A special Lewis and Clark day

I always approach the day of November 19 with religious reverence and a large dose of grateful joy.

When I wake up on the morning of November 19, I give thanks to the universe and to a greater power. And then comes a laugh and a day of happiness celebrating the simple facts that, No. 1, I once completed a rugged journey that few folks in our modern age have made; No. 2, I survived; and, No. 3, I’m still alive, almost a half-century later, to tell the story.

November 19 was the day of the year—back 46 years ago—when four of my friends and I reached the St. Louis Gateway Arch, completing a half-year, 3,700-mile journey along the trail of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Our excursion was undertaken when I was a young man, a very young man, age 23, and it was by backpack; canoe and kayak on the rivers; and by foot across the Rockies.

Sometimes, as we hiked the Lolo Trail, the mountain forests were so silent all we could hear was our own beating hearts.

It was a poetic ballad of sweat, Nature’s beauty, friendship, aching muscles, blisters, sunburns, the fresh smell of pine trees, starry nights, snowy mornings, unbounded enthusiasm, at times gut-wrenching fear, great laughter, cold rain, and more sweat, always sweat, and always wind in our faces no matter which way we faced, a great mystery how that always seemed to be.

We started in early June at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River at the coastal edges of Oregon and Washington. The fort of today is a replica of a long-gone winter fort constructed there by the Lewis and Clark explorers in late 1805 after they spent the previous year and a half traveling through the wilderness from St. Louis. They lived at their Fort Clatsop for almost four months and in the spring of 1806 undertook a 6-month journey back to civilization at St. Louis.

One member of our group, Mike Cochran, was a cartoonist. This was his version of how Lewis and Clark and the dog Seaman felt at times as they moved along the Lolo Trail. A slight bit of editorial license here—back then, Lewis and Clark rode horses across the mountains. Poor ol’ Seaman, though, had to hoof it!

From Fort Clatsop, we paddled up the Columbia, Snake, and Clearwater rivers, hiked across the Lolo Trail in the high mountains of Idaho and into Montana (our two canoes and a kayak were trucked over the mountains), and then paddled down the Beaverhead and Jefferson rivers to the Missouri River. The Missouri took us north—to within 50 miles of the Canadian border—and then curved us directly south through the Dakotas, along the edges of Nebraska and Iowa, and southeast across the state of Missouri to that beautiful Gateway Arch towering 630 feet above the river.

Our route from west to east covered the same territory as Lewis and Clark. The explorers went up the Missouri River, rode across the Rocky Mountains—from western Montana and across Idaho—on horses that they traded for with Native Americans. On the west side of the mountains, they built canoes and paddled down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific coast. The spent the winter of 1805-06 at the mouth of the Coumbia and then returned to St. Louis mostly by the same route.

Oh, well, what was it that the poet Robert Burns once wrote about the best laid schemes of mice and men? The plans of Lewis and Clark reenactors often go awry, too.  We figured it’d be a little tough going up the Columbia, Snake and Clearwater rivers, against the current—and it was, but not bad. We also thought it’d be easy going with the current flowing down the Missouri River. That was the deciding factor—the Missouri’s downstream flowing—for why we went from west to east. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Today’s Missouri River is still free-flowing, clear, swift, and gorgeous through a stretch of Montana. But then, farther on, 19 dams now back up huge reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas, and the mighty river becomes what seems like one endless lake. Some reservoirs are so wide you can’t see across to the far shore. High winds often skim along the surface of the water, churning up giant, dangerous waves. Travel by muscle power was so slow that some days we struggled to make a dozen miles of progress across the reservoirs.


Forty-six years ago I stepped across the source of the Missouri River. This photo was published in an article that I wrote for the Denver Post’s Empire Magazine. Click here to read the article. On August 12, 1805, Lewis and some of his men reached the source not far from where I stood for this photo.  Lewis wrote in his journal that one of the men, Hugh McNeal, “had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri.”

The youngest of us was a tall, rosy-cheeked Idahoan, Clay Asher, who had just graduated from the Twin Falls high school and reached the age of 18 only a few days prior to our departure. He could paddle all day. Even with a 60-pound pack on his back, he would keep a long-legged stride going for hours along rough and steep mountain trails. He loved the outdoors. He knew the wildlife and the plant life. He had a natural instinct for navigating rapids. Most importantly, he knew how to laugh while standing soaked in a freezing downpour in the middle of nowhere. Lewis and Clark had a youngster with them, too, George Shannon, who sometimes got lost but knew how to hunt. I’ve often wondered if Asher was Shannon’s reincarnation.

By the time we reached the Gateway Arch on November 19, I had lost 50 pounds (I was on the chunky side prior to our journey…But the daily rigors of outdoor life slimmed me down considerably!), capsized 22 times, almost drowned once when I was stuck under a capsized canoe—and would’ve certainly not survived if one of my companions, Mike Wien, hadn’t happened to spot my hand sticking for help out of the water. Another time, we almost lost a companion, Mike Cochran, when giant waves, kicked up by a sudden windstorm, swamped his canoe in the cold Snake River where it flowed through an isolated landscape of nothing but boulders, sagebrush, rattlesnakes, and a bit of driftwood. By the time we rescued him, he had slipped so far into hypothermea that we had to encircle him in a ring of campfires to bring warmth back into his body.

A few times we became lost as the path disappeared while we trekked through the great mountain forests of the Lolo Trail. At such times, our always optimistic leader (I say this with great admiration), Bob Miller, emphasized we weren’t really lost because, truly, we knew where we were, just that we didn’t know for sure how to get where we wanted to be. He was right. We always got there, wherever there was. Bob’s philosophy offered a great lesson that has helped me through all of these years—don’t worry so much about where you are; instead, focus on where you want to be.

Bob Miller on the Missouri River as it passes through the White Cliffs region in Montana. In a lengthy, eloquent description on May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis journaled that the enchanted cliffs “exhibit a most romantic appearance.” Here’s what else Lewis about the White Cliffs…

We were awed just to be out there, lost or not, standing at times on the ridge of a high mountain and viewing nothing but dark green forested mountains ahead and, beyond them, more mountains and, still, beyond those, even more mountains, fading into the hazy horizon of a blue sky. At night, in places where the ambient light of communities didn’t exist, the sky was so thick with stars seeming so close to us that I felt like I could reach up and touch them. Such views few of us in today’s world seldom enjoy.

{What food did we eat? How experienced were we prior to this journey through Nature? Why did we go? And what became of the five of us after our journey? Click here to find out.}

Looking back now, I find it’s interesting to compare those days of Lewis and Clark’s expedition and, likewise, our journey in 1973 to what’s around today, in 2019.

