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Blue Beads and Other Paraphernalia

I need to get back on the trail again.   I need to pack up Fred, and my blue beads, and maps and hand-forged gills, and possibles bag, and 15-star flag, and head out on the trail with another enthusiastic band of explorers to discover what we can about this seminal exploration in American history.

Now for those of you who haven’t yet traveled the Lewis & Clark trail, I suspect that first paragraph may need some translation.   I’m a study leader as well as a tour director,  so I travel with all kinds of collateral materials: props, maps, show-and-tell items – even a traveling library – plus other fun stuff to share with my travelers.

So here goes:

Fred is my beaver pelt who has been with me for many years.   He has felt the stroke of many curious hands on his silky fur as he helps demonstrate the importance of the fur trade on the Lewis & Clark expedition, and in fact, American history.   I’ve written about him before, if you’d like to learn more.

Likewise, European-made blue beads played an important role in the success of the exploration.   Prior to the colonization of North America, the natives – let’s be clear here:  Native women – decorated clothing, teepees, baggage (called parfleches), and even everyday implements, with porcupine quills glued or more often sewed in place.   It was a laborious process involving plucking the quills from their original home (the pelt of a porcupine), separating them by size, dying them with variously-colored vegetable dyes, and finally flattening them with their teeth and saliva so they could be manipulated into sometimes elaborate and colorful designs.   Nobody thought much about how much work it took to bring a little beauty and art to their nomadic lives; it was just the way it was.   But when European goods began to make their way into the extensive trade network of North America (actually preceding the arrival of white folks by a century or two), these goods included glass beads in every imaginable color and size – already created and ready to be sewn in place!   It was a revelation.   And quill work immediately lost it’s allure.   (Thankfully, the art of quillwork has never completely died out – but that’s a story for another time.)

It turns out that blue was the most difficult color to recreate from nature, so blue beads immediately became the most prized of all..   There were never enough blue beads!   Lewis & Clark also underestimated the importance of this scarce commodity, and they ran out before their journey was even half over!

I actually have two gills (pronounced jills), which were common enough in the 17th and 18th centuries, but are nearly unknown today.   Soldiers in the post-revolutionary army were rationed two gills of whiskey or rum per day – and the Corps of Discovery was first and foremost a military expedition.   For the record, a gill contains 4 ounces, or half a cup.   My half gill (2 ounces) is made of copper and the full is tin, made by reenactors at Fort Benton along the trail in Montana.

I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil the fun for those following the trail on this year’s journey of exploration and discovery, scheduled to set off on July 14.

Sharing this unique experience with other Lewis & Clark enthusiasts is half the fun.   This expedition is filled with unique learning experiences, living history and glorious western landscapes you won’t want to miss.   And besides – I NEED to go! Won’t you help me??    Sign up today for the adventure of a lifetime!

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