Measures of Torment

Page 2 of 10

Topical Summary: A reviewer's disappointment—"Interesting little animals"—Utterly harmless—The ordinary Aedes vexans—Murmurs of vexation among the Corps—The second summer—Third season—Worse comes to worst—The economy of nature—The worthless Anopheles quadrimaculatus—Alexander Humboldt scratches the surface.

"No animal on earth has touched so directly and
profoundly the lives of so many human beings.
For all of history and all over the globe she has
been a nuisance, a pain, and an angel of death.
Mosquitoes have felled great leaders,
decimated armies, and decided
the fates of nations. All this, and
she is roughly the size and
weight of a grape seed."


John Cook, the publisher and editor of The Stranger, a literary paper in Albany, New York, was disappointed. For seven years he had waited with confident expectations to read the full story, and at last the History of the Expedition had come off the press in the winter of 1814.2 As a reviewer, he was prepared to overlook any minor literary failings from an explorer who was not an experienced author, but who had been "thrown into new, and difficult circumstances, undergoing perils and privations, in the cause of knowledge." However, Cook's patience was insufficient to the challenge. According to the title page, he began, the History had been "Prepared for the Press"—which Cook presumed to mean edited—"by Paul Allen, Esquire." To him that explained the undistinguished quality of the result, for he knew of Allen as merely "a writer of verses, and some prose pieces" for the popular Port-Folio of Philadelphia.3 In April of 1807 Governor Lewis had published an elaborate prospectus for his own narrative of his and Clark's Tour to the Pacific Ocean, but Allen's substitution, belated by seven years, fell short of Lewis's goal. Cook certainly knew that Lewis had been dead for five years, but this editor—not the poetaster Allen but actually the young polymath Nicholas Biddle—had largely obscured whatever semblance of Lewis's real voice might have resided in his original journal.

Worst of all, the real meat of the story in Cook's opinion, those "various objects of natural History" that could "revive the drooping attention" of the reader, were merely hinted at, and were now expected to come from the hand of Professor Benjamin Smith Barton at some unspecified future date.4 In the present work, Cook complained, the narrative bogged down in details that impeded the reader's progress and pleasure: Unembellished reports on weather conditions, tedious enumerations of game kills, and pointless daily tallies of miles traveled may all be very important to the traveler, he admitted, "but the reader is principally interested with descriptions of objects in natural history." Specifically, in his mind, mosquitoes were not among those "objects," and the captains' persistent griping about mosquitoes was boring to the point of annoyance. "There seems to have been no opportunity missed," he frowned, "in which the incursions of these interesting little animals, are not introduced."5

Interesting little animals

Interesting little animals? Was he seriously criticizing the explorers for missing an opportunity of scientific importance, or was he just being sarcastic? Probably the latter. Size, power, majesty! Those were the expected criteria when it came to writing about animals. Bison, elk, bear, antelope and bighorn sheep! Eagles and condors! Megafauna! How could "gnats" be made interesting? Cook couldn't have known, or much cared, that Biddle had omitted fully two-thirds of the captains' original complaints about mosquitoes, nor would that have made much difference to him. Moreover, the only insects that were of any conceivable interest to the general public were those that either were problems to farmers, such as voracious beetles, or were delicate and beautiful, like insouciant butterflies. Nature's anomalies and freeloaders—ants, ticks, roaches, mosquitoes—were merely to be endured, not studied, much less admired. The mosquito was neither pernicious (as far as anyone knew) nor pretty, and there was no virtue in celebrating misery. As an "object of natural history" the little pest couldn't even claim the cachet of the predaceous yellowjacket, which warranted at least a short description from Lewis.

In his formal orders to Captain Lewis,6 President Jefferson had not expressly directed him to study mosquitoes, but he knew that Lewis possessed "a remarkable store of accurate observation on all the subjects of the three kingdoms," and could be depended on to distinguish new from known species when it seemed important.7 The president's official instructions contained only the direction that Lewis was to pay attention to "the times of appearance of particular . . . insects,"8 and he and Clark did so. Similarly, they recorded the mosquitoes' autumnal retirements. In general,however, their remarks about the little pests went no deeper than a mosquito's proboscis.

On the fifth of April 1806, obedient to Jefferson's instruction to watch for "animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the U.S.," Lewis took pains to record his observations of the "butterfly[,] blowing fly and many other insects," but saw "not any among them which appear to differ from those of our country or which deserve particular notice." At Camp Chopunnish on May 30, 1806, he repeated his opinion that "most of the insects common to the U' States are found here." For all we know, he may have been right, but Thomas Say (1784-1834), who began studying insects in 1812 when he became a founding member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and was to publish his 3-volume landmark book, American Entomology only twelve years later, must often have wished Lewis had taken Jefferson's assignment a little more seriously.

But harmless

So far as most people—including the most qualified naturalists—were concerned, the mosquito seemed everywhere merely to flaunt its ages-old reputation as the best known, most objectionable and least controllable nuisance in the world. Scientifically, it was about as intriguing as a toothache. For all its furtive history of relentless assaults on the human race, nature's stealthy Weapon of Mass Destruction kept its deadly secrets for nearly a hundred years more. Meanwhile, cruel ironies were hidden in its small size and magnified by its prodigious powers of reproduction, and its minute morphological diversities.

To further complicate the mystery, only a few of the thousands of species in the enormous family called Culicidae (koo-LISS-id-eye, the plural Latin form of the Greek word for "gnat"), were eventually to be convicted of dealing death in the form of malaria, yellow fever, dengue (pronounced DEN-gee with a hard g), West Nile virus, and various forms of encephalitis. But Lewis and Clark, like all of their contemporaries, were blissfully ignorant of those threats; understanding the connections between those afflictions and their vectors was in still in the distant future. Practically the only irremediable error Lewis committed was his failure to buy enough mosquito netting to last his party for three full summers, although that is forgivable in retrospect.9 How could he have known?

Figure 1

Aedes vexans


close-up photo of a mosquito

Courtesy John Haarstad, Cedar Creek Natural History Area, University of Minnesota

Aedes vexans (AY-eh-deez, Greek for "troublesome"; VEX-anz, "vexatious") was, and still is, the most common species of mosquito in North America, and the main one that, as Lewis complained, "invaded and obstructed" them every year from late spring until early fall. It was officially described and named in 1830 by the German entomologist Johann Wilhelm Meigen (1764-1845), whose most notable achievement was his refinement of Linnæus's taxonomy of Diptera, the two-winged family of insects. Indeed, Meigen was internationally recognized as the undisputed "father" of dipterology.

Aside from the pain of its "sting"—so minute, so intimate that the human brain interprets its cause as an irritant to be scratched—and the universal annoyance of its song, A. vexans is blameless, for it does not transmit any diseases. However, its relative, A"des aegypti (ee-JIP-tye; "of Egypt"), a sociable city-dweller and nocturnal home-invader, has been convicted as a carrier, or vector, of yellow fever. As for pandemic malaria, about one-quarter of the roughly 460 extant species of the genus Anopheles, such as A. quadrimaculatus share the guilt for distributing that scourge around the world. Both of these species were common in parts of North America at the beginning of the 19th century—the latter, however, only in the lower reaches of the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers.

