On advice from John Hay, the postmaster at Cahokia (in Illinois) who had helped the captains in numerous ways to prepare for their journey, the Corps' extensive inventory of gifts was packed in twenty-one separate bags, which in turn were separated into two categories. One consisted of gifts for Indians between St. Charles and the Mandan villages, the other, gifts for "foreign Nations: that is, those beyond the mandanes." One of the bags in the first set included "1/2 doz. Jews harps" to be given "to young men," and one in the latter, "6 Dos. Jews harps."
On August 30, 1804, Private Joseph Whitehouse recorded the expedition's meeting with the congenial Yankton Sioux:
They put all the presents that they got, together, and divided them among their whole party equally. The Indians after the goods were divided, was very merry; they play'd on the Jews harps & danced for us for Beads that we gave them. They behaved well to us.
That was the one and only time any journalist mentioned the noun that Noah Webster, in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, of 1806, defined simply as "a very small musical instrument."
The most common form consists of a flexible tongue, or lamella, attached at one end to a lyre-shaped frame that is held against the player's teeth with one hand, while the lamella is set in vibration with the other.2 It produces just one fundamental pitch, whose successive overtones are amplified variously when the back of the player's tongue is moved back and forth, changing the size and shape of the oral cavity. Thus all the pitches of a diatonic scale are present, but not in consecutive order, and some are slightly out of tune.
Nontheless, the jews harp is a simple instrument in principle, but it is by no means primitive. It is a product of precision engineering—in Lewis and Clark's day, precision blacksmithing—and considerable practice is required for a performer to control its maximum potential for variety in pitch, timbre, loudness, and rhythm, to play a recognizable tune. From the mid-18th through the mid-19th centuries there were a number of jews harp virtuosos in Europe, the last being the celebrated Eulenstein, who played fairly elaborate pieces using 16 instruments tuned to 16 different fundamental pitches. Since the early 1980s there has been a resurgence of interest in "mouth music" in the United States and Europe.
Daniel Slosberg plays "Soldier's Joy," a popular tune at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.