Woodsmanship

Page 7 of 8

Keeping it together

Ever since the early fifteenth century the noun woodsman (or woodman) has denoted "one acquainted with or accustomed to the woods." Until the late nineteenth century, huntsman was a common synonym. Both words implied the possession of a natural ease in an uninhabited environment, and a quality of resignation, contentment, and felicity.

They implied the mental capacity to memorize an unlimited variety of minute details, and the ability to subconsciously map one's wanderings and not get lost. They demanded an instinct for self-preservation. They signified that the bearer could be self-sufficient for an indeterminate period of time, under all climatic conditions. In a blizzard, for instance, it might be impossible to retrace one's steps; the only option was to proceed ahead. Today we'd call it an "extreme sport," with no turning back, and no rescue. In eighteenth-century American terms, superior woodsmanship was the quality required by every still hunter and long hunter. Woodsmanship and "Boone" were synonymous.

Figure 21

browse

While at all times remaining aware of his location relative to the river and the probable location of the boats, the hunter had to be acutely aware of every detail in his immediate surroundings, reading them quickly and surely for signs of animals. He could tell at a glance that this shrubbery had been "hedged" by a browsing ungulate, and could judge how recently by looking at the tips. He could determine their species and size from other evidence, such as hoof-prints or droppings (Figure 22).

Vector analysis

In practical terms, every huntsman in the Corps of Discovery had to be proficient in one additional skill that long hunters rarely needed, but without which all the others were useless on the expedition. He had to be able to reconcile the unpredictable meanderings of the main party's riverine course with his own wanderings on the chase. He had to measure, calculate and compare them from moment to moment, consciously or otherwise, so as to end his day within sight or sound of the party's camp, at a location he had no part in choosing, and which no one could have known in advance. Most of the time the Corps' hunters succeeded in this. The occasional exceptions proved the rule.

Figure 22

sign

Elk "sign"– droppings, dung, or scat – consists of pellets that may be of irregular shape like these, or else spherical, depending on what they've been feeding on. Deer sign is almost always spherical, and often smaller than that of elk.

A map of each day's travel by two or more parties that separated from one another in the morning and usually aimed to converge each night, could be likened to a complex military maneuver – two or more sequences of time-and-direction vectors. The daily vectorial sequences of the boats, which normally kept within sight or sound of one another, reflected the capriciousness of the living river. Clark recorded the boats' daily travels in terms of generalized, straight-line courses (compass bearings) between pairs of "points" – conspicuous landmarks – that he used as references for the bearings. He estimated length of each general course in statute miles, plus abbreviated descriptions of the points. He sometimes added a few details for his own future reference. His lists of "Courses distances and Remarks" were the worksheets from which he developed his sketch maps, which in turn were the bases of the pencilled summary charts that preceded the final map that was published with Biddle's edition of the journals in 1814.

The vectors representing the hunters' routes were determined by the vagaries of the terrain, and by the quarry they pursued. The equations were further complicated if two or more hunters took separate courses for some reason. Frequently the hunters were out of sight of the river, or at least of the boats. Moreover, there were no forward observers to guide them, and no mode of long distance communication other than the same gunshots, horn blasts, or whoops that the boatmen used.1

Each of the compass bearings of the successive courses of the river-bound party had a temporal dimension as well, which was rarely noted except within a journal entry for the day. The daily progress of the boats was sometimes either made easier by tail winds that filled their sails, or was impeded by overpowering head winds that drove them to the banks. Slow-moving eddies helped their upstream progress, while swift currents, or else dead-end leads among sandbars, resulted in negative gains. Any point of land, whether or not it occurred at the end of a course, could force the boatmen to "double" it – cross and re-cross the main current to find water where they could row, sail, or pull on a rope.

