Lewis and Clark vs. Urban Growth

Lewis and Clark’s 1804-1806 Corps of Discovery expedition helped open the gates to the American West. Millions literally followed in their footsteps and many of them created cities which grew and grew and grew.

This geospatial analysis uses the locations of their 1804 campsites over a modern-day map aerial image to determine if the campsites for the journey that helped define America are still around.

Those millions, though, settled in relatively few places along their route. While river towns developed along the Missouri River — particularly the lower Missouri River — relatively few large population centers emerged.  That’s Kansas City and St. Louis, really, in Missouri.

We took a look at where the sites were and how they compared with current urban growth. The question: Did the gates to the West flung open by Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery eventually flood population over their campsites?

The answer is not really. Since their campsites were directly adjacent to the river and prone to flooding, there hasn’t been much development around them.

In fact, less than 20 percent of their campsites in Missouri from the 1804 trip are within  a half-mile of urban growth.  The image below is the St. Louis area from the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi to about the Washington, Mo. area (the map reads sequentially from east to west. The furthest east dot is the corps’ winter quarters at the mouth of the Fox River; a sidenote is that the river’s course has shifted significantly since 2004 and the corps’ winter quarters were on the Illinois side).


The third, fourth and fifth campsites are still in the urban growth areas, but none of them have been overrun by growth, as we’ve seen on battlefields such as Gettysburg and Antietam.

The pattern is repeated in the Kansas City area. Only one campsite is deeply in the urban core, the one located at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers.


Even there, it’s still a preserved area. Our datum point isn’t in an industrial park.


Why is it that these campsites haven’t been overrun by growth when locations of similar historic importance around the country have?

​The answer seems to be land value.  Camping on flat lands adjacent to the river meant the corps was camping in the alluvial flood plain, where the richest farming land is located. It got so rich and full of nutrients because of regular flooding. And while there has been a spate of building in the Missouri River floodplain around St. Louis, the areas where the campsites were are too close to the river and, consequently, too valuable and too full of risk to build over.