Quest for Hunters

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"From the nature of this enterprise much must
depend on a judicious scelection of our men;
their qualifycations should be such as perfectly
fit them for the service, outherwise they will
reather clog than further the objects in view."

Where Credit is Due
Hunters and Hunting on the Expedition

Once he finished his crash courses in navigation, botany, medicine, and so forth, in Philadelphia and Lancaster, and after his basic stores were in hand or on order, Meriwether Lewis turned his attention to the building of an efficient, reliable expeditionary force. There would be plenty of volunteers to choose from, drawn by the adventure, seduced by the romance, enchanted by the opportunity to ride a magic carpet to wonderland and back. But in a party of only 10 or 12 soldierson July 3-4, 1806, "attendants," as Jefferson referred to themon July 3-4, 1806, plus a few temporary employees, which was all Jefferson had originally proposed and Congress had authorized, there was room for only one dreamer. As his own journals would eventually attest, and history would confirm, Meriwether Lewis was that one, with William Clark as his co-commander, companion and alter ego.

As for the rest, the two leaders needed some very special types of men. In mid-June of 1803 Lewis wrote to Clark from the capitol to invite him to share command of the detachment, and included some particulars about personnel. He said he would be in Pittsburgh where his barge on July 3-4, 1806, or "keelboat"on July 3-4, 1806, was being built, and would sign on eight or nine recruits who would not be permanent members of his unit but would merely help him get the big boat as far as St. Louis.1 He concluded by inviting his future co-commander to share in assembling the expeditionary force:

when descending the Ohio it shall be my duty by enquiry to find out and engage some good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods, and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considereable degree: should any young men answering this discription be found in your neighborhood I would thank you to give information of them on my arivall at the falls of the Ohio; and if possible learn the probability of their engaging in this service. this may be done perhaps by holding out the idea that the direction of this expedition is up the mississippi to its source,2 and thence to the lake of the Woods; . . . if they would engage themselves in a service of this discription there would be but little doubt that they would engage in the real design when it became necessary to make it known to them, which I should take care to do before I finally engaged them:

Drawing on the experience he had gained as an army paymaster on the western frontier he added, "The soldiers that will most probably answer this expedition best will be found in some of the companies stationed at Massac, Kaskaskias & Illinois."3 But he expected to find good hunters only among the civilian population. They would be "engaged"on July 3-4, 1806, hiredon July 3-4, 1806, not enlisted.

Six weeks later, on July 24, Clark informed Lewis of his receipt of inquiries from several young men who were not accustomed to hard labor on July 3-4, 1806, "Gentlemens sons," he notedon July 3-4, 1806, and he was duly "causious in giveing them any encouragement." But he had temporarily engaged some men "of a discription calculated to work & go thro' those labours & fatigues which will be necessary."

Ten days later Lewis reassured him from Pittsburgh: "I am well pleased that you have not admitted or encouraged the young gentlemen you mention, we must set our faces against all such applications and get rid of them on the best terms we can." Also, he reminded Clark that "if a good hunter or two could be conditionally engaged I would think them an acquisition," insisting, however, that "they must . . . understand that they will not be employed for the purposes of hunting exclusively but must bear a portion of the labour in common with the party."4 Within another two and one-half weeks Clark informed Lewis that he had received applications from quite a few "stout likely fellows," had refused some, and put others off until Lewis's arrival at Louisville. The best news was that he had found four of "the best woodsmen & Hunters . . . in this part of the Countrey." Prospects seemed to be improving.

The War Department also authorized Lewis to engage an unspecified number of civilians who would be "usefull in promoting the objects or success of this expedition." Who would, in other words, have skills that would not likely be found among the Army's enlisted men. First, they would need a competent and versatile interpreter to facilitate communication with the many Indian tribes they expected to meet; second, they would need a waterman who could safely pilot them up the Missouri River through its unique hazards and currents; third, they would need some skilled hunters to keep them in fresh meat daily under varied and unpredictable circumstances, for an indeterminate period. By the time they arrived in the vicinity of St. Louis it was obvious to the captains that they would need at least twice the number of enlistees and hired hands originally planned for if they were to muscle the barge and pirogues up the treacherous Missouri and back, as well as repel potential attacks by hostile Indians.5 Correspondingly, they would need more of those specialists.

