My Air-gun…astonishes them very much, they cannot comprehend it's shooting so often and without powder; and think that it is great medicine which comprehends every thing that is to them incomprehensible.
—Meriwether Lewis, January 24, 1806
All questions aside concerning the airgun's make and size, or where, when, and why Lewis acquired it, or what happened to it afterwards, the importance of its principal use remains paramount among them all, and is adequately documented in the journals. Apparently Lewis never used it for hunting, and only once considered it as a combat weapon. He may have had a more important use in mind from the outset, for he often exhibited it as part of the official council held with each native nation.
Formal councils were tightly scripted scenarios for political and cultural diplomacy. Timing was everything. First, the harangues: "My Children…" Then the Indians' responses: "My Fathers…" and the white men writing down everything the speakers said, which must itself have been a powerful gesture, inspiring wonder mixed with fear. Then some solemn Chief-making, confirmed with peace medals, "commissions," and other, more practical gifts. A brotherly smoke. A "Drop of Milk" (whiskey, that is), perhaps a song, or a dance to the accompaniment of Cruzatte's fiddle. Then a display of "Curiosities." A "portfire,"1 A compass arrow that always pointed in the same direction no matter which way the instrument was turned. Perhaps Clark's personal black slave, York, was brought front and center. Or maybe Lewis would demonstrate the "sagacity"2 of his big, handsome Newfoundland working dog, a giant among the typically small canines that infested many an Indian village.
Then the climax—a few shots from the air gun, which were certain to astonish the audience. With the gunstock reservoir pumped up in advance to avoid betraying any evidence that the weapon's power was man-made3 with no ramming of the ball into the barrel, no primer in the pan, no flash, no bang,4 no smoke; several bullets placed in a target without pause for reloading. Freeze for a few seconds to let the shock and awe sink in. Smile and bow, and smile again. Nod and salute the audience. Cast off, and sail away toward the sunset. It was pure theatre. A real barn-burner.
Lewis could not always leave the magic to chance, however. On 30 August 1804, the last and best day of the long, unforgettable standoff between the Corps of Discovery and the Teton Sioux, he had to underscore the significance of the demonstration. Private Whitehouse recorded the scene. The Indians enthusiastically received the captains' gifts, then danced, and were rewarded with beads.
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 harps5 & danced for us for Beads that we gave them.... After they had finished dancing Captain Lewis took his Air Gun and shot her off, and by the Interpreter, told them that there was medicine in her, and that she could do very great execution. They all stood amazed at this curiosity; Captain Lewis discharged the Air Gun several times, and the Indians ran hastily to see the holes that the Balls had made which was discharged from it. at finding the Balls had entered the Tree, they shouted a loud at the sight and the Execution that was done surprized them exceedingly.
At one o'clock in the afternoon of 10 October 1804 several Arikara chiefs assembled in the shade of an awning the captains had set up on shore near the keelboat, "and under the American Flag." The captains "made" three chiefs, gave them gifts of clothes and flags, delivered the harangue they had perfected for the Otos and Sioux, and climaxed the ceremony by firing the air gun, which duly astonished their Indian hosts.
On the warm sunny day when the captains held their first full meeting with the Shoshones, 17 August 1805, the stage was set on "a fine terf of greenswoard" in the shade of a canopy built of willow wands and a canvas sail. This was perhaps the most genuinely joyous occasion during the whole expedition, with every man in the Corps relieved and elated at having safely reached another objective; with Sacagawea and her beloved brother, Cameahwait, reunited; with, as Lewis put it, "a flattering prospect" of being able to bargain for horses, and soon proceed on. They made chiefs, distributed a liberality of gifts to all, and fed the hungry Shoshones their very first taste of corn, with which "they were much pleased." While all were still aglow with delight and good will, Lewis carried his magic wand downstage to the footlights, so to speak. His well-rehearsed air gun demonstration
was so perfectly incomprehensible that they immediately denominated it the great medicine. the idea which the indians mean to convey by this appellation is something that eminates from or acts immediately by the influence or power of the great sperit; or that in which the power of god is manifest by it's incomprehensible power of action.
How could the young chief and his minions resist the appeal of such brilliant legerdemain? How could they hesitate to share their meager viands, their modest shelters, and the few decent horses they had left after the recent Blackfeet raid? Who was really in charge here? Which chief would the great spirit favor?
The power of Lewis's Medicine Gun not only to inspire but also to intimidate proved helpful when, on 3 April 1806, some citizens along the banks of the Columbia near today's Portland, Oregon, crowded the Americans too close. Clark told the story:
in my absence and Soon after I left camp Several Canoes of men and women and Children came to the camp. And at one time there was about 37 of those people in Camp Capt Lewis fired his Air gun which astonished them in Such a manner that they were orderly and kept at a proper distance during the time they Continued with him.
The last time the air gun made the journals was Monday, 11 August 1806, the day Cruzatte mistook the buckskin-clad Lewis for an elk and shot him in the buttocks.6 Immediately suspecting a hostile Indian attack, Lewis hobbled back to the white perogue and, he wrote, "prepared my self with a pistol my rifle and airgun being determined as a retreat was impracticable to sell my life as deerly as possible." At last, he was prepared to use the weapon for the main purpose it may originally have been designed to serve not merely for show, nor for hunting, but for man-to-man combat. It was a false alarm, of course. Lewis documented the incident in detail, conceding at last, "I do not beleive that the fellow did it intentionally."
1. A portfire was a tube of paper perhaps half an inch in diameter and sixteen inches long, filled with a mixture of sulfur, saltpetre and black powder in proportions that would ensure it would ignite easily and burn for twelve to fifteen minutes. It was used to light the "quickmatch," or fuse, of a cannon or rocket.
2. Noah Webster, in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), defined sagacious as "quick of scent or thought, acute."
3. According to present-day experts on the Girardoni air gun, it could have required between 1,000 and 2,000 strokes of the pump to fill the reservoir to full capacity. Starting with an empty reservoir, it might have taken from fifteen to thirty minutes to bring it to its capacity of approximately 1,000 psi.
4. The paraphrased version of Joseph Whitehouse's journal entry for 7 August 1805 has the private saying that Lewis "fired off his air gun several times in order that the Man who we suppose is lost might hear the report." But obviously the discharge of an air gun such as Lewis carried could not possibly have made as loud a noise as a flintlock weapon. Whitehouse's original entry merely says Captain Lewis "Shot the air gun."
5. "Jews harps" were popular childrens' toys in the United States at the time, and the captains evidently anticipated they would make nice gifts for Indian boys, too, for they included more than six dozen of them among the bales of gifts for Indians.
6. Sometime after the expedition returned to St. Louis, Clark wrote a list of the contents of two boxes Lewis shipped to Washington with Lieutenant George Peter. Box No. 2 contained, among other items, "1 air gun." No further record of it is known to exist.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge-Cost-Share Program.