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Lewis & Clark as Naturalists
The Journals Lewis and Clark as Naturalists

Elk

Lewis and Clark encountered Elk or signs of Elk at numerous places throughout their journey, beginning at Independence Creek in Missouri where signs of Elk were seen, up through the prairies and on into Montana. Elk were a frequent source of meat during their trip up the Missouri. As they drew close to the Rockies and planned their trip over the mountains in June 1805, they were unable to find the number they had hoped at Great Falls to provide skins to cover Lewis' collapsible boat; neither were there pines available to provide the pitch to waterproof the boat and eventually the project was abandoned. Only when they arrived at the Columbia River did they again encounter this animal that would provided much needed food and clothing for the starving Corps over the winter of 1805-1806. These Elk were the subspecies, Roosevelt's Elk.

Near Independence Creek, Missouri -

Capt. Clark, July 5, 1804--The river continus to fall a little. I observe great quantity of Summer & fall Grapes, Berries, & Wild roases on the banks. Deer is not so plenty as useal, great Deel of Elk Sign.

At Fort Clatsop -

Capt. Clark, December 2, 1805--I expect Capt Lewis will return to day with the hunters and let us know if Elk or deer can be found sufficent for us to winter on. If he does not come I shall move from this place to one of better prosects for game &c. Joseph Fields come home with the marrow bones of an Elk which he had killed 6 miles distant, I sent out 6 men in a canoe for the meat, the evening being late they did not return this night which proved fair moon shining night. This is the first Elk we have killed on this side the rocky mounts. a great deal of Elk sign in the neighbourhood.

The elk were important to the Corps for the meat they provided, for their skins for clothing, shoes, shelter, and as covering frames for small boats, and for the sinews as strong, flexible material to use as thread or rope. The following journal entries not only describe their need for elk, but also their interactions with the people around them to hunt them successfully and bring them back to camp.

Capt. Lewis, Jan 15, 1806--Their guns and amunition they reserve for the Elk, deer and bear, of the two last however there are but few in the neighbourhood. ... Their bows are extreamly neat and very elastic, they are about two and a half feet in length, and two inches in width in the center, thence tapering graduly to the extremities where they are half an inch wide they are very flat and thin, formed of the heart of the arbor-vita or white cedar, the back of the bow being thickly covered with sinews of the Elk laid on with a Gleue which they make from the sturgeon; the string is made of sinues of the Elk also. … maney of the Elk we have killed since we have been here, have been wounded with these arrows, the short piece with the barb remaining in the animal and grown up in the flesh. … their pits are employed in taking the Elk, and of course are large and deep, some of them a cube of 12 or 14 feet. these are usually placed by the side of a large fallen tree which as well as the pit lye across the roads frequented by the Elk. these pitts are disguised with the slender boughs of trees and moss; the unwary Elk in passing the tree precipiates himself into the pitt which is sufficiently deep to prevent his escape, and is thus taken.

Capt. Clark, Jan 15, 1806--Their guns and amunition they reserve for the Elk, Deer and Bear, of the two last however there are but fiew in the neighbourhoods. ... Their bows are extreemly meet [neat] and very elastic, they are about two feet six inches long and two inches wide in the Center, thence tapering gradually to the extremities were they ar 3/4 of an Inch wide, they are very flat and thin, formed of the heart of the arbor vita or white cedar, the back of the Bow being thickly covered with Sinues of the Elk laid on with a Gleue which they make from the Sturgeon; the String is made of Sinues of the Elk also, ... maney of the Elk which our hunters have killd Sence we have been here have been wounded with these arrows, the Short piece with the barb remaining in the Animal and grown up in the flesh. .. Their pitt are employed in taking the Elk, and of Course are Large and Deep, Some of them a Cube of 12 or 14 feet, those ar commonly placed by the Side of a large fallen tree which as well as the pit lye across the roads frequented by the Elk. these pitts are disguised with the slender boughs of trees and moss; the unwarry Elk in passing the tree precipates himself into the pitt which is Sufficiently deep to prevent his escape.

Capt. Lewis, Jan 21, 1806--Two of the hunters Shannon & Labuish returned having killed three Elk.

Capt. Lewis, Jan 23, 1806--The men of the garison are still busily employed in dressing Elk's skins for cloathing, the find great difficulty for the want of branes; we have not soap to supply the deficiency, nor can we procure ashes to make the lye; none of the pines which we use for fuel affords any ashes . . .

Capt. Clark, Jan 23, 1806--the men of the garrison are still busily employed in dressing Elk Skins for Cloathing, they fine[d] great difficulty for the want of branes; we have not Soap to Supply the deficiency, nor can we procure ashes to make the lye; none of the pine which we use for fuel afford any ashes . . .

Capt. Lewis, Jan 24, 1806--they brought two deer and the flesh of three Elk and one Elk's skin, having give the flesh of one other Elk which they killed and three Elk's skins to the Indians as the price of their assistance in transporting the ballance of the meat to the Fort; these Elk and dear were killed near point Adams and the Indians carryed them on their backs about six miles, before the waves were sufficiently low to permit their being taken on board their canoes.

 
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