15 Bizarre Facts about the Lewis and Clark Expedition

As a rare book dealer, sometimes people assume that I only like older books. It’s true that a lot of my favorites come from the 19th century or earlier, but I’m not a book snob. (At least not in that sense.) I’m in fact boringly democratic in my tastes: I like great books of any age, genre, or topic. And I will now prove that to you in the geekiest way possible.


For your pleasure, here is a list of 15 bizarre facts about the Lewis and Clark Expedition that I learned from Undaunted Courage (1996), the amazing non-fiction book about the first overland journey to the Pacific and back by Stephen Ambrose.


An inscribed first edition
An inscribed first edition!


1.   Lewis and Clark met in 1795, when Lewis was transferred to Clark’s company of elite rifle shooters. The reason for the transfer? Lewis’s punishment for getting into a drunken brawl.


2. Before Lewis and Clark, there were other plans to explore the West.  In 1793, Jefferson sent the experienced French botanist Andre Michaux on an exploring expedition. So why do we celebrate Lewis and Clark, but not Michaux?  It turns out Michaux was actually a secret agent working for the French Republic.  He was using the expedition as an excuse to recruit an army of American militia and attack Spanish settlements beyond the Mississippi River.


3. Before Lewis departed, Jefferson gave him a letter of credit allowing him to draw on any section of the U.S. government for any reason. Unlimited letter of credit from the president? Why hasn’t that been done ever again?


4. Worries about security among the Native tribes led the Corps to bring the largest arsenal of gunpowder weapons ever seen in Missouri, let alone west of the Mississippi. They were more of a mini-army than a group of gentlemen naturalists.


5. The French Canadian Charbonneau won and married Sacagawea in a bet with Native warriors who had captured her.


6. Speaking of Sacagawea, the members of the expedition had a hard time pronouncing her name. They just called her “Janey.”


7. By the time they crossed the Bitterroot Mountains, extreme circumstances forced them to eat dog meat. Lewis learned to like it. Clark did not.


A first edition of the official account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. currently on display at the Las Vegas gallery of Bauman Rare Books.
A first edition of the official account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. currently on display at the Las Vegas gallery of Bauman Rare Books.


8. The Spanish were (rightfully) concerned about what this expedition could mean for their territories just to the south of the Louisiana Purchase. So they sent out four different parties to find Lewis and arrest him.


9.   During a hunting trip with Cruzatte (a member of the Corps), Lewis was shot in the butt. Luckily the bullet passed through, but Lewis feared further attack. Cruzatte insisted he didn’t fire the shot, so it could only mean they were being ambushed by Native Americans. They found no one. Hmm.


10.   Upon returning to St. Louis with news of their historic expedition, the Corps sold items from the trip. For their monetary value. Only.


11.   One of the expedition members, Sergeant Gass, sold his journal to a publisher before the official publication by Lewis was ready. Lewis wrote a public letter arguing why readers should support only the official account (created by him). In return, Gass’s publisher publicly ridiculed Lewis, dismissing him as less than Mackenzie.


12.   After Jefferson received all the precious artifacts from the expedition in Washington, he attempted to transport them to Richmond. The ship was stranded and almost the entire cargo was lost. To the Pacific and back, but 100 miles of Virginia was too much.


13. In the last year of his life, Lewis was taking opium regularly to help with malarial attacks (a side-effect of the expedition). The last year of his life was only 1809: that autumn he committed suicide. He shot himself, twice, and when that didn’t work, he cut himself with a razor.


14. As a show of hospitality, Native tribes would often send women to the Corps at night. Thus the vast majority of the men in the Lewis and Clark Expedition were suffering from venereal diseases.


15. Speaking of diseases, one of the favorite methods for treating illness was the administration of tablets laced with mercury. Mercury—which is fatally poisonous at worst, but passes right through the body at best. Today scholars can even trace certain routes the expedition took because of mercury, er, deposits.


Have I convinced you to read Undaunted Courage? Great! Go read it!


