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Imagine being lost in an unfamiliar wilderness for sixteen days, without food, shelter, ammunition, or any way to let your companions know where you were. Such was the fate of Private George Shannon, the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Only 18 years old when he joined Lewis & Clark’s party in October 1803, Shannon literally grew up along the trail. In the course of the 2 ½ year journey, he suffered one of the most harrowing ordeals of all the men of the Corps of Discovery– facing the wilderness totally alone.

George Shannon

Artist’s rendering of George Shannon

George Shannon was born in 1785 in Washington County, Pennsylvania, an intelligent young man from a good family. He met Meriwether Lewis in Pittsburgh in 1803, while Lewis was awaiting the completion of the expedition’s keelboat.  Shannon was one of three men Lewis took along from Pittsburgh on a trial basis. He officially signed on at Maysville, Kentucky on October 19, 1803, and is usually considered one of the “nine young men from Kentucky,” although his ties to Kentucky were forged later. Shannon was hired onto the expedition as a hunter, at the rank of private. His salary was $25 per month.

Shannon wintered over at Camp Dubois with the rest of the Corps, and was placed in the first squad under Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor. He seems to have been considered a capable and reliable young man, who rarely caused the captains any trouble.The captains thought enough of Shannon’s abilities that they tapped him to discharge Pryor’s duties should Pryor need to be absent from the squad.

Shannon’s ordeal began on August 26, 1804, when he was detailed to search for two missing pack horses near Spirit Mound in present-day South Dakota. Shannon found the horses quickly and proceeded upriver, believing the rest of the Corps to be ahead of him. In fact, the Corps was actually trailing him. With only a rifle and a handful of ammunition, Shannon wandered alone in the wilderness for the next sixteen days, desperately trying to catch up to his companions.

A skilled hunter, Shannon was able to kill his own food until his ammunition ran out, several days after he went missing. He was forced to abandon one of the pack horses which gave out in the wilderness. Loading his rifle with a hard stick, he managed to bring down one rabbit. Otherwise, he survived by eating grapes, keeping the second pack horse in reserve as a last resort.

Finally, on September 11, 1804, Shannon spied the Corps of Discovery coming up the river. One can only imagine his emotions upon finally being reunited with his fellows. A relieved Captain Clark wrote in his journal:

here the man who left us with the horses 16 days ago and has been a head ever Since joined, us nearly Starved to Death, he had been 12 days without any thing to eate but Grapes & one Rabit, which he Killed by shooting a piece of hard Stick in place of a ball—. This man Supposeing the boat to be a head pushed on as long as he Could, when he became weak and feeble deturmined to lay by and waite for a tradeing boat, which is expected  Keeping one horse for the last resorse,—    thus a man had like to have Starved to death in a land of Plenty for the want of Bulletes or Something to kill his meat.

Private Shannon Lost Map

Children’s map – “Where in the World is Private George Shannon?”

Unfortunately for Shannon, it wasn’t the last time he got lost. On August 6, 1805, he was sent out to hunt near the Three Forks, a dangerous and confusing area inhabited by unfamiliar Indians. It was a stressful day for the Corps, with Clark ailing from a hurt ankle and Private Whitehouse seriously injured from almost being crushed by a canoe. A harried Captain Lewis wrote in his journal that night:

Shannon had been dispatched up the rapid fork this morning to hunt, by Capt Clark before he met with Drewyer or learnt his mistake in the rivers. When he returned he sent Drewyer in surch of him, but he rejoined us this evening and reported that he had been several miles up the river and could find nothing of him.    we had the trumpet sounded and fired several guns but he did not join us this evening. I am fearful he is lost again. this is the same man who was seperated from us 15 days as we came up the Missouri and subsisted 9 days of that time on grapes only.

Lewis sent Reubin Fields in search of Shannon, but Fields returned on August 8 and “reported that he had been up Wisdom river some miles above where it entered the mountain and could find nothing of Shannon.”  But the next day, Lewis happily reported that Shannon had finally rejoined the group.

while we halted here Shannon arrived, and informed us that having missed the party the day on which he set out he had returned the next morning to the place from whence he had set out or furst left them and not finding that he had supposed that they wer above him; that he then set out and marched one day up wisdom river, by which time he was convinced that they were not above him as the river could not be navigated; he then returned to the forks and had pursued us up this river.    he brought the skins of three deer which he had killed which he said were in good order. he had lived very plentifully this trip but looked a good deel worried with his march.

Shannon suffered some minor mishaps during the remainder of the expedition, but was careful not to get lost on the return trip. He returned up the Missouri River in 1807, on an ill-fated fur-trading expedition that had the added goal of returning Mandan chief Sheheke to his village. The party was attacked by the Arikara Indians, and Shannon suffered a bullet wound that broke his leg. By the time the party straggled back down the river, gangrene had set in and Shannon was not expected to live. Shannon’s amputated leg was buried at Fort Bellefontaine on the bank of the Missouri River. The young man survived, but his exploring days were over. He was still only 22.

