The Corps of Discovery and Its Love/Hate Relationship with the Moccasin

When the Corps of Discovery began its expedition from the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in May 1804 seeking a water passage west to the Pacific Ocean, little was known about the terrain of their journey.

Not surprisingly, footwear became a tool of survival as the Corps covered approximately 8,000 miles round trip on their nearly 2-1/2- year journey.  Although the journey began with plentiful supplies, including Army standard-issue (but inadequate) black leather shoes, it was noted that in less than a month into the journey, expedition members were already shucking their leather shoes and exchanging them for moccasins with downstream traders.  By mid-summer 1804, expedition members were all clad in moccasins (or mockersons as people pronounced and spelled the word in 1805).

Because the Corps of Discovery was tasked to find a water passage to the west, expedition members were forced into cordelling along rivers and creeks (attaching a heavy line to their boats’ masts, and hauling them by hand along the riverbanks), they often went barefoot.  At the same time, on dry land, their “mockersons” provided little protection from stones, cacti and prickly pear.  Their feet were constantly sore.  It is said that each man’s moccasins wore out every other day and were constantly being repaired or replaced.  Yet, moccasins were necessary footwear as Merriweather Lewis had predicted when he procured four gross of moccasin awls to carry along the way.

So, how did expedition members gain the knowledge to make moccasins, and make them fit?  They were accustomed to seeing one-piece, center-seamed moccasins worn by tribes and frontiersmen east of the Mississippi River.  However, they came to realize they needed sturdier, hard-soled, two-piece mockersons with heavy rawhide on the bottom favored by western tribes.  These western tribesmen knew the “language” of moccasins and could read footprints and tell from the shape of the moccasins to what tribe its wearer belonged.  (Expedition members also noticed that sometimes polecat tails were tied to the back of Indian moccasins-an easy was to obliterate footprint!)

Sacagawea of the western Shoshone tribe, the one woman who accompanied the Corps of Discovery, is credited as the first person to show expedition members how to cut, shape and sew new moccasins. However, women of other Indian tribes, particularly the Mandans, contributed to their learning, as well.

Ranger Hal Stolz of Fort Clatsop often delivered his enlightening and entertaining talk, “Mockersons…A Footnote to History.”  In 1991, he stated,

First, a pattern is made by outlining the foot, with some space to spare on the sides and at the front and back. The pattern is cut out on a piece of hide which has been doubled over.  The moccasin is sewn with thread made form the sinew or tendons of the animal.  It is made inside out so that the stitches will be on the inside and protected.  Another kind of protection is added with the inclusion of a small leather strip of leather called a welt.  The welt is sewn between the edges and is sewn front to back forming a sort of mitten.  Then the instep is cut.  Be careful to cut the right side so that you end up with both a left and a right moccasin.  The heel is then sewn up and the moccasin is turned right side out… With the addition of a thong to tie the moccasin, it is finished.”

Thus, the story of a successful eight-thousand-mile historical trek depended largely on courage and persistence, and, often the state of the feet and footwear of the Corps of Discovery.

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