Alexander Hamilton Willard
(1778 - 1865)
Private, U.S. Army
n November 14, 1805, Alexander Willard and George Shannon experienced one of the three most amazing coincidences during the Lewis and Clark Expedition.1 With Colter, they had left "Dismal Nitch" (at today's Megler Point, Washington) the previous day, assigned to look for Baker Bay and also for whites at a trading post or with a ship. Seeing neither any whites nor what they perceived as a bay, Colter returned with the news that while Willard and Shannon camped and awaited the main party. When they were sleeping on a "butifull Sand beech" on the 14th, Indians took their rifles "from under their heads," Clark wrote. The two men "threatened" the Indians—as Nicholas Biddle added, probably from Shannon's information—,2 with "a large party from above." And then, in Clark's account, "Capt. Lewis & party arrived at the Camp of those Indians at So Timely a period that the Inds. were allarmed & delivered up the guns &c." Willard had obviously redeemed himself since July 12, 1804, when he received the worst physical punishment ever given a man in the Corps of Discovery (See "Courts Martial on the Trail.")
A Newhampshireman, the brown-haired, dark-complexioned Willard had joined the army as an "artificer" (a craftsman; in Willard's case, a blacksmith) in 1800. He had transferred into the Corps from Fort Kaskaskia in the Illinois country, and likely assisted John Shields, the Corps' primary blacksmith. Clark selected Willard as one of five men to assist him in surveying and marking the portage route around the falls of the Missouri River in July 1805.3 After Clark's party reached three islands upstream from the falls, where they set up a second base camp4 — Upper Portage Camp — Willard went out on July 18 to pick up meat the hunters had left. Clark wrote that Willard was 170 yards from the islands when he "was attact by a white [grizzly] bear and verry near being Caught. . . . I collected 3 others of the party and prosued the bear" as it approached the islands and threatened Colter, driving him into the Missouri River. After that, the location was called "White Bear Islands."
At Fort Clatsop, Willard suffered a mysterious illness from February through March 1806, complaining of headache, fever, and low spirits. He and William Bratton were sick at the same time, but unlike Bratton, Willard recovered on his own.
Clark took Willard in his advance party seeking to buy horses as the Corps moved back up the Columbia River in the spring of 1806, and used him, among others, to carry word back to Lewis about the continuing failure to obtain affordable steeds. Even though well aware of how precious their few horses were, Willard was the man who failed to picket his own recently-obtained animal well enough at The Dalles on April 19. It wandered off and could not be found; the incident aroused Lewis's wrath toward the private:
|this in addition to the other difficulties under which I laboured was truly provoking. I repremanded him more severely for this peice of negligence than had been usual with me.|
Years later, one of Willard's sons would tell historian and suffrage activist Eva Emory Dye that, when reminiscing about the expedition his father "did not speak much of Lewis but he was a personal friend of Gov. Clark" afterward.5
Still, Lewis wrote with concern on August 4, 1806, when Willard was thrown into the Missouri River in eastern Montana. He and John Ordway had been hunting behind Lewis's main party and were coming up after dark with the meat from a bear and two deer in their canoe. The current pushed it into a "parsel of sawyers," or partially submerged trees. Willard, steering their boat, was swept out of it and into the water while Ordway fought his way to shore a half mile downstream and returned by land. Willard had clung to a sawyer until he could tie some trapped sticks together as a float, then
Willard was to have more canoe-related danger only 27 days later, in South Dakota under what is now Lake Randall. During the night of August 30-31, a hard storm came in over camp, which was pitched on a sandbar. The men all attempted to hang onto the boats to keep them from being blown away. The two canoes used by Sgt. Pryor and Sheheke's and Jusseaume's families broke loose, one holding Wiser and the other Willard. They were blown across the Missouri to the shore, and men and boats had to be rescued by Ordway and six men — after waiting for the wind to slacken.
|set himself a drift among the sawyers which he fortunately escaped and was taken up a mile below by Ordway with the canoe. . . . it was fortunate for Willard that he could swim tolerably well.|
Safely back in Missouri, Willard married six months after expedition's end, and settled there with wife Eleanor. Through Clark, he obtained work as a blacksmith for the Delaware and Shawnee Indians in 1809. Willard also worked as a courier for Clark during the War of 1812. The family grew to twelve children, some of whom moved with their parents to Wisconsin in 1827. There, in 1836, their son George Clark Willard, was killed by a neighbor, who was convicted of manslaughter.
In 1852, at the height of westward migration, the extended Willard family joined a wagon train put together at Platteville, and moved to California. Alexander Willard, now 74, crossed the Missouri River for the final time at Council Bluffs, Iowa. He was 86 when he died in Sacramento,6 the next-to-last survivor of the Corps of Discovery.
--Barbara Fifer; 03/06
1. The other two being, first, when Lewis's party fleeing the Blackfeet met Ordway's canoe party right at the mouth of the Marias River, and second, the chief of the Shosone band they encountered was Sacagawea's brother.
2. Shannon worked with Biddle in editing the journals.
3. Moulton, ed., Journals, 4:305n1.
4. The first, Lower Portage Camp, was at the mouth of Belt Creek downstream from the falls.
5. Larry E. Morris, The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 120-21, 174-75.
6. Biographical information from Morris, 172-74.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.