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

Shannon went on to study law in Lexington, Kentucky. In the spring of 1810, William Clark recruited him to travel to Philadelphia to assist Nicholas Biddle with editing the Lewis and Clark journals. Clark’s letter of introduction stated that Shannon “possesses a sincere and undisguised heart, he is highly spoken of by all his acquaintances and much respected at the Lexington University where he has been for the last two years.”

After his involvement with the Lewis and Clark journals, Shannon returned to Kentucky, married into a prominent Lexington family, fathered seven children, and embarked on a turbulent legal and political career in Kentucky and Missouri that spanned almost three decades. George Shannon died suddenly August 30, 1836 at the age of 51. A St. Louis newspaper reported that his masonic funeral was attended by “a large assemblage of the ladies and gentlemen of the town … to offer their last testimony of respect to the remains of a good man.” He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Massie Mill Cemetery near Palmyra, Missouri.

The compelling story of Shannon’s ordeal in the wilderness continues to resonate with students of the Lewis and Clark expedition, especially young people. Shannon is the subject of several children’s books, second only to the expedition’s dog, Seaman.

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On a cold, rainy Sunday in December 1805, William Clark was dealing with sick men, hard-bargaining Indians, and spoiled elk.  However, he was quick to note in his journal that a welcome bit of novelty had crept into the dreary routine at Fort Clatsop. “We were informed day before yesterday that a whale had foundered on the coast to the S. W. near the Kil a mox [Tillamook] N. and that the greater part of the Clat Sops were gorn for the oile & blubber,” Clark wrote. “The wind proves too high for us to proceed by water to See this monster, Capt Lewis has been in readiness Since we first heard of the whale to go and see it and collect Some of its Oil, the wind has proved too high as yet for him to proceed.”

Beached blue whale carcass

Beached blue whale carcass

The sight of a whale would indeed have been a novelty. In 1805, the ascent of the New England whaling industry was still 15 years away, and Lewis and Clark would have known whales mostly as a source for lamp oil and candle wax.

One week after first hearing about the whale, Lewis and Clark got their first taste of the big fish from a couple of their own men who were employed at the Salt Camp. On January 5, 1806, Clark noted, “At 5 p. m. Willard and Wiser returned, they had not been lost as we expected.    they informd us that it was not untill the 5th day after leaveing the fort, that they Could find a Convenient place for makeing Salt; that they had at length established themselves on the Sea Coast about 15 miles S. W. from this, near the houses of Some Clat Sop & Kil a mox families; that the Indians were very friendly and had given them a considerable quantity of the blubber of the whale which perished on the Coast Some distance S. E. of them.”

Willard and Wiser had brought some of the whale blubber to Fort Clatsop. Ever the epicurean, Lewis was anxious to sample the whale meat. “It was white & not unlike the fat of Poark, tho’ the texture was more spongey and somewhat coarser,” he wrote. “I had a part of it cooked and found it very pallitable and tender, it resembled the beaver or the dog in flavor.”

Sacagawea

“the Indian woman was very impotunate to be permited to go”

His curiosity piqued, Clark determined “to Set out early tomorrow with two canoes & 12 men in quest of the whale or at all events to purchase from the indians a parcel of the blubber.” The next day, he picked up one additional passenger. Sacagawea had heard about the whale and was not about to be left behind. Lewis recorded, “Capt Clark set out after an early breakfast with the party in two canoes as had been concerted the last evening; Charbono and his Indian woman were also of the party; the Indian woman was very impotunate to be permited to go, and was therefore indulged; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be permitted to see either (she had never yet been to the Ocean).”

By Tuesday, January 7, Clark’s party had reached the sea coast, about 35 miles from Fort Clatsop. Clark hired an Indian guide to pilot them to the location of the beached whale. On the way, he noted that “we met 14 Indians loaded with blubber.” Unfortunately, the Corps of Discovery was a johnny-come-lately to the party. When they reached the Tillamook Nation on Wednesday the 8th, the Indians were busily boiling blubber and siphoning the whale oil into a canoe. The whale itself, called E cu-la by the natives, was lying on “a very large Rock” and had been dead for more than a week. It was “nothing but a Sceleton.”

Clark estimated the skeleton’s length to be 105 feet. According to Private Whitehouse, the head was shaped “like the bow of a Vessell nearly.” Based on that description, it could have been a blue whale, the largest mammal on the planet.

