The Main Event
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:
+ NaOH >NaCl (very soluble) + H2O (liquid)
When the salty liquid
is heated, such as by the sun,
(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 www.neubert.net/Crystals/CRYStruc.html.
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.
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 (www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i4080id.html
) and Clark's nutcracker (www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i4910id.html
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
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.
1. Morison, Samuel
Eliot, The European Discovery of America: the Northern Voyages,
New York: Oxford University Press (1971), pp.
2. Boorstin, Daniel
J., The Americans: The Democratic Experience, New York: Vintage
(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.
6. Ambrose, Stephen
E., Undaunted Courage, New York: Simon & Schuster (1996),
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.