Meriwether Lewis and William Clark recruited the men of the Corps of Discovery from several sources. First, Lewis was given what amounted to carte blanche to recruit 30 elite enlisted men from the frontier forts. (This probably did not make Lewis very popular with his fellow commanders when he swept through and took their best men off for his expedition.) Second, William Clark took charge of recruiting experienced frontiersmen, a group that became known as the “Nine Young Men from Kentucky” (plus York, Clark’s African-American manservant). Third, the captains recruited about a half-dozen French-speaking rivermen from the area around St. Louis.
Somehow these very different men had to be molded into a unit, a task that William Clark undertook during the winter and spring of 1803-1804 at a place called Camp River Dubois (Wood River), in Illinois across the river from St. Louis . One of the first things Clark did was select a sergeant to help keep the duty roster and command the training camp when he had to be away. The man chosen had to be physically and mentally tough, absolutely reliable, and literate — a qualification that knocked out a number of otherwise outstanding men.
The first sergeant, 29-year-old John Ordway of New Hampshire would become one of the most well-remembered men of the Corps. Like the captains, he kept a daily journal of his experiences on the journey. His matter-of-fact observations, especially those on the details of Indian life, are now priceless historical treasures. At Wood River, Ordway was responsible for issuing provisions, assigning guard duty, acting as a clerk for Lewis and Clark, and commanding the camp when the captains were both away.
At first, it appears that Ordway had trouble imposing his authority. Once, when the captains were gone at a ceremony marking the transfer of Louisiana from France to the United States, several men defied Ordway’s orders to stay in camp and ran off to get drunk at a local tavern. Another time, fighting broke out in the camp and two of the men threatened to kill Ordway. But somehow as the time for departure grew closer, Ordway seemed to become more at ease in his new role. On April 8, 1804, he wrote a letter home which has become one of the most quoted Expedition documents:
Honored Parents: I now embrace this oportunity of writeing to you once more to let you know where I am and where I am going. I am well thank God and in high Spirits. I am now on an expedition to the westward, with Capt Lewis and Capt Clark, who are appointed by the Presidant of the United States to go on an Expedition through the interior parts of North America. We are to ascend the Missouri River with a boat as far as it is navigable and then to go by land to the western ocean, if nothing prevents. This party consists of 25 picked men of the armey and country likewise and I am so happy as to be one of them picked men from the armey … we are to receive a great reward for this expedition when we return. I am to receive 15 dollars a month and at least 100 ackers [acres] of first rate land and if we make great discoveries as we expect the United States has promised to make us great rewards … will write next winter if I have a chance.
As the time for departure grew closer, Lewis and Clark divided the men into “the permanent party” and the “return party.” The permanent party, who would make the attempt to go all the way to the Pacific Ocean, would consist of three squads, led by Sergeant Ordway and two additional sergeants, 21-year-old Charles Floyd and 31-year-old Nathaniel Pryor. Floyd and Pryor were cousins and two of Clark’s “nine young men from Kentucky” group of frontier recruits. Another group, led by Corporal Richard Warfington, would return to St. Louis after the first year with Lewis and Clark’s reports and scientific discoveries made up to that point. That way, if the Expedition was lost, at least some of their accomplishments would become known.
Each squad would combine regular Army and former civilians, and would correspond to a “mess,” which would cook, eat, and camp together, the better to establish bonds among the men. Each sergeant would also be responsible for keeping a journal. Soon after the Expedition departed Wood River in May 1804, Lewis assigned more specific duties, which probably rotated. One sergeant would man the helm of the expedition’s keelboat. He would be in charge of the irreplacable compass, steer the boat, and keep track of the baggage. The sergeant at midships would supervise the men poling and rowing the boat, manage the sails, and draw Captain Clark’s attention to river mouths, creeks, and islands for navigation and mapmaking. He would also attend to the evening whiskey ration and act as sergeant of the guard. Finally, the sergeant in the bow would act as lookout, keeping track of all other river traffic or sightings of Indians on shore.
The Expedition was still in the early shakedown stages when tragedy struck; the journal of young Sergeant Floyd was destined to be a short one. Charles became ill with nausea and severe stomach pain near present-day Sioux City, Iowa. It turned out to be an attack of appendicitis, an illness for which the medical knowledge of the time had no treatment. William Clark’s journal entry of August 20, 1804, tells what happened next:
we Came to make a warm bath for Sergt. Floyd hopeing it would brace him a little, before we could get him in to this bath he expired, with a great deel of composure, haveing Said to me before his death that he was going away and wished me to write a letter— We Buried him to the top of a high round hill over looking the river & Countrey for a great distance Situated just below a Small river without a name to which we name & call Floyds river, the Bluffs Sergts. Floyds Bluff— We buried him with all the honors of War, and fixed a Ceeder post at his head with his name title & Day of the month and year Capt Lewis read the funeral Service over him after paying everry respect to the Body of this desceased man (who had at All times given us proofs of his impatiality Sincurity to ourselves and good will to Serve his Countrey)
Two days after Floyd’s death, the captains allowed the men to vote on his replacement (a common practice at the time). They chose Patrick Gass, the expedition’s carpenter. At 33, the Pennsylvania-born Gass was older than most of the men and had worlds’ more experience, having fought Indians and traveled the rivers and seas as a deck hand before joining the Army. Steady and perceptive, Gass was a tough Irishman with a gift for profanity; Clark would write that Gass’s manners were “better suited to the camp than the parlor.”
Each sergeant would leave his mark on the Expedition in his own way. For a man who sounds so thoughtful and mild-mannered in his journals, John Ordway had a way of attracting death threats. During the winter at the Mandan villages, he drew the ire of a jealous husband and forced Clark to become a marriage counselor:
I was allarmed about 10 oClock by the Sentinal, who informed that an Indian was about to Kill his wife in the interpeters fire about 60 yards below the works, I went down and Spoke to the fellow about the rash act which he was like to commit and forbid any act of the kind near the fort— Some missunderstanding took place between this man & his fife about 8 days ago, and She came to this place, & Continued with the Squars of the interpeters, 2 days ago She returned to the Villg.
in the evening of the Same day She came to the interpeters fire appearently much beat, & Stabed in 3 places— We Derected that no man of this party have any intercourse with this woman under the penelty of Punishment— he the Husband observed that one of our Serjeants Slept with his wife & if he wanted her he would give her to him, We derected the Serjeant Odway to give the man Some articles, at which time I told the Indian that I believed not one man of the party had touched his wife except the one he had given the use of her for a nite, in his own bed, no man of the party Should touch his Squar, or the wife of any Indian, nor did I believe they touch a woman if they knew her to be the wife of another man, and advised him to take his Squar home and live hapily together in future— William Clark, November 22, 1804
This incident aside, Ordway served capably throughout the Expedition. Perhaps his most memorable moments came on the return journey in 1806. He commanded a detachment of nine men who traveled by canoe from the area of Three Forks, Montana back to the Great Falls to recover the cache of goods and scientific discoveries that the Corps had buried there the previous year.
Nathaniel Pryor seems to have been a dignified man who soon became trusted to accomplish just about any assignment. Clark called him “a steady, valuable, and usefull member of our party.” The captains’ journals record countless times when Pryor used his head. He was cool-headed with Indians during diplomacy and trade, an alert wrangler of the baggage and canoes on treacherous rivers, a willing volunteer (along with Sergeant Gass) to help assemble the complex and ill-fated “iron boat” during the portage at the Great Falls, and a leader who could take men exploring up side rivers and report details back to the captains. He could also use his fists, taking the initiative at Fort Clatsop to break up a rare fight between the men and Indians that was about to turn deadly.
Like Ordway, Pryor also distinguished himself during the return journey. The Corps had collected about 50 horses which they hoped to sell at the Mandan villages. Pryor and three men were assigned to drive the horses there, but they soon found themselves stranded on the Montana prairie when Indians stole every one of the mounts. Pryor kept his head. Camping near the “Pompey’s Pillar” rock formation, he and the men spent several days building two bullboats, large rudderless tubs made of buffalo hide that that the Indians used to travel short distances on the river. They took to the Missouri and soon caught up with the rest of the Expedition.
Patrick Gass made his mark by quite literally put a roof over his comrades’ heads. The carpenter saw to the building of the Expedition’s two winter forts, Fort Mandan and Fort Clatsop. Gass also supervised the hewing of the Expedition’s dugout canoes whenever they needed them, and constructed the wagon by which the Corps dragged its baggage over a bone-numbing eighteen miles during the portage around the Great Falls. On the return voyage, Gass was entrusted with leading five men to portage the Expedition’s cached baggage back around the Great Falls.
After the Expedition, each man met a very different fate. At first, John Ordway seemed most likely to succeed. Within a year of returning to civilization, Ordway had married and started a farm in the bootheel of Missouri. Unlike most of the men of the Corps, he not only hung on to his land grants from his service, but expanded on them, owning as much as a thousand acres. His operation included a fruit orchard and a horse and cattle breeding enterprise. But in 1811 and 1812, Ordway became a victim of the New Madrid Earthquakes, which not only wiped out everything he had tried to build, but destroyed the value of his land. Ordway died in 1818 at the age of 42, apparently penniless.
Steady and clear-headed Nathaniel Pryor led a life surrounded by the violence and chaos of the frontier. Promoted to the rank of ensign, in 1807 he led a contingent assigned to return Mandan chief Sheheke, who had visited the east with Lewis and Clark, to his home in North Dakota. Hundreds of Arikara warriors attacked Pryor’s flotilla and Pryor was lucky to shoot his way out of the mess and get his men and Sheheke home alive. Pryor then established a trading post near present-day Galena, Illinois, which was burned in a massive Indian attack in which Pryor again escaped by the skin of his teeth. A veteran of the Battle of New Orleans, Pryor eventually settled down as a government agent among the Osage Indians in the rough-and-ready Arkansas Territory (present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma). He married an Osage woman and died in 1831 at the age of 59.
Patrick Gass earned the ire of Captain Lewis by rushing his journal into publication in the spring of 1807, beating Lewis and Clark’s own efforts by a whopping seven years. Staying in the Army, the sergeant fought in the War of 1812, most memorably at the epic Battle of Lundy’s Lane, and lost his right eye in service to his country. In the years that followed, Gass did not exactly prosper, working odd jobs in frontier Ohio and West Virginia.
At age 60, Gass was doing carpentry on a house near Wellsburg when he amazed everyone who knew him by somehow winning the heart of the 20-year-old daughter of his employer. Patrick and Maria were by all accounts happy and became the parents of seven children. Maria died during a measles epidemic when Patrick was 75. His children remembered him as a devoted single parent who wanted them to have a good education. In his later years, he moved in with one of his daughters. He was well-known to the citizens of Wellsburg for his stout hickory cane and his slow, steady walk into town to get the mail, a four-mile journey that he continued almost until the very end. Patrick Gass died in 1870 at the age of 98, the longest surviving member of the Corps of Discovery.
And what of the journals kept by the sergeants? The journals of John Ordway and Charles Floyd survived and have been published in their entirety in the University of Nebraska series by Gary Moulton. Nathaniel Pryor’s journals have never been found, and Gass’s journal is believed to have been lost or thoughtlessly destroyed by the ghostwriter who helped Gass publish his book in 1807.