IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Inside Lewis and Clark's shopping list

Before their journey west, Lewis and Clark went shopping for opium, inkstands, sealing wax and "portable soup."
An image shows a document signed by  Meriwether Lewis for $289.50 worth of soup. The document was released by the National Archives as part of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration.National Archives via Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Before the going got tough, the tough went shopping: Opium, inkstands, sealing wax and "portable soup" were all on the list of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who launched an epic journey into the unknown American West exactly 200 years ago.

To mark Friday's anniversary, the National Archives offered a glimpse of documents that shed light on the careful planning and provisioning for the Lewis and Clark expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific and back.

"We were now about to penetrate a country of at least 2,000 miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden," Lewis wrote in his diary when they had been traveling nearly a year.

"The good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessels contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves."

The explorers had some high-ranking help, according to archives curator Stacey Bredhoff: President Thomas Jefferson was intimately involved in deciding what to take on the 8,000-mile (12,870-kilometer), 28-month trip.

Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase treaty in 1803, in which France sold the United States 828,000 square miles (2.1 million square kilometers) of territory. On May 14, 1804, Lewis, Clark and 31 other men launched three small vessels into the Missouri River to investigate the new lands.

They were meant to hunt, fish, forage and trade for supplies along the way, but sensibly bought $1,000 worth of provisions on a shopping trip in Philadelphia, the hub of U.S. commerce at that time.

One receipt shows the purchase of 193 pounds (88 kilograms) of "portable soup," which Bredhoff said was a paste made of boiled-down beef and cow's hooves, eggs and vegetables.

"It was not popular, not at all," she said. "The only time they consumed it was during the real starvation times, particularly when they were going through the Bitterroot Mountains (along what is now the Idaho-Montana border) in September 1805."

They apparently returned to St. Louis with plenty of portable soup left over, Bredhoff said.

At a Philadelphia apothecary called Gillaspy and Strong, Lewis bought $90.69 worth of medicines and medical instruments. The receipt for this order shows a vast array of compounds for pain and sickness.

Opium and laudanum were among the painkillers, but many of the items on the pharmaceutical list were bleeding or purging agents. The list notes 50 dozen bilious pills — also known as thunder-clappers — that were powerful purgatives.

Another list showed items for more general use, especially those used to make a record of the travels.

On this listing, there were eight receipt books, 48 pieces of tape, six brass inkstands, ink powder, sealing wax, 100 quills and one packing hogshead to put it all in.

There were also eight tents, 45 bags and 10 yards of linen.

"It was a military expedition, so the records here are military records," Bredhoff said. "Its purpose was not to make war. It was not to claim land. It was to find a route to the Pacific Ocean, to befriend the western tribes of Indians and to return safely with detailed reports on the geography, geology, astronomy and zoology, botany and climate of the West."

The explorers returned to St. Louis on Sept. 23, 1806. Only one death was recorded among the 33 men who started out and historians believe the cause was appendicitis, Bredhoff said.