Salt Solution

Page 2 of 5

Sea Salt

tin plate full of salt crystals

Photo ©2012 by Kris Townsend, used by permission.

The salt in this photo was made from ocean water collected and boiled while at the original Salt Works location in late December.

One more way of dehydrating the meat was available once it was in the smokehouse: Rubbing the flitches and fleeces with salt would quickly draw moisture to the surface where it could evaporate. On January 5 the salt makers, Joe Fields, Bratton and Gibson, having found that "they could obtain from 3 quarts to a gallon a day," proudly brought to the fort about a gallon of salt, "excellent, fine, strong, & white," which was, said Lewis, "a great treat to myself and most of the party," not having had any since the 20th of December.

Beyond the daily dietary needs of 33 persons, salt served functions that were equally as important as drying meat—namely, tanning hides for clothing and moccasins. At that rate, a gallon would not last very long, and the first significant if still marginally sufficient supply didn't arrive from the seaside salt works until the third of February. Lewis summarized the situation:

late in the evening the four men who had been sent to assist the salt makers in transporting meat which they had killed to their camp,…returned, and brought with them all the salt which had been made, consisting of about one busshel only.    with the means we have of boiling the salt water we find it a very tedious opperation…notwithstanding we keep the kettles boiling day and night.    we calculate on three bushels lasting us from hence to our deposits of that article on the Missouri.1

Ultimately, that calculation wouldn't work out, partly because of the unexpected month-long delay in starting across the snowpacked Bitterroot Mountains. For as long as they expected to remain at Fort Clatsop, they could only hope that, smokey or not, hot air would carry the humidity toward the ceiling and out. But for optimum drying speed the humidity in the smokehouse needed to be below 30%, whereas the average relative humidity outdoors during the months of November and December was probably close to 70 or 80% or higher.2 It seemed as if the men of the Corps, as well as Sacagawea and little Jean Baptiste, would have to choke down rancid elk meat during the coming holidays, and on through the dreary weeks of January, February and March before they could depart for drier climes.

They had teetered at the brink of despond before, as in those hungry days toward the end of their treck through the Bitterroots. But then, while their bodies grew "pore" from lack of food, their hopes were nourished by the fact that as the days went by they could see new signs of an end to their misery. At least they were moving downhill toward good hunting, nourishment, and rest. But here at latitude 46°11'20"N, only about one degree (69 miles) south of Fort Mandan's wintry snow, ice, and frigid winds at Latitude 47°17'29"N, they were trapped in almost incessant rain and high humidity, within a narrow range of comparatively moderate temperatures. While the captains had urgent work to do—reports to write and maps to draw—their men were either hunting, rushing dead meat back to camp before it got too rotten to eat, cutting and splitting firewood, or curing deer and elk hides and fashioning desperately needed leather clothing and moccasins. They began tackling that last problem immediately after their rooms were roofed and the log walls chinked to keep out the chilling wind.

  • 1. Conceivably they had bought more salt in Saint Louis (Moulton, Journals, May 4, 1804), and had chosen to deposit some in a cache (they spelled the French term as they heard it pronounced: "cash") that they dug at the mouth of the Marias River, and at one of the other caches where they had deposited excess baggage, above and below the Falls of the Missouri and at "Camp Fortunate."
  • 2. A cold spell began on January 25 with a half-inch overnight snowfall, and lasted until February 7, descending well below freezing twice. On the morning of January 27 the snow was six inches deep, and 18-inch icicles hung from the eaves. The third and last of their thermometers having been broken back on September 4, Lewis could only estimate the temperature on the morning of the 28th. He guessed it was about 15° above zero. After a temporary break in the weather the spell peaked again on February 6, when Lewis figured it was the coldest yet. By the morning of the 8th, however, he felt that "the rigor of the winter" had passed. In fact, it was so warm that he was afraid all their meat would spoil, so they hurried to cut it into smaller pieces and hang them separately on sticks in the smokehouse.