Prepping is many things to a great and growing number of people. Americans have been prepping since the entire European presence was behind a wall, back there in the Jamestown Colony. As a people, we have this written in our DNA. The long trek west and the adversarial relationship of native and non-native is a compelling story filled with survival lessons for everyone.
And none is more spellbinding than the story of the Corps of Discovery. How did Lewis and Clark do it, and what was in their “G.O.O.D. bags”?
Thomas Jefferson had been interested in exploring the American West since childhood. In the ten years after the revolution, four plans were developed for its exploration. Jefferson was behind three of them. The Corps of Discovery was in the planning stages prior to the consummation of the transaction that was the Louisiana Purchase. This post is an attempt to learn from their preparations. They were not “Bugging out” or struggling to get home. However, it was the ultimate camping trip and we can learn much from studying their efforts. If the value of the prep is obvious, I will just leave it alone. If obscure, I will expound on its virtue.
Here are some interesting facts about Lewis and Clark’s expedition:
- Meriwether Louis lived alone with Jefferson and his staff in the White House for two years prior to the trip. There, he received training in botany, zoology, navigation and observation. Training is always important. A born frontiersman, he needed no instruction in camp craft.
- Jefferson’s America, in terms of communications and travel, had more in common with Ancient Greece than it did Lincoln’s America.
- Lewis and Clark may have met Daniel Boone in Missouri.
- They held an election on the coast concerning the location of their winter encampment. It was the first election west of the Mississippi and the first ever to include a women and a black slave. If bugging out or trying to get home with a group, how are you going to make major decisions as a group?
- Three other expeditions were in the planning process in 1804. Reaching the headwaters of the Mississippi, Arkansas, and Ouachita rivers. Only Lewis and Clark were completely successful. There is much to be learned here.
The fundamental decision, because all else follows from it, was the choice of personnel. Louis and Clark were Army and so were most of the men. Basic skills and requirements were youth, excellent health, marksmanship, skill with boats and horse, hunting, and a great many others. There were specialized skills as well. Iron working kept them fed while wintering with the Mandan tribe. One of the men served as overall armorer and another as carpenter. What skill set are you looking for in your group?
The corps varied in size. Although Louis traveled round trip from Washington DC, most were recruited from the Army in Ohio, Kentucky, and St. Louis. Some deserted, some were meant to return prior to or just after wintering with the Mandan Indians in North Dakota. One died from appendicitis. Post-SHTF, having an appendectomy in your background could be a virtue. Some were contractors such as Charbonneau the interpreter and his wife, Sacagawea. By Lewis’ reckoning, the trip started in May 1804 from North Dakota with thirty one souls, including Clark’s slave York. And one dog, named Seaman. Basically, a smallish platoon.
Lewis was trained in navigation. How are your skills in navigation and can they be improved upon?
The two captains were in charge with sergeants under them. In a group, a hierarchy and it’s acceptance is a good thing. The captains were not above asking advice from the ranks. Are you?
A Good Dog
Seaman was a Newfoundland, a very large breed He provided alarm and guard services. While still on the Ohio, a large number of squirrels were observed crossing from one shore to another. Only the squirrels knew why, since both sides were the same. Seaman retrieved a number of them back to camp, providing a meal for all. A large capable dog would be a huge asset on a long trek, especially if it can be more than self feeding. Or would a smaller sturdy breed that watches be enough? No one knows what happened to Seaman. Cook pot? Could you? Is one breed more tasty than others? Please keep that information to yourself!
While wintering in North Dakota with the Mandan, they would occasionally observe a member of the tribe heading out into the plains during forty below weather. Said warrior would return days or even a week later without a sign of an ordeal. His kit consisted of a buffalo robe and not much else. Did he start an ember with flint and steel, feed some tinder and warm his “Buffalo Bivy”? In a Wisconsin winter, I would use a tea or survival candle in a modern day bivy bag. The tiny environment of the bivy and a modest heat source seem well matched. How would you survive a winter night in a treeless environment?
Lewis was the chief medical officer with Clark as his number two. A backup on primary skills is fundamental. He learned herbal medicine from his mother and was otherwise tutored professionally prior to starting. A first aid kit is fine, but training is critical, especially with herbal medicine.
Lewis’ treatment, mercury, for the “French disease” may have lead to an abbreviated life for most of the members of the group. When practicing wilderness medicine, make certain the cure at least does no harm.
