"On Nov. 16, 1803, they crossed the Mississippi River into our county." - Tom Graham
CHARLESTON - While history books link Lewis and Clark's famous exploration of the Louisiana Purchase with the year 1804, for Mississippi County the story begins a year earlier.
"On Nov. 16, 1803, they crossed the Mississippi River into our county," said Tom Graham, chairman of the Mississippi County Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Committee. "The Bird's Point area is where they took their first steps on the newly-purchased United States land. It's our claim to fame with Lewis and Clark."
The state will place numbered historical site markers along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. "At Bird's Point will be sign number one because this is the first place that they stopped," said Graham.
The site will provide a view of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. "It will be right at the old bridge crossing to Illinois, right off of 60-62," said Graham. "It's almost under the bridge."
The land was loaned by Dr. John Bird, a descendent of the Bird that Bird's Point is named after.
Due to the possibility of flooding at that location, however, the committee decided to place the Lewis and Clark memorial at Whipple Park in Charleston next to the Boomland exit.
Saturday, they will break ground at Whipple Park so the interpretive site will be up and ready for the bicentennial celebration in November 2003.
"We are going to have a black granite map of the 1803 United States that shows the territories, the states, and their route out to the Pacific and back," Graham. "We're also going to have three flags: the 1803 flag of the U.S., and the flags of Spain and France."
Graham explained the area was originally explored by Spain. The Spanish influence remains today with town names like New Madrid. France then took possession of the region through diplomatic means.
When President Thomas Jefferson tried to negotiate access to the Mississippi River via the New Orleans port, he got an offer he couldn't refuse, known today as the Louisiana Purchase. "Napoleon was pressed for money and sold the whole thing," said Graham.
The memorial will use pillars from the old Mississippi County courthouse to display paintings "specific to our area and based on Lewis' notes from his journal," said Graham.
While Lewis and Clark camped on the east side of the river, Lewis' journal describes how they crossed and traded in what was to eventually become Mississippi County with two groups of Indians which historians believe to be of the Shawnee and Delaware tribes, according to Graham.
Lewis wrote of how impressed the Indians were with his huge black Newfoundland dog which he had purchased for $20 to take on the journey. "Two hundred years ago that was a lot of money for a dog," said Graham. The money appears to have been well spent.
"The dog went on the whole journey with them," said Graham. "He probably saved a life or two along the way when a bear tried to attack them or something like that."
The memorial is being built with a state grant through the Mississippi County Historical Society. The society has gathered about $13,000 in donations so far toward the $15,000 local match.
Graham said those interested in making a tax-deductible donation may do so by mailing a check to Citizens Bank of Charleston payable to the Mississippi County Historical Society, specifying on the stub that it is intended to go toward the Lewis and Clark memorial.