On the other hand, if these tidbits have not convinced you how great Stephen Ambrose’s book is, then I challenge you to read the book and prove me wrong. Good? Go read it! You’re welcome.




22 Comments Add yours

  1. jyoders19 says:

    Have you ever read “The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake?” A historical record of the real reasons behind Drake’s trip around the world and how it benefited the English Crown. I think you’d like it. Drake sailed to Alaska! http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Voyage-Sir-Francis-Drake/dp/0142004596

    1. sloinker says:

      I read that book!

  2. Brandon says:

    Another random fact about the expedition, is that they kept hearing brontides. The world is almost to loud to hear these today!

  3. vanbraman says:

    I will add it to my list of books to read. I will probably put it ahead of the four volume R. E. Lee biography I bought this week :-).

  4. Paul R. says:

    No need to take your challenge. Undaunted Courage is one of my favorite books and I’ve even purchased copies for friends to read. For me it’s the best of Ambrose’s works. I’ve also read The Journals of the Expedition but those volumes are quite dry vs. Ambrose’s book. I look forward to seeing the first edition shown above at an upcoming visit to your gallery.

  5. Paul Lampe says:

    Thanks for all the Lewis and Clark shout outs. Growing up on the southern most point of the Missouri River, the Lewis and Clark Expedition is in my cultural DNA. If you’re ever looking for an interesting historical character, I recommend reading about John Colter (a member of the Corps), whose remains are buried just a few miles up the road from here.

    As usual, all the best. Thanks for blogging!

  6. Jay Roberts says:

    Thanks for posting those interesting items. I hesitate at referring them as “facts” since they came from a Stephen Ambrose book. For the rest of eternity, the integrity of any Ambrose book will always be in question.

  7. Dallas Jacobs says:

    I read this book after picking it up at a Smithsonian exhibition of Great Expeditions and Explorers, which of course this one qualified. I was entranced with the book, reading it cover to cover one nite and have reccomended it to all who exhibit an interest. Glad to see it show up here…you might find “Kabloona” of like interest. I bought a first edition (including the bookcover) of it after reading “Kabloona” because of my amazement of de Poncins journey and consequent writing of it and all he experienced…kind of like L&C, he came into a world he was totally unprepared for and luckily for us, wrote their journals for us to later peruse and think about…dj

    1. Thank you for the recommendation to me and the readers, appreciated!

  8. Ed says:

    Apparently they missed Yellowstone by only 50 miles or so. I suspect if they had explored it they would have reported back to Jefferson, “Dear Tom, start evacuating immediately. We need to return to Europe asap.”

    1. True–Yellowstone does in portions look like hell on earth. In…a beautiful way.

  9. joe sedar says:

    thank you it helped me a lot

  10. joe sedar says:

    I made a 100% on my packet

  11. Uxhsbshgebegs says:

    I can’t believe Lewis would commit suicide….and that violently.

    1. Thank you do much, I got 100% on my test

  12. Ally says:

    I never new they were forced to eat dog food 😳😳😳……GROSS😝😝😝😝 but thanks u really helped me 😜😜😜😄😄😄

  13. Karuna says:

    well some of these facts seem fake

  14. thanks for all that information and that true but discusting comment about that they had to eat dog( i feel so sad for them, cause i love dogs and i would never eat them):(:(:(:(:(:(:(::(:(:(:(:(:(:(:(:(:(:(:(::(:(:(:(:(:9:(::(:(::(:(:(:(:(:(:(:(:

  15. Alex Gong says:

    Very interesting facts!!!

  16. dj says:

    wow i am really impressed with the fact you got ; }

  17. Jackson says:

    i am so intrigued about these facts about louis and and clark

  18. Undaunted Courage is a super read that has left me mourning in more ways than I care to think about. So little today do we find family commitment talked about at the beginning, the expedition has me always wondering what they would think of our spoiled and overtaking communities, they also ate their horses, but it’s the suicide that provided the shock factor making this book one of my favorite.

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