Saturday, January 8, 2011

New Views of Lewis and Clark. David Nicandri's River of Promise

I was sped into an interest and appreciation for the Lewis and Clark Expedition when I read Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage in 90's when I taught middle schoolers Washington State History and took them camping to the mouth of the Columbia River. Those were the days.  Of course a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I have since assembled a very nice Lewis and Clark library.  Unfortunately I've only read a portion of it including the journals.

In 2006, during a trip to Palm Springs, I read Thomas Slaughter's Exploring Lewis and Clark, a revisionist examination of themes in the travels of the Corps of Discovery. While I am not one of those unwilling to re-examine ideas that mythologize our history, or reinterpret the significance of events and ideas, Slaughter's tone was nasty, angry, disrespectful and so unscholarly. What was the deal?

 It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I begged for and received for Father's Day a copy of David Nicandri's book River of Promise: Lewis and Clark on the Columbia.  Nicandri promised this would not be just a recounting of events that occurred on the Great River of the West, but, like Slaughter a re-examination of accepted axioms about the explorers and their actions.  According to Clay Jenkinson, author of the Foreward, Nicandri's chief source would be fresh scrutiny of the expedition's journals, including a look "between the lines," at what the writers didn't say, as well as what they did say.

 I found Nicandri's points interesting and his tone enlightening and uplifting.  While his goal is clearly to de-mythologize LEWIS AND CLARK LORE, as he likes to call it, he refrains from doing so with a hammer and anvil, unlike Slaughter.  Despite the new scholarship widely publicized during the bi-centennial years, 2003-2006, Nicandri is clearly disappointed that public understanding of the expedition has not progressed much past a celebration of the Captains, and that the belief that Sacagawea was the chief diplomat on the trip.

 Nicandri, a president of the Washington State Historical Society and member of the bicentennial commission, avoids a narrative approach to his topic.  Though his examination of the Corps on the Columbia tends to proceed from place to place, it merely serves as a context for the theme of each chpter.  Thus, one can easily skip around from chapter to chapter without missing anything important.  It's almost a collection of sixteen thematic essays. 

I found several of his ideas extremely important.  Here they are in no particular order.
  1. Lewis and Clark did not proceed into the wilderness unprepared or ignorant of the work of previous explorers.  Lewis knew the work of Alexander MacKenzie, his trips to the Arctic and the Pacific, and carried a copy of his Voyages From Montreal on the expedition.  He was conscious of where MacKenzie had been, also took, a dog on the journal, and occasionally copies his prose style in his journal. 
  2. Though we are often reminded by Ambrose and others that the Lewis and Clark relationship was one of fidelity, comradeship, and loyalty, Nicandri suggests that this is not always so.  He suggests that Lewis sometimes emerges as self-aggrandizing, striking off on his own as he did from Station Camp in November 1805, and at other times on the exhibition, such as finding the Great Falls of the Missouri.  Further, Lewis frequently minimized the achievements of others, particularly Clark in his journal entries, writing in the first person of what new discoveries they  made. 
  3. Clark emerges as Nicandri's clear favorite in the Corps' leadership.  We often remember William Clark as the guy who spelled poorly, wrote relatively dry journal entries and made maps.  Rather, Nicandri suggests, we should remember him for these accomplishments:  outstanding scientific geographer, earnest and committed journalist who told what he saw as he saw it every day, a caring, considerate leader of the expedition, loyal journal editor and friend to Meriwether Lewis. 
  4. The trip over the Bitterroots, while challenging and exhausting was not the near death experience we've often been told about by Ambrose and others.  Nicandri asserts that while the food available wasn't plentiful, and certainly not what the men enjoyed eating, they were not starving.  The real challenge of the Bitterroots was the trail itself.  Rocky, steep, difficult to find in the snowy conditions, the expeditions was often in danger of injury and death, particularly to the pack horses because the terrain was so difficult. 
A great read if you are a Lewis and Clark person, it's scholarly tone is not for everyone.  Not particularly long at 281 pages.  I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

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