lewis & clark: last interesting items

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I’ve finally finished my volume of excerpts from the Lewis and Clark expeditions. Here are my last highlights.

Buffalo horns and goat heads:

“We save all the buffaloe horns we can find to take to the States as they would make excelent kife and fork handles.”

“nothing to eat this evening but the head of a goat or antelope which the party had droped on the road.” (The party is another group from the expedition.)

The expedition had many run-ins with grizzly bears. One involved Lewis being chased by a bear and running into a river to escape. He expected the bear to follow, but it unaccountably ran off. Another story features a man named McNeal, who returned to camp after a solo trip into the woods:

“… returned with this musquet broken off at the breech.” Turns out he had approached within 10 feet of a grizzly bear without seeing it. Upon spotting it, his horse reared and threw the rider, and he landed next to the bear. “… this animal raised himself on his hinder feet for battle,” whereupon the man clubbed the bear over the head with his musket, breaking the gun, and stunning the bear enough to allow him to climb a tree, where he waited for hours for the bear to go away.

Indian fireworks:

“the indians entertained us with setting the fir trees on fire … creates a very suddon and immence blaze from bottom to top … they are a beautiful object in this situation at night. this exhibition reminded me of a display of fireworks.

Whenever the entries to turned to medical treatment, it was often like an unintentional recurring joke in a sketch comedy. While ministering to a sick indian chief, Lewis wished he had an electric current to apply to the patient’s body.

“I am confident that this would be an excellent subject for electricity and much regret that I have it not in my power to supply it.”

The expedition did an amazing job of recording the geography of their travels, drawing maps, describing plant life and wildlife, and writing about the names, customs and languages of various tribes. It was very much a scientific expedition. No less surprising is that these records and many artifacts were brought back intact through all kinds of inclement weather and river travel. Much of the time was spent in canoes they built themselves along the way.

The physical hardships endured were considerable. Many times Lewis or Clark would describe having to sleep in rain-soaked conditions. They talked of mosquitos so thick that breathing in would result in a mouthful of them. There was frostbite, sickness, accidental falls, cuts, and one case in which Lewis was accidentally shot in the leg by one of the men. More than once they mentioned someone had pulled a shoulder out of joint, and they had to yank it back into place. They hauled boats up and around rapids and falls, and each winter they built a walled fort with individual huts.

In hindsight, we can view this trip as part of the end of traditional native American life. The tribes had already been greatly reduced by smallpox bought by Europeans. Coming soon would be waves of settlers pushing them off their land, swindling them, and killing them. The natives were no innocents, they warred on each other and often treated women as slaves; but there’s no excuse for the atrocities that were about to be visited on them.

You can’t help but think of what was to come when reading the journals.

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