I arrived in Pierre, South Dakota, last night after a long journey from Albany, New York. Today, I awoke on the banks of the Missouri River (in a B&B on the banks of the river, not shivering on the mud) with a chill in the air. This is Lewis & Clark country. So a chill in the air and a thrill of excitement. This is historic territory.
I visited a school here in Pierre, and then two other schools north of here. South Dakota is split culturally by the Misosuri; there is West River, a drier, ranchier, more conservative South Dakota, and East River, a wetter, farmier, slightly less conservative part of the state. Where I was today sort of straddled both cultures, with great fields of tough sunflowers turning their faces to follow the sun, and immense wheat silos, and cattle.
So I was talking about The American Story in the schools today, and I said, "You know, I even have a story about South Dakota in this book. About the French explorers from Canada, the Verendryes, who in 1743 claimed this territory for the King of France." Yes yes, they knew all about the Verendryes. And America learned about about the claim for the territory along the Missouri because of the engraved lead plate found here in Pierre in the early 20th Century. Here in PIERRE! So at the end of the day I got to visit to the very spot where the Verendrye plate was discovered. The tablet itself is in the state historical society, and tomorrow (Thursday) before I leave for Sioux Falls I may have a chance to see it.
I can't remember where I first learned about the Verendrye plate, but I can tell you that when I did find it I was thrilled -- so many stories in this book had to do double duty, so when I found a story about French explorers of early European travel on this continent, and it was about a mid-western state that might not otherwise get a story, I was very pleased. It's a French story. It's a South Dakota story. It's two stories in one! And I hasten to say that South Dakota might not otherwise have gotten a story not because of any lack of interest or regard on my part for this great state, but because even now, in 2006, the entire state population is less than 1 million. In the great panoply of American history, it's kind of hard for South Dakota to compete with New York, Massachusetts, California and Texas. Sorry South Dakota, but thank you for welcoming me to the book festival.
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