Quenching the thirst for exploration
Scott Longman recalls the tale of two 19th century heroes who, when requested to do so by the President, pushed back the frontiers of America – with the help of 120 gallons of whiskey
A short exercise in world-class adventure logistics: let’s say you are in your 30s and have just been given the history-making task of having to cross, explore, map and chronicle the western two-thirds of North America for the first time by President Thomas Jefferson.
The year is 1803: next to nothing is known about the climate, wildlife, natives, waterways, mountains, food sources or how the Inland Revenue will treat expedition expenses. You’ll be gone for years and you surmise, largely correctly, that there will be malaria, starvation, dysentery, armed hostile Indians, ferocious and aggressive predators, lethal cold, treacherous cliffs, waterfalls, deceptive trails and poisonous snakes. So, what do you take with you?
Wait, before answering just consider this: you’ll physically carry everything you have for 6,000 miles. You will paddle it in your canoe from Pittsburgh to Seattle and back again. Pragmatists will miss the point, rattling off a mantra of the necessaries: Kentucky rifles, lead, powder, flint, sextants, clothing, boots, oil skins, knives, fish hooks, water bottles and alike. All well and good, but what do you, Meriwether Lewis, partner of William Clark, choose to take on your quest to the Pacific? Whiskey – lots and lots of whiskey.
Many Whisky Magazine readers, when contemplating a weekend in the great outdoors, are not averse to tucking away a pint of Evan Williams or a fifth (750ml) of Henry McKenna. And so it follows that we shouldn’t be shocked to our Victorian cores if Lewis and Clark tucked away a bottle or two for a rainy day. Would you believe they took 120 gallons? Thought not.
The cynic would say its purpose was commerce, not consumption. Au contraire, it turns out that the Captains, as their men knew Lewis and Clark, envisioned that climbing into the history books would generate a powerful thirst – and they set out to keep it quenched. Superlative historian and accessible author Stephen Ambrose has crafted a great read on Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery in his 1996 work Undaunted Courage. With vignettes and excerpts from the Corps’ official journals, he chronicles the whole adventure and leaves no question that the human outboards of the expedition ran not on octane, but on proof. But before we get to their penchant for the good stuff, we ought to ask, who were these guys?
Meriwether Lewis was the son of a Virginia planter, two generations removed from a British Army officer who’d come to the New World in 1635. Lewis grew up in what was nearly the frontier, which offered him plenty of outlets for his love of
adventure. At the age of eight, a vicious bull charged him. Instead of fleeing, he shot it dead. By his 10th birthday, he was involved in an Indian attack where he alone had the presence of mind to douse a fire that was silhouetting the adults in his party. He got some education and by the age of 18, was running the family plantation. In 1794, he joined the army where he met Clark. One early contemporary described Lewis as having “a martial temper, great steadiness of purpose, self-possession and undaunted courage”.
At the time they met, William Clark was commanding an elite company of sharpshooters. Lewis had been transferred to his command after getting roaring drunk and challenging an officer of his previous unit to a duel. Despite that inauspicious introduction, the famous duo hit it off.
Clark was four years older but he and Lewis shared a Virginian heritage, a family friendship with Jefferson, their military service and, perhaps most important, a view of the world. In addition to their similarities, Clark also had extra skills that were complementary to their partnership: he was a skilled surveyor and mapmaker. And what of Jefferson? What was in it for him?
By the time he was elected President on 17th February 1801, he’d already had decades of dreams about westward
expansion. The idea of a Corps of Discovery appealed to his multiple dimensions in practical ways. As a botanist, new species beckoned. As an ethnologist, unknown tribes awaited. As a businessman, the prospects of trade routes and natural resources loomed. But perhaps most importantly, as a statesman, empire called. Jefferson knew that a complete survey would provide the knowledge of routes, peoples and resources necessary for trade, and from trade, the interdependent interests necessary as a basis for union.
Jefferson’s father had long known the Lewis family and Jefferson himself had seen Meriwether Lewis grow up. After inauguration, Jefferson invited him to be his ‘secretary’, a combined position of aide-de-camp and protégé. Lewis’ sangfroid and adventurism made him a natural candidate to head the Corps of Discovery. The catalyst was a Scotsman named Alexander Mackenzie, who stood Jefferson on his wig by publishing an account of his own land trek to the Pacific. It was said to have galvanised Jefferson into manic activity and changed Meriwether Lewis’ life overnight. On 19th June 1803, Lewis wrote to Clark and offered him co-command of the expedition – oh yes, as well as a lot of whiskey.
