Why No Beer?

Page 3 of 4

Collins's inventiveness raises a further question as to Lewis's pre-departure plans for the Expedition. Why were there no plans for producing self-made "spirits" from natural resources available in the interior during the course of the journey? The question is especially pertinent, considering that in this era of voyages of discovery, famous expeditions had been harassed by scurvy and similar diseases, and had relied on spruce beer as an antiscorbutic and a very palatable brew served to crews in lieu of "Spirits." These measures had been happily employed by such notables as Captain Cook, and later by Captain George Vancouver in 1792, navigating America's Northwest waters.1 Dr. Rush must have known of the risks of scurvy for Lewis's voyage, and of such curative measures. Both Rush and Lewis (and Jefferson also) would be expected to have professionally reviewed the lessons and experience of these famed explorers.

Indeed, Lewis did experience medical problems among his men which Dr. Chuinard has suggested may have been "mild scurvy."2 Lewis had had access to Vancouver's work while in Philadelphia preparing for the Expedition.3 If he had studied Vancouver's narratives (and those of his lieutenants) as carefully as he studied the Vancouver surveys and maps of the West Coast, Lewis would have read of the excellence of their spruce beer. This brew had been made from pine, fir and spruce trees of Northwest shores, following the example and methods recorded earlier by Captain Cook. It was then considered a rewarding refreshment and a specific scurvy fighter. But Lewis's notes and sketches from Vancouver's work were by his own admission "taken in a hasty manner" and he did not acquire a copy of the work because it was "both too costly and too weighty for me either to purchase or carry."4 It is thought that he did carry however a copy of a four-volume encyclopedia commonly called "Owen's Dictionary."5 These volumes purported to comprehend "all the branches of useful knowledge, with accurate descriptions as well of the various machines, instruments, tools, figures and schemes necessary for illustrating them, as of the classes, kinds, preparations and use of natural productions, whether animals, vegetables, minerals, fossils or fluids." It would seem safe to expect that simple beer brewing methods such as used by Private Collins as well as Cook, Vancouver, et al., would have been included therein. One can only surmise that Lewis and Clark were preoccupied with other weightier matters and did not take the time to learn how to produce beer—but at what discomfiture to the Corps! Lewis's party was thus deprived of the "consolation" of the customary drams—beer which could have been produced freely from the countryside, by "do-it-yourself" methods on a "pay-as-you-go" basis.

Though "sperituous refreshments" were not on hand after July 4, 1805, they were not out of mind—poignantly so on Christmas Day at Fort Clatsop. In that cold, wet and dismal setting, on the very day which was a traditional time for sharing grog in the harshness of the frontier, Lewis and Clark are able only to divide out "the last of their tobacco among the men that used it"; to the rest of the men "they gave each a silk handkerchief as a Christmas gift." Sergeant Ordway adds bravely, with a nostalgic air, "but all are in good health which we esteem more than all the ardent Spirits in the world."6

Spirits and Ethnography

The Captains used much of their time during these disheartening winter days to write up their findings, recollections and observations, and to bring their records up to date—just as Clark had done the previous winter with his "Mandan Miscellany." Recall that Dr. Benjamin Rush had prepared a series of ethnographic questions for Lewis in Philadelphia about Indian customs.7 On the basis of this list and others, Clark compiled for his own reference an elaborate further list8 which included the following queries "Relative to Morrals" of the Indians:

"Do they use any liquor or Substitute to promote intoxication, besides ardent spirits? Are they much attached to spirituous liquors, and is intoxication deemed a Crime among them?"

While at Clatsop, both captains recorded observations in response to these questions. On January 8, 1806 Lewis comments on "the Clatsops, Chinnoks and others inhabiting the Coast."

"These people do not appear to know the use of sperituous liquors, they never having once asked us for it; I presume therefore that the traders who visit them have never indulged them with the use of it; from what ever cause this may proceede, it is a very fortunate occurrence as well as for the natives themselves as for the quiet and safety of those whites who visit them."

Lewis adds that these natives are "exessively fond of smoking tobacco," and by inhaling it "no doubt the smoke of the tobacco in this manner becomes much more intoxicating." Other "ethnographic" comments of the Captains about Indian liquor usage appear elsewhere in the documents:

Date Tribe Comment regarding "Spirits"
June 13, 1804 Osage Of the delegation sent to Washington, D.C. Jefferson said "They are the finest men we have ever seen.
They have not yet learnt the use of spirituous liquors . . . "
Oct. 10, 1804 Arikaras "Those Indians are not fond of Licquer of any Kind." Clark adds in the Mandan Miscellany that Mr. Tibeau [sic]. a trader, had once offered an Arikara Chief a dram of spirits. The Chief replied that "he had been informed of its effects and did not wish 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 of that kind he would take a glass but not otherwise."
At the Mandans (Clark's Estimate) Chippeways "a well disposed people, but excessively fond of spirituous liquor"
Ditto Algonquins " . . . extremely addicted . . . "
Ditto Tetons and Yanktons ". . . fond of Tubacco Guns Powder & Ball Horses Knives & alls & pertically Spirrits . . . "
April 14, 1805 Ossinnaboin [sic] " . . . said to be passionately fond of Licquer . . . " which they receive "always in small kegs" when trading skins of wolves and foxes with "British establishments." Lewis comments further that "as long as they possess the means of intoxication, their women and children are equally indulged on those occasions and are all seen drunk together. so far is a state of intoxication from being a cause of reproach among them, that with the men it is a matter of exaltation that their skill and industry as hunters has enabled them to get drunk frequently."

Concerning the above observations, there is a tinge of inconsistency with the notes written by Nicholas Biddle during his visit with Clark in Virginia, April 1810, preparing for his editing of the journals. Biddle recorded then, that "none of the nations except Sioux fond of drink"—hardly a sustainable proposition in light of the above-referenced entries. It seems clear that the captains attributed any native propensities for drink to the fur trade and the prevalance of liquor as a medium of exchange on the frontier.

Gifts to the Natives

The Expedition itself frequently contributed liquor in native encounters, surprisingly liberally on occasion. For example as follows:

Date Tribe Comment
Dec. 23, 1803 Camp Dubois "Several Deleaway pass, a chief whome I saw at greenville 'Treaty, I gave him a bottle of whiskey . . . "
Dec. 25, 1803 Camp Dubois "Three Indians came today to take Christmas with us. I gave them a bottle of whiskey . . . "
May 5, 1804 Camp Dubois "a Sauckee Chief with 8 or 10 arrive & stay all night. 2 perogues of Kickapoos return from St. Louis. I gave 4½ gals whiskey & some Tobacco" [this gift could have supplied the Corps with an additional 4 days of "legal" ration on the upriver voyage!]
May 22, 1804 near St. Charles "Soon after we came too the Indians [Kickapoos) arrived with 4 Deer and a Present, for which we gave them two qts of whiskey"
June 14, 1804 Smoke Creek Encountered a group of Pawnees loaded with furs—"We gave them Some whiskey . . . "
Aug. 3, 1804 Council Bluffs After a council with the Ottos and the Missouris who asked for a "Drop of Milk," gave them a "Bottle of Whiskey" with other small gifts.
Aug. 19, 1804 near Sioux City (Iowa) Chief Big Horse in Council begs for "a Spoonful of your milk" to quiet his young men—"gave them a dram & broke up the Council."
Aug. 31, 1804   Sioux Chief complains "you have given 5 medles I wish you to give 5 kigz [kegs] with them—"
Sept. 25, 1804 Mouth of the Teton River This was the famous confrontation and nearfight with the Sioux: "Envited those Chiefs on board to Show them our boat and such curiossities as was Strange to them, we gave them 1/4 a glass of whiskey which they appeared to be very fond of, Sucked the bottle after it was out & Soon began to be troublesome, one the 2d Cheif assumeing Drunkness, as a Cloake for his rascally intentions . . . "

By this time the whiskey supply had been so diminished that no further gifts to natives are recorded, the balance being reserved for the occasional drams to the troops (referenced earlier in this article) and entirely consumed by July 4, 1805.


1. W. Kaye Lamb, ed., George Vancouver: A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World, 1791-1795, 4 vols. (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1984), 1:364; 2:605, 698; 3:937; 4:1306. See also John Frazier Henry, "Bainbridge Peninsula; How Did Vancouver Miss the Passage that Makes Bainbridge an island?" Columbia: Quarterly Review of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, WA, Winter 1990/91, pp. 42-45.

2. Moulton, 4:139n.

3. Thwaites, 3:193, 198, 206, 222, 2226.

4. Thwaites, 7:225.

5. Donald Jackson, "Some Books Carried by Lewis and Clark," The Bulletin, Missouri Historical Society, 16, 1 (October 1959), 3-13.

6. Quaife, Ordway's Journal, 318.

7. See James Ronda, "The Names of the Nations: Lewis and Clark as Ethnographers," We Proceeded On, 7, 4 (November 1981); also WPO Special Publication No. 9, August 1990.

8. Jackson, Letters 1:158.