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…}