5 Surprising Things Brought on the Lewis & Clark Expedition

The Corps of Discovery carried vast amounts of food and ammunition across the American West along with dubious medicine, “Indian gifts,” and one honorary Corpsman.

Apr 26, 2023By Kelsey Spicuzza, BA History
surprising gifts brought on lewis and clark expedition
Image composition with Lewis (left) and Clark (right)


In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased 827,000 square miles of territory from Napoleon Bonaparte for just 15 million dollars. The Louisiana Territory was a vast area west of the Mississippi River inhabited by dozens of Native American tribes. Soon after acquiring the territory, Jefferson asked his secretary, William Clark, to lead an exploratory expedition with the goals of engendering themselves to the Native peoples and finding a sea route to the Pacific Ocean. Clark enlisted the help of his former army friend and subordinate, Meriwether Lewis. The two men put their heads together, hired a crew, and set off on one of the greatest adventures in American history. Here are five unexpected things they brought along on the trip.


1. A Dog

Meriwether Lewis Seaman Rockies
Lewis and Seaman – First View of the Rockies by Frank Hagel, 2003, via The Flathead Beacon


Captain Lewis brought his dog Seaman on the Voyage of Discovery, and the 150-pound black Newfoundland certainly earned his keep. An enthusiastic retriever, Seaman regularly brought squirrels back to the Corps but also killed beavers, a goat, and even a wounded deer.


He also served as protection for the group. Multiple journal entries recount a frightening incident where an enraged buffalo came stampeding at full speed toward the men’s camp, mere inches from where they slept. Seaman charged out of Lewis’ tent and caused the bull to change course.


Native Americans the party encountered were also impressed with Seaman. In fact, before the expedition, a Native man in Mississippi offered to purchase Seaman from Lewis for the price of three beaver skins (Lewis, who had paid $20 for Seaman, declined). The Shoshone tribe, known to raise dogs themselves, were particularly charmed by him. Lewis later bragged that the tribe was “astonished” by Seaman’s intelligence.


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In April 1806, three members of the Watlala tribe actually stole Seaman, attempting to smuggle him back to their village. Another Native American informed Lewis of the plan; Lewis quickly sent three corpsmen to chase them down with orders to fire upon them if they did not release the beloved dog. Thankfully, the situation was resolved without violence.


Everyone on the Lewis & Clark Expedition was fond of Seaman; nevertheless, over the winter of 1806, the men survived primarily off of dog meat procured from local tribes. Lewis wrote that dog meat had actually become a favorite of the party and that he himself had become so used to eating it that he preferred it over elk or venison.


Seaman, thankfully, was spared this gruesome fate. He is believed to have survived the entire journey and even had a creek named after him along the way.


2. Thunder Clappers



Nicknamed “thunder clappers” or thunderbolts for their, ahem, explosive power, Rush’s Pills were the first wave of defense against illness in the Corps of Discovery.


A potent blend of multiple laxatives, mercury, and chlorine, the pills were the invention of Benjamin Rush, a renowned American doctor with whom Lewis trained briefly prior to the expedition. The purgative effect of the compound was thought to allow the body to expel excess bile (or whatever may be irritating the system).


doctor benjamin rush portrait 1802
Benjamin Rush by Charles B.J. Fevret de Saint-Memin, 1802, via the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Rush’s Pills were considered to be something of a cure-all and were handed out liberally by both Lewis and Clark at the first sign of fever or intestinal discomfort. Lewis considered the pills to be highly effective in treating fevers.


One person for whom Rush’s Pills would not have had the desired effect was Sergeant Charles Floyd, the only man to die on the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Floyd, a Kentucky native who deteriorated quickly over the summer of 1805, is now thought to have died of peritonitis following a ruptured appendix.


3. Pipe Tomahawks

tomahawk pipe mary berner 1935
Tomahawk Pipe by Mary Berner, 1935, via the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Lewis’ packing list denotes 24 pipe tomahawks under the “Arms & Accoutrements” category, with the remaining 36 earmarked for “Indian Presents.” Tomahawk pipes, an ingenious blending of form and function, are a fascinating historical object.


The word “tomahawk” is the European spelling and pronunciation of a Native American word used to describe a small, lightweight ax. Although both Europeans and Natives used what we now call tomahawks, the word has become intrinsically linked with Native American culture.


Traditionally, Native tribes fashioned their tomahawks by using animal sinew to tie a sharpened stone to a wooden handle. After exposure to European weapons and trade, tomahawk blades were increasingly fashioned with iron.


The pipe tomahawk is both a fully functional pipe and a weapon. A pipe tomahawk looks like a traditional tomahawk (with an iron blade), but the wood handle is hollowed out and tapers into a mouthpiece. A small bowl for pipe tobacco sits on the opposite side of the iron blade.


