Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history.

Corps of Collaboration: Life as a Link on the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

“Do you take federal passes?” is a common question at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site in Washburn. Many of our visitors follow the Corps of Discovery’s route on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, which begins in Pittsburgh and ends at the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. The popular trail is administered by the National Park Service (NPS) at the trail’s headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. However, the trail itself is a cooperative network of sites and interpretive centers managed by various state, local, private, tribal, and federal entities. We are one of these.

The National Park Service’s map of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is available at all participating locations as a helpful travel aid and popular keepsake.

Federal locations include the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park in western Oregon and Washington. That park encapsulates NPS locations such as Fort Clatsop but also cooperates with Ecola State Park in Oregon and Cape Disappointment State Park in Washington. The U.S. Forest Service oversees the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls, Montana, while the Bureau of Land Management runs Pompeys Pillar National Monument outside Billings. State sites include Travelers’ Rest State Park near Lolo, Montana, the only expedition campsite that can be archaeologically verified. Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Hartford, Illinois, is a state Department of Natural Resources location across from the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. That site showcases the winter of 1803-4, which was spent preparing to ascend the Missouri River, and includes a replica of Camp Dubois, where the expedition stayed during this time. The state museums of Missouri, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Oregon are also on the national historic trail. The Sioux City Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and the Betty Strong Encounter Center in Iowa and the Lewis & Clark Boat House and Museum in St. Charles, Missouri, are popular nonprofit institutions on the trail. North Dakota’s MHA Interpretive Center in New Town is one of many sites where Native Americans share their culture and history, which long predated the arrival of the expedition. We all work together to tell different parts of a whole story.

The “Color the Trail” series on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail’s website highlights fauna encountered by the expedition with names in Indigenous languages. These coloring pages produced by the National Park Service are free at Washburn’s Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and online.

The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail provides a wealth of resources. These have included social distancing signage during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, tactile maps with Braille labels, map handouts, coloring sheets with Indigenous animal names, and the award-winning Junior Ranger book. The Omaha office also promotes trail-wide messaging, which amplifies Native American voices and highlights conservation.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail’s Omaha office provided social distancing signs and floor stickers for trail sites, which both entertained visitors and promoted public health.

Even Capt. William Clark enjoys the Junior Ranger program, which recently won the National Association for Interpretation’s prestigious Freeman Tilden Award. This asset from the National Park Service is a family favorite at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn and other non-National Park Service locations along the trail.

Being an integral component of a culturally and geographically diverse national historic trail enables us to connect and learn. It generates great visitor interactions. Guests discover that Fort Mandan was shaped like a triangle, while Fort Clatsop was a rectangle. They compare earthlodges to tipis. And they may also notice that the spelling of the name of the Shoshone woman who assisted the expedition—Sakakawea, Sacagawea, or Sacajawea—reflects where they are along the trail. The trail takes the traveler through woodlands, plains, and mountains to arrive at the Pacific Ocean. I have traveled nearly all of it, although the 2019 extension to Pittsburgh has provided me with additional travel plans. It’s an amazing route to visit and work along.

Collaboration is a gift. At the local level, that can mean exchanging seeds with and borrowing supplies from the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, a nearby location on the trail. On a broader level, we communicate with colleagues at sites across the state and nation related to replica items and research. For instance, in fall 2022, my friend and lead interpreter at Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Illinois, Ben Pollard, requested a soil sample from our area matching one collected by Meriwether Lewis on the Missouri River near the Fort Mandan State Historic Site. I happily obliged and dug sludge out from under the November 2022 blizzard’s leftover snow, letting it dry before packing it into a food container. While attending the National Association for Interpretation Conference in Cleveland later that month, I delivered it to Ben. The conference was a great time for staff from Lewis and Clark sites to meet up for lunch and coffee. We love visiting each other’s sites and comparing exhibits—or forts! As a member of the grant and outreach committees for the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, the trail’s nonprofit support group, I’ve also seen the vitality of visitor and employee connections from another angle. We are lucky to be on one of the nation’s premier national trails.

Ben Pollard of the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Illinois with Shannon Kelly and Dana Morrison from Washburn’s Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in front of the Camp Dubois replica at the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation’s 2019 annual meeting.

To access educational resources related to travel, Indigenous languages, and history, visit Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

Fort Mandan’s Giant Newfoundland Puts North Dakota on the Map

The Midwest takes its mammoth roadside attractions seriously, and North Dakota is no exception. The Peace Garden State boasts supersized sculptures such as the world’s largest Holstein cow, sandhill crane, and buffalo—and those are just the ones along Interstate 94.

