Some Medical Aspects of the Lewis & Clark Expedition

©B. Marchis-Mouren, Université de Provence

Mackenzie’s Voyages from Montreal

 By opening this intercourse between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and forming regular establishments through the interior, and at both extremes, as well as along the coasts and islands, the entire command of the fur trade of North America might be obtained. W. Kaye Lamb, ed., The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie

Mountain Beaver (Aplodontia rufa) 

Mountain Beaver by J.J. Audubon, The Birds of America, 1845-1848, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

The Missouri and all it’s branches from the Chyenne upwards abound more in beaver and Common Otter, than any other streams on earth, particularly that proportion of them lying within the Rocky Mountains. The furs of all this immence tract of country… may be conveyed to the mouth of the Columbia… and from thence be shiped to, and arrive in London. — Meriwether Lewis to Thomas Jefferson, September 23, 1806

President Jefferson’s Confidential Message to Congress  The river Missouri, & the Indians inhabiting it, are not as well known as is rendered desirable … It is however understood that the country on that river is inhabited by numerous tribes, who furnish great supplies of furs… An intelligent officer with ten or twelve chosen men… might explore the whole line, even to the Western Ocean… The appropriation of two thousand five hundred dollars… would cover the undertaking. — Thomas Jefferson to Congress, January 18, 1803

Meriwether Lewis 

Meriwether Lewis by Charles W. Peale, c. 1807 © Independence National Historical Park

Capt. Lewis is brave, prudent, habituated to the woods, & familiar with Indian manners and character. He is not regularly educated, but he possesses a great mass of accurate observation on all the subjects of nature which present themselves here, & will therefore readily select those only in his new route which shall be new. He has qualified himself for those observations of longitude & latitude necessary to fix the points of the line he will go over… — Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, February 8, 1803

William Clark 

If therefore there is anything under those circumstances, in this enterprise, which would induce you to participate with me in it’s fateigues, it’s dangers, and it’s honors, believe me there is no man on earth with whom I should feel equal pleasure in sharing them as with yourself… — Meriwether Lewis to William Clark, June 19, 1803 William Clark by Charles W. Peale, c. 1810 © Independence National Historical Park

Lewis & Clark: a perfect match  In general, in areas in which Lewis was shaky, Clark was strong, and vice versa. Most of all Lewis knew that Clark was competent to the task, that his word was his bond, that his back was steel. Clark knew the same about Lewis. Their trust in each other was complete, even before they took the first step west together. — Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, (New York : Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 97.

Benjamin Rush

© James Thacher’s American Medical Biography, 1928

Dear Sir, I have endeavored to fulfil your wishes by furnishing Mr. Lewis with some inquiries relative to the natural history of the Indians. The enclosed letter contains a few short directions for the preservation of his health, as well as the health of the persons under his command. His mission is truly interesting. I shall wait with great solicitude for its issue. Mr. Lewis appears admirably qualified for it. May its advantages prove no less honorable to your administration than to the interest of science… — Benjamin Rush to Thomas Jefferson, June 11, 1803

The Best and the Fittest  It shall be my duty to find out and engage some good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried, accustomed to the woods and capable of bearing bodily fatigue to a considerable degree; should any young men answering this description be found in your neighborhood I would thank you to give information of them on my arrival at the falls of the Ohio; and if possible learn the probability of their engaging in this service ...

— Meriwether Lewis to William Clark, June 19, 1803

Quinine (Cinchona)  Peruvian bark (Cinchona) was first discovered in Peru and was used by seventeenth century Jesuits as medicine. The active ingredient, quinine, does not cure the disease, but rather copes with the disease by interfering with the growth and reproduction of malaria-causing parasites in red blood cells. © University of Virginia

Choke cherry (Prunus virginianus)

Orange fruited chokecherry © University of Saskatchewan College of Agriculture

 … at sunset I took a [pint] of this [chokecherry] decoction and repeated the dze by 10 in the evening I was entirely relieved from pain… my fever abated, a gentle perspiration was produced and I had a comfortable and refreshing nights rest. — Meriwether Lewis, June 11, 1805

