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8.4-8.5.12b White Salmon Trout White Salmon Trout

Image from the Lewis and Clark journals showing new animal species, described and drawn by Meriwether Lewis.
Lewis, Meriwether
1806
Manuscript

White Salmon Trout White Salmon Trout (coho salmon, Oncorhynchus kisutch), March 16, 1806, Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Codex J. p. 133,
American Philosophical Society Library

One of President Thomas Jefferson’s key goals for the Lewis & Clark Expedition was to gain scientific knowledge about the West: flora and fauna, geology, climate, and more. The two-year expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific coast and back catalogued an impressive number of plant and animal species, largely thanks to Lewis’s careful observations. The explorers discovered and described about 175 plant species, plus approximately 130 species and sub-species of animals that were new to Western science. In 1806, Lewis made these illustrations of the California condor (which he labeled “Head of a Vulture”) and coho salmon (mistakenly called “White Salmon Trout”). This was toward the end of the expedition’s long, cold winter stay at Fort Clatsop near the Oregon coast. These are original pages from Lewis’s expedition journals; note the handwritten text surrounding each image. 

What is striking or notable to you about Lewis’s illustrations? 

Are they more detailed, or more artistically accomplished, than you might have expected from a US Army expedition in the wilderness during the early 1800s?

How do you think these two species may have been important to the local ecosystem — and to Native American ways of life — along the Pacific coast of Oregon? (Salmon, in particular, are crucial to the diet and culture of many Pacific Northwest tribes.)

 

Meriwether Lewis had a “crash course” in scientific training with leading experts before the expedition got underway, which aided his ability to collect and catalog new plant and animal species that were previously unknown to white Americans. These included the black-tailed prairie dog (which they called the “barking squirrel”), the grizzly bear, mule deer, mountain lion, and pronghorn, and many species of birds, reptiles, and fish. He also described some species already known to Euro-Americans, such as bison, bighorn sheep, and beaver. 

 

The California condor is a vulture, originally endemic to large parts of North America including the entire West Coast and the Southwest. It has the widest wingspan of any bird in North America — nearly 10 feet — and feeds on carrion, including the carcasses of large animals such as horses, cattle, and bear. Surely Lewis was impressed by the bird’s massive size and long flight range.

 

Salmon was — and still is — a vital part of the sustenance and culture of Pacific Northwest Native Americans, including the Chinooks and Clatsops with whom Lewis and Clark interacted during their winter at Fort Clatsop. (Members of the Corps of Discovery reported being fed up with their monotonous diet of salmon during their long, cold, wet winter stay.) Dried salmon was also a valued trade commodity among inland cultures. People exchanged it for other food and trade goods (much like the way bison meat and corn was used on the Great Plains) in an extensive inland trading network centered at The Dalles of the Columbia River, some 170 miles upriver. 

 

In examining these illustrations from Lewis’s journals, students might consider how much more slowly American scientific and geographic knowledge about the West might have progressed without Lewis and Clark.

 

Original page from the Lewis & Clark expedition journals written and drawn by Meriwether Lewis in early 1806, when the expedition overwintered near the Oregon coast. This journal page with text and a Coho salmon drawn diagonally across the page is a detailed ink drawing, like scientific specimen observations; presumably Lewis used a quill pen.