Liquor Problems on the Expedition

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Beginning with his preparations for the trip down the Ohio from Pittsburgh, Lewis had to contend with "rivers," if not "oceans" of whiskey! In August 1803, he lost valuable travel time as he "waited for drunken Pittsburgh carpenters to finish the Expedition's keel boat."1 Once under way from there his party of 11 hands, "7 of which are soldiers, a pilot and three young men on trial"2 began to give him disciplinary problems from too much imbibing. The Ohio journey became a prologue for the whiskey problems suffered at Camp Dubois:

September 14, 1803, near Marietta: "Set out this morning at 11 oClock was prevented setting out earlyer in consequence of two of my men getting drunk and absenting themselves. I f[i]nally found them and had them brought on board, so drunk that they were unable to help themselves"

November 18, 1803, near junction of the Ohio and Mississippi: "landed on the Spanish side...found a number of our men who had left camp contrary to instructions and drunk."

It would have been easy for these men whenever in the vicinity of civilian settlements to find liquor in excess of their daily military ration. Whiskey in this era was a kind of medium of exchange. Keel boats carrying copious quantities constantly plied the river arteries of the frontier, serving settlements along the way. Lewis made note of such traffic November 22, 1803 near Cairo, Illinois, when he "overtook two keels from Louisville bound to Kaskaskias loaded with dry goods and whiskey."

Promptly after the party had settled in at Camp Dubois near St. Louis, the men wasted no time in finding local sources to quench their thirst. Christmas morning, Clark was awakened to find that "Some of the party had got drunk (2 fought)," and a week later he had to record "Colter . . . Willard Leakens Hall & Collins drunk." He issued orders prohibiting a "Certain [blank] Ramey from selling liquer to the Party." (This was apparently Nathan Rumsey who was agent for Elisha G. Galusha, contractor for army rations in the area.) Clark's undated notes of the period evaluating his men 3 list the drinking propensities of some of them. Collins is shown as a "blackguard" and

"Howard – never Drink water"

"Hall +_________+ Drink"

Other drinking bouts ensue:

January 4, 1804 – Clark notes "Warner Potts fight after Dark without my knowledge." (Robertson, the Corporal apparently then in charge of these men, was busted to private for failure to control them, and had himself some difficulties involving drinking. Clark's Field Notes (April 12, 1804) show Robertson designated for the return party.) Clark later (January 6th) ordered the men "who had fought got Drunk & neglected Duty to go and build a hut for wo[man] who promises to wash & Sow etc."

January 15, 1804 – "at Sun Set Maj. Rumsey the Comsy arrived with Some provisions in a waggon . . . Seven or eight men followed the waggon Intoxicated from the whiskey they receed [received] or R [Ramey, Rumsey?] on the way out of the barrel which was for the party." Rumsey was doubtless the source for part of the whiskey supply which was put on board the keel boat beyond the 30 gallons which Lewis had purchased in Philadelphia.

March 3, 1804 – Lewis punishes Colter, Boyle, Wiser and Robinson (Robertson) by confining them to quarters for ten days for having "made hunting or other business a pretext to cover their design of visiting a neighboring whiskey shop."

April 16, 1804 – "Several men confined for Drunkness to day"

May 2, 1804 – "Several Drunk"

By far the most serious or "sobering" episode in these drinking annals of the Expedition occurred in late June. The party had paused several days near the "mouth of the Kanseis" river, the site of present-day Kansas City, Missouri. On June 29th Clark records that John Collins was charged "with getting drunk on his post this morning out of whiskey put under his Charge as a Sentinal and for Suffering Hugh Hall to draw whiskey out of the...Barrel intended for the party." Hall too was charged with "takeing whiskey out of a keg this morning which whiskey was Stored on the Bank (and under Charge of the guard) Contrary to all order, rule or regulation." These were heavy crimes in the eyes of the party. Collins and Hall were tried by a court martial of their peers. Collins was sentenced to receive one hundred lashes on his bare back, Hall fifty lashes. Clark notes the party was "always found verry ready to punish Such Crimes." This incident marked a turning point in drinking problems of the Expedition, there being no further disciplinary action recorded for drinking abuses – whether because of the more severe punishment levied or simply because opportunities for infractions diminished as the Corps penetrated further into the wilderness? Were the men becoming more "civilized" the farther they got from civilization?

