Closest Call

Page 6 of 8

The most serious hunting mishap, and surely the most memorable episode in Lewis's frequently referenced "chapter of accedents," was the moment on 11 August 1806–one day before the captains were finally re-united–when Pierre Cruzatte shot him in the buttocks. The painful details deserve retelling in the victim's own words (here broken into paragraphs for easier reading):

jus opposite to the birnt hills there happened to be a herd of Elk on a thick willow bar and . . . I determined to land and kill some of them accordingly we put too and I went out with Cruzatte only.    we fired on the Elk I killed one and he wounded another, we reloaded our guns and took different routs through the thick willows in pursuit of the Elk; I was in the act of firing on the Elk a second time when a ball struck my left thye about an inch below my hip joint, missing the bone it passed through the left thye and cut the thickness of the bullet across the hinder part of te right thye; the stroke was very severe;

I instantly supposed that Cruzatte had shot me in mistake for an Elk as I was dressed in brown leather and he cannot see very well; under this impression I called out to him damn you, you have shot me, and looked toward the place from whence the ball had come, seeing nothing I called Cruzatte several times as loud as I could but received no answer; I was now preswaded that it was an indian that had shot me as the report of the gun did not appear to be more than 40 paces from me and Cruzatte appeared to be out of hearing of me; in this situation not knowing how many indians there might be concealed in the bushes I thought best to make good my retreat to the perogue, calling out as I ran for the first hundred paces as loud as I could to Cruzatte to retreat that there were indians[,] hoping to allarm him in time to make his escape also;

I still retained the charge in my gun which I was about to discharge at the moment the ball struck me.    when I arrived in sight of the peogue I called the men to their arms to which they flew in an instant, I told them that I was wounded but I hoped not mortally, by an indian I beleived and directed them to follow me that I would return & give them battle and releive Cruzatte if possible who I feared had falled into their hands; the men followed me as they were bid and I returned about a hundred paces when my wounds became so painfull and my thye so stiff that I could scarcely get on; in short I was compelled to halt and ordered the men to proceed and if they found themselves overpowered by numbers to retreat in order keeping up a fire.

I now got back to the perogue as well as I could and prepared my self with a pistol my rifle and air-gun being determined as a retreat was impracticable to sell my life as deerly as possible.    in this state of anxiety and suspense remained about 20 minutes when the party returned with Cruzatte and reported that there were no indians nor the appearance of any; Cruzatte seemed much allarmed and declared if he had shot me it was not his intention, that he had shot an Elk in the willows after he left or seperated from me. I asked him whether he did not hear me when I called to him so frequently which he absolutely denied. I do not beleive that the fellow did it intentionally but after finding that he had shot me was anxious to conceal his knowledge of having done so.   

the ball had lodged in my breeches which I knew to be the ball of the short rifles such as that he had, and there being no person out with me but him and no indians that we could discover I have no doubt in my own mind of his having shot me.    with the assistance of Sergt. Gass I took off my cloaths and dressed my wounds myself as well as I could, introducing tents of patent int into the ball holes, the wounds blead considerably but I was hapy to find that it had touched neither bone nor artery.

I sent the men to dress the two Elk which Cruzatte and myself had killed which they did in a few minutes and brought the meat to the river. . . . we came within eight miles of our encampment of the 15th of April 1805, and encamped on the N. E. side.    as it was painfull to me to be removed I slept on board the perogue; the pain I experienced excited a high fever and I had a very uncomfortable night.

Unable to sit up, Lewis spent nearly all of his time during the next ten days lying on his stomach in the pirogue, until he managed to walk a few steps on August 22. Five days later he overdid the walking, which set his recovery back. During a tense meeting with a band of Teton Sioux on September 1, he "hobled up on the bank and formed . . . the party in a Situation well calculated to defend themselves and the Canoes &c." He was still "in a Convelesent State" on the fifth, but by September 8, twenty-eight days after the accident, he had recovered sufficiently to climb with Clark up to the bluffs where they had counciled with the Otos and Missouris in 1804.  

Pierre Cruzatte had earned the Corps' highest respect as a riverman, despite his misinterpretation of the evidence at the confluence of the Missouri and the Marias River. That also was where he first taught the men how to dig a cache, although no one had any way of knowing how high the spring runoff from mountain snow could be, so valuable records were damaged or destroyed by the spring freshet. He was–and still is–famous for beguiling Indians and entertaining his companions with his fiddle playing. He was occasionally paired with George Drewyer in diplomatic dealings with Indians, especially along the lower Missouri, because of his ethnic background: His father was French-Canadian and his mother an Omaha Indian. At appropriate moments, Lewis readily acknowledged all of those talents and their benefits to the expedition. Nevertheless, he was too impulsive to confront a crisis calmly. His first encounter with grizzly bear and a buffalo on the same morning was a farce. As Lewis explained it,

Peter Crusat this day [20 October 1804] shot at a white bear he wounded him, but being alarmed at the formidable appearance of the bear he left his tomahalk and gun; but shortly after returned and found that the bear had taken the oposite rout.     soon after he shot a buffaloe cow broke her thy, the cow pursued him he concealed himself in a small raviene.–

Those were valuable lessons for Peter. His natural timidity served him in the clinches. He learned the wisdom of giving way to a wounded grizzly, and he observed the unpredictability of bison. The journalists did not regularly identify the hunters that were sent out, so a post-expedition name-count cannot show us the whole picture. Jim Large's tally (see the section "Partial census" in "Roll Call,") placed George Drewyer at the head of the nine-man honor roll of hunters; Cruzatte, neither the best nor the worst of the rest, fell into the five-man middle category. On the return trip he distinguished himself by killing a pronghorn (we'd like to know what tactic he used) and a bison. However, from 11 August until the end of the expedition on 23 September, Cruzatte's name was conspicuously absent from among the identified hunters. Perhaps, sick with guilt, he respectfully declined to shoot at anything.

Lewis said nothing of the incident in his post-expedition report to Henry Dearborn, but neither did he give any hint there of Cruzatte's positive contributions through his roles as a riverman, an interpreter, and a fiddle player. One may suppose the reason for the captain's silence lay not as much in the fact that the half-breed had shot him, but that Cruzatte, after more than two years of experience with the Corps of Discovery, had broken the first two rules of safe hunting: "Always be absolutely sure of your target, and what's behind it." Unfortunately, Peter's screwup was unforgivable–and he knew it.


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