Two hundred and fifteen years ago next Sunday, the “Corps of Discovery” entered the territory which would later become Gregory County. Early on the morning of September 8, 1804, Lewis and Clark passed the place where Jean Baptiste Truteau had built a cabin in November of 1794. He spent that winter on the east bank of the Missouri above where Fort Randall would later be established. He was an experienced fur trader and could converse in the language of several of the tribes.
One would assume that the captains consulted with Truteau while in St. Louis as they prepared for the expedition. Records do not indicate this; however, Truteau was in St. Louis where he served as a schoolmaster for over fifty years. They apparently had portions of Truteau’s diary with them.
That Saturday morning Sergeant Gass went out with one of the hunters to retrieve the meat and hide of a buffalo that was killed the previous evening. The hunter had left his hat on the carcass “to keep off the vermin beasts of prey.” He apparently believed the scent of a human would scare them away. “But when we came to the place,” Sgt. Gass later wrote, “we found the wolves had devoured the carcass and carried off the hat.”
Notwithstanding the bad luck, they had a successful day hunting as Lewis got a buffalo which was swimming in the river. One of the hunters killed a buffalo, two elk, and four deer. They stopped early on the lower end of Big Cedar Island to jerk the meat and camp. They had come seventeen miles from “The Tower.”
Sunrise found them on their way Sunday morning, September 9. Buffalo were observed on the hills near the river as they proceeded on past the island were they had camped. Later that day they stopped for dinner at Scalp Creek.
The river bottom and prairie hills were literally filled with game. Every member of the expedition found themselves in a sportsman’s paradise and were very excited to hunt. However, the captains were content with only as much meat as could be preserved.
They had traveled about fifteen miles and stopped to cure the meat. They camped on the west shore at the mouth of Whetstone Creek. Clark wrote in his diary: “I saw at one view near the river at least 500 buffalo, those animals have been in view all day feeding in the plains.” Another member of the party wrote: “The plains were almost covered with Buffalo the most of this day.”
Monday morning, September 10, was cloudy as they set out early under a “Gentle breeze from the southeast.” By noon they had made ten miles where they stopped to climb the west bank near Mulehead Point to examine some fossil remains. Sergeant Gass wrote: “On top of these bluffs we found the skeleton or back bones of a fish, forty-five feet long, and petrified: part of these bones were sent to the City of Washington.” Some of these vertebra are still on display in the Smithsonian Institution today.
Sergeant Pryor discovered a large salt spring about a mile and half from the river. Salt was one of the items needed to preserve food and they had to replenish their supply whenever possible. They made a total of twenty miles and camped on the lower end of “Hot Springs Island.” During the day, they killed three buffalo and one elk.
Tuesday, September 11 was another cloudy disagreeable morning.
They were off when it was just beginning to get light and they picked their way over the sand bars for eleven and one-half miles. They stopped just below “Durex Island” on the Charles Mix side of the river to eat dinner.
It began to rain and it is here after dinner that the “Corps of Discovery” had an incredible experience which some, if not most, thought was perhaps impossible. They had just gotten into their boats and began to move up river when they noticed a horseman coming down the western side of the river.
They pulled their boats up to the Gregory County side of the river and were amazed to see the youngest member of their crew who had been lost for fifteen days. George Shannon had not been seen by any member of the expedition since Sunday, August 26, on the Nebraska side of the river somewhere east of Wynot, NE. He had made it up the river as far as the mouth of Bull Creek in Lyman County.
He was in a starving condition but soon recovered. He seemed to be no worse for wear because of his experiences.
That evening the entire “Corps of Discovery” camped on the west side of the river a short distance below the Lyman County line. There is no record of a special meal or celebration that evening. One can only imagine what the reaction of those strong and rugged men where when they realized the man on the horse was Shannon. That day some of them perhaps shed a few tears of joy.
Imagine what he was thinking that evening as he crawled into his buffalo robe to sleep with his friends nearby in camp. For fifteen days he had slept out on the prairie without his buffalo robe and all alone except for some animals which perhaps had never seen a white man before.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on September 4, 2019