John Collins

Private, U.S. Army

Fatal Return

John Collins holds an ignominious record among Corps of Discovery members. He was the only man court martialed twice, and he received a total of 150 lashes for his two convictions. His crimes occurred in the expedition's first and second months, and then he settled down. In the third month, he was appointed cook for Sgt. Pryor's mess. In the long run, however, his main contribution was as one of the expedition's best hunters.

A Maryland resident, Collins had been serving at Fort Kaskaskia under Russell Bissell when he volunteered for duty with the Corps. He was a discipline problem during the Camp Dubois winter of 1803-1804. Clark even labeled him a "Blackgard" on an undated listing of the men and their qualifications.1 When he was supposed to be hunting, he sometimes visited a nearby grog shop and returned drunk. When he and another man went grouse hunting on January 5, 1804, they found part of a butchered hog hung in the woods, brought it back to camp, and claimed it was bear meat. Three days later, after Clark had sent Shields to inquire among neighboring farmers, a French family visited Clark and claimed the hog. Clark had Collins take him to where he had found it, but the captain never recorded a resolution to the case. Collins eventually worked his way back into the captains' good graces, enough so that in September of 1805 Clark named a creek in the Bitterroot Mountains after him.

Immediately following the expedition, Collins sold his land warrant to George Drouillard and is believed then to have partnered with Pierre Cruzatte to heading up the Missouri and join John McClellan's trapping expedition. In 1807, that group set up a post west of the Rocky Mountains in future Montana. Of McClellan's original forty-two men, thirty (including their leader, and probably Cruzatte) would be killed by Indians over the next three years.1 Collins, who was one of the survivors, may have been the man who informed William Clark about Cruzatte's fate. His life until 1822 is unknown.

In that year, St. Louis fur trader William Henry Ashley—like Collins, in his forties—advertised for men to accompany him and "ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years." Collins signed on, and may have gone with Ashley that year. In 1823, Collins was with Ashley's party heading up the Missouri when they were confronted by some Arikaras bent on revenge after a different group of white traders killed a chief's son and another Arikara man. Collins was among several of Ashley's men who were killed in that attack.

1. Moulton, ed., Journals, 2:148.

Principal Source: Post-expedition information is drawn from 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), 129-30, 150-51, 190

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