Discovering the Region: Texts

11. David Nicandri, “About the Cover,” State of Washington Voters Pamphlet

David Nicandri, “About the Cover,” in State of Washington Voters Pamphlet, General Election, November 3, 1998, Edition 1 (Olympia, Wash.: Voter Services Division, Office of the Secretary of State, 1998), 2.

“Sunday [November] 24th [1805]. The morning was fine with some white frost. As this was a fine clear day, it was thought proper to remain here in order to take some observations, which the bad weather had before rendered impossible. At night the party were consulted by the Commanding Officers, as to the place most proper for winter quarters; and the most of them were of the opinion, that it would be best, in the first place, to go over to the south side of the river, and ascertain whether good hunting ground could be found there.”

For nearly two hundred years, this obscure passage from the journal of Patrick Gass, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, has stood as the most explicit published description of a little-appreciated event; the extension of the democratic spirit to the west coast of America. Recall that in the fall of 1805, having struggled through the Bitterroot Mountains and after gaining sustenance from the Nez Perce Indians, the Lewis and Clark party completed their quest: they had reached the mouth of the Columbia River and the shore of the Pacific Ocean. However, a severe storm blew in and lasted for two weeks and a clear sense of endangerment infused the minds of the party as wave after wave battered the small party huddled along the rocky north bank of the river.

Then, a remarkable thing happened. Exhausted from a cross-county trek, their clothes in tatters, and with little to eat, Captains Lewis and Clark convened the party to discuss their future. Lewis and Clark, as able leaders with good decision-making instincts, were more than capable of determining where the expedition should spend the on-coming winter. But instead, Clark polled this assembly of Americans and one by one they tallied their vote on where the expedition should go. Almost all said to cross the river and examine its resources. Other recommendations were to return to the mouth of the Sandy River opposite Camas and Washougal, Washington or the Great Falls of the Columbia at Celilo. In the end, they determined to camp on Young’s Bay near present-day Astoria, Oregon.

But the decision as to where to spend the winter is truly less important than the manner of how the decision was reached. Here in what is now the state of Washington, just downstream from the Astoria-Megler bridge landing, America’s most famous party of exploration, VOTED to decide the fate of their community. All of them. The more celebrated of these voters were Sacajawea, the young Indian girl, mother and guide, and York, Clark’s slave. Sacajawea voted more than a hundred years before Native Americans or women could vote; and York voted more than a half a century before most of this nation’s African Americans were freed from slavery. However, the mere fact that any of the other members of the party voted besides the Captains is also noteworthy because had this election been held “back in the states” in 1805, only Lewis and Clark, as property owners, would have been eligible to do so.

Thus the Lewis and Clark campsite of November, 1805, near little McGowan, Washington, “Camp Columbia,” can be thought of as the Independence Hall of the American West. This site is not merely an important Lewis and Clark site, though it is that, it is one of the most important historic places of any description in our entire nation. And it is so because we Americans, as a people, revere those places and instances in our shared history when and where the principles of self-government are extended.

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