For people who remember their elementary school history, the Lewis and Clark expedition began over 200 years ago as Captain Meriwether Lewis and his crew made their way from Camp Dubois in Illinois to meet William Clark in Missouri to find new trade routes and explore the west.
But officially, the action began in Pittsburgh. On August 31, 1803, Meriwether Lewis launched the his 50-foot boat about 100 yards downriver from where the David L. Lawrence Convention Center now sits.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, commemorating their journey, was established by Congress in 1978. It begins in Illinois, but now there’s a proposal to extend it eastward, to Pittsburgh. John McNulty is a native Pittsburgher, musician, and community activist who says this proposed trail extension has given him real purpose in life. He’s so passionate about Lewis and Clark that he quit his job in 2003 to join the bicentennial re-enactment of the exploration.
Kara Holsopple spoke with McNulty recently at the top of Mount Washington. The Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation received a grant to place a plaque there so that more people can learn about western Pennsylvania’s connection to the Lewis and Clark expedition. The spot offers a view the confluence of the rivers, where Lewis floated out of sight and into history.
Kara Holsopple: Give me the super short version of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
John McNulty: The Lewis and Clark expedition, as we call it today, in its time was known as the Corps of Discovery. Basically, it was doing a survey of the entire Louisiana Purchase and beyond. And those days, nobody knew where the Missouri River source was. So they were the first Americans to go by land to the Pacific Coast. President Thomas Jefferson wanted it properly surveyed. He was interested in everything, whether it was the soil, the plants, the birds, Native Americans. And that’s why Lewis extended co-captaincy to William Clark because, their task was so great they felt that it would require two officers to manage it all.
KH: And just say a little bit about who Lewis and Clark were.
JM: Meriwether Lewis came out to western Pennsylvania as a young man from Virginia to crush the Whiskey Rebellion. He didn’t think very highly of the rebels out here in western Pennsylvania. He matriculated into the regular militia. The army at the time was fighting Native Americans in western Ohio, and using Pittsburgh as a headquarters. That’s where William Clark was serving. Clark was four years older than Lewis. He was then living in present day Louisville, Kentucky. And it was in Pittsburgh that Lewis received the letter from Clark saying that he would join him on the expedition.
LISTEN: “The Lewis and Clark Expedition Began in Pittsburgh. And Soon the Historic Trail Might, Too.”
KH: Now the National Historic Trail begins just north of St. Louis, and there’s a move to create an Eastern Legacy Extension which begins in Pittsburgh. Why should it start here?
JM: Well first I should say it’s H.R. 3045. So we actually have a real bill with legal language. The existing trail now is about 3,700 miles that goes up the Missouri River over the Rocky Mountains and down the Snake River to the Columbia to the West Coast. And this would add on approximately just under 1,200 miles — the entire length of the Ohio River and a little over 100 miles of the Mississippi River. The National Park Service did a five-year study where they looked at 25 trail segments, all related to Lewis and Clark. The National Park Service came to the conclusion, and I agree with them, that those other sites don’t rise to the level of the criteria that you would need to have a National Historic Trail. And they felt that Pittsburgh – this is where Captain Lewis first took troops under his command; this is where he started to make observations about the river and the shallows of the water; and this was the launching of the flagship keelboat, that would carry the majority of the supplies. This was considered the beginning of the expedition.
KH: Can you point out where the events took place?
JM: As we stand up here, looking to the east you can see the sloping roof of the David Lawrence Convention Center, which is on the site of the 5th fort that was in downtown Pittsburgh, Fort Fayette. And that is where we believe that the keel boat was commissioned, built and launched [on] August 31st, 1803. And then as the Allegheny River connects with the Monongahela River, and the Ohio River starts, we can see that graceful curve arching right in front of us. To the west is a beautiful view of Brunot Island, which was the first landing of the keelboat. So basically, from this one spot you can see the first three miles of the Lewis and Clark expedition as it goes to the West.
The rivers were the highways and the Mississippi watershed provided this incredible access into the interior of the continent. Only about five percent of the expedition was truly on land. The trail is the rivers. And that’s important because that brings people into a greater awareness of how we need to protect our water systems, and our creeks and feeder streams.
KH: What do you think this extension would mean for Pittsburgh?
JM: I think it would mean a great deal. We’re still in the process of rebranding from the steel days, and now the word is out that Pittsburgh is a tech center. But I really feel that a future, sustainable economy can be based on the period of Pittsburgh’s history before steel became came king — when it was a glass manufacturing center; when it was a boatbuilding center; when it was truly, as described by frontiersmen back in the day, the hills of Eden. I believe that this trail extension not only would set the historic record correct, but it will encourage tourists around the nation to come and visit here for generations to come. This could be the catalyst for a lot of green infrastructure development, like bike lanes in the West End, and a bird sanctuary. We have to up our game. Think what it could mean for the upper Ohio watershed. Right now, it’s heavily industrialized. McKees Rocks doesn’t have a boardwalk, but that could all change.
KH: It’s a big dream.
JM: It is something worth working on for a long time, and many people have been.
KH: How do you square extending the trail to Pittsburgh, and claiming Lewis and Clark for this region, with the other part of westward expansion, which is the taking of land from indigenous people, and what happened to Native people after? They were violently forced onto reservations, exposed to disease and killed.
JM: It’s not easy. You know Jefferson said, “An empire of liberty.” I’m a big fan of Thomas Jefferson, but there are some inconsistencies just with that statement alone. An empire, by definition, means you’re coercing somebody. I think that if people would think about how we all got here, that there’s many, many stories and many, many voices. And realize that they did not go into wilderness. The truth of the matter is, William Clark, on his very accurate map, would write down an approximation of how many Native Americans were living in villages. When our government published that map in 1814, they took out all that information to make it look like it was just out there for the taking. It was not. They relied on Native Americans throughout the entire expedition. They could not have done it without the support of Native Americans. The theme for me would be show respect for land and people and water.