Last Dance

On June 8, 1806, the Corps of Discovery was still poised on the bank of the Clearwater River opposite a Nez Perce village, anxiously waiting for the snow to melt from the trail across the Bitterroot Mountains. "After dark," Meriwether Lewis wrote of that evening, "we had the violin played, and [we] danced for the amusement of ourselves and the Indians." Presumably, Pierre Cruzatte was the fiddler.1

Cruzatte's name was brought up seven more times in the journals after that, but never again in connection with fiddling or dancing. There was music at least once more—on September 14th when a gift of whiskey lubricated the men's vocal cords, and they "Sung Songs untill 11 oClock at night in the greatest harmoney"—but evidently the fiddle was not part of it.

The men had been so fond of dancing to Cruzatte's tunes that if his fiddle had been irreparably damaged by accident, such a sudden misfortune would certainly have called for at least a token lament in somebody's diary. What happened?

  • Maybe Cruzatte's bow gave out. Each hair of a horse's tail has microscopic barbs which can hold the rosin that makes fiddle strings vibrate. When the barbs wear off, the bow must be re-haired, which is a time-consuming process, for only about five out of a hundred hairs in a horse's tail are suitable for bow-making, and Cruzatte's bow would have required about 150 hairs. He was assigned to Lewis's contingent at Travelers' Rest, and they abandoned his supply-on-the-hoof when they got back in their canoes and headed down the Missouri.
  • Maybe he ran out of strings. If he favored sheep-gut, as did most fiddle players, he had perhaps 30 opportunities to harvest the raw materials from Ovis canadensis.2 In any case, the string-making process is tedious, time-consuming, and climate-sensitive. The intestine must first be soaked in a lye solution to remove meat remnants and inhibit decomposition. Then the inner and outer layers of skin must be gently scraped from the muscular intestine between them. The intestine is then cut into narrow strips, which are twisted together carefully to maintain even thickness. The process includes repeated washing and disinfecting, and thorough, controlled drying. The highest string, the e-string, poses a special problem, since it has to be the thinnest (normally made of only three strips of gut twisted together), and gut strings will only stretch by 15 percent before breaking. Matter of fact, it could have been the e-string that first brought him down.3
  • Maybe he ran out of rosin. It is not the minute barbs on the horsehair of the bow that makes the strings vibrate. If it were, the bow would only produce sound in one direction. Instead, those barbs hold rosin that is rubbed on the bowhair; it is the rosin that grips and releases the string, causing it to vibrate. Rosin is made of spruce resin, paraffin oil, beeswax, and mineral oils, according to typically secret formulas. If Cruzatte ran out, or lost his supply, there was little hope, except to make-do with plain spruce pitch by boiling it until only the solid matter remained.
  • photo labeling a violin's pegs, pegbox, scroll, and fingerboard

  • Maybe it simply came unglued. After all, for two years it had endured the same daily stresses as the men: crackling dry air on the high plains and in the mountains, penetrating dampness on the Oregon coast, saturating humidity on the lower Missouri, scorching heat and bitter cold. And each of the men had themselves "come unglued" more than once. Had Cruzatte's fiddle suffered some minor structural collapse, such as a loose fingerboard or a worn peg, it could have been repaired. A common problem would be a cracked pegbox that let the pegs slip and made tuning impossible, but that could have been glued and reinforced. However, once they left Camp Chopunnish on June 10th they were hell-bent for home, and nearly all the way across today's Montana they were split into such small units that all hands were needed just to stay alive and keep going.

For whatever reason, and undoubtedly to the regret of most of the men, it appears that Cruzatte's fiddle was silent for the last fifteen weeks of the expedition.

Further Reading

Walter Kolneder, The Amadeus Book of the Violin: Construction, History, and Music, translated and edited by Reinhard G. Pauly (Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1998).

1. Private George Gibson also was reported to have played the fiddle on one occasion, but he apparently didn't have his own instrument with him on the expedition.

2. The fiction that violin strings are, or ever were, made of catgut is merely the remnant of a bad joke about fiddlers devoid of talent. Therefore, the "6 pces Catgut" in the "Recapitulation of Seven Bales & 1 Box of necessary Stores" probably was not a reference to violin strings. Moulton, ed., Journals, 3:504.

3. Steel strings were introduced in the 1870s.