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New book on Lewis & Clark offers insights

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Meriwether Lewis (left) and William Clark

It has been a while since I dipped into the lore of the Lewis & Clark expedition. I had a major fixation for about 10 years, starting about the time I moved to Oregon (1997) and read Stephen Ambrose’s best-selling book on the expedition.

More books, perhaps dozens more, followed, as well as Corps of Discovery-related trips to Seaside, Fort Clatsop, Cape Disappointment, Idaho and Montana. I spent Independence Day of 2000 at Fort Columbia on the Washington side of the Columbia River listening to author Dayton Duncan talk about the famous “vote” that members of the Corps took on where to camp for the winter of 1805-6.

The great appeal to me of the story of the Corps involved the trip’s difficulties and how the group persevered to get to the Pacific — and get back. One of my favorite lines from the literature was from Sgt. John Ordway, who wrote a letter to his parents that indicated he was heading west with Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clark and that he had left some money for them in a drawer … in case he didn’t return.

He said he would be back in about two years “if nothing prevents.” I just loved the optimism inherent in that statement. Quite a few things did prevent along the way, but they made it back, with gobs on information on the new piece of America purchased by President Thomas Jefferson.

Over time I started to view the journey through different lenses. First, all of the sights and historic places they said they saw first, Indigenous peoples already knew about … perhaps for centuries.

Somewhere out there, I was sure, was an oral tale of a corps of tribal members who might have had a great tale to tell about crossing the land bridge at the Bering Strait between modern Russia and modern Alaska. But no one has published it.

Also, obviously, horrific things happened to the Native peoples after Lewis & Clark went back home, and there were plenty of cultural misunderstandings during the Corps’ two years on the trail.

Author William Least Heat Moon, whose ancestry includes the Osage Tribe, noted in the Ken Burns documentary on the expedition (I’m paraphrasing here) that one of the tragedies for the Native peoples is that the people who came after Lewis & Clark did not treat the Indigenous inhabitants as well as the Corps did.

Which led to the $15 million (the cost of the Louisiana Purchase) question. Amid some of the revisiting of historical figures such as Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Confederate military leaders, how should we consider Lewis & Clark? How has history treated the way historians have written about the trip?

That’s why I was intrigued to hear about a new book on the expedition by David Nicandri from the WSU Press. It’s called “Lewis & Clark Reframed.” It’s a quick read, at about 140 pages. Nicandri does a good job of tying in L&C to the other major Northwest explorers of the day, Cook, Vancouver and Mackenzie. Deeper, perceptive readings of the journals shows strong influences of the earlier explorers. Nicandri also mines interesting territory on how the journals, perceived as error-filled day-by-day spontaneous diaries, were in fact polished for posterity by the time they were published.

Nicandri also notes how the journal entries tell the story of a well-sublimated rivalry between the captains amid Lewis’ feeling that he was there to “make the discoveries.” Overall, the book is solid, but unspectacular, and Nicandri is a bit too fawning concerning his own work, noting how he “took up the challenge” to write about Cook.

Also, he notes how the modern scholarship of the expedition has opened up channels for future (written) exploration. Yet he seems to be willing to let others make those journeys. Also, there was not as much discussion of revisionism as might be expected given what has befallen Jefferson and others. Maybe those books still are to come.

Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@lee.net or 541-812-6116. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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