Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

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

Beached blue whale carcass

Beached blue whale carcass

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Makah Indians cutting up a whale, 1910

Makah Indians cutting up a whale, 1910

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

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

Jonah and the whale

Jonah and the whale

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

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Hessian fly

After doing the research for our novels about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, I can’t imagine a richer historical setting than early America. And though we included a lot of the period details that captivated us, inevitably there were some characters that ended up on the cutting room floor. Among these was the Hessian fly, which was ravaging America in 1794, the year that Lewis and Clark met and in which our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe is set.

The notorious pest was Mayetiola destructor, known also as the barley midge, and it suddenly appeared in the farm country of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in the late 1770s as the Revolutionary War raged. This tiny insect, scarcely visible to the naked eye, was capable of chewing through entire fields of wheat in a matter of days and was soon dubbed the “Hessian fly” after the notorious mercenary German soldiers hired by the British crown. Many believed that the fly had arrived in the United States in the filthy straw bedding of the Hessians. That is unprovable, but most scientists today believe the fly did arrive in straw, probably horse forage, shipped in by the British for use in putting down the revolution.

George Morgan, a revolutionary officer and farmer near Princeton, left a vivid description of the fly, which carried out its destruction in the larval stage:

…White Worms which after a few days turn of a Chestnut Color — they are deposited by a Fly between the Leaves & the Stalk of the green Wheat, & generally at the lowermost Joint, and are inevitable Death to the Stalks they attack.

Pending a scientific explanation, the destruction caused by the fly was an occasion for soul-searching. The Reverend Timothy Dwight suggested that “nothing can more strongly exhibit the dependence or littleness of man than the destruction of his valuable interests by such minute, helpless beings, nor can anything more forcibly display the ease with which his Maker punishes his transgressions.”

New England Farmer. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

After the Revolution, the fly embarked on a relentless flight westward, moving at a rate of about 20 miles per year. By the 1790s, American wheat exports had plummeted even as revolutionary France ramped up demand. Many of the big names in early American science worked to combat the fly, including Thomas Jefferson. In May 1791, Thomas Jefferson (then U.S. Secretary of State) and his colleague and close friend, James Madison, took a leisurely trip through New England where they mixed hiking and fishing with serious business matters. Jefferson had agreed to chair a special committee of the American Philosophical Society that would gather scientific data about the fly and develop methods of fighting it. During his trip he conducted interviews with farmers and townsfolk about their experiences and observations, and even traced the origin of the plague back to a spot in present-day Brooklyn.

Jefferson continued to fit his research in with his work as America’s top diplomat. In the summer of 1792, he pupated live Hessian flies, watched them hatch and lay their eggs, and examined them through his microscope. Unfortunately, Jefferson was then caught up in his intense feud with Alexander Hamilton and then in the Citizen Genet affair, which led to his resignation the following year. He never again took up his involvement with the fly’s saga, though that didn’t stop Federalists from lampooning him as an eccentric who interrupted the public business to write “dissertations on cockroaches.”

Interpreter Merritt Caposella of Colonial Williamsburg poses with an 18th-century microscope. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg.

The fly moved south and west, wreaking more destruction. Between 1796-99, America exported virtually no wheat at all thanks to the fly’s depredations. Though Jefferson was no longer in the lead, the fly’s menace proved the kick-starter for the development of American entomology. By the early 19th farmers were starting to adapt their practices to combat the fly, specifically by delaying their fall plantings until after the fly was done spawning, planting varieties of wheat observed to be fly-resistant, and diversifying to other crops, especially corn and rye. The Hessian fly continues to munch on wheat to this day, never eliminated, only controlled.

