Throughout time, historical events have been recorded in many ways. From oral traditions, to books, to movies, history has been passed from one generation to another, told and retold.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1806 is no exception.
There have been numerous books, films and documentaries as well as various publications written of this famously epic expedition. Many of these accounts were done through tireless reading, research and digging, while others have been primarily historical fiction and stretched the truth to please readers.
Whether fact or fiction, many writers choose to change “consulting” and “opinion” to “binding vote.”
Dr. Gary Moulton’s 13 volumes of every surviving journal of the expedition is known as the most accurate and inclusive edition of the Lewis and Clark journals ever published. Even with everything that was written during the nearly three year expedition, there still is plenty of room for speculation and wonder.
Authors use the journals as springboards for telling a more personal account of the journey, as well as trying to fill in some of the missing pieces such as emotions and feelings, which journals do not always take into account. In doing so, too many authors and speakers attempt to use modern day beliefs and mores that far too often do not reflect the times of the actual events. Such is the case when critical decisions needed to be made by the officers of the expedition, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
One of these critical decisions was made near the mouth of the Columbia River.
The expedition had finally reached its main objective: the Pacific Ocean. However, winter was drawing dangerously near, they were extremely low on provisions, not having killed an elk since crossing the Rocky Mountains. Their leather clothing had nearly rotted away, and they were extremely low on trade goods which were vital in obtaining food, information and whatever else the native people could supply. The Clatsop and Chinook people were perhaps the most skilled traders they had encountered and had set their prices with the ship captains who had been trading with them for roughly 13 years.
The expedition had 33 mouths to feed and could not rely on obtaining all of its food through trade with the natives. It was too late in the year to attempt heading back up the Columbia and cross the Rockies before winter.
A decision of where to winter needed to be made. Many accounts that have been written in books and films say the officers took a vote of the entire party, a democratic vote, to determine what to do. This is where one needs to do more research rather than relying on the retelling of historic events simply to add drama to the story.
Lewis and Clark had relied on the entire party throughout the roughly 4,000 miles they had traveled. Decisions of which rivers to take, Sacagawea’s help with obtaining horses from her Shoshone tribe, which man would replace Sgt. Floyd after his death early on, were all critical decisions made by this group who had been hand-picked by the officers. They had reached the Pacific by working as a team, trusting each other with their lives, and not letting egos get the better of them in making critical decisions.
However, to think that this military party was a democratic one is a mistake. As officers in the Army, Lewis and Clark knew that they ultimately were held responsible for any and all decisions, right or wrong.
A few years ago, I was having this discussion with a group of officers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord who were studying the Lewis and Clark Expedition as a great example of leadership. Someone asked me why famous authors and filmmakers use the word “vote” when referring to this decision. They said it has never been and will never be military protocol for officers to conduct such a vote. After discussing the expedition’s situation and what was needed, a young officer added something. She said the officers certainly did not call for a vote, but rather were gathering intel from the men, Sacagawea and the natives, which offered information regarding where elk could be found, as to where they should winter.
Ever since this discussion, using the word “vote” in this situation has bothered me. When my group includes military veterans, I often ask if any of them have ever had an officer put forth a vote, whether in a critical situation or otherwise. Rarely do I get words, usually just laughter.
Stephen Ambrose writes in “Undaunted Courage,” that “This is the first vote ever held in the Pacific Northwest … the first time a woman had voted.” However, this statement does not take into account that the native women who lived along the Lower Columbia River actually had influence in the decision-making policies of their people.
This in no way diminishes the corps members’ input. In fact, I believe just the opposite. The officers consulted each and every member including York, a slave, and Sacagawea, a trapper’s native wife, about what they thought because they greatly valued their input. They would not have chosen or brought them otherwise.
Moulton’s journals record everything written on that day, Nov. 24, 1805. Not one of the entries mentions the word “vote.” Joseph Whitehouse, the only private who journaled that day writes, “ … In the evening our officers had the whole party assembled in order to consult which place would be the best, for us to take up our winter quarters at.” Sgt. Patrick Gass records, “ … At night, the party were consulted by the commanding officers, as to the place most proper for winter quarters”. Sgt. John Ordway writes, “ … our officers conclude with the opinion of the party to cross the river and look out a place for winters quarter.” Also from Whitehouse, on Nov. 25, “ … Our officers had concluded on crossing the river, & endeavor to find a suitable place, for our winter quarters.”
Even though Clark records each person’s opinion, this does not make it a democratic vote as some speakers and authors suggest. I strongly believe it is more uplifting that each person was “consulted,” thus showing the trust that each member has in the officers, and vice versa.
There is only one account in the journals where a vote was taken. That is when Sgt. Floyd died, and a new sergeant needed to be chosen. In the militia as well as the regular military, it was not unheard of to have the men choose from a selected group, who could be trusted and followed as a leader among them.
We should not make history an account of what we want it to have been, nor should we add drama and modern-day attitudes upon it. We may like it, or dislike it, but we cannot change it, and hopefully, we learn from it. This was a military expedition and was so successful because of the chain of command making crucial decisions based on the experience and intuition of those who were chosen to be part of perhaps the greatest expedition our country has ever seen.
Tom Wilson is a retired teacher and park ranger who worked at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. He wrote this article for the park association’s newsletter.