Back then, 46 years ago, most locals knew only scant details, if any, about the travels of Lewis and Clark through their region. They had no idea of the connection between the names of local rivers and other geographic features to Lewis and Clark. The same goes for local flora and fauna. Lewis and Clark identified hundreds of plants and animals previously unseen by Americans of the early 19th century. Many local folks in 1973 had no idea of Lewis and Clark’s role in identifying birds and other wildlife in their area.

How Mike Cochran showed what it was like to reach St. Louis on Nov. 19, 1973.

The prairie dog is a great example. The explorers viewed it as a small dog that barks, and one time they poured buckets and buckets of water into the hole of a prairie dog colony in an attempt to flush out and capture one of the tiny critters to send back to President Jefferson, a fellow with quite an inquisitive mind. In 1973 and even today, some locals merely consider prairie dogs as a growing nuisance, not as a biological oddity as Lewis and Clark did.

Now, thanks to the popularity of the 2003-06 national bicentennial celebration of the expedition and groups like the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, it’s pretty darn hard to spit along the trail without hitting a historic marker commemorating Lewis and Clark, or Sacagawea or Clark’s salve, York, or the more than two dozen other men on the expedition or, for that matter, Lewis’ Newfoundland dog, Seaman.

This is what it was really like. Bob Miller, in the bow, and Clay Asher headed to the Gateway Arch on Nov. 19, 1973.

Today, school kids can recite dates, adventures, and Lewis and Clark journal entries that describe what happened and when and where it happened in their locality. Historians and interested authors continue to publish books with new insights about the explorers. Annual Lewis and Clark festivals are held. Bridges are named after the explorers. So are streets, schools, and even a college. And frequently people pick up their paddles and set out to retrace parts of the expedition’s.

During five months in 2019, a small group called the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery paddled down the Missouri River from Three Forks, Montana, to St. Louis. Organized and led by Tom Elpel, the group studied the landscape and the wildlife, and took time to educate people about Lewis and Clark and what they discovered along the river. The Rediscovery’s journey was remarkable. Elpel wrote 34 blog articles along the way. I highly recommend that you read all of them (here’s the link to his last article from when they reached St. Louis).

Elpel’s story of their journey is on par with, if not better than, a classic account written by John Niehardt, the author of the ground-breaking book, Black Elk Speaks. in 1908, Neihardt and two companions journeyed down the Missouri in a 20-foot canoe. His book, The River and I, describes the wild waterway and storied sites of the Missouri before the Army Corps of Engineers damned much of the river. It’s a very fine read that I also recommend.

In March 2019, a federally approved law extended the trail by 1,200 miles. Where once the officially recognized trail started at St. Louis, it now goes from Pittsburgh, Pa., down the length of the Ohio River and a short distance up the Mississippi River, to St. Louis. From St. Louis, the route goes another 3,700 miles up the Missouri River, across the Rockies, and down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific coast. I sometimes wish I was a bit younger—I’ll be 70 years old in a couple of months—and still had the stamina of youth to paddle from Pittsburgh to St. Louis so I can brag that, well, by golly, I did the whole Lewis and Clark Trail.

The federal approval of the extension was a major accomplishment for the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. (Click here to read an article I wrote about the extension for the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation’s website.)

{To learn more about Lewis and Clark, click here to go the website of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. While you’re there, become a member—it’s a worthwhile organization that is the keeper of the Lewis and Clark story. Here’s the foundation’s Facebook page.}

Today’s widespread popularity of Lewis and Clark speaks to the yearning desire for great adventure that many Americans have but are unable to pursue beyond short canoe trips or day hikes along the trail, or expeditions by car to follow parts of the route of the 1803-06 expedition.

In 2019, we have a nation that is politically and philosophically divided in harsh ways. Back in 1973, it wasn’t so much different. A disgraced Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency as we paddled the Missouri River, and Richard Nixon was lying about Watergate and other matters.

During the time when Lewis and Clark were forging their trail, Alexander Hamilton was fatally shot during a duel with Aaron Burr, the ultimate price of political rivalry. And Jefferson was involved in a war with Barbary Pirates, the first terrorists to haunt the psyche of America.

Mike Cochran drew this cartoon after he nearly died from hypothermia after huge waves the canoe he was in, capsizing it.

Anyway, those are just some of my musings as November 19 comes around for its annual visit. It’s a good day of the year. A fine day to remember the way things were and to think about how they are today.

How did Lewis and Clark spend the day of November 19 in 1803, 1804, and 1805? You’ll be surprised! Click here to find out…



What’s in a handshake? Hope, history and a festival

A fun educational festival will take place Oct. 20-21 along the Ohio River to commemorate the 215th anniversary of a handshake that may or may not have occurred between two men who became American heroes.

The first annual Handshake Festival on the grounds of the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, Indiana, will honor the handshake that may have happened between Meriwether Lewis and William Clark when the two men met there to begin their expedition of discovery from 1803 to 1806.

Lewis and Clark handshake statue at the Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center.

A major festival attraction is a statue that depicts Lewis and Clark shaking hands. Sculpted by the late C.A (Carol) Grende, the statue is 10 feet tall and sits on a 4-foot-tall, 16.5-ton native slab of 387-million-year-old Jefferson limestone. The statue is located outside of the Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center near the Ohio River. The festival is sponsored the Ohio River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation in conjunction with other partners.

The outdoor festival will draw Lewis and Clark experts and enthusiasts from around the country, as well as locals, school kids, scouts, and others interested in history. One of Clark’s descendants, Charles Clark, will be on site to talk about his famous ancestors. So will Hasan Davis, a lawyer who is a juvenile justice advocate and a re-enactor of York, Clark’s slave and an important expedition member.

Hasan Davis portraying York, an important member of the expedition. Davis will give talks at the Handshake Festival.

Displays will depict the time period of the Lewis & Clark Expedition: blacksmithing as done during the expedition; weaving; tomahawk and bow and arrow demonstrations; early 18th century medicines; dulcimer and strings music from the early 1800s; and, among other offerings, old-fashioned games for children.

Presenters at the festival have an impressive depth of knowledge about the expedition. Among them are Richard and Sandy Hennings from Charlotte, Michigan, 340 miles from Clarksville. Sandy is the festival’s organizer and the person who proposed that the Ohio Chapter host the event to commemorate the 1803 handshake.

