Did the Expedition Actually Eat Candles?

Candlemaking demonstration at the fort.
Candlemaking demonstration at the Fort

On January 13, 1806, while at Fort Clatsop, Captain Lewis writes, “this evening we exhausted the last of our candles, but fortunately had taken the precaution to bring with us moulds and wick, by means of which and some Elk’s tallow in our possession we do not yet consider ourselves destitute of this necessary article; the Elk we have killed have a very small portion of tallow.” One of the highlights enjoyed by students who participate in the “Class of Discovery” program here at LCNHP, is the opportunity to wick candles in molds, much like the molds that the Expedition brought with them. Each student gets to take home a candle at the end of the day. Our candles are made from beef fat, not the elk fat used by the Expedition when they were at Fort Clatsop.

Many books and articles state that while crossing the Rocky Mountains, the Expedition members were so hungry, they ate candles. But, did they? On September 18, 1805, Lewis writes,

“ this morning we finished the remainder of our last coult. we dined & suped on a skant proportion of portable soupe, a few canesters of which, a little bears oil and about 20 lbs. of candles form our stock of provision, the only resources being our guns & packhorses.”

Is Lewis saying that they ate portable soup, bear’s oil and about 20 pounds of candles? Or, is he saying that they ate portable soup, and their provisions consist of a few canisters of portable soup, a little bear’s oil, and they have 20 pounds of candles left?

Why is Lewis the only one to write about candles on that day? Other Corps members mention only the portable soup. It would be a rare occurrence for Sgt. Ordway and Pvt. Whitehouse’s journal entries for the day to not include eating candles when recording that they ate the portable soup.

Questions to think about:

If the Corps members ate 20 pounds of candles, would they have had enough to last from September 18, 1805, to January 13, 1806? Why did all others who wrote on that day only mention eating the portable soup, and not candles? What do you think?


Tom Wilson is a Retired LCNHP Ranger