None of the hunters ever recorded their own courses and distances overland, but a Googleô Earth closeup of the north side of the river today between the towns of Gasconade and Bonnots Mill, Missouri (Fig. 18), indicates that they were anything but straight lines.2 Wherever the boggy bottoms were covered with reeds and rushes that made walking difficult and hunting impossible, the hunters were obliged to climb as much as several hundred feet, perhaps, into the foothills, where their routes would necessarily twist and turn, and rise and fall, over the land. Streams too deep to wade across could compel them to build rafts, or else make long detours to shallower water. Finally, no two sets of vectors were the same. Every step, every mile–every vectorial equation–was new to every member of each party, day after day.

"Confused"

Figure 23image

This drawing represents the courses and distances of the boat-borne main party that Clark recorded during the six days Drewyer and Shields were absent (not lost, mind you, just confused) in the spring of 1804. The arrows do not show the actual meanderings of the river, but only the compass bearings between pairs of prominent points that could clearly be recognized from both ends of a course. The hunters' route would have been on the north (right) side of the river.

They were often led away from the river by the terrain, if not by their pursuit of game, but they were always rewarded with the opportunity to study the land. In this instance they fulfilled their obligations as hunter-scouts by giving their officers "a flattering account of the Countrey Commencing below the first hill on the N Side and extendg Parrelal with the river for 30 or 40 Ms." All of the hunters were the captains' eyes on the land that could not be seen from water level.

Ironically, the Corps' two best huntsmen were the first to have difficulty with their vectorial calculations – within but a few days of the expedition's official start. As soon as camp was struck on 26 May 1804 near the village of La Charette, only 51 miles upriver from St. Charles, George Drewyer and John Shields were "Sent by land with the two horses with directions to proceed on one day & hunt the next." The boats covered a total of 28Ω miles up until the afternoon of the 27th, when the two hunters showed up and proceeded parallel with them another 5Ω miles before camping together.

After laying by for a day to dry out the contents of one of the pirogues, they all set out once more, evidently with Drewer and Shields again proceeding overland with the horses. The two hunters were neither seen nor heard from again until sunset on June 2 when, Clark reported, the men "joined us this evening much worsted, they being absent Seven Days depending on their gun, the greater part of the time rain." Since he had noted that the two men joined them at the end of their 15Ω-mile trip on the twenty-seventh, they could have been absent six days at most. In the meantime other hunters had been sent out daily, and some game was brought in without the aid of the horses.

If they set out again early on the twenty-eighth, they may have gotten a considerable distance ahead, unaware that the boats would not weigh anchor until four-thirty that afternoon. From the hard west wind they felt on the thirty-first, they may have surmised that the boats would have to lay by that day. And the captains, relying chiefly on their copy of James Mackay's map (Fig. 17), as well as advice from their engagés, may have told them they would be stopping at the mouth of the Osage River on about June first. The fact that the two hunters didn't arrive there until sunset on June 2 confirms that, as they told Clark, "they were obliged to raft or Swim many Creeks." No other explanation for the extended absence of Drewyer and Shields was committed to any of the journals.

A few days later the captains decided that the mouths of major tributaries would be logical points of reference or communication with the hunters. As soon as the party was up on the morning of July 9 they sent a man back a mile to the Nodaway River to mark a tree with some sort of a sign informing the hunters that the boats had passed that place. Obviously, this would be helpful only if the hunters were behind the main party. Perhaps for that reason the strategy was never mentioned again. The best alternative seems to have been to give the hunters a head start every morning. As the party set out westward from Travelers Rest on 11 September 1805 Lewis reported he had selected four of the best hunters to go in advance, as usual. "This arrangement has been made long sinc," he added. One week later Clark "proceded on in advance with Six hunters" to try to kill some meat to send back to the party–a vain hope, as it soon proved.

