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Ten Things About the Lewis and Clark Epedition That You Probably Didn't Know

Updated on May 11, 2016
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New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

Lewis and Clark Romanticized

Lewis and Clark, in a 1850 painting by Thomas Burnham (1850) depicts the two explorers traveling safely through a pristine wilderness.
Lewis and Clark, in a 1850 painting by Thomas Burnham (1850) depicts the two explorers traveling safely through a pristine wilderness.

Overview of the Voyage

The expedition of Lewis and Clark began in St. Louis in May of 1804 and ended in September of 1807, when the crew, minus a few, returned safely to St. Louis. Because the voyage traversed unknown territory, filled with numerous Native American tribes, many residents of St. Louis presumed that the expedition had become lost and succumbed to the dangers of the wilderness.

Clark the Naturalist

The Clark's Nutcracker is named after Captain Clark, who was an avid student of the natural flora and fauna of North America
The Clark's Nutcracker is named after Captain Clark, who was an avid student of the natural flora and fauna of North America

The Corp

The official title for the Lewis and Clark expedition was the Corp of Discovery, as this was a military expedition funded by the U.S. Army. Most of the men on the journey were from the military, but their were some exceptions, as many of the boatmen were civilians. Capt. Meriwether Lewis was the first person chosen and right away, he decided upon Capt. William Clark, as his co-leader. Both men had military experience from the Northwest Indian War, which was fought in the Northwest territories of Ohio and Indiana.

As far as pay went, privates were paid $5 per month, corporals $7 and so on up the scale. Every enlisted man was also granted 320 acres west of the Mississippi after the journey was finished. As it turned out all militia were paid double, when they returned safely to St. Louis.

River Travel

At first, the explorers used a keelboat to carry their supplies up the Missouri River.
At first, the explorers used a keelboat to carry their supplies up the Missouri River.

The French Translators

Two of the enlisted men were hired because they came from culturally mixed families and could translate several of the Native tongues spoken along the Missouri River. Pierre Cruzatte was a private, who spoke the Omaha language, while another private Francois LaBiche was fluent in several different Indian language. Lateron, further translating services were acquired from Sacagawea and her husband Toussaint Charbonneau.

Live Music

Two talented musicians were part of the expedition. One was Pierre Cruzatte, who was an excellent fiddle player. Cruzatte was occasionally accompanied by Private George Gibson, another fiddle player in the Corp. Their music served a very special role as a diplomatic venue, which easily won the affection of the various Indian groups.

Jefferson's Welsh Connection

One little known fact about the expedition is that prior to departure, there was limited knowledge about some of the Indian tribes that lived along the Missouri River. One such tribe, the Mandans, were of special interest to Thomas Jefferson because it had been reported that these people use round boats made from reeds quite similar to ones used in Wales. Jefferson, who believed he was partially descended from the Welsh, was eager to make a cultural connection between the Mandans and the Welsh of Great Britain.

Sometimes They Ate Horses

On occasion, members of the expedition were given permission to kill and eat one of the horses that the men used to transport their gear. One such incident occurred as the party was trekking through the Lolo Mountains of Eastern Idaho. As the group became mired in the difficult climb through snow-covered mountains, every one became quite dispirited. Eventually, a horse was killed and cooked over an open fire. This addition of fresh meat greatly restored the mens strength and vigor.

Pompeys Pillar

Pompy's Pillar is a natural landmark located in Southeastern Montana
Pompy's Pillar is a natural landmark located in Southeastern Montana

Pompeys Pillar

Many are aware that Sacagawea, the Shoshone guide, gave birth to a bsby, while on the trail, but few are aware of the child's name or what became of him after the expedition ended. The boy was named Jean Baptiste, but was affectionally called Pompey by Capt. William Clark. In honor of the newest member of the expedition, Capt. Clark named a rock outcrop in southeastern Montana in honor of the young child. Captain Clark even left his inscription bedded into the notable landmatk. Today, the small rock tower still stands and is officially known as Pompeys Pillar. It is also recognized as a National Monument.

Corporal Punishment

As the journey progressed, discipline problems appeared. Most common were disorderly conduct, breaking into the liquor supply and sleeping on the watch. Because this was a military venture a court martial was adjourned. If the accused was determined guilty, corporal punishment was given, usually in the form of flogging with a cat-of-nine-tails whip.

Andrew York, William Clark's Slave

A Great Voyage for an African-American Slave

Andrew York began the expedition as personal property of William Clark. During the voyage York (as he was commonly called) enjoyed a tremendous amount of freedom and adventure. According to the journals, the young man spent many hours entertaining and performing athletic feats for the Native Americans, most of whom had never seen a black man before.

However, because he was owned by Capt. Clark, Andrew York did not receive any pay or land as did the other members of the expedition. Furthermore, York did not gain his freedom, as Capt. York decided to keep Mr. York after the expedition was over. Nonetheless, since the two men had been friends since childhood, their relationship was always amiciable.

Whiskey On Board

Lewis and Clark began the expedition carrying whiskey and spirits, which was dispersed in an orderly fashion. Each man got a shot a day and sometimes extra on special occasions , such as the Fourth of July. However, something peculiar happened after a few months. The expedition's liquor supply was no longer referred to as whiskey; it was simply called grog. This was a definite indication that the whiskey was being diluted to make it last longer. Even so the grog did run out in the second summer of the journey. Still, one has to appreciate that the alcohol was able to last as long as it did.

Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills

Also known as "Thunder Clappers", the Lewis and Clark Expedition were supplied with several cases of laxative pills, whose main ingredient was mercury chloride. Actually, the expedition was issued 50 cases and it is currently known that the "Thunder Clappers" were used quite regularly. Even today, the exact path of the Corp of Discovery can be traced by the small amounts of mercury deposited in the soil by the crew members.

Now, it might sound like Dr. Benjamin Rush was kind of a "quack" of a doctor, but the man had been around a while, as he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Rush also served as Surgeon General during the Revolutionary War. He is also known as the father of American psychiatry and is also noted as a strong opponent to capitol punishment. It should also be noted that his personal friendship with President Jefferson may have aided his sale of "Thunder Clappers" to the military.


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