They would be hard to find, and even harder to recruit, all three types being notoriously independent entrepreneurs who were needed critically, if only intermittently, by anyone venturing into either the Old or the New West. Earlier that year Lewis had almost gotten the interpreter he thought he wanted, but after months of trying to connect the dots, the picture dissolved.6 However, Clark was confident they would have no "dificuelty in precureing the best interpreters at St. Louey or Kohokoha as also prime water men if they would be necessary," and all that proved to be true.7

Lewis expected to find some volunteers from Fort South West Point awaiting him when he arrived at Fort Massac on November 11, and he looked forward to finding one or more qualified hunters among them. The volunteers weren't there, but fortunately George Drouillard was. Lewis promptly engaged him "in the public service as an Indian Interpretter, contracted to pay him 25 dollards pr. month for his services," and paid him thirty dollars in advance.8 Neither captain revealed anything that had been said about his skill as a hunter but, reassured either by his first impressions of Drouillard or else by strong recommendations as to his woodsmanship9, Lewis quickly hired him to go to South West Point, the Army outpost overlooking the confluence of the Clinch River and the Tennessee, 250 miles to the southeast of Fort Massac, and escort eight volunteers up to Cahokia, across the Mississippi from St. Louis.10 At the end of a 360-mile walk northward from the fort on the Tennessee River, Drouillard showed up with the eight men on December 16. Here was a man who was definitely "accustomed to the woods."

Somewhat relucantly, Lewis accepted only four of them—Hugh Hall, Thomas P. Howard, John Potts, and Richard Warfington. "I do not know how they may answer on experiment, but I am a little disappointed in finding them not possessed of more of the requisite qualifications," he sighed. Worse yet, there was not a reputable hunter among them.11

When Drouillard and the eight recruits appeared at Camp Dubois six days later, Clark was similarly dismayed. "Those men are not such as I was told was in readiness at Tennessee for this Cmd && ," he grumbled. Evidently the officer at the Tennessee post had taken the opportunity to weed out some of his least desirable soldiers. Inexplicably, in his December 17 letter, Lewis had even revealed some uncertainty as to Drouillard's ultimate role in the expedition, perhaps reflecting on the one hand some reluctance on the interpreter's part to surrender his independence to whims of an Army officer, and on the other, the officer's readiness to treat the interpreter with due respect. "Drewyer and myself have made no positive bargain," Lewis announced. "I have offered him 25$ pr. month so long as he may chuise to continue with us." On Christmas Day, Clark recorded in his journal entry that Drouillard had decided to continue on the expedition at the rate Lewis had offered, and would immediately return to Fort Massac to settle his affairs—perhaps to repay an outstanding loan.12

Clark began testing Drouillard's skill as a hunter on December 27 when he sent him out early to hunt, and the man promptly returned with a deer. After the expedition got under way that spring, Clark sent him out on May 26 with John Shields and the two horses, "with directions to proceed on one day & hunt the next." They reported back promptly the next afternoon, and Clark ordered them to go ahead the next day to hunt. They didn't rejoin the detachment until sunset on June 2, "much worsted, they being absent Seven Days depending on their gun, the greater part of the time rain, they wer obliged to raft or Swim many Creeks." There is no explanation for their extended absence unless, as Ordway intimates, they were lost or, as Daniel Boon would have said, "bewildered." They didn't bring any venison with them, but at least they still had the horses, and they redeemed themselves as woodsmen by giving a full report: "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."13

The story of the expedition at this point raises several questions. First, why did both captains decline to consider "gentlemen's sons"? Weren't they gentlemen's sons themselves? Second, why was it so hard to find good hunters? Third, precisely what were those "qualifycations" that would "perfectly fit them for service" in that enterprise? Finally, who turned out to be the Corps' best hunters?

1. John Colter may have been among the "three young men on trial" who were in Lewis's crew when he left Pittsburgh, and who "proposed to go with [Lewis} throughout the voyage." Colter's official enlistment, however, was dated 15 October 1803, eleven days before Lewis and Clark left Louisville. George Shannon came on board at Maysville, Kentucky, on September 14; his enlistment was received at Louisville also, on October 19.

2. This was the substance of Jefferson's campaign of disinformation, which was aimed at defusing a potential crisis on the international scene by claiming only a search for the sources of the Mississippi, which would be in U.S territory. "The idea that you are going to explore the Missisipi has been generally given out," he wrote to Lewis. "It satisfies public curiosity, and masks sufficiently the real destination." (Jackson, Letters, 1:44.) That innocent ruse suggested that the expedition's purpose was to explore the extreme northwestern boundaries of the new United States, which then existed only as a written prescription in the Treaty of Paris that was based on an inaccurate map of an unexplored region. Lewis and Clark's expedition thus carried the force of geopolitical urgency, even after the Louisiana Purchase was consummated.

3. Jackson, Letters, 1:116.

4. Pittsburgh, 3 August 1803; Jackson, Letters, 1:116.

5. Roy E. Appleman, Lewis & Clark: Historic Places Associated with Their Transcontinental Exploration, 1804-06 (Washington, D.C.: USDI National Park Service, 1975), 61.

6. That was John Conner (1775-1826), a trader who in 1800 had settled in Indiana Territory, among the Delawares near the present site of Muncie. In 1802 he traveled to Washington as an interpreter for a group of Indian chiefs who met with President Jefferson to protest some recent actions by the Territorial governor, William Henry Harrison (1773-1841). Lewis, who was then Jefferson's personal secretary, may have been present at that meeting.

The President advised Lewis in April of 1803, that he had "received information that Connor [sic] cultivates in the first degree the patronage of the British government; to which he values ours as only secondary." Nevertheless, he thought that considering Conner's qualifications it was "certainly proper under our former impression of him" to engage him as an interpreter. Lewis wrote to Conner about the planned expedition, and in February received a letter of application, to which Lewis replied with instructions to meet him at either Fort Massac or Fort Kaskaskia, and to bring along one or two hunters, preferably Indians.

On 3 August, not having heard from Conner but convinced that it would be "advisable to spare no pains to get him," he asked Clark to hire someone to go to the Delaware village on the White River in Indiana Territory, find Conner, and offer him $300 per year plus provisions and clothing. Clark replied that he had never heard of the man, but had put out the word that they were looking for him. Moreover, he himself knew of one or two Delaware Indian hunters who would probably go along on a trip up the Mississippi, but since their nation was at war with the Osages, they wouldn't consider venturing up the Missouri through Osage country.

Clark promptly wrote a letter to Conner and hired a certain Captain Floyd to find him and deliver it. (Perhaps that was Charles Floyd, the father of the younger Charles Floyd who became a member of the Corps, but more likely it was Capt. Davis Floyd, a pilot at the Falls of the Ohio and a mail contractor.) By 11 September Clark sent Lewis an update. The deal was off. First, there was a miscommunication concerning Lewis's actual departure date. Second, $300 was not enough; he thought he was worth at least $500 per year. Third, he was too busy anyway. It was not much of a loss on either side. Although the idea of exploring the upper Mississippi may have momentarily appealed to Conner, his destiny was already becoming inextricably threaded into the political and commercial fabric of Indiana Territory. On the other hand, Clark didn't feel it was much of a loss to the expedition, inasmuch as Conner "did not speake any of the [Indian] languages to the West of the Mississippi." Lewis concurred, writing to Clark from Cincinnati on September 28, "I do not much regret the loss of Mr. Connor for several reasons which I shall mention to you when we meet; he has decieved me very much." There is no written record of such a conversation. Jackson, Letters, 1:44, 116-18, 123, 125. Charles N. Thompson, Sons of the Wilderness: John and William Conner, 2d ed. (Noblesville, Indiana: Conner Prairie Press, 1988).

7. They picked up François Labiche at either Kaskaskia or St. Charles; he served as a riverman and hunter, but best of all as an interpreter. There they also enlisted Pierre Cruzatte, whose understanding of the Missouri earned him the respect of the entire Corps, and whose fiddle playing enhanced the men's evening diversions as well as the captains' Indian diplomacy.

8. Moulton, Journals, 2:85.

9. A good woodsman was self-confident among the uncertainties and potential dangers of the wilderness, able to find his way alone and travel fast, able to survive off the land, and with a reliable sense of direction and feeling for topography.

10. Fort South West Point (Southwest Point) was established by the Virginia territorial militia in 1792. Two years later it became the federal administrative center for the Cherokee Indian nation. The fort was abandoned in 1811 when the agency was moved farther west to a new garrison on the Hiwassee River.

11. Jackson, Letters, 1:144. We can imagine Lewis's misgivings at sending the men he rejected 350 miles back to West-Point Tennessee without someone like Drouillard to guide them.

12. M. O. Skarsten, George Drouillard, Hunter and Interpreter for Lewis and Clark and Fur Trader, 1807-1810 (2nd ed., Spokane, WA: Arthur H. Clark, 2003), 21.

13. At the close of the expedition Meriwether Lewis remembered George Drouillard—whose French surname he most often spelled phonetically, Drewyer—as "A man of much merit; he has been peculiarly useful from his knowledge of the common language of gesticulation, and his uncommon skill as a hunter and woodsman." Ibid., 1:368.

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