How is it that only one person died during the more than two-year journey into the wilderness by the Corps of Discovery? With hard work and inevitable accidents, infections, including malaria, dysentery, and venereal disease—plus encounters with snakes, grizzlies, and sometimes-hostile tribes, it seems almost impossible.
“Well, they were expected to keep things in order,” Bev Hinds says. These were military men, so discipline played an important role. “We know they were required to shave every third day. They followed the rules, which led to organization and unity, and they believed in their captains. Lewis and Clark were proven, capable soldiers.”
Hinds has been talking to groups about the medicine practiced along the trail since 1998, when she did her first presentation for the Lewis-and-Clark-curious at the Yankton Lewis and Clark Days in South Dakota.
“I always liked herbal medicine,” Hinds says, so it seemed appropriate for her to dig into the well-filled bookshelves in her home and put together an educational program on the topic. Her presentation was a hit with Yankton crowds, Hinds acquired a reputation for her engaging and informative lectures, and, as she puts it, “Like Topsy, it has just grown.”
In general, sickness 200 years ago was cured by getting the culprit out of the body. "The methods used were emetics to make you vomit, diuretics to make the urine flow, diaphoretics to make the patient sweat, purgatives to empty the bowels, and then bleeding," Hinds says. “People survived in spite of medicine at that time, and the men had unbelievable immune systems. People today just haven’t eaten enough dirt and they’ve used too much anti-bacterial soap.”
One of society’s oldest maladies, venereal disease was a great concern on the trail. “Many of the Indians that the expedition encountered were blind or one-eyed from syphilis and other diseases,” Hinds says, “and who can tell where it came from. It could have been brought by sailors, trappers, any kind of traveler—and it was possibly a problem long before explorers arrived in the New World.”
Because trappers and fur traders had been working in the northern parts of the Louisiana Purchase for decades, Captain Meriwether Lewis was well aware that the Corps would encounter venereal disease in the Mandan village along the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota.
“They had brought mercury with them on the expedition because they knew that some of the American Indians had venereal diseases, and they put it on their sores until there was so much in their bodies that they started to taste the mercury in their saliva,” Hinds says.“That’s a clear indication of the start of mercury poisoning.”
Miraculously, no one died from the treatment; likewise, the two men bitten by venomous snakes lived, and Captain Lewis himself survived being accidentally shot in the buttocks by one of his own men on the journey back to civilization. Lady Luck wasn’t listed on the Corps roster, but she was certainly along for the ride.