St. Francis Xavier School students experience “living” history

Private George Shannon, portrayed by Bill Hayes, visited St. Francis Xavier School seventh graders on Friday, March 1. Private Shannon, part of the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery following the Louisiana Purchase, discussed the military aspects and weapons of the expedition. (Sara Kraft photo)

By Sara Kraft

ST. JOSEPH – “Reenactments help aid and inspire kids and adults to learn history on a more personal level,” explained Sterling Fichter, Lewis and Clark reenactor. “It’s not just out of a book or a documentary.”

Thirty seventh grade students at St. Francis Xavier School in St. Joseph enjoyed a piece of history first hand on March 1. Last fall, St. Francis Xavier middle school social studies teacher, Garrett Holtz, was invited on a trip of a lifetime for a history buff – the opportunity to reenact a portion of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery following the Louisiana Purchase. He joined several other history buffs in the adventure. The reenactment focused specifically on a portion of the 1806 return on the Missouri River. The group slept in period correct tents with period correct blankets and gear. The replica boat built specifically for the journey is now in the Cass County Historical Museum in Plattsmouth, Nebraska.

Throughout the week long journey, Garret Holtz portrayed Sgt. John Ordway and presented six scheduled school stops, speaking to at least 1600 children. He sent videos back to his classes at St. Francis Xavier School. His area of expertise was the expedition’s provisions.

Since St. Francis Xavier School seventh graders were learning about the Lewis and Clark expedition, Holtz invited fellow reenactors Sterling Fichter who portrayed Private John Colter and Bill Hayes who portrayed Private George Shannon. Mr. Holtz joined the discussion as himself.

Fichter and Hayes arrived at St. Francis Xavier School dressed in period costume and with period gear they had taken on the journey. They spoke of their characters in the first person to help make history come alive.

Following a large group presentation, students visited with each reenactor to learn more about their story and gear. Mr. Holtz discussed the supplies the expedition would have needed, including the food they would have eaten. He showed them a portable soup which Lewis brought 193 pounds of on the journey. Lewis knew at some point they would need it. It was not a popular food among the men. “They thought it was so horrible they killed a horse instead,” explained Mr. Holtz. “However, they ended up eating it anyway – all 193 pounds in the span of a week when they were in the mountains.”

Pemmican, a survival food they learned from the Native Americans, was a staple of their diet. It included meat of some sort, sweetener, and kidney fat. During the expedition when properly prepared, it could last for years. The seventh graders made a 21st century version of pemmican by grinding antelope jerky and blueberries with a rock, then stirring it with melted lard. Next, they dried the pemmican. At the end of the afternoon, the students sampled the pemmican. Most students did not care for the taste as several promptly ran for the water fountain.

Holtz also pointed out that Clark made maps of the areas they visited as part of their job. “Before GPS, that was really hard to do,” he explained. “The maps were remarkably accurate.”

Private Colter showed the seventh graders how to start a fire out of flint and steel as they would have on the expedition. He also showed his wool bedroll, the sewing kit including linen thread, and other items in his pack.

Private Shannon discussed how the expedition was actually a military expedition. “President Jefferson and Congress had appropriated money,” he explained. Private Shannon told the students about life in the military and discipline. He also showed the seventh graders his musket and explained it was only accurate for 25-40 yards.

Students agreed the presentation was much more fun than social studies class. They enjoyed seeing what the expedition members would have had and carried.

“It was interactive,” said Ireland Robertson.

“My favorite part was making the food they used to eat,” said Emily Weddle. “We got to learn way more things than our normal class.”

St. Francis Xavier School appreciated the opportunity to teach students in a different way.

Private John Colter, portrayed by Sterling Fichter, and Private George Shannon, portrayed by Bill Hayes, visited St. Francis Xavier School students on Friday, March 1. As part of the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery following the Louisiana Purchase, the men discussed their live on the expedition to the seventh graders studying the subject. (Sara Kraft photo)

“With these types of historical interpreters talking in first person and bringing history back to life for the students, I hope they have more appreciation for the life and times of these explorers,” said St. Francis Xavier School Principal Darin Pollard. “Whether they are the big names, like Lewis and Clark or the supporting members of the Corps, the students need to know that it took a lot of energy and teamwork to accomplish one of the most challenging expeditions in history. As a former historical interpreter myself, I hope the students appreciate the dangers and hardships faced by these adventurous men as well as the support received from Sacajawea, an essential woman member of the time.”


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

September 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph