Foreword by Clay Jenkinson (excerpt)

David Nicandri

nicandri photo

David L. Nicandri has been director of the Washington State Historical Society since 1987, and continues as the executive editor of the Society's journal, COLUMBIA Magazine. He is the author of numerous articles and several books on the history of the Northwest, the latter including Northwest Chiefs: Gustav Sohon's Views of the 1855 Stevens Treaty Councils.

A graduate of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, and the holder of a master's degree in history from the University of Idaho, he has also received honorary doctorates from Gonzaga University and the University of Puget Sound in recognition of his achievements as a regional historian.

River of Promise is in a sense several books at once, or perhaps one book with several interlocking argumentative strategies. It is, first and foremost, a nuanced and insightful examination of the least well known portion of the journey, the transit from Weippe Prairie (the western terminus of the Bitterroot Mountains) to the Pacific Ocean and back again. Nicandri rightly bewails the general falling off of Lewis and Clark historical narratives after the expedition reaches the source of the "mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River," certainly after the expedition began to float with rather than against the current. The usual historiographical strategy, to focus on the outbound journey at the expense of the return (mere denouement in most accounts), and to wrap things up pretty quickly after Lewis triumphs, September 22, 1805, over "those tremendous mountains," has had two serious negative consequences, aside from the obvious shortcoming of ignoring a leg of the trail that deserves its fair share of attention.

First, given our multiculturalist interest in the expedition's encounters with Native Americans, the usual narrative peters out just when things get really interesting, when the expedition reaches a region with dense Indian populations. Historians used to say, a little erroneously, that Lewis and Clark did not encounter a single Indian between Fort Mandan, in today's North Dakota, and the Shoshone on the Montana-Idaho border (a distance of 700 miles, and a temporal span of 128 days). Now, suddenly, in the Columbia basin, Lewis and Clark encounter so many Indians of so many tribes and sub-tribes that it is virtually impossible to keep them sorted out in one's mind, like the characters of Tolstoy's novels. This crowding of the historical stage occurs just when most historians stop paying close attention. River of Promise fills the Columbia River void admirably and re-peoples the landscape.

If you wish to understand the unraveling of the character of Meriwether Lewis, you must study the journals with microscopic attentiveness to mood and revelation, particularly those written after he left the source of the Missouri River.

Second, Nicandri argues, rightly I believe, that it is simply impossible to understand the decline and death of Meriwether Lewis in the expedition's aftermath without examining his spiritual exhaustion and the effective collapse of his authority (not to mention authorship) somewhere west of the Continental Divide. Lewis's flurry of journal entries at Fort Clatsop beginning on January 1, 1806, literally has the feel of a New Year's Resolution. But Lewis proves unable to sustain the project. He writes rather dutifully along the return trail, but there is a palpable falling off of energy, insight, and–above all–good will. The muffling of Lewis's muse on the return journey is deafening. It robs the expedition of its most interesting voice. Clark's return journal makes clear, in a loyal friend's understated way,that Lewis was coming undone on the return journey. His patience with the strange ways of Indians was effectively at an end. Lewis was now openly voicing his darkest fantasies about the savagery of Indians. His famous outburst on February 20, 1806, ("never place our selves at the mercy of any savages. We well know, that the treachery of the aborigines of America and the too great confidence of our countreymen in their sincerity and friendship has caused the destruction of many hundreds of us.") was not out of character at all, but a revelation of a deep-seated attitude. Lewis's deep devotion to the Enlightenment President's philanthropic principles and progressive agenda had forced his shadow distrust of savagery and his fundamental racism (what might more generously be called his race distaste) under the radar for much of the outbound journey, but Jeffersonian good will and cheerfulness could not be sustained much beyond the moment when Lewis shed the last integuments of Euro-American civilization as he stood, "a perfect Indian in appearance," face to face with Cameahwait, "completely metamorphosed" by his journey into the heart of American darkness (August 16, 1805).

Nicandri's point is that if you want to understand Lewis's post-expeditionary spiral into defiant silence, political squabbling, failure to process his territorial finances in a way that satisfied the War Department, drink, "fusty, musty rusty" lovelessness, and estrangement from even Jefferson, you cannot begin with the hostilities and ineptitude of territorial secretary Frederic Bates and President Madison's Secretary of War William Eustis. If you wish to understand the unraveling of the character of Meriwether Lewis, you must study the journals with microscopic attentiveness to mood and revelation, particularly those written after he left the source of the Missouri River. It can be argued that the greatest days of Lewis's life were passed between June 13, 1805, when he "discovered" the Great Falls of the Missouri, and August 16, when he exchanged his tricorn hat and his rifle for Cameahwait's tippet. After that, whatever had once made Lewis preen like "those deservedly famed adventurers," Columbus or Captain Cook, diminished rapidly. Nicandri's underlying point is that the Lewis and Clark community's failure to make sense of Lewis's undoubted suicide has as much to do with neglect of the Columbia basin experience as it does with America's distaste for dark endings to otherwise triumphant stories.

Some may think that Nicandri pushes a little to far in trying to pinpoint the experiences that deconstructed Lewis, but he is surely right in his larger assertion that to understand the sad death of Meriwether Lewis we must first learn to read the journals, particularly the Pacific watershed journals, with fresh scrutiny and fewer preconceived notions about how an American explorer completes his journey. It is easy enough to reject Thomas Slaughter's melodramatic assertion that Lewis "was already dead; only his body was still alive," by the time he got back to St. Louis. But it is much harder to deny Nicandri's argument that it is irrational and counter-textual to claim, as many, including Stephen Ambrose, have, that Lewis was fully intact when he strode into St. Louis on September 23, 1806, and that his downward spiral during the three succeeding years, the last years of his life, was unrelated to his experiences in the wilderness.

© 2010 by the Dakota Institute Press