Archive for the ‘Lewis & Clark Expedition’ Category

California condor in flight

California condor in flight

On October 28, 1805, Lewis and Clark had reached the Lower Columbia River when they made this entry in their meteorology notes: “first Vulture of the Columbia seen today.”

The capitalization of the word “Vulture” underscores the awe the captains felt when they encountered the California condor for the first time. With a wingspan approaching 10 feet and a weight of up to 30 pounds, the California condor is the largest flying bird in North America— certainly much bigger than any turkey vulture Lewis and Clark would have seen back east. On October 30, William Clark recorded, “this day we Saw Some fiew of the large Buzzard Capt Lewis Shot at one, those Buzzards are much larger than an other of ther Spece or the largest Eagle white under part of their wings &c.”

With fish and sea mammals abundant, the condors could be frequently seen soaring above the river and along the Pacific Coast, sometimes flying 250 miles in a day in search of food. Several members of the Corps reported sighting the bird in their journals, with Private Whitehouse noting “turkey buzzards which had white on their wings.” On November 18, the Corps got to take the measure of the impressive bird when they encountered one feeding on a dead whale and shot it. Clark wrote:

Rubin Felds killed a Buzzard of the large Kind near the whale we Saw  measured from the tips of the wings across 9 ½ feet, from the point of the Bill to the end of the tail 3 feet 10 ¼ inches, middle toe 5 ½ inches, toe nale 1 inch & 3 ½ lines, wing feather 2 ½ feet long and 1 inch 5 lines diamiter, tale feathers 14 ½ inches, and the head is 6 ½ inches including the beak.

Despite its homeliness and its fondness for carrion, Clark evidently developed a liking for the condor, writing in January 1806 that “the butifull Buzzard of the Columbia Still continue with us.”

Lewis's drawing of the "vulture of the Columbia"

Lewis's drawing of the "vulture of the Columbia"

On February 16, 1806, they finally got a chance to observe one of the enormous birds up close and personal, when their hunters brought in a live condor they had wounded. Meriwether Lewis left us this detailed description:

Shannon& Labuish brought me one of the large carrion Crow or Buzza[r]ds of the Columbia which they had wounded and taken alive. I b[e]lieve this to be the largest bird of North America. it was not in good order and yet it weighed 25 lbs. had it have been so it might very well have weighed 10 lbs mor[e] or 35 lbs. between the extremities of the wings it measured 9 feet 2 inches; from the extremity of the beak to that of the toe 3 F 9 1/2 In. from the hip to toe 2 feet, girth of the head 9 3/4 inches. girth of the neck 7 1/2 Inches; do of the body exclusive of the wings 2 feet 3 Inches; do of the leg 3 inches. the diameter of the eye 4 1/2/10 ths of an inch. the iris of a pale scarlet red, the puple of a deep sea green or black and occupies about one third of the diameter of the eye. the head and a part of the neck as low as the figures 1.2 is uncovered with feathers except that portion of it represented by dots (see likeness) the tail is composed of 12 feathers of equal length, each 14 inches. the legs are 4 3/4 inches in length and of a white colour uncovered with feathers, they are not entirely smooth but not imbricated; the toes are four in number three of which are forward and that in the center much the longes[t]; the fourth is short and is inserted near the inner of the three other toes and reather projecting forward. the thye is covered with feathers as low as the knee. the top or upper part of the toes are imbricated with broad scales lying transversly, the nails are blak and in proportion to the size of the bird comparitively with those of the halk or Eagle, short and bluntly pointed. the under side of the wing is covered with white down and feathers. a white stripe of about two inches in width, also marks the outer part of the wing, imbracing the lower points of the feathers, which cover the joints of the wing through their whole length or width of that part of the wing. all the other feathers of whatever part are glossey shining black except the down which is not glossey but equally black. the skin of the beak and head to the joining of the neck is of a pale orrange yellow the other part uncovered with feathers is of a light flesh colour. the skin is thin and wrinkled except on the beak where it is smooth. this bird flys very clumsily nor do I know whether it ever seizes it’s prey alive, but am induced to believe it does not. we have seen it feeding on the remains of the whale & other fish which have been thrown up by the waves on the sea coast. these I believe constitute their principal food, but I have no doubt but that they also feed on flesh. we did not me[e]t with this bird un[t]ill we had decended the Columbia below the great falls, and have found them more abundant below tide-water than above. I believe that this bird is reather of the Vulture genus than any other, tho’ it wants some of their characteristics particularly the hair on the neck and feathers on the legs. this is a handsome bird at a little distance. it’s neck is proportionably longer than those of the hawks or Eagle. Shannon also brought me a grey Eagle which appeared to be of the same kind common to the U’States; it weight 15 lbs. and measured 7 Feet 7 Inches between extremities of the wings.

At 4 P.M. Sergt Gass and party arrived; they had killed eight Elk. Drewyer and Whitehouse also returned late in the evening, had killed one Elk. Labuishe informed me that whe[n] he approached this vulture, after wounding it, that it made a loud noise very much like the barking of a dog. the tongue is large firm and broad, filling the under chap and partaking of it’s transverse curvature, or its sides colapsing upwards forming a longitudinal groove; obtuse at the point, the margin armed with firm cartelaginous prickkles pointed and bending inwards.

By March 1806, the fondness the Corps of Discovery had developed for the California condor had begun to wane. The condors were strong, observant, and a competitor for food. Lewis wrote: “the men who had been sent after the deer returned and brought in the remnent which the Vultures and Eagles had left us; these birds had devoured 4 deer in the course of a few hours…Joseph Fields informed me that the Vultures had draged a large buck which he had killed about 30 yards, had skined it and broken the back bone.”

California Condor

A face only a mother condor could love

Lewis and Clark did not realize that they were the harbingers of the condor’s doom. At the time they encountered the condor, the birds thrived from northern Baja California to the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, the great bird was no match for the tide of settlers that came flooding into the area later in the 19th century. As people poured into the Northwest over the Oregon Trail, the condors began to die off, killed by hunters and ranchers and squeezed out for food. As their habitat disappeared, so did the condor.  The last official sighting of a condor in Oregon was in 1904. By 1984, only 15 birds remained anywhere.

Baby condor being fed with a puppet

Baby condor being fed with a puppet in captivity

Luckily for the condor, conservationists stepped into save it from extinction. By 1987, all remaining wild condors were captured from the wild, and zoologists, led by staff at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo, started a captive breeding program. These institutions were joined by the Oregon Zoo and the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. The California Condor Recovery Program began reintroducing birds to the wild in 1992. Thanks to continued efforts of biologists and researchers, there are now almost 350 condors living, including 187 condors flying free in California, Arizona and Mexico.

More reading: California Condor Conservation

Read Full Post »

Meriwether Lewis at the Great Falls, by Charles Fritz

When I first got interested in Lewis & Clark, I heard people talking about “the portage,” and I didn’t even know what the word meant. I soon learned that on a canoe trip, a portage is when you encounter low water, rocks, a dam, or some other obstacle that means you have to get out and tote your canoe a ways before you can put it back in the water.

Lewis and Clark’s portage was like that in the same way that racing in the Tour de France is like riding your bike to the corner store. One of the most epic achievements of the entire Lewis & Clark Expedition, the portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri would test the mettle of the captains and men to the limit, and reveal the depths of their determination and character.

During their winter at the Mandan villages, Lewis and Clark had interviewed the Mandans and Hidatsas extensively to learn what they would face as they proceeded west into present-day Montana. The Indians had told them that the Missouri cascaded into a huge waterfall. They were ready for it and had planned to portage their canoes and trade goods around it, a process which they estimated would take about a week.

But nothing could have prepared Meriwether Lewis for what he found on June 13, 1805. Lewis and several men had gone ahead of the main party, and from some seven miles away, Lewis began to hear the roaring of an enormous waterfall. Lewis’s journal reflects utter wonder at what he found, “the grandest sight I ever beheld.”

The Great Falls of the Missouri River, 1880

Lewis’s sheer pleasure at the natural beauty of the falls cannot be overstated, but it soon gave way to amazement and dismay. Above the Great Falls over the course of about 10 river miles lay a series of rapids, a monster spring, and four more major waterfalls: Crooked Falls, Colter Falls, Handsome Falls (today’s Rainbow Falls), and Black Eagle Falls. Besides the falls, the river here was a sunken, roiling trench hurtling between 200-foot cliffs. After William Clark caught up with the canoes and the main party, he and Lewis scouted out a route for the portage that they would have to make, and it wasn’t pretty. The Corps of Discovery faced a portage of 18.25 miles over rugged, unbroken ground covered with prickly pear and teeming with rattlesnakes and grizzly bears.

