Stomaching the expedition

Corps had to live off a broadly ranged diet
Sunday, May 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:21 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

The old saying, “an army moves on its stomach,” proved true for the men on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

But the most important part of each day wasn’t the exploration but rather the hunting, gathering and shepherding of the daily food requirements.

Lewis wrote in 1806, “a keen appetite supplys in a great degree the want of more luxurious sauses or dishes, and still render my ordinary meals not uninteresting to me, for I find myself sometimes enquiring the cook whether dinner or breakfast is ready.”

Each day the men traveled about 30 miles by foot, canoe, boat and barge and ate, on average, nine pounds of meat per day per man. Today, the recommended daily meat intake by the United States Department of Agriculture is four ounces per day.

With the large quantity of meat in their system on a daily basis, the men had little dietary fiber and left many of them constipated for days.

“In today’s diet if you were to eat that much meat you would be putting yourself at serious risk,” said Jennifer Polniak, a clinical dietitian. “Kidneys would have major problems because of the stress it takes to process that amount of meat.”

Marching dozens of miles each day left little time to eat. Dinner was the only hot meal of the day and breakfast and lunch consisted of leftovers.

Lewis wrote that evening meals were cooked in mass and portions were set aside for the following day’s meals. Clark wrote, “It requires four deer, or an elk and a deer, or one buffalo to supply us for 24 hours.”

There were nights the men went to bed hungry because of shots that went awry and missed the game. Some days the men found their drying meat ruined by rain or spoiled by the heat. At those times the men made a portable soup to save them from starvation.


Finding food was a constant and important matter on the minds of Lewis and Clark. The expedition’s hunters were almost always out seeking game, and Lewis and Clark themselves hunted as they trekked across the foreign land.

Just like the changing terrain and the irregular climates, the game varied vastly depending on where the corps found itself. Bison were primarily found crossing the Great Plains while salmon was a staple west of the Rocky Mountains.

Getting an elk, also known then in North America as a moose, was a prize to the corps because it could feed so many men. The male moose, at nearly 7 feet tall, can weigh more than 1,600 pounds, which was more than enough for each of the men to feed on nine pounds a day.

The men ate buffalo as often as possible because one of these large animals provided about 400 pounds of meat.

Food from the American Indians

Just as important as the available game were the native foods from American Indian nations.

The Mandans of North Dakota gave them corn, squash and beans; the Chinooks along Washington’s Columbia River introduced the men to a carbohydrate called wapato; the Shoshone in Montana and Idaho offered the men antelope and salmon; and the Nez Perce tribe offered dog and edible roots.

As the men made their way to the Rocky Mountains, Lewis wrote, “meat now forms our food principally as we reserve our flour parched meal and corn as much as possible for the rocky mountains which we are shortly to enter, and where from the Indian account game is not very abundant.”

The American Indians encountered by Lewis and Clark taught them a lot about living off of the land. Women in the Pacific Northwest passed on knowledge of finding and processing many edible roots. Four kinds of roots received frequent mention in the men’s journals: camas, wapato, yampah and cous.

As the men entered the territory of the Nez Perce, they were thankful for anything they could find, even though the roots did not agree with their digestive systems. The Nez Perce dried camas and used it as a cooking staple. Clark described it like an onion: a white bulb that varies in size.

Chinook women waded in swampy areas to gather wapato. The women would pull the tubers from the mud and water using their toes. Some would eat the root raw and some would roast it. The taste is comparable to a sweet version of the common potato.

“He gave us roundish roots about the Size of a Small Irish potato which they roasted in the embers until they became Soft, This root they call Wap-p-to. It has an agreeable taste and answers verry well in place of bread. We purchased about 4 bushels of this root and divided it to our party,” wrote Clark on Nov. 4, 1805.

Clark compared yampah to fennel. Sometimes tribes would dry yampah into cakes or mix the dry powder with meat to make something similar to pemmican.

The captains compared the taste of cous (pronounced like blouse) to a sweet potato. Indian celery, as it is often called, is ground into cakes or dried for soups.

A difficult passing

Even with the amount of fruits, vegetables and fiber available to the corps from the land or the American Indians, the men had little in their systems.

Polniak says the men could have suffered from a disease called diverticulosis caused by a diet low in fiber. This would be the reason that the men often found it hard for stool passage. Constipation makes the muscles strain to move stool that is too hard and causes increased pressure in the colon. The pressure causes weak spots in the colon to bulge out and become diverticula. Diverticulitis occurs when diverticula become infected or inflamed.

Desperate times

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and at times the men were forced to eat dogs or horses in order to keep going.

The Corps would eat anything to fill their stomachs. They found themselves without food one cold winter and found satiety in part in three of their colts.

As the men crossed the rugged mountains the game grew scarce. After days of starvation in Montana, the men bought as many as 40 dogs from the Indians to fatten themselves up for the long journey ahead.

“For my own part I have become so perfectly reconciled to the dog that I think it an agreeable food and would prefer it vastly to lean Venison or Elk,” wrote Lewis.

But Clark was not fond of the taste. He wrote in his journal, “as for my own part I have not become reconciled to the taste of this animal (dog) as yet.”

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