The Lewis and Clark Corp of Discovery expedition was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 to explore the lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. It began in St. Louis and traveled over the continental divide to the Pacific Ocean, gathering information and introducing the world to the wonders of the American West.
Over roughly three years the Corps of Discovery saw things no American previously had and the recorded all kinds of new wildlife and plant life that led to decades of study back in the civilized world of the American East coast. It also opened the door to the American west as the expedition over the years would serve as the unofficial publicist for this western frontier. For as much as Lewis and Clark discovered what was there they also took plenty of America of the time with them, and that included Christmas.
Lewis and Clark both had deep roots in Virginia. They celebrated three Christmases along the trail in the grand Southern tradition—which is to say, the emphasis was food and drink, frolic, and merriment.
William Clark seems to have particularly loved Christmas, and his journal reveals a lot about how the Corps of Discovery viewed the holiday. On Christmas Day of 1803, Clark was in charge of the men in camp at Wood River, Illinois. Clark recorded in his journal:
Christmas 25th Decr: I was wakened by a Christmas discharge found that Some of the party had got Drunk <2 fought,> the men frolicked and hunted all day.
Clark further reported that three Indians came to camp to “take Christmas with us.” He gave them a bottle of whiskey for a present, and they all sat around talking politics.
Christmas in 1804 found Lewis and Clark at Fort Mandan in present-day North Dakota. On Christmas eve, the captains issued flour, dried apples, and pepper to each of the different messes “to enable them to celebrate Christmas in a proper and social manner,” as Sergeant Gass put it.
One year later in 1806, the Corps was marooned at Fort Clatsop in the rainy and inhospitable forest on the Pacific Northwest coast, but they still found time for a gift exchange and celebration—albeit one woefully without alcohol. Sergeant Joseph Whitehouse wrote:
We saluted our officers, by each of our party firing off his gun at day break in honor to the day (Christmass) Our Officers in return, presented to each of the party that used Tobacco a part of what Tobacco they had remaining; and to those who did not make use of it, they gave a hankerchief or some other article, in remembrance of Christmass. We had no ardent spirit of any kind among us; but are mostly in good health, A blessing, which we esteem more, than all the luxuries this life can afford, and the party are all thankful to the Supreme Being, for his goodness towards us.—
Captain Clark indicated this Christmas was a bit more festive. His haul from the gift exchange was pretty impressive given their great distance from civilization. His journal records that he received a new shirt, a pair of moccasins, a small Indian basket, some underwear and some socks for Christmas.
Captain Lewis doesn’t mention what he got for Christmas but you have to admire a guy who could somehow preserve a pair of socks over a three thousand mile trip to give to a friend for Christmas in the middle of the wilderness.