Toxic Laxative Provides Proof of Lewis & Clark’s Montana Camp
It's blustery and snowy today (3/6) in Montana, as is often the case in March. I was scrolling the internet thinking about spring and summer and getting outdoors a little more this season when I tumbled into an interesting Lewis and Clark rabbit hole. I fell into it when I was looking up Montana State Parks. Did you know we have 55?
Every kid who went to school in Montana is at least somewhat familiar with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, so we can skip most of those details. But did you know that there is very little physical evidence of where and when they camped in Montana? Sure, we know about the initials carved into Pompey's Pillar, and their expedition is well documented. Thanks to detailed journals, historians can piece together the teams' routes based on these accounts.
The proof is in the poop.
Here's what I found quite interesting, and I certainly don't remember hearing about it during Montana History class. Travelers' Rest State Park is home to the only archaeologically verified campsite of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the nation. And they know this because of what they found in the latrine. MT FW&P wrote,
In the summer of 2002, archaeologists uncovered evidence of the Corps of Discovery's visit to the area, including a trench latrine tainted with mercury, fire hearths, and lead used in the repair and manufacture of firearms. The discovery makes Travelers' Rest the only campsite on the Lewis and Clark Trail with physical evidence of the expedition.
Mercury! Aha! Emphasis mine.
Traces of mercury from laxatives.
The National Park Service wrote about the Corps of Discovery's use of laxatives, detailing how members of Lewis and Clark's party typically ate up to nine pounds of meat per person, per day. NINE POUNDS!! That's a lot of meat. And everybody knows that a diet of no fiber can cause constipation. So before the crew set out to the wild, wild West, Meriwether purchased 600 tabs of Dr. Benjamin Rush's Famous "Thunderbolts" Bilious Pills (sometimes referred to as Thunderclappers).
Like many 1800s medicinal "cures", Dr. Rush's bowel-blasting pills contained a dangerous ingredient... a hefty dose of mercury. Mercury is a toxin when ingested, so there's that. But the upside for Lewis and Clark historians and archeologists is that mercury is not biodegradable. Regarding what would later become Travelers' Rest State Park, the NPS wrote,
...researchers were able to use journal entries, maps, a military guidebook Lewis and Clark used, and that specific mercury signature to corroborate their hypothesis that this was in-fact the site where the captains and crew spent three days in September 1805 resting and preparing themselves for what turned out to be the most difficult part of their journey.
Hopefully, the powerful laxatives provided some relief for the meat-bound intestines of the party.
About Travelers' Rest State Park
The park borders the small town of Lolo and is open year around. Lolo Creek runs along the park and the visitor center is open from April 30 to Oct 1. Interpretive programs and other events are typically scheduled throughout the summer months. Learn more about the park HERE.