The first order of business was to improvise wagons with which to transport their many tons of supplies, weapons, and equipment. Under the leadership of Sergeant Patrick Gass, a master carpenter, they improvised some crude trucks. Naturally, they needed wood to make wheels and axles. Anyone who has ever been to Great Falls, Montana, knows that trees are in rather short supply there; they were forced to make due with soft cottonwood and willow and endure frequent breaks and accidents.

Sign-Talker by James Alexander Thom (2000). This novel has the best description of the portage I've ever read.

The captains then established two camps. Even after I saw these in person, I had a hard time understanding exactly what was involved, so it is worth explaining. The “Lower Portage Camp” was the starting point, the place where they had to take their canoes and baggage out of the water. From here, Clark, who was an excellent surveyor, marked out a route for the passage, looking for as much level or semi-level ground as he could find. He was able to shave about half a mile off the route he and Lewis had originally scouted, and marked it with poles stuck into the rough prairie earth. Clark would command the Lower Portage Camp.

The “Upper Portage Camp” was the ending point of the journey. Using only their own brute strength (remember, they had no horses at this point of the journey), the men would haul the heavily laden trucks from the Lower Portage Camp to the Upper Portage Camp. Lewis would command the Upper Portage Camp. He and a detachment of men worked on assembling the collapsible iron boat that Lewis was counting on to replace the large pirogue, which they were hiding at the lower camp for their return journey. They also hunted on behalf of the entire crew, and Lewis himself took over the role of cook.

The portage reenacted

On June 23, Clark began a journal entry in which he outlined the grueling ordeal facing the men on a daily basis:

a Cloudy morning wind from the S. E, after getting the Canoe to Camp & the articles left in the plains we eate brackfast of the remaining meat found in Camp & I with the party the truck wheels & poles to Stick up in the prarie as a guide, Set out on our return, we proceeded on, & measured the Way which I Streightened considerably from that I went on yesterday, and arrived at our lower camp in Suffcent time to take up 2 Canoes on the top of the hill from the Creek, found all Safe at Camp   

the men mended their mockersons with double Soles to Save their feet from the prickley pear, (which abounds in the Praries,) and the hard ground which in Some & maney places So hard as to hurt the feet verry much, the emence number of Buffalow after the last rain has trod the flat places in Such a manner as to leave it uneaven, and that has tried and is wors than frozen ground.

He had nothing but praise for the men. In fact, they were revealing themselves to be a crack unit, bonded together by hardship and common purpose:

Added to those obstructions, the men has to haul with all their Strength wate & art, maney times every man all catching the grass & knobes & Stones with their hands to give them more force in drawing on the Canoes & Loads, and notwithstanding the Coolness of the air in high presperation and every halt, those not employed in reparing the Couse; are asleep in a moment, maney limping from the Soreness of their feet Some become fant for a fiew moments, but no man Complains    all go Chearfully on—   

It is recorded in the journals that even after their daily ordeal, the men danced in the evenings to the fiddle of Pierre Cruzatte — surely a lesson in how satisfying even the worst work can be if you believe in your cause. Clark finally had to give up on describing the travails of the portage:

To State the fatigues of this party would take up more of the journal than other notes which I find Scercely time to Set down.

Sailing the Portage, by Art Kober

The portage showed not only the brawn of the Corps, but brains as well. On June 25, some unnamed genius thought of a way to take advantage of the constant prairie winds. Clark wrote:

it may be here worthy of remark that the Sales were hoised in the Canoes as the men were drawing them and the wind was great relief to them being Sufficently Strong to move the Canoes on the Trucks, this is Saleing on Dry land in every Sence of the word.

It took eight backbreaking round trips to haul the six dugout canoes and all of the baggage around the falls. The men would haul the goods as far as possible in a day, then leave them secured as well as possible and hike to the Upper Camp to rest and sleep. Undoubtedly their worst day was June 29, when the Corps found themselves exposed on the plains to a sudden, violent hailstorm. Sergeant John Ordway described what happened:

Saw a black cloud rise in the west which we looked for emediate rain    we made all the haste possable but had not got half way before the Shower met us and our hind extletree broke in too    we were obledged to leave the load Standing and ran in great confusion to Camp the hail being So large and the wind So high and violent in the plains, and we being naked we were much bruuzed by the large hail. Some nearly killed    one knocked down three times, and others without hats or any thing about their heads bleading and complained verry much. Soon after we had got all Safe to the run cleared off.

Deluge at Colter Falls, by Olaf Seltzer

Clark, who had hiked to the river with York, Sacagawea, her husband, and baby Pomp to take some measurements of the terrain, was also lucky not to be killed. They took shelter in a ravine, only to be caught in a terrifying flash flood:

Soon after a torrent of rain and hail fell more violent than ever I Saw before, the rain fell like one voley of water falling from the heavens and gave us time only to get out of the way of a torrent of water which was Poreing down the hill in the rivin with emence force tareing every thing before it takeing with it large rocks & mud, I took my gun & Shot pouch in my left hand, and with the right Scrambled up the hill pushing the Interpreters wife (who had her Child in her arms) before me, the Interpreter himself makeing attempts to pull up his wife by the hand much Scared and nearly without motion—    we at length retched the top of the hill Safe where I found my Servent in Serch of us greatly agitated, for our wellfar—.   

Clark, York, and the Charbonneau family ran back to the main party and found everyone bloody and bruised. Clark notes with characteristic aplomb: “I refreshed them with a little grog.” At the Upper Portage Camp, all Lewis could do was wait and wonder how Clark and the men had survived the “amazeing large hail.” As Private Joseph Whitehouse recorded, the captain’s response to nature’s fury was vintage Lewis. The scientist in him first measured the hailstones; then, apparently taking his role as cook to heart, he used them to make punch.

Finally, some 32 days after it had began, the portage was completed and the Lewis & Clark Expedition could take once again to the Missouri River. If it’s true that character is revealed best by how you act when no one is watching, then the episode at the Great Falls is one of the most revealing chapters in the history of the Corps of Discovery, an extraordinary story of grit, determination, and leadership.

Read Full Post »

Location: The Salmon River runs across Idaho, from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains until it empties into the Snake River at Lewiston. The area of Clark’s reconnaissance can be explored just off U.S. 93 at North Fork, Idaho, about 20 miles north of Salmon, Idaho.

The Salmon River near North Fork, Idaho

The Salmon River is one of the premier recreational rivers of the world. Depending on the time of year you go and the section you choose, you can experience anything from gentle rafting to heart-pounding whitewater action. You can also go for almost any length of time you choose, from half-day excursions to week-long camping and rafting trips. A few years ago, we took a half-day float trip and I have been dreaming about getting back and going for longer ever since.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark also dreamed of taking a trip on the Salmon River. When they reached the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass, they were confronted with the reality of crossing the Bitterroot Range of  the Rocky Mountains. Not surprisingly, they quailed at the idea of subjecting themselves and their men to such a brutal and risky ordeal. Lewis and Clark were camping with Sacagawea’s people, the Shoshones, and interviewed them as to the prospects for navigating through the mountains by river.

Shoshone chief, 1884. Courtesy First People.

Despite assurances by the Indians that “it can’t be done, hoss” (or words to that effect), Lewis and Clark decided it would be worth doing a reconnaissance of a large river that lay just ten miles from the Shoshone camp. Clark hired a Shoshone guide known as Old Toby and headed out on August 21, 1805. That first night, Clark and Toby camped just off the modern highway. Clark was impressed with the size and beauty of the river and noted:

I observed that it was a handsom river at my camp    I shall in justice to Capt Lewis who was the first white man ever on this fork of the Columbia Call this Louis’s river.   

By the next day, Clark found the going very rough. The river tumbled through steep mountains and was as swift and treacherous as it was lovely:

proceed on with great dificuelty as the rocks were So Sharp large and unsettled and the hill sides Steep that the horses could with the greatest risque and dificulty get on.

After two days of exploration, Clark had to admit it. Not matter how you sliced it (or spelled it), Lewis’s River was impossible. In his methodical Army way, Clark enumerated the difficulties:

1. The going was awful: The River from the place I left my party to this Creek is almost one continued rapid, five verry Considerable rapids the passage of either with Canoes is entirely impossable, as the water is Confined betwen hugh Rocks & the Current beeting from one against another for Some distance below &c. &c.   

2. A portage would daunt a suicidal mountain goat: at one of those rapids the mountains Close So Clost as to prevent a possibility of a portage with great labour in Cutting down the Side of the hill removeing large rocks &c. &c.    all the others may be passed by takeing every thing over Slipery rocks, and the Smaller ones Passed by letting down the Canoes empty with Cords, as running them would certainly be productive of the loss of Some Canoes.

3. There was nothing to eat: Those dificuelties and necessary precautions would delay us an emince time in which provisions would be necessary.    (we have but little and nothing to be precured in this quarter except Choke Cheres & red haws not an animal of any kind to be seen and only the track of a Bear)  

4. The intelligence didn’t look too good either: My guide and maney other Indians tell me that the Mountains Close and is a perpendicular Clift on each Side, and Continues for a great distance and that the water runs with great violence from one rock to the other on each Side foaming & roreing thro rocks in every direction, So as to render the passage of any thing impossible. those rapids which I had Seen he said was Small & trifleing in comparrison to the rocks & rapids below.

The spectacular scenery of the Salmon River country was the very thing that made it impassable for Lewis & Clark's canoes.

Clark and Toby followed an Indian road to the vicinity of present-day Shoup, Idaho, a tiny burg where today’s recreational boaters can get gas or a burger. The two men climbed to a high point, where Clark had something of the same revelation that Lewis had a a few days earlier at Lemhi Pass: namely, that that they faced an ordeal now greater than any that had gone before. If he and Lewis failed here, the expedition could be defeated. They could even die here.

Reunited on August 26, Lewis and Clark talked it over. Turning back was never an option. They hired Old Toby as a guide, and got busy trading for horses and getting ready to take to the mountains.

On horseback in the Salmon River canyon, 1945

The very whitewater, steep cliffs, and mountain views that made the Salmon River so impractical for Lewis & Clark’s dugouts now attracts thousands of people a year to the region for incomparable canoeing, kayaking, and rafting, along with fly fishing, mountain biking, hiking, and camping. It is the centerpiece of the largest designated wilderness area in the United States, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area (named for the legendary Idaho senator who wrote the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, and the nickname of the river bestowed by early gold prospectors).

Moon Handbook Idaho, by Don Root (2004)

There are literally dozens of rafting outfitters in Idaho who can help you go on an adventure  that suits your fitness level and thirst for adventure. The huge whitewater rapids are in May and June; we went in July and had a gentler float with just a few small rapids, though we did get pretty wet! It can be confusing deciding what you want to do and where. I recommend sitting down with a good guidebook and reading up on the options before starting to browse the web and becoming overwhelmed with information from all the outfitters. However you decide to experience it, don’t miss this gorgeous piece of American wilderness.

After our trip, we stayed at the Stagecoach Inn, a quaint motel in Salmon, Idaho, with barrels of flowers outside each door and the Salmon River running right outside! We had a wonderful dinner of trout and great potatoes at a restaurant called the Shady Nook. I would like to return here someday.

Discovering Lewis & Clark has a great series, The Valleys of Lewis’s River, with history, maps, and aerial photos on the subject of Clark’s exploration of the Salmon.

Read Full Post »

During the course of their 2 ½ year journey, Lewis and Clark faced an enemy even more implacable than the Teton Sioux, the grizzly bear, and the dreaded mosquito. This was the Louis Veneri—also known as syphilis.

Columbus meeting the Natives

Columbus meeting the Natives - unfortunately, they exchanged more than a handshake

Syphilis was first identified as a disease three centuries earlier, when it burst upon the scene in Europe with sudden and shocking virulence. Its origins were (and still are) controversial. Syphilis exploded during the French invasion of Naples in 1495, decimating the French army and earning it the nickname, “the French disease.” However, the French army was heavily loaded with mercenaries from other European countries, including men who had sailed as part of Christopher Columbus’s crew just a few years earlier. It’s possible these men had become infected with the disease in the New World. The “Old World-New World” controversy rages to this day, with some scientists hypothesizing that syphilis was present in Europe as far back as ancient Greece and others believing it was a New World transplant.

At any rate, the strain of syphilis that hit Europe at the end of the 15th century was much more virulent than the disease is today. Unfortunate victims became covered with pustules from head to knees, suffered flu-like symptoms, and, as the disease began to affect the internal organs and central nervous system, declined and died within a few months. This extreme virulence had moderated by Lewis and Clark’s day, but the disease was recognized as a serious problem that needed careful treatment.

Lewis and Clark obviously anticipated that venereal disease might be a problem on the Upper Missouri River, and that their men would likely have sexual contact with native women. They packed the medicine chest with several drugs to help combat syphilis and gonorrhea, including mercury-laden calomel, copaiba, and mercury ointment. They were not disappointed. William Clark noted on October 12th of 1804 that the Sioux had a “curious custom,” as did the Arikara, which was “to give handsom squars to those whome they wish to Show some acknowledgements to.” Apparently the men of the Corps of Discovery were feeling modest, for Clark notes that they “got clare [clear]” of the Sioux “without taking their squars.” But by October 15, 1804, Clark recorded that the party had arrived at the Camp of the Arikara, and that “Their womin [were] verry fond of caressing our men &c.” By March of 1805 he noted that the men were “Generally helthy except Venerials Complaints which is very Common amongst the natives…and the men Catch it from them.”

Syphilis spirochete

The syphilis spirochete - persistent and potentially deadly

Syphilis is caused by a variety of bacteria called a spirochete, which enters the body during sexual intercourse and penetrates the mucous membranes, infecting the blood or lymph system. It can incubate in the body for weeks or even months before the infected person manifests any symptoms. The first sign is usually a painless skin lesion at the site of the infection (often the genitals), followed by skin rashes, fever and fatigue, and aches and pains. Men and women who had contracted syphilis often had pustules or “pox” on the skin and were said to be “poxed.”

Or Perish in the Attempt by David J. Peck

Or Perish in the Attempt by David J. Peck (2002)

In the Corps of Discovery, as in the previous three centuries, the preferred treatment was mercury. According to David J. Peck in Or Perish in the Attempt, mercury is actually toxic to the bacterial organism that causes syphilis and can be moderately effective in treating syphilitic symptoms. The trouble is, it is also toxic to the patient that carries the disease. Peck suggests that when a man in the Corps complained of having the “Louis Veneri,” Lewis and Clark used mercury ointments applied topically for several weeks, or until the patient began to salivate. Physicians of the day believed that salivation was a sign that the disease was being expelled from the body. We know today that it is a sign of mercury poisoning.

Lewis recorded the incidences of venereal disease he found among the natives along their journey, along with the natives’ own remedies to cure the malady. He penned this journal entry at Fort Clatsop on January 27, 1806:

Goodrich has recovered from the Louis veneri which he contracted from an amorous contact with a Chinnook damsel. I cured him as I did Gibson last winter by the uce of murcury. I cannot learn that the Indians have any simples which are sovereign specifics in the cure of this disease; and indeed I doubt very much wheter any of them have any means of effecting a perfect cure.    when once this disorder is contracted by them it continues with them during life; but always ends in decipitude, death, or premature old age; tho’ from the uce of certain simples together with their diet, they support this disorder with but little inconvenience for many years, and even enjoy a tolerable share of health; particularly so among the Chippeways who I believe to be better skilled in the uce of those simples than any nation of Savages in North America. The Chippeways use a decoction of the root of the Lobelia, and that of a species of sumac common to the Atlantic states and to this country near and on the Western side of the Rocky Mountains.    this is the smallest species of the sumac, readily distinguished by it’s winged rib, or common footstalk, which supports it’s oppositely pinnate leaves.    these decoctions are drank freely and without limitation.    the same decoctions are used in cases of the gonnaerea and are effecatious and sovereign.    notwithstanding that this disorder dose exist among the Indians on the Columbia yet it is witnessed in but fiew individuals, at least the males who are always sufficiently exposed to the observations or inspection of the phisician.    in my whole rout down this river I did not see more than two or three with the gonnaerea and about double that number with the pox.—

Lewis and Clark did realize the terrible progression of the disease if left untreated, thus they took it seriously. Mercury was freely given, though apparently not in lethal does. In 2002, archeologists were able to pinpoint the location of Travelers Rest, Lewis and Clark’s campsite of September 1805 and June-July 1806, because of the mercury deposits found in the soil there.

Traveler's Rest State Park, Montana

Traveler's Rest State Park, Montana

Syphilis is still a dangerous disease today, but can be effectively cured with penicillin and other antibiotics. Syphilis was at the center of the  most notorious biomedical health study ever conducted in the United States, in which the U.S. Public Health service withheld penicillin from a group of infected African-American sharecroppers in Tuskegee, Alabama for decades, in order to study the long term progression of untreated syphilis.

There has been some speculation, notably by epidemiologist Reinhardt Ravenholt, that Meriwether Lewis himself may have acquired syphilis during his journey to the Pacific, and that this disease led to Lewis’s mental illness and eventual suicide. Other historians disagree, believing Lewis’s physical illness and depression could have resulted from malaria or other causes. You can read Dr. Ravenholt’s article here.

Trail’s End for Meriwether Lewis

Read Full Post »

On July 26, 1806, the weather was unusually cold and rainy along the Marias River, and Meriwether Lewis was in a gloomy mood. His men broke camp at a place he had dubbed “Camp Disappointment.” Split off from William Clark and the rest of the expedition, Lewis had taken three men— George Droulliard and brothers Joseph and Reuben Field—on a detour to explore the northern reaches of the Marias in the hopes of finding a tributary that extended to 50° north latitude, which would have given the United States a claim to a more northern natural boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. Unfortunately, Lewis had found no such tributary, and his hope of finding an easy portage route between the Marias and Saskatchewan rivers hadn’t panned out either. Such a route would have opened the possibility of diverting some of the lucrative Canadian fur trade into American territory.

Blackfoot Warrior on Horseback by Bodmer

Blackfoot Warrior on Horseback, by Karl Bodmer

As Lewis, Drouillard, and the Fields brothers continued down river, Lewis suddenly realized they were not alone. He recorded in his journal:

the country through which this portion of Maria’s river passes to the fork which I ascended appears much more broken than that above and between this and the mountains. I had scarcely ascended the hills before I discovered to my left at the distance of a mile an assembleage of about 30 horses, I halted and used my spye glass by the help of which I discovered several indians on the top of an eminence just above them who appeared to be looking down towards the river I presumed at Drewyer. about half the horses were saddled.    this was a very unpleasant sight, however I resolved to make the best of our situation and to approach them in a friendly manner.

Hudson's Bay Company crest

Hudson's Bay Company crest

Lewis believed the men to be Minnetare (or Atsina) Indians, but in fact they were Piegan Blackfeet, and they were equally surprised to find the Americans in their hunting grounds. The Blackfeet controlled most of the vast territory stretching almost from North Saskatchewan river in Canada to the southern headstreams of the Missouri, extending southward to the base of the Rocky mountains. The Blackfeet were roving buffalo hunters and accomplished warriors; by 1806, they already had large horse herds, many of which they had raided from tribes farther to the south. The Blackfeet also had strong trade relationships with British merchants of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada, exchanging valuable wolf and beaver pelts for guns, ammunition and alcohol. For twenty years, this trade relationship had worked to the Blackfeet’s advantage, enabling them to make war on their neighbors and dominate their Nez Perce and Shoshone rivals.

Lewis had no idea what a tense geopolitical situation he had stumbled into, but he did realize that his small party was in trouble. He attempted to approach to a mounted Blackfoot man, but the Blackfoot backed off in alarm. Not knowing how many Indians he was facing, Lewis feared the worst.

on his return to his party they all decended the hill and mounted their horses and advanced towards us leaving their horses behind them, we also advanced to meet them. I counted eight of them but still supposed that there were others concealed as there were several other horses saddled. I told the two men with me that I apprehended that these were the Minnetares of Fort de Prarie and from their known character I expected that we were to have some difficulty with them; that if they thought themselves sufficiently strong I was convinced they would attempt to rob us in which case be their numbers what they would I should resist to the last extremity prefering death to that of being deprived of my papers instruments and gun and desired that they would form the same resolution and be allert and on their guard.

After another tentative approach, the Indians halted and the two parties awkwardly shook hands. Lewis knew he was in an exceedingly vulnerable position, though he felt reassured when he realized there were only eight in the Indian party, concluding “I was convinced that we could mannage that number should they attempt any hostile measures.” Through halting sign language, he asked if there were any chiefs among them and dutifully handed out a flag, a Jefferson peace medal, and a handkerchief.

Blackfoot Chief by Karl Bodmer

Blackfoot Chief by Karl Bodmer

The Blackfeet invited Lewis and his men to camp at the base of some steep bluffs near “three solitary trees.” Despite nervousness on both sides, with Droulliard’s assistance Lewis talked with the men:

with the assistance of Drewyer I had much conversation with these people in the course of the evening. I learned from them that they were a part of a large band which lay encamped at present near the foot of the rocky mountains on the main branch of Maria’s river one ½ days march from our present encampment; that there was a whiteman with their band; that there was another large band of their nation hunting buffaloe near the broken mountains and were on there way to the mouth of Maria’s river where they would probably be in the course of a few days.

Emboldened, Lewis was determined to fulfill his diplomatic instructions to foster peace and further the interests of American trade.  It was then that he made a near-fatal blunder. Having never encountered these people before, he had little idea of their trade advantage they held with the British in Canada, and he was unaware of their hostile relationship with other people of the plains. Lewis told the Blackfeet that he’d already secured the cooperation of the Nez Perce and the Shoshone for peace on the plains, in exchange for guns and other supplies.

I told these people that I had come a great way from the East up the large river which runs towards the rising sun, that I had been to the great waters where the sun sets and had seen a great many nations all of whom I had invited to come and trade with me on the rivers on this side of the mountains, that I had found most of them at war with their neighbours and had succeeded in restoring peace among them, that I was now on my way home and had left my party at the falls of the misouri with orders to decend that river to the entrance of Maria’s river and there wait my arrival and that I had come in surch of them in order to prevail on them to be at peace with their neighbours particularly those on the West side of the mountains and to engage them to come and trade with me when the establishment is made at the entrance of this river.

Lewis optimistically told himself that the Blackfeet men assented to his plan, and they may have given that impression, but the fact is the information he gave them made them alarmed, suspicious, and hostile. The Shoshone and the Nez Perce were the Blackfeet’s mortal enemies, and their territorial dominance relied on the Shoshone and Nez Perce not having rifles. What Lewis was proposing was a direct threat to their interests.

Hopeful that his overture had succeeded, Lewis offered the men horses and tobacco if they would come parley for peace. Receiving no reply, he established a watch so he and his men could get some sleep.

I took the first watch tonight and set up untill half after eleven; the indians by this time were all asleep, I roused up R. Fields and laid down myself; I directed Fields to watch the movements of the indians and if any of them left the camp to awake us all as I apprehended they would attampt to steal our horses.    this being done I fell into a profound sleep and did not wake untill the noise of the men and indians awoke me a little after light in the morning.—

Two Medicine River, Montana

Two Medicine River in northern Montana, site of Lewis's deadly encounter with the Blackfeet. Courtesy of http://lewisandclarktrailwatch.blogspot.com/.

What he woke to was chaos. Exhausted, Joseph Field had laid aside his weapon; it was quickly and quietly taken by a Blackfoot warrior, along with the guns belonging to the sleeping Droulliard and Lewis. As the Blackfeet moved to escape, Field became aware of what was happening and quickly raised the alarm. His brother Reuben gave furious chase. He caught up to a young Blackfeet named Side Hill Calf and demanded the return of his brother’s gun. As the two men grappled for the weapon, Field plunged a knife into the Blackfeet’s chest, killing him dead.

Lewis woke when he heard George Droulliard shout, “Damn you, let go my gun.” An Indian was making off with Droulliard’s rifle and shot pouch; Lewis moved to help but found his own rifle missing. He drew his horse pistol and began to chase down the thief.

I ran at him with my pistol and bid him lay down my gun which he was in the act of doing when the Fieldses returned and drew up their guns to shoot him which I forbid as he did not appear to be about to make any resistance or commit any offensive act, he droped the gun and walked slowly off, I picked her up instantly, Drewyer having about this time recovered his gun and pouch asked me if he might not kill the fellow which I also forbid as the indian did not appear to wish to kill us.

Within moments, the thieves had been rounded up and the guns retrieved. Then Lewis saw to his horror that the Blackfeet were now attempting to steal their horses. Losing their horses would be a huge calamity, leaving his small band of men alone in hostile country with no means of escape. Hollering to his men to fire on the Indians if they would not stop, Lewis went after two men who had taken his horse.

at the distance of three hundred paces they entered one of those steep nitches in the bluff with the horses before them    being nearly out of breath I could pursue no further, I called to them as I had done several times before that I would shoot them if they did not give me my horse and raised my gun, one of them jumped behind a rock and spoke to the other who turned around and stoped at the distance of 30 steps from me and I shot him through the belly,  he fell to his knees and on his wright elbow from which position he partly raised himself up and fired at me, and turning himself about crawled in behind a rock which was a few feet from him.    he overshot me, being bearheaded I felt the wind of his bullet very distinctly.

Thomas Jefferson peace medal

Lewis left a medal around the dead man's neck--"that they might know who we were."

At this, the rest of the Indians fled. Lewis’s attempt at diplomacy had ended in death for two Blackfeet and near disaster for him and his men, leaving him shaken, scared, and furious. His horse was gone, but his men had managed to retrieve some of the others, along with several Indian horses that Blackfeet had left in their hasty retreat. Fearful that the Blackfeet would return, Lewis prepared for a quick departure, burning the shields, bows, and arrows the Indians had left and retrieving the American flag he had presented to the Blackfeet men. In his anger, he left the Jefferson peace medal about the neck of the dead warrior Side Hill Calf, “that they might be informed who we were.” He and his men then began a frantic flight back to the Missouri, covering 120 miles in two days, before a relieved reunion with the rest of the Corps of Discovery.

Lewis’s misadventure marked the first time blood was shed in a battle between a western tribe and a representative of the U.S. government. This incident, known as the Two Medicine fight, has often been cited as the cause of the Blackfeet’s subsequent hostile acts toward Americans, including the death of George Droulliard at Three Forks in 1810.

Lewis and Clark among the Indians, by James Ronda (1984)

In reality, the causes were much more complex than a simple desire for revenge. An aggressive people, the Blackfeet were accustomed to losing men in battle, but the influx of American trappers up the Missouri in the years following the Lewis & Clark Expedition represented a threat to their military and economic dominance that they could not tolerate. As James Ronda writes in Lewis & Clark Among the Indians, “In the face of a massive assault on their plains empire, Blackfeet warriors hardly had time to think about avenging Side Hill Calf and his unfortunate companion. Lewis was unwittingly the prophet of events like the 1821 Immell-Jones massacre, he was not their cause. It was the more potent forces of guns and international trade that made the Blackfeet feared by a generation of American mountain men.”

Read Full Post »

Dr. Maturin had flung his slabs of portable soup into the sea, on the grounds that they were nothing but common glue, an imposture and a vile job.

– from The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian

portable soup

A slab of portable soup

On Saturday, September 14, 1805, Sergeant Patrick Gass wrote in his journal:

none of the hunters killed any thing except 2 or 3 pheasants; on which, without a miracle it was impossible to feed 30 hungry men and upwards, besides some Indians. So Capt. Lewis gave out some portable soup, which he had along, to be used in cases of necessity. Some of the men did not relish this soup, and agreed to kill a colt; which they immediately did, and set about roasting it; and which appeared to me to be good eating. This day we travelled 17 miles.

This entry marks the first use of “portable soup” by the Corps of Discovery. In the spring of 1803, Meriwether Lewis had purchased 193 pounds of portable soup from Francois Baillet, a cook at 21 North Ninth Street in Philadelphia. He paid the princely sum of $289.50 for 32 tin canisters of the stuff. Over the next two years, Lewis and his men had carried, floated, and poled the soup all the way up the Missouri River, without once being tempted to break into it. Now, however, there was indeed a “case of necessity.” The air was cold and snowy, game was increasingly scarce, and the Corps of Discovery was beginning to starve to death.

Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark

Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark, by Leandra Zim Holland (2003)

Portable soup was nothing newfangled in the early 1800s. According to Leandra Zim Holland’s Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark, methods for the reduction of meat broth had been around since the 1720’s. Meat (usually beef, veal or mutton) was boiled down into a dense gel in a series of steps that extracted the nutritious components and boiled out most bacterial contaminants. The gel was then air-dried or baked to remove what little moisture was left, leaving a dried slab of soup stock with about the same nutrition as a bouillon cube. The portable soup was intended to be combined with hot water, meat, vegetables, and spices to make a passable meal. However, the Corps of Discovery had none of these things except water made from melted snow.

On Sunday, September 15, Sergeant John Ordway wrote:

we crossed a creek a pond a little below then assended a high Mountain Some places So Steep and rockey that Some of our horses fell backwards and roled 20 or 30 feet among the rocks, but did not kill them.    we got on the ridge of the mountain and followed it.    came over several verry high knobs where the timber had been mostly blown down.    we found a small spring before we came to the highest part of the mountain where we halted and drank a little portable Soup and proceeded on to the top of the mount    found it to be abot. 10 miles from the foot to the top of sd. mount and most of the way very Steep.    we travvelled untill after dark in hopes to find water.    but could not find any.    we found Some Spots of Snow so we Camped on the top of the Mountain and melted Some Snow.    this Snow appears to lay all the year on this Mount    we drank a little portable Soup and lay down without any thing else to Satisfy our hunger.

Things would get worse before they got better.  Monday, September 16, was a bitter cold day, and the men subsisted on the portable soup for much of the day. Some later accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition claim that the soup was rancid, but there is no evidence of that in the journals. Soup preserved under such conditions could typically last from two to five years. However, it is reasonable to conclude that the soup was unsatisfying and had a disagreeable taste, as evidenced by the men’s desire to eat something, anything else. After tragically missing a shot at a rare deer in the mountains, William Clark  recorded: “men all wet cold and hungary. Killed a Second Colt which we all Suped hartily on and thought it fine meat.”  The next day he wrote: “Killed a fiew Pheasents which was not Sufficient for our Supper which compelled us to kill Something.    a coalt being the most useless part of our Stock he fell a Prey to our appetites.”

Lewis and Clark in the Bitterroots by John Clymer

Lewis and Clark in the Bitterroots by John Clymer

With game so scarce, the hated portable soup was quickly becoming their only reliable food source. Even the supply of that was dwindling with alarming rapidity. By Wednesday, September 18, Lewis recorded: “this morning we finished the remainder of our last coult.    we dined & suped on a skant proportion of portable soupe, a few canesters of which, a little bears oil and about 20 lbs. of candles form our stock of provision, the only resources being our guns & packhorses.”   In desperation, the captains decided that Clark would go on ahead with six men, and try to find food to bring back for the rest of the party. Clark’s men found a horse, killed it, and hung it up for the rest of the party to find, then pressed on searching for larger, meatier game.

On Friday, September 20, Private Joseph Whitehouse recorded glumly, “a cold frosty morning.    we eat a fiew peas & a little greece which was the verry last kind of eatables of any kind we had except a little portable Soup.” After a week on the gag-inducing gel, the men still did not relish the soup—or perhaps they simply did not want to use the very last morsel of their provisions. Lewis’s journal of September 21 reveals that the situation had become very dire. The men were exhausted and famished, and several were ill with dysentery and painful skin eruptions. Lewis wrote:

we killed a few Pheasants, and I killd a prarie woolf which together with the ballance of our horse beef and some crawfish which we obtained in the creek enabled us to make one more hearty meal, not knowing where the next was to be found.   I find myself growing weak for the want of food and most of the men complain of a similar deficiency and have fallen off very much.

Lewis and Clark with the Nez Perce

Lewis and Clark with the Nez Perce, 1805

Fortunately, Clark and his men had emerged from the dreadful, rugged mountains, encountered the Nez Perce Indians, and started back with dried fish and roots for Lewis’s starving men. The worst ordeal of the expedition, the trek over the Rocky Mountains, was over. Though it wouldn’t win any culinary awards, the portable soup had served its purpose.

Lewis and Clark had enough portable soup left over to give some to a sick Indian chief at the Chopunnish village of Broken Arm during the trip home in May 1806. Surprisingly, the patient not only survived—but actually got well.

Read Full Post »

The Yellowstone River near Livingston, Montana. Courtesy BigSkyFishing.com

During the return journey from the Pacific coast in 1806, Lewis and Clark decided to divide their party so that they could do some extra exploring. For more than a month — July 3 to August 12 — they were out of contact with each other. And as regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised to know, Meriwether Lewis had a huge adventure in which he almost got killed, twice. William Clark, on the other hand, had a time so idyllic that it is often overlooked even by historians of the Expedition. But it shouldn’t be, because during that month, in his own patented “no drama” fashion, Clark led the pioneering exploration of the Yellowstone River and southwest Montana.

The Yellowstone River is the principal tributary of the upper Missouri. It is actually bigger than the Missouri at the point where it joins the great river, flowing in from the south and draining the entire basin of present-day Yellowstone National Park and the high plains of southern Montana and northern Wyoming. It was called “yellow stone” by the Hidatsa Indians, probably for the color of the rocks in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Lewis and Clark translated the name into English (independently, French fur trappers also translated the Hidatsa into Roche Jaune or Yellow Rock). The river was best-known to western tribes such as the Lakota, Cree, Crow, and Cheyenne, who used it and its tributaries to get around their rich summer hunting grounds.

Sacagawea leads the way in this 1932 illustration

Lewis and Clark had passed the Yellowstone on their way west back in 1805, but they barely had time to do more than examine its confluence with the Missouri. This time, Clark would make a full reconnaissance. His party included York, Sacagawea and her family, and 13 men. For the first time in the journey, Sacagawea actually got to be a guide. As Clark records:

I observe Several leading roads which appear to pass to a gap of the mountain in a E. N E. direction about 18 or 20 miles distant. The indian woman who has been of great Service to me as a pilot through this Country recommends a gap in the mountain more South which I shall cross.— July 13, 1806

The pass Sacagawea recommended, later called Bozeman Pass, took Clark and his company south of present-day Livingston, Montana, just 40 miles from Mammoth Hot Springs and other wonders we associate with Yellowstone National Park. Clark had no way of knowing what he was missing, and he and the men set up camp near present-day Park City.

Pompey's Pillar

Pompey's Pillar was found by Clark on his reconnaissance down the Yellowstone and named for Sacagawea's baby son.

It’s striking how the weeks on the Yellowstone encapsulate Clark’s personality and career in a nutshell. Clark was the great waterman of the Expedition. Here, he and his men got busy building dugouts to navigate the turbulent waters of the Yellowstone, even incorporating the Indian innovation of lashing them together to make a more stable craft. Clark was the future Indian diplomat; here, he dispatched Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor ahead with a message to Canadian fur trader Hugh Heney, whom they had met back at the Mandan villages. Clark wanted to enlist Heney’s help in persuading the Sioux (whom Clark didn’t even like) to send delegates to Washington to meet with President Jefferson.

Psychologists could speculate endlessly as to the reasons, but Clark was ever-willing to shoulder the less glamorous duties. Here, in addition to exploring the Yellowstone, he had taken responsibility for the Expedition’s horse herd, which they had acquired from the Shoshones and Nez Perce. They hoped to sell and trade the horses at the Mandan villages. The Crow Indians had other ideas, stealing most of the horses and dooming Pryor’s side trip to visit Heney.

The wild mustangs of the Pryor Mountains, whose lives have been documented in moving detail by the "Cloud" series of documentaries on PBS's "Nature," are believed to be descended from the band of horses that the Crow stole from Clark and Pryor.

Clark did not panic or allow himself to be distracted. He proceeded down the river, recording so many animals in his journal that local historians have called the Yellowstone valley “Clark’s Serengeti.” Here’s an example:

Saw Several herds of buffalow Since I arived at this Camp also antilops, wolves, pigions, Dovs, Hawks, ravins, Crows, larks, Sparrows, Eagles & bank martins &c. &c. The wolves which are the constant attendants of the Buffalow are in great numbers on the Scerts of those large gangues which are to be Seen in every direction in those praries – July 21, 1806

Clark's signature carved on Pompey's Pillar near Billings, Montana

July 25 marked the most notable day of Clark’s exploration. He found a large rock tower rising some 200 feet from the valley floor and covered with petroglyphs of animals and other symbols. Clark climbed to the top and admired the view, then he made another characteristic decision, naming the tower “Pompey’s Tower” after Sacagawea’s 17-month-old son, whom Clark adored and wanted to adopt. Most notably for Lewis & Clark aficionados today,  Clark then took the time to carve his name and the date into the rocks.

This was a day in which Clark really had fun, hunting big horn sheep and digging fossils out of the rocks:

after Satisfying my Self Sufficiently in this delightfull prospect of the extensive Country around, and the emence herds of Buffalow, Elk and wolves in which it abounded, I decended and proceeded on a fiew miles, Saw a gang of about 40 Big horn animals fired at them and killed 2 on the Sides of the rocks which we did not get. I directed the Canoes to land, and I walked up through a crevis in the rocks almost inaxcessiable and killed 2 of those animals one a large doe and the other a yearlin Buck. I wished very much to kill a large buck, had there been one with the gang I Should have killd. him.    dureing the time the men were getting the two big horns which I had killed to the river I employed my Self in getting pieces of the rib of a fish which was Semented within the face of the rock

The Bighorn River near its confluence with the Yellowstone. Courtesy BigSkyFishing.com

The next day, Clark would give the name Bighorn River to the next major tributary of the Yellowstone to remember the sheep he had so much fun hunting. In fact, much of Clark’s narrative for the next ten days records hunting and fishing. In spite of the horse thefts and the usual mishaps (Private George Gibson injured his knee; Toussaint Charbonneau managed to fall on some prickly pears), Clark’s good mood is palpable until they neared the confluence of the river with the Missouri, where they were to wait for Captain Lewis. The problem was the reappearance of two old friends, the grizzly bear:

when the bear was in a fiew paces of the Shore I Shot it in the head.    the men hauled her on Shore and proved to be an old Shee which was so old that her tuskes had worn Smooth, and Much the largest feemale bear I ever Saw.    after taking off her Skin, I proceeded on and encampd a little above the enterance of Jo: Feilds Creek on Stard. Side in a high bottom Covered with low Ash and elm.   – August 2, 1806

and the mosquito:

    last night the Musquetors was so troublesom that no one of the party Slept half the night.    for my part I did not Sleep one hour.    those tormenting insects found their way into My beare and tormented me the whole night.  – August 3, 1806

Fighting bears and mosquitoes, Clark moved around the area waiting for Lewis until August 12, when his partner arrived exhausted, fleeing from hostile Indians, and severely wounded in the buttocks from a hunting accident with one of his own men. Vacation was over, and it was back to drama for William Clark.

Clark’s maps of the Yellowstone area would stand as the most reliable source for travelers for the next fifty years. One of Lewis & Clark’s own men, John Colter, may have been the first white man to see the geothermal wonders of the Yellowstone in 1807 and 1808, when he was fur-trapping (and running from Indians) in the area. For many years, fur trappers like Colter brought back tales of geysers, boiling mud pots, and petrified forests, only to be met with disbelief back home. Another organized scientific expedition into the Yellowstone region would not follow Lewis and Clark until 1869 and 1870.

Fort Union, Montana

Despite the ubiquitous bears and mosquitoes, the area around the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone became a major fur trading post. Fort Union was active from 1828 to 1867. Even after the demise of the fur trade, the strategic area became home to a military post, Fort Buford. The troops stationed here protected the routes to the Montana gold fields. The area was a center of conflict during the Great Sioux Wars, and Fort Buford is also remembered as the place where Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881.

Read Full Post »

Newfoundland - Seaman

"Our Dog" - Seaman

On Sunday, May 19, 1805, the Corps of Discovery was traveling through present-day Montana when Meriwether Lewis recorded this mishap in his journal: “one of the party wounded a beaver, and my dog as usual swam in to catch it; the beaver bit him through the hind leg and cut the artery; it was with great difficulty that I could stop the blood; I fear it will yet prove fatal to him.” William Clark confirmed in his journal: “Capt Lewis’s dog was badly bitten by a wounded beaver and was near bleading to death.”

This was a calamity for the Corps of Discovery. Seaman, a “dogg of the Newfoundland breed,” had been with Lewis since he set out from Pittsburgh in the summer of 1803. Lewis had paid $20 for the dog, a small fortune in those days. While it is generally assumed that Seaman was black, his color is recorded nowhere in the journals. He may have been brown, gray, or black and white (a variety now known as the Landseer).

Landseer Newfoundland

Landseer Newfoundland

As an addition to the permanent party, Seaman quickly proved his worth and hardihood. He was a frequent companion during Lewis’s long walks on shore, guarded the camp, assisted the men with their hunting, and impressed the Native Americans with his size and “sagacity.” A strong swimmer due to his big webbed feet, Seaman was often sent to retrieve game the men shot in or along the river. One particular beaver, not quite dead, almost proved Seaman’s undoing.

A beaver bite to the hind leg artery no doubt inflicted an alarming, spurting wound. Seaman’s distress would have been painfully obvious. For Lewis, suddenly pressed into service as a veterinarian, the first task was to stop the bleeding. He would first have applied pressure to the spurting artery with his fingers, trying to stanch the flow of blood, and perhaps applied a cloth compress, being careful not to reopen the wound when it finally began to clot. Depending on where Seaman’s wound was, it’s possible that Lewis used the fancy $3.50 axle tourniquet he bought at Gillaspy and Strong’s druggist in Philadelphia.

Dr. Strong's Patent Tourniquet

Dr. Strong's Patent Tourniquet - courtesy Discovering Lewis & Clark website

Fortunately, Lewis was able to get the bleeding under control before the dog went into shock. The journals do no record how he managed to keep Seaman from biting or worrying the wound during the next few days of recovery. They didn’t have plastic head cones in those days, so the dog was on his own.

The dog’s strength, good health, and the ministrations of his human friends pulled him through. The next time Lewis mentions Seaman in his journal, about ten days later, the dog is back on guard duty.

Last night we were all allarmed by a large buffaloe Bull, which swam over from the opposite shore and coming along side of the white perogue, climbed over it to land, he then alarmed ran up the bank in full speed directly towards the fires, and was within 18 inches of the heads of some of the men who lay sleeping before the centinel could allarm him or make him change his course, still more alarmed, he now took his direction immediately towards our lodge, passing between 4 fires and within a few inches of the heads of one range of the men as they yet lay sleeping, when he came near the tent, my dog saved us by causing him to change his course a second time, which he did by turning a little to the right, and was quickly out of sight, leaving us by this time all in an uproar with our guns in or hands, enquiring of each other the case of the alarm, which after a few moments was explained by the centinel; we were happy to find no one hirt.

Seaman survived the trek over the Rocky Mountains, the trip down the Columbia, the long winter at Fort Clatsop, and being briefly stolen by the Indians during the long trip home. The last mention of him in Lewis’s journal is on July 15, 1806, near the Great Falls of the Missouri:

the musquetoes continue to infest us in such manner that we can scarcely exist; for my own part I am confined by them to my bier at least ¾ths of my time.    my dog even howls with the torture he experiences from them, they are always most insupportable, they are so numerous that we frequently get them in our thrats as we breath.—

It is not known for certain whether Seaman made it back to St. Louis, though it seems probable that at least one of the Expedition’s journal keepers would have recorded it if something had happened to the dog. More likely, Seaman completed one of the greatest adventures a dog ever experienced. In the years following the Expedition, Seaman has become one of the most celebrated dogs in American history, second only, perhaps, to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fala. In statuary along the Lewis & Clark trail, he is frequently included alongside Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea, and York.

Lewis, Clark, and Seaman

Lewis, Clark, and Seaman statue in St. Louis, MO

For some interesting speculation about Seaman after the Expedition, see this article from the Discovering Lewis & Clark site:  Seaman’s Fate

Read Full Post »

Joseph Perkins and Meriwether Lewis inspecting the iron boat frame. Courtesy Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.

Because of the changes in technology over the last 200 years, it is easy to forget that Lewis & Clark’s Voyage of Discovery was the equivalent in its day of the Apollo missions of the 1960s. Meriwether Lewis had what amounted to a blank check to outfit the expedition, and he used it to acquire the best in men, weapons, and equipment.    

In March 1803, Lewis arrived at the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today’s West Virginia) and began working with superintendent Joseph Perkins on the guns, powder horns, bullet molds, tomahawks, knives, and other weapons the Expedition would need to make it across the continent. He also had a special project for the armory, one of his own invention. Lewis realized that if the Corps of Discovery succeeded in its mission of reaching the source of the Missouri River, that eventually the river would become too shallow for navigation by heavy wooden boats. His solution? A collapsible iron boat.    

According to Lewis’s design, the boat frame would be stored in sections, ready to be brought out at the opportune moment and covered in hides. With a seal of tar pitch or resin, it would be water-tight. But the first job was getting the thing fabricated. Lewis had originally planned on staying at Harpers Ferry for only a week, but he ended up spending over a month on what he called “my favorite boat.” On completion, the boat weighed just 176 pounds (a tiny fraction of the total 3500 pounds of gear the Expedition took), but would be capable of transporting over 8000 pounds of men and equipment if everything went according to plan.    

The iron boat rode quietly along in with the rest of the baggage until June of 1805, when Lewis’s big moment finally arrived — or so it seemed. The Expedition had discovered a series of enormous waterfalls in the vicinity of present-day Great Falls, Montana. The falls were beautiful, but they also meant that the Expedition would have to portage every single thing they had around them in order to get back on the river. Hauling everything 18 miles through rough unbroken country, under human power using makeshift wagons, was a month-long ordeal. And it was easy to see that past the falls, the river grew rocky and shallow. Lewis and Clark set up camps on either end of the portage. It largely fell to Clark to supervise the daily grind of the grueling portage. In the meantime, Lewis found hiding places to sink their heavy pirogues and began work on the iron boat.   

The hardships of the portage are vividly depicted in this exhibit at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center at Great Falls.

You have to feel sorry for Lewis over what happened next. How could a frontiersman from the East have ever anticipated the wide-open plains of Montana? Beautiful, and without a pine tree in sight. Without a means to make resin, the project seemed doomed, but Lewis was determined to find a way.   

For those who hold to the theory that Lewis might have been manic-depressive, the iron boat episode could be Exhibit A for a manic phase. In any case, his journal entries give something of the flavor of excitement, anxiety, and mounting desperation that accompanied the boat project:   

June 28: Set Drewyer to shaving the Elk skins, Fields to make the cross stays for the boat, Frazier and Whitehouse continue their operation with the skins, Shields and Gass finish the horizontal bars of the sections; after which I sent them in surch of willow bark, a sufficient supply of which they now obtained to bind the boat.    expecting the party this evening I prepared a supper for them but they did not arrive.    not having quite Elk skins enough I employed three buffaloe hides to cover one section.    not being able to shave these skins I had them singed pretty closely with a blazeing torch; I think they will answer tolerable well.   

June 30: Fraizer and Whitehouse still continue their opperation of sewing the skins together. I set Shields and gass to shaving bark and Fields continued to make the cross brases. Drewyer and myself rendered a considerable quantity of tallow and cooked. I begin to be extremely impatient to be off as the season is now waisting a pace    nearly three months have now elapsed since we left Fort Mandan and not yet reached the Rocky Mountains   

July 1 by evening the skins were all attatched to their sections and I returned them again to the water.    all matters were now in readiness to commence the opperation of puting the parts of the boat together in the morning.    the way strips are not yet ready but will be done in time as I have obtained the necessary timber.    the difficulty in obtaining the necessary materials has retarded my operations in forming this boat extreemly tedious and troublesome; and as it was a novel peice of machinism to all who were employed my constant attention was necessary to every part of the work; this together with the duties of cheif cook has kept me pretty well employed.    

Joseph Field, Meriwether Lewis, Patrick Gass, and John Shields work on covering the boat frame with hides. Courtesy Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.

Lewis and a number of the men worked hard on hunting, tanning hides, and sewing the hides together. Eventually they made a cover of 28 elk hides and 4 buffalo hides. They assembled the boat frame and fitted it with the hides. (As Lewis notes, he was also acting as the expedition cook at this time, a noteworthy duty for an officer of his rank. This way, the exhausted men could return to camp for a hot fresh meal without having to set up their usual messes.)    