Brain Power

Hunters with the Corps had to possess, or else quickly develop, a highly receptive hippocampus, that part of the brain that registers short-term memories and arranges them into indelible mental maps of time, space, and place. That was the sort of gift that Clark had, but evidently young3

Figure 24

Pass cursor over map to read details.

image

In the 1790s James Mackay (1761-1822), a trader for the Spanish-controlled Missouri Company, made a voyage up the Missouri River, accompanied by James Evans (1770-1799). Mackay mapped the lower Missouri, and Evans provided him with details about the river nearer to the Knife River Villages. Mackay's map of the Missouri River, published in 1797, was the most accurate one yet. It included many of the early French names of the Missouri's tributaries. Thomas Jefferson sent a copy of it to Meriwether Lewis in 1803. It was one of the most valuable tools they had.

This detail shows the Missouri and some of its major tributaries, between Charette Creek and the Osage River. It contains only a few northern tributaries in this stretch, whereas Drewyer and Shields told Clark they had to cross "many Creeks."

George Shannon's was inadequately developed for at least the first year and a half of the expedition. On 26 August 1804, he and Drewyer were sent to look for the company's two missing horses. Shannon found the horses but became separated from his partner and was not seen again for sixteen days. The reason for his long absence, he explained, was that he had mistaken some Indian tracks for those of his comrades. Convinced that he was behind the main party, he hurried to catch up, outdistancing even the search parties the captains sent out to find him–"This man not being a first rate Hunter," in Clark's judgment. He finally abandoned all hope of hooking up with the boats again, and turned around "in hopes to meet Some other Boat." When he finally caught sight of the barge and pirogues he had been heading down river for two days.

Thereafter the captains must have had some misgivings every time they sent him out to hunt. He was "lost again" for three days in early August of 1805, but finally caught up with the party, looking "a good deel worried [wearied] with his march." By the following winter, however, he evolved into one of the better hunters in the Corps, justifying mention in same breath with the Drewyer, Labiche and the Field brothers. It may well be that Drewyer took Shannon aside after the second incident and gave him some advanced instructions in woodsmanship. The following winter, as Arlen Large pointed out, "he emerged as a major scourge of neighborhood elk" in the vicinity of Fort Clatsop.

The captains themselves occasionally proceeded ahead in order to scout or hunt, but nearly always rejoined the main party on schedule, unless unforeseen circumstances interfered. One day in late June of 1804, a few miles upriver from the site of later Fort Osage, Missouri, Clark decided to walk on shore, expecting he would meet the boats later in the evening. As darkness approached he realized that he had gotten six miles ahead of them.

Finding it too late to get to the Boat, and the wind blowing So hard Down the river that She could not assend, I concluded to Camp, altho I had nothing but my hunting Dress & the Musquitors Ticks  & Knats verry troublesom, I concld to hunt on a willow Isd. Situated close under the Shore, in Crossing from an Island, I got mired, and was obliged to Craul out, a disegreeable Situation & a Diverting one of any one who Could have Seen me after I got out, all Covered with mud, I went my Camp & [s]Craped off the Mud and washed my Clothes, and fired off my gun which was answered by George Drewyer who was in persute of me & came up at Dark.

Only Sgt. Ordway mentioned that Clark rejoined the party on the following morning,bringing along a bear he had shot.

Mutual concern among all members of the Corps was a given, although it was rarely expressed in the journals. Even Captain Lewis, despite his own proven qualifications as a woodsman, and the confidence which his men had in him, was himself the object of serious concern on at least one occasion. Upon his late-night return to their spike camp after a solitary exploration of the falls of the Missouri he found his companions–Drewyer, Gibson, Goodrich, and Joseph Field–"extremely uneasy for my safety." They had formed, he wrote, "a thousand conjectures, all of which equally forboding my death, which they had so far settled among them, that they had already agreed on the rout which each should take in the morning to surch for me."

The stress of concern for overdue hunters must have weighed heavily on the captains as well as the hunters, even before the expedition officially got under way. Shortly after reaching the mouth of the Ohio on 22 November 1803 and turning up the Mississippi River, Nathaniel Pryor, whom Lewis had recruited before leaving Pittsburgh and who was to prove one of the most dependable members of the Corps, went hunting alone. At the end of that day he had not returned, so Lewis "had several guns fired to bring him too, and the horn freequently blown but without effect." Two days later, just as the barge was bearing off from the previous night's camp near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Pryor hailed them. "We passed the river and took him in," Lewis reported, adding sympathetically, "He was much fatiequed with his wandering and somewhat indisposed." In modern terms, Nathaniel Hale Pryor was "stressed out."

High Anxiety

The climax in terms of space-time vectorial equations fell within a ten-day period a little over a month before the end of the expedition. At 6:30 a.m. on 3 August 1806, when Lewis and his detachment were still four days' journey above the Yellowstone's mouth where he expected to rendezvous with Clark and his detachment, Lewis sent John Colter4 and John Collins ahead in a small canoe to hunt. Lewis and his men soon passed the beached canoe, but got no response to their whoops, horn blasts or gun signals. Either the two were far back in the breaks, well out of earshot, or else they heard the signals but were in the process of stalking game and didn't want to risk spooking their quarry. The night before, Lewis, eager to meet up with Clark's detachment at the mouth of the Yellowstone, ordered the cooks to prepare enough meat each night to last them through the next morning and noon. The time saved would enable them to increase their pace by 12 to 15 miles per day. Unfortunately, that was bound to complicate time-and-distance reckonings by Colter and Collins. In any case, they did not show up at camp that night.

According to Sgt. Gass, Lewis's party covered 88 miles on the 4th, eighteen more than they had paddled on each of the previous two days. Lewis nervously remarked that night that "Colter and Collins have not yet overtaken us." The next morning he waited for them until noon, then suddenly changed his mind and embarked again, having concluded that "they had passed us after dark the night of the 3rd inst. as Sergt Ordway informed me he should have done last evening had not the centinel hailed him."5

On August 7 they reached the mouth of the Yellowstone and found Clark's note to the effect that he and his contingent had decided not to camp there on account of a plague of mosquitoes. At 10:00 a.m. on the 8th Lewis arrived at the mouth of White Earth River. "Not finding Capt. Clark," he complained, "I knew not what calculation to make with rispect to his halting and therefore determined to proceed as tho' he was not before me and leave the rest to the chapter of accedents." The two lost hunters were still the subjects of deep concern. "Colter and Collins have not yet overtaken us," Lewis worried on the 9th. "I fear some missfortune has happened them for their previous fidelity and orderly deportment induces me to beleive that they would not thus intentionally delay."

Now there were four groups separated by distances unknown to any of them, all simultaneously trying to solve the time-distance puzzle–Lewis and his detachment; the huntsmen Colter and Collins; Clark with his Yellowstone River explorers; and the three-man detail led by Sgt. Pryor, which so far as anyone else knew, was well on the way to see Hugh Heney at Fort Assiniboin. The only positive factor was that they were all headed in the same direction by the same means. On the 8th Lewis decided to hold up for a day or so to repair the pirogue and one of the canoes. Furthermore, "the men with me have not had leasure since we left the West side of the Rocky mountains to dres any skins or make themselves cloaths and most of them are therefore extreemly bare." Pryor (with Shannon, Hall and Windsor) caught up with Clark on August 8; Lewis received that disappointing news on August 11–the same day he was shot and wounded by Cruzatte–via a letter Clark had left for him at his camp site of August 10.

This final "chapter of accidents" was finally closed on August 12, with an unexpected coincidence thrown in to heighten the drama. To begin with, Lewis encountered two "long hunters" from the Illinois country named Joseph Dixon and Forrest Hancock, who had been hunting and trapping their way up the Missouri since the summer of 1804. Lewis generously gave them information, supplies, and encouragement. During the hour and a half he and the strangers were together, Colter and Collins appeared. "They informed me," Lewis wrote, "that after proceeding the first day and not overtaking us that they had concluded that we were behind and had delayed several days in waiting for us." Indeed, so firm was their conviction that they were ahead of Lewis and his party that, according to Sgt. Ordway, they had racked up "6 buffaloe 13 deer 5 Elk & 31 beaver" and left them all rotting in the August sun on the banks of the Missouri. At 1:00 p.m. that afternoon, Lewis and his men caught up with Clark. Triumphally reunited, the Corps of Discovery proceeded on – homeward.

