowner close to the Mississippi River at New Madrid in Missouri Territory. Ordway must have seen and experienced many incredible things during his time as an officer during the Expedition. Some of this is set forth in his journal entries which were thought to have been lost to history, but were discovered over a hundred years after the fact and published in 1916. Yet the most incredible occurrence in Ordway's life was also the most tragic. During the winter of 1810 - 1811 he was a relatively prosperous landowner in New Madrid when multiple earthquakes struck the area. These were and still are some of the most powerful earthquakes in American history. The final one during the dead of winter on February 7th, was a massive 8.0 on the Richter Scale. It caused the Mississippi to actually flow backwards. Towering sand blow outs sent dust and earth skyward, trees were uprooted, the ground roiled in chaotic upheavals, trees flew through the air and chimneys along with their associated structures crumbled. Ordway and his family fell into destitution. He is thought to have never recovered, dying five years later, in 1816.
The other tragedy occurred right back along the banks of the Missouri, in what is today South Dakota. In 1807, Joseph Field was accompanying a fur trade expedition upriver. The group was close to the mouth of the Grand River, in what is the extreme north central part of the state today. They became involved in a skirmish with Arikara Indians on an early September morning. It is thought that Field was one of those wounded and that he died soon afterward. Field was the first Corps of Discovery member to die after the expedition's successful completion. He was the only one of the twelve men who went to the top of Spirit Mound that day of August 25, 1804 who would die along the Missouri River. What happened to Field could have easily happened several years before, but it did not.
That in essence is how history works, it is uncertain, it is capricious, it is confusing, comforting, horrifying and enchanting. It is filled with misfortune, luck and sheer chance. In sum, history is much like the Missouri River that brought those men to Spirit Mound so long ago.