|By Vikki McLaughlin
Everything changes over time. Rivers change
course, widening, narrowing, winding where once they were straight. Landscapes change.
Even the magnetic North Pole changes. So, too, has Bob Bergantinos study of Lewis
and Clarks legendary journey across North America changed from an interest in
history to a hobby that nearly has become a lifes work.
Known in some circles as the mapping guru, Bergantino has spent his spare
time during the last 30 years investigating and pinpointing the route and stops that
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made especially in Montana during their
expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. Of course, Bergantino points out,
pinpointing does not necessarily mean finding the exact location of a campsite.
We have to redefine what we mean by exact, says the 59-year-old associate
research professor of hydrogeology at UMs Montana Tech in Butte. A point on a
map may cover 100 square feet, or 1,000. How close can you come?
Not close enough, in many cases. According to Bergantino, many historical markers and
maps proclaiming Lewis and Clark camped here are off as much as several miles.
At Travelers Rest, which the expedition so named because its members paused to rest
there before crossing the Bitterroot Mountains south of Missoula, a historic marker tells
todays travelers that Lewis and Clark camped at the mouth of Lolo Creek. Bergantino
says the real camp is at least 1.5 miles upstream. Another sign at the mouth of
Missoulas Rattlesnake Creek claims that Clark camped there on July 3, 1806, but
according to Bergantinos calculations, the camp actually was three or four miles to
the west, near Missoulas airport.
Near Helena yet another sign, which is being modified by the Daughters of the American
Revolution, says the expeditions campsite was three miles downstream from the actual
campsite at Gates of the Mountains.
Bergantino, who has taught and conducted research at Montana Tech for more than 25
years, is known nationwide as an expert cartographer of the Lewis and Clark expedition,
consulting with everyone from local amateur historians and historical organizations to the
National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and editors such as Gary Moulton, a professor
of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has edited a 13-volume edition of
Lewis and Clarks diaries. Bergantino has created many maps, including one of
the expeditions route through Montana that he donated to the Portage Route Chapter
of the Lewis and Clark Heritage Foundation in Great Falls.
(Bergantino) is very well known for his work, says Jane Weber, director of
the National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls. Hes really an
expert in deciphering the field notes in the journals and Clarks maps and
determining the relationship to current landscapes.
Although modest and unassuming about his expertise, Bergantino is very generous
with his time, Weber says. When the center opened in 1998, Bergantino not only
helped with the exhibit on Clarks cartography, he also helped draft the text that
tells visitors about the displays. Hes a terrific resource for the state of
Montana, Weber says. And he certainly has been a valuable asset for the
community of Great Falls.
As a research professor in Montana Techs Bureau of Mines, Bergantino no longer
teaches classes. A major portion of his work is helping people around the state, and
sometimes state or local agencies, who have questions about water how to locate it,
whats in it, how deep one has to go to find it. He also helps Tech students who are
working on related projects, such as determining the water resources for a town. And, just
as he does in his work with Lewis and Clark, he spends most of his time working with maps.
My specialty is really cartography, Bergantino says. Fully 70 percent
of my time is spent working with maps geologic maps, hydrogeologic maps.
Bergantinos love for Lewis and Clarks adventures arose naturally out of a
lifelong interest in history. Born in Glasgow, Bergantino lived in many Montana towns, his
father being a surveyor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
My dad was a self-taught historian, Bergantino says. He was
fascinated by history. Part of his interest was passed on to me.
After graduating from UM in 1967 with a geology degree, Bergantino longed to go to sea.
He joined the U.S. Navy Oceanographic Research Program and, stationed in Washington, D.C.,
started applying his mapping ability.
On many trips home, while driving across open spaces in eastern Montana, Bergantino
developed an interest in Lewis and Clarks trip across the state. He looked at books
on the subject in Washington but found that descriptions of the expeditions
campsites were vague.
I thought I could do better than that, he says.
He read Lewis and Clarks journals and Clarks descriptions of the land and
waters. Then he dug up U.S. geological maps and started plotting sites.
Lewis and Clark surveyed their entire route Clark was actually the
expeditions cartographer using a magnetic compass, a sextant and a survey
instrument called an octant, Bergantino says. They recorded their latitude, longitude,
distances and what they were seeing around them. Using this journal, Bergantino started
plotting the explorers daily route.
But plotting sites from Clarks writings and maps of that day onto todays
topographical maps was a challenge. Rivers change, sometimes dramatically over 200 years.
Theres even a change in magnetic declination, which President Thomas Jefferson had
asked Lewis and Clark to study on their journey to determine the location of the magnetic
Bergantino also began to see how rivers had changed over the years. In some places,
Lewis and Clarks route, which followed the rivers, was now as much as seven miles
away from the water.
Lewis and Clark took their bearings by magnetic compass, Bergantino says. And their
direction was estimated. They described what was around them at that point a bluff,
a cliff, the junction of a creek. Bergantino looks at all the clues in trying to pinpoint
I look at the campsite and see how it fits the criteria given in the
journals, Bergantino says. If there is very specific information, I try to
make sure it all fits.
The professor says he can be pretty accurate about the location of some campsites, but
no one can be absolutely certain about an exact campsite, he says.
Looking at all the clues, Bergantino says, he usually can get to within 500 feet of a
I try to find the sites as close as I can. But it doesnt matter if Im
off 200 feet as long as I understand what they saw, what they felt. I can be part of that
expedition in spirit.
Reading the journals, you see history developing. The adventure unfolds every
day. Its been a real time-travel trip.
Bergantino has traveled Lewis and Clarks trail himself, all the way across the
country, by car or sometimes by plane. He has presented his findings and his maps in
meetings, in professional papers, in lectures and on field trips with groups of people
from all walks of life.
He has consulted with Moulton on the journals for about 20 years, he says. He also has
worked with Joe Mussulman, a former UM music professor who leads a team designing the
Universitys Discovering Lewis and Clark Web site. And, using a prototype
he built himself, he will show Mussulman how the octant that Clark used works.
Bergantino also has spent some time checking Lewis and Clarks math their
calculations for determining their latitude and longitude. He succeeded in recalculating
the latitudinal observations, but the longitudinal calculations are complex.
Mostly, they were about 10 to 15 miles off in latitude, which is not bad
considering their instruments, Bergantino says.
As far as Bergantino knows and Jane Weber and Ella May Howard as well no
one has researched the geography of Lewis and Clarks route to the extent that
Bergantino has. A few people have worked on a few sites, but none on this
scale, he says.
Through all the years he has studied Lewis and Clarks journey, Bergantino has
never been completely satisfied that he has found the exact route. He had determined one
campsite near Twin Bridges but later changed his mind and placed it a half mile away from
his first site.
It might be that Ill never succeed in feeling completely comfortable,
he says. Theres a lot of places Id like to go back and
re-evaluate. He has no plans to stop his lifelong study.
I learn as I go along about Lewis and Clark, about the rivers and how they
change. I hope I never come to the end of it.