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Meriwether Lewis' Pittsburgh: Adventurers push the frontier

One in a series

Sunday, August 24, 2003

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"Left Pittsburgh this day at 11 ock with a party of 11 hands 7 of which are soldiers, a pilot and three young men on trial they having proposed to go with me throughout the voyage." -- Meriwether Lewis in his journal, Aug. 31, 1803

Two of those three young men were George Shannon and John Colter. They met up with Meriwether Lewis during his six-week stay in Pittsburgh, went down the river with him to join William Clark, and passed their trial period successfully to become permanent members of the expedition. The identity of the third man is not certain, but it may be that he didn't pass muster and left the group.

Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette illustration
Click photo for larger image.

Related article:
The other Pennsylvanians

Index to previous articles in series

Patrick Gass not only stayed, but he also became one of the group's leaders and legends. Born in Central Pennsylvania and recruited in Kaskaskia, Ill., Gass settled after the expedition just over the Western Pennsylvania line in Wellsburg, W.Va., and has descendants still living in Washington County.

The contributions of these men with ties to the region embody the spirit of the group known as the Corps of Discovery. They sought to join because they had the guts to push the frontier; they were chosen because they had the skills to pull off the mission; and when it was over they weren't always ready to crawl back under the comforter of quiet lives. Several struck out on other expeditions, continued in the military or kept at enterprises that put them out in the open and at risk.

Many of those who did settle in after the exploration made their marks in law or politics. Meet some of the members of the Corps of Discovery:

The lost boy

George Shannon was the youngest member of the party, and though he was said to be a good horseman, his youth clearly showed. He managed to badly cut his foot with an adze and lose his tomahawk, several horses and even himself two times on the trip.

Shannon was born in 1785 or 1787 in Pennsylvania. During a visit with his mother's family in Pittsburgh in 1803, he met Lewis, who was awaiting the completion of the keelboat. Lewis urged him to try to be part of the expedition.

He left with Lewis on the keelboat Aug. 31, and passed the weeks of evaluation during which the group of hopefuls was winnowed into the Corps of Discovery. While training at the Corps Camp Dubois in Illinois, he was chosen as one of "those which are to Constitute the Permanent Detachment."

He was of Protestant-Irish stock and a good singer. Not a great hunter, though.

On or about Aug. 26, 1804, near modern Yankton, S.D., Shannon was detailed to search for two packhorses that had strayed during the night. He recaptured the horses, but upon returning to the river, he went upstream, thinking the corps was ahead of him. In fact he was ahead of the group and was separated from it for more than two weeks.

"This man not being a first rate Hunter, we deturmined to Send one man in pursute of him with Some Provisions," wrote Clark on Aug. 28.

He finally rejoined the party west of modern-day Niobrara, Neb.

Clark wrote that Shannon, who ran out of ammunition, "nearly Starved to Death, he had been 12 [of the 16] days without any thing to eat but Grapes & one Rabit."

After the expedition, Shannon and fellow corps member Nathaniel Pryor tried to return Sheheke-shote, a Mandan chief who had helped them during their journey, to his home. The party was halted by Arikara warriors along the way, and Shannon was shot in the leg. The leg was amputated at St. Charles, Mo.

In 1810, Shannon assisted Nicholas Biddle in editing the Lewis & Clark journals. In 1813, he received a pension from Congress for the loss of the leg. That same year, he married Ruth Snowden Price of Lexington, Ky. He passed on an offer to go into the fur business with Clark and others and instead studied law at Transylvania University of Kentucky, and also in Philadelphia. By 1818, he was practicing law in Lexington. He was elected a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1820 and 1822.

He moved to Missouri and practiced law there, served as a senator from the state for a time, then returned to law. He died unexpectedly in court in Palmyra, Mo., in 1836, age 49, and is buried in that city.

The mountain man

John Colter was one of the most experienced backwoodsmen of the group, and after the expedition made a famous solo trek through wild country in the middle of winter.

He was born in 1775 near Staunton, Va. Although some sources say he was from Pittsburgh, others say he grew up in Kentucky. At any rate, he was in Pittsburgh by the time Lewis arrived in 1803.

He was 5 feet 10 inches tall, had blue eyes and a somewhat shy countenance. He was known as a good hunter and tracker. He impressed the captains during the training period and was one of the first selected to the permanent expedition force.

He got off to a rough start.

He was confined with three others to camp for 10 days during February 1804 for having visited a nearby whiskey shop instead of going hunting while the group wintered at Camp Wood, upstream from St. Louis. The next month, he and John Shields were court-martialed for having threatened to shoot Sgt. John Ordway while the captains were away from camp. Both men "asked the forgiveness ... and promised to doe better in future" and were granted pardon.

Colter was the member of the expedition sent out to find Shannon when he got lost in August 1804. He also led scouting missions, carried messages between groups when the party was separated, and searched for a better campsite when it wintered near the Pacific in 1805.

