First Step Across A Line

Photo by John Griswold


“How far, in any case, must one go back
to find the beginning?”

—WG Sebald, After Nature


I know someone who used to say, at key life-moments: I’m going to just [do this one thing], and we’ll see what happens. If you looked downstream from that first step, it always proved to have big consequences.

On this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, one wonders what might be different now if, say, the North American tribes had had the means of detection, communication, and military power—not to mention the political cohesion and foresight—to turn away every European explorer before they set first foot on the continent.

Natural barriers, such as the Appalachians, slowed the immigrants’ push west for a time, but a key step was the US Government’s crossing of the Mississippi—first with the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803, then with the Corps of Discovery Expedition, which Lewis and Clark launched in 1804.

By the time Lewis and Clark returned in 1806, the first military/trading post west of the Mississippi had been established, a year earlier, 20 miles north of St. Louis, on the right bank of the Missouri River. They stopped at the post, Cantonment Belle Fontaine, and bought new clothes for Mandan Chief Sheheke, who accompanied them to St. Louis and then on to meet Thomas Jefferson. Later, several important western expeditions left from Belle Fontaine.

That first post is long gone. The soldiers there lived rough and suffered from dysentery and “miasmas” (actually mosquitos and their resultant diseases) of the low-lying site. Some 20 officers, 100 enlisted men, and several trailing spouses and children died in just a few years and were buried nearby.

The fort was mostly abandoned in 1809; another iteration was built nearby on a bluff and used until 1826, when Jefferson Barracks was built south of the city. (After the Civil War, 80 percent of all US troops were headquartered at or supported by Jefferson Barracks, to fight Native Americans in “Indian wars” meant to clear the way for white migration and settlement.)

The Missouri River shifted in its bed and obliterated the first Cantonment Belle Fontaine. The second site is now contained in the 306-acre Fort Belle Fontaine County Park, but there is little trace of that fort either. Instead, there are “cottages” (large brick buildings) built in 1930 for the incarceration and industrial training of delinquent boys, and thousands of tons of stonework built several years later by the WPA, including a “Grand Staircase” that runs down the hill toward the bank of the Missouri.

I walked around the Park today. It seemed deserted, despite the government cars at the doors of the cottages that never seem to open. (I did not understand I was looking at 104,000 square feet of current detention facilities until I was leaving the park.) It was one of those violent weather days that presage deep Fall. The humidity was high, and it was gusty and warm on top of the bluff, but as I stepped carefully down the limestone steps wet with rain and slick with sodden leaves the temperature dropped. It was wonderfully quiet overlooking the water. Not far away was the enormous quarry where the limestone was dug for the WPA projects, projects which look quite mad now and are called “remains” on park signage. Not far away are the Illinois refineries and tank farms, the ugly little subdivisions with moldy roofs, the billboards for slip-and-fall lawyers, some place called Dirt Cheap, next to Route 67.

It was as impossible to imagine what might be on this landscape if Native Americans had been left to their own lives, as it was to foresee back then what the crashing together of very different cultures would yield.

The skies roiled darkly over the Grand Staircase, as in a Romantic painting from back when the fort still sat uneasily above the river, straining to see what might come after this first bold but miserable step.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.