For more reading, check out these excellent articles:

Fighting the Hessian Fly: American and British Responses to Insect Invasion, 1776-1789 (PDF)

Hessian Fly (Monticello)

Seeing the Light: A Close Look at 18th-Century Optics (Colonial Williamsburg)

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Dying Buffalo by George Catlin

Dying Buffalo by George Catlin

For many people, the Lewis and Clark Expedition is forever linked with the American bison as a symbol of the great, unspoiled American west. Lewis and Clark encountered numerous herds of buffalo on their travels, some of which numbered thousands of animals. Yet it is surprising to realize that when the Corps of Discovery set out from St. Louis in 1804, the buffalo was already a species in retreat.

The American plains bison (or buffalo) originally had a range that encompassed most of the continental United States, from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Appalachian Mountains in the east. In his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, author Charles C. Mann theorized that early Native Americans in the east not only lived off the bison, but kept the herds regulated. Mann suggested that decades of heavier-than average rainfall, and the devastation of Native populations by the arrival of European diseases, enabled the bison herds to flourish in artificially large numbers.

1491 by Charles Mann

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann

However, this didn’t last long. As European populations got established on the East Coast and hunters and frontiersmen pushed west over the Appalachian mountains, they drove the buffalo before them. By the time Lewis and Clark were born, buffalo had already disappeared from western Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. William Clark, who grew up in Kentucky and served in the militia in the Ohio River Valley, had no doubt seen and perhaps hunted buffalo as a youth. But the animals had all but disappeared from these places by the 1790’s. By the time the Corps of Discovery set out from St. Louis in 1804, a buffalo sighting east of the Mississippi River was an increasingly rare sight.

Still, Lewis and Clark knew that vast herds were out there to the west, and were on the lookout. On June 6, 1804, Clark noted in his journal, “Some buffalow Sign to day.” The first buffalo were spotted by the Corps’ hunters at the Kansas River on June 28.

August 23, 1804, was a red-letter day for the Corps. Joseph Fields shot and killed a large buffalo bull. It took Lewis and about a dozen men to butcher and carry the buffalo meat to a bend in the river so it could be picked up by the Corps’ boats. The Corps salted two barrels of buffalo meat that day. Sergeant John Ordway, a native of New Hampshire, was in Lewis’s party and was especially excited because he had never seen a buffalo before. Ordway wrote in his journal, “I walked about 1 mile & ½ in it when I went for the abo. ment. Buffelow, I Saw the beds & Signs of a great many more Buffelow But this was the first I ever Saw & as great a curiousity to me.”

"Immence herds" of buffalo

"Immence herds" of buffalo were spotted on the plains

As the Corps pushed up the Missouri through Nebraska and into present-day South Dakota, the herds grew in number. In early September, Clark noted a herd which numbered about 500; a couple of weeks later, Lewis observed a herd which he estimated at 3000.

Lewis and Clark had their share of close encounters with buffalo, including a buffalo bull that charged Lewis and another that rampaged through their camp, coming precariously close to stepping on the heads of sleeping men. On April 22, 1805, Lewis recorded probably his most charming encounter with a buffalo:

I asscended to the top of the cutt bluff this morning, from whence I had a most delightfull view of the country, the whole of which except the vally formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing to the first glance of the spectator immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, & Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture.    we saw a number of bever feeding on the bark of the trees alonge the verge of the river, several of which we shot, found them large and fat.    walking on shore this evening I met with a buffaloe calf which attatched itself to me and continued to follow close at my heels untill I embarked and left it.    it appeared allarmed at my dog which was probably the cause of it’s so readily attatching itself to me.

A buffalo calf

Lewis attracted the attention of a buffalo calf

Buffalo meat became a staple in the Corps’ diet, and they relished the rich, nutritious meat during their travels in the great plains. Lewis recorded that he even “ate of the small guts of the buffaloe cooked over a blazing fire in the Indian style, without any preperation of washing or other clensing, and found them very good.”

