George Shannon (1785-1836)

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Private, U.S. Army

Youthful Survivor

George Shannon, youngest enlisted man of the permanent party, suffers from an exaggerated reputation as a fool who was always getting lost and losing things. Yes, he was separated from the men twice–the first of these setting the Corps' record for number of days alone –but the second time he did nothing wrong, and both times he made reasonable efforts not only for his own survival but also to rejoin the command. In 1807 he was seriously wounded in a battle with the Arikara Indians. He went on to a legal career, and while studying law on his own, he assisted Nicholas Biddle in preparing the latter's paraphrase of the journals.

Shannon, a Pennsylvanian whose family had moved to the Ohio frontier in 1800, was one of the first men to volunteer for the expedition. Along with John Colter, he joined Capt. Lewis on a trial basis when the keelboat stopped at Maysville, Kentucky, in early October 1803. Shannon formally enlisted in the army on October 19, 1803, four days after Colter.1

Shannon's solo 16-day adventure began on August 26, 1804, near present Vermillion, South Dakota, when he and George Drouillard were sent out to hunt for the expedition's few horses.

The captains had instructed the two men to keep to the high ground and follow the boats up the river. Drouillard came back the next day, saying he had not seen the horses and had lost track of Shannon. John Field and Joseph Shields were sent out to look for them, again with no results. Just when Shannon's footprints were found–ahead of the Corps and heading upstream from them–the Yankton Sioux were contacted, the expedition was not only behind him, but also had stopped.

On August 28, Colter was sent to track Shannon and bring him in. He spotted the, tracks of the young man as well as those of the two horses, but returned to the main party on September 6, after nine days, without Shannon or the horses. Meanwhile, Clark noted that Shannon, "not being a first rate Hunter"–a high standard among this select group of frontiersmen–created added concern.

The captains later learned that Shannon had found the horses, then "Shot away what fiew Bullets he had," but failed to get any meat. Eventually, he carved a bullet from a stick and got a rabbit–his only food other than wild grapes during more than two weeks. Also, one of the horses wandered away as Shannon slept.

Finally, on September 11, the keelboat crew spotted a starving Shannon sitting listlessly on the Missouri River bank, in hope of being rescued by some fur traders. Clark marveled that "thus a man had like to have Starved to death in a land of Plenty for want of bulletes or Something to kill his meat."

Thereafter, all the men understandably had reservations about Shannon's reliability as a woodsman. At White Bear Islands on 19 June 1805, while Clark was busy setting up the portage from the lower camp, Lewis dispatched Shannon, along with George Drouillard and Reubin Field to hunt elk on the Medicine River. Somehow Shannon got separated from the other two hunters, although five days late Lewis had no trouble finding his camp, from which Shannon had killed no elk but had bagged "seven deer and several buffaloe and dryed about 600 lbs. of buffaloe meat." Meanwhile Reubin Field had made his way to the lower portage camp and "informed Capt. Clark of the absence of Shannon, with rispect to whome they were extreemly uneasy." The apparent crisis had arisen simply because of the slowness of communication.

The next time Shannon was "lost," in early August 1805, Clark sent him hunting up the Big Hole River in southwestern Montana.2 Evidently Clark believed Shannon had improved his skills as a woodsman during the eleven months since his first misadventure. Clark mistakenly believed the Big Hole to be the Jefferson River's feeder source from higher in the Rockies. Shannon was to hunt a few miles up the Big Hole and watch for the canoes to catch up.

When Lewis subsequently arrived at the forks of the Jefferson, he correctly chose the Beaverhead River as the fork to follow. His main party connected with Clark's advance party, and the combined Corps prepared to move up the Beaverhead. On August 6, Lewis "had the trumpet sounded and fired several guns," but there was no response. On the 7th, Reubin Field was sent to inform Shannon of the route change; he returned later the same day, having seen nothing of the younger private.

But Shannon found the Corps on his own on August 9, arriving with the hides of three deer he had killed while trying to locate his comrades. When they did not catch up to him, he returned to the forks. Since they weren't there, he had turned back up the Big Hole again and "marched" for a full day, going high enough into the mountains to see that the Big Hole was unnavigable. Then he figured that everyone must have decided to follow the other fork, so he returned there and started up the Beaverhead. He had not been lost, just left out in the field without necessary information. Well fed, but very weary.

Shannon demonstrated the great improvement in his marksmanship, to Nathaniel Pryor's and Richard Windsor's relief, on July 26, 1806. Shannon was in Pryor's group of four (the fourth being Hugh Hall) herding Shoshone and Nez Perce horses toward Canada to trade for supplies and assistance. The horses had been taken by Indians the night before, and the men were now traveling by quickly-constructed bull boats—hoping to catch up with the expedition but content that the Missouri would take them to St. Louis. A wolf sneaked into their camp and bit Pryor's hand while he slept, then made to attack Windsor. Shannon shot the beast before more harm was done.

1. Moulton, ed., Journals, 1:521.

2. Ibid., 5:55.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program