While it is true that not all members of the Corps of Discovery appreciated the taste and health benefits of eating fresh salmon, it was a food source that could not be overlooked. Shortly after establishing Long Camp, Lewis and Clark noticed Indians erecting a fishing stand near them, "no doubt to be in readiness for the salmon, the arrival of which they are so ardently wishing as well as ourselves." Nothing. Another time, George Drouillard killed an eagle which had residue of a salmon in its talons, "the latter altho' it was of itself not valuable was an agreeable sight as it gave us reason to hope that the salmon would shortly be with us." Still nothing.
The Indian woman who accompanied the expedition had, on several occasions, pointed out edible plants to Lewis and Clark, and she did so again at Long Camp. "Sahcargarmeah gathered a quantity of the roots of a specis of fennel," writes Lewis, "which we found very agreeable food, the flavor of this root is not unlike annis seed." This "mush of roots," he added, "we find adds much to the comfort of our diet," because it served as an antidote to the flatulence that came with eating either cous, a member of the carrot family, or the starchy bulbs of camas. Clark confirmed that the plants assembled by Sacagawea were "paleatiable and nurishing food," noting that "The men who were complaining of the head ake and Cholicks yesterday and last night are much better to day." As a result, the captains urged Sacagawea to accumulate a "store of the fennel roots for the Rocky mountains," a task that she began on May 18.
Sacagawea served a dual purpose during her search for natural foods. She identified and gathered plants familiar to her. More important, she avoided harmful flora. Lewis writes in his journal: "we would make the men collect these roots themselves but there are several speceis of hemlock which are so much like the cows that it is difficult to discriminate them from the cows and we are affraid that they might poison themselves." Hemlock, like cous a member of the carrot family, is a toxic herb.
Meantime, Clark's medical practice continued to pay dividends. Grateful Indians frequently offered Clark a colt in exchange for his medical expertise, and in time his price for consultation became fully accepted by both parties. "Horsebeef" gradually replaced dog meat in the men's diet. Only as a last resort would Lewis and Clark trade an item from their supplies for food. In fact, on May 21, he "divided the remnant of our store of merchandize among our party with a view that each should purchase therewith a parsel of roots and bread from the natives as his stores for the rocky mountains for there seems but little probability that we shall be enabled to make any dryed meat for that purpose and we cannot as yet form any just idea what resource the fish will furnish us." Lewis estimated that "each man's stock in trade amounts to no more than one awl, one Knitting pin, a half an ounce of vermillion, two nedles, a few scanes of thead and about a yard of ribbon; a slender stock indeed with which to lay in a store of provision for that dreary wilderness."
The "dreary wilderness" that Lewis had in mind was, of course, the Bitterroot Mountains. For now the expedition played a waiting game. When the water in the Clearwater River rose higher, it would be a doubly good sign: first, that the spring salmon run would soon begin, and second, that the snows were melting in the mountains. Until then, William Clark could only look longingly at "that icy barier which seperates me from my friends and Country."
NEXT WEEK: Lewis and Clark send Sgt. John Ordway to the Salmon River.
Robert Carriker has directed eight National Endowment for the Humanities seminars on the Lewis and Clark expedition and is author of Ocian in View! O! the Joy. When he's not out retracing the steps of the Corps of Discovery, he teaches history at Gonzaga University.