In the 1952 movie Bend of the River, James Stewart guided a wagon train to a thinly disguised Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River in the Oregon Territory, USA. In this book, David Nicandri leads us on a similar adventure following the 1804 expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to the same region. Or, at least, rather than just provide another retelling of events during that expedition, he details the background against which it occurred and the reasons for it. Significant in the background are the earlier visits to the region by James Cook and George Vancouver, thus rendering the book of interest to members of the Captain Cook Society.
Nicandri has emerged in recent years as an important Cook scholar urging us to rethink the events of James Cook’s Third Voyage to the Pacific, and to pay more attention to the North American section of that voyage. This book, though, is primarily about the Lewis and Clark expedition, and represents Nicandri’s writing over a twenty-year period. Much of the book has been published before, with several chapters appearing in We Proceeded On (the official journal of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation), and one chapter in The Pacific Northwest Quarterly (a peer-reviewed academic journal published by the University of Washington). To these revised chapters, Nicandri has added two new chapters and an introduction, thereby bringing together a valuable body of work in one place. It follows on an earlier book about Lewis and Clark, published in 2009.1
Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States in 1801. One of his early actions was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, whereby the United States acquired over 2,000,000 square kilometres of territory from France. This land was west of the Mississippi River, as far as the Rocky Mountains but north of Texas. The Nootka Sound Incident in the early 1790s had led to the withdrawal by the Spanish from the region north of California, but they still claimed sovereignty over that land and California. The presence of British and American fur traders on the west coast led to disputes.
Although the Spanish explorer Bruno de Hezeta y Dudagoitia was the first European known to have seen the mouth of the Columbia River (which he called Bahia de la Asuncion) in August 1775, he was unable to cross the bar and enter the river’s mouth. The American fur trader Robert Gray, sailing in the ship Columbia Rediviva in May 1792, was able to both cross the bar and enter the river, naming it Columbia after his ship. Gray’s action was important as it became one of the events upon which the United States based their claims to the region, or the Oregon Territory as it would become known.
The Rocky Mountains had proved a formidable barrier to travel and trade, so Americans had needed to sail from Boston via Cape Horn to reach the Northwest Coast. The newly acquired territory through the Louisiana purchase needed to be explored and, in doing so, Jefferson hoped a route, even a water route, to the Columbia River and the far coast would be found. In 1804, Captains Lewis and Clark were given that task. Much like the naval expeditions to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark were told to chart their route and, also, to collect and observe minerals, fauna and flora, and to form friendly relationships with the peoples they encountered.
CCS members may feel that a work about this expedition is of little interest to them, but Nicandri skilfully brings Cook into the story so that the work definitely has a relevance. He writes,
the focus will remain on Cook, Vancouver and Mackenzie because of their direct and at times hidden (or indirect) influence on the geographic outlook and literary tactics of Lewis and Clark once they reached the Pacific Slope.
Cook’s visit to the region in 1778 had several repercussions. The profitability of sea otter pelts led to an influx of men keen to exploit the trade. Through their presence, Spanish influence was ended. Fur traders such as John Meares and Robert Gray are discussed, but Nicandri dismisses them, writing,
the limited, and frequently erroneous, geographic information gleaned from these fur men was later subsumed, and to an extent controverted by, what Vancouver and Mackenzie said about the region. Indeed, it was their accounts that Lewis and Clark studied and carried with them on their trek.
The detail and methodology of Cook’s voyages (and of Vancouver’s 1791 voyage) are shown by Nicandri to have been a huge influence on the American expedition despite them being marine expeditions. Alexander Mackenzie’s 1793 trek across the North American continent (in what is now Canada) has many parallels with the later American one. Nicandri writes that Mackenzie’s account “on closer inspection, was also a methodical and literary model for Lewis and Clark”.
In Mackenzie’s account of his voyages, published in 1801,2 he wrote in his conclusion,
But whatever course may be taken from the Atlantic, the Columbia is the line of communication from the Pacific Ocean, pointed out by nature, as it is the only navigable river in the whole extent of Vancouver's minute survey of that coast: its banks also form the first level country in all the Southern extent of continental coast from Cook's entry, and, consequently, the most Northern situation fit for colonization, and suitable to the residence of a civilized people. By opening this intercourse between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and forming regular establishments through the interior, and at both extremes, as well as along the coasts and islands, the entire command of the fur trade of North America might be obtained.
Many political reasons, which it is not necessary here to enumerate, must present themselves to the mind of every man acquainted with the enlarged system and capacities of British commerce in support of the measure which I have very briefly suggested, as promising the most important advantages to the trade of the united kingdoms.
The political implications of that final paragraph caused Jefferson, reading it soon after its publication, to initiate the expedition to the Columbia River. So, as Nicandri shows, the three British explorers were both the reason and the method for Lewis and Clark to emulate, but also to counter.
- Nicandri, David. River of Promise: Lewis and Clark on the Columbia. Dakota Institute Press. 2009.
- Mackenzie, Alexander. Voyages from Montreal through the Continent of North America: to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1789 and 1793. T. Cadell and W. Davies. 1801.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 45, volume 44, number 3 (2021).