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The Lewis and Clark Expedition:
Blacksmiths in the Corps of Discovery

Arms and Supplies

The Lewis and Clark Expedition: Blacksmiths in the Corps of Discovery, by David G. Allen for the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association © 2003



President Thomas Jefferson chose his friend and aide, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to head the expedition. Lewis was an army officer and also enough of a scientist to properly catalog the expedition’s findings. Lewis then chose his compatriot, Captain William Clark, a renowned frontiersman, as co-commander.

The year 1803 would be the timeframe to outfit the expedition and to recruit men of a variety of skills. Lewis ordered rifles from the armory at Harper’s Ferry, VA (now WV). The armory was one of two that President George Washington had ordered built in 1792 to make rifles for the US Army.

On March 16, Lewis presented armory superintendent Joseph Perkins with a letter from Secretary of War Henry Dearborn:
“Sir: You will be pleased to make such arms & Iron work, as requested by the Bearer Captain Meriwether Lewis and to have them completed with the least possible delay.”

The armory had no trouble in furnishing guns and other items. However, Lewis had designed a collapsible, iron frame boat. Building the frame proved to be quite a challenge. 

On April 20, Lewis wrote President Jefferson: “My detention at Harper's Ferry was unavoidable for one month, a period much greater than could reasonably have been calculated on; my greatest difficulty was the frame of the canoe, which could not be completed without my personal attention to such portions of it as would enable the workmen to understand the design perfectly. My Rifles, Tomahawks & knives are already in a state of forwardness that leaves me little doubt of their being in readiness in due time.”

Lewis returned to Harper’s Ferry in July and left on the 8th, by wagon, with his rifles, iron boat, and supplies to meet the keel boat in Pittsburgh.

The great keel boat which would take the Corps up the Missouri River was built in Pittsburgh, then sailed down the Ohio River, and thence upriver to St. Louis. The large boat, which carried over two tons of supplies and a crew of 51, had to be dragged across sandbars in shallow parts of the Ohio. The keel boat had multiple oars as well as a small sail.

Of the 51 men listed on the expedition, three were noted as blacksmiths: John Shields, William Bratton and Alexander Willard.

John Shields is given most credit in the journals as being the expedition’s blacksmith and is praised from time to time for his contribution to the success of the mission. There are over 70 journal entries regarding his prowess as a hunter.

John Shields was born in Augusta County, VA, near Harrisonburg, in 1769. He was the oldest enlisted man in the Corps’ roster of soldiers. Lewis and Clark had agreed to recruit only unmarried men but Shields was married and also had a daughter. At the time of his enlistment as a Private, he hailed from Kentucky. From this record, his age and marital status, we can assume that Lewis and Clark waived certain requirements in Shields’ case because of his talents. Wise that they were in doing so.

William Bratton, born in Augusta County, VA in 1778, was recruited by Clark from Indiana but he is listed as one of the “nine men from Kentucky” because his parents had moved there. Clark considered him one of “the best young woodsmen & Hunters in this part of the Countrey.” He had apprenticed as a blacksmith and became a gunsmith.

Alexander Willard was born in New Hampshire in 1778 but was living in Kentucky in 1803. He apprenticed blacksmithing before the journey and was an assistant to Shields and Bratton during the expedition.

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