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By Tom Elpel
Contributing Writer 

Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery: Taste of Freedom

 

November 27, 2019

Food debris at Lexington Riverfront Park provided an aura of disorder.

"Set out after a heavy Shower of rain and proceeded on the Same Course of last night passed a large butifull Prarie on the S. S. opposit a large Island, Calld Saukee Prarie, a gentle breese from the S. W. Some butiful high lands on the L. S. passed Som verry Swift water to day, I saw Pelicans to day on a Sand bar, my servant York nearly loseing an eye by a man throwing Sand into it."

-William Clark, June 20, 1804

Lewis and Clark often referred to their crew as "the men" or "a man" without specifying names. Clark didn't elaborate why a member of their expedition threw sand in York's eyes near today's Lexington, Missouri, but it was apparently an intentional act. The Corps of Discovery consisted of white men, many raised in the South within the culture of slavery, who may have tormented York for entertainment or because they resented having an African American on the expedition. Barely a month into the journey, the crew wasn't wholly disciplined, and hadn't yet grown together as a team.

Over time, however, York played a role equal or greater than that of the other men. Although slaves were prohibited from using firearms at home, York carried a gun on the expedition and proved a successful hunter. He worked side-by-side with the men and joined them in celebrations and dancing. York played a critical role in diplomacy with the tribes, impressing Indians who had never seen a black man before. Lewis and Clark honored York by naming a group of islands after him near Townsend, Montana. And when the co-captains polled the crew regarding a location to build a fort for the winter of 1805, they counted votes from both York and Sacagawea.

Having enjoyed a taste of freedom and equality, York requested release after the expedition, which William Clark denied. The two men had grown up side-by-side as playmates, albeit with one as slave and the other as master. Their post-expedition relationship soured, and after several bitter years, Clark finally caved to York's request.

The issue of slavery divided the United States from the outset, with unresolved issues boiling over into the Civil War of 1861-1865. Lexington, Missouri was the site of one early conflict.

We paddled into Lexington Riverfront Park in our continuing journey of rediscovery. Flood debris provided the aura of disorder, as if entering the aftermath of a minor battle. After setting up camp, Scott and I walked into town to visit the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site.

In September of 1861, Colonel James A. Mulligan and 3,500 Union soldiers took the high ground, building fortifications around the Masonic College. A natural spring provided water, but inadequate to meet the needs of all the men and horses. They were surrounded by Major General Sterling Price and 15,000 soldiers of the Missouri State Guard, who largely waited while the hot sun and insufficient water wore down Union forces. On the third day the State Guard used wet hemp bales as mobile breastworks, rolling the bales uphill for protection as they advanced on the northern army's position. Mulligan surrendered, bolstering optimism and support for the Confederate cause.

The Union lost the battle, but ultimately won the war. Traumatized veterans from North and South streamed up the Missouri River to form blended communities in the goldfields of the Montana Territory. The former mining town of Sterling, not far from my home in Pony, was likely named after Major General Sterling Price, while nearby Sheridan was named after the Union's General Philip Sheridan. My great grandfather Raymond Thomas Beam followed later, moving from Missouri to Montana in 1906.

While the Union victory forcibly held the United States together, the underlying issues and political divisions remained. A century after the South surrendered, the nation was still clawing inch by inch through desegregation and other civil rights issues. Today's political divide largely follows 150-year-old fault lines. America remains shrouded in the fog of war as deeply entrenched sides hurl scathing insults at one another across social media.

We awoke to a different kind of fog, dense and heavy on the river, delaying our departure until we could perceive trees silhouetted against the opposite bank. In our longest day of the journey, we paddled fifty-five miles to the small town of Miami, Missouri, greatly aided by the swift river current.

A few miles shy of camp we encountered a heavy barge pushing upriver. Conditions were ideal, with calm waters, no wind, and ample room to steer clear of the behemoth watercraft. The initial wake gently rolled across the river in predictable fashion, easily handled by aiming our canoes into the oncoming waves.

A half-mile below the barge, however, we encountered the rear waves. The tow boat pushing the barge dug into the river, creating a massive watery hole followed by a rising, almost fountain-like wave that settled into huge rollers aimed downstream, lifting us several feet on each swell to come crashing back down again.

Missouri State Guard troops pushed wet hemp bales up the hill for protection as they advanced on the Union position.

A mile behind the barge, the rear waves merged with waves echoing off the banks to form turbulence matched only by that of our politically-divided country. We heaved up in the air on gridded, egg-carton-like peaks of nonlinear waves, crashing into pockets that threatened to swamp the canoe at any moment. Two miles behind the barge we were still fighting substantial turbulence. By the time we reached camp, damp and chilled in the last moments of light, the barge was at least five miles upstream, yet the river had not fully regained it's glassy calm.

Thomas J. Elpel is a resident of Pony, Montana and the author of numerous books on nature and sustainable living. His mother, Jan Elpel, authored Berrigan's Ride and two sequels based in the mining camps of southwest Montana in the post-Civil War era, available from http://www.hopspress.com.

 

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