Private, U.S. army
An accurate description of the Missouri and its several branches; of the mountains seperating the Eastern from the Western waters; of the Columbia River and the Bay it forms on the Pacific Ocean; of the face of the country in general; of the several Tribes of Indians on the Missouri and Columbia Rivers; of the vegetable, animal and [mineral] productions discovered in those Extensive regions. The Latitudes and Longitudes of some of the most remarkable places–
a variety of Curious and interesting occurrences during a voyage of two years four months and nine days; conducted by Captns. Lewis & Clarke.
Published by Permission of
This work will be contained in about four Hundred pages Octavo and will be put to the press so soon as there shall be a sufficient subscription to defray the expenses.
That was it, dated October 1806–the very first announcement of published writings about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, predating both Patrick Gass's and Meriwether Lewis's. John R. McBride, who preserved this copy of Frazer's prospectus, said he read the manuscript in the 1820s and found it excellent. But other than a highly inaccurate map,2 no trace of the journal is now known.
When and where Frazer joined the expedition is unknown, but just before he was assigned to the return party on April 1, he was court martialed at Camp Dubois. Clark gave no details of the March 29, 1804, trial of John Shields, John Colter, and Robert Frazer except that it took "the greater part of the day." Shields and Colter apologized to their captain the next day, and "promised to doe better in the future." Frazer apparently had nothing to say, but by the time the expedition got under way again he had managed to stay out of trouble. He saw duty as one of the hunters, but did not distinguish himself at it. However, when the permanent party needed a replacement for deserter Moses Reed, the captains chose Frazer.
He was with the small party that faced down a large Sioux raiding party near Fort Mandan in the winter of 1804-1805. Clark and others had hunted for nine days in early February, lugging the best meat back to Fort Mandan on the 13th and leaving covered caches of the bulk of it out on the plain to be retrieved later. On the 14th Clark detailed Frazer, Drouillard, Goodrich, and the cashiered John Newman to take two sledges and three horses and retrieve the meat. At 10 p.m. on that subzero day, they all returned empty-handed, having encountered about 100 Indians they believed were Sioux–a fact the Mandans later confirmed from a moccasin found at the site–who cut the horses' traces and stole two. The raiders also took two knives and a tomahawk, but one of the attackers who evidently had some authority "obliged them to return the tamahawk."
Pvt. Frazer experienced his share of near and real misfortunes. On 7 July 1804 he nearly made his mark as the first member of the Corps to pass away from natural causes plus contemporary medicine, with the assistance of Dr. Benjamin Rush and Captain William Clark. Happily, he was feeling much better by the next morning, and probably was pretty thirsty.
A "most wonderful escape"
On 19 September 1805, near the western end of the trans-Bitterroot-Mountains leg of the expedition, Frazer was a bystander to an incident that qualified for Lewis's "chapter of accedents." They were in "Hungery Creek" canyon, where, Clark noted, "the road was excessively dangerous . . . being a narrow rockey path generally on the side of steep precipice." At a place where "one false Step of a horse would be certain destruction," Frazer's pack horse took that fateful step, lost its footing and rolled with its load "near a hundred yards into the Creek," over "large irregular and broken rocks." Miraculously, the animal survived, and so did the load, still firmly bound to its pack-saddle. "We all expected that the horse was killed but to our astonishment," Lewis wrote, "when the load was taken off him he arose to his feet & appeared to be but little injured, [and] in 20 minutes he proceeded with his load." That was, Lewis remembered with a shake of his head, "the most wonderfull escape I ever witnessed." Fortunately, Frazer had the presence of mind to let go of the lead-shank before the fall, allowing fate and the force of gravity to take charge of the moment.
Frazer was a party to a close call of a different level. It happened on 25 August 1805. As Captain Lewis recalled: "This morning while passing through the Shoshone cove1 Frazier fired his musquet at some ducks in a little pond at the distance of about 60 yards from me; the ball rebounded from the water and pased within a very few feet of me." That's all he wrote. It could have been worse. It didn't quite qualify for his own "chapter of accedents."
