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For Public Consumption

In this age of social media, with millions of people posting their innermost thoughts on Twitter or Facebook, in blogs, or some other internet outlet daily, we tend to think that writing for mass public consumption is something new. So I was somewhat startled to hear recently that Abraham Lincoln’s White House was considered the first to use the media of the day to spread information that they wanted the public to know, but didn’t necessarily want to make “official”. The telegraph of course, was just coming into its own in the middle of the 19th century, and Lincoln used it to its fullest advantage. But his cabinet members and other officials were also adept at using more traditional print outlets, including their personal memoirs, to get their message out.

I was surprised, not because I believed it to be a 21st century phenomenon, but because as a student of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, I know that “the writingest explorers in history” knew perfectly well that every word they wrote would be disseminated to the far corners of the world – and this was sixty years before the Lincoln administration. Sadly, this meant that inevitably their observations were less spontaneous – actually self-edited – and history is probably the poorer for it. Yet it has given legions of Lewis & Clark scholars a wealth of documentation to pore over and speculate on.

The biggest mystery of course, is what their personal lives were like on the trail. The Captains rarely expressed opinions on what they thought or felt about a day’s given exertions – just what had happened. And neither of the Captains ever, EVER admitted to accepting any of the endless offers from friendly female Natives to warm their beds during the 28 month journey. They have gone down in history as pure and saintly, but one has to wonder, weren’t these intrepid explorers also young, virile men?

There is also much speculation about the actual role of Sacagawea in the fate of the expedition. Unfortunately, she couldn’t speak for herself, so we are dependent on what the official record states. Lewis never referred to Sacagawea as anything but “the woman”, or “the Indian woman” in his sporadic journal entries. Maybe he couldn’t spell her name. But Clark couldn’t spell it either – or just about anything, for that matter – and he got around it by making up a new name for her: Janey. So does that mean Lewis was a sexist or just plain racist? We don’t know.

The four sergeants who served in the Corps (one of whom didn’t survive) were also required to keep journals, but they were less circumspect about what they wrote. They and the few literate enlisted men who also kept journals, freely described their social interactions with the locals, and the Captains’ journals do attest to administering frequent treatments for social diseases (I guess since this was a fact and not an opinion, it was deemed safe to report).

When the Corps of Discovery jubilantly returned to St. Louis after being given up for dead, Lewis’ first order of business was to hold the outgoing mail so he could write an initial report to the President. Jefferson was greatly relieved, but by the time the report reached him it had already been printed and reprinted in a number of western newspapers to the sheer delight of the American public.

This was 1806. By then the custom of reprinting items of interest from other newspapers was widely practiced and proven to be a very effective method for spreading news (there were no troublesome copyright laws to worry about then.)

So I wondered, just how far back does this method of disseminating news go? If it didn’t start with Lincoln and it didn’t start with Lewis & Clark, when did it start?

I’m out of space, so this will have to wait for another time. My guess though, is that it goes back a lot further than we might imagine. Modern social media may be less important to the human race than we are given to believe. Go figure.

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Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA’s Insider online magazine.  Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.

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