Joseph Field

(ca. 1780—1807)
Private, U.S. Army

First Veteran Gone

Joseph Field and his year-younger brother Reubin were born in Virginia but raised in Kentucky on land granted as a result of an ancestor's death in the Revolutionary War.1 They enlisted in the Corps of Discovery with William Clark on August 1, 1803, two of the "nine young men from Kentucky" that Clark recruited.

In 1807, Joseph Field became the first Corps of Discovery veteran to die—at a place unknown and on a date unrecorded. Historian James J. Holmberg suggests that the Field brothers may have been in Chouteau's party accompanying Nathaniel Pryor's military escort that tried to return Chief Sheheke home to the Mandan villages in 1807.

Four expedition veterans were said to have been in the larger group—fur traders employed by Chouteau—with Pryor and George Shannon known to be in its military escort. Genealogist Larry Morris makes a convincing case for George Gibson's presence in the escort as well.2 Joseph Field could well have been the fourth casualty. At St. Louis in March of 1807 he and his brother were among the eight signatories to a petition to Congress urging, on grounds of their limited financial resources, respectively, that the 320-acre land grants due them for their service in the Corps of Discovery be provided in districts administered by land offices as close as possible to their post-expedition addresses. According to Holmberg, Field family papers show that Joseph's parents knew of his death by October 20, 1807. The battle in which four of Chouteau's men were killed, and Shannon and Gibson were wounded, and Sheheke was compelled to flee back to St. Louis with the rest, occurred on September 9. Pryor and the survivors needed about one month to return to St. Louis. From there, news of Joseph's death was sent to his family in Jefferson County, Kentucky.3

All that can be positively stated is that Clark wrote in 1825 not that Joseph Field had just "died," but that he had been "killed."

Two First-Bison Kills

Joe Field made the Lewis and Clark Expedition's first bison kill, near present Vermillion, South Dakota, on August 23, 1804. He also killed the first bison of the return trip, in Montana on a tributary of the Sun River on July 8, 1806. Lewis's men, glad to leave behind the monotonous and disagreeable salmon-and-roots diet of the Pacific Northwest, promptly stopped to eat fresh red meat, then packed up as much of it as their horses could carry.

Along with his younger brother Reubin, and George Drouillard, Joseph was one of the expedition's top hunters. Joseph's and Reubin's names4 frequently appear together in journalists' reports on hunters that were in the field. On August 1 and 2, 1806, in Valley County, Montana where the deer were "very abundant in the timbered bottoms of the [Missouri] river and extreemly gentle," they harvested twenty-five of them. In his remarks accompanying the payroll he sent to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn in January of 1807, Lewis wrote of the Field brothers with admiration and appreciation. They were, he asserted, "two of the most active and enterprising young men who accompanied us. It was their peculiar fate to have been engaged in all the most dangerous and difficult scenes of the voyages, in which they uniformly acquited themselves with much honor."5

With Lewis on Two Medicine Creek

Perhaps Lewis recalled the expedition's sole violent encounter with Native Americans, when the Field brothers functioned smoothly as a team. On the morning of July 27, 1806, Joseph unwittingly opened the door for attack by the eight Blackfeet young men who had camped with Lewis, Drouillard, and the Fieldses on Two Medicine River in Montana.

When they had met the previous day, Lewis tried to explain his presence and mission through Drouillard's Plains Indian sign language. A meal and the evening went peaceably, but Lewis ordered his men to take turns at guard overnight. At daybreak, Joseph was on post when the Blackfeet awoke and "crouded around the fire" while Reubin, Drouillard, and Lewis still slept.

Joe put his rifle down behind him and near Reubin. Just then four of the Blackfeet simultaneously grabbed each of the whites' rifles. Joseph yelled to Reubin, who was instantly awake, and the two sprinted for fifty to sixty paces after the natives who were clutching their guns. While wresting his rifle from its thief, Reubin stabbed the man in the heart. Drouillard and Lewis managed to get their own guns. Meanwhile, Lewis and his men caught four of the Indians' best horses and made a run for the Missouri River.

In Good Health but Lucky, Too

Joe was one of the Corps' healthier men, seldom ill and never suffering a major injury. On July 4, 1804, near present Doniphan, Kansas, in an "extensive Prarie open and high," which Clark promptly dubbed "Jo Fields Snake Prarie," Joe was bitten by a snake—probably a rattlesnake. The cinchona, or Peruvian bark, with which Lewis treated his wound, could not have done any good, but he apparently recovered anyway, in due time.6

On a nine-day mid-February hunting trip with Clark out of Fort Mandan, Field "got one of his ears frosed," but apparently suffered no permanent disfigurement.

The following June 4, Joseph and Ruebin both were in Clark's advance party that set out from the mouth of the Marias River to determine whether that fork was really the Missouri. They had entered prime grizzly bear habitat, and Joe was still out hunting, alone, when Clark and the others made camp that day, some fifteen miles northeast of the first falls. Clark recorded their fear and frustration as they watched two grizzlies chase Joseph:

at the river near our camp we Saw two white Bear, one of them was nearly catching Joseph Fields who could not fire, as his gun was wet     the bear was So near that it Struck his foot, and we were not in a Situation to give him assistance, a Clift of rocks Seperated us     the bear got allarmed at our Shot & yells & took the river.

Clark returned to the Marias River base camp after a two-day reconnaissance, as planned. Had he continued upriver only one more day, he, not Lewis, might have been the first to find the Great Falls of the Missouri. But Lewis leap-frogged ahead, found the landmark that confirmed his and Clark's judgment, and sent one of the three men with him back to Clark with a note containing the good news. That messenger was Joe Field.

1. Charles G. Clarke, The Men of the Lewis a Clark Expedition: A Biographical Roster, Bison Books Edition (1970; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 48. The Fieldses were either sons or nephews of Col. John Field, who died in the 1774 Battle of Point Pleasant (now West Virginia) on the Ohio River.

2. 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), 218-19n14.

3. James J. Holmberg, Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); published in association with The Filson Historical Society, Louisville, 94.

4. Almost always misspelled "Fields" for each brother.

5. 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), 1:367. Lewis repeated the second sentence only under George Drouillard's name.

6. David J. Peck, Or Perish in the Attempt: Wilderness Medicine in the Lewis & Clark Expedition (Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2002, 49, 51.

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