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Corps of Discovery

When Meriwether Lewis departed Washington on July 5, 1803 for Pittsburgh, where he would begin the first leg of the Expedition down the Ohio River, France's sale of the Louisiana Purchase lands had only just, on the previous day, become public news in the capital (1). The actual sale for about $15 million had been completed in France about two months earlier; such was the pace of travel for information, even very exciting information, that months passed to cross the Atlantic. For Lewis, who would arrive in Pittsburgh 10 days later, delivery of supplies to Pittsburgh was in progress, ahead was the launching of the keelboat and two pirogues to carry them, and yet to do was identify and assemble the men who would make up The Corps of Discovery

However, it was not the Corps of Discovery that departed Pittsburgh with him on August 31. The crew at that point consisted of seven or eight army recruits from Carlisle, to be released after descending the Ohio River, and at least two, perhaps three, young men being tested for inclusion in the permanent Corps not yet formed (1,2). Two of the men who signed on at Pittsburgh may have been George Shannon and John Colter, although it is unclear whether they began the downstream trip here or in Maysville, Ky (3). Shannon was, at 18, to become the youngest of the Corps (1), as a private (4). Colter also became a private, and was discharged at the Mandans on August 14, 1806 on the return, instead of St. Louis, upon his own request (4). He returned to the fur trade of the west and is recognized today as the first recorded white man to see the lands of Yellowstone Park.

Lewis and William Clark, before coming together at Louisville in October, 1803, across from Clark's home in Clarksville, Indiana, had each elected to seek the others approval for official acceptance of any man into the Corps (1,2). Their criteria included that the men be unmarried, good hunters, and physically fit. Shannon and Colter were thereby sworn in as privates, and seven Kentucky men of Clark's were likewise sworn in. With York, Clark's slave, this became the nucleus of the Corps (1). Two of the four men who became sergeants in the Corps, Charles Floyd and Nathaniel Pryor, were of Clark's seven. Floyd was the only man of the Corps to die on the Expedition. He succumbed to a "bilious colic" (4), perhaps an attack of appendicitis, an as yet unrecognized medical condition (5). This occurred on August 20, 1804, in present-day Iowa, and Floyd was replaced on that date by Patrick Gass (4).

Gass was also a skilled carpenter (2). John Shields, also of Clark's seven, was a skilled blacksmith and gun repairer, whose art for making axes produced much needed "wampum" (Link: Wampum) for food during the 1804-1805 winter at Fort Mandan (2). In the makeup of the "permanent" Corps of Discovery one finds other individuals who stick out from the merely enduring rowers of the keelboat, pirogues and canoes. George Drouillard, of mixed white-Indian heritage, had outstanding hunting and woodsman skills, and he also knew sign language (4). He became one of the most important members of the Corps, after signing on as an interpreter at Fort Massac on the Illinois side of the Ohio River (2). At St. Charles, near St. Louis, which was then a center for fur trade, but with only a little more than 1000 inhabitants (1), Lewis hired two other men of mixed white-Indian heritage. Pierre Cruzatte and Francis Labiche, each with skills for communicating with the Indians, were sworn in as privates in the army (1).

The remaining men for the river trip up the Missouri were assembled at Camp Dubois on the Wood River near St. Louis during the winter of 1803-1804, the first of three winters of encampment for Lewis and Clark. They numbered 45 men at this point, 29 of the Corps and 16 temporary hands (2, 4). The temporary hands were rowers to help the Corps get up the Missouri with its load to the Mandan villages, then to return to St. Louis with the keelboat. Of the Corps were the two commissioned officers (Lewis and Clark), one interpreter/hunter (Drouillard), two French river men, York, Clark's seven, the two from Pittsburgh (Shannon and Colter), and 14 regular army soldiers (2, 4). Of the temporaries were a corporal, six soldiers, and nine river men (2, 4). The soldiers were hired on from Fort Massac, from the Kaskaskia post on the Mississippi River above the mouth of the Ohio River, and from the South West Post in Tennessee (1).

Fort Mandan was the second winter-over site and the kickoff point into increasingly uncharted lands, those of the Louisiana Purchase. Before reaching the Mandans, two privates, John Newman and Moses Reed, had been discharged from the permanent party for insubordination and attempted desertion, respectively (1). They were subsequently sent back from Fort Mandan with the return party in the spring. Another named Liberté had deserted and was gone from the party (4). With the previously mentioned loss of Floyd, 25 men were left of the original Corps.

Coues (4) gives 32 adults to the party that set off up the Missouri from Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805 in six canoes and the two pirogues. Added to the remaining original party were Toussaint Charbonneau, a French fur trader and additional interpreter, his now famous Shoshoni (Snake) wife Sacajawea, some kind of special guide for sure, their infant son Baptiste, a Frenchman Baptiste Lepage, and soldiers transferred out of the return party (2, 4). There is some confusion in the reckoning of manpower, but 32 seems to be a certain number for the Corps at departure from Fort Mandan (4). The Corps of Discovery was finally fixed and on its way into Louisiana Purchase lands. All would return to the Mandan country in 1806, one more way to judge the success of the amazing, multifaceted story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Corps References

1. Ambrose, Stephen E., Undaunted Courage, New York: Simon & Schuster (1996), pp. 100-102, 105, 117-119, 122-123, 126, 138, 159, 181-182.

2. Cutright, Paul Russell, Lewis & Clark: Pioneering Naturalists, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press (1989), pp. 32, 34-35, 42-43, 112, 124.

3.  Moulton, Gary E., ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol. 2, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 65, 66, 515, 521.

4. Coues, Elliott, ed., The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol. I - III, New York: Dover  Publications (1987 reprint of Francis P. Harper's unabridged 1893 edition), pp. 2-3, 77, 79, 253-260 of Vol. I.

5. Chuinard, Eldon G., Only One Man Died: The Medical Aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,  Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press (1999), pp. 229-242.


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