When the “Corps of Discovery” entered South Dakota in 1804 they had two horses with them. These horses were used to bring the game to the boat and explore areas away from the river. Almost every day these horses gave them more than enough trouble.
Early on the morning of August 26 it was discovered that the horses were gone from their camp on the south side of the river. These two horses were hardly worth their keep. They constantly strayed away and they were always causing trouble. George Shannon and George Drouillard were sent in pursuit “to hunt for the horses which was lost with directions to follow us keeping on the high lands.”
That evening all the members of the expedition, except for Shannon and Drouillard, camped on the South Dakota side of the river near Vermillion.
While searching for the horses, Shannon and Drouillard separated. On the morning of August 27 Drouillard returned to the river and rejoined the expedition. He reported that he had lost Shannon and was unable to find him or the horses. He had walked all night.
John Shields and Joseph Field were sent to “. . . look for Shannon and the horses and to come up to the Niobrara River.” They were to “keep on the hills to the Niobrara River.”
At two o’clock the corps reached the James River and stopped for dinner. While eating they were visited by several natives and were told that a large party of Sioux had camped not far from the mouth of the river. These were the Yankton Sioux and were the first nomads the party were to meet. They continued on and camped on the north side of the river.
Shields and Field rejoined the Corp on the morning of August 28. Clark wrote: “J. Shields and J. Field who was sent back to look for Shannon and the Horses joined us and informed that Shannon had the horses ahead and that they could not over take him. This man not being a first rate hunter, we determined to send one man in pursuit of him with some provisions.” John Colter was then sent in search of Shannon.
The expedition delayed their progress up the river and remained at their camp near Yankton four days (August 28 – 31). Because of the large number of Yankton Sioux in the area, Lewis and Clark met with them several times before leaving on the morning of August 1. This George Shannon did not know about or expect. His advancement up the river increased the distance between him and the rest of the expedition.
On September 2, Clark in his diary wrote: “Shannon and the man (John Colter) sent after him has not yet joined us.”
While exploring the river hills on the Nebraska side of the river across from Bon Homme they saw signs that Shannon had passed up the river with the horses. They also found evidence that perhaps Colter was also ahead. Clark wrote in his diary on September 3: “Saw some signs of the two men who are ahead, Colter has not over taken Shannon.”
On September 4 Captain Clark explored the Niobrara River for several miles and the men went out to hunt for Shannon. Earlier, he had been instructed to “Keep on the Hills to the Niobrara River.” They found no trace of him. Private Whitehouse wrote: “We went to see if the tracks of one of our men named Shannon, who had been missing some days, but they could discover no signs of his having passed that way.”
One can only guess what the members of the expedition thought. The Niobrara River was expected to be where everyone would be back at the boat. The four days spent at Yankton was the problem. Shannon believed they would advance up the river daily.
On the 5th they found signs that Shannon and Colter were still ahead of them. After nine days searching for Shannon, Colter returned to the main party. He came to the boat on September 6th and reported that he had not found Shannon or the horses. Colter had not overtaken Shannon, but he was certain that he was ahead of them.
Sergeant Gass on September 7th wrote: “On the south side we found a scaffold of meat (below The Tower) neatly dried. This had been left by one of our men, who had gone out on the 26th of last month to hunt horses, and supposing we had got a distance ahead, proceeded up the river several days journey, before he discovered his error.”
On September 11 Shannon was discovered coming down the river near Landing Creek. He was the youngest member of the party. For twelve of the sixteen days that he was away from the others, he had nothing to eat but grapes and one rabbit. Clark wrote: “The man had like to have starved to death in a land of plenty for the want of bullets or something to kill his meat.”
Since leaving his colleagues on August 26th he had continued on day after day until reaching the mouth of Bull Creek. Concluding that he was ahead of them, he stopped and waited for several days. When they did not arrive, he thought that they were so far ahead of him that he would never catch them. With all hope gone, he decided to start back down the river hoping some Indians or trappers would come along. On the 11th near Landing Creek the expedition came into Shannon’s view as it appeared around a bend in the river.
At that moment on that day a miracle occurred in what was later to become Gregory County!
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on September 11, 2019