Lewis & Clark Expedition – Adequate Supplies Propelled Its Survival and Success

Historians like to compare the Lewis-and-Clark 1804-1806 westward expedition to our modern-day astronaut’s first landing on the moon. Both accomplishments were difficult and proportionally similar. However, the 30-tons of supplies taken on the Corps-of-Discovery’s 28-month perilous journey to the Pacific Ocean and back helped it to succeed immensely.

In particular, the preplanned gifts for the Indian tribes helped them deal with the natives honorably en route. Their other provisions for survival, defense, navigation, trade, entertainment, medication, and documentation, which are summarized below, also helped them succeed. Some of these supplies are listed below.


  • One 55-ft keelboat (shallow-draft freight type) having a 12-ton hold and 32-ft mast with square sail and 35 oars/push rods
  • Two pirogues (flat-bottomed canoe-shaped with oars and a small mast and square sail): one 41-ft red and one 39-ft white
  • One 36 x 4.5-ft collapsible metal boat frame to be assembled and covered with animal skins later in the trip.

Because the keelboat was too large for much of the upper Missouri and other outlying rivers, it was returned to St. Louis with the current artifacts and written reports during the early spring of 1805. It was manned by a small crew. The metal boat frame was never used for the lack of a natural sealing pitch from pine trees. It was abandoned in a sunken cache near Great Falls, Montana. The corps used dugout canoes instead.

Animals. Two horses (for riding on land, and for helping pull the keelboat upstream); one large Newfoundland retriever (Lewis’ personal dog named, Seaman, who aided the effort by retrieving game and by guarding the campsites at night).

Scientific/navigational instruments. Surveyor’s compass, hand compasses, telescope, quadrant, sextants, thermometers, level, chronometer, magnet, microscope, line reel, parallel glass (for reading the horizon), oiled bags for keeping the instruments in, and paraphernalia for storing collected plant and animal specimens and Native American artifacts.

Camping gear. Oiled canvases, waterproofing oil, nine tents, lanterns, 30 steels to make fires, flints, corn mill, tablespoons, tumblers, water flasks, fishing gear, drawing knives, whetstones, soap, cooking gear/utensils (brass/metal kettles/pots/pans, eating utensils), bedding gear, mosquito curtains, rope/cord/string, heavy sewing needles/thread, hanging hooks, flags, hogshead (large barrel), wooden boxes, kegs, oiled storage bags, lamps/lanterns, candle wicks/wax, candles, one box of friction matches, and one crewman’s personal fiddle (unofficially for campfire songs and entertainment).

Gifts for the tribes (21 bales). Pocket mirrors, sewing needles with cases, awls, knitting pins, small scissors, sewing thread, thimbles, silk ribbons, buttons, scissors, ivory/iron combs, burning/magnifying glasses, bells, Chiefs bundles (containing high-quality items), lockets, broaches, rings, handkerchiefs, calico shirts, bright-colored textiles/cloth, curtain rings, brass wire, rolls/twists of tobacco, axes, tomahawk-pipes, knives, brass kettles, corn mills, brass strips, fishing gear, powdered Vermilion face paint, earrings, armbands, 33-lb colored glass beads, American flags, and specially made peace medals/certificates. The corps also traded other items with the tribes, including their own personal gear and, rarely, arms and ammunition.

Tools (all kinds). Pliers, chisels, handsaws, buck-saws, two-man lumberjack saws, hatchets, axes, scrapers, shears, planes, cutting tools, augers, hand drills, whetstones, hammers, nails, squares, chain, files/rasps, anvil and bellows-forge with accompanying blacksmithing tools, spirit level, tape measure, English wood set, gold scales, iron weights, grease/oil, iron corn mill.

During their journey, the corps built two stockade forts for their winter encampments: 1) Fort Mandan, North Dakota, 1804, and 2) Fort Clatsop, Oregon coast, 1805. They also built carts for transporting their goods around waterfalls and rapids, and they made several dugout/burned-out canoes for navigating the rivers and streams.


Forty day menu (kept on board).1200-lb parchmeal, 800-lb common meal, 1600-lb hulled corn, 3400-lb flour, 560-lb biscuit mix, 750-lb salt, 3700-lb salt pork, 50-lb coffee, 2-lb tea, 100-lb dried beans/peas, 112-lb sugar, 750-lb salt, 100-lb hogs lard, 600-lb cooking grease, 30-gal wine, 120-gal whiskey (to get them to the point of no return), 193-lb portable soup mix (boiled-down paste of meat, eggs, and vegetables). The portable soup was eaten only as a last resort when no other food was obtainable.

Obtained en route. Fruit (apples, cherries, raspberries, plums, grapes, currants, pawpaws), vegetables (squash, greens, melons, leeks/onions, artichokes, licorice, roots, greens, wappatos, white apples), meat (hundreds of fish/salmon, deer, elk, bison, antelope, bighorn sheep, bear, beaver, otter, duck/geese/brant, coot/plover, grouse, pheasant, turkey, squirrel, rabbit, wolf, dog, and colt/horse), and traded-for bear grease. It’s been estimated the corps took about 2000 fowl and land animals for their meat and skins, which was a minuscule amount compared to the huge animal populations then.

Extra clothing. Flannel/linen shirts, coats, frocks, shoes, boots, woolen pants and coveralls, blankets, knapsacks, stockings, and a few dress uniforms. Later in the journey, the crew made their own moccasins and buckskin clothing when their own wore out, or were traded to the natives.

Arms/ammunition. Brass cannon (swivel-mounted on the keelboat’s bow), four blunderbusses (large shotguns: one mounted on each side of the keelboat, and one on each pirogue), 15 Model-1803 muzzle-loading 0.54 caliber flint-lock rifles with slings, four pistols, several swords, espontoons (pointed walking sticks also used as spears/gun-rests), 500 musket flints, spare parts for muskets, 420-lb sheet lead for bullets, 200-lb of gun/rifle powder packed in sealed lead canisters, powder horns and pouches, hunting/outdoor knives, one long-barreled compressed-air repeating rifle, and the personal knives, rifles, and firearms of the crew, including Lewis’ dueling pistols. The repeating rifle was used mostly for show and demonstration among the tribes, not for hunting small game.

Medicine/medical supplies. (kept in walnut/pine chests) 600 Dr. Rush pills (laxatives), lancets (surgical knives), forceps (tongs), syringes, tourniquets, small dental/medical instruments, bleeding implements, tin canisters, glass-stoppered tincture bottles, 1300 doses of physic (cathartic), 1100 doses of emetic (vomiting), 3500 doses of diaphoretic (sweat inducer), other drugs, like, laudanum (a tincture of opium), mercury, nitrate salts, powdered barks/herbs, ointments, and other salts for blisters, boils, ache/pain, sores, sunburn, worms, and for increased saliva and urine output.

Books. Botany, history, mineralogy, nautical astronomy, natural science, almanac, large dictionary, Linnaeus classification of plants, requisite tables for longitude/latitude, and an early map of the Missouri River.

Writing/drafting implements. Pencils, quills, powered ink, brass ink stands, crayons, drafting/plotting tools, leather-covered writing journals, writing/map paper, draft/receipt booklets, oilskin bags to store records in, candles for writing at night, and sealing wax.

These vast supplies propelled the corps through several outdoor difficulties to the Pacific Ocean with high successes. However, while wintering there near the mouth of the Columbia River, their supplies and trade goods had dwindled. Portions of them had been

  1. consumed en route
  2. left behind in caches for their return trip if not spoiled
  3. traded-off with the Indian tribes.

In particular, they ran out of colored beads, often prized by the native tribes. So, they traded the metal buttons from their remaining uniforms and clothing instead. They also started making their own salt from the sea water. In short, the provisions on their return journey would be much scantier than what they had departed with on their outbound one.

Because this situation was precarious, the corps rationed their goods on the return trip. They probably avoided certain tribes they were indebted to as well. Then, after arriving back in the North-Dakota plains where their earlier winter fort was located, they settled-up and parted with one of their interpreters and his wife, Sacagawea. Besides a cash settlement for them, the corps gave them their no-longer-needed blacksmithing gear.

Shortly after that, they gave the brass cannon from the keelboat, which had been stored in one of the caches, to a tribal chief nearby, hoping to coax him into returning to the states with them. He turned the invitation down. But they found another chief, who with his family, would accompany the corps back St Louis and the states.

Needless to say, except for their collected animal furs and skins, the corps came home much less supplied than when they departed 28-months earlier. In retrospect, their west-coastal winter encampment and their return journey home could have gone better if they had been able to replenish their tradable goods while near the ocean and Columbia River, possibly from a foreign merchant ship.

Trade ships had landed there before. The coastal tribes were familiar with them, and were well equipped with metal pots and pans, early model muskets, and sailors clothing. A government draft signed by Lewis would have paid for these goods. Yet, few ships, if any, seemed to come that way during their wintertime stay there. For more detailed information on their preparation for this journey, see these sites.

Source by J Delms

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