CMH Home
CMH Home
Lewis and Clark
Corps of Discovery
Corps of Discovery, United States Army Lewis and Clark Commemorative Logo
L&C HomeThe PeopleThe MissionExploreL&C Links


The Corps of Discovery’s Soldier-Salt Makers on the Pacific Northwest Coast

By Glenn F. Williams

Today, many Americans do not stop to think how important salt is, or how much we take it for granted.  For the members of the Corps of Discovery, facing hardship and privation far from the comforts of home on their cross-continent expedition, it was an important and valuable commodity.  Orderly [First] Sergeant John Ordway attested to this when he sat down to Christmas dinner in 1805 at Fort Clatsop, and commented, “[W]e have nothing to eat but poore [sic] Elk meat and no Salt to Season that with.” [1]  

Salt was not merely used as a seasoning, but in the days before canning and refrigeration, it was a preservative.  The men of the Corps did not consume all the fish or meat of the animals they killed right away, but dried some of it for consumption later.  For that, they needed salt.  An example of salt’s importance surfaced early in the expedition.  Fortunately, three soldiers who were skilled in salt making, Privates Joseph and Reuben Field, and William Werner, accompanied the expedition as it trekked westward toward the Pacific Ocean.  When the supply ran low in June of 1804, Captain Meriwether Lewis “took four or five men & went to Some Licks or Springs of Salt Water from two to four miles up the Creek,” called the “Big Monetou.”  There, on the right bank, the men proceeded to make salt.  Captain William Clark wrote, “those Springs are not Strong, “ and it took the boiling of almost six hundred gallons to produce a bushel of salt. [2]   The men deposited some of their salt, along with the heavy baggage, in a cache on the Missouri River (near present Fort Benton, Montana) in June 1805, so it would be available for the return voyage.  Upon their arrival on the Pacific coast in November, however, the Corps had exhausted its supply of salt once again.  In order to season their meat ration through the winter at Fort Clatsop, as well use on the return trip until they reached their cache, it was imperative that everyone in the company devote a portion of their time assisting the three experts make salt.

On a cloudy December 8, morning, while Captain William Clark led a five-man detachment “on a Course S 60 W,” to reconnoiter the area and the best route to the ocean, Captain Lewis sent out a detail of hunters to procure fresh meat, and directed most of the others to fell trees for the construction of a fort for winter quarters.  Clark’s mission was two-fold.  He recorded in his journal, “I determined to go as direct a Course as I could to the Sea Coast which … appeared to be at no great distance from us, my principal object is to look out a place to make Salt.”  The men also took time to “blaze the road or rout that the men out hunting might find the direction to the fort if they should get lost, “ as well as determine “the probability of game in that direction, for the Support of the Men.” [3]  

By December 28, Fort Clatsop was completed, and the men moved inside its walls.  Their supply of salt was also exhausted.  Clark directed Privates Joseph Field, William Bratton, and George Gibson to proceed to the ocean, and “at some convenient place form a Camp and Commence making Salt with 5 of the largest Kittles [sic].”  Privates Peter Weiser and Alexander Willard were also sent to “assist them in carrying the Kittles to the Sea Coast,” and return to Fort Clatsop.  The remaining men were detailed to either hunt or placing the pickets and making the gates for the fort.” [4]

On New Years Day of 1806, the captains began to feel “uneasy” about the failure of Willard and Weiser to return from the salt making camp.  When they set out with the salt makers, the pair had been instructed to return immediately, but the officers reflected that “their not having returned induces us too believe it probable that they have missed their way.” [5]   After an absence of five days, Lewis sent Sergeant Patrick Gass and Private George Shannon to find the salt making detail, “somewhere on the coast to the S W of us, to inquire after Willard and Wiser [sic] who have not yet returned.” [6]

            Despite the concern, the men were safe.  When Weiser and Willard arrived back at Fort Clatsop on the evening of January 5, the men explained that they were not lost, as had been feared, but that it had in fact taken them five days to “find a convenient place for making salt.”  At length, they established their camp on the coast about fifteen miles south west of Fort Clatsop (in the area of present Seaside, Oregon), near the lodges of some Killamuck families.  The men reported that the local Indians were very friendly and had given them a considerable quantity of the blubber of a whale, which had washed up on the beach some distance farther down the coast. [7]

            The salt makers and their helpers had “erected a comfortable camp,” and killed an elk and several deer, thus securing a good store of meat for their rations.  After they finished building the cairns from rocks, they were ready to begin.  The process involved boiling seawater in their five large kettles on top of the cairns until it evaporated.  They then scraped the crystallized salt from the sides of the kettles.  The salt-makers’ camp required easy access to ocean water as well as trees that could be provide wood to fuel the fires.  The cairns were located in an area where local game could be found to feed the soldiers assigned to salt making duty.  The men estimated that they could make from three quarts to one gallon per day.  Willard and Weiser brought back a sample of their product, which Clark described as “excellent white & fine, but not so strong as the rock salt or that made in Kentucky or the Western parts of the U, States.”  He went on to say, “[T]his salt was a great treat to most of the party, having not had any Since the 20th ulto  [A]s  to my self I care but little whether I have any with my meat or not; provided the meat is fat, having from habit become entirely cearless [sic] about my diat [sic]…” [8]   Private Joseph Whitehouse also recorded the event in his diary, writing, “[T]hese Men brought with them about 2 Gallons of excellent Salt, which was made their mention’d [sic] that the party there could make plenty of it.” [9]   

            The next day, January 6, Sergeant Gass and Private Shannon, who had been sent to find Willard and Wiser, arrived at the seaside camp, and discovered “our salt makers at work.”  He added that “Two of their detachment [Willard and Wiser] had set out for the fort on the 4th and the man that had come with me [Shannon] and two more went to hunt.” [10]   Four days later, while returning to Fort Clatsop from a scout down the coast, Captain Clark paused, and detailed some men to assist the salt makers bring two elk which they had killed.  Clark also ordered Sergeant Gass to remain with the salt makers until Shannon returned from hunting, then both men would return to Fort Clatsop. [11]

            It seemed, however, that game was not as plentiful near the salt makers’ camp as originally hoped.  On January 25, Clark recorded,  “[I]n the evening [Private John] Collins one of the Saltmakers returned and reported that they had made about one bushel of Salt and that himself and two others had hunted from the Salt Camp for five days without killing anything and they had been obliged to Subsist on Some whale which they purchased from the natives.” [12]   The next morning, Lewis and Clark ordered Collins to return and rejoin the salt makers.  They gave him “Some Small articles of Merchendize [sic] to purchase Some provisions from the Indians in the event of their Still being unfortunate in the chase.” [13]    

            Knowing theirs was a big job, in order for the salt makers to focus their attention on the task throughout their stay on the coast, the officers began regularly sending other soldiers to assist them with hunting game and carrying the meat to their camp.  About noon on the twenty-eighth, after a delay caused by bad weather, Privates Thomas Howard and William Werner returned to Clatsop with a supply of salt after helping the men on the coast.  Upon their return, they informed the captains that the salt makers were “still much straightened for provisions, having killed two deer only in the last six days.” [14] Even more men were sent to assist with the hunting.  One group of four returned on the evening of February 3, to report that they had assisted in carrying meat to the salt camp, and returned to Fort Clatsop bringing “all the salt which had been made, consisting of about one bushel only.”  Lewis and Clark recorded in their journals, “[W]ith the means we have of boiling salt, notwithstanding we keep the kettles boiling day and night.  [W]e calculate on three bushels lasting us from hence to our deposits of that article on the Missouri.” [15]   

            The lack of game was not the only hardship the salt makers faced.  The journal entries for February 10, 1806, recorded that, “Willard arrived late in the evening from the Saltworks, had cut his knee very badly with his tomahawk.”  The soldier had managed to kill four elk not far from the salt works two days before.  After he had butchered and carried part of the meat to camp, the injury prevented him from being of any further use, and he returned to Fort Clatsop to receive medical attention and recuperate.  Private Willard went on to inform Captains Lewis and Clark that Bratton was very ill, and that Gibson was so sick that he could not sit up or walk without assistance, and requested to be brought back to the fort. [16]   Accordingly, the next morning, February 11, the commanding officers sent Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor with a party of four men to bring Gibson back to the fort by canoe.  They also sent Privates John Colter and Private Peter Weiser to the Salt works to carry on the business of making salt with Joseph Fields.  As Bratton had been sick, the captains ordered him to return to the Fort if “he continued unwell.” [17]     

            After three days, Pryor and his detachment had not yet returned, and the two captains began to worry once again about the delay.  About 3 o’clock in the afternoon of February 15, Private Bratton arrived with word that Pryor’s detachment was at last on their way, carrying Gibson, “so much reduced that he can not stand alone,” on a litter.  Although his appearance showed the effects of his illness, Bratton at least seemed to be getting better.  When Pryor arrived after dark, Lewis and Clark were “much pleased in finding [Gibson] by no means as ill as we had expected.”  Although suffering from a fever and “much reduced,” he appeared to be out of danger.  The two captains believed that his illness “originated in a violent cold which he contracted in hunting and pursuing Elk and other game through the swam[p] and marshes about the salt works.” [18]

            While Bratton and Gibson recovered from their illnesses, at 2:00 PM on February 17, Private Joseph Fields arrived at Fort Clatsop from the salt works to inform Captains Lewis and Clark that they had about two kegs of salt on hand.  When added to that already carried back to the fort, this brought the total produced to about twenty gallons, which was considered sufficient to last the men of the Corps until they reached the salt left behind in a cache on the Missouri River.  The commanding officers alerted Sergeant Ordway to take Fields and five other men to help the salt makers evacuate their camp and bring the salt, kettles, utensils and baggage back to the fort.” [19]   

            After being delayed for two days by rough water in the bay that prevented them from passing the entrance, and paddling up the creek in their canoe, Sergeant Ordway and his six men set out by land.  Private Joseph Whitehouse later described that the patrol could not proceed in the storm “without suffering by the Sand blowing in our faces” and being pelted by freezing rain. [20]   The sergeant and his detail set out early on February 21 for the return to Fort Clatsop, but when they had gone about half way, it started raining very hard again.  High winds prevented them from crossing the creek by canoe, so they had to wade.  Whitehouse wrote “It continued raining very hard which occasioned that party to hurry on & they walked very fast until they arrived at the fort.”  When Sergeant Ordway and the men arrived, Lewis and Clark recorded that “[O]ur stock of salt is now about 20 Gallons; 12 gallons of which we secured in 2 small iron bound kegs and laid by for our voyage.” [21]

            The effort to make salt during the winter of 1805-1806 on the Pacific coast provides us yet another example of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Soldiers of the Corps of Discovery.  Privates Joseph and Reuben Field in particular applied the skills they learned in civilian life toward the accomplishment of their unit’s mission.  Not unlike the Soldiers of today, the salt makers demonstrated adherence to the Army and Soldier Values, ingenuity and initiative, and contributed to the success of their unit’s mission.  

[1] Moulton, Gary ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Volume 9, The Journals of John Ordway, May 14, 1804 – September 23, 1806, and Charles Floyd, May 14 – August 18, 1804 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 262.

[2] Bergon, Frank ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1989), 9.

[3] Thwaites, Reuben Gold ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804-1806, Volume 3, Part I (New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1905), 271.

[4] Ibid 292-293.

[5] Ibid 302.

[6] Ibid 309.

[7] Ibid 312-314.

[8] Ibid 314.

[9] Moulton, Gary ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Volume 11, The Journals of Joseph Whitehouse, May 14, 1804 – April 2, 1806 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 410).

[10] Moulton, Gary ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Volume 10, The Journal of Patrick Gass, May 14, 1804 – September 23, 1806 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 187; MacGregor, Carol Lynn, The Journals of Patrick Gass: Member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1997), 162.

[11]   Thwaites, Reuben Gold ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804-1806, Volume 3, Part I, 335

[12]   Thwaites, Reuben Gold ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804-1806, Volume 4, Part I (New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1905), 12-13.

[13] Ibid, 4: 14

[14] Ibid 4: 18, 20.

[15] Ibid 4: 39-40.

[16] Ibid 4: 57-58.

[17] Ibid 4: 58-61.

[18] Ibid 4: 68-70.

[19] Ibid 4: 81, 83; Moulton, Gary ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 10: 193; MacGregor, Carol Lynn, The Journals of Patrick Gass, 165.

[20] Thwaites, Reuben Gold ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804-1806, 4: 87-88; Moulton, Gary ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 11:  421.

[21] Thwaites, Reuben Gold ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 4: 92, 94;  Moulton, Gary ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 11: 422.



L&C Home      The People      The Mission      Explore     L&C Links
Center of Military History      US Army