lewis and clark bicentennial


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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



The Corps had wintered near the mouth of the Columbia River at Fort Clatsop, which they had built. Before leaving in late March, Captain Lewis writes:

“March 20, 1806: The guns of Drewyer and Sergt. Pryor were both out of order. the first was repared with a new lock, the old one having become unfit for uce; the second had the cock screw broken which was replaced by a duplicate which had been prepared for the lock at Harpers ferry where she was manufactured. but for the precaution taken in bringing on those extra locks, and parts of locks, in addition to the ingenuity of John Shields, most of our guns would at this moment have been untirely unfit for use; but fortunately for us I have it in my power here to record that they are all in good order."

Through the winter, Bratton, Willard, and two others had been making salt by boiling seawater. Part of the salt was used to preserve deer meat but most of the it was packed for the return trip home. 

Willard had injured his leg, probably with an axe while chopping firewood. His leg healed by the time they broke camp. Bratton, however, became very ill in February and had to be transported by canoe or horseback as he was too weak to walk. 

By late April, the Corps had returned to the lands of the Nez Perce Indians in present-day Idaho and waited for the snows at Lolo Pass to melt before proceeding. 

Bratton became worse by the day and was almost paralyzed with lower back pain. Shields recommended that Bratton be “restored by violent sweats.” Bratton probably agreed, thinking “Shields Therapy” would be no worse than what ailed him.

Captain Lewis writes: “Shields sunk a circular hole of 3 feet diamiter and four feet deep in the earth. He kindled a fire in the hole and heated well, after which the fire was taken out [and] a seat placed in the center of the hole for the patient with a board at the bottom of his feet to rest on; some hoops of willow poles were bent in an arch crossing each other over the hole, on these several Blankets were thrown forming a secure and thick orning [awning] of about 3 feet high. The patient [Bratton] being stripped naked was seated under the orning in the hole and blankets well secured on every side. the patient was furnished with a vessell of water which he sprinkles on the bottom and sides of the hole and by that means creates as much steam or vapor as he could possibly bear.”

Bratton also drank “copius draughts” of strong horse mint tea. After a short time in the sweat house, they took Bratton and put him in the icy cold Clearwater River. The treatment was then repeated. Then he was wrapped in blankets.

One could say that Shields Therapy was similar to quenching hot metal in a cold slack tub!

Captain Lewis wrote of the cure: “This experiment was made yesterday; Bratton feels himself much better and is walking about today and says he is nearly free from pain.” 

On the return journey, Lewis and Clark split their force in order to explore the Missouri River headwaters. Lewis and his men almost met their end on Maria’s River with the Blackfeet in the only violent Indian encounter of the expedition.

Shields traveled with Clark’s team as they explored the Yellowstone River. Clark named one of the tributary’s of the Yellowstone, “Shields River”, which is near Livingston, MT.

On July 7, Captain Clark leaves behind a boiling spring in the Yellowstone Valley and writes, “I now take my leave of this butifull extensive vally which I call the hot spring Vally, and behold one less extensive and much more rugid on Willards Creek.” The spring’s boiling water was hot enough for John Shields’ buffalo meat to be “cooked dun in 25 minits.”

Sixty years later, Willards Creek was the area of a great gold discovery.

“Bratten's River", also a tributary of the Yellowstone, was named on July 17, 1806.

Only Sgt. John Colter’s squad actually saw Yellowstone’s geysers but nobody believed them! The squad was chided about “Colter’s Hell” all the way home.

Clark and Lewis rejoined their forces at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri and made good speed towards home.

It was quite a triumph when the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis in September 1806. Even Thomas Jefferson had feared their demise when Lewis and Clark had not returned in the year prior.


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