It was about four o’clock in the afternoon of May 14, 1804 when nearly four dozen carefully selected young men, their two captains and a dog pushed off in a keelboat and two pirogues to explore the unknown. Ahead of them was a vast unknown territory, bitter weather, numerous Indian tribes, and geographical challenges as well as the continuous and vexing medical challenges which they would face daily.
Of all the numerous challenges the explorers faced, a wide variety of medical problems taxed the ingenuity and challenged the primitive but dedicated medical skills of Lewis and Clark. They spent a good deal of time treating a variety of ills: boils, abscesses, callouses, bunions, sore feet and backs, sunstroke, dysentery, fatigue, injuries, colds, fevers, snakebites, toothaches, headaches, inflamed throats, colic, pleurisy, and rheumatism.
Ranking high among the pests were snakes, ticks, gnats, and mosquitoes. The latter, which were to prove to be a plague throughout the entire expedition, were sometimes as large as flies and flew in thick swarms. The members of the Corps could not keep them out of their eyes, nose, ears, and throat. They tried to drive them away with pieces of brush, made fires, coated their bodies with cooking (bear) grease, and sought refuge on an island where there was a strong breeze.
The medical knowledge of the two captains was limited to a blend of frontier lore and the sort of elementary skills possessed by Army officers of that day. In addition, Lewis had spent three months with Dr. Rush learning when and how to bleed, purge, or otherwise treat a variety of conditions that they were expected to encounter along the way.
It was in Philadelphia where Meriwether Lewis conferred with Dr. Rush and he was given a copy of the “Questions” relating to the medical practices and remedies used by the Indians they met along the way. They also carefully observed the treatments which they used to relieve their illnesses and pain.
The following are a few of the “Questions” which Lewis and Clark were to ask the Indians as they traveled to the Pacific and back:
- What are the acute diseases of the Indians?
- Is apoplexy, palsy, epilepsy, madness, rheumatic disease, goiter known among them? What are their remedies?
- What is the state of life as to longevity? At what age do they marry?
- What is the diet and manner of cooking? How do they preserve their food?
Dr. Rush also gave Lewis “Directions” for preserving the health of the members of the “Corps of Discovery.” The following are some his “Directions”:
- Unusual costiveness (constipation) is often a sign of approaching disease. When you feel it take one or more of the purging pills.
- Flannel should be worn constantly next to the skin, especially in wet weather.
- The less spirit you use the better.
- Shoes made without heals, by affording equal action to all the muscles of the legs, will enable you to march with less fatigue than shoes made in the ordinary way.
The first medical notation was made on July 4, 1804, when Joseph Field was bitten on the foot by a rattlesnake in northeast Kansas. He was quickly doctored by Lewis with a poultice of Peruvian bark and a bit of gunpowder.
On July 20, Clark wrote: “Boils have been troublesome to them all, and our party has suffered from them for the past month which broke out under the arms, on the legs and in parts most exposed to action. After a few days, they disappear without assistance, except for a poultice of the bark of elm, or of India Meal.”
July 30 is the first indication we have that “Sgt. Floyd is very unwell — a bad cold, etc.” The next day he reported to the crew that he had been ill for several days; however, he now thought that he had regained his health.
Sargent Floyd, on August 15th became violently ill. Everyone, by the 19th had become very concerned as his condition worsened by the hour. “We could get nothing to stay on his stomach a moment. Every man is very attentive to him — York particularly.”
“He died at 2 p.m., aged twenty-two years, with a good deal of composure.” He was buried on a high bluff on the east side of the Missouri River at what is now Sioux City. Modern opinion holds that the sergeant died of a ruptured appendix. Nothing in Lewis’s medical chest could have saved him. Lewis conducted a funeral service with appropriate military honors. That evening they camped at the mouth of a small river which they named “Floyd’s River.”
On September 23, 1806, William Clark wrote: “. . . . we suffered everything which hunger, cold, and fatigue could impose.” In an arduous journey of more than 8,000 miles and 28 months, only one man died.
It is important that every American know and understand the lessons of the members of Corps of Discovery: courage, discipline, teamwork, perseverance, improvisation, negotiation, and, not the least, devotion to country.
And all admirably accomplished despite the maddening, inescapable, recurring and plaintive record of: “Mosquiters very troublesome.”
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on June 2, 2021