Footprints of History

The Lewis and Clark Expedition traversed the Gallatin Valley on both their outbound and return trips in 1805-06. Concordantly, their presence has generated an almost inescapable historical aura in and around the Missouri Headwaters area.

The pressing result of this is that the paper publishes an annual insert called “The Yellowstone Country Explorer,” and that periodical contains an article on Lewis and Clark each year. Though our newsroom archives of past Explorers is incomplete, the issues I managed to get my hands on all contained essentially the same article. From what I can tell, it was written sometime around 1999 by a certain reporter. His name stuck with the article when it was reprinted in 2001. His name was dropped in 2002, but 90 percent of the article stayed unchanged.

Then came 2007, and a new editor asks for a new approach, hence a new article–assigned to me.

We just ended the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, a 45-month celebration of the expedition spread across 11 states. According to Roscoe Montgomery of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, the story of the expedition has changed a lot because of that celebration.

For the first time, American Indian tribes were invited to tell their side of the story. Sacagawea’s role has expanded. Supporting names like George Drouillard and Manuel Lisa have become more important. The Shoshone contribution has been emphasized.

So what’s left to be said?

Montgomery provided part of the answer himself. For years, he was a high school biology teacher. After retiring about 12 years ago, he finally got the time to read all the history books his brother had been sending. As he described it, he became a “history nut.”

So he became something of an expert. He read the books; he learned to manufacture leather clothing from period tools; he spoke to thousands of people about the Corps of Discovery. But he was a member of a transitional generation–the one that had to learn the difference between Sacajawea and Sacagawea, the one who had to see its heroes taken down a few notches, replaced by a fairer and perhaps less convenient history.

In 1805, Meriwether Lewis climbed to the top of a limestone cliff overlooking the newly-named Gallatin River, the captain surveyed the party’s path to the mountains. From there, he could take in the entire valley and plan for the future.

A little more than 200 years later, as Montgomery stood in the shadow of that same cliff on a warm May morning, I got a sense that some of that grandeur had slipped away. The man was cheerful enough, knowledgeable enough, but something of the spirit was gone.

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