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How to pack for a historic odyssey

An anthropologist/historian is studying how Lewis and Clark prepared for their 1803 journey to the Pacific.

It’s 1803, and President Jefferson wants you to lead a trip thousands of miles west, to the Pacific. You don’t know when you’ll be back — assuming you make it back — or much about the Indians, the weather or the terrain. There’s a river, but no one knows how far it goes. There are mountains, but no one knows how many. How do you pack for a trip like that?

ANTHROPOLOGIST AND HISTORIAN Ken Karsmizki is trying to answer that question for an exhibit on Meriwether Lewis and William Clark called “Cargo: Equipment and Supplies of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” Part of the display opened in September at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, which Karsmizki runs; the rest goes up in May.

Based on what the explorers’ boats could hold, Karsmizki figures the kit and caboodle weighed about 30 tons. He’s documenting what was in the lot by scanning their journals, line by line. When an object is mentioned, it goes into a database. His computer entries already number in the tens of thousands.

But Karsmizki is finding that lists of what the explorers wanted, what they bought and what they loaded on the boats didn’t always mesh.


For example, they wanted 1,700 needles for making and repairing their clothes and moccasins, and for trade with the Indians. But while they bought 186 needles, there’s documentation that they packed 4,000. They also wanted 2,000 fish hooks, but records show that they bought 2,800 and baled up 488 at Wood River Camp in Illinois before heading up the Missouri River in May of 1804. Metal arrowheads don’t show up in the records, but were documented as having been traded.

Their wish lists ranged from scientific instruments, weapons and food, to medicines, tobacco, whisky and gifts for Indians. Karsmizki said that it’s likely the quartermaster who provided their supplies probably threw in what he thought they’d need as well, further muddying attempts to document the cargo.

The complexity of their trades also makes the supplies difficult to pin down. Blue beads, which were more highly prized by the Indians than any other kind, may have been bartered from the first tribes they encountered, then traded back to other tribes for things the explorers needed farther down the line.


Fewer than 100 of the original items the explorers took with them are known to exist today, says Carolyn Gilman of the Missouri Historical Society. That excludes journals, diaries and the specimens the explorers sent or brought back to Jefferson.

But surviving artifacts do include a few of the 90 or so peace medals that were used as goodwill offerings to tribes. The Oregon Historical Society has the explorers’ branding iron — used to mark horses they picked up from Western tribes — along with items belonging to others in the entourage, George Shannon’s sewing kit and Patrick Gass’ razor box.

A compass the expedition used is at the Smithsonian, Gilman said. A watch and telescope known to have belonged to Lewis have also survived the years, she said, but it is not known if he took the items on the trip.

Companies that specialize in antiques or replicas have provided historically accurate examples of items for the exhibit, including a packet of blades used for “bleeding” sick people, a common remedy of the day, and knives.


Research inspired by the bicentennial is adding to clues about the cargo. For example, information is emerging about the design of the air rifle the expedition carried, a weapon that fires using compressed air, not gunpowder.

References have also been found suggesting that the peace medals the explorers gave Indian leaders came in five sizes, not three, as had been assumed. A medal Karsmizki recently acquired is being tested for metallic content to determine whether it is genuine.

Karsmizki said it still is not known which American flags the explorers carried because the design was not yet standard. Vexillologists (those who study flags) say as many as five designs were in fairly common use.

And while it has long been assumed that the team took government-issued 1803 Harpers Ferry rifles with them, “most recent scholarship is concluding that (the Harpers Ferry rifles) weren’t off the production line before Lewis, who generally was in charge of provisioning, left the East Coast,” Karsmizki said.

Research also suggests that the explorers did not always estimate their needs accurately. They returned home with half of the powder and lead they started out with, but they woefully misjudged their need for Indian gifts and trade goods. At Fort Clatsop, where they wintered near present-day Astoria, Ore., they recorded that what remained of such items could be held in two handkerchiefs. They were still 4,000 miles from home.

Karsmizki hopes that within the relatively brief window of the bicentennial, the focus on the expedition will produce — perhaps bundled up in a dusty attic — journals and diaries to fill in the gaps. Journals kept by six of the explorers have been combed, and as recently as 1953 some of Clark’s field notes were found. But Gass’ original handwritten accounts, along with journals by Shannon and Robert Frazer, are missing.

But no matter how much research is done, Karsmizki says, “the bottom line is that nobody will ever know for sure what they took with them.”

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