History & Tourism

Richland Roots: The Man Who Followed Lewis And Clark

24 Mar , 2020  

Publisher’s Note: Realizing that many Richland Countians are now working from home or forced to remain there due to self-quarantining or reduced travel, we are sharing stories from our archives, and adding some new ones, over the next few weeks in what we hope will be occasional diversions from coronavirus worries. This post was published by 1812Blockhouse back in early 2019:

Over the last two centuries, Richland County has produced a remarkable set of individuals who have led lives of discovery. In the nineteenth century, that included men and women who traveled west where they were engaged in the exploration of areas of the country that were not then well known to Americans.

Once such individual was Olin Dunbar Wheeler.

Orin Dunbar Wheeler

Wheeler was born on May 1, 1852 in Mansfield to a Methodist minister and his wife; he had a twin sister, Ellen, who died when she was six weeks old. Orin excelled in schooling, and in 1874 graduated with a degree in civil engineering from Cornell University.

After a short and personally unfulfilling stint in banking, his next job set Wheeler on a path which would characterize his career and which resulted in a well-known and seminal work on the American West. That position was with the renowned explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell. That experience took him into the Rocky Mountains and to additional positions in survey and administrative work in Utah, Nevada, and the Mountain West.

Olin Wheeler is best known as the author of a two volume work entitled The Trail of Lewis and Clark 1804-1904, a book which profiled the tracing and trekking of the famed explorers’ voyage a century before through narrative and photography. All in all some 200 images were included, a portion of which are now included at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

Others had traced part of the original route, but Wheeler traveled the entire distance, recording his personal impressions of the trail in a series of forays. His team traveled by pack train lugging cameras over mountains and along rivers and canyons. The most difficult part of the trip was that over the Rocky Mountains, for which Wheeler hired a veteran mountaineer guide. Day by day, it is said, the landmarks noted by Lewis and Clark were re-identified and recorded.

The Harvard Library’s copy of the first volume of Olin Wheeler’s book can be accessed and read online here. Newberry Library’s collection of photographs from the book can be viewed here.

In 1882, he married Anna Burr of Mount Vernon, and there is no record of them having children although Anna had a son at the time of the Wheelers’ marriage. After his initial stint out west, Wheeler had made his home base in Minnesota. Orin Dunbar Wheeler died in 1925 and is buried in St. Paul.

1812Blockhouse shares posts in our “Richland Roots” series to talk about the less-commonly known stories of people born here or who lived here and went on to make significant contributions to state, regional, or national history. Other posts in the series are available here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Find-a-Grave, Ancestry.com, Explorations into the World of Lewis and Clark by Robert A. Saindon

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