Lewis and Clark planned not only a daily whiskey ration for everybody in the Corps, they planned a big daily ration. Each man got one gill – about four ounces. For someone of average avoirdupois, that’s about four drinks, or enough to reach a blood alcohol level of a 0.010 – in most US states 0.010 is the threshold for legally drunk. Fortunately for history, there weren’t any river authorities to pull over drunken canoeists for breathalyser tests. But then, by 1803 standards, 0.010 wasn’t even a warm-up. When Lewis records in the journal that somebody was drunk, he does not mean inappropriate-omments-to-the-boss’-wife-at-the-holiday-party-drunk: he means blotto. In Marietta, Georgia, two of the men went off and failed to report back to the boat. Lewis found them in a state where they “were unable to help themselves” and had to be bodily tossed back into the boat. Makes the occasional gill seem moderate.
The expedition left civilisation behind on 22nd May 1804, with all 120 gallons aboard – and they didn’t go to waste. The men of the expedition drank when they were happy: in the first-ever 4th of July celebration held west of the Mississippi, the Captains ordered an extra gill distributed. They drank when they were scared: following a near catastrophic conflict with Indians, the Captains “refreshed the party with whisky.” They drank upon achievement: in training, an extra gill went to the man with the best daily shooting results. And they drank upon their return. They were aggressive in their imbibing.
Ironically, this love of whiskey which launched the Corps of Discovery nearly swamped it on several occasions. In the first instance, the canoes they used were not a modern incarnation but were much larger, heavier craft. While they had to carry substantial weight they couldn’t draw too much, lest they grounded in the shallows. Lewis engaged the only man he believed capable of properly building such craft. The problem lay in that the boatwright “was a drinking man, so he seldom worked mornings and sometimes not in the afternoons, either.” The promised completion schedule proved fictitious. Lewis had hoped to have launched by 20th July, or at the ragged edge, 1st August. On 31st August, the boat was finally river-worthy.
The boatwright’s local ale house’s propensity for over serving its patrons was not the only obstacle made of empty whisky bottles. Early in the trip, Lewis sought to add a doctor to the burgeoning entourage. While stopped in Wheeling, (not yet West) Virginia, Lewis recruited a doctor, William Patterson. At the appointed time of departure two days later, he
didn’t show. Lewis gave him all the time he could before leaving. Historian Ambrose notes “it was undoubtedly just as well.
His reputation was one of constant drunkenness, which well may have been the cause of his being late.” It is not at all clear that leaving the entire medical profession upstream was a bad idea: standard medical treatment for nearly any malady consisted of bleeding, sweat lodges and explosive diuretics not unlike our present health service, but without the need for referrals.
As mighty as 120 gallons are, they’re not enough to travel 6000 miles by canoe and foot. At a gill per day per man, they had enough, theoretically, to last about 104 days. In fact, they ran out and such fact is duly recorded in the journals. Many months later, as they neared their triumphant return to civilisation, they encountered a trading boat. Amidst riotous excitement, they bought a dram a man: “The first spiritous liquor which has been tasted by any of them since July 4th, 1805.” But who’s counting?
In the interim, the Corps of Discovery had crossed the continent, been narrowly missed by charging grizzlies, felt the wind of Indian bullets, collected huge amounts of ethnographic, botanic, zoologic data (including 178 new plant species and 122 new animal species or subspecies) and mapped North America. The question is, of course, would they have done that if they hadn’t run out of whiskey?
So, if you’re yet to hobnob with the President of the United States or cross unexplored continents perhaps you need to rethink your logistics and pay homage to the Captains of the Corps of Discovery: one gill of whiskey a day.
While the Captains’ dispensing of firewater was strictly controlled, it wasn’t perfect: they had to sleep sometime. On 29th June, 1804, as the journals duly record, Private John Collins was on guard duty. Feeling a might parched he tapped one of the official barrels and, in short order, was juiced. Another soldier awake at that hour, Private Hugh Hall, approached.
Remonstrance? A call to the Sergeant at Arms? No. He grabbed evanescent opportunity on the spot and got as lit as Collins. Inevitably, they were discovered and punished with a damn good lashing each – administered by their peers.