Clyster pipe

Clyster pipe, c. 1825 © University of Virginia

Dental Tools

Dental Tools, c. 1800 © University of Virginia


Tourniquet, c. 1800s © University of Virginia

Lancet  The lancet, a small sharp knife, was used to penetrate a vein without severing or nicking the pulsating artery beneath it. A strategically placed bowl collected the blood flowing from the incision. Lancet, c. 1800s © University of Virginia

Sickness and Disease

 Every individual of the party are in good health, and excellent spirits; zealously attatched to the enterprise, and anxious to proceed… — Meriwether Lewis to Jefferson, April 7, 1805

 Many of our men are still complaining of being unwell; remain weak ... — Meriwether Lewis, March 23, 1806

Malaria  “Air tainted by deleterious emanations from animal or vegetable matter, especially noxious exhalations of marshy districts, capable of causing fever or other disease.” — Appleton’s Medical Dictionary, 1904

 “so inescapable that many refused to regard it as a disease; like hard work, it was just a part of life. Jefferson had it. It may have been that illness that forced Clark to resign his commission in 1796.” — Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York : Simon & Schuster), 1996, p. 113.

Venereal Disease

 August 19, 1805 [Lewis] The chastity of their woman is not held in high estimation, and the husband will for a trifle barter the companion of his bed for a night or longer if he conceives the reward adiquate... I have requested the men to give them no cause of jealousy by having connection with their women without their knowledge, which with them strange as it may seem is considered as disgracefull to the husband, as clandestine connections of a similar kind are among civilized nations. to prevent this mutual exchange of good offices altogether I know it impossible to effect, particularly on the part of our young men whom some months abstanence have made very polite to those tawney damsels... I was anxious to learn whether these people had the venerial, and made the enquiry through the interpreter and his wife; the information was that they sometimes had it but I could not learn their remedy…

Venereal Disease (2)  March 30, 1805 [Clark] The party are helth. except the vn. [venereal]—which is common with the Indians and have been communicated to many of our party at this place—those favores bieng easy acquired.

 January 27, 1806 [Lewis] Goodrich has recovered from the Louis veneri [syphilis] which he contracted from an amorous contact with a Chinook damsel. I cured him as I did Gibson last winter by the uce of murcury.

Sacagawea’s near death

 June 16, 1805 [Clark] the Indian woman verry bad, & will take no medisin what ever, untill her husband finding her out of her Senses, easyly provailed on her to take medison, if She dies it will be the fault of her husband as I am now convinced.

Sergeant Charles Floyd’s Death

 August 19, 1804 [Clark] … was taken violently bad with the Beliose Cholick [bilious colic] and is dangerously ill we attempt in Vain to releive him, I am much concerned for his situation… every man is attentive to him.

Boating accident

 April 13, 1805 [Lewis] about 2 in the afternoon… a suddon squall of wind struck us and turned the perogue so much on the side as to allarm Sharbono who was steering at the time, in this state of alarm he threw the perogue with her side to the wind, when the spritsail gibing was as near overseting the perogue as it was possible to have missed… this accedent was very near costing us dearly. believing this vessel to be the most steady and safe, we had embarked on board of it our instruments, Papers, medicine and the most valuable part of the merchandize which we had still in reserve as presents for the Indians. we had also embarked on board ourselves, with three men who could not swim and the squaw with the young child, all of whom, had the perogue overset, would most probably have perished, as the waves were high, and the perogue upwards of 200 yards from the nearest shore ; however we fortunately escaped and pursued our journey…

Boating accident (2) 

A Canoe striking on a Tree, woodcut by Patrick Gass, published by Mathew Carey, Philadelphia, 1810, reprinted by A.C. McClurg & Co., 1904

One of [Clark’s] canoes had just overset and all the baggage wet, the medicine box among other articles… Whitehouse had been thrown out of one of the canoes as she swing in a rapid current and the canoe had rubed him and pressed him to the bottom as she passed over him and had the water been 2 inches shallower must inevitably have crushed him to death. — Meriwether Lewis, August 6, 1806

Richard Windsor’s Fall

 June 7, 1805 [Lewis] I heard a voice behind me cry out god god Capt. what shall I do on turning about I found it was Windsor who had sliped and fallen abut the center of this narrow pass…

Foot Injuries  June 3, 1805 [Lewis] Those who have remained at camp today have been busily engaged in dressing skins for cloathing, notwithstanding that many of them have their feet so mangled and bruised with the stones and rough ground over which they passed barefoot, that they can scarcely walk or stand; at least it is with great pain they do either. For some days past they were unable to wear their mockersons.

Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia polyacantha)  … the prickly pear is now in full blume and forms one of the beauties as well as the greatest pests of the plains. — Meriwether Lewis, July 15, 1805

Great Falls, Montana. Photo by Joan Carlin, The Oregonian

Horse accident

 June 30, 1806 [Lewis] …with both his hinder feet out of the road and fell… The horse was near falling on me [as he slid] … but fortunately recovers and we both escaped unhirt.”

Gunshot injury

 August 11, 1806 [Lewis] We fired on the Elk I killed one and he wounded another, we reloaded our guns and took different routs through the thick willows in pursuit of the Elk ; I was in the act of firing on the Elk a second time when a ball struck my left thye about an inch below my hip joint, missing the bone it passed through the left thye and cut the thickness of the bullet across the hinder part of the right thye; the stroke was very severe ; I instantly supposed that Cruzatte had shot me in mistake for an Elk as I was dressed in brown leather and he cannot see very well ; under this impression I called out to him damn you, you have shot me, and looked towards the place from whence the ball had come…

Gunshot injury (2)

 August 12, 1806 [Clark]… at Meridian Capt. Lewis hove in sight… I found him lying in the Perogue, he informed me that his wound was slight and would be well in 20 or 30 days this information relieved me very much. I examined the wound and found it a very bad flesh wound the ball had passed through the fleshy part of his left thy below the hip bone and cut the cheek of the right buttock for 3 inches in length and the depth of the ball.

Heat exhaustion  July 6, 1804 [Clark] Those men that do not work at all will wet a Shirt in a Few minits & those who work, the Swet will run off in Streams.

 July 7, 1804 [Clark] one man verry Sick, Struck with the Sun, Capt. Lewis bled him & gave Niter which has revived him much.


 [Clark] Several men returned a little frost bit, one of [the] men with his feet badly frost bit my Servents [York] feet also frosted & his P---s a little.

Sore eyes  April 24, 1805 [Lewis] Soar eyes is a common complaint among the party. I believe it origenates from the immence quantities of sand which is driven by the wind from the sandbars of the river… so penitrating is this sand that we cannot keep any article free from it; in short we are compelled to eat, drink, and breath it very freely.

Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos) 

about 8 a.m. we fell in with two brown or yellow bear; both of which we wounded; one of them made his escape, the other after my firing on him pursued me seventy or eighty yards, but fortunately had been so badly wounded that he was unable to pursue so closely as to prevent my chargin my gun; we again repeated our fir and killed him. — Meriwether Lewis, April 29, 1805

Bear Pursuing his Assailant

… and with his clubbed musquet he struck the bear over the head and cut him with the guard of the gun and broke off the breech, the bear stunned with the stroke fell to the ground… this gave McNeal time to climb a willow tree. — Meriwether Lewis, July 15, 1806

Patrick Gass, Bear Pursuing his Assailant Library of Congress, Rare Book Division

Northern Pacific Rattler (Crotalus viridis oreganus) 

Capt. Lewis narrowly escaped being bitten by a rattlesnake in the course of his walk… this snake is smaller than those common to the middle Atlantic States, being about 2 feet 6 inches long; it is of a yellowish brown colour on the back and sides, variagated with one row of oval spots of a dark brown colour lying transversely over the back from the neck to the tail, and two other rows of small circular spots of the same colour which garnis the sides along the edge of the scuta. it’s bely contains 176 scuta on the belly and 17 on the tale… — Meriwether Lewis, May 17, 1805

Purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) 

… this root is found on high lands and ascent of hills, the way of useing it is to Scarify the part when bitten to chu or pound an inch or more if the root is Small, and applying it to the bitten part renewing it twice a Day. — William Clark, February 5, 1805

Photo by Joan Carlin, The Oregonian

Mosquito (Anopheles gambiae) 

Photo by Jim Gathany, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Mosquitoes plagued the expedition and are frequently mentioned in the men's journals. Interestingly, neither Lewis nor Clark knew how to spell mosquito. Lewis’s most frequent spelling was “musquetoe,” while Clark came up with twenty creative variations such as “mesquetors,” “misqutr,” and “musquetors.”

Seaman (Newfoundland)

 … my dog even howls with the torture he experiences from them, they are almost insupportable, they are so numerous that we frequently get them in our thrats as we breath. — Meriwether Lewis, July 15, 1806 The Newfoundland Dog, Original Breed, Macgilvray’s History of British Quadrupeds, 1790


© American Philosophical Society

Eulachon, or candlefish (which Lewis called anchovy), were netted and sold by the Clatsops who showed the expedition how to prepare them (strung together and roasted on a wooden spit). “They are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted,” Lewis wrote.

White apple 

May 8, 1806 [Lewis] The white apple is found in great abundance in this neighbourhood; it is confined to the highlands principally… This root forms a considerable article of food with the Indians of the Missouri, who for this purpose prepare them in several ways. they are esteemed good at all seasons of the year, but are best from the middle of July to the latter end of Autumn when they are sought and gathered by the provident part of the natives for their winter store… the white apple appears to me to be a tasteless, insippid food of itself tho’ I have no doubt but it is a very healthy and moderately nutritious food. I have no doubt but our epicures would admire this root very much, it would serve them in their ragouts and gravies in stead of the truffles morella.

Camas (Camassia quamash) 

Botanical specimen collected by Lewis at Weippe Prairie, June 23, 1806. © Academy of Natural Sciences, E.S. Stewart Library, Philadelphia

Camas, sometimes known as quamash, was an important food plant for the Nez Percés. Lewis carefully described the plant’s natural environment, its physical structure, the way women harvested and prepared camas, and its role in the Indian diet.

Dog meat

 May 5, 1806 [Lewis] while at dinner an indian fellow verry impertinently threw a poor half starved puppy nearly into my plait by way of derision for our eating dogs and laughed very heartily at his own impertinence ; I was so provoked at his insolence that I caught the puppy and threw it with great violence at him and struk him in the breast and face, siezed my tomahawk and shewed him by signs if he repeated his insolence I would tommahawk him, the fellow withdrew apparently much mortifyed and I continued my repast on dog without further molestation.

Whale blubber  January 5, 1806 [ Lewis] … it was white & not unlike the fat of Poark, tho’ the texture was more spongey and somewhat coarser. I had a part of it cooked and found it very pallitable and tender, it resembled the beaver or the dog in flavor… it is a fact that the flesh of the beaver and dog possess a very great affinity in point of flavour.

Back in Saint Louis

 It is with pleasure that I announce to you the safe arrival of myself and party at 12 OClk. today with our papers and baggage. In obedience to your orders we have penitrated the Continent of North America to the Pacific Ocean and sufficiently explored the interior of the country to affirm with confidence that we have discovered the most practicable rout which dose exist across the continent by means of the navigable branches of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers.

— Meriwether Lewis to Thomas Jefferson , September 23, 1806

Jefferson’s “unspeakable joy”

 I received, my dear sir, with unspeakable joy your letter of Sep. 23 announcing the return of yourself, Captain Clarke, & your party in good health to St. Louis. The unknown scenes in which you were engaged & the length of time without hearing of you had begun to be felt awfully…

— Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, October 20, 1806

Jefferson’s Sixth Annual Message to Congress, December 2, 1806

 The expedition of Messrs. Lewis & Clarke for exploring the river Missouri, & the best communication from that to the Pacific Ocean, has had all the success which could have been expected. They have traced the Missouri nearly to its source, decended the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, ascertained with accuracy the geography of that interesting communication across our continent, learnt the character of the country, of its commerce and its inhabitants, and it is but justice to say that Messrs. Lewis & Clarke, and their brave companions, have by this arduous service, deserved well of their country.


Some Medical Aspects of the Lewis & Clark Expedition

provoked at his insolence that I caught the puppy and threw it with great violence at him and struk him in the breast and face, siezed my tomahawk and shewed him by signs if he repeated his insolence I would tommahawk him, the fellow withdrew apparently much mortifyed and I continued my repast on dog without further ...

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