Fleas/Lice Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail

Man itching
Man itching

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Throughout the journals, we read how the men frequently battled mosquitoes. But on several occasions, they also were confronted with smaller, equally irritating insects – the men believed them to be fleas. Or were they something else?

One such mention comes from the pages of Joseph Whitehouse’s journal on October 23, 1805 in the area near today’s Wishram, Washington: “we found at this place innumerable Quantities of fleas, the ground being cover'd with them, & they were very troublesome.”

But were these really fleas? According to Gary Moulton, editor of the Nebraska edition of the journals, these may have actually been human body lice. Moulton directs readers to Captain Clark’s entry a few days later, on October 26: “The Flees which the party got on them at the upper & great falls, are very troublesom and dificuelt to get rid of, perticularly as the me[n] have not a Change of Clothes to put on, they Strip off their Clothes and kill the flees, dureing which time they remained neckid.”

While lice and fleas are both parasites, living off of host animals, they are from different scientific families. Fleas are known to be better jumpers and lice are better huggers.

Maybe the mosquitoes weren’t so bad, after all.

Source: The Journals of Lewis and Clark

Last updated: May 9, 2018