Pryor's Trick Shoulder

W ith all the heavy lifting and carrying of heavy supplies and equipment under adverse and hazardous conditions, with all the manhandling of the keelboat, pirogues, and canoes, and with all the falls and other accidents the men were subject to, there must have been many sprains, bruises, and contusions, only a few of which the journalists saw fit to mention. Two of the enlisted men, however, were subject particular physical disability, however. Both Sergeant Pryor and Private George Gibson were prone to dislocated shoulders.

The first occurrence was at Fort Mandan on 29 November 1804, when Clark recorded "Sergeant Pryor in takeing down the mast put his Sholder out of Place." It took four tries to "reduce" it. It happened to him again on 23 August 1805, under unknown circumstances. On 25 May 1805, Sergeant Gass mentioned that Gibson had suffered the same injury.)

Illustration from Owen's Dictionary

"Humerus, in anatomy, the upper part of the arm, between the scapula and elbow....This bone, from the length and laxity of its ligaments, the largeness of its motion, and the shallowness of the cavity in the scapula in which it is articulated, is very subject to be luxated [dislocated].

"As soon as this is discovered to be the case, the patient should be seated on the floor, or on a low stool, while two assistants stretch his arm; which being sufficiently extended, the surgeon ought to elevate the head of the humerus by means of a napkin, hung about his neck, and put under the arm-pit; and at the same time move it backward and forward, as he shall see occasion, till it is happily reduced into its place."1

Both of the captains had gained enough experience in the army--Clark, for instance, had commanded a mid-winter keelboat voyage up the Wabash River to Vincennes--that they probably had coped with this process before, and didn't need to consult Owen's Dictionary.

Evidently Pryor's trick shoulder proved a serious enough handicap to justify special consideration much later. On 4 August 1827 Clark wrote to James Barbour (1775-1842), Secretary of War under President John Quincy Adams, to inform him that as Superintendent of Indian Affairs he had hired Nathaniel Pryor as Sub Agent and Interpreter to the Osage tribe on the basis of "his influence among the Indians generally, in that quarter, his capacity to act and be serviceable, added to his knowledge of the Osage language." There were two more factors in his favor:

Capt. Pryor's long and faithful services and his being disabled by a dislocation of his shoulder when in the execution of his duty under my command, produces an interest in his favor and much solicitude for bettering his situation by an office which he is every way capable of filling with credit to himself and usefulness to his government.2

1. A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences... (London: Printed for W. Owen, at Homer's Head, in Fleet-street, 1764), s.v. Humerus.

2. Jackson, Letters, 2:645-46. Pryor had stayed in the army after the expedition and following the War of 1812 had retired as a captain and had tried unsuccessfully to make a living in the Indian trade.

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