On the Trail of Lewis & Clark

Whoever coined the saying that “time flies” wasn’t kidding. The years pass quickly. It is hard to believe that January 17th will mark the tenth anniversary of one of the most memorable Lewis and Clark events I had the pleasure – and in this case honor – in which to participate. Given my deep involvement in Lewis and Clark over the years I have many memories and experiences – so many in fact that I think I’ll make them the subject of periodic blog posts!

This particularly memorable event took place at the White House on January 17, 2001, in the closing days of the Clinton Administration. With the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial approaching and national interest rising, it was decided by the federal government that certain “wrongs” to William Clark, York, and Sacagawea should be rectified: Clark would receive his promotion to captain in the U. S. Army (a captain in the Kentucky militia, Clark actually held the rank of lieutenant in the army during the expedition), and York and Sacagawea – never official members of the famed Corps of Discovery – should be made honorary sergeants. Of course politics and media spin being what they are, the fact that an enslaved African American and an Indian woman would have ever been more than civilian members of the official party was ignored in an effort to give them a recognition they deserved for their important contributions to the success of the journey. The “promotion” ceremony was done in conjunction with the designation of eight new national monuments.

So how’d I get such an invite? I was fortunate enough to combine a personal interest in Lewis and Clark with my profession. The Filson Historical Society has a nationally recognized Lewis and Clark collection. Over the preceding decade I’d been editing William Clark’s letters to his “Dear Brother” Jonathan Clark (published in 2002). One of the significant subjects revealed in those letters was York’s post-expedition life. The information was important enough that I wrote an epilogue for the revised edition of Robert Betts’s excellent biography In Search of York, updating York’s life after the historic journey. Due to these scholarly pursuits and The Filson’s prominence, I’d become deeply involved in Lewis and Clark Bicentennial efforts on local, state, and national levels. When the White House contacted the national Lewis and Clark organizations about information on York and someone to represent him at the ceremony conferring on him the rank of honorary sergeant, my name was put forth. Thus began a memorable week.

The ceremony was to be held in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday morning, January 17th. It was President Clinton’s last official function as chief executive. The White House began calling about a week before. The plan was for those accepting the honors on behalf of the explorers to meet the President before the ceremony and then join him on stage in the East Room during the actual presentation. A background check and clearance were of course required. That was the easy part! What became much more involved and drawn out were the questions from White House staffers preparing President Clinton’s remarks about York. I answered a few about Clark, but York was the focus of their questions. I should have been following the edict of President Thomas Jefferson, who ordered Lewis and Clark upon sending them on their journey, to keep a journal of your experience. Alas!, I did not, and some of the details have been lost to the fog of time. As I recall, my primary White House contact gathering the information on York was a very nice staff person named Sarah. We became regular phone pals. The calls extended from the end of that week through the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend. When you answer the phone and the person on the other end announces that the White House is calling, it gives you a bit of a jolt – the first few times. When you’re on the phone with them several or more times day for several days, the thrill does wear off. There is no better testimony to this than my family over that weekend. As questions about York arose on the DC end they’d call me. I told my wife and kids that the White House might be calling. I’m not sure they believed me . . . until the first call came. Their rather awed and excited announcements of “the White House is on the phone” eventually became ones of rather bored complacency – “Daaaadd, the White House is on the phone again.”  Oh how quickly the bloom is off the rose.

A specific request the White House had was a recommendation of a second person to share in the presentation of York’s honor. Understandably, the White House wanted an African American to participate. I immediately thought of Ed Hamilton. I had recruited Ed to do the proposed York statue as one of the Falls of the Ohio Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Committee’s legacy projects. Thanks to the city of Louisville and then mayor, Dave Armstrong, that project became a reality and can be seen today on Louisville’s Belvedere. I gave Ed a jingle and asked if he’d be interested in going to Washington for the ceremony. He, like me, didn’t have to think long about making the trip.

With participants set, we and other invited guests made our way to Washington. The morning of the 17th was sunny and seasonable for mid-January. The crowd of Lewis and Clarkies gathered outside the guest entrance to the White House. As we cleared security we were ushered into the state parlors on the first floor, the Green Room and the Blue Room (I don’t think we were in the Red Room). The Blue Room was larger and circular, as I recall. Those of us meeting the President – Clark descendants Bud and John Clark, Sacagawea representatives Amy Mossett and Rose Anne Abrahamson, Lewis and Clark filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, Lewis biographer Stephen Ambrose, Ed Hamilton and myself, and others – formed a line around this room awaiting the President’s entrance. Mr. Clinton soon entered, and worked his way around the room shaking hands and chatting.  He was personable and seemed to be enjoying himself, despite his allergies acting up (as we’d been informed). Needless to say, it was an honor to meet the President of the United States of America.

We were then ushered into the East Room, where Meriwether Lewis lived while serving as Jefferson’s private secretary before being dispatched westward. It’s a grand and formal room now – it wasn’t in 1801. We were escorted to the front row and President Clinton then made his entrance. He gave remarks about William Clark, Sacagawea, and York, asking each pair of representatives in turn to join him to accept their certificate. This we did to the flashing of cameras and rounds of applause. Remarks about each honoree by the President were brief. All those phone calls from the White House proved to have been in vain, as essentially none of the information I’d provided was used (there went my presidential speech writing credit!). Chalk one up for time constraints and keeping things simple. The rest of the ceremony was then dedicated to the national monuments. If you want to view the ceremony, C-SPAN has it in its archives. The part of the ceremony honoring Clark, Sacagawea, and York begins at about the 8:30 mark.

Ed and me accepting York's certificate from President Clinton. (Photo courtesy of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library)

After the ceremony we “VIPs” were given a brief tour of some of the private areas of the White House, I think on the ground floor, as we were escorted out. Some of the attendees were going to review the event and visit over lunch. I needed to make tracks for the airport. I took a cab to Union Station where I’d stashed my bag and caught the train to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Then it was good old Southwest Airlines back to Louisville. I was home in time for dinner, my visit to the White House, meeting the President, and accepting York’s honorary promotion to sergeant behind me.

Many other memorable experiences would occur over the ensuing years regarding Lewis and Clark. Trips made; people met; events held.  I’ll delve into that trunk of memories and experiences from time to time to revisit being on the trail of Lewis and Clark.

James J. Holmberg

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