Tobacco: Critical Shortages

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Tobacco Leaves

long brown twist folded like a pretzel

Allan McMakin photo

A tightly rolled, twisted bundle of tobacco leaves (Nicotiana tabacum), called a carrot, was convenient for chewers. A bite was called a "plug."

Rude Noises

Meriwether Lewis wrote on January 8, 1806, about the neighbors' fondness for smoking:

The Clatsops Chinnooks and others inhabiting the coast and country in this neighbourhood, are excessively fond of smoking tobacco. In the act of smoking they appear to swallow it as they draw it from the pipe, and for many draughts together you will not perceive the smoke which they take from the pipe. In the same manner also they inhale it in their lungs untill they become surcharged with this vapour when they puff it out to a great distance through their nostils and mouth; I have no doubt the smoke of the tobacco in this manner becomes much more intoxicating and that they do possess themselves of all it's virtues in their fullest extent; they freequently give us sounding proofs of it's creating a dismorallity of order in the abdomen, nor are those light matters thought indelicate in either sex, but all take the liberty of obeying the dictates of nature without reserve.

Those "sounding proofs" must have greatly amused the American visitors–almost any 12-year-old boy will happily demonstrate the consequence of swallowing lots of air. In fact, when the use of tobacco was introduced into Europe–for its "medicinal" properties, believe it or not–the verb that described its consumption was "to drink," the present one, "to smoke" arriving late in the 17th century.

It is a remarkable fact that Lewis's planning for the expedition resulted in a surplus of four essential commodities: lead for bullets and powder to fire them, ink to write with and paper to write on. It was equally significant, as far as most of the men were concerned, that they ran short of tobacco and whiskey.

In spite of the captains' judicious rationing, the men drank the last of their supply of whiskey on July 4, 1805, and some of them–almost certainly including Meriwether Lewis–must have rued that day, not knowing how long it would be before they could down another snort, and perhaps fearful of the effects the deprivation would produce in their minds and bodies. Private Collins brewed a little beer from fermented camas bread–"which," Clark explained, "by being frequently wet molded & Sowered &c."—on their way down the Columbia River (October 21, 1805), and Clark pronounced it excellent, but evidently it wasn't tried again, probably for lack of time.

From the Yellowstone River in late July, 1806, William Clark ordered Sergeant Pryor and two privates to go on ahead to the Mandan villages with the company's horses, and then to proceed to a trading post on the Assinniboin River in Canada. There he was, among other duties, to purchase from trader Hugh Heney "such articles as we may stand in need of." Pryor's shopping list included pepper, sugar, coffee or tea, handkerchiefs, a hat for Sergeant Ordway, knives, flints, whiskey, and tobacco. Regrettably, the loss of all the horses in his charge prevented the detail from succeeding.

But later, on September 6, as the reunited Corps of Discovery was speeding down the Missouri River toward St. Louis, they met an outbound party of traders whose sympathetic leader gave them a gallon of whiskey, and after 429 uncomfortable and thirsty days their dry spell was over.

Actually, the lack of liquor was a violation of military regulations. In 1802 Congress had raised the statuatory ration from half a gill to a full gill of rum, brandy or whiskey per man per day.1

Worse yet, for all but seven members of the company, had been the discovery that, as many alcoholic smokers learn, nicotine proves to be a primary addiction, and the longing for it is often harder to bear than the thirst for booze. The link between the two drugs was clear to Benjamin Rush, the nation's leading physician and unofficial surgeon general of the U.S. at the time, and Lewis's medical mentor during preparations for the expedition. Dr. Rush held the opinion that both smoking and chewing tobacco were unhealthy because they always led to drunkenness.


1. A "gill" is one-fourth of a pint, or four fluid ounces. By the modern standards of the American Medical Association and the National Safety Council, four ounces of whiskey results in a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent, at which point the consumer is legally intoxicated, and is prohibited from operating a motor vehicle. See Robert R. Hunt, "Gills and Drams of Consolation: Ardent Spirits on the Lewis and Clark Expedition" (Part One), We Proceeded On, Vol. 17, No. 3 (August 1991), 19–27.