Exploring America: “Make Next Left Turn…”

Over the July Fourth weekend, my husband and I traveled to the West to visit friends. As we navigated parts of southern Montana in our rental car equipped with a GPS unit, we were deftly guided to our various destinations by the soothing tones of a voice programmed into the Garmin navigation system–a lovely woman whose only comment when my husband would go his own way was to calmly note, “Need to recalculate…make next left turn…”

Among our destinations was Pompys Pillar, a 150-foot high mesa that overlooks the Yellowstone River east of Billings. The butte is the only tall outcropping for several miles, so climbing it permits one to survey a very broad area. It is an important landmark for the Lewis and Clark Expedition as it is the only spot in the West that has physical evidence of the explorers’ travels.

William Clark (1770-1838) and Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) opted to take two different routes back from the Pacific in order to expand their explorations and map as much of the west as they could. Clark took the route along the Yellowstone, and in an effort to continue his mapping, he climbed up the rock the Crow Indian Nation called iish-biiaa-ah-naac ‘he’ (“Where the Mountain Lion Sits”) and noted the direction of the Yellowstone River and its relation to other mountain peaks that were visible from the mesa top. He called it “Pompys Tower” after Sacagewea’s young son, Baptiste Charbonneau, whom Clark affectionately called Pomp or Pompy, which means little chief in the Shoshoni language. Before Clark left, he signed his name and the date (1806) in the sandstone, and it is still visible today.

Lewis and Clark’s expedition was a remarkable success. They mapped territory that had never been explored, and they discovered 178 new plant species and 122 animal species and subspecies. However, they did not accomplish one of the central missions established–to be able to navigate through the area. President Thomas Jefferson had sent them out to find the “most direct and practicable water communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce.” Though they had made it all the way to the Pacific Ocean, no wagon train could follow their route west–it was too arduous.

Other explorers verified this understanding. Army Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813) was commissioned to explore the headwaters of the Mississippi (1805-1806), and he did the same for the Arkansas and Red rivers (1806-07). When he returned to civilization, he reported that the plains were nothing more than a “great American desert.” In 1819 Major Steven Long explored a more southerly route through what is now Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas. He, too, sent back word that the West was unfit for human habitation. The image of having to travel through dunes with no water kept other adventurers from following.

So when did serious navigation of the West begin? Actually it occurred just a few years after Lewis and Clark, but it took businessmen to drive the hunt for routes. John Jacob Astor felt there was money to be made in the West (little could he have imagined in what way his family fortune would grab headlines in 2009). In 1811 Astor funded one group to travel west via water by sailing around Cape Horn, and another to travel overland. Both groups had a very difficult time, but a year later one of the land travelers, Robert Stuart, turned around to go back for help, and he came upon an amazing discovery–a 20-mile wide pass in southwestern Wyoming that provided a shortcut of sorts through the Rockies. Now known as South Pass, the new route reduced the time it took to travel west. When Astor was told of the discovery, he ordered his men to remain mum; he considered the discovery proprietary. For 15 years Astor’s men came and went using their newly discovered shortcut and bringing back pelts from the far West. Only later would more people learn of it, and the South Pass was to become the single most important route for emigrants traveling west.

The discovery of gold coupled with better reports from other travelers finally led to an increase in westward travel in the 1840s. John Charles Fremont, a Civil War hero and eventually a candidate for president, and his wife Jessie, the daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, were destined to eventually turn the tide on the bad press the West was receiving. Fremont led many expeditions throughout the western territory, and he and his wife Jessie traveled the Oregon Trail in 1842 and 1843. Jessie wrote about what they saw, and her intelligent descriptions helped create an interest in people coming to the West.

As Americans adjust their GPS systems in their cars – or now on their smartphones – for travel in various parts of America this summer, we should give a tip of our hats to those explorers like William Clark, who thought little of scrambling up Pompys Tower or traveling at a fearsome pace down a never-before-navigated river, in order to map new territory. These adventurers’ notes and reports led to road-making, which has given us safe and secure navigation throughout our beautiful land.

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