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Wild West expert advised new Ken Burns film (Released: 11/19/97)

by Renu Sehgal-Aldrich, Office of University Communications.

STORRS, Conn. -- John L. Allen, a University of Connecticut geography professor for more than 30 years and a leading authority on the exploration of the American West, was a consultant to the new Ken Burns documentary on the Lewis and Clark Expedition that aired recently on PBS.

Allen, who is listed in Who’s Who, wrote Passage Through the Garden: Lewis and Clark and the Images of the American Northwest (University of Illinois Press) in 1975 and has written a number of articles on the subject. The principal author of the Burns film script, Dayton Duncan, had read Allen’s book as research for one he was writing in the 1980s, so he knew where to go for advice on the film. Allen was one of two academics enlisted to help prepare the script.

"It was a great experience working with Dayton and with Ken Burns, who is one of the most creative documentary film makers around. I was honored to have been associated with them," says Allen, who had met Burns previously when he consulted with Florentine Films on a documentary called The West.

Lewis and Clark were selected by President Jefferson to explore the Missouri and Columbia rivers in the hopes that American traders could have superior trade routes to compete with British companies. Their 8,000-mile journey began 1804 in Illinois and ended 28 months later in Missouri after they had explored nine other future states: Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Their expedition began a new age of exploration in the settlement of the Far West.

"The story of the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark is one of the great success stories in American history," Allen says. "In a very real sense, they gave the West — symbolically and literally — to the American people through their reports on the land over the horizon of general knowledge."

Filming of the documentary began in 1995 and lasted for more than a year. The crew filmed places seen by Lewis and Clark at the same time of the year the explorers saw them — Missouri in May, the Rockies in Montana in October and the Pacific Coast in the winter. The film was aired several times in early November. Allen was also invited to attend a special screening and reception at the White House Nov. 10.

"President Clinton, it turns out, is one of many Lewis and Clark buffs and especially wanted to do something to honor Ken Burns and Florentine Films for their efforts to bring American history to the public," he says. "Unfortunately, prior commitments here at the University prevented me from attending the White House reception. But I have kept my engraved invitation!"

Allen, who has been on the faculty at UConn since 1967 and is a former department head and director of the graduate program in geography, is the editor of the textbook Annual Editions: Environment and general editor and contributing author of the three-volume reference work North American Exploration (University of Nebraska Press).

Born in Wyoming, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wyoming and his doctorate from Clark University. He also has been a Larom teaching fellow at the Larom Summer Institute at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming since 1992.