Many of us can identify with explorer William Clark's declaration on reaching the Pacific: "Ocian in view! O! the Joy!" But joy is not all Clark felt upon reaching the beach.
On the Washington side of the Columbia River across from Astoria, you can follow in the footsteps of Meriwether Lewis and Clark as they struggled to complete their westward transcontinental mission in 1805. You can proceed from the cove they called "Dismal Nitch" where they were trapped, soaked, and battered for days by foul weather, move past that body of land they called Point Distress, to wind up where the river meets to ocean on the part of the coast named even before they arrived: Cape Disappointment.
Dismal, Distress, Disappointment. The final stretch of Columbia country took its toll on the weary travelers before they could claim they'd reached the sea.
As historian David Nicandri points out in his new book, River of Promise: Lewis and Clark on the Columbia (The Dakota Institute Press, $18.95 paperback) the declaration of joy by Clark seems a bit forced, and the miseries felt at the expedition's finish seem rather extreme. Nicandri, longtime director of the Washington State Historical Society, offers his careful and deep readings of Lewis and Clark's journals and the diaries and notes kept by their men, in shaping an analysis that throws fresh light on an adventure and its heroes during its historic, though Nicandri believes, under-appreciated trip from the Continental Divide down the Columbia.
River of Promise attempts to redress the balance of Lewis and Clark scholarship, which has tended to focus on the Missouri country portion of their expedition, and to weigh in on scholarly controversies and take some of the shine off the hagiographic halo that still surrounds Lewis and Clark. The mythologizing, Nicandri says, marked the recently passed Lewis & Clark Bicentennial and is evident in the works of such popular storytellers as Stephen Ambrose and Ken Burns.
You would think that after 200 hundred years and countless books, we'd know everything there is to know about Lewis and Clark and their heavily documented travels. But there are many points of disagreement among historians and scholars, some trivial, some not. And careful examination of their manuscripts, revisions, and notes, some written literally between the lines, offer fodder for answering questions. How did the two men get along? What was the source of Lewis' mental breakdown that led him to commit suicide a few years after returning home? What was the real contribution of Sacajawea? At what point did the expedition accomplish its major goals? In fact, something as seemingly simple as when they first saw the Pacific Ocean turns out to be in dispute.
That brings us back to Clark's "O! the joy!" moment, which Nicandri believes was written months after the fact and was not exactly the spontaneous eruption that it sounds. Indeed, the Lewis and Clark journals cannot be read as mere daily diaries written contemporaneously, but in fact were often revised, back-filled, left blank, and composed according to literary and expedition conventions. Throughout their works, Nicandri tracks the influence, and even passages that approach plagiarism, from the journal of Alexander McKenzie's transcontinental journey to the Pacific in Canada. The "O! the joy!" moment might have been genuine, but it was also necessary to any Age of Enlightenment expedition narrative.
Nicandri raises the question of what Clark was seeing when he had his "eureka" moment. There is debate about whether the Pacific can actually be seen from the place where Clark recorded his shout-out, and this, in turn, leads to an interesting discussion about where an ocean begins and a river ends. Anyone who has visited the mouth of the Columbia knows that there is a transition from river to sea, and that ocean storm surges can be carried far up the river. Changing geography at the river's mouth also raises questions. What the debate underscores is how, in the moment, exploration is often unclear, confusing, and mistakes are made. Clark may have seen the actual Pacific, or he might have been fooled by breakers on the river. "O! the Estuary!" doesn't have quite the ring to it.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!