Interpreting Lewis and Clark in St. Charles, Missouri

There remains much scholarly work to do when it comes to assessing the educational value of historical markers at public history sites. What do people take away from these markers? Do they even read them? What is an appropriate text length for a given marker, and how does the interpretive text writer balance the need to communicate historical content and nuanced interpretation while maintaining textual brevity? When markers accompany a controversial monument, statue, memorial, or other icon, do they ultimately provide an enhanced understanding of a given topic, or is it all a big waste of time? There are no easy answers and ultimately I have a love/hate relationship with the way most historical markers interpret history and provide educational value to viewers.

It’s been a really nice day today here in St. Louis, so I decided to take a stroll to nearby St. Charles, Missouri, to take a walk and look at a popular Lewis and Clark statue with accompanying historical markers. Downtown St. Charles is one of my favorite spots in the St. Louis area. Nestled along the Missouri River and not far from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the area offers numerous historic homes, museums, and markers that cover a range of local and state history. While there is a lack of historical materials interpreting the experiences of the area’s indigenous peoples, particularly the Missouri and Osage Indian tribes, I really like the fact that the sites in downtown St. Charles cover a wide historical time period ranging from early white European settlement and the 1804 Lewis and Clark voyage through St. Charles to the development of a railroad infrastructure and population boom in the last half of the nineteenth century. I took a few pictures while I was there:

A Lewis and Clark Museum in Downtown St. Charles.

A Lewis and Clark Museum in Downtown St. Charles.

A view along the Missouri River in Downtown St. Charles.

A view along the Missouri River in Downtown St. Charles.

A Historic Train Station in Downtown St. Charles. While some of the old tracks have been preserved, most have been replaced and the walkway is now park of the Katy Trail that runs through the entire state of Missouri.

A Historic Train Station in Downtown St. Charles. While some of the old tracks have been preserved, most have been replaced and the walkway is now park of the Katy Trail that runs through the entire state of Missouri.

Here are two pictures of the Lewis and Clark monument. The monument features William Clark (left), Meriwether Lewis (right), and Lewis’s Newfoundland dog “Seaman” (center).

lewis-and-clark-monument

lewis-and-clark-monument-up-close

The two historical markers for this monument leave much to be desired, in my opinion.

lewis-and-clark-monument-text-1

A number of questions arise in this first marker. The first and most important question is why does this topic matter? We learn that the Corps of Discovery is led by Lewis and Clark (and perhaps Seaman?), but we don’t learn why this expedition was organized, who organized it, why it came to St. Charles, or why we should care that any of this happened in the first place. Moreover, while the “brave men” of the Corps get an acknowledgement of their service, no mention is given to the enslaved labor that helped with the expedition, particularly Clark’s slave York. This marker seems primarily focused with acknowledging the various individuals and groups who worked to have the monument erected in the first place in 2003. The monument is very nice, but so far its educational value is rather dubious to me.

lewis-and-clark-monument-text-2

This second marker is nice but likewise lacks sufficient detail, in my opinion. We learn that the Corps of Discovery was here in May 1804 and that a ball was held for the expedition team while they were in town, but we still don’t know the purpose of this expedition except for a vague allusion to travels towards an “unknown West” (unknown to white Europeans, that is) and “great discoveries” they make on the trip, whatever those may be.

I don’t aim to denigrate anyone who may have worked on these marker texts. Rather, I aim to point out just how difficult it is to write historical marker texts that are educational, nuanced, and brief all at the same time. The work of putting these texts together is some of the most difficult work in public history.

What do you think? Would you change the text of these markers? How so?

Cheers

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2 responses

  1. The monument markers in your story are not intended to bring out the history of the time period or particular event. It’s meant to show later generationsthe history of the monument. That’s my interpretation. All in all I agree with you. I think you may have overlooked the purpose of why we put these monuments up. When we glorify someone from history, it is also a chance to glorify ourselves and the contemporary time period that the markers represent. To answer the questions from your first paragraph, I recommend this website: http://www.ncmarkers.com/Home.aspx. When I was a little kid my mother and father would pull along the side of the road, as long as it was safe to do so, and my mother would read aloud the marker. That was probably the first spark that ignited my love for history and lead me into my 30 plus year career in the history museum field. I’m sure most states like North Carolina have a book that lists all their historic markers. (We are very proud of our historic markers in NC. Almost as proud as we are of our college basketball.) A former co-worker told me that every time she passes a marker, she checks it off in the book. I began doing this and when my niece was young she watched and participated with me. And now at nearly 40 years old, my niece is still doing it. Making special day trips, or side trips, to find the markers, read them, and check it off in the book. She has taken it a step higher than me. These markers, Nick, are the ones with the interpretative history on them that we can count on to provide either good or poor information. I rarely take the time to read the kind of markers you focus on in the article. I appreciate your insights. Cheers.

    1. Hi Leisa,

      Thanks for jumping in with a thoughtful comment, I appreciate it. I’ll offer a few thoughts in response:

      1. I agree with your interpretation that these markers for the Lewis and Clark monument are primarily intended to focus on the creators of the monument and the history of its creation. Likewise, I agree that historical icons and accompanying textual interpretations are as much an artifact of the time in which they are erected as they are an artifact of a past era. This is a point I’ve brought up in past blog posts on this site when discussing other historical icons. I also think we can both agree that historical icons, including markers, are ultimately tools that offer a means to a larger end. They can’t tell the entire story but work best when they inspire viewers to want to learn more.

      2. I have to push back a bit on why monuments are created in the first place. Yes, they are reflective of contemporary mores and popular views towards a society’s past, but they are not always intended to glorify contemporary society. In recent years there have been numerous markers erected throughout the country highlighting a painful event from the past. For example, There are ongoing efforts to commemorate victims of lynching in the Jim Crow South; when I lived in Indiana I discovered a marker commemorating a horrific Eugenics law passed in 1907 right next to the State Capitol; and a very well-done marker was completed in Memphis this past May to commemorate the 1866 Memphis Massacre that was jointly researched and funded by the National Park Service, the NAACP, and various local institutions in Memphis.

      What I see with these recent historical markers is an effort to acknowledge historical wrongs and to take a step towards social healing and reconciliation – to expose people to tragic events and to ensure that these wrongdoings will not be repeated again. Part of the reason that we’re seeing so much pushback against Confederate icons throughout the country is that in the eyes of many people these icons are glorifying a cause that is not representative of the values of local communities today, and some political leaders are calling for the creation of historical markers that provide interpretive “context” for these icons that look at them in a more critical light. In this sense “glorification” within a historical marker is the problem.

      I think that when states like North Carolina and Indiana initially embarked on their missions to erect historical markers throughout their respective states, they did so in the spirit of celebration and, unsurprisingly, most markers did not take a very critical look at the past. The purpose was to tell viewers what historical events and individuals were important and to briefly describe what was being celebrated. Much like instruction in most history classrooms during the 20th century, these markers were heavy on facts and dates but never really explained why they were important in the first place. This is not to suggest that there’s nothing to celebrate in American history, that every marker must be critical, or that every marker during that time was poorly written, but only that it could be easy for viewers to forget about or put aside more unsavory parts of a given state’s history with the way that history was being interpreted through its historical markers at that time. What I see with more markers today is a willingness to interpret more unsavory aspects of U.S. history and to explain why a particular event or individual is important. The Memphis Massacre marker is exemplary in this regard. So when I see historical markers like the ones at this Lewis and Clark monument, I am thinking about why a particular moment is worth commemorating and, in my opinion, it should come first when writing an interpretive marker text. While it’s great to acknowledge the history of a monument’s creation, why the monument was built in the first place should be primordial.

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