'A man of character and ability'
Nathaniel Pryor was born in Amherst County, Virginia, about forty miles southwest of Charlottesville and Monticello, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. No record of his birth date has been found, but he probably was about the same age as his cousin, Charles Floyd, who was born in 1782.1 His family moved to Louisville, in frontier Kentucky, when he was eleven, and he joined the expedition on October 20, 1803, at Clarksville, Indiana—one of nine recruits from Kentucky. In 1798 he had married Margaret Patton, but a descendant, John H. Pryor, speculates that since Lewis had instructed Clark to take only unmarried men, his recruitment suggests that either Margaret had died, or else the two were divorced by that time.2
It may be that Pryor had some talent as a carpenter, for during the construction of Camp Dubois he supervised the men assigned to saw planks, and he oversaw the repairs of two Indian canoes they purchased shortly before their departure from Fort Clatsop. He accompanied Lewis on the exploration of the lower Marias River in early June of 1805. On April 1, 1806, he and two privates explored six miles up the Quicksand (today's Sandy) River, which meets the Columbia at Troutdale, east of Portland, Oregon. Later that same year, traveling down the Yellowstone River, Clark assigned Pryor to lead a command trying to take horses to trade for supplies at Fort Assiniboine in Canada.
Pryor's name was frequently on the captains' minds when naming landmarks. They put it on three different creeks in the vicinity of present Helena, Montana, but other names soon fell into place.3 Clark, who called Pryor "a steady valuable and usefull member of our party," absent-mindedly named two tributaries of the Yellowstone River for him: "Pryers river" (today's Dry Creek, at river mile 379) and "Pryor's River" (today's Pryor Creek, at river mile 349.9)4
Nathaniel Pryor was promoted to the rank of ensign (second lieutenant) in the First Infantry after the expedition's close. He left the army in 1810 to become a trader but had some unfortunate encounters with Indians. He re-enlisted, and saw action in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.
Licensed by Governor Clark to trade with the Winnebago Indians, he quickly established a profitable business, including a smelting furnace at Julien Dubuque's lead mines in Iowa, "and was rapidly distributing through the Tribes the comforts and conveniences of civilization." Clark asked him to try to locate Tecumseh, or the Prophet, which roused the "hostility and enmity" and murderous intent of the Winnebagos following the Battle of Tippecanoe. It was winter, and while an Indian woman in Pryor's house distracted his executioners, he fled across the Mississippi on the ice. The Indians killed two of his men, stole all his personal property and trade goods, and destroyed everything else. Later he filed a claim against the government, on the grounds he did not know of the Indian unrest, but modestly limited his demands to the actual value of the lost goods, $5,216.25. Writing in his behalf to Secretary of War James Barbour fourteen years after the event, his friend Franklin Wharton called Pryor "a man of real, solid, innate worth," whose "genuine modesty conceals the peculiar traits of his character." He was, Wharton also said, "a brave and persevering officer in the attack on New Orleans."5
In August of 1813 he was commissioned first lieutenant in the Forty-fourth Infantry, and one month later was promoted to captain, seeing action in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. In June he was honorably discharged from the army and returned to the Indian trade, opening a post on the lower Arkansas River, among the Osages. Like his previous commercial ventures, this one saw but limited success. In 1821 Pryor established another trading post on the Canadian River, married an Osage woman, and served for several years as an unofficial, unpaid interpreter and mediator for her people. Highly respected by Indians, military authorities, government officials and others, in 1830 Governor Clark appointed him temporary subagent for Clermont's band of Osages at $500 per year. He failed to step up into a permanent appointment.
Pryor died in June of 1831, at about age forty-nine.
1. Raymond W. Settle, "Nathaniel Pryor," in LeRoy R. Hafen, ed., The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West. 10 vols. (Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1965), 2, 277.
2. Alexander Willard, another former member of the Corps of Discovery, was en route from St. Louis to warn Pryor, but didn't arrive in time.
3. White Earth Creek (Beaver Creek today), Prickly Pear Creek, and Spokane Creek. Moulton, Journals, 4:405, 412, 417.
4. Moulton, Atlas, maps 108 and 116.
5. Jackson, Letters, 1:640–43. Jackson, Among the Sleeping Giants: Occasional Pieces on Lewis and Clark (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 111.