Home Stretch

Now all members of the party were on equal footing. They were on familiar ground, often camping in the same places where they had bivouacked during the summer of 1804. The captains–Clark was the official spokesman; Lewis's pen was dry–could issue specific assignments to the hunters as to where they were to go and when they were to return–or where they were to wait. He usually deployed his hunters early in the morning. He took pains not to let anyone fall behind, but if it happened he took immediate steps to get everyone back together promptly.

Clark apparently dispatched several hunting parties on the morning of September 8, including Joseph and Reubin Field. When all of them returned on time except the Fieldses, the initial reaction was that they were still "in the woods behind," so Clark waited for them most of the afternoon. He even "Sent out 3 men to hunt in the bottom up the river and observe if they Saw any Sign of the hunters," but to no avail. "The 2 fieldses did not join us," he captain fretted that night. On second thought, however, he had a suspicion that they had somehow gotten ahead of him. He hedged his bet. On the morning of the ninth he directed Ordway and four privates to stay on the sand bar until noon, and to continue down river if the brothers hadn't appeared by noon. In his terse summary of the incident, Clark hinted at the reason behind the confusion: "We had proceeded on about 8 miles by water and the distance through not more than 1 mile when we Saw the fire of those 2 men." They had passed by somewhere, sometime, probably out of sight of the river. He "took the boys on board," and ordered a gun fired to signal Ordway to come on.

Incidentally, Clark added, they "informed me they had been Somewhat almd. [alarmed] at our delay" in catching up with them. Indeed, Clark observed sympathetically on September 9 (a 73-mile day), "our party appears extreamly anxious to get on, and every day appears produce new anxieties in them to get to their Country and friends."

Identities

Nothing more needs to be said about the "qualifycations" Lewis had expected to find in any man he hired as a hunter, or that some of the members of the Corps of Discovery managed to acquire by study and practice. They included not only marksmanship and woodsmanship and all of the related skills those two demanded, but also a small repertoire of related abilities such as field dressing, butchering, and ways of preserving the meat. All that remains now is to try to get some idea of how many succeeded, and who they might have been.


1. Since they often traveled above the level of the flood plain, the hunters themselves routinely functioned as spies or scouts–the terms were synonymous in those days–who brought back reports of Indians or signs of Indians, as well as information about the land where they hunted, including its flora and fauna. Every man was to some degree his own explorer.

2. The distance then was 33 miles, according to Clark's estimates. By now the river has been tamed. The kinks have been straightened out until the distance is 24.5 miles. The main channel has been deepened, making the current flow three or four miles an hour faster than it did in 1804. The verges of the Missouri have been disciplined by wing dams and such; the boundaries of the flood plain have been firmed up and straightened out by geometric survey lines.

3. George Shannon, born in 1785, was only eighteen or nineteen when the expedition set out up the Missouri River in May of 1804.

4. Within a few years following the end of the Lewis and Clark expedition, John Colter was identified in the Missouri Gazette for 18 April 1811 as a "celebrated hunter and woodsman."

5. Ordway and Willard had taken the Fields' small canoe that day to hunt, had killed a large grizzly late in the afternoon and, figuring they were way behind the rest, chose to proceed by moonlight. (The moon had been full on July 30; on August 3 it was entering its waning gibbous phase.) Shortly before midnight they found themselves amidst a tangle of sawyers, one of which knocked Willard into the water from his place in the stern–by all odds a certain-death situation. By staying calm and using their wits they managed to extricate themselves and proceed on, reaching Lewis's camp around midnight.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program.