Murmurs of vexation

A rumble of murmurs, mutterings and gripes highlighted by a few grim anecdotes made up the jounalists' records of their seasonal combats with mosquitoes. Clark casually marked the opening of the 1804 season with the matter-of-fact observation, appended to the workaday details that made up a busy Sunday, March 25 at Camp River Dubois: They were "verry bad" that evening. From there on the "musquetors" were just "bad," or sometimes "very bad," but by June 19, a little more than a month after leaving Camp Dubois, everyone had had enough—they thought. Sergeant Ordway reported, no doubt with a deep sigh of relief, "we Got Musquetoes bears [that is, biers or bars, all pronounced barz] from Capt Lewis to sleep in." Nevertheless, the mosquitoes continued to be more and more "troublesome,"—the adjective which in 1806 Noah Webster defined, as if he had mosquitoes on his mind, as "vexatious, tiresome, teasing"10. As the summer progressed, they became "verry troublesom," then "uncommonly troublesome," or even "extreemly troublesome." (Were the two e's just for emphasis?). They became "excessively troublesome," and "more troublesome than ever," topping out at "emencely noumerous and troublesom." One evening, three months farther up the Missouri, Clark snarled that the mosquitoes were "more troublesom than I ever saw them," although, in another few days they were merely "verry bad, wors than I have seen them." His incredulity had outdistanced his working lexicon of mild invective for journalistic purposes. One wonders if he ever vented his frustration, off the record, with some choicer maledictions—those heartfelt words "by which the man of spirit is distinguished from the man of worth."12 Can we imagine the narrowing annoyance in his eyes? The helplessness in his tone?

On the best days "the Musquetors retired a little after dark, and did not return untill about an hour after Sunrise." But their daybreak was defined by the ambient air temperature; on warm nights the females gorged themselves incessantly. And if a man sought even momentary respite in any shade available on a sultry summer afternoon, he had to contend with hordes of bloodthirsty mosquitoes.

Second summer

The situation seemed worse during the second summer on the trail, either because of the onerous monotony of the burden, or because the swarms were actually getting denser, for some reason. At the Falls of the Missouri in June-July of 1805, the men spent every moment for a full month under the constant threat of ambush by either grizzlies or mosquitoes or, more likely, both at the same time.

On July 13 Lewis dispatched six heavily loaded canoes upriver from the upper portage camp, then set out overland with Charbonneau and Sacagawea, arriving mid-morning at Clark's camp where some of the men were carving two more canoes. Meanwhile, high waves had compelled the crews of the six departed canoes to beach them until the wind died down. Such good news had a bad side. That evening Lewis groaned that

the Musquetos and knats are more troublesome here if possible than they were at the White bear Islands. I sent a man to the canoes for my musquetoe bier which I had neglected to bring with me, as it is impossible to sleep a moment without being defended against the attacks of these most tormenting of all insects.

Eleven days later he uttered his most eloquent oath, invoking a famous episode from the Book of Exodus, verses 7-12:

our trio of pests still invade and obstruct us on all occasions, these are the Musquetoes eye knats and prickley pears, equal to any three curses that ever poor Egypt laiboured under."

He continued with an unrelated but interesting sidelight:

the men complain of being much fortiegued, their labour is excessively great. I occasionly encourage them by assisting in the labour of navigating the canoes, and have learned to push a tolerable good pole in their fraize.

Editor Biddle read it differently. He omitted Lewis's Biblical analogy and ran together the dim shadows of two different statements, missing both points altogether: "The mosquitoes, gnats, and prickly pear, our three persecutors, still continue with us, and joined with the labour of working the canoes have fatigued us all excessively." Right, and tight, but tame.

At the end of July, as he walked alone beside the Jefferson River ahead of the canoes, Lewis shot a duck for his supper one day, and remarked whimsically that after he finished eating he looked for "a suitable place to amuse myself in combating the musquetoes for the ballance of the evening." The insects won again, according to the captain, who "should have had a comfortable nights lodge but for the musuetoes which infested me all night." Lewis's wording didn't amuse Biddle, who abruptly summarized the little episode: "He suffered no inconvenience except from the mosquitoes." On August 7 Lewis announced that the mosquitoes weren't as troublesome as they had been recently, but were "still in considerable quantities"; the eye gnats had disappeared, but "the green or blowing flies [were] still in swarms."

The horror! The horror!"

