lewis and clark bicentennial


aba logo

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




Lewis decided that part of the Corps should return to St. Louis and take with them the maps, journals, and plant and animal specimens, which included live Prairie Dogs. They left on board the keel boat as soon as the river ice thawed in April. The mission's information was then sent to President Jefferson but did not arrive in Washington until September. The 33 men who pioneered upriver, which included Shields, Bratton, and Willard, became the official expeditionary force.

The Mandans had told Lewis and Clark about large bears to the west. The Captains replied that they had seen large bears in the East and were not worried. In the plains of eastern Montana, they encountered the Grizzly. It took several rifle shots to down one of these beasts. 

On May 11th, Bratton left his canoe to walk along the shore. He came very close to a Grizzly and shot the bear. The bear chased him for almost a mile before Bratton hailed his comrades to come ashore and finish the beast. 

When the Corps left Fort Mandan for the westward passage, they took with them a woman named Sacagawea. She had been kidnapped as a girl by plains Indians and sold to another tribe. A French fur trader later won her in a gambling contest and she had borne his son in the winter of 1804-5. Captain Clark would later adopt her son, who he had nicknamed “Pompy”, and raise him.

Sacagawea, a Shoshone, was originally from western Montana, near present-day Helena and the Captains believed that she would be of help finding the headwaters of the Missouri. Her story is an amazing one and her contribution to the success of the mission was irreplaceable.

When the Corps entered Montana, they found a barren, uninhabited plain. There were no buffalo herds. Finding food, especially meat, was difficult and they relied on Sacagawea’s knowledge of plants and roots for survival.

Captain Lewis writes on May 20, 1805, that John Shields had discovered a “[B]ould spring or fountain issueing from the foot of the Lard hill about five miles below the entrance of the Yellowstone River.” Lewis wrote that this discovery was important because most springs in the area “without exception are impregnated with the salts which abound in this country.”

Captain Lewis writes on June 10, 1805: "Shields renewed the main-spring of my air-gun. we have been much indebted to the ingenuity of this man on many occasions; without having served any regular apprenticeship to any trade, he makes his own tools principally and works extreemly well in either wood or metal, and in this way has been extreemly servicable to us."

In late June, 1805, while making the portage around Great Falls, Private Willard was chased by a Grizzly. He was unharmed but Captain Clark advised him to not run towards the camp should it ever happen again!

On July 4th, the members of the expedition celebrated the holiday near Great Falls, MT by drinking the last of their whiskey rations.

Sgt. Patrick Gass wrote in his journal on July 8, 1805, "We finished [stretching buffalo hides on] the boat this evening, having covered her with tallow and coal-dust. We called her the Experiment, and expect she will answer our purpose."

Captain Lewis’ iron-framed boat was launched on July 9. At first, he wrote: “we … launched the boat; she lay like a perfect cork on the water.” But without pine pitch, or suitable tar, the buffalo hides soon failed to turn water. 

From Lewis’ journal: “… she leaked in such manner that she would not answer. I need not add that this circumstance mortifyed me not a little; ... therefore the evil was irraparable ... from these circumstances I am preswaided, that had I formed her with buffaloe skins singed not quite as close as I had done those I employed, that she would have answered even with this composition. but to make any further experiments in our present situation seemed to me madness; the buffaloe had principally d[e]serted us, and the season was now advancing fast. I therefore relinquished all further hope of my favorite boat and ordered her to be sunk in the water, that the skins might become soft in order the better to take her in peices tomorrow and deposited the iron fraim at this place as it could probably be of no further service to us. ... but it was now too late to introduce a remidy and I bid adieu to my boat, and her expected services.”

By year’s end, the Corps made it to the Pacific by traveling down the Columbia River. To their dismay, the fabled Northwest Passage, the water route to the ocean did not exist.

At year’s end, Lewis and Clark had developed a map that would prove to be accurate within 60 miles. An amazing feat in and of itself. Every mapped stream and river had been named as well.

The Captains named a stream near the Great Falls of the Missouri for John Shields (now Highwood Creek.)

Back ] Next ]