Private Frazer acquitted himself well enough during the latter part of the journey, and the captains often included him in small advance parties. However, he blundered again on January 10, 1806, when he was a member of the party returning from buying whale blubber and oil from the Tillamooks, over at today's Cannon Beach. Clark, who was personally in command of the detail, wrote that Frazer "beheaved very badly, and mutonous– he also lost his . . . large Knife." The captain transferred Frazer's load of blubber to the hired Indian guide, and sent the careless soldier back to look for his knife. No details of his allegedly mutinous behavior were given, and no disciplinary action was recorded. Nevertheless, he was one of five volunteers Lewis originally (at Travelers Rest on July 1) chose to accompany him on his search for the source of the Marias River later that month. After Indians stole some of their best horses, however, Lewis had to leave Frazer behind for lack of a suitable mount.
Frazer appears to have been successful as a trader on the return trip from the Coast. After chief Yelleppit told the captains of an overland shortcut back to Nez Perce country, and warned them to "lay in a stock of provision and not depend altogether on the gun," they entrusted Frazer with the job of securing some fat dogs from the Walulas. He bought ten. Later, during the Corps' long delay at Camp Chopunnish in 1806, Frazer tried to learn the Nez Perces' Sahaptian tongue, and was "very fond of conversing with them."4 Those efforts may have been the basis of the relationship between him and Hohots Ilppilp that materialized in Frazer's giving the chief a pair of Canadian shoe-pacs, to which the Indian responded with a gift horse. Also, it may have facilitated Frazer's exchange of his worn-out razor for a Spanish milled dollar, in a deal with a Nez Perce woman down in the Snake River Canyon.Mellowing Out
Frazer's temperament deteriorated further when he settled in St. Louis after the expedition. In 1808 he was charged with beating Sheriff Jeremiah Conner "with fists, feet, and sticks." The following year he was charged with hitting an Indian several times for reasons unknown. An 1812 filing in St. Charles County charged Frazer with murder, but no further record of this action has been found. Assuming that all these records refer to the same Robert Frazer, his life had settled down by 1814, when he advertised in a St. Louis paper the description of a cow that had strayed from his farm. It has been said that he was a tailor before he joined the Army, but evidently he was no competition for John Potts in that respect. Post-expedition, he turned to watchmaking by 1821, married, and settled down near the Gasconade River in Franklin County, Missouri.
Judge John McBride (1833-1904), recollected his boyhood impressions of Robert. "He was a man of education and talent and kept a private journal of his own. It was in many respects more interesting than that of his commanders." Of course, all that McBride could have known of the captains' journals was what showed through the veil of Nicholas Biddle's paraphrase.
In his declining years, McBride continued, "the delight of the old explorer was to sit by the fireside of some friend, read extracts from this journal, written thirty years before, and add incidents from memory to the written tale. He was a frequent visitor at my father's house in Franklin County, . . . and I can distinctly recall many of his conversations. His rich brogue, grotesque comparisons, and vivid descriptive powers, made him always welcome."5
Gary Moulton, editor of the University of Nebraska edition of the expedition's journals, indicates that Frazer was born somewhere in Virginia, that nothing is known of his birth-date or place, nor when he joined the Corps, nor even whether he was previously in the Army. He suggests that the various spellings of his surname in the journals–Frazer, Frazier, Frasure, Frasur, Frazur, and others–probably indicated how his comrades pronounced his name.6
1. Donald Jackson, ed. Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents 1783-1854; 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:345-46.
2. Moulton, Journals, 1:12 and Map 124.
3. Jackson, Letters, 2:386. Emphasis added.
4. Larry E. Morris, The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 156.
5. American Journeys: Eyewitness Accounts of Early American Exploration and Settlement: A Digital Library and Learning Center, Wisconsin Historical Society, 2012. www.americanjourneys.org/aj-160/summary/index.asp (Accessed Dec. 2, 2012).
6. In this connection it is appropriate to recall that Noah Webster's initial impulse to write and publish his little blue-backed American Spelling Book in 1783 was his observation that neighbors in the same village or urban neighborhood often could not understand one another because they spoke different dialects of the English language. His principle was that the States could only become truly United if all of its citizens wrote and spoke the same dialect–using identical spellings and pronunciations. The durable success and the numerous editions of that book (385 by the time of his death in 1843) clearly testify that most Americans understood what he meant.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.