Makah Indians cutting up a whale, 1910

Makah Indians cutting up a whale, 1910

Finding no blubber left on the carcass, Clark’s next task was to try to strike a bargain. “We tok out a few bones and returned to the Cabins at the mouth of the Creek, and attempted to trade with thos people who I found Close and Capricious, would not trade the Smallest piece except they thought they got an advantage of the bargain,” Clark complained. Clark and the men were finally able to purchase about 300 pounds of blubber and a few gallons of whale oil. Clark wrote testily, “Finding they would not trade I Deturmined to return home with what we have.”

The next day, Clark divided the load among the men in his party and set out on the return trip to Fort Clatsop. They found it tough going until they chanced upon a party of Indians, also transporting a heavy load of blubber.  “On the Steep decent of the Mountain I overtook five men and Six womin with emence loads of the Oil and blubber of the Whale,” Clark recorded. “One of the women in the act of getting down a Steep part of the mountain her load by Some means had Sliped off her back, and She was holding the load by a Strap which was fastened to the mat bag in which it was in, in one hand and holding a bush by the other, as I was in front of my party, I endeavored to relieve this woman by takeing her load untill She Could get to a better place a little below, & to my estonishment found the load as much as I Could lift and must exceed 100 wt.” He added, “Estonishing what custom will do.”

Jonah and the whale

Jonah and the whale

Clark’s weary party returned home to Fort Clatsop on Friday, January 10 with their precious oil and whale meat. Clark reflected in his journal, “Small as this Stock is I prise it highly; and thank providence for directing the whale to us; and think him much more kind to us than he was to jonah, having Sent this monster to be Swallowed by us in Sted of Swallowing of us as jonah’s did.”

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We never thought that Lewis & Clark would be mentioned in the same breath as a Meat & Potato Burrito, but then again we have never eaten at the redoubtable fast-food chain Taco John’s.  A few weeks ago, we were approached by a representative of the chain, asking if they could include a photo we had taken along the Lewis & Clark trail in a website promotion they were doing.

It seems that employees from Taco John’s are engaged in an epic online road trip. They are trekking across the country to every city where a Taco John’s is located, documenting a local legend in that city. Somehow they found our photo of the Sergeant Charles Floyd Monument in Sioux City. And now we (and Sergeant Floyd) are part of the Taco John’s legend. Stop #142, to be exact.

Taco John's Road Trip Stop #142 - Sergeant Floyd Monument, Sioux City, IA

Taco John’s Road Trip Stop #142 – Sergeant Floyd Monument, Sioux City, IA

Taco John’s are not big in our home state of Texas (the only three franchises here are located on military bases), so we have not actually ever eaten at Taco John’s. But next time we’re in Sioux City, after we get done visiting Sergeant Floyd, we will. Thanks for the 15 minutes of fame, Taco John’s!

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18th-century sailors

18th-century sailors: no strangers to scurvy

During the age of exploration and long sea voyages, scurvy was a common malady among men who went for months on an unbalanced, limited diet. Scurvy is a serious disease that occurs when you have a severe lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in your food. The symptoms of scurvy include weakness, fatigue, loose teeth, swollen gums, stinking breath, anemia, skin eruptions and even hemorrhages.

Vitamin C is vital for the health of connective tissues such as collagen, cartilage and bone; it is also critical to the body’s ability to absorb iron for healthy red blood cells. Though Lewis and Clark would not have known about vitamin C and its role in human health, they were certainly aware of the dangers of scurvy, and there is some evidence that they took concrete steps to prevent it during the Expedition.

Jug of vinegar

Vinegar did little to help prevent scurvy

Starting in Revolutionary times, the Continental Army included a daily dose of 4 teaspoons of vinegar in the men’s rations to help prevent scurvy among the troops. It is recorded in the journals  that William Clark obtained “750 rats. [rations] of Soap Candles & vinager” for the Corps of Discovery while at Camp River DuBois in January 1804. Since vinegar is never mentioned again in the journals, it is unknown whether the rations were handed out at Camp River DuBois, taken along on the expedition, or used for some other purpose than scurvy prevention.  In any case, the vinegar would not have helped much. Though cider vinegar is as tangy as lemon juice and would have supplied some of the acid ideally gotten through citrus fruits, it contains no vitamin C and thus would have had little practical effect in preventing scurvy.

A Treatise on the Scurvy by Dr. James Lind, 1753

A Treatise on the Scurvy by Dr. James Lind, 1753

Fortunately for Lewis and Clark, scurvy is not that easy a disease to get. It takes one to three months of complete vitamin C deprivation before the human body begins to show signs of scurvy. For much of the journey, the men were able to find fruits, vegetables, and berries along the trail that would have supplied some much-needed vitamin C. In various entries in the journals, Lewis and Clark mention the men consuming rosehips, plums, chokecherries, serviceberries, and currants. Also, some greens like cattail, lamb’s quarter, and miner’s lettuce are good sources of vitamin C and would have been available at points along the trail.

