Searching for Salines

Objects worthy of notice

Among the "objects worthy of notice" President Jefferson instructed Meriwether Lewis to watch for en route were saltpetre deposits, salines, "& such circumstances as may indicate their character." Saltpetre, or nitre (potassium nitrate) is white and tastes salty, but is not a substitute for sodium chloride. It was mixed with charcoal and sulfur to make gunpowder. The I.E. DuPont de Nemours Corporation was founded at Wilmington, Delaware, in 1802 to manufacture high grade powder, but it was not in full production until 1804, so the best gunpowder Lewis could buy was imported from Europe.

By "salines" Jefferson meant salt flats, salt marshes, salt pans, salt springs, and rock or "fossil" salt deposits. Most would contain a variety of salts, including sodium chloride, which was an extremely valuable resource for a nation whose citizens already were moving westward. The explorers made firsthand observations, and collected secondhand reports of salines such as the Salt River (now Salt Creek), a tributary of the Platte River in Nebraska.

There was one objective not listed by Jefferson in his instructions to Lewis, but believed by many people then, and even mentioned in the official description of the Louisiana Territory. That was the supposed existence, about a thousand miles up the Missouri River, of a mountain of rock salt 180 miles long and 45 wide. On that matter the expedition's diarists were mute.

Indian usage

They did, however, observe that the Shoshones were the first Indians they had met who would taste salt. "These Indians all appear very fond of salt," wrote Private Whitehouse,"and eat it with their meat &ca. This we judged from some Captain Lewis gave them." The officers had previously given salt to Indian chiefs, but we don't know if the gift was appreciated or not. Most Indians on the Plains as well as to the east rarely used it. In the West, tradition suggests that the Tillamooks and other Indians south of the Columbia may have used it, but the Chinooks to the north did not.

Welshmen and a mountain of salt

Today in the Northwest, some people are fascinated by rumors of the wild, ape-like beast known as Sasquatch. Others like to tease tourists with tall tales of jackalopes and side-hill gougers. To Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries, Louisiana Territory was full of possibilities, some conceivably real, others absurdy fictional. The President suspected that in addition to a water route to the Pacific Ocean, it might contain a species of giant ground sloth (which he called a "megalony"). More fanciful gossipers announced that somewhere out there was an immense lake of molasses, an extensive vale of hasty pudding, and prairies of soil too rich to grow trees.

Considered among the most plausible projections by thoughtful people at the time was a lost tribe of Welshmen, and a mountain made of salt. President Jefferson explained the latter to Congress. "There exists," he said, "about 1000 miles up the Missouri, and not far from that river, a salt mountain! The existence of such a mountain might well be questioned, were it not for the testimony of several respectable and enterprising traders who have visited it, and who have exhibited several bushels of the salt to the curiosity of the people of St. Louis, where some of it still remains. . . . This mountain is said to be 180 miles long, and 45 in width, composed of solid rock salt, without any trees or even shrubs on it."1

Jefferson refrained from mentioning it in his instructions to Meriwether Lewis, and all the journals are mute on the subject.

Cum grano salis

Pompey the Great (106-48 B.C.) found in the palace of his deceased friend, Mithridates (mith-ri-DAY-teez), an antidote against poison—the ancient antecedent of "gun control"—which was, according to historian Pliny (PLIH-nee; 23-79 A.D.), to be taken on an empty stomach with but a single grain of salt, presumably to counteract the bad taste of the antidote.

Sometime during the past two millennia, the expression "cum grano salis" has come to mean that one accepts an observation or a statement, if not with dread of a sudden accident, then at least with a mite of reservation or skepticism. You may, of course, choose to take that explanation with . . . a grain of salt.

Although "true believers" may take umbrage at the suggestion, there are in fact a number of "facts" in the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition that may justifiably be taken with a grain of salt. For example, Clark calculated (August 3, 1806) that the distance from today's Livingston, Montana, to the mouth of the Yellowstone River was 837 miles. Today, measured by the Talweg, or deepest part of its channel, it measures only 438 miles between those two points, and it is the only one of the rivers the expedition measured that seems to have changed its course or length little or none in the past 200 years.

Further Reading

Virgil J. Vogel, American Indian Medicine (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963).

Alfred L. Kroeber, "Salt, Dogs, Tobacco," Anthropological Records, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1941).

  • 1. Account of Louisiana, being an abstract of documents delivered in, or transmitted to, Mr. Jefferson, President of the United States of America and by him laid before Congress, and Published by Their Order. Printed at Washington, and reprinted at Philadelphia, and all the other States of the Union. (London: Reprinted for John Hatchard . . . 1804).