Voyage of Discovery at The Filson Historical Society

Growing up the daughter of two American history enthusiasts made it almost impossible not to absorb and enjoy American history. Most children went to theme parks on their summer vacations. I went on extended camping trips across the country.  In the summer of 2004, our annual family camping trip was designed to celebrate the bicentennial of the Voyage of Discovery. The Voyage was the epic journey undertaken from 1804-1806 by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark along with a company of men to the Pacific Ocean and back. They were charged to find an all-water trade route to the Pacific Ocean. In the literal sense of this mission they failed, there is no such route in existence. At the same time they succeeded tremendously in filling in the very edges of the map.

Sarah Strapp with her brother Sandy on the Lewis and Clark Trail, Summer 2004. Photo courtesy of the Strapp Family.

Sarah Strapp with her brother Sandy on the Lewis and Clark Trail, Summer 2004. Photo courtesy of the Strapp Family.

The Voyage of Discovery trip presented a problem for my historically minded family. Aside from a few trash suspected campsites which dot the route, there are only two definitive markers left behind by the brave souls who jumped off into the unknown with no guarantee of return.  The first of these markers is the grave of Sergeant Charles Floyd, who was the only man to die on the trip. Sergeant Floyd’s remains were in danger of being swept away from the location where he had been laid to rest by his fellow travelers. Measures were taken to save his remains by moving them to a more stable location.  The original grave marker no longer exists. There is a modern National Historic Landmark dedicated to him and marking his final resting place near Sioux City, Iowa.

The second physical piece of evidence left behind is located on Pompey’s Pillar. The pillar is a large rock

formation located in Montana. William Clark carved his name and the date of July 25, 1806 in to the formation on the return of the trip. That’s it. While more and more sites are being discovered and documented those are still few and far between. It would be almost impossible to reconstruct the route the Voyage using only these two points and a scattering of probable campsites. Luckily for my family and other Lewis and Clark aficionados  historians can agree on a route  using diaries that were kept on the journey, the letters sent home, and the maps published by Lewis and Clark after they returned.  It is these documents rather than the physical evidence left behind which historians and travelers piece together to study these remarkable men.  Without these fragile

Carving of the Signature of William Clark from Pompey's Pillar. Photo courtesy of James Holmberg

Carving of the Signature of William Clark from Pompey's Pillar. Photo courtesy of James Holmberg

resources which had been carefully saved over generations there would be very little to document their journey at all. The Filson has William Clark’s letters to his brother Jonathan in our collection. In preparing for this post I was fortunate enough to get to see these remarkable pieces of history first hand. They are truly magnificent. I would be lying if I told you my hands did not shake as I examined them. It was a truly inspiring and humbling moment to see something so special.

Letter from William Clark to his brother Jonathan, February 25th, 1804. Image Courtesy of The Filson Historical Society.

Letter from William Clark to his brother Jonathan, February 25th, 1804. Image Courtesy of The Filson Historical Society.

The Filson is a place that protects and shares these documents and thousands more just like them; family stories, personal letters, photographs, and other pieces of history which are kept safely in storage and yet accessible for research. The Filson receives no tax payer dollars to support our operations. Membership is what drives The Filson and allows us to keep these precious and fragile treasures safe.  Please help us to keep the story and culture of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley safe for generations to come.  Join or renew as a member today.

Sarah Strapp Dennison

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