A “discoverer” is often thought to be the first person to see, visit, or experience something. Yet, 18th century expeditions were travelling to the Pacific Northwest, which was well populated and had previously been explored. The true measure of discovery, therefore, was not simply to be “first.” It was to visit new lands and return home to tell of the experience, either in person, or through writing, charts, or drawings.
When we learn about the past from sources like documents, technology, or the lives of individuals, we call this study “history.” We can look at evidence of the past such as archaeological remains, drawings, and paintings, or at objects, such as navigational instruments or pieces of clothing. Much of what we consider to be valuable historic information comes from written documents. This might include the journals of explorers and their crews, the logbooks of ships’ captains, and the ledgers of bureaucrats who recorded everything from royal orders to the length of sailcloth taken on an expedition.
History, however, is not always an exact science and we need to consider that people see things in different ways and describe them according to their own interests and training. The Lewis and Clark expedition produced volumes of notebooks by Lewis, Clark, and between six and eight of their enlisted men. Yet, some of the most basic information, such as the features of an overnight camp, can be different depending on the author. Sometimes imagination is the strongest part of historic documentation, and myths of undiscovered lands, legendary journeys, and people persist even after they are proven doubtful. In other cases, war or competition has resulted in secrecy.
Not every culture relies on the written word as its primary means of passing on history. The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest have a tradition of oral history, passing on events and stories through spoken rather than written language. Even maps and charts can send us valuable messages from the past, with places named by European captains to remind us of who took, held, and lost control of the Pacific Northwest.