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Further discoveries about Lewis and Clark

After more than 200 years, the expedition that opened the Pacific Northwest is still yielding new insights, if you know how to read between the lines.
Lewis and Clark came through here, none too happily.

Lewis and Clark came through here, none too happily. Courtesy of Carol Poole

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.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, May 20, 7:17 a.m. Inappropriate

What has always fascinated me was the BIG what if? What if, at what we now know as Lost Trail Pass or at Lolo they would have turned down the Bitterroot River, joined the Clark Fork at Missoula then on to the Pend Oreille River following that to the Columbia River near Montrose in lower BC.

The journey would have been following an established trade route, the trip probably would have been quicker and much easier. I often think the native guides knew what they were doing and directed them over the worst ground they could find, hoping they would scare the Corps of Discovery off.

These thoughts are of course, in wonderful 20-20 hindsight.

Posted Thu, May 20, 7:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Notwithstanding the unwarranted backhand slap to Ken Burns in this book review, he's a fabulous documentarist and responsible for millions of people having a far greater appreciation of our history, AND he's the featured speaker at this year's Historylink luncheon, to be held in Seattle on September 17! I hope to see both Dave Nicandri and Knute at the event.

Posted Thu, May 20, 7:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Seattlelifer: One thing seems certain. If Vancouver had discovered the mouth of the Columbia instead if Gray, we'd all be speaking Canadian, eh?

Posted Thu, May 20, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent review, and I look forward to getting my book tonight, when David does a book-signing at 5 p.m. at the state Capital Museum in Oly, at the Lord Mansion, 211 21st Avenue SW about six blocks south of the Capitol. RSVP line is 360-586-0167). David and Clay Jenkinson, director of the Dakota Institute, who wrote the foreword, will make remarks. A public lecture at the museum follows at 7 p.m. BTW, Stephenie (cq) Ambrose Tubbs, daughter of Stephen Ambrose, will give the Curtiss Hill Lecture at the annual meeting of the Washington State Historical Society, starting at noon June 19 at the musuem in Tacoma, 1911 Pacific Avenue. Her topic is "Unlikely Poster Child: Sacagawea, Pathfinder of the Past, Present and Future." For RSVP info call 253-798-5894 or email Brenda Hanan at bhanan@wshs.wa.gov. Space is limited and cost, including a great luncheon, is $35. David, Stephenie, Shanna Stevenson, John Hughes and Lorraine McConaghy will be signing books. Hughes' new biography/oral history of Governor Booth Gardner, of the state Legacy Project, will be rolled out June 9. It will be available free online and also for sale in softcover and hardback.

Ammons

Posted Thu, May 20, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Having the native guides misdirect the explorers does make total sense. Looking at google maps going North to go West would have been the faster route. But given that these guys were supposed to map uncharted land, perhaps going West first to the Snake and mapping that area and not mapping the known trade route was why they chose the harder route.

GaryP

Posted Thu, May 20, 11:37 a.m. Inappropriate

While the Lewis & Clark story will always fascinate, more attention needs to be given to Alexander Mackenzie, who preceded them overland to the Pacific (or salt water, at least, at Bella Coola,) by almost two decades. The Mackenzie story still awaits PR to compete with L & C.

Posted Thu, May 20, 11:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Oops, make that one decade.

Posted Thu, May 20, 2:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Snoqualman: Right you are, and I say that not due to the fact that my great grandmother was a McKenzie. Nicandri does give the Scotsman his due, and in fact shows how much Lewis and Clark (and even Jefferson) relied on his experiences, journals, and opinions. It caused me to get out my old edition of McKenzie's book.

Posted Thu, May 20, 3:44 p.m. Inappropriate

It seems Crosscut is evolving into a valuable Pacific Northwest history resource -- especially thanks to Mr. Berger's essays, but also because of other such work including Mr. Van Dyk's recent summary of taxation controversies.

I hope the editors continue in this direction, as it gives Crosscut a unique relevance other local media lack.

The editors might also consider the possibility high schools and colleges would find this content useful as supplemental resource material -- perhaps another avenue to expanding readership.

Myself a veteran of alternative journalism, I appreciate its challenges and applaud Crosscut's ingenuity.

Posted Mon, May 24, 11:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Having just visited Dismal Nitch on a rainy, windy day in mid-May, I completely understand why L & C named it as they did.

bstallcop

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