I did not know (until researching this blog) that some types of meat can also contain vitamin C. Organ meats such as kidneys and liver are sometimes rich in vitamin C, and so are some kinds of fish. So these sources would have also helped supply the much-needed vitamin in the Corps’ diet.

Nevertheless, some scholars believe that Lewis and Clark’s men may have suffered from the beginning stages of scurvy at some points along the expedition.   On May 10, 1805, while traveling through violent winds and sometimes snow in present-day Montana, Lewis wrote:  “Boils and imposthumes have been very common with the party Bratton is now unable to work with one on his hand; soar eyes continue also to be common to all of us in a greater or less degree.” Dr. E. G. Chuinard, author of Only One Man Died: The Medical Aspects of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, suggests that the “boils and imposthumes” may have been an indication of mild scurvy.

Hawthorn berries

Hawthorn berries from the Nez Perce provided desperately needed vitamin C

There can be no doubt that the Corps was badly malnourished when they emerged from the Bitterroot Mountains in September of 1805. Deep snows made the seven-day crossing of the rugged Bitterroot Range a terrible ordeal, and there was no wild game to be found. The Corps was reduced to slaughtering their horses and eating rancid “portable soup” Lewis had purchased back in Philadelphia two years before. During this time, Clark records that skin infections and boils were common among the men, and it would not have been surprising if these were a sign of scurvy. Fortunately, the Corps reached the Nez Perce villages, where the natives supplied hawthorn berries. Later on the Columbia River, they had access to fruits and fish that helped restore the men to health.

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Albert Szent-Gyorgi discovered Vitamin C in 1927

While various theories about the treatment of scurvy abounded, the actual cause of the disease remained somewhat poorly understood, and scurvy continued to be a scourge of armies and navies well into the 20th century. It was not until the 1920’s that Hungarian researcher Albert Szent-Gyorgyi isolated a substance known as hexuronic acid, or vitamin C. The connection between the lack of hexuronic acid and scurvy was finally proven in 1932, by American researcher Charles Glen King of the University of Pittsburgh.  Albert Szent-Gyorgyi won the Nobel Prize for his achievement – and renamed his discovery “ascorbic acid” in honor of its antiscorbutic (anti-scurvy) properties.

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One of the most difficult aspects of Lewis and Clark’s cross-continental journey was figuring out how to transport the tons of goods and supplies they had brought. As transportation conditions changed along the river, the logistics of handling so much baggage on land became impractical or downright impossible. At three major points along the route, Lewis and Clark were forced to build underground caches to store ammunition, supplies, or other articles too big and bulky to transport. They built three major caches in all during the course of the expedition, all in present-day Montana.

Native American cache pit

Typical Native American cache pit

The use of cache pits for storage would have been well-known to the Corps of Discovery. White settlers and Native Americans alike dug carefully constructed holes to store food for the winter, and fur trappers often dug caches to hide animal pelts until they could transport them somewhere to be sold. A cache pit functioned something like a cellar. Cache pits were typically six to eight feet deep and shaped like a jug, with a wide bottom and narrow mouth. They were often lined with animal hides and grasses, and shored up with sticks to prevent the cache from collapsing onto the food or goods stored inside.

Lewis and Clark built their first cache in early June 1805, on an island near the confluence of the Marias and the Missouri Rivers, a spot known as “Decision Point.” At that time, the Captains were facing the difficult dilemma of whether the muddy north fork or swift-flowing south fork was the true Missouri River. Choosing to follow the less navigable south fork, Lewis and Clark decided to leave the red pirogue and some of the heavier baggage behind. On June 9, 1805, Lewis wrote in his journal:

We determined to deposite at this place the large red perogue all the heavy baggage which we could possibly do without and some provision, salt, tools powder and Lead &c with a view to lighten our vessels and at the same time to strengthen their crews by means of the seven hands who have been heretofore employd. in navigating the red perogue; accordingly we set some hands to diging a hole or cellar for the reception of our stores. these holes in the ground or deposits are called by the engages cashes; on enquiry I found that Cruzatte was well acquainted this business and therefore left the management of it intirely to him.

