It’s probably a safe bet that no one pursues historical research to win prizes. Unless you are Stephan Ambrose or Bernard DeVoto, recognition for your work is such a remote possibility that it isn’t even a factor. Even the most highly regarded historians spend a lifetime seeking publishers for their scholarly research, and if successful, rarely make a dime off the “royalties”.
Personally I have joined, volunteered for, and even founded various historical organizations over the years – most of the time paying for the privilege – because the importance of preserving the past for future generations is simply a no-brainer.
I’ve known hundreds of people through the years who feel exactly the same way, and have been greatly enriched by their examples and collegiality. Individuals interested in history are in it – as often as not – for the hunt itself. When setting out to find the answer to a nagging question, you are just as likely to find out a hundred things you didn’t know, than you are to finding the answer to your original query. And do you know what? The journey was still extraordinarily rewarding.
One such person is Butch Bouvier. He calls himself a hands-on historian, which is about as apt a description of the many re-enactors, volunteers and local experts who enrich our trips, as any I’ve ever heard. I first met Butch back in 1998 when scouting the Lewis & Clark Trail. I had already done the obligatory “FAM” (familiarization trip) of the entire trail, and now I was retracing parts of the route to find the hidden gems and people that would make our journey more meaningful.
Lewis & Clark State Park near Onawa, IA, was underfunded, poorly marked, without even the semblance of a Visitors’ Center, and staffed by enthusiastic volunteers typically found at the locations we like to feature on our tours. Boy, was I in the right place! After tracking down the one uniformed ranger, Russell, he showed me around, and introduced me to a bearded character with callused hands, wearing a dirty t-shirt and smoking what appeared to be a clay pipe. His manner perfectly matched his appearance, and he has been a favorite of my groups ever since. He doesn’t pull any punches, and he has designed and built more Lewis & Clark Expedition boats than anyone else in the country.
The Bicentennial Celebration of the Corps of Discovery’s 28 month expedition, brought publicity, tourists and money. The park now boasts an impressive new interpretive center sheltering authentic replicas of the two pirogues, a keelboat, and a Native bullboat, plus many other changes, some good and some bad.
If you are contemplating following the Lewis & Clark Trail with us next summer, you’ll get to meet Butch, and many more like him. Actually, there’s nobody like Butch Bouvier, but each of our interpreters and reenactors has his or her own contributions to make to our understanding of this magnificent story, and – I promise – will make your journey the experience of a lifetime.
* For those of you who might be wondering where the title of this piece fits in, “Brown Water” is the title of Butch Bouvier’s book about his adventures building and sailing authentic barges on the Missouri River and its various tributaries. (Lewis & Clark called their boat a keelboat; Butch begs to differ. I’ll put my money on Butch any day.)