Distribution of the Ration

Beyond this frontier point the consumption of spirits falls into place as an orderly part of military protocol. The first Detachment Order issued May 26, 1804 after the river voyage had commenced defined how the ration was to be handled. According to this order, the men were assigned to messes, squads and places of duty on board; duties of the Sergeants were specific. Included among the duties of the sergeant at the center of the keel boat (a post "rotated" among the three sergeants) was command of the guard; he was also charged to "attend to the issues of sperituous liquors." Whiskey had also been previously prominent in earlier orders of the Expedition. For example, a large part of the very first Detachment Order, issued by Lewis at Camp Dubois on February 20, 1804, had been devoted to the ration. "No whiskey," Lewis ordered, "shall . . . be delivered from the contractor's store except for the legal ration and as appropriated by this order, unless otherwise directed by Captain Clark or myself." This order sets forth in detail a system of rewards of extra gills of whiskey each day to the sawyers and the blacksmiths during the days they labored at their tasks; the sugar producers were similarly awarded a half gill. Extra rations (or, better said, "extra shots"?) were also offered as incentives to excel in rifle target practice. The order specified that the practicing party "will discharge only one round each per day . . . all at the same target and at the distance of fifty yards off hand. The prize of a gill of extra whiskey will be received by the person who makes the best show at each time of practice."

Aside from the above rewards, the issuance of extra portions of spirits during the first year accented special days or events, as well as relieved unusual strains and stresses among the party. Until the end of September 1804 (when the supply as noted above must have been considerably depleted) the extra distributions were in gills, on the following occasions:

April 13, 1804: Clark returned to Camp Dubois after several days absence. "I give out to the men Lead, Powder, & an extra gill of whiskey."

July 4, 1804: Independence Day – "we Closed the [day] by a Discharge from our bow piece, an extra gill of whiskey."

August 18, 1804: Lewis's 30th birthday, also trial of Reed for desertion – "the evening was Closed with an extra gill of whiskey & a Dance until 11 oClock."

Were Spirits Involved in Sgt. Floyd's Death?

This later serving of an extra gill has been intruded into discussions concerning the death of Sergeant Charles Floyd which occurred two days afterward on August 20, 1804. Dr. E.G. Chuinard cites J.G. Jacob, author of The Life and Times of Patrick Gass, who wrote that the "immediate cause" of Floyd's death was as follows: "he had been amusing himself and carousing in an Indian dance until he became overheated, and it being his duty to stand guard that night, he threw himself down on a sandbar of the Missouri despising the shelter of a tent offered him by his comrades on guard, and was soon seized with the cramp cholic, which terminated his life."4 This passage was presumably based upon discussion personally with the aged Sgt. Gass (who had been elected to replace Floyd as Sergeant) more than a half century after the event. It was taken by some as an inference that Floyd had really died of "drunkenness," rather than the now generally accepted explanation of appendicitis. Considering what we know of Floyd and all the circumstances surrounding his illness, such an inference seems utterly unreasonable.

Conservation Measures

On September 30, Clark reports that he "refreshed" the men with a "glass of whiskey after Brackfast," the party having just gone beyond a possible encounter with the Tetons. A "glass" is also dispensed on October 5 near the Little Cheyenne River in present-day South Dakota. Of all the references to the issue of spirits in the Expedition records to this point, these are the first which are not referred to as "extra." Heretofore, when the extra gills were mentioned, the reader could reasonably assume that the regular, daily ration of one gill to each soldier had occurred as a routine part of each day's proceedings. At this point, if not sooner, it is a good guess that the Captains have begun seriously to conserve the supply. This seems confirmed by the next occurring reference – Clark's entry of November 3rd. Having arrived at the winter site with the Mandans, the party sets about building a "cabin." At the end of this work, Clark says that "the men were indulged with a Dram this evening." From this date on, the liquor references (with one exception) are all in terms of drams and none are described as "extra." Remember that a dram is only 1/32nd of a gill! A rather drastic cutback, particularly on the assumption that there is no longer a daily issue. Apparently there were no further distributions until almost four weeks later on November 30: Clark had led a troop on a bitterly cold venture to find the Sioux who were threatening the Mandan villages. Upon return to quarters he reported "I then Paraded and Crossed the river on the ice and Came down on the N. Side the Snow So deep, it was verry fatigueing arrived at the fort after night, gave a little Taffee [dram] to my party." (Tafia is described by journal editors as an inferior kind of rum made from coarse molasses.)

Christmas Day and New Year's, true to frontier tradition, called for less restraint. On Christmas, Clark says he "gave then all a little Taffia." Private Whitehouse amplifies this and records three "glasses" of brandy during the day, prompting much dancing and "frolick" – "kept it up in a jovel manner" says Whitehouse.5 Three "glasses" of "good old whiskey" as Sgt. Gass described it, also made the rounds on New Year's Day 1805, with more merriment resulting.6

Thereafter a long, dry spell seemingly sets in. Not until April 26, 1805 is there any mention of spirits. On that date the Corps is encamped at the junction of the Yellowstone River with the Missouri. In a meditative mood, Lewis observes his party "much pleased at having arrived at this long wished for spot and in order to add in some measure to the general pleasure which seemed to pervade our little community, we ordered a dram to be issued to each person; this soon produced the fiddle, and they spent the evening with much hilarity, singing & dancing and seemed as perfectly to forget their past toils as they appeared regardless of those to come."