At Fort Clatsop on December 27, 1805, Clark recorded an experience that must have stimulated a lot of awe and speculation among the men and, doubtless, shudders of horror on Clark's part: "I Showed Capt L. 2 Musquetors to day, or an insect So much the Size Shape and appearance of a Musquetor that we Could observe no kind of differance." However, his description is problematic. Although mosquitoes are summertime pests on the Northwest Coast, they probably would not have been present at Fort Clatsop in late December, so it is now presumed by some authorities that Clark had brought in specimens of the dipterous family Tipulidae (tip-POO-lid-eye, Latin for "water fly") commonly called "crane fly" from its extremely long legs. If those supposed "Musquetors" were actually crane flies, that would accentuate the problem in his description: the comparison of his specimens with mosquitoes in terms of size. Superficially, a crane fly does indeed resemble a mosquito of comparatively gigantic proportions, being perhaps 2.5 inches (60 mm) long, with a wingspan of up to 3 inches (75 mm). Perhaps it was merely a slip of his pen; "proportions" would have been more accurate than size. Aside from that, what could account for Clark's familiar, pale lament with which he closed his draft entry for the day—"Musquetors troublesom"? Did the spectres of those mammoth "musquitors" almost make him itch? Presumably he and Lewis quickly discovered that crane flies neither bite, nor sing in one's ears.

Third season

When the peak of the mosquito season approached in early July of 1806, the captains devoted more space to the annual summer subject, especially when they took to the rivers again after the Bitterroot Mountain transit. Relieved from the two previous years' exhausting uphill labor of breasting river currents, all the men had more time and energy to cope with the little hummers. On June 12, Lewis united his own hint of humor with Clark's threadbare cliché. The days had grown quite warm, and "the Musquetoes our old companions have become very troublesome." After sundown on July 3, in the valley of Clark's River not far from Travelers' Rest, as he and his detachment were about to turn up the Cokalahishkit, Lewis reported that

the musquitoes were so excessively troublesome this evening that we were obliged to kindle large fires for our horses    these insects tortured them in such manner untill they placed themselves in the smoke of the fires that I really thought they would become frantic.    about an hour after dark the air become so coald that the musquetoes disappeared."

Biddle's tone was more restrained and less literal: "The horses suffered so dreadfully from the mosquitoes that we were obliged to kindle large fires and place the poor animals in the midst of the smoke."

Commonplace complaints swelled in an anguished crescendo that climaxed on the day when the mosquitoes were "verry troublesome indeed much worse than they were last year." Back at White Bear Islands on July 15, 1806, Lewis groaned that

the mosquetoes continue to infest us in such manner that we can scarcely exist; for my own part I am confined by them to my bier at least 3/4ths of my time.     my dog even howls with the torture he experiences from them.    they are almost insupportable, they are so numerous that we frequently get them in our thr[o]ats as we breath."

That was saying a lot. It's hard to make the taciturn Newfie howl.

During the first four days of Lewis's reconnaissance of the upper Marias River, July 16-28, mosquitoes were relatively scarce. They "have not been . . . troublesome to us since we left the whitebear islands," he penciled, without venturing any explanation. Biddle's phrasing was a little more creative for a change: "We slept in peace, without being annoyed by mosquitoes, which we have not seen since we left the Whitebear islands." Lewis wrote his version on the 20th, just two 28-mile days from the camp he would name for one of his darkest discoveries, "Disappointment." His relief came to an end on the night of the 23rd, however, when the "Musquetoes" were "uncommonly large and reather troublesome." Small adult female mosquitoes may be 4-5 mm (0.19 in), and large ones rarely exceed 16 mm (0.6 in).

Lewis again observed the effects of the winged pestilence upon animals when, on August 6, he and his hunters killed eleven deer, only two of which were fat, "owing as I suppose to the Musquetors which are So noumerous and troublesome to them that they Cannot feed except under the torments of millions of those Musquetors." The Canadian explorer and trader David Thompson, who spent twenty-five years in Canada and the northern latitudes of the U.S., observed that "All animals suffer from them, almost to madness, even the well feathered Birds suffer about the eyes and neck."12 It was nothing new. A fourth-century Roman historian reported that in the valleys of the Tigres and Euphrates Rivers, lions were said to have clawed their own eyes out or drowned themselves to escape the mosquitos' tortures.13

It was mosquitos that delayed the timely reunion of Lewis's and Clark's respective contingents after their month-long separation in the summer of 1806. Clark arrived at the rendezvous point, the confluence of the Yellowstone with the Missouri, on August second. The next morning, groggy from lack of sleep, he complained that

the Musquetors was so troublesome that no one of the party Slept half the night.    for my part I did not sleep one hour.    those tormenting insects found their way into My beare and tormented me the whole night.     they are not less noumerous or troublesom this morning.

Very early that morning he climbed a hill near the river to shoot one or two more bighorn sheep specimens, but "the Musquetors were So noumerous that I could not Shute with any Certainty and therefore Soon returned to the Canoes."

Worse comes to worst

Ever since leaving Camp Chopunnish west of the Bitterroots, the enlisted men's leather clothing had been disintegrating from sweat and daily wear-and-tear, and there had been no time to make repairs or replacements, so that by the end of July many of them were nearly naked. Clark and his contingent had anticipated that when they reached the mouth of the Yellowstone they would have some respite that would allow them to make new shirts and pants, but they paddled into the worst clouds of mosquitoes yet. On August 4th Clark described the dismal conditions at length.

Musquetors excessively troublesom So much So that the men complained that they could not work at their Skins for those troublesom insects.    and I find it entirely impossible to hunt in the bottoms, those insects being So noumerous and tormenting as to render it imposseable for a man to continue in the timbered lands and our best retreat from those insects is on the Sand bars in the river and even those Situations are only clear of them when the Wind Should happen to blow which it did to day for a fiew hours in the middle of the day.    the evenings nights and mornings they are almost [un]indureable perticelarly by the party with me who have no Bears [biers] to keep them off at night, and nothing to Screen them but their blankets which are worn and have maney holes. The torments of those Missquetors and the want of a Sufficety of Buffalow meat to dry, those animals not to be found in this neighbourhood induce me to deturmine to proceed on to a more eliagiable Spot on the Missouri below at which place the Musquetors will be less troublesom and Buffalow more plenty.

At five P.M., Clark moved their camp a short distance downriver to what he hoped would be a better location. It wasn't. "The Musquetos were So abundant that we were tormented much worst than at the point" where the two rivers met. What's more, "the Child of Shabono"—whose bier had been lost in a flash flood the previous summer—"has been So much bitten by the Musquetor that his face is much puffed up & Swelled." Conditions on the fifth of August were identical with those of the previous two days. Clark complained:

The Musquetors was So troublesom to the men last night that they Slept but very little.    indeed they were excessive troublesom to me.    my Musquetor Bear [bier] has a number of Small holes worn through they pass in.    I Set out at an early hour intending to proceed to some other situation.    I had not proceded on far before I Saw a ram of the big horn Animal near the top of a Lard. [larboard, left bank] Bluff    I assended the hill with a view to kill the ram.    the Misquetors was So numerous that I could not keep them off my gun long enough to take Sight and by thair means missed.14    at 10 a.m. the wind rose with a gentle breeze from the N. W. which in Some measure thinned the Misquetors.

They moved on. That night they pitched camp under a high Bluff, where they were "exposed to a light breeze of wind which continued all the forepart of the night from the S W, and blew away the misquetors." Temporary relief came with a change in the weather on the seventh. After sunrise a heavy rain drenched the party and forced a stop until 11:00, then resumed and "Continued at intervales all day." They camped on a sand bar at 6:00 p.m. after which the wind blew very hard for about two hours. That night "the air was exceedingly Clear and Cold and not a misquetor to be Seen, which is a joyfull circumstance to the Party." A cold night's sleep under thin ragged blankets was better than a warm one shared with mosquitoes.

On August 8, having passed the mouth of the Yellowstone but still pushing hard to catch up with Clark's party, Lewis and his detachment underwent a similar crisis: "The men with me have not had leasure since we left the West side of the Rocky mountains to dress any skins or make themselves cloaths and most of them are therefore extreemly bare. I therefore determined to halt at this place." Although the air was cold that night, Lewis had to admit that "the Musquetoes continue to be troublesome." By the eleventh they were out again in full force.

On 2 September 1806, as they neared the end of their journey, the battle was still being waged, with intermittent triumphs. "The woods being the harbor of the Musquetors," and the party "without the means of Screaning themsevles from those tormenting insects"—their "mosquito bars" had long since fallen to pieces—the only recourse was to camp on sandbars in the river where "the wind which generaly blows moderately at night blows off those pests and we Sleep Soundly."

As the captains had predicted, mosquitoes continued to plague them almost daily for the rest of the way down the Missouri, until September 9, when Ordway noticed "the musquetoes Scarse." Clark reserved his judgment for two more days before admitting that the little demons were no longer so troublesome. "From what cause they are noumerous above and not So on this part of the river I cannot account." He reconfirmed it on the fifteenth: "We are not tormented by the Musquetors in this lower portion of the river, as we were above the river plat [Platte] and as high up as the Rochejhone [Yellowstone] and . . . above its' enterance into the Missouri." He wrote finis to the curse of the Culicidae on the seventeenth: "Day worm, but fiew musquetors." Six relatively mosquitoless days later it appeared that they would be able to celebrate their return to civilization in relative peace from the accursed "musquetors."

The economy of nature

Considering the rages of mosquitoes that rose up to meet the Corps of Discovery head-on, day after day for three interminable summers, and for whose survival those 33 souls and a dog grudgingly surrendered countless cubic millimeters of their lives' blood, one may wonder why Lewis didn't take any scientific interest in those "interesting little animals"? To begin with, he was not specifically directed to do so by his commander-in-chief. Jefferson was confident that Lewis wouldn't waste his time with species that were already familiar, and Lewis confirmed that in his journals many times. Besides, who could find anything new and interesting about mosquitoes.

What might Lewis have learned about them, had he sought to? What might he have discovered that would have inspired and delighted Thomas Say? Setting aside the issue of medical importance, which was as yet no more than casual curiosity by the most advanced scientists of the time, consider the character and variety of the experiences that the German naturalist and explorer Alexander Humboldt (1769-1859) and his botanist, Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858) recorded about mosquitoes on their journey through Mexico, Columbia, and the valleys of the Orinoco and Amazon rivers from 1799 through 1804.15 For example, Humboldt wondered whether the Indians of the Orinoco valley painted their bodies with grease mixed with red and orange dyes primarily as decoration, or to repel mosquitoes.

Humboldt noticed that "an atmosphere filled with venomous insects always appears to be more heated than it is in reality." The two men were severely tormented during the day by a species that Humboldt called a mosquito (perhaps a black fly, or Simulium), "and at night by the zancudos, a large species of gnat, dreaded even by the natives."16 He observed that in the Indian villages on the banks of the Orinoco, "the plaga de las moscas, or the plague of the mosquitos, affords an inexhaustible subject of conversation. When two persons met in the morning, the first questions they address to each other were: 'How did you find the zancudos during the night? How are we today for the mosquitos?'" Lewis and Clark asked many questions of the Indians they met along the Missouri, but apparently not a single one about mosquitoes. If Lewis and Clark ever queried Indians as to how they coped with mosquitoes, or what they thought when they looked at the moon, there is no record of it. Humboldt heard from a missionary that a Salive Indian remarked, "How comfortable must people be in the moon. She looks so beautiful and so clear, that she must be free from mosquitos."

Lewis didn't look closely enough at mosquitoes to realize that he was swatting different species at different times and places. Humboldt, however, quickly learned at least to distinguish between the sexes. "Here as in Europe," he wrote, "the males, which are distinguished by their feathered antennae, are extremely rare; you are seldom stung except by females. The preponderance of this explains the immense increase of the species, each female laying several hundred eggs."

Figure 2

Anopheles quadrimaculatus

Female, wing

Close-up photo of a mosquitoe's wing

Photo by Jason Williams for the Virginia Mosquito Control Association. Used by permission.

The genus Anopheles was named by the German entomologist Johann Wilhelm Meigen (1764-1845) in 1818. The word is a Greek expression meaning "useless." Anopheles quadrimaculatus (note the quadrimaculatus, or "four spots" on the wing in this figure) is now recognized as the Eastern Malaria Mosquito. The Western Malaria Mosquito, A. freeborni, which in Lewis and Clark's day was known as A. maculipennis, is identifiable by a bronze patch at the tip of each wing.

Both A. quadrimaculatus and A. punctipennis were classified in 1824 in the genus Culex by Thomas Say, who had no reason to suspect that they were the principal vectors of protozoan parasites that produce malaria. As of the early decades of the 20th century neither species was found very often along the path that Lewis and Clark followed.17 Whether they would have found the Western species if they had spent a summer on the Pacific Coast cannot be known with certainty today.

The geographical distribution of various species of mosquitoes along the rivers fascinated Humboldt. "It were to be wished," he urged, "that a learned entomologist could study on the spot the specific differences of these noxious insects, which . . . in spite of their minute size, act an important point in the economy of nature . . . . The different species do not associate together, and . . . at different hours of the day you are stung by distinct species."18 He could distinguish some of the differences between species: "I carefully examined and described upon the spot those zanducos, the stings of which are most tormenting. In the rivers of Magdalena and Guayaquil alone there are five distinct species." Lewis might have made personal acquaintances with up to fifty different species between the Missouri and the Pacific Ocean,19 including Aedes vexans and Anopheles quadrimaculatus, but it didn't occur to him to look at them that closely. On the vernier of his sextant he had a magnifier of perhaps six power—a "microscope," he called it—with which he could at least have discovered a few of the obvious distinctions between those two species (Figures 1, 2), but evidently he never thought of using it that way. On the other hand, it wouldn't have made much difference if he had. There weren't many scientists in the United States who were ready to face the mosquito's music.

Humboldt's discoveries in Central and South America, as well as in Cuba, were first published in French, in 23 volumes, between 1805 and 1834. He was a pioneer in the sciences of physical geography and meteorology; he observed the relation between altitude and temperature; his knowledge of astronomy and his curiosity about meteor showers soon led to some important discoveries by others. He introduced the technique of mapping climates by charting isotherms; he studied tropical storm patterns; he recorded variations in the earth's magnetic intensity; and observed relationships between geographical environments and plant distribution. If Lewis had been as gifted a naturalist as Humboldt, the natural history of the American Northwest might have been quite different after 1806 than it was when the young Virginian left it. On the other hand, Humboldt's writings on mosquitoes were not among his most valuable legacies, for the science of entomology, although far from new, was still in a disorganized condition during the decade when he and Lewis were exploring their respective, far-flung corners of the Western Hemisphere.


1. Andrew Spielman and Michael D'Antonio, Mosquito: A Natural History of Our Most Persistent and Deadly Foe (New York: Hyperion, 2001), xv.

2. Cook's review appeared in the issue of April 9, 1814. It ended with the promise, "To be continued," but Cook must have lost heart, for The Stranger shut down after five more issues without another word about the History.

3. History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark from St. Louis, to the Sources of the Missouri; Thence Across the Rocky Mountains and Down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean; Performed during the years 1804-5-6; by Order of the Government of the United States. Prepared for the press by Paul Allen (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1814).

4. Not until the end of the century was Nicholas Biddle's editorship confirmed. Biddle himself, pleading the urgent necessity for returning to his obligations as a Pennsylvania legislator and a practicing lawyer, had chosen Allen to see the two-volume draft manuscript through publication, withholding acknowledgement of his own work as editor and accepting no remuneration for it. Allen's principal contribution was his invitation to Thomas Jefferson to contribute a eulogy of Meriwether Lewis as an introduction.

5. Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), the prominent physician, anatomist, linguist, ethnologist, zoologist, botanist and author of the introductory textbook, Elements of Botany, (1803), a copy of which Lewis carried, and used, on the expedition. Barton was a procrastinator to begin with, and he died unexpectedly on December 19, 1815, with his work on Lewis's natural history scarcely begun, and was never to be published.

