Following the Lewis and Clark Trail

In a photograph, John Fisher holds his .47-caliber air rifle. He’s sure it impressed the Indians.  His gun is one of only four or five in the country and one of fifteen in the world.  The original, he says, “is arguably the most important gun in American History.”


Retired from teaching 34 years of high school biology, zoology, environmental science and geology, John Fisher is on his way to having the best collection in the country of gear representing what Lewis and Clark carried on their expedition.  In collaboration with Fort Mandan in South Dakota, where Lewis and Clark wintered their second year, John will be helping to make available nearly 1,000 items that include guns, medicine, period medical instruments, and many books that are the same titles and editions Lewis kept in his traveling library.  The air rifle has already made its way to Fort Mandan.

John’s house he built himself perches on the banks of the Clearwater just below Juliaetta.  Answering the door dressed in wrangler jeans, slippers, and a beige chamois shirt, it’s not immediately clear how fully he inhabits the world of the expedition, but his office is lined floor to ceiling with notebooks, articles, books, and period paraphernalia.  John looks out the window to the river as he says, “[Lewis and Clark] rode down the river in front of my house, but I wasn’t much interested.”  All that changed in 1999 when Idaho secured a grant through the Department of Education to integrate technology into the classroom using Lewis and Clark.  John began to make hands-on history trunks and encouraged other school teachers from across the nation to collect samples of plants, animals, and other things used on the expedition.

He says, “If they carried it on the expedition, I wanted it.”  He opens a folded piece of cardboard to reveal a branch of Pacific Yew, a wood used for making bows.  He made this display item for himself and then fifty more for teachers across the country, but his enthusiasm was not met with the response he had hoped for.  Although he continued to assemble twenty medicine chests, equipped with all the medicines Lewis and Clark brought on their journey – including pulverized rhubarb root, Peruvian bark, and antibacterial salve made from ponderosa pine pitch, beeswax, and lard — not many of the teachers were willing to do the same kind of collecting.


“The grant ultimately lost its way, . . . and I went off on my own collecting plants, animals, and geological specimens along the route,” John writes in the introduction to his self-published text book “Medical Appendices of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.”  Over the years, his drive to provide knowledge led to his making a list.  He went through the journals and analyzed them, highlighting with an orange marker anything about animals, yellow for food, and so on.  He opens a journal to a sample page and displays the rainbow array of markings.


His passion is obviously for medicine.  John says Lewis and Clark bought thirty three medicines – like borax and calomel — at a drug store in Philadelphia before embarking on their expedition.  They also used organic and herbal medicines, some of which they brought with them; others, they collected along the route.


John opens a jar full of dried green leaves and crushes them in his hand.  “Wild ginger,” he says, a plant that was collected along the Lolo trail and used as a poultice to protect against infection.  He lifts the top off a small, round tin and reveals a few cloves.  “Toothache medicine,” he says.  From the shelf above a high filing cabinet, he produces a 130-year-old white, porcelain jar he found on ebay.  It is three-quarters full of epispastric ointment, a thick, brown unguent made from blister beetles.  The ointment would be applied to skin, and when the skin blistered up, the blisters would be drained.  When the seller warned John the container was still full of the ancient unguent, John replied “great.”


While not working on scholarly articles or corresponding with Fort Mandan about the collection, he is often packing his trunks to take to elementary and middle schools in Lewiston and Tri-cities.  He gets a kick out of demonstrating some of the instruments: he shows how an ancient tooth extractor might have been used.  Out of the medicine trunk he brings an oval-shaped brass bleeding bowl.  He explains how he will prick a stage blood-filled bandage on a fourth grader’s arm and let the fake blood run down into the bowl.  He says there are always a few who faint, so now he’s changed the red blood to green.


In a way, Lewis and Clark’s medical supplies and medical knowledge saved them.  “When they came back from the West Coast – their third year – they had run out of trade goods,” says John.  In return for food and horses, John says, “Clark treated hundreds of Indians.”  John recalls individual cases from the journals, like Sacajawea’s baby with swelling under the ear treated with an onion poultice, an Indian boy whose frostbitten toes were sawed off, or one of the crew members treated for heat exhaustion with the bleeding bowl.


Another area of John’s interest is venereal disease on the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Books have been written on the subject, but John maintains that much of the information is incorrect.  “If you don’t understand what they knew and didn’t know, it’s easy to misinterpret the journals,” he says.  “You have to analyze every word and understand the vocabulary of the time.”  One way John learned the vocabulary and medicinal knowledge of the journals was to read medical literature from the same time period.


Between 2003 and 2006, John had the opportunity to literally become a part of the expedition as over 300 men reenacted the Lewis and Clark expedition for its bicentennial.  John opens a trunk and pulls out his hand stitched canvas bag, tin mug, and three uniforms: fatigue, formal, and skins.  He spent five months off and on during the bicentennial with the expedition, from the falls of the Ohio to Fort Mandan in North Dakota and then joined up with them again for the Lolo trail.  He says, “You come to understand the kind of things they would have to have.”


John says he hopes that eventually the artifacts will be fully documented and cross-referenced with the journals to form a database.  The database has been started, but only some of the artifacts are catalogued.  He says, “There is no other collection that comes close to what I’ve got.”


— Andrea Clark Mason

Originally appeared in The Ruralite in May 2010

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