In our recent post, Powdered Hair and Macaroni, we talked about the clothes and hairstyles that the well-dressed man wore back in Lewis & Clark’s day. Meriwether Lewis was a bona fide dandy (what we might call a metrosexual), while William Clark went in more for the retro look (in his case, the long hair and ruffled shirts of the Revolutionary generation). But it’s safe to say that neither one of them was too concerned about being reported to the fashion police once they hit the trail west. Instead, the primary concerns were practicality and maintaining military discipline.
Over the years, a surprising number of myths have built up about the Lewis & Clark Expedition, perhaps none more persistent than that they wore buckskins and coonskin caps, with Captain Lewis distinguished from the rest by his three-cornered hat. After all, that’s the way that the captains are portrayed in countless artists’ renderings, including the famous roadside marker that lets highway travelers know when they’re on the Lewis & Clark Trail.
Thanks to the groundbreaking research done by Robert J. Moore, Jr. and Michael Haynes, we now know better. In their fantastic, heavily illustrated book Tailor Made, Trail Worn: Army Life, Clothing, & Weapons of the Corps of Discovery, historian Moore and artist Haynes delve deeply into long-lost history to reconstruct the actual physical world of the Corps of Discovery. This book is a must-have for any aficionado of Lewis & Clark or the early American military.
As Moore explains, uniformity of appearance was as important in Lewis and Clark’s unit as it is in any military organization. The captains were known as by-the-book officers, and it’s clear that each of the military members of the Corps were issued the standard uniform clothing of the day: shirts, vests, pants, socks, shoes, blankets, hats, and fatigue coats. Dress uniforms for diplomatic ceremonies with the Indians were also packed away and brought out for special occasions. The clothes were made from either wool or linen and came in three sizes, which the company tailor (probably Joseph Whitehouse) altered to fit.
Unlike Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone, experienced frontiersmen never wore buckskin if they could help it (and neither did Indians, who traded for woven cloth whenever they got the chance). Let’s face it: leather clothing might look great at the disco, but what sane person would want to wear it for heavy, sweaty outdoor work?
Naturally, as the Expedition went on, they didn’t have a choice. Their clothing wore out and had to be replaced, and it’s safe to say that by the second summer, as they crossed the plains of Montana, that the men were wearing a combination of uniform clothing and Indian-style moccasins, hats, and shirts and pants. By the time of the winter on the Pacific coast at Fort Clatsop, they were wearing almost all leather clothing, a fact which influenced their decision to set up camp where the elk hunting was good. By the time they got back to St. Louis in the fall of 1806, after two and a half years on the trail, they were described as looking like “Robinson Crusoes–dressed entirely in buckskins.”
So did they have long hair and beards like Robinson Crusoe? Not likely. Again, Lewis and Clark were hard-nosed, by-the-book officers. Army regulations stated that the hair was to be worn short and that soldiers were to be clean-shaven. Lewis and Clark packed plenty of soap and razors for the men, and authors Moore and Haynes conjecture that they would have made the men clean up whenever it was practical. The Corps may have gotten scruffy during the most rugged ordeals of the trip, but they would never have had a “mountain man” type appearance as depicted by some artists.
And what about those coonskin caps and three-cornered hats? Never happened, say Moore and Haynes. By the time of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, tricorn hats had gone out of fashion. Military officers wore enormous, fantastical cocked hats known as chapeau bras, a style made famous by Napoleon Bonaparte. Though they seem totally impractical, it is known that Meriwether Lewis, at least, wore this hat in the field and used it to win the trust of the Shoshone chief, Cameahwait, at a critical moment in which the chief feared that Clark’s approaching party was an ambush:
we now dismounted and the Chief with much cerimony put tippets about our necks such as they temselves woar I redily perceived that this was to disguise us and owed it’s origine to the same cause already mentioned. to give them further confidence I put my cocked hat with feather on the chief and my over shirt being of the Indian form my hair deshivled and skin well browned with the sun I wanted no further addition to make me a complete Indian in appearance the men followed my example and we were son completely metamorphosed.
More often, though, the men of the Expedition wore standard-issue round hats. This style, which prevailed so widely on the American frontier, perversely survives today only in the form of the formal silk top hat. As for fur hats, the explorers mention making several animals into caps as the Expedition forged further into the west. Elk, lynx, otter, and mountain sheep all found themselves transformed into headgear, but alas, no raccoons. Sorry, Walt.