Lewis and Clark’s time among the Nez Perce would have made a good reality TV show. The Nez Perce lived in the unbelievably beautiful Clearwater country; were exceptionally good-looking, intelligent, and sophisticated; and had never before encountered white people. The Corps of Discovery — ragged, multi-cultural, and possessed of unfathomable new technology such as compasses, magnifying glasses, and magnets — must have seemed like visitors from another planet. Especially on the return journey, when Lewis & Clark spent almost two months among the Nez Perce, there was time for friendship, music and dancing, athletic contests — even romance.
Even more important for both trade and goodwill were the services of one Dr. William Clark. Lewis and Clark were both highly skilled wilderness doctors, but during the outward-bound journey, Clark’s medical skills became particularly important. From this distance, it’s hard to say exactly why the Native Americans preferred him over the more highly-trained Lewis. The practice of western medicine was entirely alien to the Indians, and it may be that Clark’s friendly, fatherly, respectful manner was simply more attractive and reassuring than Lewis’s more prickly and analytical personality.
At this point in the journey, Clark needed to generate more than goodwill. Because the continent turned out to be much larger than Lewis and Clark expected, and the Rocky Mountain range so difficult, the Expedition had taken much longer than the explorers had expected. They were tattered, impoverished, and just about out of trade goods. Clark’s services were critical in bartering with the Indians for food and assistance in making the return trip over those “tremendious mountains.”
Clark’s impromptu medical clinics began among the Walula people, near present-day Kennewick, Oregon. In order to repay the people for their help and hospitality, Clark carefully splinted broken bones, handed out Rush’s Bilious Pills for anyone feeling the least bit “costive,” and applied soft flannel wraps to help nurse a cold. Eye problems among the Indians were legion (probably due to dietary deficiencies), and people came from miles around for a dose of Rush’s eye water, a mild astringent.
The effect on the Indians was unexpectedly electrifying. It turns out that Clark’s medical clinic was a monumental event among the people. Though mostly ineffectual by today’s standards (when not actually harmful), Clark’s remedies wowed the patients with their noticable effects. Moreover, Clark was skilled at hands-on doctoring, even trying his hand at massage to relieve rheumatism and muscle aches. His bedside manner must have been something else, because the word began to spread that the red-headed doctor possessed a powerful magic.
The word-of-mouth from the Walula clinic was so good that Clark’s arrival back in Nez Perce country a few days later was something of a minor sensation. A chief brought in his wife, suffering from a painful abscess on her back. Clark rather boldly lanced, drained, and packed the abscess, a painful operation that proved worthwhile, as the woman improved dramatically within days. A little girl with “rheumatism” got a gentle bath in warm water and balsam; a virtual parade of Indians with sore eyes received a dose of the now-famous eyewash. In exchange, Lewis & Clark asked for payment of two horses — which they promptly butchered and ate.
As Lewis and Clark settled in to wait out the mountain snow at the “Long Camp” near present-day Kamiah, Idaho, Clark’s medical clinic became an established feature of the Corps of Discovery’s cultural exchange. There were few ailments that couldn’t be made better with a dose of the Clark charm along with nostrums such as back rubs, eye drops, and elixirs. But one challenging case was to cement Clark’s legend as a healer among the Nez Perce.
The family of an elderly chief brought their father to see Clark. The old man had been paralyzed for five years, though he was able to eat normally and possessed all of his mental faculties. Clark had recently developed a knowledge of sweat baths which he had used to help treat one of the men for severe back pain, and decided it just might help the chief. After a little time in the sweat hole, the man received 30 drops of laudanum, an opium-based painkiller. After three days of Clark’s therapy, the man was moving his arms and hands for the first time in years. By the fifth day he was moving his legs again.
In his great book on Lewis & Clark medicine Or Perish in the Attempt, David J. Peck theorizes that the man must have had a mental rather than a physical disorder. In either case, it was no mean feat for Clark to overcome a condition that had beset the man for five years.
It was largely due to Clark’s efforts, along with the good behavior of the Corps of Discovery, that led to the extraordinary friendship that developed between the Nez Perce and the Americans. In the 1830s, a delegation of Nez Perce even traveled to St. Louis to visit the now-elderly Clark and asked him to send missionaries to teach them the powerful medicine contained the white man’s book (the Bible). As late as the 1850s, the Nez Perce could rightly boast that they had never killed a white man. Then gold and greed changed everything. But that’s another story, one far removed from the peace and friendship extended, and accepted, between doctor and patients in those simpler times in the spring of 1806.