Three weeks later, on May 14, 1805, one of the most toilsome and nerve-wracking days of the Expedition is recorded – at a place the Captains named "Brown Bear Defeated Creek." Here occurred the famous encounter with the grizzly which took 8 rifle balls, 2 through his lungs and I through his head, before expiring, and also the narrow escape of the white perogue with its precious cargo. After these harrowing events, Lewis wrote that "we thought it a proper occasion to console ourselves and cheer the sperits of our men and accordingly took a drink of grog and gave each man a gill of sperits." (This is the only reference to a "gill" after the entry of August 18, 1804; Whitehouse's journal however refers to this distribution as "a draghm of ardent spirits."7 Note that Lewis for the first time refers to "grog," in other words, a dilution of spirits – further evidence of rigorous conservation.

On May 29th, after weathering the assault of a stampeding buffalo bull which damaged the white pirogue and wrecked York's gun, and encountering a "most horrid stench" of buffalo carcasses near Judith's River, the Captains gave each man "a small dram." The record of this date confirms the absence of liquor from the ration over an extended period. Despite the small portion issued this time, Lewis notes "several of them were considerably effected by it; such is the effects of abstaining for some time from the use of sperituous liquors."

Two days later, May 31st, the men labor in the cold river water under the White Cliffs at the Missouri River Breaks, up to their armpits, in their bare feet or with tattered moccasins, dragging the heavy burden of a canoe – again the "evil genii" of the White perogue when the tow rope broke! Certainly it was time for a "dram," which "they received with much cheerfulness, and well deserved." The mounting stress and pain of the journey posed further needs for the Captains to "refresh" and "console" the party. Additional issues of spirits occurred as follows (all described as "drams" and as "grog"):

Issues of drams of grog

Finally, on July 4th, all hands were employed "in completing the leather boat." Whether because of finishing this task (long a pet project of Lewis's) or because of the national day of celebration, the captains "gave the Party a dram." Sgt. Ordway's journal reads, "it being the 4th of Independence we drank the last of our ardent Spirits except a little reserved for Sickness."8 Some of the men, Lewis noted, "apeared a little sensible of its effects. the fiddle was played and they danced very merrily until 9 in the evening. . . . they continued their mirth with songs and festive jokes and were extremely merry until late at night." Having thus exhausted the supply, the Corps was forced on this special day to become "independent" of spirits for more than a year. It was also on this Fourth of July that Lewis heard the mysterious, thunder-like noise in the distant West. "I am at a loss to account for this phenomenon," he wrote; but it was an appropriate sound for a day of such "Independence."

Ahead, the Corps was yet to face the challenge of finding the Shoshones and their horses, and the pain of the Bitterroot Mountains – with no prospect of "refreshments" nor "consolation" along the way. After surmounting these trials, over the hump and on the downhill grade, 3 Ω months after Independence Day, on November 21 the men enjoyed an agreeable surprise, courtesy of John Collins, the man Clark had earlier described as a "blackguard" and who had been court martialed for being drunk on post. The journals report that Collins "presented us with Some verry good beer made of the Pa-shi-co-quar-mash bread, which bread is the remains of what was laid in as [X: a part of our] Stores of Provisions, at the first flat heads or Cho-pun-nish Nation at the head of the Kosskoske river which by being frequently wet molded & Sowered &c." It seems that Collins had redeemed himself, if not earlier on the voyage, then certainly by this bit of ingenuity in contriving a beer substitute for spirits.


1. Arlen J. Large, "The Empty Anchorage: Why No Ship Came for Lewis and Clark," We Proceeded On, 15, 1 (February 1989), 7.

2. Moulton, 2:66.

3. Ibid., 2:148.

4. E. G. Chuinard, M.D., "Some Thoughts on the Death of Sergeant Charles Floyd," We Proceeded On, Publication No. 4, December 1980. J. G. Jacob's edition of Gass's journal was published in 1859 (Wellsburg, Virginia: Jacob & Smith).

5. Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804-1806, 7 vols. and atlas (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1904), 7:72.

6. Moulton, 10:68.

7. Thwaites, 7:83.

8. Milo M. Quaife, ed., The Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Sergeant John Ordway (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1916), 242.