Various means of transportation were used. Boats of various types, horse, and hiking. Often, dugout canoes and bull boats were made. A bull boat was a wooden frame with a hide serving as the hull. How versatile are you prepared to be? Horses were purchased via barter. What barter items have you chosen?
Jefferson and Lewis conceived of a collapsable iron framed boat the hull of which would be animal hides. It had to be manufactured, transported from Harpers Ferry, Virginia to the great falls of Montana, and loaded \ unloaded repeatedly. Two weeks passed during its assembly while the winter season approached with the Rockies waiting to be crossed. And it did not work. Lewis’ pet project was for naught. It was cached with other items, never to be picked up on the return trip. What other supplies and equipment could have been taken in its place? How ready are you to abandon a pet project or asset? First choices are primary.
Successful caches were made along the way, including journals, tools, food, ammo, and so forth. Gunpowder was kept in a small waterproof barrel of lead that would be made into bullets. How good would you be at relocating your hidden supplies?
FOOD–Carried and Foraged
Food supplies taken consisted of hominy (corn), lard, salt pork, flour, and cornmeal. Meat was jerked when abundant. Freeze dried meals are fine, but then you have only the meal. Building blocks such as flour, oils, seasoning and the like can result in many variations. Daily rations were handed out and cooking was a once a day chore. They ate in messes of eight. Hunting, fishing, and gathering were constant endeavors. The bitter roots found in the Bitterroot mountains got them sick but kept them alive. Can you identify wild food in season?
Lewis also brought a new invention of his, condensed soup for use when there was no game. During the Great Depression, a lot of families had a kettle of soup on the back burner, unique to its owners. Today, there are vendors that sell dry condensed soups. Dry canning your own is a very viable option. What cannot be added to soup?
Once in winter quarters on the coast, they fed largely on elk found nearby. At the end of their sojourn, they had to travel miles to secure game while the local Indians experienced no such difficulties. Over-hunting is not something you want to do. Hunt long in summer and close in winter at your bug-out location? Or the opposite?
Trade goods and gifts were largely depleted before reaching the ocean. The value of barter goods should be known at the onset of the journey. One of the items most valued by the Native Americans was a blue bead. Who knew?
They tended to camp on islands, posted sentinels, and inspected weapons daily. Establishing a perimeter that is defendable with a guard and a routine is a good thing.
Often, Lewis would walk the route alone. With him went Seaman. His gear consisted of a pistol, his rifle, compass, knife, powder and ball, jerky, and a journal. He carried an espontoon (a six foot wooden shaft with a blade used as a walking stick, weapon, and rifle rest). He was largely clad in leather. If you were leaving the larger group on a scout, what would be in your kit?
Weapons included rifles and muskets, some pistols, an air gun, a one pound canon, and four swivel mounted blunderbusses (heavy shotguns). Long guns were used daily for hunting. The heavy weapons and air gun (a Girandoni from Austria, that was covered in a previous SurvivalBlog post) were used mostly to impress the tribes. With these weapons, supplies, and assorted equipment, the Corps were an obvious looting target. Overcoming the Corps would have made the tribe that did the taking a regional powerhouse.
When meeting with natives for the first time, the air gun was demonstrated and then hidden away. Somewhat quiet, smokeless, and able to fire in semi-auto, the natives never knew how many the Corps had. Subtext: Better to prevent a gun fight than encourage one. The best gunfight is the one that never happens. The takeaway is this: In a SHTF scenario, it is wisdom itself to know the value of what you have in your kit.
Once over the difficult portion of the mountains heading to the ocean, they found a location they called Travelers Rest. They used it going both ways. Game, water, and trees. A known spot to be used for respite while on the road is a good idea.
When the Corps left Fort Clatsop in Oregon they had only their tools, firearms, ammo, and the clothes on their back. And not much else. They had expended 95% of their supplies. But they did have their skills. And caches. One skill was making clothing from hides. Doing such was most likely not a prerequisite for being hired. But it was necessary and they adapted. Not normally touted in survival circles, how are your sewing skills?
On the return trip, they separated for the sake of exploring. One group ran afoul of natives. Separating into smaller groups is potentially a very bad thing. Always have a rally point if you separate. They did.
These are some of the ideas that I have been able to glean from my reading about the Corps of Discovery and various site visits. Readers can draw their own conclusions. Some of my conclusions may be wrong and otherwise incomplete. I encourage everyone to read up on it and the general history of the pioneers that opened up the North American continent. And of course also the skills of Native Americans. There is more collective wisdom there than we know.