Houghton Mifflin Textbook -
InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Textbook Site for:
The Brief American Pageant , Sixth Edition
David M. Kennedy, Stanford University
Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University
Thomas A. Bailey
Mel Piehl, Valparaiso University
Primary Sources

Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source | Related Links

Lewis & Clark: A Scientific Interest...
Meriweather Lewis

Instructors' Note
Students should see that Lewis is judging the nation's Native American inhabitants by his own cultural and intellectual standards. As an heir to Enlightenment thought, he sees them as "noble savages" but as a member of the Southern gentry he sees them as just plain "savages" whose notions of family life organization and sexual mores are distasteful to him. Lewis's drawings of Native Americans appear in the journals in the same manner as his drawings of fish, animals, and birds. For him they are part of the and parcel of the natural environment. His ideas about Native Americans, in turn, color his scientific analysis of disease vectors, especially venereal disease.

Lewis is interested in the "venerial" both as practical and scientific matters. On the practical side, he understands that his men will be debilitated by recurring bouts with venereal disease and is concerned that his medical supplies will not be last the length of the journey. (As an aside, at least one historian posits that many members of the expedition died rather young on account of the large doses of mercury prescribed by Lewis for relief of venereal debility.) On the scientific side, he is interested in the origins of the disease and works on a tentative hypothesis.

In his thinking (which is difficult to unravel in this passage) he is squarely in the middle of a debate that has yet to be resolved. One group argues that venereal disease was an Old World product, introduced into the Americas by the early European explorers. Like other microbial imports it quickly passed into the native populations and spread. If the Corps of Discovery contracted venereal disease from the native populations, the Native Americans were returning an earlier favor. Another group argues that venereal disease was one of few New World microbial products of the Columbian exchange. There is some interesting evidence for both sides of the argument. One of them is its virulence and the high mortality rate among early victims. A population that has not been exposed to a particular disease will be much more vulnerable and succumb much more quickly than one that has not, even if that disease normally develops over a long period. Lewis comments on this phenomenon in the passage. European historians interested in the topic have also noted that early victims of the "pox" perished rather quickly. Any historical forensic evidence (bone striations) is complicated by venereal disease's close resemblance to yaws, a much less deadly disorder. Last but not least, there is also the possibility of an early genetic mutation of a previous benign microbe into a much more deadly strain.

After the American acquisition of the Louisiana "surprise package" in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson moved quickly to gain a firmer understanding of the resources, opportunities, geographic dimensions, physical characteristics, and people of the new territory.

Questions to Consider
  1. To what extent were the Native Americans viewed as a part of the natural environment? How do the documents clarify the explorers' view of the human element in the ecology of the West?

  2. Why is Lewis so interested in the "venerial?"

  3. On the one hand, Lewis concludes that the "venerial" is a New World disease. What is his evidence for venereal disease as a New World malady? On the other hand he seems aware that smallpox was a European import. Is it clear what he concludes about the origins of diseases in the New World? Might some other considerations be influencing his thinking?


Lewis Journal

[Lewis] Monday August 19th 1805.

They seldom correct their children particularly the boys who soon become masters of their own acts. they give as a reason that it cows and breaks the sperit of the boy to whip him, and that he never recovers his independence of mind after he is grown. They treat their women but with little rispect, and compel them to perform every species of drudgery. they collect the wild fruits and roots, attend to the horses or assist in that duty, cook, dress the skins and make all their apparel, collect wood and make their fires, arrange and form their lodges, and when they travel pack the horses and take charge of all the baggage; in short the man dose little else except attend his horses hunt and fish. the man considers himself degraded if he is compelled to walk any distance; and if he is so unfortunately poor as only to possess two horses he rides the best himself and leavs the woman or women if he has more than one, to transport their baggage and children on the other, and to walk if the horse is unable to carry the additional weight of their persons. the chastity of their women is not held in high estimation, and the husband will for a trifle barter the companion of his bead for a night or longer if he conceives the reward adiquate; tho' they are not so importunate that we should caress their women as the siouxs were, and some of their women appear to be held more sacred than in any nation we have seen. I have requested the men to give them no cause of jealousy by having connection with their women without their knowledge, which with them, strange as it may seem is considered as disgracefull to the husband as clandestine connections of a similar kind are among civilized nations. to prevent this mutual exchange of good officies altogether I know it impossible to effect, particularly on the part of our young men whom some months abstanence have made very polite to those tawney damsels. no evil has yet resulted and I hope will not from these connections....

I was anxious to learn whether these people had the venerial, and made the enquiry through the interpreter and his wife; the information was that they sometimes had it but I could not learn their remedy; they most usually die with it's effects. this seems a strong proof that these disorders bothe ganaraehah and Louis Venerae [syphilis] are native disorders of America. tho' these people have suffered much by the small pox which is known to be imported and perhaps those other disorders might have been contracted from other indian tribes who by a round of communications might have obtained from the Europeans since it was introduced into that quarter of the globe. but so much detached on the other ha[n]d from all communication with the whites that I think it most probable that those disorders are original with them....

Source: "Flathead Indians," William Clark, c. 1805, William Clark Newberry Library, MHS # L/A 181d and Bernard DeVoto, ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, & Co., 1953), pp. 207-209.


Related Links