Worth Their Salt

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Early Roman soldiers received an allowance of salt, which was called a salarium – a "salary." A good soldier had to be "worth his salt." What sort of salaries did the men of the Corps of Discovery earn? In 1807 Congress authorized double pay for the 31 officers, enlisted men, and civilian employees of the Corps. Base pay for privates in the U.S. Army was $5 per month, for corporals $7, and for sergeants $8. The majority of the privates were paid a total of $333.33 for 33+ months of service; brothers Joseph and Reubin Field received $383.32-1/3 for 37 months.1 Each enlisted man received 320 acres of land anywhere west of the Mississippi where surveyed public land was for sale.2

Basic pay for captains was $40 per month, plus a subsistence allowance. Meriwether Lewis received a total of $2,776.22, including $893.64 subsistence, for 47 months and two days, beginning April 1, 1803, and ending with his resignation from his commission on March 2, 1807. He was also given 1,600 acres of land.

Lewis had asked Secretary of the Army Henry Dearborn to re-enlist William Clark at his former rank of captain, but Congress had drastically reduced the size of the peacetime army, and Dearborn was powerless to comply, so he appointed Clark a second lieutenant in the Corps of Artillerists instead. Nevertheless, Lewis always introduced Clark as his co-captain, and the enlisted men apparently never knew the truth. Clark's pay, at a lieutenant's $30 a month, came to $2,113.74, including $823.74 subsistence, for the 43 months from August 1, 1803, through February 28, 1807. He also received 1,600 acres. The two civilian employees, George Drouillard and Toussaint Charbonneau, earned $1,666.66 and $818.32, respectively. York and Sacagawea received nothing.

A comparison of the U.S. Army's monthly pay scale in 1803-06 with that of 1999 illustrates the difference in the value of the dollar. In 1999 privates earned from $888 to $1,275 per month; corporals up to $1,429; sergeants up to $1,500; lieutenants from $1,800 to $2,300; captains from $3,200 to $3,800.


1. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854 (Second edition; 2 vols., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), II:377-78.

2. The federal Land Act of 1804 established the value of western public lands at a minimum of $1.64 per acre, down from the previous price of $2.00. In modern terms, one acre of land is equal to about nine-tenths of the area of a football field.