(“Lewis and Clark at Celilo Falls, Columbia River” from a mural by Frank H. Schwarz)
Nineteen-year-old George Shannon nervously trotted his horse across the flat ground to the north bank of the Missouri River and began scanning left and right, looking for the other members of the Lewis & Clark party. He was somewhere just west of present-day Yankton, South Dakota. The area is well populated today, but in August 1804 it was Sioux Indian country and there was nothing in sight anywhere as far as the eye could see across that wide, flat prairie but long brown grass, gently flowing in the breeze. Beads of sweat popped up on his forehead as he scanned back and forth along the river bank. “Where the hell are they,” his panicked mind asked? Though George was an intelligent young man, he had no experience surviving alone in such a wilderness, but he was about to get his fill of it.
George Shannon was born in Washington County Pennsylvania in 1785. His father, also George, was born in Ireland. His mother, Jane, whose maiden name was Milligan, was born in Bedford, Pennsylvania. His father had served in the 8th battalion, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania Militia, commanded by Col. Abraham Smith during the Revolutionary War and was at the final battle at Yorktown.
(Meriwether Lewis, left, and William Clark)
In 1800 the family moved to the Ohio frontier. In 1802 his brother, Wilson Shannon, was born and was said to be the first white child born in Warren township. In January 1803 George’s father was caught out in a severe snowstorm and froze to death. Later that year eighteen-year-old George, who was said to be a handsome young man, with blue eyes and black hair, heard there was a US Army captain named Meriwether Lewis who was looking for recruits to enlist in the army and go with him on an expedition across the continent as part of what was officially called the “Corps of Discovery.”
It must have sounded like an extraordinary adventure for a teenager, as it would certainly turn out to be. George would be the youngest trailblazer on the famous expedition. One can only imagine the visions that filled his head as he contemplated what they might see and do. And as is the case with many young men, a feeling of immunity from death or harm may have sublimated any fear. Also joining the expedition at the same time as George was 33-year-old John Colter, who would become a frontier legend and is considered by some to be the first mountain man.
Two other out of the ordinary members of the group were York, William Clark’s black slave, and Seaman, Meriwether Lewis’ Newfoundland dog. York was almost certainly the first black man to see the upper Missouri and the Rocky Mountains. The Native Americans were fascinated by him and thought he had “big magic.” Seaman managed to survive the entire trip and may be the most commemorated member of the Corps of Discovery outside of Lewis and Clark themselves. There are no less than nine statues of Seaman, including four in Missouri alone.
(Right: "Captain William Clark Meeting the Northwest Indians," by Charles M. Russell. York is seen in the blue vest with the musket over his shoulder.)
Lewis was clearly impressed with Shannon to have agreed to consider such a young man for the expedition, but his original recruitment was conditional. Lewis and 2nd Lieutenant William Clark had agreed that both would have veto power over each man selected. Lewis had insisted that he and Clark share command of the group, even though he outranked him. Clark not only agreed to add Shannon to the group, but he was also so impressed with the young man that he even appointed him to take over the duties of the sergeant of his section, Nathaniel Pryor, whenever he was sick or away. On October 19, 1803, George was officially enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army. He was assigned to be one of the hunters who would provide for the group.
The group, numbering a little over 30 men, spent that winter training at Camp Dubois, Illinois, and departed up the Missouri on May 14, 1804, in one 55-foot long keelboat and two smaller riverboats called “pirogues.” George and others must have gazed around every bend in the river with wonder at what they might see next. If any of the men thought their enlistments were only symbolic, they were quickly disabused of that notion. In late June they were near Kaw Point, where Kansas City is today when privates John Collins and Hugh Hall got into the alcohol ration and got drunk. Collins was given a hundred lashes punishment and Hall fifty.
Two weeks later private Alexander Willard got sentenced to a hundred lashes four days in a row for sleeping on guard. One would have to imagine that later punishment was rather gently applied for him to survive it, or perhaps part of it was suspended, but it would have become clear to the men that Lewis and Clark intended to maintain discipline in the group. There is no indication that George Shannon ever committed any offenses resulting in such punishments.
On August 20th Sgt. Charles Floyd died of a ruptured appendix where Sioux City, Iowa is today. Amazingly, he was the only member of the expedition who would die over the course of the 863 days it took them to travel to the Pacific Ocean and back. The Floyd River, which runs through Sioux City, was named after him by Lewis & Clark. There is now a hundred-foot obelisk monument where he was buried (right).
It was shortly after this, on August 26th, that Shannon’s most dangerous adventure on the trip began. He and George Drouillard were sent out north of the river to find two lost pack horses in what is now South Dakota, near where Vermillion is today. They got separated while hunting for them, and Drouillard could not find George again. He made it back to camp on his own, hoping Shannon would be there, but he was not.
Shannon had managed to find the horses, but he had gone far from the river. Now he made a nearly fatal decision. Thinking that by the time he got back to the river the group would have moved upstream he decided to travel westward, up the river. He got back to the river probably just west of present-day Yankton, thinking they would have gone at least that far in a day. But low water levels in the Missouri had caused the keelboat to ground. After getting the boat off the sand bar, one of the pirogues was holed by a snag on the 28th, causing them to stop again to repair it.
The final delay came when they met with three young members of the Yankton Sioux tribe and were told there was a village near present-day Yankton. Wanting to parlay with them, Lewis and Clark decided to camp at Calumet Bluff on the southern bank (now in Nebraska). Thus Shannon was now headed further up the river while the expedition was stopped, putting him further and further away each day.
George also had limited ammunition. If he shot large game he could provide himself with ample food for an extended period, but he was probably thinking that he needed to move quickly to “catch” the group. Butchering and dressing out a large animal and drying the meat would be time-consuming, so he likely expended his ammunition on smaller game he could quickly consume and moved fast. He may have shot some of the prairie dogs that were abundant near the river, and which the men of the expedition had dubbed, “barking squirrels.”
Shannon moved so fast that though the men who were sent out hoping to find him found his trail, they could not catch him. Now quite worried about the fate of the young man, they sent out John Colter, probably their best woodsman, to try to find him. On September 1 Colter had still not returned and the expedition got underway again. By then Shannon had been moving away upstream for six days. When Colter finally did return to the group on the 6th, Shannon was not with him, but he did have a buffalo, an elk, three deer, a wolf, five turkeys, a goose, and a beaver. That would have slowed him down considerably and explain why he never caught up with Shannon.
(Right: “The Trapper’s Last Shot” by William T. Ranney. Not of Shannon, but perhaps displaying some of the anxiety he must have felt after expending his last round.)
As more confirmation that George was clearly trying to move fast, when one of the horses died, he didn’t take the time to butcher it for food, which would have fed him for many days, no doubt thinking he had to be close to “catching up” to the expedition.
Of course, in reality, he was getting farther from them, not closer. He ran out of ammunition to help feed himself around the fourth day. He began to subsist on grapes and plums growing wild along the river. As he rounded every bend in the river and came to any high ground that gave him a view far up the river, how he must have prayed that the keelboat would be in sight, but each time he was disappointed by the sight of nothing but more open flowing river. Days turned into a week, then two weeks. He was getting weaker and weaker as each day passed on his low-protein fruit diet.
Then George came up with an ingenious idea that may have saved his life. He still had some gunpowder, so he carved a bullet out some sort of hardwood. When he had it whittled down to the diameter of his musket bore he carefully loaded it and kept watch for something small to fire at, as a wooden bullet was surely not going to kill anything very big. When he spotted a rabbit, how his heart must have been thumping as he took aim and squeezed the trigger. As the smoke from black powder cleared away, he was amazed to see a dead rabbit. That shot of protein gave him the boost of energy he needed to carry on.
(Left: A keelboat on the Missouri by Artist, Karl Bodmer.)
He made one other decision that may have saved his life as well. He decided he was never going to catch up with the expedition, so his best hope for survival was to head back downstream, where he might come upon some trappers. His hopes of survival must have been flagging, however, as trappers traveling that far up the Missouri in 1804 was not common. Several more days were spent futilely scanning the river for a boat. As he moved downstream on September 11th he contemplated killing and butchering his surviving horse. It allowed him to conserve energy by riding part of every day, but he was in dire need of something more substantial than fruit.
George moved his horse down to the banks of the Missouri, across the river from present-day Gregory County, SD. He was well over 100 miles up-stream from where he had left the expedition. Looking down-stream while contemplating the fate of his ride, his eyes opened wide as he saw forms moving on the water. How the despairing young man’s heart must have filled with joy and relief as he recognized that it was the vessels of the expedition. Had the horse known it may have only had hours or minutes to live had the boats not come into view, it would have been more joyful than George.
(Right: "Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia” by Charles Marion Russell)
The members of the expedition had given up on ever seeing Shannon alive again. In his journal, William Clark wrote scornfully of Shannon, “nearly starving in a land of plenty,” in spite of also noting that he had no ammunition. Later events would show that Clark was developing something of a “big brother” affection for Shannon, so that may have been the sort of relief tinged with anger reaction people often have when an unwise decision nearly causes the loss of a family member.
In August 1805, in what is now western Montana, at Three Forks, Shannon got separated from the group again for a short time when he followed the wrong branch of a river for a few miles. This time he was only “lost” for three days, however. Learning his lesson from the first incident, he also had ample ammunition with him and was well fed by three deer he shot during the three days it took him to relocate the expedition. George would be in the group led by Clark that first saw the Pacific Ocean on November 19, 1805.
(“Lewis & Clark at Three Forks” by Edgar S. Paxson, showing the Shoshone Indian guide Sacagawea and Clark's slave, York, 2nd from the left. It was in this area that Shannon was “lost" the 2nd time.)
