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“I Gave Him Barks and Saltpeter...”
Medicine was primitive and their knowledge of it limited, but in their hazardous journey to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark lost only one patient
December 1963 | Volume 15, Issue 1
The expedition leaders had anticipated venereal disease. Both men had served previous enlistments in the Army, and they knew something of the appetites and frailties of the average soldier. Thus, they carried ample supplies of mercury ointment, calomel (mercurous chloride), balsam copaiba, and saccharum saturni (sugar of lead), and they had armed themselves with four pewter urethral syringes. Lewis and Clark, however, make mention only of mercury in their treatment of venereal disease, which meant either mercury ointment or calomel or both. (Dr. Rush regarded mercury as the “Samson of the Materia Medica” in the treatment of syphilis.)
As is well known, syphilis manifests itself in three stages: a primary one extending from the appearance of the initial sore, a small red papule, or chancre, until the onset of constitutional symptoms; a secondary stage characterized by skin eruptions (the pox); and the tertiary, which shows up much later, often years after the original infection, in the form of general paresis, locomotor ataxia, or other equally grave disorders.
It is highly unlikely that Lewis cured any syphilitic cases using mercury. This drug may have been effective in clearing up evidences of the primary and secondary stages, but hardly the third. But it is obvious from his statements that Lewis believed that he had cured this disease in his men. For instance, on January 27, 1806, while camped at the mouth of the Columbia River, he said, “Goodrich has recovered from the Louis Veneri [ lues venerea ] which he contracted from an amorous contact with a Chinnook damsel. I cured him as I did Gibson last winter by the use of mercury.” However, we note that six months later he admitted: “Goodrich and McNeal are both very unwell with the pox which they contracted last winter with the Chinook women.”
If venereal disease was a constant nuisance, subzero weather was the expedition’s most stubborn enemy during the long winter stay at Fort Mandan. On some nights the cold gripped the land so firmly that the sentinels relieved each other every half hour. Many of the men had to be treated for frostbite. Private Whitehouse, for instance, had his feet so badly frozen while scouring the snow-covered plains for game that he had to have a horse bring him in. Another man returned from a trip upriver with his face frostbitten. Indians reported one day that two of their men had frozen to death on the prairie while hunting buffalo.
Another tragic incident had its beginning late one afternoon when an Indian arrived at the fort and was much distressed not to find his thirteen-year-old son there. That night, one of the coldest of the winter, the temperature dropped to forty below. In the morning, with the boy still missing, the Indians of the lower village turned out en masse to hunt for him. At about ten o’clock the boy limped into the fort and reported that he had spent the night in the snow protected only by a buffalo robe. Luckily he had survived, though his feet were badly frozen. A week later Lewis had to turn surgeon when it became necessary to amputate the toes on one of the boy’s feet.
In this operation, if Lewis followed custom, he seared the cut surfaces with a hot iron. This was done to stop hemorrhage rather than to sterilize. With frozen members, however, there was ordinarily a minimum of bleeding if the surgeon cut through the dead tissue immediately beyond the living flesh. Lewis did not sew up the wounds as would be done today. If he had been cutting off a leg above the knee, for example, he might have taken two or three stitches, but not in minor surgery such as the removal of toes. Wounds were never sewed tight then, because they had to be left open to drain and to allow them to heal from inside out. All surgical steps—excision, cauterization, suturing—were taken, of course, without the aid of anaesthesia: back in the “good old days” surgery was a soul-scarring ordeal.
One of the most memorable events of that winter at Fort Mandan was the appearance of Sacagawea, the Bird Woman, whose name has become almost as familiar to present-day Americans as that of Pocahontas. Sister of a Shoshone chief, she was captured in 1800 by a war party of Minnetarees from the Knife River. In the attack, which took place at Three Forks, Montana, the Minnetarees killed several of the Shoshones and took Sacagawea and a number of other girls and boys prisoner. Some time later, a French trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, made her his wife. Since Charbonneau could speak the language of the Minnetarees, Lewis and Clark hired him as an interpreter. They also took along Sacagawea, thinking that she might be of value to them once they reached her people.
On February 11, 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to a son. Lewis, whose obstetrical role was a minor one, described the delivery: