If the Lewis & Clark Expedition had a blog, they would need a category for “It Could Only Happen to Lewis.” In the course of the Expedition, Lewis managed to fall off a cliff, poison himself taking mineral samples, spend a night being menaced by bizarre and possibly hallucinatory creatures, and get in a fight with an Indian youth over whether puppies made good eating.
But undoubtedly Lewis’s most unwelcome brush with bad luck came during the Corps of Discovery’s return journey. For most of July and August 1806, Lewis and Clark traveled separately so as to explore more territory. Lewis took a detachment and traveled up the Marias River in order to fix the northern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase, while William Clark and his crew explored the Yellowstone River. Now, after a number of adventures and misadventures, Lewis and his men were rowing like crazy to catch up with Clark.
On August 11, 1806, near the site of the future Fort Union, Montana, Lewis spotted some fat elk on a willow bar. He and one of the Corps’ best boatmen, the popular fiddle-playing French engage Pierre Cruzatte, loaded up their rifles and struck out to replenish the meat supply.
Some of you may have heard the sayings “Never play cards with a man named Doc,” or “Never eat at a place called Mom’s.” Well, to that list, you might add, “Never go hunting with your one-eyed, near-sighted buddy, especially when you’re wearing buckskins.” Lewis’s own words tell best what happened next:
we fired on the Elk I killed one and he wounded another, we reloaded our guns and took different routs through the thick willows in pursuit of the Elk; I was in the act of firing on the Elk a second time when a ball struck my left thye about an inch below my hip joint, missing the bone it passed through the left thye and cut the thickness of the bullet across the hinder part of the right thye; the stroke was very severe; I instantly supposed that Cruzatte had shot me in mistake for an Elk as I was dressed in brown leather and he cannot see very well; under this impression I called out to him damn you, you have shot me, and looked towards the place from whence the ball had come, seeing nothing I called Cruzatte several times as loud as I could but received no answer.
The bullet had hit Lewis an inch below his left hip joint and plowed a three-inch gap through both buttocks, coming out the other side and rattling around in his leather breeches. As for Pierre Cruzatte, he must have embodied the Southwest Airlines’ ad campaign, “Wanna Get Away?” How would you feel if you had just shot your commander in the butt? Terrified, Cruzatte hid in the woods, too scared to own up to what he had done.
Unable to get an answer from Cruzatte, Lewis supposed the bullet could have come only from an unseen Indian. They were under attack! He stumbled bleeding back to the boats, shouting for the men to rally to arms and follow him into the woods to repel the attack and save Cruzatte. But after a hundred yards, Lewis collapsed from the pain of his wound. He sent the men on to do battle, crawled back to the canoes, “and prepared my self with a pistol my rifle and air-gun being determined as a retreat was impracticable to sell my life as deerly as possible. “
“In a state of anxiety and suspense,” Lewis waited twenty minutes, hearing nothing, until finally the men came sauntering back with Cruzatte in tow and reported that there were no Indians in sight. In the meantime, Lewis had had the chance to find and examine the spent bullet in his trousers, finding it to be a .54 caliber slug from a U.S. Army Model 1803, which just so happened to be the model Cruzatte was carrying and not the kind of cheap British trade gun an Indian was likely to have. Cruzatte denied everything.
Lewis dressed his own wounds as best he could, putting rolls of cotton lint bandages into the holes so that the wounds would stay open and new tissue could grow from the inside out, rather than closing and sealing in infection. After two and a half years on the trail, Lewis’s behind could hardly have had a trace of fat on it, and the bullet had done a job on his gluteal muscles. But overall, Lewis was very lucky (though I’m sure he didn’t feel lucky.) The bullet could have clipped an artery, in which case he would have died quickly, or shattered his hip joint, in which case he would have died slowly. Or it could have severed the sciatic nerve, crippling him for life.
Lewis could do little else but lie on his stomach as the pirogue proceeded on, in a great deal of pain and hardly the picture of the dashing explorer. Fortunately, the party caught up with Clark and the rest of the Corps the very next day, and Lewis had his trusted friend, a skilled wilderness doctor, to help him change the dressings and apply poultices of Peruvian bark.
Lewis was hobbling around in about ten days, though he had to take it easy for a good month after the incident. As for Cruzatte, Clark determined that, as the man was known to be near-sighted, and had been a hard-working and reliable fellow throughout the trip, he was not really to blame for the accident. In other words, it was Lewis’s own fault.