The next day, Lewis reported that the deed was done. “In order to guard against accedents we thout it well to conceal some ammunicion here and accordingly buryed a tin cannester of 4 lbs. of powder and an adequate quantity of lead near our tent; a cannester of 6 lbs. lead and an ax in a thicket up the S. Fork three hundred yards distant from the point.    we concluded that we still could spare more amunition for this deposit    Capt. Clark was therefore to make a further deposit in the morning, in addition to one Keg of 20 lbs. and an adequate proportion of lead which had been laid by to be buryed in the large Cash.    we now scelected the articles to be deposited in this cash which consisted of 2 best falling axes, one auger, a set of plains, some files, blacksmiths bellowses and hammers Stake tongs &c.    1 Keg of flour, 2 Kegs of parched meal, 2 Kegs of Pork, 1 Keg of salt, some chissels, a cooper’s Howel, some tin cups, 2 Musquets, 3 brown bear skins, beaver skins, horns of the bighorned anamal, a part of the men’s robes clothing and all their superfluous baggage of every discription, and beaver traps.—    we drew up the red perogue into the middle of a small Island at the entrance of Maria’s river, and secured and made her fast to the trees to prevent the high floods from carrying her off    put my brand on several trees standing near her, and covered her with brush to shelter her from the effects of the sun.”

Replicas of Lewis and Clark's white and red pirogues

Replicas of Lewis and Clark’s white and red pirogues

Lewis and Clark hoped to be able to recover the stores and pirogue on the return trip. A few weeks later, in the midst of a grueling portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri River, they were forced to dig a second cache rather than transport more heavy equipment upriver. “Capt. C. also scelected the articles to be deposited in the cash consisting of my desk which I had left for that purpose and in which I had left some books, my specimens of plants minerals &c. collected from fort Mandan to that place,” Lewis wrote. “also 2 Kegs of Pork, ½ a Keg of flour 2 blunderbushes, ½ a keg of fixed ammunition and some other small articles belonging to the party which could be dispenced with.”

Also jettisoned at this point was the swivel gun that had been mounted on the expedition’s keelboat earlier in the expedition. Lewis wrote that they “deposited the swivel and carriage under the rocks a little above the camp near the river.” The white pirogue was dragged on shore and hidden in some willows below the Great Falls. On July 10, yet another deposit was made: the dismantled frame of Lewis’s ill-fated iron boat, which despite his tireless efforts could not be made watertight. “Had a cash dug and deposited the Fraim of the boat, some papers and a few other trivial articles of but little importance,” Lewis wrote with resignation.

The expedition’s third major cache was made about six weeks later, in mid-August 1805. After a long and anxiety-filled search, Lewis and Clark had finally found the Shoshone Indians and were negotiating for horses to carry them across the Rocky Mountains. Naturally, much of the remaining baggage had to be left behind. Near the Beaverhead River and the spot they called Camp Fortunate, they sunk their canoes in the river and buried everything they could not take across the Great Divide. On August 21, 1805, Sergeant John Ordway wrote: ” four men sent to dig a hole or carsh… this evening after dark we carried the baggage to the carsh or hole which we leave at this place.    we took it to hide undiscovred from the natives.    all the baggage which we carry with us packed up & pack Saddles made ready to cross the diveding ridge as soon as the horses return from the other Side.”

Continental Divide

The Rocky Mountains at the Continental Divide

That was the final significant deposit, save for two canisters of lead powder that Clark buried on the Weippe Prairie once the Expedition had crossed the great divide and was camping near the Nez Perce. There was nothing to do now but hope for the best that the goods could be recovered for the return trip.

All in all, Lewis and Clark’s caches made out fairly well. On May 7, 1806, the Corps was headed for home and was back among the Nez Perce. Lewis wrote, “a man of this lodge produced us two canisters of powder which he informed us he had found by means of his dog where they had been buried in a bottom near the river some miles above, they were the same which we had buryed as we decended the river last fall.” The honest man returned the powder to the captains.

On July 8, 1806, the Corps returned to Camp Fortunate and the Beaverhead River. Desperate for a smoke, the men were particularly impatient to get into this cache. Clark wrote:

Dried tobacco twists

Dried tobacco twists

after dinner we proceeded on down the forke which is here but Small    9 Miles to our encampment of 17 Augt.   at which place we Sunk our Canoes & buried Some articles, as before mentioned the most of the Party with me being Chewers of Tobacco become So impatient to be chewing it that they Scercely gave themselves time to take their Saddles off their horses before they were off to the deposit. I found every article Safe, except a little damp. I gave to each man who used tobacco about two feet off a part of a role    took one third of the ballance myself and put up ⅔ in a box to Send down with the most of the articles which had been left at this place, by the Canoes this evening. I examined them and found then all Safe except one of the largest which had a large hole in one Side & Split in bow.

The opening of the oldest caches on either side of the Great Falls proved to be a bit of a disappointment. On July 13, the Corps of Discovery had reached their old camp at White Bear Island on the upper part of the portage route. Lewis had the upper portage cache opened and found that there had been some casualties. He wrote disconsolately:

found my bearskins entirly destroyed by the water, the river having risen so high that the water had penitrated.    all my specimens of plants also lost.    the Chart of the Missouri fortunately escaped. [This map was apparently lost at a later date.]   opened my trunks and boxes and exposed the articles to dry.    found my papers damp and several articles damp.    the stoper had come out of a phial of laudinum and the contents had run into the drawer and distroyed a gret part of my medicine in sucuh manner that it was past recovery.