It is unclear whether the design was originally thought up by Native Americans or their European counterparts, but it quickly became an important ceremonial and practical object often seen in negotiations between the two cultures.


The peace pipe was an important object in Native American culture, used in ceremonies, dispute resolution, and as a gesture of goodwill to strangers. The pairing of these ideals of peace and friendship with a deadly weapon was a metaphor for the tenuous relationship between Native Americans and European or American settlers at the time, liable to go from peaceful to violent in the flick of a wrist.


While the pipe tomahawks on the Lewis & Clark Expedition were probably fairly utilitarian, some used strictly for ceremonial purposes were gorgeously carved or otherwise adorned.


4. A Whole Lot of Alcohol

whisky glass and barrel


Lewis & Clark carried wine, brandy, rum, and an estimated 120 gallons of whiskey with them on the trail – and still managed to run out halfway through the two-year journey.


Alcohol consumption was significantly higher in the early 19th century than it is today. The National Archives reports that the average American adult consumed over seven gallons per year by 1830, up from about six gallons in 1797. Additionally, soldiers in the Corps were entitled to alcohol rations by the Act of Congress (four ounces of rum per day at the time of the expedition). Multiple accounts of frequent drunkenness early on in the expedition suggest that this was a very conservative estimate.


native american camp 1891
Untitled (Native American Camp) by William De La Montagne Cary, 1891, via The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Not all of the alcohol was consumed by the men in the Corps of Discovery. It was also a common and popular commodity for trading with Native Americans (who called it “Great Father’s Milk”). There is also an account of several bottles freezing and breaking in January of 1804.


The absence of liquor was felt deeply by the party, but they pressed on determinedly. Corpsman John Ordway wrote on Christmas Day 1805, “we have no ardent Spirits, but are all in good health which we esteem more than all the ardent Spirits in the world.”


5. Pewter Penis Syringes

pewter penis syringes
A pewter syringe, recovered from the shipwreck


Among the myriad of medical supplies Lewis acquired for the voyage were four pewter penis syringes for the purpose of curing venereal disease.


The men in the Corps of Discovery were mostly young, healthy, and unmarried. Lewis correctly assumed that men in the group would have sex with Native American women and prepared accordingly.


Sex in most Native tribes lacked the puritanical taboo of early American culture. For many of the people the explorers encountered, it was a sign of friendship, hospitality, and ceremony. These strange white men were also thought to be powerful, and some Native beliefs held that such power could be transferred through the act of sex.


Clark’s enslaved servant, York, was apparently in particular demand, being the only Black person the Natives had ever encountered. They reportedly referred to him as “big medicine,” a term used to describe things they considered magical or supernatural.


lewis clark council indians 1807
Captains Lewis and Clark Holding a Council with the Indians by Matthew Carey, 1807, via the Library of Congress, Rare Books & Special Collections


Lewis and Clark seemed to find this casual attitude distasteful–even offensive–but it is clear that not all in their party felt the same. The men in the Corps allegedly were offered women from the Sioux, Arikara, Mandan, and Chinook tribes, among whom Clark wrote that venereal disease was rampant. Likely Native women obtained these diseases from prior encounters with Europeans.


One corpsman, however, was careful to pay special tribute to the Flathead tribe, writing that they were “the only nation on the whole route where any thing like chastity is regarded.”


At the time, mercury was the standard treatment for venereal disease. In the case of urinary blockage, a compound of mercury and warm water would be injected into the urethra to flush out the infection. Hence, the need for pewter penis syringes.


The Long Road Home

lewis clark charles russell 1905
Corps of Discovery – the Lewis & Clark Expedition by Charles Marion Russell, 1905, via Nebraska Studies



The Corps of Discovery returned home in September of 1806, having indeed reached the Pacific Ocean with the help of Sacagawea, a young Shoshone woman who gave birth to a son on the trail.


Every man on the Lewis & Clark Expedition received some combination of money and land as compensation for their participation in the journey, except for Clark’s enslaved servant, York.


lewis clark york three forks 1912
Lewis & Clark at Three Forks, by Edgar S. Paxson, 1912, Montana Historical Society


A vital member of the crew, York was known to be a proficient outdoorsman, skilled hunter, competent swimmer, and attentive nurse. He did not keep a journal of his own but appears in many of the other men’s accounts. Upon returning home, York demanded his freedom from Clark, but Clark refused him. It would be another decade before Clark would relent.


President Jefferson entrusted the journals kept on the expedition (which include maps and sketches of local flora and fauna) to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, where they remain to this day. They are also available to view online under public domain.

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By Kelsey SpicuzzaBA HistoryKelsey holds a bachelor of arts degree in history from Georgia College & State University. After a decade in public and academic libraries, she now works as a contributing writer specializing in the humanities. Her modern-day interests include visiting bookstores, art museums, and coffee shops with her husband and daughter.