OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Lewis and Clark: planning a two-year dinner party for 45

10/22/1997

CORVALLIS, Ore. - It was a journey that would take two years and cover 2,000 miles, through horrible weather and over harsh terrain, by boat and by foot.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would face many obstacles on their journey from St. Louis, Mo., to the mouth of the Columbia River in 1804-06, not the least of which was feeding the party of explorers that ranged from 33 to 45 people.

There was no refrigeration, few opportunities to pick up goods, and a limited amount of space.

"Those men went two years and they couldn't take two years of food with them," said Mary W. Kelsey, a food historian at Oregon State University. "They went through some hard times and faced near-starvation on occasion. They had to work awfully hard for their food."

Kelsey is the author of a paper on the food of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that was published after a recent symposium at Oxford University in England. She has presented a paper at Oxford on a historical aspect of food for each of the past nine years, often choosing a topic with a Northwest theme.

The keys to the survival of the men on the Lewis and Clark expedition, Kelsey said, were meticulous planning, interactions with helpful Indian tribes, and adaptation to available natural food.

"They took some provisions with them," Kelsey said. "There were barrels of pork - I assume salted - that they saved for times they couldn't find game. They had flour, hominy and whiskey; biscuits - probably hard tack - and beans; coffee, sugar and dried apples.

"They also had a portable, dried soup mix that they brought from Philadelphia," she added. "It was something like a concentrated meat broth, and it must have been horrible. It was very, very unpopular with the men."

Another emergency provision was a mixture of 200 pounds of beef tallow with 50 pounds of hog lard. They would add it to flavor beans, or mix it with flour to make a type of bread.

Planning for the trip was essential, Kelsey pointed out. Lewis spent a considerable amount of time with Thomas Jefferson and others before the journey, learning about edible plants they would likely encounter that could be used for food or for medicinal purposes.

During the trek, the explorers ate berries of all kinds, as well as wild apples and wild plums. Farther west, they discovered cranberries, huckleberries and salal.

They learned a lot on the trip.

In the Northwest, they harvested "wappato," a vegetable about the size of an egg, that they roasted and ate like potatoes. From the Plains Indians, they learned of a root called a "ground potato" or a "prairie apple," that they harvested along the way. And from the Arikara tribe, they learned of a type of large bean that grew underground and was collected by mice, which stacked them in pint-sized piles.

Still, it was game and fish upon which the explorers depended. During their winter camp at Fort Mandan, near the Knife River in North Dakota, they detailed their daily diet in a diary. To feed the men - about 45 at the time - it took a full-grown buffalo, or an elk and a bear, or four deer. Each day.

"The men were working awfully hard on the trip and they had big appetites," Kelsey said. "Whether they were paddling their canoes, hunting for game, or cutting firewood, they were burning up a lot of energy. And they were wet and cold a lot of the time as well."

While deer and elk were staples for the trip, and buffalo or bears were shot when available, the explorers also went after smaller game, Kelsey said. They ate wild turkeys, geese, rabbits, woodchucks and prairie dogs.

But their favorite meal, she said, was the beaver.

"Lewis in particular liked the tail and liver," Kelsey said. "He wrote in a diary, 'Boiled beaver tale (sic) tasted like tongues and swim bladders of codfish.' That may not sound like much of a recommendation, but they clearly like beaver and learned to trap them overnight so they could take them on the trip."

Another delicacy, they wrote, were the "fat and delicious" hawks they killed at the Oregon coast.

The explorers ate fish during the entire trip, including catfish and monstrous sturgeon from the Columbia River. When they finally reached the mouth of Columbia, they were stuck on the edge of the river for six days because of a horrible storm and subsisted on rain water and "pounded salmon."

Sometimes they got lucky, Kelsey said. A horse wandered into camp one day and the men shot it and ate it.

Though the men would often be hungry, they were never without arms. Because of their dependency on hunting game, Lewis and Clark took an abundant supply of ammunition on the trip, Kelsey said. "They brought gunpowder sealed in waterproof kegs, and the kegs were made of lead. When they were empty, they could be melted to make bullets."

The other vital cargo: whiskey. According to the diaries, the explorers brought along numerous casks of Woodsford's Whiskey on the 2,000-mile journey. It may have taken an edge of their hunger.

"There were some very lean times on this trip," Kelsey said, "where the men had to rely on Lewis' knowledge of what was edible, or learn from the Indians, or learn from trial and error. Their fallback was their own provisions but, you know, after nearly two years some of their supplies had to be on the rancid side. They were a hardy group of men."