I hail from Idaho where our artificial megaflora and fauna include a giant traveling potato sculpture and Sweet Willy, the world’s biggest beagle. Little did I know when I first started working at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn that another delightful giant (who I once had the honor of playing in my fourth-grade class’s Lewis and Clark musical) would be lurking nearby. That giant is local artist Tom Neary’s adorable statue of Seaman, the faithful Fido of none other than explorer Meriwether Lewis. The bronze Dog of Discovery was installed along the Missouri River near the Fort Mandan replica and visitor center in 2006. He obediently sits greeting visitors and looks as if he might be awaiting a juicy bison treat from Capt. Lewis himself.

Fort Mandan State Historic Site’s Seaman after April’s blizzard. Rain or shine, North Dakota artist Tom Neary’s bronze dog sculpture is a hit with visitors of all ages and their furry friends. In warmer months, visitors enjoy walking along the nearby river and nature trail.

Lewis never documented where or when he bought Seaman—many theorize he purchased the pooch in Pittsburgh during the summer of 1803 while equipping the expedition—but he does mention paying $20 of his own money for the dog. Seaman earned his keep as a hunter, retriever, sentry, and lifeguard. Other expedition members came to refer to him as “our dog.”

In the illustration “Sacagawea’s First Gift” by artist Michael Haynes, Seaman is pictured with expedition member Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife, Sacagawea, during their first visit to Fort Mandan. SHSND

Seaman will probably forever be represented as a modern-day black, chunky Newfoundland, but the breed in his era was almost universally black and white, what is known today as the Landseer Newfoundland after English painter Edwin Landseer. (Landseer famously captured the breed’s distinctive coat pattern on canvas during the 1800s.) Contemporaneous artwork and descriptions of the breed also indicate a sportier build than today’s Newfoundlands. No records remain of Seaman’s appearance beyond his impressive size.

Seaman’s coat likely resembled that of “Lion: A Newfoundland Dog” in this painting by English artist Edwin Henry Landseer. Wikimedia Commons

Lewis held his furry friend in such high regard he even named a creek in present-day Montana “Seaman’s Creek” in July 1806. Interestingly, a Masonic museum in Virginia at one time apparently housed a dog collar that may have been donated by William Clark in 1812, although the original is now lost. The inscription on the collar stated: “The greatest traveler of my species. My name is SEAMAN, the dog of captain Meriwether Lewis, whom I accompanied to the Pacifick (sic) ocean through the interior of the continent of North America.”

Besides the fact that this tail-wagging trailblazer was large, what does any of this have to do with giant roadside attractions? Recently it occurred to me that Fort Mandan State Historic Site just might have the world’s biggest Newfoundland dog. I reviewed my own photographs and scoured the internet for Newfoundlands in public art. Seaman is the most oft-sculpted member of his breed and certainly the greatest traveler of his species. St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, in Canada only has a life-sized Newfoundland statue. Then there’s the salmon-eating incarnation of Seaman (part of the “End of the Trail” statue) I encountered during a 2002 family spring break trip to Seaside, Oregon. But that was no competition either. The closest in stature to the State Historical Society’s Seaman I could find is the one included on artist Pat Kennedy’s Lewis and Clark monument, which has duplicate casts at the Sioux City Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Iowa and at the Lewis & Clark Boathouse and Museum in St. Charles, Missouri. I contacted staff at both sites and requested measurements of their statues. That Seaman is approximately 6 feet, 3/16 inch tall, with a head circumference of 7 feet.

The apparent runner-up for “World’s Biggest Newfoundland” is artist Pat Kennedy’s Seaman in this Lewis and Clark monument, a cast of which stands in St. Charles, Missouri.

Armed with this knowledge, I drove from the Interpretive Center down to our own pup with a measuring tape and a step stool to determine dimensions. Our dog nosed ahead with a height of 7 feet and a head circumference of nearly 8 feet. I contacted the Newfoundland Club of America, which had been involved with the statue’s 2006 installation and reinstallation following the 2011 flood. The representative who responded was delighted. Our Seaman is on the map in the Newfoundland world! So come see what all the fuss is about, and snap a selfie with the great Dog of Discovery himself. Woof! Woof!

During North Dakota’s 2011 spring floods, Seaman was forklifted onto a truck and brought up to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center for a few months of quality time with Sheheke-shote and the captains.