Revisiting Lewis and Clark

I haven’t written about the Lewis and Clark expedition before because I try to keep my blog focused on southeastern North America and most of their famous route went through the northwest.  However, the diary of their journey is probably as close as we could ever get to a written account of a theoretical trip by western scientists through a Pleistocene wilderness.  So it is worth covering here.  Lewis and Clark saw western North America when it was thinly populated by Indians and a few white traders.  Humans had not yet completely ruined the environment then.

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Route of Lewis and Clark expedition.

I recently reread the journal of this expedition, and I was struck by how barbaric some of their practices were.  Though this was considered the Age of Reason, they still retained some medieval methods of problem-solving.  Soldiers who broke the rules were whipped.  One man was sentenced to 25 bareback lashes for poor behavior during a social event the night before they began their journey.  Lewis learned enough “doctoring” to be in charge of treating injuries and sick men.  One of his treatments was blood-letting.  At the time physicians wrongly thought bleeding patients could cure certain ailments.  When George Washington was dying of pneumonia his doctors bled him.  Of course, it didn’t work and he died anyway.

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Lewis and Clark engaged in barbaric practices such as blood-letting as a medical treatment and whipping to ensure obedience from their men.

The expedition traveled by sail up the Missouri River, then crossed the Rocky Mountains and sailed down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.  When the wind was unfavorable, they attached ropes to the boat, and the men and their horses pulled the boat upstream.  The company depended upon fish and game for a large part of their diet.  It’s interesting to note how the fish composition changed as the expedition traveled up river.  In the lower part of the Missouri River catfish, buffalo fish, and sucker fish were common.  In 1 beaver pond they netted 318 fish including pickerel, bass, perch, and sucker fish, in addition to crayfish which they called “shrimp.”  In another pond by the river they caught 800 fish over half of which were catfish.  As they advanced up the river they began catching trout, sauger, and goldeye.  Salmon were found in the Columbia River.



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The Lewis and Clark expedition relied heavily on fish and game while they traveled on the Missouri and Columbia Rivers.  1 single catfish they caught was so big it yielded a quart of oil.

The wildlife was spectacular on the tallgrass and short grass prairies.  In the former they saw deer, elk, and feral horses.  Beavers were abundant all along the river.  The short grass prairie supported large mixed herds of bison, pronghorn, elk, mule deer, and white tail deer.  Lewis reported seeing an herd of 10,000 bison.  Big flocks of white pelicans and geese lived on oxbow lakes.  Grizzly bears were a dangerous problem.  They were difficult to kill with the primitive muskets of the day, and the men had numerous near fatal encounters with them. Cougars were present but rarely seen.  By contrast the expedition found little game when they crossed the Rocky Mountains.

Pronghorn with Bison

Bison and pronghorn.  The expedition often saw large herds of bison, pronghorns, elk, and mule deer together.

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Scene depicting grizzly chasing a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition into water.  Happened more than once.

The expedition brought flour, salt pork, canned soup, and dried corn with them, but they relied more on fish and game.  During winter and spring the animals they killed were often so poorly nourished the only edible part was the marrow bones.  Italians call this “osso bucco.”  In my opinion osso bucco is a fancy name for a dog bone.  Nevertheless, the men relished the fatty marrow. Game was in better condition during summer and fall.  One bison  or 1 elk and 1 deer or 4 deer could feed the expedition for 1 day. Game was scarce in the Rocky Mountains, and they were forced to eat their horses.  They were literally so hungry they could eat a horse.  The food they ate when they traveled down the Columbia River consisted mostly of dog, salmon, roots, and berries.  Most of the men learned to like dog meat, preferring it over venison.  On the coast they purchased whale blubber Indians had scavenged.  They ate wild fruit in summer and fall–grapes, plums, blackberries, blueberries, salmon berries, service berries, and pawpaws.

The Lewis and Clark expedition is credited with discovering 178 species of plants and 122 species of animals new to western science.  The number of animal species they supposedly discovered is wildly exaggerated.  I’ve seen the list, and it includes subspecies of already known species.  They were the first white people to report prairie dogs.  I counted 69 actual species the Lewis and Clark expedition may have introduced to western science.

I wrote a blog article a few years ago about a ring hunt that took place in Pennsylvania during 1760. (See: ) Settlers exterminated wildlife in these organized hunts to protect their crops and livestock and starve out the Indians.   One of the animals killed was described as a white bear.  I assumed this was probably an albino black bear or maybe a polar bear that had wandered south.  But I learned members of the Lewis and Clark expedition referred to grizzlies as white bears because some have silver-tipped hairs.  This suggests the white bear killed in Pennsylvania was a grizzly bear that wandered east.  Perhaps, grizzlies occasionally occurred as far east as Pennsylvania during the pre-Colonial era.  Fossil evidence of grizzly bears has been found in Kentucky, but this dates to the Pleistocene.


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3 Responses to “Revisiting Lewis and Clark”

  1. ina puustinen-westerholm Says:

    It all sounds..pretty ‘right on’..for the time frame. The amount of oil..for the one super large a surprise to me. I have to say that I would prob. eat marsh grasses and boil stone to make soup..before eating the flat fish types..from warmer climes. A friend from the florida area and I have had some long ranging to the ..trout only version of life..i have lived..out here. A good read..and thanks for the extended digging up research informations.

    • markgelbart Says:

      Pan fried bream (or sunfish as northerners call them) are delicious and clean tasting. Fried crappie is the best tasting freshwater fish I have ever eaten. The wild catfish I have eaten have always been clean tasting and they have a better texture than farm-raised catfish. Largemouth bass can taste a little like pond water, though. Freezing them gets rid of the pond taste.

  2. w Says:

    Larson genius

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