Meriwether Lewis Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1810

My eighth grader’s history textbook allocates half a page to Lewis and Clark. It explains in painfully dull detail how in 1803 President Jefferson sent the expedition to explore the new territory he’d just bought from the French (hello, how about mentioning Napoleon?). Lewis and Clark, the book drones on, were sent to find a route across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, and to collect information on people, plants, animals and geography.

So I thought today I’d touch upon some of the details of the expedition that kids might actually find interesting. For instance, the members of the expedition were practically driven insane by bugs, and they nearly died of starvation, and Lewis got shot in the butt and chased by a grizzly bear. And they were guided through the wilderness by a sixteen-year-old pregnant Indian girl who oh by the way stopped to give birth, painfully (they treated her with rattlesnake venom) and then proceeded to carry her infant on her back the rest of the way. Oh yes and pretty much everyone in the party had malaria and dysentery from time to time, and most had syphilis. But arguably the worst part of this arduous journey was the mosquitoes, followed closely by the gnats and ticks.

One other awful yet interesting detail you don’t generally read about in the textbooks: Upon his return, Lewis took his own life by shooting himself and then slashing himself with a razor blade.* (Other historians say he might have been shot by bandits. I think that’s unlikely, but we may never know for sure.)

William Clark Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1810

Meriwether Lewis was a part-time botanist and doctor. William Clark was the mapmaker and boat guy. At the time they set out, few people of European descent had ventured beyond the Mississippi River and–to my knowledge–no European had trekked from East to West all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In fact, most Americans lived within fifty miles of the East Coast.

According to “The Perils of Plant Collecting” by A. M. Martin, Lewis spent 1/3 of his budget on cinchona (from which quinine is derived), mosquito nets, and hog’s lard (with which they had to smear their skin to keep away mosquitoes).  Mosquitoes were so thick, people had to eat their food in the smoke of the campfire, and still they managed to swallow dozens of mosquitoes with their food. No wonder they carried 120 gallons of whiskey along. (Says Martin, “Lewis’s motto was ‘Don’t run out of booze until there’s no turning back.’”)

Given that their diet consisted largely of dried strips of wild animal meat, they also popped pills for constipation. They called the pills “thunderclappers.”  Their real name was “Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills.” (Benjamin Rush was a famous doctor at the time of the American Revolution, and signed the Declaration of Independence.) Thunderclappers were high-octane laxatives, made of 60 percent mercury. Even back then, people knew that mercury was terrible for you, and one pill contained enough mercury to kill a person. But the pill passed through a person’s system so quickly, it probably didn’t have much opportunity to be absorbed. Because mercury doesn’t break down, modern scientists have been able to trace the path of Lewis and Clark’s expedition by the amounts of mercury still found in the soil—evidence of where members of the expedition stopped to go to the bathroom. Talk about toxic waste.


* source: Howard I. Kushner, The Suicide of Meriwether Lewis: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry, The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 38, No. 3, Jul., 1981, Page 469 of 464-481 also Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, Touchstone, 1996, page 475 




Annie says:

Bears, dysentery, and rattlesnake venom to treat childbirth? I need to stop complaining when I forget to bring along my ipod in the car.

Seriously though, excellent historical information! My knowledge of Lewis and Clark had been pretty much limited to names and general dates, so it was wonderful to read this.

Cece says:

You got that right! I bet you if any one did that to day, ether A. some one would get really, really ,really, REALLY sick, B. go to jail, or C. just be flat out crazy!

Sarah says:

Thanks Annie! Yes, and it does make me appreciate that spinach salad I had for lunch today!

Linda says:

I love reading your blog, Sarah–the way you always get down to the nitty-gritty-and-not-so-pretty-of-things– actually a refreshing and quite entertaining perspective. Thanks.

Karen says:

Amazing…who knew? Thanks for sharing.

Paul says:

Great info, Sarah!

For more on the syphilis part (if you can stand it):

Sarah says:

Wow, thanks, Paul. I did a fair amount of research on syphilis for my POOP book. (Codpieces, it is conjectured, were sometimes filled with mercury-based unguents meant to ease the pain in the nether regions–had to leave that out of my kid book.) It’s a pretty horrifying disease. Did men’s noses really fall off?

Paul says:

The classic “nose falling off” infectious disease, of course, is leprosy. (Another fun one.) But there is “saddle-nose deformity” in kids with congenital syphilis.

And speaking of destroyed noses and infectious diseases, there’s this beauty, mucocutaneous leishmaniasis (warning, click only if you’re strong of heart):

Sarah says:

Blech! I have a box about sand flies and leishmaniasis in my insect book (as yet to be published). Is it really the most common parasitic infection after malaria?

Paul says:

Without doing any research at all — just lazy — I’d say that malaria, leishmaniasis, etc are FAR from the most common parasitic infections.

Here are some candidates:


(I made that last one up.)

Sarah says:

Paul–I’m getting my editor’s comments on my insect book this week. Would love to interview you before the next draft is due!

Paul says:

I’d be delighted.

Nick says:

Nice article! The circumstances of Lewis’ death still seem to be uncertain today. Some say murder and some say suicide. Your source is the first one I’ve seen talking about razor blades. All others mention gunshots from his room.

Betty says:

Up to the 1950s (or even later) laxatives, purges etc were used freely in the home. Medical advice books talk about “cleaning the system” etc. Up to this time children often had to endure weekly “dosing” of “opening medicine”. Calomel, mercurous chloride was a favorite because it was tasteless and fast acting. Unfortunately, it often contained mercuric chloride which is a poison, especially for the brain.

Probably not relevant to your children’s books is the 19 century custom of forcing children to open their bowels at a set time everyday. Children who could perform on time were “well behaved” and clearly well reared by good parents. Children who could not perform on time were ill, or lazy, or naughty. No matter, they were dosed.


ce says:

This is “Where the Rubber Meets The Road” writing; this is the “Essence of Reality!”

Chuck says:

It has been asserted that the death of Meriwether Lewis was a murder! There have been several books making this assertion. Here’s one link to deepen the mystery:

Sarah Albee says:

Yes exactly. I think we may never know the truth.

larryj2 says:

The Montana State Park in W. Montana near Lolo, MT is one of the sites where “spent” mercury was discovered. L & C called the camp Travelers Rest in their journals.

“At the time they set out, no one of European descent had any idea what lay between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.”

Untrue. It doesn’t get any more true for the repetition. The French-speaking Canadiens and Creoles had been well West of the Mississippi for a good part of the century before L&C. When L&C went West, one third of their party were the French-speakers without whom they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. And when they arrived in the West there were already French speakers to greet them and without whom “the pregnant 16-year-old Indian girl” could not have communicated with L&C b/c she didn’t speak a word of English and they didn’t know her language. She communicated with L&C through two of the Canadiens who created a translation chain b/c b/w them they knew both French and English as well as several First Nations languages. Who got her pregnant West of the Mississippi? A guy called Toussaint Charbonneau, who, although not a saint by any means, despite his first name (“All Saints”), was not the rogue he has been portrayed to be in the usual tellings. And Sacagawea’s child with Toussaint was known as Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau whose tale is a fascinating one on its own. Sorry for the rant, but my ancestors were some of those French-descent people in the West and the extent of their explorations and the nature of their deep and, for the most part, respectful relationships with the First Nations has been covered over to perpetuate the national myth that Anglophone, all-American whites “opened” the West. A recent book by some friends might clear up some of the confusion…if anyone reads it.

Sarah Albee says:

Thank you for this. I’ve amended the post. My intent was not to suggest no European had gone West of the Mississippi. It was that no European had traveled all the way from East to West, across the Rockies, to the Pacific Ocean. Certainly there were Europeans in the Southwest, and on the West Coast. But I should not have suggested that no European knew anything about what lay between. Again, thanks.

CJH says:

Alexander Mackenzie crossed Canada overland to the Pacific in 1793 (the first European to do so):

John E Reese says:

The only rifle(s) they used was air rifle. For two reasons – silent and in most cases you could recover the lead. Since they didn’t want to use gunpowder – like their whiskey you could run out and no stores to purchase more. The trip was two years long and spending hard winter in now Washington State. All they had to eat was elk without any vegges.

The air rifle was used both to impress the locals and collect game, however it was mostly a curiosity. George Druilliard and John Colter carried conventional rifles for hunting and the party used conventional rifles on the punitive strike against the Sioux war Party that attacked the Mandan during the winter overstay.

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