A Trail of History
Alumnus paves path with Lewis and Clark bicentennial exhibition
Two hundred years ago, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark forged their way up the Missouri River into the vast, newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Their aim was to become the first Americans to traverse North America to the Pacific via an imagined water route.
There was no water route, yet the famed Lewis and Clark expedition was far from a failure. In fact, the group's collected specimens and careful journal records, as well as their attempts to develop relationships with Native American tribes, is now the stuff of legend—legend, of course, loosely based on facts.
Separating fact from fiction was one of the reasons why Tim Grove, MA History '93, joined four other historians to work on Lewis and Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition. A commemoration of the journey of these great explorers, the exhibit, funded by the Missouri Historical Society, the National Park Service, the Missouri Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, will tour the United States for the next two years.
Grove was the educator on the project team, developing film, audio, and written parts of the exhibit; editing and writing the teacher curriculum; and guiding development of the web site (www.lewisandclarkexhibit.org) and electronic field trips.
Grove also helped track down several of the exhibits, including the only known animal specimen, a Lewis woodpecker. Such rare treasures as the journals of Lewis and Clark are other pieces of the display. Plant specimens collected by Lewis in 1806, peace medals, and Lewis's watch and telescope are a few of the other items displayed. In addition, the exhibit contains the razor box of Patrick Gass, the expedition's carpenter, which is thought to have been a gift from Sacagawea, the famous Indian woman interpreter.
“One of the challenges of my job was deciding how to deal with Sacagawea and Clark's slave, York, two people who went on the expedition and who, through time, have reached almost legendary status in relation to the expedition story,” says Grove, although little historical evidence surrounding the two exists. “Lewis and Clark would be shocked that Sacagawea made it onto a U.S. coin before they did—she wasn't even a U.S. citizen. We decided to present the evidence and let visitors draw conclusions.”
One of the unique things about the exhibit, according to Grove, is that it takes a look at the cultural landscape rather than the physical landscape, focusing on themes such as diplomacy, women, language, and animals. The exhibit also looks closely at the expedition's interactions with specific Indian tribes. The cultural contrasts between the explorers and the Native Americans they encountered reveal how the expedition overcame communication barriers and how it sometimes failed.
As part of his work, Grove was able to hike part of the Lewis and Clark trail and meet with several Indian advisors to interview them on their culture and history. “I really liked organizing a meeting of tribal advisors from about nine tribes that Lewis and Clark encountered,” Grove says. “The information they shared was so moving.”
Grove's traveling took him far, both physically and spiritually. On his first trip, he accompanied a Smithsonian study tour of the Missouri River, hiking, horseback riding, and camping on the Lolo Trail high up in the Bitterroot Mountains at the border of Montana and Idaho, and canoeing on the Clearwater River. A fan of outdoor activities, Grove was thrilled at the prospect. He later made similar trips, going to places along the trail in Oregon, Washington, North Dakota, and Missouri. “While much of the trail has changed in the past 200 years, it is possible to find areas that still look like the landscape that Lewis and Clark must have seen,” says Grove.
Grove says one of the best parts of working on this project has been the people he has met. Talking with tribal advisors and elders, scholars, and even Clark's descendants, Grove has seen an increased interest in the project and the history of the expedition.
The exhibit is currently housed in the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, after which it will travel to Philadelphia, Denver, and Portland. The exhibit's tour will end in Washington, D.C., at the National Museum of Natural History where it will be on display from May to September 2006.