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The Main Event

If Pittsburgh was the main staging point for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with much of future material needs coming together there from east of Western Pennsylvania (Link: Keelboat), Camp Dubois, which was on the Wood River above St. Louis, and near the mouth of the Missouri River, was the beginning of The Main Event. The time spent in between Pittsburgh and Camp Dubois in 1803, and at Camp Dubois during the 1803-1804 winter too, was the period of assembling an able Corps of Discovery. This gathering of the Corps took place along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers (Link: Corps). Thereafter, important scientific observations concerning new flora and fauna become important, which, along with mapping the west (Link: Maps), and interactions with the Indian nations (Link: Wampum), became The Main Event. The entire story has a small figurative thread running through it that is "made of salt." It is useful in this Web link to follow the thread, but only just to establish the tone, that of underlying hardship for the Corps, while it remained disciplined on its goals.

To a chemist, a salt is a chemical compound that, typically, is the product of a reaction between an acid and a base. If the acid is muriatic acid, HCl, and the base is sodium hydroxide, NaOH, then:

         HCl + NaOH —>NaCl (very soluble) + H2O (liquid)

When the salty liquid is heated, such as by the sun,

         NaCl (very soluble) + H2O (liquid) —> NaCl (solid) + H2O (gas)

Solid NaCl is the salt most familiar to non-chemists, because it is nothing more exotic than common table salt.

The chemist would say that NaCl is highly ionic with equal proportions of the cation, Na+, and the anion,
Cl-, that it does not form as discrete molecules, but that it does form as crystals with face-centered cubic structure. Actually, the structure consists of two face-centered cubic structures, one for sodium and one for chlorine, displaced from one another as shown in the 3-D, rotatable model of the Web site Each atom is octahedrally coordinated by atoms of the other kind, so each is six-coordinated. Some other common structures are also shown at this Web site.

The non-chemist of our own time would say that salt is used in food for flavoring as well as for preservation from spoiling. The same would have been said by long-ago seamen of the 15th and16th centuries (1). Unrefined salt was commonly and economically obtained from salt-pans in western Europe, as a natural, sun-dried product of evaporation of seawater. With the additional benefit of a favorable tax position, granted by Charles VIII to Brittany, and the ease of obtaining salt for preserving fish, France became pre-eminent in Newfoundland fisheries in the mid 16th century.

Today salt is mined from below the earth's surface, more in the way of mining for underground coal. These usually deep mines have accumulations of salt from the drying up of inland seas. In the time of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark salt was obtained from the brine brought up from wells, which brine was evaporated to give the solid (2). Western Pennsylvania had such wells, and it even became famous for a spoiled salt well site in the 1840's when oil came to the surface with the brine. So, the salt purchased in Philadelphia by Lewis during May/June 1803, while preparing for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, may have come from an unspoiled Pennsylvania well in commercial production at the time. Lewis may even have purchased additional salt in Pittsburgh during his June/August 1803 time there, although no record of this is known to this writer.

It is very highly probable that the members of the Corps used salt, when they had it, to prepare their jerked meat, its use this way being a practice even today (3). Salt helps to extract water from bacteria through bacterial cell membrane walls, as a result of an osmotic gradient between the food and bacterial cells. The bacteria are thus dried out and killed (4). Bacterial vigor otherwise leads to spoilage of food. Jerked game meat was prepared by the Corps by drying it in the sun (5), and, under the rainy conditions of Fort Clatsop, near the modern-day Astoria, Oregon, on the Pacific coast, by smoking (5-6).

The diet of the members of the Corps consisted of a great deal of game meat. The day by day narrative of the Expedition, as told by Elliot Coues over the course of all three volumes (5), leaves the reader with a clear impression concerning the very high importance of game to the sustenance of The Corps of Discovery Flour, portable soup, pork, parched meal and dried apples carried from the east were kept in reserve as much as possible (7). In periods of game scarcity west of the Continental Divide, the explorers ate root and fish substitutes obtained by trade from the Indians; however, there were unpleasant bodily consequences (5,7).

When the Corps was out of salt at Fort Clatsop and a long way from a previously cached supply at Great Falls, Montana, on the Missouri River, the captains made salt-making a priority. They assigned five men, nearly 1/6 of the Corps, to the task of evaporating seawater in a small manufactory to make a fresh supply (5,7). This was done with five large kettles, at an averaged rate of three to four quarts daily. The output was ample for those of the Corps who preferred meat with salt; taste seemed to have been as much an issue as preservation of the meat, but perhaps the two are closely related matters. The off-taste of lightly tainted meat can be masked with salt, and the precious meat thereby salvaged. Twenty gallons of seawater salt were accumulated eventually at Fort Clatsop, of which 12 were set aside in kegs for the return journey (7).

