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The Lewis & Clark Cookbook: Historic Recipes from the Corps of Discovery and Jefferson's American

By: Leslie Mansfield
(Article was featured in 2003 Lewis and Clark Trail Bicentennial Guide)

January 18, 1803 "The river Missouri, & the Indians inhabiting it, are not as well known as is rendered desireable by their connection…with us…An intelligent officer with ten or twelve chosen men…might explore the whole…to the Western Ocean" Jefferson in a confidential message to Congress

Thus, the seed was planted for what would become in the spring of the following year the most celebrated, controversial, and profitable piece of trailblazing in American history.

But this military expedition, and it was a military expedition organized into a distinct hierarchy with two distinguished Army captains, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark which was ultimately to last over two and one half years, required an enormous amount of logistical support. In short, the old adage of "an army moves on its stomach", proved once again true. The most important part of each and every day was not necessarily the exploration, but rather the hunting, gathering, and shepherding of the necessary foodstuffs required to satisfy the appetites of thirty hearty and hale young men.



More titles by Leslie


More titles by Leslie


In all, seven tons of foodstuffs constituted, more or less, plus whatever game and wild greens the party could find during their mission, the complete nutrition of the expedition. The crew of the Corps was expected to replenish their larder along the way by hunting and gathering as circumstances and conditions allowed.

According to William Clark: "It requires 4 deer, or an elk and a deer, or one buffalo to supply us for 24 hours." Additionally, 193 pounds of "portable soup" were ordered as an emergency ration when stores ran out and game was scarce or unavailable. The soup was produced by boiling a broth down to a gelatinous consistency, then further drying it until it was rendered quite hard and desiccated. Not exactly a favorite with the men of the Corps, it nonetheless saved them from near starvation on a number of occasions.

Each man consumed nine pounds of meat per day, when available, and the designated hunters of the Corps were kept busy throughout the journey. Raymond Darwin Burroughs tallied the quantity of game killed and consumed during the course the expedition:

Deer (all species combined) 1,001

Elk 375

Bison 227

Antelope 62

Bighorned sheep 35

Bears, grizzly 43

Bears, black 23

Beaver (shot or trapped) 113

Otter 16

Geese and Brant 104

Grouse (all species) 46

Turkeys 9

Plovers 48

Wolves (only one eaten) 18

Indian dogs (purchased and consumed) 190

Horses 12

(From "The Natural History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition". Michigan State University Press, 1995)

This list does not include the countless smaller or more exotic animals that were captured and eaten by the Corps, such as hawk, coyote, fox, crow, eagle, gopher, muskrat, seal, whale blubber, turtle, mussels, crab, salmon, and trout. Nor does it enumerate the unfamiliar varieties of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, seeds, and nuts that were found to be edible. However, all are mentioned in the Journals along with detailed and sometimes lively accounts of accompanying adventures.

Deer of many species were ubiquitous in North America and venison became a primary source of protein for the duration of the expedition. Bison figured prominently during the crossing of the Great Plains, while salmon and wapato (a starchy tuber) were the staples when the Corps roamed west of Rockies. Their diet varied according to the changing terrain, the shifting climate, and with the passing seasons.

Of incalculable importance to the men of the Corps was the contribution of native foods by the Indian nations. The Mandan tribe of North Dakota brought them corn, squash, and beans; the Chinooks living along Washington’s Columbia River introduced them to wapato, a much-needed carbohydrate; and the Clastops from the Oregon coast traded elk, wild licorice root, and berries. A Shoshone tribesmen from what is now Idaho and Montana offered Lewis antelope and his first taste of salmon, and the Chopunnish (Idaho and Washington) section of the Nez Perce tribe, who ranged over Idaho, Washington and Oregon, offered dog as well as edible roots.

During their stay at Fort Clatsop, members of the Corps developed a technique for extracting salt from sea water through evaporation by boiling. Essential not only as a flavoring, of which Lewis was fond and to which Clark was indifferent, salting was a vital method of curing and preserving meat, along with smoking and drying.

Despite the apparent bounty of the ever-changing landscape and the generosity of local tribes, many were the nights when the crew of the Corps went to sleep hungry. Many were the days when shots went awry and missed their mark, or game remained hidden from sight. Relentless rain ruined drying meat, punishing heat spoiled perishable provisions, and clothing rotted right off the backs of the men. It is impossible to miss the despair in Clark’s description of their privations:

September 11, 1804 "he had been 12 days without any thing to eate but Grapes & one rabit, which he killed by shooting a piece of hard Stick in place of a ball…Thus a man had like to have Starved to death in a land of Plenty for the want of Bulits or Something to kill his meat." Clark

The following recipe is from The Lewis & Clark Cookbook: Historic Recipes from the Corps of Discoveryand Jefferson's America (Lewis & Clark Expedition) by Leslie Mansfield, an official cookbook for the National Council Lewis & Clark Bicentennial.

Home Corned Beef

Fresh meat generally spoils after a few days without refrigeration or some kind of preservation. However meat laid in a salt brine for several weeks can be stored much longer. This process, known as corning, allowed members of the Corps of Discovery, to maintain a supply of edible meat throughout the cold months of winter.

4 quarts warm water

2 cups kosher salt

¼ cup sugar

2 tablespoons pickling spice

1 teaspoon salt peter (optional)

5 pounds fresh beef brisket

2 onions, sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 bay leaves

6 whole cloves

In a large non-reactive pot, whisk together the warm water, salt, sugar, pickling spice, and salt peter (if used) until the salt has dissolved. Place the brisket in the brine and weigh down with a plate. The beef must be completely submerged at all time. Cover the pot and refrigerate for 3 weeks. Turn the brisket every 5 days.

After 3 weeks remove the brisket from the brine and rinse well. Discard the brine. The corned beef is now ready to be cooked.

Remove the corned beef from the brine and rinse thoroughly. Place the corned beef in a large pot and barely cover with water. Add the onions, garlic, bay leaves, and cloves. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover pot, and simmer for 2 ½ hours, or until very tender. To serve, slice the meat across the grain.

Serves 8 to 10


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