By Bob Robb
If you paid attention in history class and learned anything about the Corps of Discovery, commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River that comprised the Louisiana Purchase, you might remember that the expedition was led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. During the trip from Camp Dubois near St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River from May 14, 1804 to September 23, 1806, the 33 men and one dog that started out found things challenging at best—especially when it came to food. The crew was expected to replenish their larder along the way by hunting and gathering as circumstances and conditions allowed. From William Clark’s journal: “It requires 4 deer, or an elk and a deer, or one buffalo to supply us for 24 hours.” Additionally, 193 pounds of “portable soup” were ordered as an emergency ration when stores ran out and game was scarce or unavailable. The soup was produced by boiling a broth down to a gelatinous consistency, then further drying it until it was rendered quite hard and desiccated. Not exactly a favorite with the men of the Corps, it nonetheless saved them from near starvation on a number of occasions. Each man consumed 9 pounds of meat per day, when available, and the designated hunters of the Corps were never without work during the entire journey.
Corps member Raymond Darwin Burroughs tallied the quantity of game killed and consumed during the course the expedition thusly: Deer (all species combined) 1,001; Elk 375; Bison 227; Antelope 62; Bighorn sheep 35; Bears, grizzly 43; Bears, black 23; Beaver (shot or trapped) 113; Otter 16; Geese and Brant 104; Grouse (all species) 46; Turkeys 9; Plovers 48; Wolves (only one eaten) 18; Indian dogs (purchased and consumed) 190; Horses 12. In addition to this list, the Corps ate countless smaller animals, such as hawk, coyote, fox, crow, eagle, gopher, muskrat, seal, whale blubber, turtle, mussels, crab, salmon, and trout. It also does not list the many then-unfamiliar varieties of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, seeds, and nuts that were found to be edible. However, all these are mentioned in the Journals of Lewis and Clark, oftentimes accompanied by detailed accounts of the adventures associated with their gathering.
The Corps found many different subspecies of deer plentiful across the continent, and venison became a staple throughout the expedition. Bison herds were huge on the Great Plains, and when the Corps crossed the Rocky Mountains they turned to salmon and wapato, a starchy tuber, as their staples. By necessity, their diet changed according to the changing country over which they traveled, as well as seasonal climatic changes.
Despite all this, without the contribution of native foods by the Indian nations, they may not have survived. For example, the Mandan tribe of North Dakota gave them corn, squash, and beans; the Chinooks of Washington’s Columbia River region introduced them to the wapato (arrowroot); and the Clatsop along the Oregon brought them elk, wild licorice root, and a variety of berries. The Shoshone of Idaho and Montana brought Lewis both antelope and his first-ever salmon, and the Nez Perce tribe of Idaho, Washington and Oregon offered dog as well as edible roots. While encamped at what was named Fort Clatsop at the mouth of the Columbia River, the Corps learned how to extract salt from sea water through evaporation by boiling. It was used both as a seasoning and a vital method of curing and preserving meat, along with smoking and drying.
Despite the abundance of wild foods and the assistance of local tribes, the Corps went hungry on many a night. Hunters missed shots, and there were days when they simply could not find game. Pounding rain ruined meat that was hung to dry, and heat spoiled perishables. There are tales of clothing that rotted right off the backs of the men. One of William Clark’s writings, from September 11, 1804, described the tribulations of the Corps’ youngest member, private George Shannon. Private Shannon is mentioned in several journal entries because he just seemed to get lost often. The first time this happened was on August 27th, 1804, near what is now Yankton, South Dakota. While searching for lost horses, Private Shannon became as lost as the horses and did not find his way back to the company until September 11th. During his time on the prairie, private Shannon lived for 12 days on a few wild grapes and a rabbit he was able to shoot with a makeshift bullet crafted out of hardwood.
Sometimes, on a beautiful summer’s evening as I’m sipping an icy PBR while grilling an elk backstrap taken with a compound bow and titanium mechanical broadhead-tipped carbon arrow launched with a release aid, the shot dialed in with a laser rangefinder and space-age bow sight after navigating the backcountry with the aid of GPS and a smartphone hunting app, all the while adorned in high-tech outdoor clothing and my belly full, I realize I have absolutely no idea what it was like for the members of the Corps of Discovery. I am, however, inspired by and grateful for their innate toughness and commitment to never give up.