Fort Clatsop itself was located about 15 miles away from the salt-making site. The site of the fort had been selected first. It was situated at a spot where elk had been determined to be abundantly available (7). Meat first, then salt, but both of high importance to sustain the Corps! Doing good science requires a comfortable stomach, just as it requires intellectual freedom for the individual in society.

There was another, more science-oriented, use for salt, and that was to preserve animal specimens for transport back to the east coast of North America to the attention of Mr. Thomas Jefferson. A preserved badger may have been the first zoological specimen on which Lewis practiced taxidermy (7). Whether or not he used Jefferson's method for preservation, it is Jefferson's prescription that comes down to us for the preparation of a bird skin (7): "Make a small incision between the legs of the bird: take out the entrails & eyes, wipe the inside & with a quill force a passage through the throat into the body that the ingredients may find a way into the stomach & so pass off through the mouth. fill the bird with a composition of 2/3 common salt & 1/3 nitre pounded in a mortar with two tablespoonfuls of black or Indian pepper to a pound, hang it up by its legs 8 or 10 weeks, & if the bird be small it will be sufficiently preserved in that time. if it be large, the process is the same, but greater attention will be necessary."

Lewis and Clark actually sent live animals, along with stuffed animals and much more, back to Mr. Jefferson in Washington at one point, by way of New Orleans, from Fort Mandan (5,7). These went first to St. Louis with the returning keelboat. Two animals survived alive all the way through Washington to the Peale Museum in Philadelphia, one a magpie, of four originally sent, and a prairie dog; a prairie sharp-tailed grouse succumbed along the way. Of even greater scientific significance is the survival of 122 new, formal, vertebrate animal descriptions, which have been indexed by Paul Russell Cutright as Appendix B (7). Included amongst these species and subspecies are 65 from west of the Continental Divide. Among the 122 are Lewis's woodpecker ( ) and Clark's nutcracker ( ).

Cutright's Appendix A (7), similarly, contains an index of 178 newly described (formally at the time, that is) plants, of which 140 are from west of the Continental Divide. Specimens from east of the Divide were lost to flooding of the Missouri River cache at Great Falls during the winter of 1805-1806. More than 200 dried and preserved specimens are today housed at the Lewis and Clark Herbarium of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia plant_biology/L&C/L&Cpublic.html.

The Main Event was truly big, too big to convey to the reader quickly on a Web page. The reader has to read the references that are the basis for all that has been summarized here and in the related Web links. The fun is in the reading, so that can be considered another Inquiry project, the most important of all.

The Main Event included incomparable data concerning western fauna and flora, mapmaking, and descriptions of Indian life before the wave of white European stock destroyed it forever. To get the data, and bring it home to Mr. Jefferson, required both the trained observer that was Meriwether Lewis, first of all, and William Clark as willing partner. However, that, as Jefferson knew, was not enough. It required the frontier skills of the two captains and the rest of the Corps, ever attending to the issue of feeding the Corps in difficult lands, surviving while on the move much of the time. Salt was a small thread, but, even so, the attention given to keeping it in supply symbolizes the attention of the captains to all the little and large things, all that was sustenance and all that was science, and all of which made the Lewis and Clark Expedition the incredible success that it was.

Main Event References

1. Morison, Samuel Eliot, The European Discovery of America: the Northern Voyages, New York:     Oxford University Press (1971), pp. 264, 473.

2. Boorstin, Daniel J., The Americans: The Democratic Experience, New York: Vintage Books
    (1974), p. 42.

3. DeLong, Deanna, How to Dry Foods, Tucson, AZ: H.P. Books (1979), pp. 78-82.

4. Udani, Kanak, retired food scientist, personal communication.

5. Coues, Elliott, ed., The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol. I - III, New York: Dover     Publications (1987 reprint of Francis P. Harper's unabridged 1893 edition), pp. 31, 250-251 in
    Vol. I; pp. 610-614; 737, 740, 744-745 in Vol. II.

6. Ambrose, Stephen E., Undaunted Courage, New York: Simon & Schuster (1996), p. 313.

7. Cutright, Paul Russell, Lewis & Clark: Pioneering Naturalists, Lincoln, NB: University of
    Nebraska Press (1989), pp. 26, 70, 121,123-124, 246-249, 375-383, 399- 448.


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