Pawpaws: Lewis and Clark’s Convenience Food

By Margaret Nelson

I never saw a papaw tree before we moved to Arkansas and never saw one of the fruits until visiting a farmer’s market in Bellingham in the state of Washington. Yet, this is a native American tree with a range large enough to have been familiar to the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Pawpaws on the tree

The pawpaw has the largest fruit of any native tree in the U.S. Its native range covers many of the eastern United States, including Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Delaware, eastern Kansas and Oklahoma and northern Maryland, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.

These trees probably grew along the streams and rivers where the expedition members lived so they would have been familiar with the pleasant fruit. It looks like a combination of a banana and an avocado with, after the seeds are removed, an edible, custard-like pulp that is reported to taste like a combination of bananas, mangos and pineapple. Pawpaws are best left on the tree until very ripe and then can be picked and broken open or cut and the pulp removed and eaten. The pawpaw I bought was too green to ripen so we never tasted it.

The natural range of pawpaws

The Expedition members made good use of this fruit as seen in the following quotes from William Clark in the Project Gutenberg online copy of “The Journals of Lewis and Clark.” The spelling and punctuation below is left as Clark wrote it and describes the situation as the expedition approached St. Louis.

In September 1806, William Clark recorded several encounters with pawpaws. On September 15, he wrote, “At 11 A.M. passed the enterance of the Kanzas river…. we landed one time only to let the men geather Pappaws or the Custard apple of which this Country abounds, and the men are very fond of.”

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On September 18, Clark noted,” Proceeded on passed the Grand river at 7 A M. a Short distance below we came up with our hunters, they had killed nothing. at 10 oClock we Came too and gathered pottows (pawpaws) to eate we have nothing but a fiew Buisquit to eate and are partly compelled to eate poppows which we find in great quantities on the Shores”.Inside a pawpaw

On September 19, Clark recorded,” Set out this morning a little after day & proceeded on very well the men ply their oares & we decended with great velocity, only Came too once for the purpose of gathering pappows, our anxiety as also the wish of the party to proceed on as expeditiously as possible to the Illinois enduce us to continue on without halting to hunt. we Calculate on ariveing at the first Settlements on tomorrow evening which is 140 miles, and objecet of our party is to divide the distance into two days, this day to the Osarge River, and tomorrow to the Charriton a Small french Village.”

Pawpaw blossom

They got a change of food on September 20 according to Clark,” We Came in Sight of the little french Village called Charriton… we landed and were very politely received by two young Scotch men from Canada… those two young Scotch gentlemen furnished us with Beef flower and Some pork for our men, and gave us a very agreeable supper.”

While pawpaws can be planted in western Washington, they do not make a good crop here. I look forward to revisiting some of the eastern states during fruit season (August and September) and attending some of the Pawpaw festivals to experience a taste of Lewis and Clark’s foods.

The fruit of the pawpaw

(Margaret Nelson is a member of the Washington Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. She wrote the article for the chapter’s newsletter.)


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