The next day’s dig yielded a little better news. Lewis wrote: “Had the carriage wheels dug up    found them in good order.    the iron frame of the boat had not suffered materially.” He dispatched Private Hugh McNeal to determine the state of the white pirogue and the cache at the lower portage camp. Fortunately, the white pirogue had survived the winter quite well. On July 27th, Sergeant John Ordway wrote, “we halled out the white perogue out of the bushes and repaired hir.    about 12 we loaded and Set out with the white perogue and the 5 canoes.”

The red pirogue and the cache on the Marias were not so lucky. On July 28, Lewis was hugely relieved to rejoin with other members of the Corps of Discovery after his ill-fated exploration of the Marias River and hair-raising flight from his encounter with the Blackfeet Indians. Lewis wrote that upon reaching the mouth of the Marias “we heared the report of several rifles very distinctly on the river to our right, we quickly repared to this joyfull sound and on arriving at the bank of the river had the unspeakable satisfaction to see our canoes coming down.” After reconnoitering to make sure the party was safe and unobserved, Lewis had the last remaining cache at the lower portage camp opened.

Grizzly bear hide

Lewis’s bear skins were damaged beyond recovery

“We found that the cash had caved in and most of the articles burried therin were injured,” he wrote. “I sustained the loss of two very large bear skins which I much regret; most of the fur and baggage belonging to the men were injured.    the gunpowder corn flour poark and salt had sustained but little injury the parched meal was spoiled or nearly so.    having no time to air these things which they much wanted we droped down to the point to take in the several articles which had been buried at that place in several small cashes; these we found in good order, and recovered every article except 3 traps belonging to Drewyer which could not be found.”

His disappointment at the loss of his bear skins was lessened by his strong desire to make tracks lest the Blackfeet catch up with them. Unfortunately, the red pirogue would not be making the trip. “Having now nothing to detain us we passed over immediately to the island in the entrance of Maria’s river to launch the red perogue, but found her so much decayed that it was imposible with the means we had to repare her and therefore mearly took the nails and other ironwork’s about her which might be of service to us and left her.    we now reimbarked on board the white peroge and five small canoes and decended the river about 15 ms. and encamped on the S. W. side near a few cottonwood trees.” They had recovered as much buried treasure as they could, and it was time to move on.

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Aurora borealis in Alaska, 2006. Courtesy of Dick Hutchinson.

One of the most popular posts we ever did on this site was about the aurora borealis (also known as the Northern Lights) that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark observed in the fall of 1804, when they were getting settled at their winter camp near the Mandan villages in North Dakota. The Little Ice Age explains how the aurora borealis that year may have been especially vivid due to the extreme climate conditions that prevailed that winter. Clark’s thermometer, which is considered reliable, routinely reached -40. After a while, as Clark wrote, a temperature of -9 “was not considered cold.”

Clark wrote a wondering passage about his first sight of the incredibly beautiful natural phenomenon:

last night late we wer awoke by the Sergeant of the Guard to See a nothern light, which was light, but not red, and appeared to Darken and Some times nearly obscered, and divided, and many times appeared in light Streeks, and at other times a great Space light & containing floating Collomns which appeared opposite each other & retreat leaveing the lighter Space at no time of the Same appearence. — William Clark, November 6, 1804

The aurora borealis is caused by solar flares which interact with the earth’s magnetic field. The subatomic particles of the flare are directed in streams to the earth’s magnetic poles, appearing in the sky as colorful trembling arches and streaks in a variety of colors. And as it turns out, many more of us will soon have the chance to witness what Lewis and Clark saw, because in 2013, the aurora borealis will be visible further south than it has been in over a decade.

Aurora borealis over Norway, by Ole C. Salomonsen

The reason is a phenomenon called the solar maximum, a period of increased activity by the sun that results in solar flares, intense magnetic loops (sunspots), and the flipping of the sun’s North and South poles. NASA scientists have issued varied predictions on how strong next year’s solar max is expected to be. Depending on how strong they are, the geomagnetic storms could cause disruptions in our cellphones, television, GPS, and power grids, and even expose air travelers to high degrees of radiation.

It will also produce fabulous auroras. The most powerful solar storm ever recorded came in 1859, and produced auroras visible as far south as Los Angeles and Mexico. The storm caused widespread disruption to telegraph lines, and it was reported that gold miners in the Rocky Mountains could work through the night and that townsfolk in New England could read a newspaper by the brightness of the lights (only in New England would people read the paper during the aurora borealis).

While next year’s storm isn’t expected to be that strong, it shouldn’t be underestimated. It is difficult to predict the aurora borealis, but it should be visible in many parts of Europe and the United States, and spectacular in places like Alaska, northern Canada, Siberia, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. The best months to see the aurora are August-April, with peak viewing around the equinoxes in September and March.

The Norwegian photographer Ole C. Salomonsen is an aurora chaser. The amazing video above is called Celestial Lights. Don’t skip this one.

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Three Forks area, Montana

Three Forks area, Montana

It was August 11, 1805, and Meriwether Lewis was getting desperate. Since leaving Fort Mandan in April 1805, the Corps of Discovery had navigated the twists and turns of the Upper Missouri, run their canoes through the Missouri Breaks, and portaged their boats and equipment on a grueling 18-mile land route around the Great Falls of the Missouri River. As July wore on into August, the Corps pressed on into what is now western Montana, searching for the Shoshone Indians. The Shoshone’s formidable horse herds were critical to the success of Lewis and Clark’s plan for reaching the Pacific Ocean. If they could only barter for horses, they believed they could swap their increasingly grueling river travel for an easy horseback ride across the Continental Divide.

There was only one problem. The Shoshone were nowhere to be found. In many places along the Upper Missouri, Lewis and Clark saw signs of Indian camps, hunting expeditions, cook fires, and smoke signals. But they did not encounter any people. In any case, they could not be sure whether these deserted camps belonged to the Shoshone, or indicated the unwelcome presence of hostile Assiniboine or Blackfeet.

By late July the party had reached the Three Forks, and Sacagawea began to recognize landmarks from the area in which she lived prior to being kidnapped as a child. While Lewis wrangled the boats up the river, Clark led a party by land, suffering blistered feet and prickly pear punctures. But they still saw no Indians. The explorers simply did not realize that the Shoshone were still hunting and fishing west of the Divide and typically did not cross the mountains until early fall.

Beaverhead Rock

Beaverhead Rock (courtesy NPS)

By the first week of August, Lewis and Clark’s party was exhausted, demoralized, and hungry. The river was barely navigable, Clark was sick and his feet painful and infected. If they could not find horses, the expedition would have to attempt the Rocky Mountains on foot, carrying only a fraction of their supplies and relying on finding scarce game in the mountains in winter. It was a bleak prospect indeed. Then, a ray of hope: Sacagawea recognized Beaverhead Rock. She was certain that her people would be camped along the river nearby.

Clark still being too ill to lead a scouting party, Lewis set out with George Drouillard, John Shields, and Hugh McNeal. On the morning of August 11, he finally found the man he was looking for:

after having marched in this order for about five miles I discovered an Indian on horse back about two miles distance coming down the plain toward us.    with my glass I discovered from his dress that he was of a different nation from any that we had yet seen, and was satisfyed of his being a Sosone; his arms were a bow and quiver of arrows, and was mounted on an eligant horse without a saddle, and a small string which was attatched to the underjaw of the horse which answered as a bridle. I was overjoyed at the sight of this stranger and had no doubt of obtaining a friendly introduction to his nation provided I could get near enough to him to convince him of our being whitemen. I therefore proceeded towards him at my usual pace.    when I had arrived within about a mile he mad a halt which I did also and unloosing my blanket from my pack, I mad him the signal of friendship known to the Indians of the Rocky mountains and those of the Missouri, which is by holding the mantle or robe in your hands at two corners and then throwing up in the air higher than the head bringing it to the earth as if in the act of spreading it, thus repeating three times.    this signal of the robe has arrisen from a custom among all those nations of spreading a robe or skin for ther gests to set on when they are visited.    this signal had not the desired effect, he still kept his position and seemed to view Drewyer an Shields who were now comiming in sight on either hand with an air of suspicions, I wold willingly have made them halt but they were too far distant to hear me and I feared to make any signal to them least it should increase the suspicion in the mind of the Indian of our having some unfriendly design upon him. I therefore haistened to take out of my sack some b[e]ads a looking glas and a few trinketes which I had brought with me for this purpose and leaving my gun and pouch with McNeal advanced unarmed towards him.    he remained in the same stedfast poisture untill I arrived in about 200 paces of him when he turn his hose about and began to move off slowly from me; I now called to him in as loud a voice as I could command repeating the word tab-ba-bone, which in their language signifyes white man.

