by Melissa Burns-
Historic locations are among America’s most valuable resources, and their preservation is of vital importance. They remind us of where we have been and where we are going. Without them, our nation is afloat, untethered to its past and uncertain of its future. But what happens when the exact location of a site is in question? Do we accept defeat and forget about the location, or do we choose an uncertain spot to commemorate history? And what happens if two different places both lay claim to the same historic site? I began to ponder these issues on a recent visit to the Lewis and Clark Historic Site in Hartford, Illinois, which memorializes a historic event in an inaccurate location.
The museum records the time spent by the Lewis and Clark Expedition at Camp River Dubois, shortly before departing on their now famous journey. During the winter of 1803, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their men, were stationed at Fort River Dubois while making the final preparations for their trip and waiting for the day when the Louisiana Purchase officially changed from French to American territory. The story of the expedition’s time at the fort is quite well told by the museum, in my opinion. Through a combination of film, interactive exhibits, and life-size recreations, including a replica of the fort itself, visitors are forced to confront some of the reality of daily life in an early-nineteenth century military fort.
No matter how great the museum and replicated fort are, though, there is still a question of uncertainty and misrepresentation about them. The original camp and fort were located near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers because this allowed for an easily navigable start to the expedition. But, while Fort River Dubois was situated on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, it did not stand in the same spot as the modern version. About half a mile separates the two fort locations. The reason for this has to do with the changed course of the Mississippi River. This is a more than valid reason for building the reproduced fort in a new location, and the museum is very up front about the site difference. However, I wonder how many people travel to the museum thinking they are going to the exact spot where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1803, and I am also curious as to how many pay close enough attention to actually catch the switch.
Although I see the problems inherent in not knowing with absolute certainty the location of historic events, I am not bothered by the problem unless the doubt leads to the abandonment of commemoration. And even though things do become more difficult when two cities or states lay claim to the same event, as is so often the case when it comes to Illinois and Missouri and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, I am still not worried. The disagreement means that the historic site is sure not to be forgotten, and it allows for the public to see that history is not something set in stone but, rather, open for tremendous variations in interpretation. In the end, I believe that it is better to erect a museum or historic marker in an inaccurate spot than to forget altogether. After all, half a mile is not really that far off.