An Amble of Badgers

It seems reasonable to conclude that the beast Lewis saw near the Medicine River on June 14, 1805 was not a badger, for surely he would have recognized the species by that time. Private Windsor had bagged the first one for the expedition's record on February 6, 1804, back at Camp Dubois; the second was killed on July 30 north of Omaha, by which time a little more was known of its habits. Clark's quotation marks imply that Lewis may have dictated part of the description:

Joseph Fields Killed and brought in an Anamale Called by the French Brarow [properly blaireau], and by the Ponies [Pawnee Indians] Cho car tooch [properly cuhkatus].    this Anamale Burrows in the Ground and feeds on flesh (Prarie Dogs), Bugs, & vigatables—   "His Shape & Size is like that of a Beaver, his head mouth &c. is like a Dogs with Short Ears, his Tail and Hair like that of a Ground Hog, and longer, and lighter.    his Inter[n]als like the interals of a Hog,["]
his Skin thick and loose, his Belly is White and the Hair Short—    a white Streek from his nose to his Sholders.
The toe nails of his fore feet is one Inch & ¾ long, & feet large; the nails of his hind feet ¾ of an Inch long, the hind feet Small and toes Crooked, his legs are Short and when he Moves Just Suffcent to raise his body above the Ground[.]     He is of the Bear Species.    we have his Skin Stuffed—

No doubt Lewis was preoccupied with the preservation process, for his entry was shorter. "It is a carniverous anamal," he corrected Clark, and added two important details: "on both sides of the upper jaw is fexed one long and sharp canine tooth. . . . it's eye are small black and piercing." A badger had been killed in Canada twenty-five years earlier and sent to Scotland for study, but word of it had not yet sifted into the scientific community-at-large, so Lewis confidently claimed that it was "not common to any part of the United States."

In April of 1805 he sent back to Jefferson, via the returning keelboat, "Skins of a Male and female Braro, or burrowing Dog of the Prarie, with the Skeliton of the female." However, he didn't write his most detailed description of the species until February 26, 1806, at Fort Clatsop.

Owen's Dictionary, which was in the expedition's reference library, did not include an entry on the wolverine, but it did contain a short description of the "Badger, meles," or the Eurasian badger, which is somewhat larger, and of a different color, than the American version.

The badger is about the size of a small dog. Specifically, Lewis reported that "its forelegs [are] remarkably large and muscular and are formed like the ternspit dog," and "are short as are also the hind legs." Its neck is short, he continued, and

the head is formed much like the common fist [feist] dog only that the skull is more convex.    the mouth is wide and furnished with sharp streight teeth both above and below, with four sharp streight pointed tusks, two in the upper and two in the lower jawl. . . . whiskers are plased in four points on each side near the nose and on the jaws near the opening of the mouth.    the ears are very short wide and appressed as if they had ben cut off.

Its fur is composed of bristly hairs which, being yellow towards the roots, of a blackish brown in the middle, and of a deeper yellow at the tips, give the creature an odd mixture of deep brown and pale yellow, together sometimes producing a pale shade of grey; whence, in many localities, the animal itself was called the grey.1 One characteristic of the American badger is its awkward, ambling gait. "I have in two instances out run this anamal and caught it," Lewis remarked in his Fort Clatsop documentation. That's not surprising, for a badger doesn't have to run from anything; four-legged mammals know enough to keep their distance. But exactly how Lewis caught it with his bare hands is questionable, for although its normal demeanor is shy but watchful, a perceived challenge can change it into a high-speed digging machine, temporarily blinding its pursuer with dirt, and disappearing into the earth. Otherwise, it will back into the entrance of any handy burrow, and transmogrify itself into a demoniacally snapping, clawing, noisy, stinky adversary.

Badger pelts were highly valued by Indians. The "Principal Chief of the Salish" gave the captains a gift of a "Dressed Braro skin" on September 5, 1805. Artists have long prized its fur for brushes.


John O. Whitaker, Jr. The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals (revised edition, New York: Knopf, 1996).

David Macdonald, ed. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. (New York: Facts on File, 1985).

1. A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences; comprehending 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 uses of natural productions, whether animals, vegetables, minerals, fossils, or fluids. . . . The whole extracted from the best authors in all languages, by a Society of Gentlemen. London: Printed for W. Owen, at Homer's Head, in Fleet-street. MDCCLIV, "Badger." The genus Meles is the Eurasian badger.