He brings new life to old story

November 9, 2005 

David Nicandri, director of the Washington State History Museum since 1987, recently completed a book on Lewis and Clark’s westward expedition.


David Nicandri’s second-floor office in the Washington State History Museum is a corner space with plenty of seating and Pendleton accents.

The west-facing windows frame a lovely view of Union Station’s domed roof, but it’s the view to the north that he really wants you to take in.

“This is one of the great vantage points in America,” said Nicandri, museum director since 1987. “Right outside, within 150 yards of each other, you have the interstate highway system, the transcontinental rail line and saltwater commerce. That’s a rare and great window on the world.”

Nicandri appreciates sweeping ideas reflected through a manageable frame because that’s what he strives for as one of the premiere tellers of this state’s history.

“We like to tell powerful stories,” he said of the downtown Tacoma museum’s pledge to the nearly 120,000 visitors who pass through its doors each year. “Stories that have impact and meaning.”

Nicandri, 57, said no tale has packed more punch with the public than the Corps of Discovery, which came to Washington looking for a mythical all-water route to the Pacific Ocean 200 years ago.

Five exhibits at the downtown Tacoma museum have highlighted Washington’s role in the story. Last year’s museum exhibit, “Beyond Lewis and Clark: The Army Explores the West” drew 85,473 visitors during its eight-month run.

“The basic chord that gets struck is a love of landscape,” said Nicandri, a historian of 33 years. “People like to imagine what it might have been like to see that landscape in a more pristine context, to stand where Lewis and Clark stood.”

Their journey to the west ended in Oregon, but it was in Washington that the explorers took in the ocean view they had traveled so long to see.

Nicandri began his research in 1997. He’s visited all of the Columbia and Snake river segments of the Lewis and Clark trail – he estimates he’s put in 50,000 driving and air miles – but he said it was picking up the explorers’ journals that really sparked his interest.

“What were the problems they were solving, what was the dynamic of exploration like and how did the whole enterprise work?”

Nicandri grew up in Seneca Falls, N.Y. He said history was his favorite subject and the only one he was good at.

“I was a very average student at best, but history, I kind of got.”

What he didn’t quite get as he spent more and more time with the journals of Lewis and Clark were some of the contemporary spins on the men and their writings.

For example, Nicandri disagrees with the theory, put forth in Stephen Ambrose’s popular account of the journey, “Undaunted Courage,” that Lewis’ inconsistent but florid writing was evidence of manic depression.

“People have confused the expansiveness for mania when in fact it’s a combination of egotism and following literary convention,” said Nicandri as he flipped through pages of a journal replica he keeps in his office.

“The explorer is supposed to know everything and always be confident. In the case of Lewis’ journal, what we read was written days, weeks, sometimes even months after the day of what’s recounted. Most of what shows up in the journals is actually a second draft written after the fact.”

One Lewis and Clark tale that Nicandri fully embraces is of the late November 1805 vote, when the group decided to move across the Columbia River into Oregon.

A native woman, Sacagawea, and an African American man, York, cast their votes alongside the expedition’s leaders. Nicandri calls the election site in southwest Washington the “Independence Hall of the American West.”

“The story of the vote is about what it really means to be an American,” he said. “Because the great contribution of the United States of America in the long broad sweep of history is not our standard of living, it’s not the size of our home or our SUVs, it’s not about our military prowess. The great American contribution to world history is the notion that we govern our own affairs.”

Nicandri joined the Washington State Historical Society as director in 1987. At that time, Michael Sullivan was a member of the board.

“Dave’s ability to make the past not seem like it’s dead is an incredible gift,” said Sullivan, an architectural consultant and a Northwest history teacher at University of Washington Tacoma.

“He really loves what he does,” Sullivan said. “I’ve never dropped in on him unannounced where he wasn’t happy and engaged in what he’s doing. He’s got a spring in his step all the time, and that’s pretty cool.”

Nicandri recently completed a book – written on weekends over seven years – that focuses on the western end of Lewis and Clark’s journey. “Far Short of Expectations or Wishes: The Lewis and Clark Expedition in Columbia River Country” is under peer review at University of Washington Press.

So after overseeing five exhibits, giving numerous Lewis and Clark lectures and writing a book, does Nicandri have a preference between Lewis and Clark?

“Clark got along with the Indians better and I think the men of the expedition identified with him,” he said. “If I were to invite Meriwether Lewis or William Clark to my tailgate party, I’d invite Clark.

“Lewis would be off by himself, not very much fun, a little self-absorbed. William Clark would be around the grill and he’d be telling stories.”

David Nicandri

Age: 57

Resides: Tumwater

Family: Wife, Christy; son, Dominic

Education: B.A. in history, State University of New York at Plattsburgh; M.A. in American diplomatic history, University of Idaho

In on the ground floor: Nicandri’s first job in Washington was as a student intern at the State Capital Museum in Olympia.

Hobbies: Nicandri holds Seahawks season tickets and is a fan of the Oregon State Beavers. He enjoys bird-watching and historic sports cars. Now that Lewis and Clark bicentennial events are winding down, he’ll have time to work on his 1974 Fiat.

Multimedia man: Nicandri is an author, executive editor of Columbia Magazine and a host of “Author’s Hour,” a bimonthly television program that focuses on Northwest authors.

Museum model: Nicandri’s own Italian features were used to sculpt the face of “Luigi,” an Italian immigrant mannequin in the museum’s Hall of Washington History.

Chandra Conway: 253-597-8876


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