Shape and Sound

Page 3 of 3

The Shape

The only clue we have as to the construction of the biers the Corps of Discovery used is Biddle's annotation to Lewis's journal entry of July 21, 1805, perhaps gotten from William Clark or George Shannon: "made of duck or gauze, like a trunk—to get under." Webster, in 1806, defined trunk as, among other less relevant things, "a long tube," borrowing verbatim—as he did also for his definition of bier—from Entick's New Spelling Dictionary of 1800.1

Elijah Criswell found one of the usages of the noun bear to denote a "pillow case."2 Thus it is conceivable that a musqueto bier was a large sack made of gauze or netting, with a support such as a cross-bar to keep it away from the body.

The Sound

Clark and Ordway always spelled the noun denoting mosquito netting as "bear" or "beare," evidently writing it as they heard it, and what they heard in Lewis's Virginia accent didn't rhyme with hear, or hair, but with bar. There's ample evidence in the journals: On August 5, 1806, Clark wrote "I with one man went on the Sand bear and killed the Bear."

Again, Criswell points out that Lewis referred to a sandbar as a "bear," and thus probably pronounced it "bar." Clark also, on September 9, 1806, called a sandbar a "bear," which as a Kentuckian he might well have uttered as bar.3

Of course, pronunciations are difficult to convey in print, and we can only speculate about the sounds of the forms uncovered by DARE. In the 18th century, boire could have been spoken as bWAHr, BOYr, or BAR; bier as beeYAY or bir; baire as BAYr or BUYr; bère as BEHr; and bear, almost any of the above. Localisms are hard to account for, either in spelling or pronunciation, and they often trip up the stranger.

A spokesperson for the Lemhi Shoshone Indians, descendants of Sacagawea's (sic) people, insists that Sacajawea (sic) carried her baby in a cradleboard. The Hidatsa Indians, among whom Sakakawea (sic) reached puberty and bore her child, contend she would have carried him as all Hidatsa mothers did, wrapped in a shawl or blanket draped over her shoulder. Nobody knows for sure, which she chose, or even whether she had a choice. But there can be little doubt that baby Jean Baptiste Charbonneau's bier was a mosquito net, not a cradle board, much less a funeral litter.4

What is still inconceivable is why no one—not his mother, nor Charbonneau, nor the captains, nor any of the men in the Corps of Discovery—gave little Pomp even a scrap of netting to shield him from the mosquitoes, after his own bier was lost in that flash flood at the Falls of the Missouri of July, 1805.

1. John Entick's New Spelling Dictionary, first published in London in 1764, and reprinted numerous times in this country (see Early American Imprints, First Series, No. 37375), was one of two British dictionaries widely used in 18th-century America that Webster sought to displace with his home-grown lexicon. The other was John Walker's Principles of English Pronunciation (London, 1791), "for schools and polite readers." Entick, by the way, spelled the insect's common name moscheto, the Spanish diminutive of moscha—fly—and defined it as "a very stinging West Indian gnat."

2. Elijah Harry Criswell, Lewis & Clark: Linguistic Pioneers (1940. Reprint, Bozeman, Montana: Headwaters Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, 1991), "A Lewis and Clark Lexicon," p. 11.

3. . . . as Daniel Boone is said to have spelled it in his legendary graffiti, having killed "a bar" on a certain tree in Kentucky.

4. Neither cradleboard nor cradle board appear anywhere in the Expedition's journals, nor are they listed by Webster or Entick or any of their predecessors or contemporaries. Apparently the expression was coined by late-19th-century ethnographers.