by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
In a November 24, 1805 vote, Lewis and Clark left a potentially life-or-death decision up to the members of their expedition
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember another part of our heritage: the first vote by Americans in the Western United States, which took place on November 24, 1805.
The Corps of Volunteers for Northwest Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, had been exploring part of the Louisiana Purchase for eighteen months when they finally made it to the Pacific Ocean in the fall of 1805.
They were then faced with a question about where to locate their winter quarters, an important decision determining their access to food and shelter for the next several months.
They decide to put it to a vote of the corps. Every adult was allowed to vote:
On November 24, 1805, the captains put the crucial decision of where to spend the winter to a vote. Every member of the expedition participated in what would be the first election held west of the Mississippi (excepting only Sacagawea’s nine-month-old son, Jean Baptiste). Clark’s slave, York, and Sacagawea both voted — 60 years before the end of slavery and more than a century before either women or Indians would be granted full citizenship.
The options were to stay put, return to more protected quarters inland, or move to the southern shore of the Columbia. The majority decided to cross over to what is now Oregon. They built a fort near present-day Astoria, named it Fort Clatsop after the local Indians, and moved in on Christmas Day, 1805.
This was not typical of the expedition; Lewis and Clark generally stuck to strict military protocol and discipline.
Considering the election problems we have seen in the United States lately, it is fitting that the expedition’s vote also had a mistabulation:
Clark recorded six votes for returning to Celilo Falls, 10 for going upriver to Sandy River and 12 for heading up the Columbia to look for a suitable site. His list showed that only nine people were in favor of going to Sandy River while 13 wanted to go “up” and “lookout.” Clearly, this error did not alter the outcome of the vote but it does make one wonder!
Some things do not change.