Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Not the French again...

I overlooked this post from a couple of weeks ago as I couldn't find any pictures.  Now I have so here it is.

It seems to not matter where you go but there grinning at you is likely to be some Rene or Thierry smirking away because they got there first.  Or at least that's what they say.

So it is in that vast tract of land in the middle of the USA called the mid-west.

Its all about two guys Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau who in 1673 took their little canoes thousands and thousands of miles over many years from Quebec across the width of half of Canada through the great lakes and then down through various rivers until they hit the motherlode, the Mississippi, which in an instant whirled them down to the confluence firstly of the Illinois River (north easterly direction towards Chicago) and the Mississippi near a town today called Grafton, Illinois where they and their comrades carved a cross out of the rock for all to see next time they passed.

"Now listen Mr. Lewis, this is what I want you to do... see the big question mark?  I want you to fill that in..."

They didn't stop there though but carried on down the Mississippi until they came to the confluence of an even greater river system, namely the Mississippi and Missouri just outside modern day St. Louis.  There they did stop and started an encampment that they called St. Louis after Louis IX, the patron saint of France.  That was in 1674.

Other French Canadians carried on down the Mississippi until they came to the Gulf of Mexico where they founded yet another settlement called New Orleans (actually Nouvel Orleans if you want to be picky) where a whole bunch of French Canadians ended up after they lost the 7 Years War to England in 1763 and gave up all of Canada.

Fast forward 40 years to beyond the War of Independence and that other upstart Napoleon who had run the French treasury dry by his endless wars but was now at peace for a short period when the slave revolt in today's Haiti destroyed the French presence in the Caribbean.  It made him realize that (a) there was no chance France could support a colony that far away from France without a navy that could challenge the Royal Navy, and (b) that maybe as those Yankees had asked to buy New Orleans, perhaps he could actually negotiate a better deal before he lost the territory altogether.

Ever the pragmatist Napoleon figured out that $15 million in 1803 money meant he could pay his armies for another couple of years to enable him to move against Austro-Hungary, the German states and Russia in a series of shattering campaigns that catapulted him to total supremacy in Europe, and promoted him to the position of Emperor.

It also doubled the size of the USA and prompted Jefferson to ask his personal secretary, Merriweather Lewis, to head west out of the new US city of St. Louis along the Missouri River to find the Pacific Ocean, meet and deal with Indians, chart maps and any new flora and fauna he may find, and generally enable the US to lay claim to more of the Pacific North West to bring Jefferson's vision of the USA 'from sea to shining sea' to fruition.

Doesn't sound much today but Lewis had the boats built in Pittsburg and sailed them down to St. Louis.  Took months.

Lewis contacted his former Army CO, Captain William Clark, to ask him to accompany him on the trek.  Clark had opted out of the army so agreed.  He it turned out was the practical one whilst Lewis was the botanist, zoologist, and general all round recorder of the trip.  Clark was an experienced cartographer and his maps of the journey were amazingly only 40 miles out.  No GPS to help him either.

Rather like at Jamestown, this was not an unplanned trip even though big.  They took over a year to plan things out with a blank cheque from the President.  Trouble was they didn't know what to take and why... all into the great unknown.  Rather like planning a road trip today.

We started our voyage of discovery at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, a national park with security like any international airport (for goodness sake), where there was a museum dedicated to this journey only and its import in the expansion of the USA to what it is today.

Built in the 1970s this is a monster edifice. Great views.

There's an interesting chronology of events year by year that follows the US between 1800 and 1900.  In 1800 the population was not much over 2 million, by 1900 it was nearly 100 million.  In summary after Lewis & Clark, other expeditions went out in other directions both further north and south as one main objective was to find a practical path through the Rockies.  Lewis & Clark's expedition nearly died of starvation in the nightmare winter crossing as where they chose to cross was not that wise.  Others found easier routes making the great westward treks more easy (they were still tough of course but not impossible).  By 1850, the far west was colonized, Indians displaced and annoyed, and settlements were starting to put down real roots.

Amazing how quick it all was after that start.

We then went to the museum at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri -- 2 huge rivers which simply joined up north of St. Louis.  Lewis & Clark kicked off from there in their great adventure and the museum made much of it (very well indeed).

Missouri to the left, Mississippi to the right.  

I'm always amazed how people with nothing more than a hope and a prayer and (in this case just as with the case of the Jamestown settlements) over a year of planning with the specific and direct assistance from the US President (Jefferson) can achieve such amazing results.

Only 1 person on the trip died -- soon from a burst appendix -- and unsurprisingly given what was to follow, there were no Indian incidents other than a couple of Blackfoot who stole from the party and were shot and the numerous incidents of STD's that the party picked up from the Indians who according to Lewis' journals were riddled with it -- not a point that is usually highlighted.

3,700 miles there and back over 2 and a half years.  Sounds like a good road trip for us sometime soon! Hopefully in less time.

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