Hooked!

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At Fort Mandan during the winter of 1804–05, the local Indians graciously offered the Corps some of their own fragrant "tobacco," which Frederick Pursh was soon (1813) to name Nicotiana quadrivalvis.1 The Indians of the Great Plains had possibly acquired the plant from the far West long before Europeans landed on the Atlantic seaboard. But it was not nearly as potent a drug as the domestic Virginia variety, Nicotiana tabacum. Sergeant Gass was to remark in his journal that the Indian tobacco was good enough for smoking, but not much of a chew, which was the preference of most of the users in the Corps.The depth of the chewers' torment is reflected in the journals from time to time. Nicholas Biddle, who edited the first edition of the journals, was told that at Fort Clatsop some of them chopped up smokers' pipe stems to suck out the nicotine residue. On Christmas morning, 1805, the captains made the dreary day a little more festive by distributing a few carrots of tobacco among the users (the seven non-users received new handkerchiefs). One way of stretching it was to mix it with the leaves and bark of the bearberry plant, or the bark of the wild crabapple or red willow, but they contained no nicotine whatsoever.2

Upon departure from Fort Clatsop, the need for rationing was all the more urgent inasmuch as N. tabacum was extremely valuable for trade and diplomatic negotiations with the Indians. So Lewis had to cut off the men's rations entirely, which condemned them to "suffer much for the want of it." When Clark and his contingent arrived back at Camp Fortunate on the Beaverhead River in July of that year, the addicts didn't even take time to unsaddle their horses before clawing at the cache where they had stored some on the way out.

Although no one in those days admitted as much, and historians still tend overlook the fact, N. tabacum was far more addictive than alcohol, and was more insidious because it didn't obviously affect its users' social behavior.3 Before the end of the nineteenth century most Plains Indians, except for a few senior traditionalists, had forgotten about their fragrant but comparatively mild tobacco. In fact, although Jefferson grew some N. quadrivalvis from seeds Lewis sent him, it is the only plant Lewis collected that is no longer found in its previous habitat

Nicotiana tabacum was widely and commonly used by the English and early American colonists, but farther inland, where conditions were comparatively dry, several different species were grown. Many Indian groups on the Great Plains used Nicotiana rustica, or "Aztec tobacco." Indians on the upper Missouri grew Nicotiana quadrivalvis var.[variety] quadrivalis, while in coastal Oregon and Washington the common tobacco was Nicotiana quadrivalvis var. multivalvis. All of those varieties of Nicotiana quadrivalis have been extirpated. To the south, mainly in the Great Basin and to lesser degrees in the Southwest and California, the Indians still grow Nicotiana quadrivalis var. bigelovii.

Tobacco is still a central ingredient in Indian cultural traditions and sacred rituals, but the price of addiction to the commercial Turkish species–diabetes, emphysema, heart problems and cancers–has clearly become too high to tolerate any longer. According to statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.1 Indians out of every 100,000 in the Southwest die from lung cancer caused by smoking; the rate among Indians in Montana and Wyoming is seven times higher, at 28.5 deaths per 100,000. Tribal health-care officials throughout the country currently are participating in the Indian Health Board's In-Care Network program called "Beyond the Pipe," which aims toward replacing Marlboros, Winstons, and the like with some of the old ceremonial mixtures–blends of wild herbs such as bearberry, mullein, red willow bark, osha root, and yerba santa.


1. The Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras had also gotten from the southwest, perhaps through intertribal trade over some period of time, the vegetables that were staples in their diet: squashes, pumpkins, watermelons, and many varieties of beans and corn. See Melvin R. Gilmore, Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region (1919; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977), p. 7.

2. However, besides tobacco there are other members of the Solanaceae, or potato family, that do contain nicotine. The most notable are Atropa bella-donna (bella-donna of Europe), Datura stramonium (jimsonweed, a plant of the Americas), and Solanum tuberosum (potato, a South American species). Small amounts are reported in such plants as celery, papaya, coca, English walnut and even non-flowering plants like the club-moss Lycopodium clavatum (running ground-moss) found in the eastern United States and in the Pacific Northwest. --James L. Reveal.

3. "It is worthy of remark," Lewis noted at Fort Mandan, "that the recares [Arikaras] never use sperituous liquors. Mr. Tibeau [Pierre-Antoione Tabeau, a fur trader] informed me that on a certain occasion he offered one of their considerate men a dram of sperits, telling him it's virtues--    The other replyed that he had been informed of it's effects and did not like to make himself a fool unless he was paid to do so--    that if Mr. T. wished to laugh at him & would give him a knife or breech-cloth or something that kind he would take a glass but not otherwise." Lewis's natural history notes, Codex R. Reuben Gold Thwaites, Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804–06 (7 vols. and supplement, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1905), 6:150. "Fort Mandan Miscellany" in Moulton, Journals, 3:460–61. A biographical note on Pierre Tabeau is in Moulton, 3:155–56n.