In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase from France, which immediately added 828,000 square miles to the United States, most of which was unexplored. Within a year, Jefferson had organized and equipped the great Lewis and Clark Expedition to travel through the new territory all the way to the West Coast. The goals were to map the region, study its flora, fauna and natural resources, make contact with Native American groups who lived there, and beat the British to control of the lucrative Northwest fur trade. The presumption was that the expedition could follow the Missouri River all the way to the Pacific; no one seemed to realize that the great Rocky Mountain chain would have to be crossed on the way.
The expedition, the “Corps of Discovery,” consisting of 22 men and tons of supplies in a 20-oar keel boat, left St. Louis MO in May of 1804 and traveled upriver through what would later be the states of Missouri, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Oregon and Washington. It wasn’t until the fall of that year that they reached the foothills of the Rockies, where they wintered until the spring thaw. They were awed and intimated by the seemingly endless ranges, but they finally crossed the Continental Divide and discovered the westward-running waters of Clearwater River, which led to the Snake River and, ultimately, to the broad Columbia River. Finally, they saw the Pacific, and a cheer went up: “Ocean in view!” What a moment that must have been!
The expedition was just about out of supplies, but they were sure they would find all they needed where the Columbia emptied into the Pacific Ocean. They knew there was an active fur trade in the region, and they anticipated seeing a trading post and a ship or two in the area. They looked across the natural harbor at the curve of land, and saw nothing. They named the spot “Cape Disappointment.” By this time, the chilly autumn season had settled in to what has been called one of the foggiest places on earth. “A week of pure misery followed the moment of exhilaration. The Corps of Discovery was pinned down by the tide, the waves and the wind, unable to go forward, to retreat or to climb out of their campsite because of overhanging rocks and hills”(1) They called their campground “Dismal Ditch.” A few days later they moved over to “Point Distress” (now known as Point Ellice WA). They also called it “Blustering Point.”
By this time, it was November 1805 and there was debate about whether to start their return trip before winter. In a moment of profound democracy, a vote was taken,(2) and the decision was made to wait out the winter. During the next six dreary months, food was in short supply, and many of the crew suffered from colds or flu or both. Finally, in May they set out on the return trip, which was much easier, thanks to lessons learned earlier. In September of 1806 the Corps of Discovery ended its two-and-a-half-year odyssey in St. Louis with virtually its whole crew intact.(3) All of its goals were accomplished, and the future of the western USA was secured.
Does this story have a familiar ring to you? The expedition that is your life has been through uncharted territory, and there have been many surprises along the way. You’ve boldly crossed the Rockies to establish a family, a career, financial independence. You’ve followed the rivers downstream to what was sure to be a time of reward for all your labors. But something went wrong, and you’re standing there looking at “Cape Disappointment.” Tonight you may have to camp at “Dismal Ditch,” and tomorrow you may stand on “Point Distress.” Negative things seem to gang up on us in the foggy, dreary seasons of our lives.
So, rest a while. Lick your wounds. Let the people around you take care of you a bit. Soon, the spring will come, and you’ll find yourself recharged and ready to begin the last leg of your expedition. It will be glorious, if you allow it to be. You’ll have wisdom and experience gained during the first half of the journey, and you’ll be able to appreciate everything a lot more. At the end, you’ll arrive safely at home, led by the hand of God. Looking back, you’ll realize he was always there, just as the sun was shining behind the fog at Cape Disappointment.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
(1) Lewis and Clark: Voyage of Discovery, Ambrose and Abell (1998), p. 175.
(2) Both Sacagawea, the female Shoshone guide, and York, Clark’s slave, were allowed to vote, making this an early example of inclusive democracy.
(3) One member died early in the expedition from acute appendicitis, but that would have happened even if he had stayed home.