Shoshone on horseback

Shoshone on horseback

Lewis advanced slowly, repeatedly shouting the word “tab-ba-bone,” a word which he had undoubtedly gotten from Sacagawea as the best way to describe white men to her people. Seeing the Indian glancing nervously over his shoulder, Lewis frantically motioned for Drouillard and Shields to halt their advance so as not to spook the man, but Shields failed to see the signal and continued forward. Lewis continued in his journal: “whe I arrived within about 150 paces I again repepeated the word tab-ba-bone and held up the trinkits in my hands and striped up my shirt sleve to give him an opportunity of seeing the colour of my skin and advanced leasure towards him but he did not remain untill I got nearer than about 100 paces when he suddonly turned his hose about, gave him the whip leaped the creek and disapeared in the willow brush in an instant and with him vanished all my hopes of obtaining horses for the present.”

Lewis was mortified, disappointed, and furious at Shields and the other men. He confessed that he “could not forbare abraiding them a little for their want of attention and imprudence on this occasion.” In other words, Shields got a good old-fashioned army ass-chewing.

Still hoping to make contact, Lewis and his men tracked the Shoshone for two more days. On the morning of August 13, Lewis again had a close encounter:

we had proceeded about four miles through a wavy plain parallel to the valley or river bottom when at the distance of about a mile we saw two women, a man and some dogs on an eminence immediately before us.    they appeared to vew us with attention and two of them after a few minutes set down as if to wait our arrival we continued our usual pace towards them.    when we had arrived within half a mile of them I directed the party to halt and leaving my pack and rifle I took the flag which I unfurled and avanced singly towards them the women soon disappeared behind the hill, the man continued untill I arrived within a hundred yards of him and then likewise absconded.    tho’ I frequently repeated the word tab-ba-bone sufficiently loud for him to have heard it. I now haistened to the top of the hill where they had stood but could see nothing of them.

Shoshone women and children

Shoshone women and children

A short time later, however, Lewis finally hit paydirt:

we had not continued our rout more than a mile when we were so fortunate as to meet with three female savages.    the short and steep ravines which we passed concealed us from each other untill we arrived within 30 paces.    a young woman immediately took to flight, an Elderly woman and a girl of about 12 years old remained. I instantly laid by my gun and advanced towards them.    they appeared much allarmed but saw that we were to near for them to escape by flight they therefore seated themselves on the ground, holding down their heads as if reconciled to die which the expected no doubt would be their fate; I took the elderly woman by the hand and raised her up repeated the word tab-ba-bone and strip up my shirt sleve to sew her my skin; to prove to her the truth of the ascertion that I was a white man for my face and hads which have been constantly exposed to the sun were quite as dark as their own. they appeared instantly reconciled, and the men coming up I gave these women some beads a few mockerson awls some pewter looking-glasses and a little paint.

After calling back the young woman who had run away, Lewis “painted their tawny cheeks with some vermilion” as a sign of friendship and bestowed trinkets on the women to convince them of his good intentions. The women agreed to lead him to their camp. Lewis recorded in  his journal that after walking with the women another two miles, “we met a party of about 60 warriors mounted on excellent horses who came in nearly full speed,  when they arrived I advanced towards them with the flag leaving my gun with the party about 50 paces behid me.    the chief and two others who were a little in advance of the main body spoke to the women, and they informed them who we were and exultingly shewed the presents which had been given them    these men then advanced and embraced me very affectionately in their way which is by puting their left arm over you wright sholder clasping your back, while they apply their left cheek to yours and frequently vociforate the word âh-hi’-e, âh-hi’-e  that is, I am much pleased, I am much rejoiced.    bothe parties now advanced and we wer all carresed and besmeared with their grease and paint till I was heartily tired of the national hug.”

Charlie Russell's Captain Lewis Meeting the Shoshones

“Captain Lewis Meeting the Shoshones” by Charles Russell

Lewis might not have been a “huggy” person, but he was a most fortunate one. Having never encountered white people before, the Shoshone were friendly and eager to embrace their new “tab-ba-bone” friend. According to the notes in Moulton’s Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, sources disagree on the translation of this word. Some say it meant “alien” or “stranger,” which would not have reassured the Shoshone upon repeated shoutings. Some say that Lewis meant to say Ti-yo bo-nin, meaning “I’m a white man! See!” deriving from Ti-you, meaning “one originating from the sun” (i.e., the east). Having no experience with whites, it is quite possible that tab-ba-bone meant nothing to the Shoshone at all.  Perhaps they just saw Lewis as a tired and desperate human being, and took him in.

Lewis met the principal chief, Cameahwait, who regretfully told Lewis the Shoshone had nothing to eat but berries. Lewis accepted them gratefully, and he and his famished men “made a hearty meal.” Lewis wrote that later, “an indian called me in to his bower and gave me a small morsel of the flesh of an antelope boiled, and a peice of a fresh salmon roasted; both which I eat with a very good relish.”He added with evident satisfaction: “This was the first salmon I had seen and perfectly convinced me that we were on the waters of the Pacific Ocean.”

More interesting reading: Lewis and Clark Among the Shoshones

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