University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Native Americans and the Lewis and Clark Expedition: Hospitality and Hostility

Corps of Discovery’s Contact with Native Americans and Health, Medicine, and Customs

The Lewis and Clark Expedition came in contact with nearly fifty Native American tribes and soon learned that the various groups had different lifestyles, languages, and opinions of the white men. Some welcomed the explorers and were eager to trade and interact; others acted fearful or threatened. Jefferson had instructed the Corps of Discovery to befriend the Indians, develop trade relations, and collect military and scientific information.

A woman with a party of men is a token of peace.
—William Clark

Over the course of their travels, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark developed a ritual when they encountered a new tribe. They held a conference, gave gifts, and explained that the land belonged to the United States with Thomas Jefferson as their new “great father.” Sacagawea was a great asset in establishing good relations.

Captains Lewis and Clark Holding a Council with the Indians

Captains Lewis and Clark Holding a Council with the Indians. Drawing by Patrick Gass. Courtesy of The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia Library.

Generally, Native Americans helped the explorers as they traveled in the new land. The Indians offered food and valuable advice about geography. The Nez Perce, who considered killing the strangers when they first staggered out of the mountains, provided aid at a time when their help was critical to the survival of the expedition members. In September 1805 the men were nearly starving and Clark reports, “those people [the Nez Perce] gave us a Small piece of Buffalow meat, Some dried Salmon beries & roots in different States…I find myself very unwell all evening from eating the fish and roots too freely.” On their return trip Lewis and Clark again benefited from the generosity of the Nez Perce who gave horses to be used for food. Lewis writes in May 1806, “This is a much greater act of hospitality than we have witnessed from any nation or tribe since we have passed the Rocky Mountains.”

… those two cures has raised my reputation and given those nativs an exolted oppinion of my skill as a phi[si]cian.
—William Clark

Lewis and Clark used their medical supplies and expertise to foster good relations with the Indians and to trade for desperately needed provisions. Clark treated the sore back of a chief’s wife by rubbing camphor and applying warm flannel. For payment, Clark obtained two horses. The “physician-captains” frequently dispensed eye wash as “sore eyes seam to be a universal complaint among those people.” Lewis and Clark agreed that Clark would be the Indian’s physician as, “he was their favorite.”

Captain Lewis Shooting an Indian

Captain Lewis Shooting an Indian. Drawing by Patrick Gass. Courtesy of The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia Library.

However, encounters with Native Americans were not always favorable. The Teton Sioux Indians’ perception of the white men as competitors for the control of trade nearly resulted in an armed conflict. On the west coast, the Chinooks angered the Corps by stealing, and Clark writes about the need for “the protection of our Stores from thieft.” A tragic interchange occurred in July 1806 only several months before the trip’s end. Lewis, in a political blunder, informed a band of Blackfeet warriors that Americans would give guns to Blackfeet enemies who agreed to a comprehensive peace plan. Under the cover of darkness, the infuriated Blackfeet warriors attempted to steal guns from the expedition. Lewis records the ensuing fight in his journal, “R. Fields as he seized his gun stabed the indian to the heart with his knife the fellow ran about 15 steps and fell dead.” Once the Indians realized the Americans were awake and armed, they tried to run off and steal the expedition’s horses. Lewis’s narrative continues:

I called to them … that I would shoot them if they did not give me my horse and raised my gun, one of them jumped behind a rock and spoke to the other who turned around and stoped at the distance of 30 steps from me and I shot him through the belly, he fell to his knees and on his wright elbow from which position he partly raised himself up and fired at me, and turning himself about crawled in behind a rock which was a few feet from him.

Benjamin Rush’s Questions Concerning the Health and Customs of Native Americans

Benjamin Rush had a series of questions for Lewis on Indian physical history, medicine, morals, and religion that he wanted the expedition to investigate:

Clark utilized Rush’s list and added a few of his own queries concerning the treatment of smallpox and methods of inducing evacuation. Questions relative to morals appeared on Rush’s and Clark’s lists and revolved around vices, suicide, murder, liquor, and punishment for offenses.

Native American Medicine and Health Practices

Indian health practices were worthy of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s notice as in some ways they were equal to or more advanced than those of the white settlers. Similar to the white man’s medicine of the time, the Indians relied on experience and observation rather than strict scientific experiments. The Native Americans practiced bloodletting and purging, induced sweating and vomiting, and mingled their medicine with mysticism and ritual. They treated constipation with herbs, and gave enemas by utilizing horns and animal bladders. Indians chewed certain roots, made decoctions, and administered drugs in teas or by inhaling fumes. They had a good understanding of sweating, emesis, menstruation, and childbirth. Plants were used to encourage abortion, speed delivery, or prevent pregnancy. Sacagawea was given several rattles of a rattlesnake to consume to hasten the birth of her son. Lewis observed that she gave birth within ten minutes of taking the rattles, but was unconvinced of their efficacy.

Early nineteenth-century Native Americans utilized splints, traction, and immobilization for fractures; employed poultices, heat, washing, and dressing for wounds; and drained abscesses. According to Maurice Gordon:

The American Indians handled their wounds, empyemas, fractures and dislocations as well, if not better, than the 18th century white physicians. Their method of removing a retained placenta preceded Crede by a hundred years. The Indians definitely added 59 drugs to our modern pharmacopeia.

Drugs used by the Indians and unknown in Europe include cocaine, quinine, ipecac, and witch hazel. Some plants increased palatability, but had no medicinal value, such as sassafras.

Native Americans used sweat baths for a variety of reasons. Clark noted that the Indians made “great use of Swetting” and described an underground sweat house with a small hole at the top for dropping hot stones. During several months of the return journey, William Bratton was in considerable pain and had great difficulty walking. John Shields learned the sweat bath technique from Indians in his home area of Tennessee and had seen men improve after undergoing “violent sweats.” He constructed a hole four feet deep, built a fire, made a covering of willow branches and blankets, and had Bratton sit inside. He furnished the patient:

with a vessel of water which he sprinkles on the bottom and sides of the hole and by that means creates as much steam or vapor as he could possibly bear, in this situation he was kept about 20 minutes after which he was taken out and suddenly plunged in cold water twise and was then immediately returned to the sweat hole where he was continued three quarters of an hour longer then taken out covered up in several blankets and suffered to cool gradually. This experiment was made yesterday; Bratton feels himself much better and is walking about today and says he is nearly free from pain.

Several weeks later the medical report on Bratton remained positive. He no longer was considered an invalid and eventually served in the War of 1812.