One of the notable occurrences on the return trip was the killing of two Blackfoot warriors on July 27, 1806. This happened after Lewis took a small portion of the party along the Missouri in northern Montana, while Clark traveled along the Yellowstone through southern Montana with most of the men. Lewis met up with a band of Blackfoot who seemed friendly and camped near the group. But in what would become a recurring event, and source of conflict over the next several decades of contact between whites and Native Americans, the Blackfeet attempted to steal their horses and weapons that night. Horse stealing between the tribes of the western plains was something of a “sport” for young braves, and they saw no reason these white men should not “play the game” too.
It led to a short skirmish in which the two warriors died. They were the only two Native Americans killed by the men of the Corps of Discovery. The Blackfeet got their revenge in 1810, killing two former members of the Corps, George Drouillard, and John Potts, in separate attacks. They also captured John Colter, but he made one of the most miraculous and fabled escapes in western history.
(Right: A Blackfoot warrior, painted by Karl Bodmer.)
For the fur trapping mountain men, miners, and settlers who followed in the footsteps of the Lewis & Clark expedition, the Blackfoot would remain one of the most hostile of all plains tribes. Some theorize it was because of this fatal encounter with some of the first Americans in the region, but the Blackfeet also later formed something of an alliance with the British Hudson’s Bay fur company, which encouraged them to be hostile to Americans in their tribal areas. Whatever the reason may have been, the Blackfoot would be one of the last tribes to give in to the inevitable victory of the U.S. government in the region.
George was involved in other dangerous incidents during the trip over the Rockies to the Pacific and back, though he was not with Lewis during the fight with the Blackfoot, but none of his later exploits were as nearly fatal as his adventure in South Dakota on the way out. He had been very lucky during these incidents during the expedition, but in 1807, after their return, his luck ran out.
While part of another expedition with some fur traders up the Missouri, Shannon was with a group of soldiers that were also tasked with returning Mandan chief Sheheke to his village after a trip to Washington DC. They had to pass through the territory of the Arikara on the way. Unbeknownst to them, the Mandans and Arikara had gone to war and they attacked the group. The Arikara, often called Rees by the mountain men, would be one of the more hostile of the tribes in the upper Missouri during the early decades of the fur trapping/mountain man period. A short battle ensued and the expedition was turned back. During that fight, however, Shannon was severely wounded in the leg. He would spend some time in a military hospital before the leg was eventually amputated. For the rest of his life, he would be known as “Peg-leg” Shannon. He showed the same determination in overcoming this disability as he showed on the Lewis & Clark expedition.
Shannon would continue to benefit from the brotherly regard of William Clark through this period and he would become one of the most successful of all the rank and file members of the Corps of Discovery. Clark first saw that George continued to receive his pay for a time, and then got him a military pension for the loss of his leg, and later got the amount increased. He even offered to make Shannon a partner in a fur trading business and to name it after him, but George wanted to attend college instead. Through his brother, who was a trustee of the school, Clark got George into Transylvania University in Louisville, Kentucky. It was one of the finest schools in what was then the western United States. One of George’s friends and classmates there was Steven Austin, who would one day be called the “Father of Texas.”
In 1810 it was Shannon whom Clark sent to Philadelphia to assist Nicholas Biddle in the editing of the journals of the expedition for publication. In a letter to Biddle, Clark gave George this ringing endorsement: “possesses a sincere and undisguised heart, he is highly spoken of by all his acquaintances.”
Shannon would return to Kentucky and practice law there. On Sept. 19, 1813, he married Ruth Snowden Price, with whom he would have seven children. He brought three of his brothers to Kentucky and help them get educated. The Shannon’s would be one of the great political families of the early west. George’s younger brother, Wilson, would be governor of Ohio, governor of the Kansas territory, a US minister to Mexico, and a US Congressman. His older brother, Thomas, would serve in the Ohio state legislature and also be a US Congressman.
George would become a judge and serve in the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1820 to 1823. In 1828 he moved his family to Missouri where he became a US Attorney and later a state senator and ran for the US Senate, but lost to Thomas Hart Benton. He was elected to the Missouri House just before he died suddenly on August 30, 1836, in the courthouse in Palmyra, Missouri. A St. Louis paper wrote that his funeral was attended by, "a large assemblage of the ladies and gentlemen of the town ... to offer their last testimony of respect to the remains of a good man." The state of Missouri would name a county after him. William Clark had also named a small tributary of the Yellowstone River in Montana after Shannon, but it was later renamed, Fly Creek.
Though he had died at barely over 50 years old, George had packed that half-century with an amazing record of accomplishment after nearly having his life end before his 20th birthday in those first months of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Few recall his contributions to the early history of the United States today, but George Shannon was an early western pioneer who served his country well.
MORE ON THE IRISH IN THE AMERICAN WEST
Searching Robert Campbell's Family Tree for Fortune (Campbell, born in Plumbridge, near Strabane in County Tyrone, trapped with Fitzpatrick in the 1820s and 30s)
'Born a Soldier': Myles Walter Keogh - Part 1 of 3: From Carlow to America's Civil War By Brian C. Pohanka
Custer's Last Irishmen: The Irish who fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn