When Lewis and Clark’s party crossed the Great Divide and emerged from the Rocky Mountains in September 1805, the men were thin, weak, and near starvation. The Nez Perce Indians took pity on Lewis and Clark and generously provided the Corps of Discovery with their usual fall fare: dried salmon and camas root, which Sergeant Ordway described as “sweet and good to the taste.” Alas, while the men liked the new diet, it most decisively did not like them. Within days, almost everyone was down with gas, vomiting and violent diarrhea.
They longed to go back to the all-American diet of good old red meat, but deer and elk were scarce, and the buffalo herds had been left behind east of the Rockies. Desperate to find some food that would not make them sick, Lewis and Clark turned to man’s best friend: the Indian dog.
Dogs were everywhere among the Nez Perce. Lewis described Indian dogs as being “party coloured; black white brown and brindle are the most usual colours. The head is long and nose pointed eyes small, ears erect and pointed like those of the wolf, hair short and smooth except on the tail.” Larger and stronger than many of today’s breeds, they were working animals, assisting in the hunt and hauling their masters’ belongings when the tribe was on the move. Indian dogs were protective of their owners and their families, and like horses, they were often treasured as companions as well as beasts of burden. Among the Nez Perce, they were rarely, if ever, eaten.
But to hungry Lewis and Clark, dogs meant one thing: dinner. According to Leandra Zim Holland’s excellent book, Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark, the journals document a total of 193 Indian dogs purchased for meat west of the Rockies. Since meat had to travel “on the hoof,” dogs awaiting the slaughter presumably traveled along shore or rode down the Columbia in the Corps’ canoes.
Clark never liked dog meat, but other members of the Corps actually came to prefer it. Lewis wrote in his journal in April 1806: “The dog now constitutes a considerable part of our subsistence and with most of the party has become a favorite food; certain I am that it is a healthy strong diet, and from habit it has become by no means disagreeable to me, I prefer it to lean venison or Elk, and it is very far superior to the horse in any state.”
Lewis’s fondness for dog meat was not without it’s embarrassing moments. One of the more unpleasant moments of the journey came on the return trip to the Nez Perce village. “While at dinner an indian fellow very impertinently threw a poor, half-starved puppy nearly into my plate by way of derision for our eating dogs and laughed very heartily at his own impertinence,” Lewis wrote. “I was so provoked at his insolence that I caught the puppy and threw it with great violence at him and struck him in the breast and face, seized my tomahawk, and showed him by signs if he repeated his insolence I would tomahawk him. The fellow withdrew apparently much mortifyed and I continued my repast on dog without further molestation.” Note to self: never come between a burned-out explorer and his dinner.
The journals are silent about what Lewis’s dog Seaman ate during the lean times of 1805-1806. One can only hope that he caught enough small game and fish on his own to avoid intra-species recycling.