“I Gave Him Barks and Saltpeter...”


In mid-September, 1805, Lewis and Clark spent ten arduous days crossing the Bitterroot Mountains to the Columbia watershed. They suffered intensely from fatigue, cold, and hunger. There was great rejoicing when they reached the beautiful valley of the Clearwater River and were greeted by the friendly Nez Percé Indians. Food was again plentiful, but quite different from that to which they had long been accustomed. It consisted almost entirely of such Nez Percé staples as dried salmon and the roots of the camass ( Camassia quamash ), a liliaceous plant whose bulb could be eaten raw or in soups or breads. There was nothing to suggest that more trouble was in the offing—not until Clark found himself “verry unwell all the evening from eateing the fish & roots too freely.”

During the next few days practically every man in the party, including Lewis, was sick, some violently. Excerpts from the journals reveal a sorry state of affairs:

Clark —September 23: Capt Lewis & 2 men Verry Sick this evening.

Clark—September 24: several 8 or 9 men sick … Capt. Lewis scercely able to ride on a jentle horse … I gave rushes Pills to the Sick this evening.

Sgt. Gass —September 24: The men are generally unwell, owing to the change of diet … Captain Clarke gave all the sick a dose of Rush’s Pills, to see what effect that would have.

Sgt. Gass —September 25: The water is soft and warm, and perhaps causes our indisposition more than anything else.

Clark —September 25: when I arrived at Camp found Capt. Lewis verry Sick, Several men also verry Sick, I gave Some Salts and Tarter emetic .

Clark —September 26: Capt. Lewis Still verry unwell. Several men taken Sick on the way down, I administered Salts Pils Galip [jalap] Tarter emetic &c. I feel unwell this evening.


It is quite apparent that the men were in bad shape. With Lewis sick it was incumbent on Clark, himself “unwell,” to take charge. He was an uncertain and much puzzled “doctor,” but that did not deter him from prescribing Rush’s pills “to see what effect that would have,” nor, as the cases multiplied, from taking seriously Hippocrates’ maxim: “Desperate diseases require desperate remedies.”

The cause of the general “lax” among the men is conjectural. The camass roots may have had a purgative effect on one unaccustomed to them, as Lewis and Clark believed. The next spring, as they ascended the Columbia, they tried to avoid eating them. On the other hand, the trouble may have been due simply to a drastic change in diet.

Lewis and Clark could scarcely credit the high incidence of eye troubles among the Indians of the Columbia River basin. Wrote Clark:

The loss of sight I have observed to be more common among all the nations inhabiting this river than among any people I ever observed, they have almost invariably sore eyes at all stages of life, the loss of an eye is very common among them; blindness in persons of middle age is by no means uncommon, and it is almost invariably a comcammitant of old age. I know not to what cause to attribute this prevalent deficientcy of the eye except it be their exposure to the reflection of the sun off the water to which they are constantly exposed in the occupation of fishing.

When the Indians came to Lewis and Clark to have their eyes treated, as they did increasingly in the succeeding months, Lewis had his own special eyewash: “a solution of white vitriol [zinc sulphate] and the sugar of lead [lead acetate] in the proportion of 2 grs. of the former and one of the latter to each ounce of water.” Dropped into the eyes, it brought at least temporary relief.

The prevalence of sore eyes among the natives was not caused by anything as innocent as reflection of the sun from water. It was probably due to trachoma or venereal disease. Both appear to have been common in all stages of development among the Columbia Valley Indians, and in all age groups. Trachoma, a highly contagious form of conjunctivitis characterized by granulations on the conjunctival surfaces, may lead to partial or complete blindness. So may gonorrheal conjunctivitis (ophthalmia neonatorum), which babies can inherit from their mothers at birth.

The journals do not mention Private William Bratton as performing any unusual act of bravery, or being party to any of the more breath-taking moments of the expedition except for once being chased for a mile and a half by a grizzly bear. He was a good soldier and a skilled gunsmith; we would know little else about him if he had not become the only member of the party who was seriously ill for an extended period.