5. This review appeared in The Stranger, a Literary Paper, Vol. 1, Issue 22 (Saturday, April 9, 1814). The paper was published in Albany, New York, in 27 issues from July 3, 1813 until June 24, 1814. Cook was also the proprietor of a reading room, charging $6 per year for admission, or $10 per year including the use of his library. Annals of Albany Vol. 6, p. 91. Albany's claim to eminence lay in its history as the oldest surviving settlement in the original Thirteen Colonies, having been chartered in 1686 after nearly 150 years as the site of successive trading posts on the Hudson River. By 1800 it was the tenth largest city in the fifteen United States, with a population of nearly 11,000.

6. Jackson, Letters, 1:61-66.

7. Jefferson to Benjamin Smith Barton, February 27, 1803. Jackson, Letters, 1:17.

8. Ibid., 1:63.

9. The netting Lewis purchased in Philadelphia in the spring of 1803 would have been made of cotton, which would have had a low resistance to tears and punctures, and would have been subject to damage by moisture and mold. Most twenty-first century mosquito netting is made of polyester multifiliment fibers such as nylon and terylene, which are stronger and lighter than cotton, and are resistant to damage by moisture, mold, and chemical insecticides and repellents.

10. Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (Hartford, Connecticut: Sidney's Press, 1806), s.v. troublesome.

11. In those days the art of swearing with eloquence, grace and good humor was much more creative and colorful than can be achieved with today's paltry dozen of overused, mostly monosyllabic expletives. Moreover, few people—and certainly neither Meriwether Lewis nor William Clark, nor even their other journalists—would ever have considered committing to pen or print such coarse oaths as today spew from the mouths of children from 8 to 85 with all the alacrity of a friendly salutation. For classic examples of old-fashioned verbal venting see the minced oaths, alliterations and euphemisms in Shakespeare's plays, in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, or in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence, by Captain Grose [pseud.] et al. (1785; repr., n.p.: BiblioBazaar, 2006), passim. See Joseph Mussulman, "Men in High Spirits: Humor on the Lewis and Clark Trail," We Proceeded On, Vol 22, No. 2 (May 1996), 10-16.

12. David Thompson's Narrative of His Explorations in Western America, 1784-1812, ed. Joseph B. Tyrrell (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1916), 25.

13. Leland O. Howard, Harrison G. Dyar, and Frederick Knab, The Mosquitoes of North and Central America and the West Indies, 4 vols. in 3 (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1912), 1:8.

14. At the close of the 20th century, one of the few places in North America where mosquitoes were still that numerous was the subtropical wilderness of Everglades National Park in the off-season. One August morning the present author, effectively protected by long sleeves, gloves, trousers pegged at the ankles, and hat with netting anchored securely under his arms, set out for a walk on a short interpretive trail into the swamp. Within less than two minutes he abandoned his plan and turned back, because the mosquitoes became so thickly plastered on the netting that he could scarcely see where he was going.

15. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, during the years 1799-1804, written in French by Alexander de Humboldt, translated and edited by Thomasina Ross; 3 vols. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1912), 2:205, 272-78. The first English translation was published in London in 1826.

16. Zancudos, or "long legs" (see Figure 1), is a Spanish name for the species we call mosquito, and the English call gnat.

17. G. Allen Mail, "The Mosquitoes of Montana," Montana State College Agricultural Experiment Station, Bozeman, Montana, Bulletin No. 188 (March 1934), 42-43.

18. Humboldt, Personal Narrative, 276. Carl Linnæus refined the late-17th-century doctrine of the "economy of nature," which embodies the concept that nature's universe is complete; nothing is wanting, nothing is superfluous, and it is perpetually in a state of equilibrium between life and death, growth and decay. The British geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875) refined the doctrine further, to the benefit of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and his theory of evolution. The doctrine is also fundamental to the 20th-century science of ecology.

19. Richard F. Darsie Jr. and Donald A. Ward, Identification and Geographical Distribution of the Mosquitoes of North America, North of Mexico (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2005), 217-221. Whether there might have been more, or fewer, species west of the Mississippi in 1804-06 is impossible to say.

Funded in part by the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation