23. St. Joseph, Missouri

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Bad Medicine

The captains' weather observations for the month of July, 1804, have not survived, so we don't know how hot it got on the seventh, only that it started out, as Sergeant Floyd remarked, a "Clear morning verry warm." Indeed, before day's end Pvt. Robert Frazer came close to being the expedition's first fatality, for he was "verry Sick, struck with the Sun."

We know nothing of Frazer's symptoms, but probably his affliction would be diagnosed today as either heat exhaustion or sunstroke, and the treatment would be to give fluids in the one case, or to cool his body in the other. Lewis did the best he knew how, but all he knew could have killed his patient.

With full faith in the theory propounded by Dr. Benjamin Rush, the leading physician of the era, that every illness was caused by irritation in the blood vessels, Lewis began by draining some blood from a vein, which only lowered Frazer's blood pressure and reduced his store of body fluids. Then he administered a dose of niter, which is a diuretic, and thus diminished his body fluids even more. In Clark's opinion, Lewis's treatment had "revived [Frazer] much," when in fact it must have been the man's youth and physical resilience that saved him.

Returning on 12 September 1806, the expedition camped at St. Michael's Prairie, opposite today's St. Joseph, Missouri. That day they met Robert McClellan, an old army acquaintance of Lewis and Clark, who was bound upriver with a keelboat full of Indian trade goods. He "gave our officers wine and the party as much whiskey as we all could drink," Sergeant Ordway reported.

Saint Joseph, Missouri, began as a fur trading post established in 1800 by Joseph Robidoux of Saint Louis. On April 3, 1860, one year before the American Civil War began, and with construction of the long-hoped-for transcontinental railroad at a standstill there, the town made a leap into history. It quickly became the eastern terminus of the Pony Express, a private enterprise that employed young horseman to carry mail in nonstop relays between Saint Joe and Sacramento, and back. The first westbound trip took 9 days and 23 hours to cover the rugged 2000-mile trail; the first eastbound trip took 11 days and 12 hours. However, after only 19 months of operation, transcontinental telegraphy outpaced the stalwart young riders and their fleet steeds, plunged the Pony Express's hopeful backers into bankruptcy, and transformed the enterprise into one of the most romantic moments in the history of the West. In that technological time-warp, Lewis and Clark's incredibly laborious step-by-step march to the Pacific Ocean and back faded into American history.

From Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air
Photography by Jim Wark
Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press.