The Hennings, both of whom are retired, have participated in events in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, and Michigan over the last two decades, sometimes 15 to 20 events a year. They often dress as re-enactors and set up camp and cook over a campfire. Their museum-quality displays show period-piece firearms, medicines, maps, knives, sewing kits, fishhooks, beads for trading with Indians, and other replicas of supplies and equipment used during the expedition.

Their displays at the Handshake Festival will include one about the mathematical methods the explorers used for navigation. The Hennings will also have a journal that kids and adults can sign using a quill pen, much like the quills that Lewis and Clark used to write in their journals.

In a telephone interview, the Hennings noted their enthusiasm for historical festivals started with Richard’s interest in muzzle-loading black-powder weapons and history in general. “I grew up watching Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone on TV,” Richard said in explaining how he became interested in black-powder weapons and history.

The Hennings’ passion about Lewis and Clark evolved over four decades. During the initial two decades, the couple participated in festivals dedicated to the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763 and the mountain men period from about 1810 to the 1880s. It was a natural transition to focus on Lewis and Clark.

A replica of the George Rogers Clark cabin where the handshake may have occurred between Lewis and Clark.

“When I got more into it (Lewis and Clark’s exploration), the more I was fascinated with what they accomplished,” Richard pointed out.

During events, the Hennings pass out trinkets and handouts copied from Lewis and Clark’s journals. “That way people can take a piece of history with them,” Richard noted. “We enjoy having conversations with people about the (Lewis and Clark) trail. Sometimes they’ll say, ‘I’ve been in that part of the trail.’ It touches so many people. That’s amazing. Lewis and Clark are unique.”

One of the questions asked at Lewis and Clark festivals: Where do presenters find period clothing and replicas of early 19th-century equipment? Most sew their own period clothing. And most have engaging stories about how they acquired beads, buttons, firearms, and other items like those used by the explorers.

A replica of George Shannon’s sewing kit, also called a “housewife,”  made by Richard and Sandy Hennings. The replica is accurate even down to the coloring. The outside of the leather kit was dyed red while the inside (photo below) was dyed green. Photos by Richard and Sandy Hennings.

The Hennings have made many replicas. One replica, for example, was of a sewing kit carried by George Shannon, the youngest explorer. To learn the kit’s dimensions and other details about it, Richard called the Oregon Historical Society, which has Shannon’s kit. Such kits were nicknamed “housewife” in the early 1800s. Shannon’s housewife is made of leather dyed red on the outside and green on the inside. Dimensions when the kit is open: 7 1/2 by 15 3/8 inches. “It was fun making it,” Hennings said.

“People come up (at the festivals) and ask what’s this for and what’s it used for?” Richard said. “It gives us a chance to explain history to them.”

{Click here to view the festival’s schedule of events.}

The 1803 handshake is an interesting symbol around which much speculation and debate have occurred over the years. Did the two men actually shake hands? No one knows.

Lewis and Clark, who had become friends during their earlier military service, had only communicated about the expedition by letter. They did not have the opportunity to talk face-to-face until Lewis reached Clarksville, where Clark was living and waiting for Lewis to arrive with a keelboat and supplies.

“This was the first time they physically were able to talk about the expedition,” said Sandy Hennings. “Clark may have just said (to Lewis), “I’m with you. Let’s go.” And, she added with enthusiasm, there was most likely a handshake.

Sandy and Richard Hennings in their period costumes at a Lewis and Clark event.

Regardless of how the two men greeted each other, the story of the handshake is intriguing. It spans two centuries and involves the handshake mystery itself, a famous historian and author, the handshake statue, two women who became close friends, and a magical concept called Lewis and Clark Luck. And there is possibly some Divine Providence tossed in, too.

The story requires you take great jumps through time. Here the story is:

On April 1, 1801, Lewis, 27, was appointed the private secretary for the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson. The two men had known each other for years through Virginia society. The president correctly summed up Lewis as adventurous, intelligent, a leader of men, and someone who is reliable and could be trusted.

So in early 1803, Jefferson named Lewis as the leader, the captain, of an expedition that, as it turned out, would cover more than 4,900 miles along wild rivers and through treacherous mountains to and back from the mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific coasts of what are now Oregon and Washington.

They decided a co-leader needed to be appointed, a precaution in case something happened to Lewis along the arduous journey.

Lewis recruited a good friend, William Clark, four years his elder. The two men had met in 1796 after Lewis joined the military to fight in the Whisky Rebellion. After funding for the expedition was approved by Congress in January 1803, Lewis and Clark communicated about the expedition by writing letters to each other. The plan was for Lewis to travel from Washington, D.C., along the way purchasing supplies and overseeing the construction of a keelboat. He would then meet up with his friend in Clarksville where Clark was staying at the home of his older brother Gen. George Rogers Clark, who was famous for his military service in the American Revolutionary War.

{Want to learn more about Lewis and Clark? Click here to check out the website for the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and, while you’re there, become a member.}


Now…jump ahead almost two centuries to a book, Undaunted Courage, published in 1996 by historian and popular author, Stephen E. Ambrose. On page 117, Ambrose brilliantly described what he believed the meeting of Lewis and Clark at the cabin of Gen. George Rogers Clark in Clarksville was like:

“When they shook hands, the Lewis and Clark Expedition began.

“Each man was about six feet tall and broad-shouldered. Each was rugged in the face, Clark somewhat more so than Lewis, who had a certain delicacy to his profile. Their bodies were rawboned and muscled, with no fat. Their hands—sunburned, like their faces, even this late in the season—were big, rough, strong, capable, confident. Each man was long-legged. Just a glimpse of their stride across a porch, or at how they seated themselves, showed the physical coordination of an athlete. Each, probably, was dressed in fringed buckskin. And who can doubt that, as they stuck out their hands to each other, both men had smiles on their faces that were as broad as the Ohio River, as big as their ambitions and dreams.

“Oh! To have been able to hear the talk on the porch that afternoon, and on into the evening, and through the night. There would have been whiskey—General Clark was the host, and General Clark was a heavy drinker. There would have been tables groaning under the weight of pork, beef, venison, duck, goose, fish, fresh bread, apples, fresh milk, and more.

“There were the two would-be heroes with the authentic older hero, all three Virginians, all three soldiers, all three Republicans, all three great talkers, full of ideas and images and memories and practical matters and grand philosophy, of Indians and bears and mountains never before seen. Excitement and joy ran through their questions and answers, words coming out in a tumble.”

Stephen E. Ambrose. Photo by Jim Wallace (Smithsonian Institution)

“Unfortunately,” Ambrose concluded, “we don’t have a single word of description of the meeting of Lewis and Clark.”

