Discovering the Region: Commentary

8. David Nicandri, "About the Cover," State of Washington Voters Pamphlet

The journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, like virtually any piece of historical writing, have been subject to modern interpretation and reinterpretation. Latter-day readers have found in them all sorts of lessons for their own times. Thus Stephen Ambrose (1996) presents Meriwether Lewis as a hero from whose efforts our modern society, two centuries later, can draw inspiration and encouragement. Another example set by the two captains, according to Ambrose (1996:311), was allowing the entire adult membership of the Corps of Discovery to participate in “a vote.”

Ambrose’s conclusion inspired a message distributed to citizens across the state of Washington in 1998. The text for the state guide for voters in the November general election, written by David Nicandri, Director of the Washington State Historical Society, maintains that William Clark’s consultation with members of the expedition about where to spend the winter represented “the extension of the democratic spirit to the west coast of America,” and likens the discussion to an “election.” The “vote” was made even more remarkable by the participation of Clark’s African American slave, York, and the Shoshoni woman, Sacagawea, who had accompanied the expedition for almost a year. Back in the United States, neither blacks nor Indians would be allowed to vote for many decades.

Nicandri’s account is a heartening story, to be sure, but to what extent should readers be willing to accept his interpretation of events? Just how much like an election was Clark’s consultation with members of the Corps of Discovery? To put this interpretation into perspective, it may help to keep in mind that another of Nicandri’s concerns, as director of the state historical society, has been to point out that Oregon has received a great deal of attention and funding support for being associated with the history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, while Washington state has received relatively little. Yet before wintering at Fort Clatsop, Nicandri argues, the expedition spent more time in what would become Washington than it did in what would become Oregon. His identifying “the Lewis and Clark campsite . . . near little McGowan, Washington” as “the Independence Hall of the American West” fits his agenda of attracting more attention to the Washington side of the Lewis-and-Clark story. But does his interpretation make for accurate history?

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