Derek Biddle was 11 when he met a mysterious Cherokee woman in his hometown of Rocheport. It was the summer of 1998, and the American Indian was accompanying Glen Bishop, the founder of the Lewis and Clark Discovery Expedition, while he recruited men for the upcoming expedition to mark the bicentennial of the original explorers’ trip up the Missouri River.
“I spent the entire day with her,” Biddle said. “Before I left, she gave me a white mink skin and said that she would see me on the 2004 trail of Lewis and Clark.”
Biddle, who is now 17, never knew the woman’s name. But he does remember what she told him: She said she had the mate to the white mink skin that she’d given him.
Several years after the encounter, Biddle’s mother, Jan Monckton, learned from the Discovery Expedition’s Web site that Bishop and the other organizers were having work weekends for the boats they were building in St. Charles. Biddle began making weekend trips with his mother to St. Charles in 2001.
For three years, he worked side by side with the men, building oars, water-proofing the boat and stringing rope for the beds. His efforts were rewarded in May during another weekend visit to St. Charles when he was asked to serve on the keelboat. The invitation came during a ceremony in honor of Bishop and Peter Geery, another principal organizer of the expedition, who died before the trip began.
Biddle recalled the moment with tears in his eyes; Geery was one of the first men to befriend him in St. Charles. Biddle remembers getting chills as he stood in the keelboat, wearing Capt. Meriwether Lewis’ coat, as the men gave three cheers and fired the cannon.
Biddle joined the crew in Jefferson City on its way up the Missouri River and sailed with the expedition to Fort Osage in Sibley before returning to Rocheport on June 20.
His experience was one of constant learning and friendship.
“There is no way you could re-create this crew,” Biddle said. “They’ll laugh, they’ll joke, they’ll cause each other trouble. But when it comes down to it, they will pull together.”
Not much is known about John Dame, the original crew member Biddle decided to portray for the re-enactment. As Dame, he won the respect of Peyton Clark, representing Capt. William Clark, and the other men by his work ethic, doing everything from manning the tiller and putting up sails to cleaning out the bilges below deck.
On Biddle’s last day, Capt. Clark gave a speech in evening formation to the crew about Biddle’s hard work that earned him the nickname “Bilge Rat.”
In the journals of Lewis and Clark, voyagers hunted for food and relied on a steady diet of deer, but the modern-day voyagers rely on a cook and the hospitality of the towns they visit for food.
Some things, like the fickleness of the weather, didn’t change with time. It rained all but four days that Biddle was with the expedition, but he got used to being wet and cold. In his journal, Biddle wrote about watching the lightning with crew members and then falling asleep, only to wake up the next morning sleeping in a puddle.
And no matter what Biddle tried, he couldn’t protect himself from the bugs. Even modern repellent didn’t get the job done.
The journal he kept on the trip is already weather-worn. The last entry before he returned to Rocheport in June was written by Peyton Clark, appealing to Biddle’s employer to give him more time to return to the crew later this summer. Biddle was flattered by the letter.
“For the past few weeks the Discovery Expedition has enjoyed the service and good company of young Mr. Biddle ... Derek’s love of history and the Lewis and Clark story is readily apparent. Our bicentennial adventure affords him the opportunity not only to love the experience, but to spend time with men in the corps from all walks of life. “
Biddle did return to the expedition, beginning a three-week stint on Aug. 1 before he returns to Grace and Glory Christian Academy at New Franklin. When he finishes school in May, Biddle plans to join the keelboat as it returns next spring, and he hopes to join the dugout canoes as they return from the Pacific in the summer of 2006. His ultimate plans are to be a missionary, but he is considering joining the Navy first to help pay for school.
The white mink skin that was given to Biddle hangs in his room above his bed as a reminder of the friend who awoke within him the possibility of re-enacting the Lewis and Clark voyage.
The identity of the Cherokee woman remains unknown. Monckton has shown crew members photos of the woman with Biddle in 1998, but no one knows her name or whereabouts.