In other words, we of today have no idea what occurred, what was actually said, what was planned during the meeting, or whether a handshake even occurred. What we believe is a matter of faith and hope.

Lewis had earlier started writing in his journal, back on August 30 when he departed Pittsburgh in the newly constructed keelboat. For some unknown reason, however, he did not maintain his journal from the entry of September 18 to November 11, which included the time period when he and Clark greeted each other in Clarksville.

Some Lewis and Clark aficionados believe the meeting means Clarksville should become known as the location of the start of the expedition. Other enthusiasts think the starting place should be farther upstream on the Ohio River: Pittsburgh, where the keelboat was constructed and launched. Others believe the start of the journey began when Lewis departed Washington, D.C. There is no win-win scenario in this debate. Nonetheless, it brings about fun verbal sparring that shows how knowledgeable and passionate some people are about the expedition.


And now, again, jump ahead, this time a few more years to Clarksville area resident Phyllis Yeager, who has a deep and long interest in Lewis and Clark’s story. Friends describe Yeager as a bubbly individual with enthusiasm in her voice when she talks about the Lewis and Clark Expedition

{Click here to learn more about Phyllis Yeager.}

On a January day in 2000, Yeager began reading Undaunted Courage. When she reached page 117 and read Ambrose’s opinion of the handshake, her destiny was sealed. She knew she needed to bring the story of Lewis and Clark into the lives of Clarksville residents and others living along the Ohio River. Until then, many local people had little, if any, knowledge about the explorers’ presence in their part of the country.

While Yeager planned how to help Clarksville receive recognition as the expedition’s point of departure, the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was approaching; a national commemoration was planned from 2003 through 2006. During the years of the commemoration, Yeager and others diligently worked on projects to bring recognition to Lewis and Clark’s presence along the Ohio River. One important goal was to have a statue of Lewis and Clark created and erected in Clarksville to commemorate the handshake.

As all of this activity was underway, Ambrose passed away in 2002. Yeager, though, had the opportunity to meet him prior to then. He autographed page 117 of her copy of Undaunted Courage and wrote on the page “This is where it all began.”

It was around this time that Lewis and Clark Luck began to play a vital role in the handshake story. Lewis and Clark Luck is a term used by Stephanie Ambrose Tubbs, Stephen Ambrose’s daughter and a noted historian and author, Yeager pointed out.

The phrase explains the many seemingly miracles associated with the explorers, Yeager noted in a book she wrote, The Story of the Lewis and Clark Statue, published in 2012 and funded by the Indiana Lewis and Clark Commission and given to attendees of the annual Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation meeting. As Yeager emphasized throughout the book, Lewis and Clark’s fortunate happenstances may actually have been “Divine Providence.”

{Yeager’s book about the Lewis and Clark statue will be available for sale ($20) at the Handshake Festival. Look for Yeager at the Indiana Lewis and Clark Commission booth.}

Regardless of whether it was because of luck or Divine Providence, Lewis and Clark and their companions often experienced good fortune when times became tough or dangerous. Take, for example, their 1805 arrival in the remote wilderness of today’s western Montana, where they faced the challenge of crossing the formidable Rocky Mountains.

Horses were desperately needed for the rigorous journey. None were to be found. It appeared at one point as if all might fail for want of those four-legged critters. Then, Sacagawea discovered she was the sister of the Shoshone chief, whom she hadn’t seen since she was kidnapped years earlier when she was 12 or 13 years old. “Consider the chances that the chief of the Shoshone would be Sacagawea’s brother,” Yeager said. “This streak of Lewis and Clark Luck ensured the Corps with the horses they needed from the Shoshone tribe and played a big role in the success of the expedition.”

Now, almost two centuries later, it seemed to be with some of the Lewis and Clark Luck that Yeager met Carol Grende on a 2003 visit to an art gallery in Great Falls, Montana. Yeager was in Great Falls to attend an art auction.

Phyllis Yeager (left) and Carol Grende.

As she walked through the gallery, Yeager “came to a sudden halt when a young Indian woman seemed to jump out and stop me. Staring at me was a stunning clay model standing on a round swirling table…This Indian woman had a cradleboard strapped to her back with a baby in it and she exhibited such strength of character in her face as she planted a walking stick in the ground that my eyes welled up with tears gazing upon this young girl and her baby. I recognized her immediately as Sacagawea of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It was as if she came to life before me and intuitively I knew her creator had extraordinary talent.”

The creator, Carol Grende, just happened to be there “poking and pinching the clay of Sacajawea’s buckskin dress.” As the two women began talking to each other, Yeager suddenly blurted out that a statue of Lewis and Clark’s handshake needed to be created for the Falls of the Ohio. She related Ambrose’s page 117 quote about the handshake.

“Carol’s face lit up!” Yeager recalled in her book. “She started giggling while telling me of her love for the Lewis and Clark story.” And Grende boldly said “I can do it” about creating the statue.

Grende was born near Idaho’s Clearwater River on October 7 exactly 150 years to the day when the explorers departed a site they called Canoe Camp along the river. She lived most of her life near the Lewis and Clark Trail and attended a junior high school named after Sacagawea in Lewiston, Idaho. She rode horses on the same trails traveled by the explorers. She was well aware of the page 117 reference. And she wanted to be involved in the upcoming Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration.

“Carol then got very personal,” Yeager recalled, “telling me that the previous summer she had even participated in a spiritual Indian ceremony where the elders encouraged her to become involved in the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.”

And so began a close friendship that lasted until Grende passed away in 2009 at age 53 from pneumonia brought on by the complication of leukemia that she fought for 20 months. Yeager fondly remembers Grende as a lovely woman with graceful long brown hair, fun-loving smile and a life filled with laughter. Her motto was “Charge On—Have No Fear.”

Carol Grende’s statue of Sacagawea in Great Falls, Montana. The 9.5-foot statue evolved from the clay model she was working on when she met Phyllis Yeager.

Grende and Yeager’s journey to create, fund and place the handshake statue became a huge challenge that involved many people donating their time and talents. Grende sculpted the handshake statue at a record pace, completing it in only a few months, while Yeager focused on acquiring the money to pay for foundry work and other expenses that totaled $125,000. As an offshoot to the effort, Yeager started a business, Phyllis Yeager Promotions, specifically to help Grende in her sculpting endeavors. The business now assists other artists.

The story of the handshake statue’s funding is an excellent example of a community working together—and of Lewis and Clark Luck, and, yes, maybe Divine Providence. Yeager and others, including the Clarksville Historical Society and the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention & Tourism Bureau, began the proverbial knocking on doors to enthuse people and politicians about the statue.

In less than a year, after some unexpected twists and turns, the statue was funded through small donations; major donations by two local residents: Elmer Hoehn and Jan Huff, the former board president of the local convention and tourism bureau; and a bond issue through Floyd County. Placement of the statue at the Falls of the Ohio was worked out thanks to political connections aligning at the right time.

Grende’s Lewis and Clark sculpting dreams extended beyond the handshake statue. She envisioned statues all along the Lewis and Clark Trail. This was a valiant goal, especially considering she had never created a monument prior to her Great Falls meeting of Yeager in 2003.

During the short period from then to 2007, Grende created an unbelievable collection of Lewis and Clark artwork, more accomplishments than most artists might ever do in decades. She crafted an entire series of small-sized Lewis and Clark bronzes, some cast, others now still in clay. Her Lewis and Clark-related statues have been placed in five cities along the trail: Lewiston; Dayton, Washington; and Nebraska City; Nebraska. The handshake statue is in Clarksville. The clay model of Sacagawea that Grende was poking and pinching when she met Yeager in 2003 in Great Falls evolved into a 9.5-foot statue named “Arduous Journey.” It stands at the Missouri River Federal Courthouse in Great Falls.

The handshake statue in Clarksville, Indiana.

“Carol was like the eagle—ready for flight the day we met,” Yeager recalled. “She spent her lifetime preparing for that one great thrust.”

Now Carol Grende is gone, but she left behind something that people can readily see and touch, the statue at the Falls of the Ohio. There may or may not have been a handshake in Lewis and Clark’s time, but it’s there now, representing partnership and adventure of historic proportion.

{What’s happening along the Lewis and Clark Trail? Legislation before the U.S. Senate would extend the official trail by 1,200 from St. Louis to Pittsburgh. Read about it…}

Passions and value of extending Lewis and Clark trail

Legislation now before the U.S. Senate would extend the official federally designated Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail to include 1,200 miles of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

It’s a proposal that has excited Lewis and Clark buffs, as you’ll see when you read profiles about two Lewis and Clark enthusiasts later in this article.

The proposed extension would encompass such riverside communities as Clarksville, Indiana; Louisville, Kentucky; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, all of which are important in the story of Lewis and Clark.

Currently, the official Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail goes for 3,700 miles from Wood River, Illinois, near St. Louis, Missouri, to the mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific coasts of Oregon and Washington. The expedition comprised of Meriwether Lewis, William Clarkand other expedition members left Wood River on May 14, 1804, and returned to the St. Louis area in September 1806.

For some unknown reason, the explorers’ 1,200-mile journey on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1803 to reach Wood River was not included when the current historic trail became federally designated decades ago.

“We’ve always felt our story was an untold one,” said Phyllis Yeager of the Ohio River Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.

The Ohio-Mississippi journey, as well as Lewis and Clark sites as far east as the nation’s Capitol, are generally referred to as the Eastern Legacy. The Eastern Legacy spans parts of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.

There are places in those 14 states and the District of Columbia that may be significant in the planning and execution of the expedition, or locations of Lewis or Clark events prior to or after the journey. For example, Lewis’ gravesite near Hohenwald in Tennessee is considered to be part of the Eastern Legacy.

In February 2018, the National Park Service released an extensive study that looked at extending the official historic trail to include all or parts of the Eastern Legacy. The study, done from 2009 to 2016 through a 2008 congressionally authorized study, followed criteria established by the National Trail System Act.

Cover of the NPS study. Click here to read the study.

The study reviewed 25 historical sites and geographic segments related to the expedition. Options were narrowed to three segments that encompass the 1,200 miles of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

After a draft of the study was completed in 2016, the NPS held a public comment period that garnered 323 responses from individuals, organizations, and agencies. Overall, the comments indicated public support for extending the official trail, said Tokey Boswell, chief of planning and compliance for the NPS Midwest regional office based in Omaha.

“As with most projects, there was a range of enthusiasm and concern,” said Boswell, who oversaw the study. “Non-profit organizations that interpret the Lewis and Clark story and some individual sites and cities along the study route appreciated the possibility of an NPS presence and a bigger platform to share their history. Others were concerned about private property rights and inviting visitors into areas where there is not much visitation currently.”

“When the National Trail System Act criteria were applied, the activities at Pittsburgh and beyond really stood out,” Boswell noted. “The study was very careful to note that any successful trail extension will depend on partnerships (with local volunteer groups, communities, and agencies) and additional funding.” The plan, he added, would be to “start slowly and grow over time” as far as adding NPS staff, funding, signage, publications, and other items necessary for administering a successful trail.

With the study in hand, Rep. Luke Messer (R-Indiana), along with co-sponsors Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Indiana), Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), and John Yarmuth (D-Kentucky), introduced bipartisan legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to extend the federally recognized Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail to include the 1,200 miles of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The House legislation passed July 23.

This is a map of the official federally designated Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail from the area of St. Louis, Mo., to the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. The proposed trail extension includes 1,200 miles of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Pittsburgh to St. Louis. See the map below to view the proposed trail extension. The map above came from Weber State University.

Subsequently, similar Senate legislation was introduced August 23 as the Eastern Legacy Extension Act. The legislation would extend the official historic trail to include the 1,200 river miles from Pittsburgh to Wood River in the St. Louis area.

The bipartisan bill was introduced by Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Indiana) and co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana). The proposed legislation was read in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

It’s unknown how long the senatorial process may take.

{Read the Senate bill titled S.3375}

In testimony before the House, Lindy Hatcher, executive director of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation headquartered in Great Falls, Montana, said the journey on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers was important because Lewis and Clark recruited, organized, and trained men for the grueling exploration of the Pacific Northwest. It was along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers where the Corps of Discovery—the expedition’s name—began working together as a team, Hatcher noted.

The proposed extension of the Eastern Legacy (in green) from Pittsburgh to Wood River, Illinois, in the St. Louis area. Map source: National Park Service.

Meanwhile, in an April letter to Congress, Matt Pierce, a state representative in Indiana, offered this analysis: “A large concentration of population in the eastern United States will be brought closer to the official trail by extending it to Pittsburgh. Many of those residents will see official trail sites along the Ohio River corridor for the first time and be inspired by those locations to retrace the steps of the Expedition all the way to the Oregon coast, boosting tourism for all Lewis and Clark Trail states.”

{Click here to check out a travel brochure that shows  Lewis and Clark offerings in the Eastern Legacy}

For this article, I interviewed two Lewis and Clark buffs living along the Ohio River in the Eastern Legacy: John McNulty of Pittsburgh and Phyllis Yeager, Clarksville, Indiana. Both have good stories to tell about their involvement with Lewis and Clark activities. Each has an enthusiastic passion for including the 1,200 miles as part of the official historic trail.

Interested in Lewis and Clark? Click here to learn more and join the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.

When I talked by cell phone with McNulty, he was on a brisk walk from his home toward a meeting about extending a bicycle trail that would include Lewis and Clark sites. He paused from his walk at a spot where he could view not only the Ohio River and historic Lewis and Clark locations but also the Pittsburgh Steelers’ stadium.

John McNulty in his Lewis and Clark re-enactment garb.

Not far from him was the site where a Lewis and Clark interpretive sign will be erected through funding by the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. The sign will offer information about the nearby Brunot Island in the Ohio River. The island was where a mishap with Lewis’ unique weapon, an air gun, ended with a woman accidentally getting shot, a grazing non-fatal but surely painful head wound.

McNulty, 54, grew up in Pittsburgh. In his younger years, there was a severe dearth of local information about Lewis and Clark. In the 1980s, he was a camp counselor at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, and he began learning about Lewis and Clark to teach scouts about 19th-century living.

“Nobody ever told us that Lewis and Clark had anything to do with Pennsylvania,” McNulty recalled about his days of youth in Pittsburgh. “That was really a shock when I realized it.”

In 2003, he heard about a modern expedition, a re-enactment for the 2003-06 national bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. McNulty quit his job as a narrator on an Ohio River tour boat and joined the re-enactment. He remained with the modern expedition for only three weeks, until his father became ill and he returned to Pittsburgh to help care for him.

Three years later—in 2006—the ongoing re-enactment again called to McNulty’s sense of adventure. He left a job in a call center in May and caught a Greyhound bus to join the modern explorers in June. At that time, they were departing from Lewiston, Idaho. McNulty traveled with the re-enactors east across the Lolo Trail that Lewis and Clark followed through Idaho and into Montana. He remained with the re-enactment until September 23 when it reached St. Louis. September 23, by the way, is the day the original expedition was completed in 1806 in St. Louis.

What do you think? Please take a short survey at the end of this article.

When the re-enactors entered a community, celebrations were held by locals to honor them and the original explorers. During these festive occasions, McNulty often took on the persona of Pierre Cruzatte, an experienced boatman. The son of a Frenchman and an Omaha Indian mother, Cruzatte played the violin and often entertained the explorers around campfires.

“I can play the violin,” said McNulty in explaining why he took on Cruzatte’s role, “and I can fake a good French accent.”

Today, McNulty performs one-man music shows in area nursing homes, leads history hikes in the city through a non-profit group called Venture Outdoors, and does living history displays with a theme of Lewis and Clark at festivals and other public events.

Now, though, he portrays expedition member George Gibson, a native Pennsylvanian and hunter. Gibson also played the violin but not with Cruzatte’s flair. “I thought George Gibson would be the best person to portray since he’s from this area,” McNulty said.

McNulty can easily offer reasons why Pittsburgh is important in the Lewis and Clark story. It was there that the explorers’ keelboat was constructed and launched. Lewis began journaling the happenings of the adventure as he left Pittsburgh. It was in Pittsburgh where Clark’s letter to Lewis arrived to say he is “cheerfully” honored to “partake of the dangers, difficulties and fatigues” of the impending expedition. The plan was for Lewis to meet up with Clark downstream near the Falls of the Ohio.

With admiration for Lewis and Clark always close by in his thoughts, McNulty is working toward his vision that the theme of Lewis and Clark becomes a prime mover in efforts to teach young and old about local and national history; and about such issues as watersheds, journaling, literacy, geography, and the values of friendship, teamwork and outdoor recreation.

Currently underway for McNulty is a project to start a wildlife conservation area on the 129-acre Brunot Island, part of which is now the site of a 315-megawatt power plant. The rest of the island is unused and a potentially good site for a bird sanctuary. He is also involved in a project to create a family-friendly bike system through the upper Ohio River watershed. The bike system could be a boon to tourism and tied into Lewis and Clark history.

Another of McNulty’s projects sparks one’s imagination directly back to Meriwether Lewis. The project is a community effort to save the Old Stone Tavern, built in circa 1782 and now Pittsburgh’s oldest commercial structure. The tavern has ties to the Whiskey Rebellion and was likely in operation when Lewis suffered through an agonizingly long wait in Pittsburgh while a boatwright, who seemed to enjoy whiskey more than boatwrighting, constructed a keelboat for the expedition. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine that Lewis, known for enjoying a dram or two, would have partaken of a fair share of adult beverage in the tavern.

McNulty said the inclusion of the 1,200 miles of the Eastern Legacy would be invaluable in these efforts. “It could help Pittsburgh rebrand itself. It would be a great thing for the Ohio River valley and Pennsylvania, as well as the entire Lewis and Clark Trail.”

He added, “It would be like all the Super Bowls rolled into one.”

{Read an article about McNulty, published May 18, 2018, from an interview with The Alleghany Front, a public radio station in Pittsburgh.}

 Phyllis Yeager has worked diligently to promote Lewis and Clark within the Eastern Legacy. Her home in the Clarksville area is near the Falls of the Ohio. Louisville, Kentucky, is located across the river from Clarksville.

Phyllis Yeager with some of her Lewis and Clark mementos.

Yeager grew up in Montana’s Lewis and Clark country where the history of the expedition is commonly known. Her grandfather told her stories about the extraordinary journey. From her childhood home, she could see national forests and mountain peaks named after the explorers. So Yeager was steeped in the expedition’s story when she moved to Indiana in the 1980s and became associated with the local convention and tourism board.

After relocating to Indiana, she was surprised by the small smattering of local appreciation for Lewis and Clark’s time in Clarksville and Louisville, and along the Ohio River. The only Lewis and Clark recognition to be found was an inconspicuous historical marker on the banks of the Ohio River. Yeager photographed the marker caked with mud from a high flow of the river. Next to the marker was an old car tire.

Once described as a natural phenomenon of energy” by a former magazine editor, Yeager was appointed in 2001 by the Indiana governor to sit on the board of the state’s newly created Lewis and Clark Expedition Commission, a position she continues to hold. She served on the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation board from 2004 to 2010, and was active in the local, state and national celebrations of the bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from 2003 to 2006. She was also active in successful lobbying efforts in Indiana and Kentucky to have Lewis and Clark’s names put on a new 2,500-foot Ohio River bridge in 2016 that connects the two states.

During her years of Lewis and Clark volunteer work, she realized the Eastern Legacy’s potential importance to public education, tourism, recreation, and, among other benefits, keeping alive the story of the most important expedition in U.S. history.

“It’s been a passion for me,” she said in a telephone interview.

The idea of extending the official trail to include Eastern Legacy segments gained strength as activities of the 2003-06 bicentennial familiarized more Americans with the expedition. The extension effort was long on volunteerism but short on funds. This prompted some creative maneuvers. Yeager and others began promoting the Eastern Legacy’s contribution to the expedition. Among their endeavors was a successful project that resulted in the state issuing special vehicle license plates designed with Lewis and Clark artwork. A portion of the revenue from the ongoing project goes to the state’s Lewis and Clark Expedition Commission.

An example of the specialized Indiana license plates that help raise funds for the state’s Lewis and Clark Expedition Commission. 1803, by the way, refers to the year when the explorers traveled the Ohio and Mississippi rivers on their way west. And, of course, “LC” refers to Lewis and Clark.

In another interesting tactic, Yeager and husband Ray held annual Kentucky Derby parties with Lewis and Clark themes, a public relations effort to acquaint influential people about the local importance of the expedition. At first blush, tying Lewis and Clark to the nearby famous horse race may seem like a stretch, but there is an unusual connection. Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held in Louisville, was developed by William Clark’s grandson, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr.

The Kentucky Derby story “made for a fun time,” Yeager said, “and it helped us tell the story of Lewis and Clark in our area.”

{Read two articles about the involvement of Phyllis Yeager and others in the Eastern Legacy and bicentennial celebration}

One of Yeager’s favored keepsakes from her Eastern Legacy volunteer work is an autograph of Stephen E. Ambrose in her copy of Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the West. For many Lewis and Clark fans, Ambrose’s book is the bible of the Lewis and Clark’s story.

Knowing that Yeager resided in the Clarksville area, Ambrose signed his name on the page that has this important statement about the meeting of Lewis and Clark in Clarksville: “When they shook hands, the Lewis and Clark Expedition began.”

This shaking of the hands occurred in October 1803 after Lewis arrived in Clarksville. There he met up with Clark, who was living in the home of his older brother, Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark. This meeting was the first opportunity Lewis and Clark had to talk face-to-face about the impending journey. Until then, the two friends, who knew each other from serving in the army years earlier, had only corresponded about the expedition by mail.

The image of the handshake has become a major theme in promoting Lewis and Clark in the Ohio River region of Indiana and Kentucky. A museum in the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville features an exhibit on the topic while an outside bronze statute by the late Carol Grende portrays the two men shaking hands. Yeager, who has written a book about the statue (The Story of the Lewis and Clark Statue), helped arrange the creation and acquisition of the statue. This October 20th a festival celebrating the 215th anniversary of the handshake will be held at the park.

No one knows for sure whether the two men actually shook hands. But the handshake is a good story and a significant image to think about.

At the Falls of the Ohio: Carol Grende’s statue of Lewis and Clark shaking hands.

Whether the expedition actually began with the handshake is a matter that Lewis and Clark buffs sometimes debate. Some strongly believe the journey began in Pittsburgh; others, in the nation’s Capitol when Congress appropriated funds. Or did the expedition begin in the mind of Thomas Jefferson in his earlier years when he daydreamed about the expansion of the United States into the West? The answer: No one knows. But it’s a fun issue to ponder.

However they greeted each, Lewis and Clark would have intensely focused on planning and practical matters as they slowly traveled the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Conversations would have centered on boats and equipment, food and other supplies, and the grit of men recruited along the way. They also would have discussed weapons, gunpowder, and the need for military readiness.

They honed skills they knew would be needed in the wilderness: navigating flowing waters, sawyers, and sandbars, and techniques for mapping land and waterways. They probably discussed the diplomacy of interacting with natives and the collecting of specimens of plants and animals. They wrote in their journals, entries that have delighted and captured the imagination of generations of Americans.

It was time well-spent and helped to ensure the expedition’s success—significant reasons for now extending the current historic trail to include the 1,200 miles of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

{Interested in offering your views on the trail extension legislation? Contact your U.S. Senators. Here’s how…}

Iconic portraits of Lewis and Clark painted in 1807 by Charles Willson Peale. Courtesy of ExplorePAhistory.com and Independence National Historical Park.

The Big Picture?

If you set aside Russian interference, fake news, political squabbling, and photographs of cute puppies, Facebook really is a remarkable tool.

It sometimes affords us the opportunity, the spark, to think beyond where we are. I suspect I’m like most Americans: I get too easily entangled in the minutia of daily living to think beyond my overly cluttered existence.

That’s a reason why I’ve always admired people like Stephen Hawking and some theologians—they focus on The Big Picture. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we headed?

Early this morning—after I let the dog out to do its business, after I pondered whether I put 10 or 11 teaspoons of coffee in the coffee maker, and right after I checked to make sure I didn’t put my tee shirt on backwards, again—I ran across a Facebook posting that caught my interest.

The posting involved two of my high school friends, neither of whom I have seen since we graduated 50 years ago. (But I’ve kept up with them on Facebook, another benefit of Facebook).gods_450pixels

Pat Pearce, a very talented musician in Kansas City, Mo., posted the photograph that you see on this page. This is a reposting. The photo has circulated widely on Facebook.

To which William (Bill) Shull, a successful and astute lawyer in Warrensburg, Mo., commented: “Pure coincidence, obviously. The dude on the left only has four fingers on his right hand!  Actually, that is amazing if it’s true. It makes you wonder if ‘historians’ actually have factual history figured out.”

Pat’s posting and Bill’s comment brought about memories of a book that I read years ago. It was by an archaeologist (sorry, I don’t recall his name or the book title) who wrote about why there are ancient pyramids located in most cultures around the world.

His take—no, not that ancient aliens built the pyramids around the world—was that trade routes back then were more widely established, even across oceans, than what is commonly believed today.

As commerce was established, religious missionaries made their way into native cultures and brought along concepts like pyramids. Sometimes conquerors came, too, and so did shifts in cultures, and there was an establishment of new norms imported from other cultures. Then comes McDonald’s, Air Jordan tennies and tee shirts displaying Bob Marley (Oh, well, hmm, this last bit is my take on the archaeologist’s take).

Bill brought up an interesting point in his comment: Do historians “actually have factual history figured out”?

My answer: seldom, sometimes, not often, more often than not, no, maybe yes, heck, I got no idea.

