A 'Lussious' Fish

Eulachon, Thaleichthys pacificus

Drawing by Meriwether Lewis

life-size drawing of a small fish

Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis. Voorhis No. 2, February 25, 18061

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highly detailed pencil sketch of a eulachon

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Two specimens of Thaleichthys pacificus caught on 15 May 2005 at Twentymile River, which carries outflow from a glacier in the Chugach Range to the extreme upper end of Turnagain Arm, 40 miles southeast of Anchorage, Alaska. Each is approximately 6.5 inches long.

Gill of a eulachon

two small, shiny silver fish

Missouri Historical Society, Voorhis No. 2

Detail from drawing by Meriwether Lewis, See Moulton, Journals, 6:350.

Tailfin of a eulachon

Highly detailed pencil sketch of a eulachon tail fin

Missouri Historical Society, Voorhis No. 2

Detail from drawing by Meriwether Lewis, See Moulton, Journals, 6:350

On February 24, 1806, Meriwether Lewis recorded that the Clatsop Indian chief, Coboway, came to the fort to sell some hats, some sturgeon, and "a [species of small fish which now begin to run, and are taken in great quantities . . . by means of skiming or scooping nets." On the same page, he wrote, "I have drawn the likeness of them as large as life." His specimen, then, was approximately 8-1/8 inches long—average for eulachons, which seldom exceed 10 inches. His drawing was, he asserted modestly, "as perfect as I can make it with my pen, and will serve to give a general idea of the fish."

Perfect enough, it seems, for an amateur. Of course, in those days long before the camera took over the responsibility for illustration, every gentleman's education included at least the rudiments of freehand drawing, which accounts for the frequency with which personal letters in that era were embellished with sketches, as well as for the wide range of skill or artistic talent that they reflected. Both of the captains drew objects, artifacts, and a few simple but crude figures of humans and animals, but neither one of them was exceptionally skillful with any subject. Neither ever took pains to create convincing three-dimensional effects, and neither could draw human figures with any hint of skeleton or muscle.

Although Clark was a gifted cartographer, Lewis was the better draughtsman of the two, and the better at drawing from life—even though he quailed at his own effort to depict the Great Falls of the Missouri, and sought out a real artist when he returned to Philadelphia. Indeed, from Jefferson's perspective, Lewis was the designated "naturalist" of the expedition, but the best of his efforts included his two drawings of the eulachon, his one of the coho salmon, and his likenesses of the heads of waterfowl. They remind us that subsequent expeditionary naturalists prudently took along artists to assist them.

Nevertheless, Lewis achieved an admirable degree of shading and nearly three-dimensional realism in those few examples that distinguished his drawings from Clark's.2 Lewis placed every stroke with an unerring sense of weight, shading, spacing, boundary, and proportion. There is scarcely a blemish, nary a blotch. The intricate cross-hatching in the gill and the almost tactile texture of the tailfin contribute to the overall illusion of form and mass. We can almost hear Lewis cautioning himself—"Patience, patience!" A comparison of the two drawings of the eulachon (Moulton, Journals, 6:343 and 350) makes it certain that both were made by the same hand. In contrast, the distance between Lewis's best and Clark's best can be seen in their respective drawings of the coho salmon, Onchorhychus kisutch (their "white salmon trout"). Lewis's (ibid., 6:422) is somewhat diaphonous; Clark's (ibid., 6:424) is more bold. Both views of the coho salmon seem disconnected from the species that can be more than three feet long and weigh 30 pounds or more.

Lewis's words painted the colors that eluded his pen.

The rays of the fins are boney but not sharp tho' somewhat pointed. . . . the small fin on the back next to the tail has no rays of bone being a thin membranous pellicle [membrane]. . . . the fins next to the gills have eleven rays each. . . . those of the abdomen have eight each, those of the pinna-ani [Latin pinna ani or analis, "anal fin"] are 20 and 2 half formed in front. . . . the back is of a bluish duskey colour and that of the lower part of the sides and belley is of a silvery white. . . . no spots on any part. . . . the first bone of the gills next behi[n]d the eye is of a bluis[h] cast, and the second of a light goald colour nearly white. . . . the puple of the eye is black and the iris of a silver white. . . . the underjaw exceeds the uper; and the mouth opens to great extent, folding like that of the herring. . . . it has no teeth. . . . the abdomen is obtuse and smooth; in this differing from the herring, shad anchovey &c of the Malacopterygious Order & Class Clupea, to which however I think it more nearly allyed than to any other altho' it has not their accute and serrate abdomen and the under jaw exceeding the upper. . . . the scales of this little fish are so small and thin that without minute inspection you would suppose they had none. . . . they are filled with roes of a pure white colour and have scarcely any perceptiable alimentary duct.

Of course, he tasted it, too. "I find them best when cooked in Indian stile," he wrote,

which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden spit without any previous preperation whatever. They are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted, even more delicate and lussious than the white fish of the [Great?] lakes which have heretofore formed my standart of excellence among the fishes. I have herd the fresh anchovey much extolled but I hope I shall be pardoned for believing this quite as good. . . . the bones are so soft and fine that they form no obstruction in eating this fish.

A few days later (March 4) Lewis added a few more points of interest:

the Anchovey is so delicate that they soon become tainted unless pickled or smoked. . . . the natives run a small stick through their gills and hang them in the smoke of their lodges, or kindle a small fire under them for the purpose of drying them. . . . they need no previous preperation of guting &c and will cure in 24 hours.

"The natives," he sniffed, "do not appear to be very scrupelous about eating them when a little feated." He meant fetid—smelly.

It is worth calling attention to Lewis's use of Linnaean taxonomy in comparing the eulachon with "the herring, shad anchovey &c of the Malacopterygious Order & Class Clupea." He was insufficiently knowledgeable in Linnaean nomenclature to use it spontaneously, so he must have consulted descriptions of the Order Malacopterygii and the Class Clupea in Owen's Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, which was in the small reference library he had assembled for the expedition.


1. Lewis and Clark probably used quill pens, carved from primary flight feathers of goose, crow, eagle, owl, hawk, or turkey. Metal nibs for wooden pen shafts were introduced in the early 1700s, although they did not become widely used until around the middle of the 19th century. The earliest nibs, made of steel, were impractical because they rusted quickly. Lewis included "4 Metal Pens brass or silver" in his "List of Requirements" (Jackson, Letters, No. 53) but there is no indication that he ever ordered them to be purchased. Instead, as indicated in "Summary of Purchases" (Ibid., No. 57) he bought "100 Quils," which probably were used on the expedition.

Lewis drew his version (Moulton, Journals, 6:343) on February 24, 1806. On the following day Clark copied Lewis's description verbatim, but the drawing (ibid., 6:350) definitely was done by Lewis.

2. George Ehrlich, "The Illustrations in the Lewis and Clark Journals: One Artist or Two?" Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 134, No. 2 (June 1990), 95-110.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program