Their First Vote

In U.S. history, who was the first African American to vote? Who was the first woman? What year? (Yes, I said “year”, not “years.”) No, that first vote wasn’t in a presidential election. It wasn’t even in a state election.

The first recorded time in U.S. history when an African American and a woman voted was in 1805 at a location on the Pacific Northwest Coast. The election was held by the Corps of Discovery to determine the location of the winter fort.

York – William Clark’s slave – voted. Sacagawea – a Native America woman and one of the expedition’s guides – was also allowed to vote.

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New Stuff To Take West

When Meriweather Lewis and William Clark mustered their group of soldiers and river-men to begin the trek west into the Louisiana Purchase territory, they took some new inventions with them. President Jefferson liked new stuff and even made quite a few inventions himself – however, it wasn’t Jefferson’s calendar clock or multi-letter writer that made it in the expedition’s supply bags.

Instead, there were very practical things (at least in 19th Century standards) that went along – some of them were specially designed or commissioned by Lewis.

Today we’ll explore some of the “new stuff” that went west, the purposes, and success or failure of the items.


A replica of the expedition's keelboat (photo from

A replica of the expedition’s keelboat (photo from

To get up the Missouri River, Meriweather Lewis commissioned and helped design a special boat. Constructed around a shallow keel, the 55 foot long vessel was fairly flat-bottomed, allowing it to glide along the river and hopefully not get stuck on sandbanks. The keelboat did have a sail, but its wooden decks were designed to allow poling.

Overall, the keelboat was successful. It did get stuck a couple times, but it served its purpose as a “headquarters” boat for getting up the Missouri River. After the winter at Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark sent the keelboat back down the Missouri River since the river was getting too narrow for its passage.

Air Rifle

A recent invention intrigued Meriweather Lewis, and he had to buy one for the expedition. Using compressed air, this new rifle didn’t take a normal charge of gunpowder to fire a bullet. It seemed like a good idea, but was a little tricky to make it work properly; thus most men on the expedition carried a regular rifle or musket. The air rifle was used mostly to impress the natives, and not for hunting or defense.

Unfortunately, before the expedition officially departed Missouri, Lewis was demonstrating his weapon to a crowd of onlookers when the gun misfired and accidentally wounded a woman in the crowd.

Dr. Benjamin Rush

Dr. Benjamin Rush

Dr. Rush’s Pills

Though skilled in frontier “first aid” and herbal medicine, Lewis took a crash course on 19th Century medicine so he could be the “doctor” on the expedition. (The men probably wished he had skipped the formal instruction). Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia helped Lewis improve his knowledge of bleeding, blistering, and purging which were the standard practices of the medical profession at the time.

Dr. Rush had invented a really awful concoction of drugs and prepared it as pills. They were supposed to be a sort of “cure-all” for any ailment. The pills were effective, basically emptying the digestive system and supposedly purging all illness from the body. Lewis took a large bottle of this pills in his medicine chest and prescribed them for various illnesses. (I’m still wondering if he ever took one or just prescribed.)

Peace Medals 

The Casts for the Jefferson Peace Medals

The Casts for the Jefferson Peace Medals

It wasn’t really an invention, but it was brand-new item. President Jefferson had peace medals crafted and instructed Lewis and Clark to give them to the native chiefs as a gift from the “American chief.” The medals were supposed to be a symbol of goodwill and alliance.

When meeting native tribes, Lewis and Clark usually had the soldiers perform a dress parade and fire their guns. Then the commanders would make speeches about the power of the United States and the president’s desire for friendship and peace. And then it was time for presents! Peace medals, beads, tobacco, and other items.


Meriweather Lewis was in charge of most of the “packing lists” for the expedition. With a personal interest in science (and mentored by Jefferson), Lewis searched for innovative items which might be useful. Some were successful. Others were cool, but not extremely effective. Some it might have been better to just leave at home. Others were beautiful with symbolic significance.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

Lewis N. Clark or Lewis & Clark?

Once upon a time one of my brothers confessed a funny story. When he was little, he thought the American explorers Lewis and Clark were just one person: Lewis N. Clark.

It’s understandable. Meriweather Lewis and William Clark’s last names are inseparable in American history. And to make things more confusing, we tend to slide their names together if we’re not using good diction.

Really, they were two amazing men whose leadership and sense of adventure officially “opened” the American West. Searching for a quick and easy water-route to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark discovered the interior of a continent and helped their nation lay the groundwork to stretch from “sea to shining sea.” So who were these men before they were famous? That’s what we’ll discover today with some fast-facts. Continue reading

1803: A Great Deal On “New” Land

Portrait of young Napoleon

Portrait of young Napoleon

In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte needed money. Why? It was peace time, and he was preparing for a new war with Britain. He wanted to invade England, but had to destroy the Royal Navy first (he never did). So Napoleon needed money to build up the French fleet and create his famed Grand Army.

Taking stock of the stuff in his new empire, Napoleon decided that the quick way to get some money would be a sale. Not a garage sale. A land sale. The Americans were willing to negotiate and buy. Continue reading