Lewis & Clark Expedition – Hardships and Dangers Faced Routinely

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Much more is said about the huge success of Lewis and Clark’s Corps-of-Discovery westward expedition than about the hardships and dangers they faced daily without a second thought. Actually, because of these constant hardships and dangers, they were lucky to make it to the Pacific coast and back alive.

Some the hardships they endured were lack of privacy, routine sickness, poor hygienic and medical treatments, boils/sores, accidental injuries, knife/gunshot wounds, falls/spills, biting insects (galore), poisonous snakes, thorny plants, bad weather, extreme temperatures, violent storms, hail, flooding, getting lost, stress, starvation, lack of sleep, exhaustion, aches, pains, encounters with wild carnivorous animals (bears), depletion of trade goods, and potential deaths.

Ten Hardships and Dangers Summarized

1. No privacy. Camping and living in the open. Also, cramped quarters in the boats, canoes, and stockades. Finding the time and place for personal needs when not encamped: e.g., for rest, sleep, down time, healing, making or mending their clothing/shoes, nursing oneself back to health, trimming hair, whiskers, finger/toenails, and having adequate places to bathe and use the latrine if one existed.

2. Sickness. Sores, boils, dysentery, gastric distress, flatus, sunburn, dehydration, colds, flu, frost bite, constipation, blockage of menses, headaches, appendicitis, tooth aches, mouth sores, dental problems, potential pneumonia, cholera, venereal disease, and smallpox. Also, poor hygienic practices, like, having no personal toothbrushes or prophylactics, which can cause health problems. Additionally, certain medical treatments, like, bleeding, did not cure illnesses. Furthermore, their water wasn’t always sterile, and Sacagawea had no pampers for her baby.

3. Human conflict. Disagreements brought on by stressful conditions: e.g., by not doing one’s share of work, by meddling in a crew member’s personal affairs, by meddling in disagreements among the natives themselves, by not understanding differing cultures and their ways of living, by lengthy, strained, or failed bargaining with the tribes, or by being overly competitive with them.

4. Getting lost. By taking a wrong trail or tributary, by having a guide get confused from the ever changing terrain, or by straying too far from camp alone or without adequate arms or backup. Note: one young crewman got lost for two weeks while retrieving two strayed horses.

5. Bad Weather. Heavy rains, high winds, heat, sun, thunder storms, hail, lightning, flash floods, river snags, weather-induced boat spills, freezing rain/temperatures (-45 oF in North Dakota), ice/sleet/snow. Note: Clark along with his slave and the hired interpreter and his wife, Sacagawea, and their baby boy narrowly escaped a flash flood. They had sought storm shelter under overhanging rocks, but encountered a fast-rising flood instead. Clark lost his compass, shot pouch, and tomahawk. Sacagawea lost her son’s cradle board (back carrier).

6. Poor Choices (only a few). By making poor choices under the high pressure or unfavorable circumstances: e.g., by not avoiding known unfriendly tribes, by openly taking anger out on others for many reasons, e.g., missing or stolen goods, by being jealous over friendships/relationships, by feeling insulted, or by being distracted from the necessary routine tasks or purpose of journey.

7. Exhaustion. From heatstroke or gruelling labor (pulling the keelboat upstream or portaging boats/supplies around falls or rapids), from carrying cargo or game, from hiking on slick/muddy/rocky river bank, from climbing hill/trees, from doing heavy work, like, building and mud-sealing stockades, or making underground caches and dugout canoes, and from loss of sleep.

8. Starvation. Lack of food in the mountains (ate candles and colts there), lack of grass/tree-bark for the horses, getting lost without food, getting weak from low food supply when/where game was not available. Note: each crew member could eat about nine pounds of meat a day. Sacagawea helped the corps with this predicament by finding and gathering many wild edibles.

9. Injury. Cuts, bruises, scrapes, scratches, cactus pricks, leg/arm sprains, broken bones, insect/mosquito bites (at times the mosquitoes were so thick they got into their eyes, ears, and mouths), falling off horses, the horses falling/tripping themselves with the pack or rider, potential snake bites, prickly plant stings, pierced moccasins, sore bleeding feet/legs, body aches/pains (feet/back/shoulders), bites/claw-injuries from wild animals, and wounds from knives or gunfire.

10. Potential death (accidental, injury, or sickness). Falling from high bluffs and horses, from illnesses, flash floods, river drowning, boat spills, sudden storms, or wild animals, e.g., snake, cougar, wolf, buffalo, grizzly bear (numerous close calls occurred during the journey). Notes: one tribe wanted to kill the corps for its plunder, but didn’t. Several other tribes could have overcome the corps at different times if they had really wanted to. One corps member did die on the westward leg of the trip, apparently of appendicitis. Everyone else made the entire trip alive.

Although much of the corps success can be attributed to 1) their careful preparation beforehand, 2) their vast supplies to start with, and 3) their well-trained, diverse, self-sufficient members, many historians claim they could not have made that lengthy journey successfully without the generous help from the Native-American tribes they met along the way. The historians are right. The corps couldn’t have made that dangerous exploratory trip without the help from the Indians. Still, the corps did overcome numerous hardships and dangers on their own.

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