July 3 – our tar-kiln which ought to have began to run this morning has yealded no tar as yet and I am much affraid will not yeald any, if so I fear the whole opperation of my boat will be useless. I fear I have committed another blunder also in sewing the skins with a nedle which has sharp edges these have cut the skin and as it drys I discover that the throng dose not fill the holes as I expected tho’ I made them sew with a large throng for that purpose. … The current of the river looks so gentle and inviting that the men all seem anxious to be moving upward as well as ourselves.    we have got the boat prety well forward today and think we shall be able to complete her tomorrow … she has assumed her shape and looks extreemly well. She will be very light, more so than any vessel of her size that I ever saw.

July 4 – no appearance of tar yet and I am now confident that we shall not be able to obtain any; a serious misfortune. I employed a number of hands on the boat today and by 4 P. M. in the evening completed her except the most difficult part of the work that of making her seams secure.    

Clark, who had an amazing knack for being cryptic and expressive at the same time, also wrote on July 4: our Tar kill like to turn out nothing from the following cause. Lewis continues: 

July 5 – This morning I had the boat removed to an open situation, scaffold her off the ground, turned her keel to the sun and kindled fires under her to dry her more expediciously. I then set a couple of men to pounding of charcoal to form a composition with some beeswax which we have and buffaloe tallow now my only hope and resource for paying my boat; I sincerely hope it may answer yet I fear it will not.    …  the stitches begin to gape very much since she has began to dry; I am now convinced this would not have been the case had the skins been sewed with a sharp point only and the leather not cut by the edges of a sharp nedle.      

July 7 – The weather warm and cloudy therefore unfavourable for many operations; I keep small fires under the boat; the blowing flies are innumerable about it; the moisture retained by the bark prevents it from drying as fast as it otherwise would.     

They coated the hides with a thick mixture of charcoal, beeswax, and buffalo tallow, a substitute for pitch that Lewis concocted after agonizing experimentation. After it dried, they launched the boat and Lewis was able to write like a proud father: She lay like a perfect cork on the water.  They would leave the next day! But then: 

July 9: the wind continued violent untill late in the evening, by which time we discovered that a greater part of the composition had seperated from the skins and left the seams of the boat exposed to the water and she leaked in such manner that she would not answer. I need not add that this circumstance mortifyed me not a little; and to prevent her leaking without pich was impossible with us, and to obtain this article was equally impossible, therefore the evil was irraparable … To make any further experiments in our present situation seemed to me madness; the buffaloe had principally dserted us, and the season was now advancing fast. I therefore relinquished all further hope of my favorite boat and ordered her to be sunk …  it was now too late to introduce a remidy and I bid a dieu to my boat, and her expected services.—

Clark was quite terse about the boat construction in his journal, leading some historians to speculate that he may have been mad at Lewis for spending almost two weeks on his miracle project that was supposed to have taken only a few hours. But I find a world of sympathy in his final word on the matter, which memorializes the boat using Lewis’s own phrase: this falire of our favourate boat was a great disapointment to us.

The Missouri River just above the Great Falls today

Obviously, Lewis felt like a flop. He had visualized himself as an inventor and innovator, a worthy heir to Thomas Jefferson (who, it is worth noting, never turned his hand to a paddle in his life). He and the men buried the frame of the boat. Fortunately, Lewis and Clark still had six dugout canoes, in which they had been traveling since Fort Mandan. To replace the iron boat, Clark located some cottonwood trees and he and the men spent five days building two new canoes. Lewis writes:

July 15 – At 10 A. M. we once more saw ourselves fairly under way much to my joy and I beleive that of every individual who compose the party.

On the return trip on 1806, Lewis dug up the cache and found the boat had “not suffered materially.” The boat then disappears from history, its fate unknown.

Read Full Post »

Geology and mineralogy, as well as anthropology, botany, and zoology, were part of Meriwether Lewis’s job description when he set out on his expedition to the Pacific Ocean. In the extensive marching orders he received from Thomas Jefferson, Lewis was ordered to document more than just the Native American tribes, plant, and animal life he observed along the route.  “Other objects worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country,” Jefferson wrote. “…the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly metals, limestone, pit coal & salpetre; salines & mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last, & such circumstances as may indicate their character.” Lewis took these instructions very seriously—so seriously that he endangered his own life.

Missouri River bluff

Missouri River bluff

Clark’s journal entry of August 22, 1804 tells the tale. The Corps of Discovery was passing along some bluffs near present-day Vermillion, South Dakota, when Lewis’s scientific investigations went awry.

the High land near the river for Some distance below. This Bluff contain Pyrites alum, Copperass & a Kind Markesites also a clear Soft Substance which Capt lewis was near being Poisened by the Smell in pounding this Substance I belv to be arsenic or Cabalt.

Capt. Lewis took a Dost of Salts this evening to carry of the effects of (arsenec) or cobalt which he was trying to find out the real quallity.

Lewis had evidently taken a mineral sample from the bluff, and in attempting to analyze it by pulverizing the rock, either inhaled or ingested enough of the resulting powder to poison himself.

So why would Lewis do such a thing? Before leaving for the west, Lewis had studied geology and mineralogy with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Smith Barton, and Andrew Ellicott. For reference, he brought along Richard Kirwan’s two-volume Elements of Mineralogy to consult during the expedition. In the absence of the equipment and chemicals necessary to do a proper mineral analysis, smell, and taste were (and still are) legitimate scientific techniques to determine a rock’s composition. But they can also be dangerous.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

As Lewis found out, the rocks he ingested contained some poisonous substance. Based on current mineral analysis in the area of the bluffs he was sampling, it is unlikely that the mineral was cobalt, as Clark suspected. However, South Dakota is loaded with pyrite and marcasite, and under the right circumstances, especially when combined with iron sulfides, these two minerals can produce traces of arsenic. Low exposures of arsenic can produce headaches, vertigo, nausea, and acute diarrhea—the last symptom probably not alleviated by the “Dost of salts” Lewis took “to work off the effects of the Arsenic.”

Lewis was lucky. In more serious cases, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning can include difficulty in swallowing, burning pain, vomiting, throat constriction, diarrhea, dehydration, renal failure, liver failure, pulmonary edema, gastrointestinal distress, headache, drowsiness, confusion, delirium, seizures, and finally, death.

In spite of his efforts to purge his system, Lewis was still feeling poorly two days later, though it didn’t stop him from accompanying Clark and a number of other men to see the famous “Spirit Mound” supposedly populated by tiny devils with large heads. Clark wrote in his journal on Saturday, August 25, 1804:

a Cloudy morning    Capt Lewis & my Self Concluded to go and See the Mound which was viewed with Such turrow by all the different Nation in this quarter  droped down to the mouth of White Stone River where we left the Perogue with two men and at 200 yards we assended a riseing ground of about Sixty feet, from the top of this High land the Countrey is leavel & open as far as Can be Seen, except Some few rises at a Great Distance, and the Mound which the Indians Call Mountain of little people or Spirits    this mound appears of a Conic form & is N. 20° W. from the mouth of the Creek, we left the river at 8 oClock, at 4 miles we Crossed the Creek 23 yards wide in an extensive Valley and continued on    at two miles further our Dog was So Heeted & fatigued we was obliged Send him back to the Creek, at 12 oClock we arrived at the hill    Capt Lewis much fatigued from heat the day it being verry hot & he being in a debilitated State from the Precautions he was obliged to take to provent the affects of the Cobalt, & Minl. Substance which had like to have poisoned him two days ago, his want of water, and Several of the men complaining of Great thirst, deturmined us to make for the first water which was the Creek in a bend N. E. from the mound about 3 miles—

Spirit Mound

Spirit Mound, South Dakota

Despite the fatigue and strain of the day, Lewis made it to the top of the hill, as well as walking nine miles back to camp in the blazing heat. He was slowly getting back to his old self, as evidenced by his own journal entry for the day:

on our return from the mound of sperits saw the first bats that we had observed since we began to ascend the Missouri—        also saw on our return on the Creek that passes this mound about 2 M. distant S. a bird of heron kind as large as the Cormorant short tale long leggs of a colour on the back and wings deep copper brown with a shade of red.    we could not kill it therefore I can not describe it more particularly.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 57 other followers