When captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed through North Dakota nearly 200 years ago, an entire civilization already lived here. The expedition’s journals recorded contact with the American Indians, the area’s early land formations and the shifting Missouri River with its swift current, sandbars, eroding banks and partially submerged logs.
The explorers’ time was spent in relative wilderness as compared to their eastern experiences. The Corps of Discovery’s journey left a lasting legacy, one that calls today’s explorers and history buffs to blaze new trails of adventure.
The Lewis and Clark expedition, which spanned 1803-1806, spent more time in one place in North Dakota than in any other state. According to the journals, the winter of 1804-1805 at Fort Mandan near present-day Washburn was a highlight of the entire voyage. The men forged relationships with their American Indian hosts, met guide Sakakawea and survived a merciless winter.
"The Lewis and Clark Expedition spent 213 days in North Dakota," said Kristie Frieze, executive director of the North Dakota Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Foundation. The foundation recently expanded the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center to 10,000 square feet, doubling the structure’s size. Opened in June 1997, the site averages 25,000 visitors annually.
The new Fort Clark wing tells the story of Fort Clark 15 miles away, the steamboat era, trading posts, changes in transportation, visitors in the 1830s and smallpox, Frieze said. The addition includes a multipurpose room and a classroom.
As the bicentennial of the expedition nears, the foundation will add visitor services such as restrooms and a picnic shelter to the nearby reconstructed Fort Mandan, destination of many seeking an authentic experience.
"I think that visitation will increase (now) and peak during the bicentennial," Frieze said. "We want the fort to look like Lewis and Clark just walked out the door. There will also be a larger interpretive experience, including more costumed interpreters" at the fort. North Dakota plans to roll out a welcoming carpet of information to those retracing the epic journey, from a revamped web site to special construction projects that will serve to educate the thousands expected to commemorate the bicentennial.
The state tourism department is revamping its web site to include a user-friendly, extensive section on the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. For information on the expedition's history or events connected to the bicentennial, point your browser to www.ndlewisandclark.com. The enhanced web site will be finished by the end of the year. The Lewis and Clark section will show travelers how to best travel the trail and include attractions, activities, lodging and more.
Many of those out-of-state visitors will be well-read, seeking genuine ways to experience Lewis and Clark’s North Dakota. Their destinations won’t necessarily be the usual tourist attractions.
To mark the way, specially designed interpretive signs that focus on bringing the story to visitors and North Dakota’s own residents will likely figure prominently along well-traveled routes and byways. The signs will be in place this fall and next spring.
The North Dakota Lewis and Clark Foundation received a $25,000 federal grant to assist communities in designing and placing the standardized signs. The tourism department, following Montana’s lead, developed a signage strategy for communities to follow. Colorful and large, the signs aren’t like the brown and white Lewis and Clark Trail signs marking routes 1804 and 1806. Each sign shows a photograph or illustration with a narrative and a small "Lewis and Clark in North Dakota" symbol. The first sign was placed at the replica of Fort Mandan. Most states along the trail are expected to follow the design to help guide their visitors.
Besides the signs, the tourism department is finalizing a marketing plan that includes a new trail guide and a Lewis and Clark feature in the state’s Travel & Outdoor Adventure Guide. A video of trail history and things to do along the North Dakota portion of the trail will be produced and given to cities, gas stations and motels, among other tourist stops, to educate tourism industry employees about the trail, said Rachel Retterath, Lewis and Clark coordinator for the tourism department. The information should help them answer tourists’ questions.
"We’ll be a central agency to coordinate with all the communities," she said. "There’s always limited funding and with all of us working together it’ll be a better experience for the visitors. They want the trail information. Next summer, in 2002, I think we’ll really see an increase" in trail-related visitors.
Some of the other visible changes North Dakotans will see or experience as the bicentennial draws closer:
• Heritage Outbound Weekends, held each summer and winter through 2006, feature the Lewis and Clark North Dakota experience, Retterath said. For example, this summer’s event was a canoe trip to the Knife River Indian Villages. The winter event re-creates the expedition’s Fort Mandan experience.
"There is interest and we’re getting inquiries," Retterath said of the excursions. "For example, at our last Heritage Outbound Weekend the majority of participant were from out of state. Also represented were the Los Angeles Times and St. Louis Dispatch, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press."
• Construction of the Confluence Heritage Area Visitor Center, where the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers join 24 miles southwest of Williston. The center will tell the story of the opening of the American West. A ribbon cutting is planned for 2003.
"Because it was such an active place, and because so many literate people traveled the West, we have the historic fabric," said Greg Hennessy, a Williston attorney and chairman of the Friends of Fort Union and Fort Buford. That group, in partnership with the State Historical Society, also plans to reconstruct an 1870s barracks at nearby Fort Buford to complement the officers’ quarters already there, Hennessy said. The location is adjacent to where Sitting Bull surrendered his rifle on his return from Canada.
He said the visitors’ center will be an 8,500-square-foot round structure made out of modern concrete that resembles adobe brick, the material of the first U.S. Army buildings at Fort Buford.
"From a certain angle, it might look like a Hidatsa earth lodge," he said. "There’s going to be a glass door, 20-to-30 feet high, with a river view. The mid-point of the building opens to a pie-shaped section with the eye directed to the site in the river channel where the brown and yellow waters begin to mingle."
The $3.5 million project will also include a lecture hall, exhibit hall and museum store. All but $400,000 is already raised or pledged from local, state and federal sources, Hennessy said. He said the project’s key lies in its "period correct" information. For example, the barracks project that’s scheduled to be completed in 2002 is based on the original blueprints from the National Archives. Fort Buford one mile away tells of the Indian Wars and Fort Union tells the peaceful fur trade story.
"Over the last three seasons, we’ve seen tourists in our own backyard already asking about Lewis and Clark," Hennessy said. "We’ve already got people out on the trail and we haven’t even started advertising yet. We’ve got all the factors of the opening of the American West within a four-mile radius," he said.
• Two national signature events, planned for the fall of 2004 and the summer of 2006, will be promoted nationally, Retterath said.
The National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial selected Bismarck-Washburn and New Town as two of the 10 signature event sites to officially represent the Corps of Discovery.
The Bismarck-Washburn area was selected because of Fort Mandan’s significance to the expedition. That event is scheduled for October 22-31, 2004. The focal point of the event is a proposed Indian village and trading post to be built inside the Bismarck Civic Center.
Fort Berthold is the only reservation selected as a signature site. The New Town event will be held in August 2006 and focus primarily on Sakakawea, the only woman who was part of the expedition. A reunion theme will bring together all tribes to recognize the contributions made by tribes to the expedition and to honor tribal leaders. Event organizers at New Town are planning activities to include re-enactments, cultural interpretive programs, a major Indian arts expo and marketplace, traditional song and dance presentations, cross-cultural ceremonies to promote healing and reconciliation and perhaps a flotilla on Lake Sakakawea.
According to Frieze, it’s important for North Dakota to prepare for the Corps of Discovery’s bicentennial because visitors are already coming to the state, retracing the expedition’s route and trying to beat the anticipated bicentennial rush.
"North Dakota is rich, rich with history," she said. The bicentennial "is an incredible opportunity."