He had his share of scrapes and adventures.

"Colter's horse fel with him in passing hungry creek and himself and horse were driven down the creek a considerable distance rolling over each other among the rocks," Lewis wrote June 18, 1806. "he fortunately escaped without injury or the loss of his gun."

He once had to make a desperate sprint to escape a grizzly. The men on the expedition had first dismissed reports of the fearsome bear, but when they got a firsthand taste revised their assessment.

On May 5, 1805, Clark wrote, "In the evening we saw a Brown or Grisley beare on a sand beech, I went out with one man Geo Drewyer & Killed the bear, which was verry large and a turrible looking animal, which we found verry hard to kill we Shot ten Balls into him before we killed him."

Not long after, Lewis wrote, "I find the curiosity of our men with respect to this animal is pretty much satisfied."

Colter seems to have been quick-thinking and used to dealing with Indians. When he stumbled upon three mounted Indian warriors in September 1805 as he was hunting alone, he immediately put down his rifle and approached them in a friendly manner. They ended up coming back to camp with him for a visit.

On the way back east in 1806, Colter got permission to leave the party to join two trappers they had met. He departed Aug. 17, 1806, at the Mandan and Hidatsa villages, near modern-day Washburn, N.D.

He returned to the Rockies and made a name as a mountain man.

He spent the years 1806-1810 trapping beaver on the upper Missouri. He was the first white to explore the country that would later become Yellowstone National Park, coming upon the geysers, mud pots and hot springs in the course of his trapping.

In 1808, he fought with a group of Salish and Crow warriors against Blackfeet Indians, who already had reason to dislike members of the Corps of Discovery as two Blackfeet had been killed by a party led by Lewis in 1806. Later that year, Colter and John Potts, another member of the expedition, ran into some Blackfeet.

Potts was killed immediately, but Colter was stripped naked, given a head start, and permitted to run for his life. According to his account of the incident, he killed the lead warrior with his own spear then hid in the water of the Jefferson River under a logjam until the party gave up searching for him. He then walked naked and barefoot 250 miles to a trading post. Two years later, he left the area for good, paddling 2,000 miles to St. Louis.

He married and had a child named Hiram around 1811 or 1812. Colter died of jaundice in 1812 or 1813.

The jack of all trades

When a newspaper editor teased him about his marriage at 59 to a 16-year-old, with whom he would have seven children, Patrick Gass said, "I've always tried to do my duty, and I won't neglect it now. By industry, I'll make amends for my delay."

The longest-lived member of the Corps of Discovery, Gass was a master carpenter and a skilled horseman who died three months short of his 99th birthday. He was born July 12, 1771, in Falling Springs, near Chambersburg, Franklin County. He served in a Ranger Company in 1792 and then enlisted in the 10th U.S. Infantry in 1799 in Carlisle, Cumberland County. He is said to have become a member of the permanent crew Jan. 3, 1804, after making a personal appeal to Lewis.

In addition to his carpentry and survival skills, the man of Irish ancestry also was an outgoing raconteur with a ready wit.

No wonder his Corps of Discovery comrades elected him sergeant as they pressed westward in 1804 after the only death on the trip -- Sgt. John Charles Floyd, who died of a ruptured appendix near Sioux City, Iowa.

On Aug. 22, 1804, Gass garnered 19 votes to win the first democratic election conducted west of the Mississippi.

Gass played a key part in building forts for the men when they wintered with the Mandan Indians at Fort Mandan and at Fort Clatsop in Oregon. And he was one of the few expedition members to keep a continuous journal of the trip, which was published in 1807. His detailed descriptions of the landscape, weather and hardships make the journey palpable.

After Lewis and Clark concluded their expedition, Gass returned to the West Virginia panhandle town of Wellsburg, across the Pennsylvania line from Avella, where he worked in his father's mill and as a carpenter.

Apparently missing the frontier and its adventures, Gass enlisted in the War of 1812, where he fought in a number of key battles and lost the sight in his left eye.

After his father died in 1827, Gass boarded at the Wellsburg home of John Hamilton and met and won the heart of Maria Hamilton. Census records indicate that she could not have been older than 16, said Carol Lynn MacGregor, an Idaho author who edited and annotated Gass' journal and published it in 1997.

John Hamilton told Gass he was too old to marry Maria. But the couple walked five miles from West Virginia to Pennsylvania, where a squire married them, Painter said.

The couple lived on a farm, and started a garden and a family.

In 1847, Gass lost his young wife when she caught the measles from her children and died. His account book records the cost of the funeral service at $3.17.

After his wife's death, Gass was a 78-year-old man with six young children, the youngest of whom was 11 months old. He lived another 21 years.

Lillian Thomas can be reached at or 412-263-3566.

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