To the Corps’ dismay, the “immence herds” of buffalo disappeared as they crossed the Rocky Mountains. After a long winter at Fort Clatsop subsisting on elk meat and fish, they were drooling for the taste of buffalo by the time they finally recrossed the Rocky Mountains and descended back into the Great Plains in the summer of 1806. On July 8, 1806, Lewis wrote happily in his journal:

Josh. Fields saw two buffaloe below us some distance which are the first that have been seen.    We saw a great number of deer goats and wolves as we passed through the plains this morning but no Elk or buffaloe.    saw some barking squirrils    much rejoiced at finding ourselves in the plains of the Missouri which abound with game.—

The Corps ate hearty on buffalo as they descended the Missouri River. In August, near present-day Chamberlain, South Dakota, Lewis noted with awe that he had seen the biggest herd yet: “I must have Seen near 20,000 of those animals feeding on this plain.”

1901 Bison Note

Symbols of the disappearing west: The 1901 Bison Note

Lewis and Clark would have been staggered if they had known that within 75 years of their expedition, the bison would be driven to the edge of extinction. At the time of the expedition, the supply of bison west of the Mississippi seemed inexhaustible. But considering the rate at which the bison had disappeared from the East, the decline of the “immence herds” of bison in the west seems almost inevitable. Towns, farms, and railroads are incompatible with grasslands and giant free-roaming bands of large animals. As people had already seen in the east, the doom of the bison was written in the relentless western expansion of the frontier.

More great reading:

Discovering Lewis & Clark: The American Bison

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Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, keeper of the French botanical gardens, was known for his theory of degeneracy. He also thought that the Earth was formed by the collision of a large body with the Sun and that it might be up to 75000 years old, rather than the 6000 year limit set by the Bible.

It is difficult to imagine now the depth of ignorance that European scientists possessed about the Americas back in Lewis & Clark’s day. The greatest and most influential naturalist of the 18th century, French scientist Georges Louis LeClerc, the comte of Buffon, published extensively on the New World and essentially trashed it. Buffon wrote that the New World had emerged much later from the biblical flood and was thus still in the process of drying out. It was possessed of an unhealthy climate and rife with underdeveloped animals that couldn’t hold a candle to the lions and elephants in the Old World. Worse still were the people, Buffon wrote. The Indians were hairless and cold-blooded, like reptiles, and possessed of tiny and weak genitals. And black people were becoming lighter, their African glory fading away from some mysterious environmental cause. (As Dave Barry used to say, I am not making this up.)

Considering that Buffon in his day had a reputation akin to that of Charles Darwin in a later era, these were devastating charges. Among educated Europeans, America essentially had a reputation as a degenerated land full of barbarous and debased people and animals. These notions filtered down to the man on the street as well: Hessian mercenaries who fought with the British in the American Revolution wrote home of their surprise to find their opponents to be white men not so different from themselves. Literary critics even blamed America’s climate for the continent’s alleged failure to produce a decent artist or writer.

In what has been called the most important American book written before 1800, America’s leading intellectual — Thomas Jefferson — took on Buffon and the European scientific establishment. First published in France in 1785, Notes on the State of Virginia would be the only book Jefferson ever wrote. He requested that one of the first copies off the press be delivered personally to Buffon.

Jefferson the surveyor overlooks the north grounds of the University of Virginia campus.

The first section of Notes is usually omitted from modern reprints, but Jefferson considered it to be the heart of his argument. Side by side in table after table, Jefferson compared the animals of the Old World and the New World by weight. In almost every instance the American animal was larger, in many cases astoundingly so. The American cow weighed in at 2500 pounds vs. 763 for a European heifer. The bear tipped the scales at 410 pounds vs. 153 for a European bear. And so on. Jefferson even estimated the weight of the extinct prehistoric mammoths being uncovered in the United States to counter Buffon’s jibe about the New World’s lack of elephants. Among those who helped Jefferson gather this data on American animals were Doctor Thomas Walker, explorer of the Cumberland Gap and relative of Meriwether Lewis, and George Rogers Clark, conqueror of the Old Northwest and brother of William Clark.

Jefferson also refuted Buffon’s statements about the Indians who were, he wrote, “neither more defective in ardor nor more impotent with his female than the white.” Indians were “in body and mind the equal of the white man.” Indians were at an earlier stage of the civilization process, it was true, but that was not due to a lack of native genius; in fact, Jefferson could cite numerous instances in which Indians had assimilated, a process which was bound to continue as they became more familiar with “husbandry and the household arts.”

This folk art piece was created between 1790 and 1800 and is known as "The Old Plantation." Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia.

Unfortunately, Jefferson decided to weigh in on the merits or lack thereof of the African-American race, and these statements hang over Notes of the State of Virginia today. His statements on the character and appearance of slaves are all the more tragic because of what we know to be his hypocrisy on the puzzlement as to just why those Africans were lightening up in the New World. In the interest of not letting Jefferson off the hook, a brief excerpt of his views on skin color:

And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

The underlying tone of the narrative section of Jefferson’s Notes is confrontational. In it, Jefferson submitted questions designed to embarrass and expose the great Buffon for his pseudo-science. Who, Jefferson wanted to know, were the European travelers who had supplied the naturalist with his information? Where was the data about the animals they encountered? Could it be examined?

A primo New Hampshire moose

Shortly after the publication of Notes, Jefferson was named United States minister to France. Though Jefferson generally avoided personal confrontations, he courted one with Buffon, calling upon him to present him with the hide of an exceptionally large American panther. Jefferson repeated many of his questions to Buffon in person, finally telling him that the American moose was so large that a European reindeer could walk under its belly. Buffon called Jefferson’s challenge, telling the upstart Virginian that if he could produce moose antlers that corroborated his story, he would retract his statements about the degeneracy of New World animals.

Jefferson swung into action, bombarding his contacts back in the States with requests for moose and other American animals that would essentially bludgeon the smirk off Buffon’s face for good. Governor John Sullivan of New Hampshire was deputized to get the moose, but unfortunately bungled the job and ended up sending Jefferson a hodgepodge of several animals. However, Jefferson apparently wore Buffon down with his dogged pursuit of the truth. Reportedly, Buffon promised Jefferson to set the record straight on New World animals, but he died in 1788 before he had the chance to write further on the subject.

Jefferson and his proteges continued lifelong work on examining the creatures, geology, and native peoples of America. Some twenty-five years later, the naturalist Alexander Wilson, a close friend of Meriwether Lewis’s, was still excoriating Buffon. In his landmark nine-volume American Ornithology, Wilson calls special attention to Buffon as a man who committed countless errors “with equal eloquence and absurdity.”

More great reading: Notes on the State of Virginia (full text)
Thomas Jefferson’s Archaeological Dig

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June 14, 1805, was a day of surreal occurrences for Meriwether Lewis. Lewis and his party were in the vicinity of the Great Falls of the Missouri, an amazing spectacle he had come upon only the day before. On the morning of the 14th, Lewis set off by himself to begin to scout a route for the Corps of Discovery to portage their supplies and equipment around the falls. Quickly realizing that the “great falls” was not one waterfall but a series of five waterfalls stretching over several miles of roiling rapids, Lewis’s journal entry reveals a man clearly distracted from the navigational problem that confronted him by the amazing rugged natural beauty around him.

Lewis at the Great Falls by Charles Fritz

The Arrival of Captain Lewis at the Great Falls of the Missouri, by Charles Fritz

After debating in his journal which waterfall was the most beautiful, Lewis noticed a “beautiful little island” in the middle of the rapids where a black eagle had built her nest in a cottonwood tree. “A more inaccessable spot I beleive she could not have found,” he wrote, “for neither man nor beast dare pass those gulphs which seperate her little domain from the shores.”

Buffalo grazing on the plain

"a herd of at least a thousand buffaloe..."

The day would bring more surprises.  To the south and west below the falls, Lewis found that Missouri River  “lies a smoth even and unruffled sheet of water of nearly a mile in width bearing on it’s watry bosome vast flocks of geese which feed at pleasure in the delightfull pasture on either border.” He also spotted the river the Indians called Medicine River and determined to explore it. After resting a while, Lewis “decended the hills and directed my course to the bend of the Missouri near which there was a herd of at least a thousand buffaloe; here I thought it would be well to kill a buffaloe and leave him untill my return from the river and if I then found that I had not time to get back to camp this evening.” Lewis selected a buffalo and shot him through the lungs. While he was standing with an unloaded rifle waiting for the beast to fall, he suddenly noticed the large grizzly bear that had “crept on me within 20 steps.”

Angry grizzly bear

Angry grizzly bear

Lewis tried backing away slowly, hoping to have a chance to reload his rifle, but the bear charged. “I ran about 80 yards and found he gained on me fast, I then run into the water    the idea struk me to get into the water to such debth that I could stand and he would be obliged to swim, and that I could in that situation defend myself with my espontoon; accordingly I ran haistily into the water about waist deep, and faced about and presented the point of my espontoon.” Inexplicably, the bear turned tail on Lewis and rapidly ran away, leaving Lewis to puzzle over his close call. Climbing out of the water when he was sure the coast was clear, Lewis shuddered when he saw the ground torn with the bear’s talons.

Proceeding on to the Medicine River with his newly recharged rifle, Lewis spent the afternoon exploring and decided to head back to camp around 6:30pm, “having by my estimate about 12 miles to walk.” On his way back, he encountered a strange animal.


Wolverine - possibly Lewis's 'tyger cat'

in returning through the level bottom of Medecine river and about 200 yards distant from the Missouri, my direction led me directly to an anamal that I at first supposed was a wolf;  but on nearer approach or about sixty paces distant I discovered that it was not, it’s colour was a brownish yellow; it was standing near it’s burrow, and when I approached it thus nearly, it couched itself down like a cat looking immediately at me as if it designed to spring on me. I took aim at it and fired, it instantly disappeared in it’s burrow; I loaded my gun and exmined the place which was dusty and saw the track from which I am still further convinced that it was of the tiger kind.    whether I struck it or not I could not determine, but I am almost confident that I did; my gun is true and I had a steady rest by means of my espontoon, which I have found very serviceable to me in this way in the open plains

Some have speculated that the creature Lewis saw may have been a bobcat, or perhaps a wolverine, in which case he was lucky that he did not get closer to it, as they are known for having a ferocious temperament and being able to kill prey many times their size.  Whatever the creature was, Lewis could not find it. But soon he had bigger problems to worry about.  He wrote:

It now seemed to me that all the beasts of the neighbourhood had made a league to distroy me, or that some fortune was disposed to amuse herself at my expence, for I had not proceded more than three hundred yards from the burrow of this tyger cat, before three bull buffaloe, which wer feeding with a large herd about half a mile from me on my left, seperated from the herd and ran full speed towards me, I thought at least to give them some amusement and altered my direction to meet them; when they arrived within a hundred yards they made a halt, took a good view of me and retreated with precipitation.

Prickly pear thorns

"the prickley pears which pierced my feet very severely"

Although it was getting late, Lewis was clearly unnerved by his series of near-misses. He considered making camp for the night and feasting on the buffalo he had killed, then decide he “did not think it prudent to remain all night at this place which really from the succession of curious adventures wore the impression on my mind of inchantment.” The adventure had not only rattled his nerves, but it seemed to be having a hallucinogenic affect on his brain. “At sometimes for a moment I thought it might be a dream, but the prickley pears which pierced my feet very severely once in a while, particularly after it grew dark, convinced me that I was really awake, and that it was necessary to make the best of my way to camp.”

When one considers what all had happened to Lewis in the previous 7 days, it is no wonder his mind might have been playing tricks on him. One week before, on June 7, Lewis had returned from a 60-mile trip up the north fork of the Missouri, much of it in a driving rain, and culminating in Lewis and Private Windsor nearly falling off a 90-foot precipice. Lewis’s small party rejoined Clark and the main party two days later than expected, and  Lewis admitted to being  “much fatiegued.” Nevertheless, the next day, Lewis determined to go on another scouting trip, this time up the south fork of the Missouri. He and Captain Clark stood alone, believing this to be the right route.

On June 10, Lewis recorded that “I still feel myself somewhat unwell with the disentary,” having evidently suffered from it for several days. Nevertheless, he set off the next day anyway. He was so ill on the 11th that he could not eat and had to dose himself with a tea made from chokecherries to treat his intestinal pain and fever. But he covered 27 miles the next day, and on the 13th, he reached the first of the Great Falls of the Missouri River, which meant he had chosen the right route but also that he had a huge logistical problem to solve. With such a momentous week behind him, it would not have been surprising if Lewis had simply been overwhelmed—mentally, physically, and emotionally—from all that he had experienced.

The Great Falls of the Missouri River, 1880

The Great Falls of the Missouri River, 1880

After his ordeal with the animals, Lewis’s relief at getting home safe to camp was palpable –and so was that of his men. “It was sometime after dark before I returned to the party; I found them extremely uneasy for my safety; they had formed a thousand conjectures, all of which equally forboding my death, which they had so far settled among them, that they had already agreed on the rout which each should take in the morning to surch for me. I felt myself much fortiegued, but eat a hearty supper and took a good night’s rest.”

Prairie rattlesnake

Prairie rattlesnake

He spent the next day fishing and sleeping off his adventure. The only event of note was that when he awoke from a nap under a tree, he found a large rattlesnake about 10 feet away. Lewis calmly killed it, and reported in his journal that “he had 176 scuta on the abdomen and 17 half formed scuta on the tale.”

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Wild horse of the Pryor Mountains herd

Wild horse of the Pryor Mountains herd

In late June 1806, the Lewis and Clark party had finally re-navigated the Rocky Mountains and was enjoying a few days at Travelers Rest on their return trip from the Pacific Ocean. It was there that Meriwether Lewis initiated one of the Corps’ most ambitious and complicated plans. On July 3, Lewis would head north with several men to explore the upper reaches of the Marias River. Sergeant Gass would lead another group to portage their canoes and cached materials back around the Great Falls. Captain Clark, with the remainder of the party, would explore the Yellowstone River.

Clark’s party included Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor, who was assigned a difficult task of his own. “Sergt Pryor with two other men are to proceed with the horses by land to the Mandans and thence to the British posts on the Assinniboin with a letter to Mr. Heney whom we wish to engage to prevail on the Sioux Chefs to join us on the Missouri, and accompany them with us to the seat of the general government,” Lewis wrote. In addition to the unenviable task of driving approximately 50 horses overland to Fort Mandan, Pryor was then ordered to continue on to Fort Assiniboine in Canada, where he would meet with Hugh Haney (a trader and agent with the North West Company) and seek his help in persuading chiefs of the Yankton, Teton, and Sisseton Sioux – a powerful trading conglomerate on the plains – to come east to meet with Thomas Jefferson.

Pryor’s first task in this logistical and diplomatic mission was to get the Corps’ horse herd to Fort Mandan. The horses were in “fine order,” having stood the mountain passage surprisingly well. But on the night of July 20, something went wrong.  Clark lamented the next morning, ‘I was informed that Half of our horses were absent.”

After several days of searching on the dry and trackless plains, Pryor found signs of the culprit: thieves. Clark wrote on July 23:

Sgt. pryor found an Indian Mockerson and a Small piece of a roab, the mockerson worn out on the bottom & yet wet, and have every appearance of haveing been worn but a fiew hours before.    those Indian Signs is Conclusive with me that they have taken the 24 horses which we lost on the night of the 20th instant, and that those who were about last night were in Serch of the ballance of our horses which they could not find as they had fortunately got into a Small Prarie Serounded with thick timber in the bottom. Labeech returned haveing taken a great Circle and informed me that he Saw the tracks of the horses makeing off into the open plains and were by the tracks going very fast. The Indians who took the horses bent their course reather down the river.

Recovering the stolen horses was a lost cause, and Clark gave up any further thought of pursuit. The next day, Clark assisted Pryor with driving the remaining 24 horses across the Yellowstone at Dry Creek. Along with Privates Shannon, Windsor, and Hall, Pryor set out to complete his mission of driving the horses overland to Fort Mandan while Clark proceeded on by river.

Wild horses of the Pryor Mountains herd

Wild horses of the Pryor Mountains herd

Unfortunately, the Sergeant’s run of bad luck continued. The second night out, the remaining horses were stolen, as Clark found out when Pryor and his men unexpectedly turned up in a couple of bull boats two weeks later, further down the Yellowstone.

at 8 A. M. Sergt. N. Pryor Shannon, hall & Windsor Came down the river in two Canoes made of Buffalow Skins.   Sergt. Pryor informed me that the Second night after he parted with me on the river Rochejhone [Yellowstone] he arived about 4 P M on the banks of a large Creek which contained no running water.   he halted to let the horses graze dureing which time a heavy Shower of rain raised the Creek so high that Several horses which had Stragled across the Chanel of this Creek was obliged to Swim back.    here he deturmined to Continue all night it being in good food for the horses. In the morning he could See no horses.

Bull boat

Replica of a Mandan bull boat

The luckless Pryor had been taken by thieves again. Pryor and his men tracked the Indians for ten miles before accepting that there was no chance of overtaking them and recovering their horses. They then packed their remaining supplies and equipment on their backs, walked to the Yellowstone River at Pompy’s Tower, killed a buffalo bull, and made a couple of circular “bull boats” in the fashion of the Mandan and Arikara Indians. They floated down the rapids and found their way back to the main party.  Clark took the disappointment in stride, mostly seeming impressed with the bull boats, pleased with the men’s resourcefulness, and relieved that Pryor and his men made it back safely, with a wolf-bite on the Pryor’s hand being the only serious injury.

Pryor’s ordeal has a fascinating footnote. The Pryor Mountains of Montana, known as the Arrowhead Mountains to the Crow Indians, are home to this day to a free-roaming band of wild horses.  Many of the horses have primitive striping on their backs, withers, and legs and are reputed to have some of the characteristics of “colonial” Spanish horses. The wild horses of the Pryor Mountains have been documented as living in this area since the early 1800s and are likely descended from Crow Indian war ponies and the Shoshone and Nez Perce horses that were stolen from Sergeant Pryor.

One of these horses is Cloud, the subject of the documentaries “Cloud: Stallion of the Rockies” and “Cloud’s Legacy: The Wild Stallion Returns,” by Emmy-winning filmmaker Ginger Kathrens. Kathrens has documented Cloud’s life and the life of his band of wild horses since his birth in 1995, making Cloud famous all over the world.

Cloud the wild horse

Cloud, of documentary fame

In 1968, interested individuals and groups convinced Interior Secretary Stewart Udall to set aside 31,000 acres in the Pryor Mountains as a public range for the wild horses living there. Subsequent to the Udall’s order, the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971 allowed for expansion of the range to areas where horses were “presently found.” Despite some protections, the wild horses of the Pryor Mountains remain gravely endangered, subject to round up, relocation and even destruction. Herd management policies by the Bureau of Land Management remain controversial. Cloud himself has been rounded up twice.

For more information on the Pryor wild horse herd and how to help preserve wild horses on public lands, please visit The Cloud Foundation website.

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A bull elk

This evening Sergt. Ordway and Wiser returned with a part of the meat which R. Fields had killed; the ballance of the party with Sergt. Gass remained in order to bring the ballance of the meat to the river at a point agreed on where the canoe is to meet them again tomorrow morning. This evening we had what I call an excellent supper it consisted of a marrowbone a piece and a brisket of boiled Elk that had the appearance of a little fat on it.    this for Fort Clatsop is living in high stile.  — Meriwether Lewis, February 7, 1806

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reached the mouth of the Nemaha River in July 1804, they did more than enter into modern-day Nebraska. They crossed into a different ecosystem in which they would spend most of the next two years. When most of us think of the incredible bounty of the Great Plains, the first animal that comes to mind is the buffalo. But the elk would play a far greater role in the diet and clothing of the Corps of Discovery — and eventually come close to meeting the same fate as the more glamorous bison.

An elk is an enormous animal, far larger than a deer. A bull elk weighs about 700 pounds and a female tips the scales at about 450 (by contrast, a white-tailed deer weighs about 120 pounds). During their time on the Great Plains, the Corps of Discovery killed and ate almost 300 elk, more than any other animal except deer. I’ve never tasted elk myself, but am told it has a beefy taste similar to a lean steak.

William Clark's elkskin journal. When Lewis and Clark set out over the Rocky Mountains in September 1805, they sealed up their leather-bound journals to protect them from harm. Clark fashioned this journal out of elkskin and loose pages and wrote in it until the end of the year.

Elk were even more critical to Lewis and Clark’s survival on the Pacific Coast, where they were the only large game animal around. When the Corps of Discovery held their famous vote on the location of Fort Clatsop in the fall of 1805, no consideration weighed heavier than the good elk hunting in the vicinity. Sergeant Patrick Gass recorded that the Corps brought in at least 131 elk in the course of the winter. With a conservative estimate of 120 pounds of edible meat per animal, that adds up to a whopping 15,720 pounds of meat, or over four pounds of meat per man every day.

Even so, elk hunting was hardly the carnivore’s dream that it might appear. For one thing, the longer the Corps of Discovery stayed at Fort Clatsop, the scarcer the elk became. The hunters had to range farther afield with every passing week, and drag the mammoth animals home through soggy overgrown forest. As Clark wrote, it was not unusual for the Corps to have to eat “Spoiled Elk which is extreamly disagreeable to the Smel, as well as the taste.”

These elk antlers hang at Monticello and are one of the few known surviving artifacts from the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

Like so many animals, elk were no match for “market hunting,” a form of commercial exploitation of the country’s natural resources that took hold in the decades after the Civil War. Appearing in retrospect to be a form of utter madness, the system led to the extinction or near-extinction of a variety of North American animals from the passenger pigeon to the buffalo to the salmon to the elk. From a population numbering in the multimillions in Lewis & Clark’s day, the elk population in 1900 had plummeted to a mere 90,000 individuals.

Because of vigilant conservation efforts spearheaded by hunters, the elk population has rebounded to about a million, and the animals are being reintroduced around the west and in Kentucky. The ironic fact is that it was recreational hunters who cared about these animals enough to pay millions of dollars over the past century in taxes and fees, that in turn financed habitat and research that brought this great American animal back from near-extinction. In a way, I feel sad about the beautiful elk who are killed for trophies, but what have I ever done to save an elk? As hunting declines in popularity, the future of these kinds of conservation efforts is in doubt, and whether animal lovers and environmentalists will step up to pay the difference is anybody’s guess.

When you are in Lewis & Clark country, check out the Elk Country Visitor Center in Missoula, which is run by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. This elegant facility resembles a giant Cabela’s ad (no surprise as they are a major sponsor). But you can have a really good time browsing and playing with fun and educational displays about elk behavior and habitat, and learn about what magnificent, tough, and confident animals they are. There is an amazing exhibit of trophy elk here. We enjoyed seeing how huge the elk are and hearing recordings of their “bugles.”

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