It’s easy to interpret history incorrectly, especially on cultures that existed many thousands of years ago and no written records exist today. And it’s even easy to re-interpret and reshape history where written histories do exist today. Think Columbus—once a good guy (back when I was in elementary school), then a bad guy as details about him emerged. Think Hitler, bent on wiping out anything Jewish. Think of what’s happening now—some American political leaders are trying to rewrite history in their own image.

One of my great interests is the 1804-06 Lewis & Clark Expedition. The explorers maintained extensive journals of what they saw and experienced. Their journals have been published word-for-word multiple times over the last two centuries. Many, many books have been published about the two leaders, their companions, the natives they met, the landscape, and the wildlife. The amount of scholarly research is stunningly impressive.

I’ve found, though, that sometimes modern interpretation of historical figures or events may be less accurate than what actually occurred or what people were all about. Even for the most careful of historians and writers, one missed word in the reading of the journals, the incorrect analysis of a vague phrase, an inability to understand what it’s really like to be attacked by a grizzly bear—and suddenly the facts of history are unintentionally revised. Try as one might, it’s impossible to feel the sweat and physical strain of something that happened in the past, the mental anxiety of a person, the real thought process behind why a person did this or that.

After I let in my dog, who is now snoring on the couch, and remembered I had put in three too many teaspoons of coffee, I did a bit of online research on the photograph reposted by Pat. The photo appears to have originated from research done by Jim Allen, author of Atlantis: Lost Kingdom of the Andes (I haven’t read this book). Click here for more info about Jim’s research. Disclaimer: I make no guarantee on the photo’s authenticity, whether Jim Allen actually exists, or, for that matter, whether who I am that I think I am.

It’s been an enjoyable and interesting morning thanks to Pat, Bill, and the photo. I got to ponder part of The Big Picture.

And I discovered I do have my tee shirt on correctly, for once.

And I got to wonder when the aliens will return. This time, will they bring intelligent life to Earth?


Treed by wild hogs while delivering “heat and light” to Americans

The yuletide season is the time of year when my feelings of gratitude go out to a group of extremely busy employees at an organization whose work over the last 241 years helped create America: the carriers of the United States Postal Service.

Mailman circa 1900

This holiday season postal carriers will deliver more than 15 billion pieces of mail, including 850 million packages. That’s 10 percent more than last year’s yuletide season.

Most Americans know little, if anything, about the Post Office’s prestigious role in the development of our country. Some folks know, of course, that Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster. But that’s about it.

I’ve been reading an interesting book—How the Post Office Created America by Winifred Gallagher—that delves into the postal service throughout America’s history, including recent challenges faced by USPS in the digital age. For anyone interested in America history, Gallagher’s 2016 book offers a fresh view of how our country evolved.

Back when our fledgling country was only 13 states, thick forests and rugged terrain isolated communities from one another. Communication was extremely limited due to the lack of roads. Only narrow paths linked some communities; in some places, the only way from one community to another was trudging through pathless forests.

The first stamp issues were authorized by an act of Congress and approved on March 3, 1847. The earliest known use of the Franklin 5-cent stamp is July 7, 1847, while the earliest known use of the Washington 10-stamp stamp is July 2, 1847.

Gallagher relates life-endangering episodes that mail carriers encountered while traveling through the great wilderness. One carrier, for instance, was treed by aggressive wild hogs. Another was badly delayed after being struck in the head by a floating log when swimming across a stream while leading his horse. Always, the threat of hostile natives existed—native Americans early on; later on, gun-toting robbers.

Early post offices were usually located in local taverns. Recipients of mail often read newly arrived letters and newspapers out-loud to folks who eagerly gathered to learn the news. News, it seems, drew interest even if it was only tidbits about someone’s Aunt Sally in a far-away hamlet. And a dram or two of whiskey heightens interest in news, too, you know.

Our country’s founding fathers—Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and, among others, (here’s a fellow few modern American are familiar with) Dr. Benjamin Rush—strongly believed the new United States would only survive if a communications network was established to connect widely scattered and culturally diverse hamlets, towns, and cities.

An early postal truck designed for muddy roads.

In short, the country desperately needed a postal service that would be a “means of carrying heat and light to every individual in the federal commonwealth,” according to Dr. Rush, who by some historical accounts was less than an adequate physician but one heck of an intellectual.

He and others also thought western expansion hinged in many ways on the availability of a reliable and affordable communication lifeline (a postal system, in other words) for adventuresome farmers and merchants to remain in contact with family members back at the old homestead. “Pioneers were likelier to venture into the wilderness if they anticipated maintaining a link to the great world,” Gallagher pointed out.

Oh, the good ol’ days!

Another goal was to make postal delivery affordable for every American. In 1779, the postal delivery fee was dependent on how far the item was sent. The cost ranged from 6 cents for 30 miles or less to 12 cents for 150 miles (back then, 1 cent could buy a pound of coffee). With inflation over the last two centuries taken into account, the six and 12 cents of 1779  is the equivalent of $1.59 and $3.18, respectively, in today’s currency. This is considerably more than the 49-cent cost of a first-class mail stamp of 2017 that will carry a letter to anywhere in the U.S. All in all, the Post Office has kept postal delivery reasonably affordable.

The U.S. postal system was a bold revolutionary idea designed to connect all people in the nation. Until the Post Office’s creation, the best mail systems were in Europe. Those were sketchy at best; the cost of delivery so exorbitant only the rich could afford it.

After the federal government established the Post Office, the service subsidized—through various configurations of public-private endeavors that spanned decades—the creation of roads, shipping on waterways, and rail lines that could be used for mail delivery. There was another great advantage. This new transportation infrastructure was there for the public’s use, too, a huge benefit that allowed Americans to more easily travel from here to there.

A 2006 stamp that commemorated the animated movie Beauty and the Beast.

“The public-private collaboration between the post and the independent carriers it paid to move the mail caused dirt roads to shoot through dense forests, turned remote hamlets into centers of civic life, and supported the sense of an American identity,” Gallagher wrote.

In 1790, the mail system consisted of only 75 post offices and 1,875 miles of post routes. By 1830, the numbers had increased to 8,400 post offices and 115,000 miles.

Now, the USPS delivers mail to more addresses in a larger geographic area than any postal service in the world. Each year the Post Office delivers 154 billion pieces of mail to more than 156 million addresses in the U.S. This is about 47 percent of the world’s volume of mail.

All of this history, of course, may mean little to us in comparison to our great desires of today to have holiday cards and gifts arrive before Christmas. Nonetheless, the history is a good reminder of how we got to where we are as a nation.

Ponder the history a bit when you see a postal carrier headed to your mailbox. And offer the carrier a hearty thank you.

Learn more: