I once hiked down from Clingman’s Dome to Bryson City with friends at this time of year. It rained through the entire trip until we came out near Bryson at the “Road to Nowhere.”
I remember waking up in my tent in the morning with water pooled all around me and laying there on my back like a turtle with my knees against my chest to keep dry.
I also remember how cold the creeks were when we wadded through barefoot in the rain carrying our backpacks with our boots tied around our necks.
Some might choose to look back upon that adventure with romanticism and fondly remember being one with nature. I personally recall it as “The Death March.”
I could not let this last day of November pass by though without recognizing the 200th anniversary of the greatest American camping trip of all time.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition, known as the Corps of Discovery, set out on May 14, 1804 with 33 members. Their mission, given to them by President Jefferson, was to explore and map a route through the unknown wilderness to the west coast.
The journey took over two years and covered about 8,000 miles. They journeyed up the Missouri, across the Rocky Mountains, and down the Columbia River to the Pacific coast.
It was on November 24, 1805 two hundred years ago that the Lewis and Clark expedition camping near present-day Astoria, Oregon faced another deadly winter alone out on the frontier.
The question before them was where to set up camp for the winter. It was a decision upon which their lives depended.
They had to choose between staying on the coast or moving inland and camping on either the north or south side of the Columbia River.
It was here in that camp that something remarkable happened. The Corps of Discovery voted. That’s right, they voted.
Dayton Duncan in the film points out that Captain’s Lewis and Clark could have made the decision and ordered the move. Instead, they held a group camp meeting in which the choices were laid out.
Each member of the party was allowed to voice their opinion and to vote on where to winter. The votes were recorded by Captain Clark in his journal. They voted to move to the south side of the river where they would build Fort Clatsop as their winter quarters.
The fact that these two Captains decided to let men of lower rank and social status decide where to winter is in itself remarkable for that time period. But, what really makes this vote of importance to American history today is that among those that voted were an Indian woman and a black man.
When it came time to vote Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman of around 16 carrying her baby boy “Pomp,” voted to move to the south side of the Columbia.
Clark notes her vote in his journal under her nickname writing “Janey in favor of a place where there is plenty of Potas (an editable root.)
York, a black slave owned by Clark also voted to go to the south side where the Clatsop Indians had said food could be found.
Think about this for a second. This is November 24, 1805, two hundred years ago.
Women in our country would not get the vote with the 19th Amendment for another 115 years. Not only was Sacagawea a woman, but she was an Indian woman of only 16, yet she voted and give her opinion with the rest.
York was a black slave voicing his opinion and voting equally with the rest. It would be 1863 before slaves were emancipated and more than another century before the Voting Rights Acts finally removed barriers preventing blacks from voting.
Historian’s today note that it was almost as if Lewis and Clark had moved across time as they journeyed across our future nation.
Traveling alone in the wilderness, sharing the same food, labor, and dangers, this group of men with a slave and an Indian girl and baby grew to know and treat each other with an equality that would not exist for another century.
In their journey they left the world of 1804 and by the time they reached the Pacific Ocean they had also left some of the prejudices of the civilized world behind them.
It may have been the first time in American history that a vote was held by representatives of our government in which the sex, color, age, or social status of the voters was not considered.
Alas, it only lasted for a brief time. They quickly reverted to the social norms of the times and on March 23, 1806 they began their journey back home.
When they returned they each went their separate ways. Clark would keep York as a slave for many years before finally agreeing to his freedom.
They were all changed though. Clark would make good on his offer to adopt, raise and educate Sacagawea’s son and daughter after her death.
He would also later lose an election for governor of Missouri in 1820 after his opponent labeled him an “Indian lover.”
People could care less about that political election, but the vote taken in the unexplored wilderness of America on November 24, 1805 is still with us all.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Lewis and Clark pioneered more than land” on Nov. 30, 2005