PRIVATE GEORGE SHANNON (1785-1836)
Born in Pennsylvania in 1785, Private George Shannon’s official enlistment date was October 19, 1803, making him only eighteen years of age and the youngest member of the permanent party. He had joined Lewis at Mayville, Kentucky, when Lewis was on his way down the Ohio and is listed as one of the “Nine young men from Kentucky.” George was Protestant-Irish and was said to have a beautiful tenor voice. Journal entries indicate he was frequently sent out as a hunter He was the most educated of the enlisted men.
Clark apparently had a great deal of respect for Shannon. The main detachment was divided into three squads under Sergeant John Ordway, Charles Floyd and Nathaniel Pryor at Camp Wood prior to departure. Clark records: “Dureing (sic) the indisposition of Sergeant Pryor, George Shannon is appointed (protempor) to discharge his the Said Pryor’s duty in his Squad.” (Sergeant Pryor had dislocated his shoulder.)
The following passage, as paraphrased from Clark’s journal, is recorded in Volume I of The History of the Lewis And Clark Expedition, edited by Elliott Coues and published in 1893:
September 11, 1804. “In the morning we observed a man riding on horseback down toward the boot, and we were much pleased to find that it was George Shannon, one of our party, for whose safety we had been very uneasy. Our two horses having strayed from us on the 28th of August, he was sent to search for them. After he had found them he attempted to rejoin us; but seeing some other tracks, which must have been those of Indians, and which he mistook for our own, he concluded that we were ahead, and had been for 16 days following the bank of the river above us. During the first four days he exhausted his bullets, and was then nearly starved, being obliged to subsist for twelve day’s on a few’ grapes, and a rabbit, which he killed by making use of a hard piece of stick for a ball. One of his horses gave out and was left behind; the other he kept as a last resource for food. Despairing of overtaking us, he was returning down the river, in hopes of meeting some other boat; and was on the point of killing his horse, when he was so fortunate as to join us.”
It might be noted that Gary Moulton reports Shannon lost on August 27, the day the party reached the James River. Shannon rejoined them in what is now Gregory County, South Dakota. The party frequently blazed trees to let the hunters know they had passed a certain point with the boots. John Colter had been sent at least twice to find Shannon, then George Drouillard, carrying extra rations, for it was assumed that by that time Shannon would be in need of them. Lewis would himself later make the mistake of thinking the main party was ahead of him.
Through no fault of his own, Shannon was lost a second time at the Three Forks of the Missouri. On August 6,1805, Lewis had gone ahead scouting the rivers with a small party as Clark followed behind with the bats. Lewis left a note for Clark to follow the Jefferson River, but the note wasn’t found. Clark proceeded up the Wisdom, which proved to be too narrow and rapid for navigation. By the time George Drouillard caught up with Clark to tell him he was on the wrong river, Clark had sent Shannon upstream to hunt. Clark dispatched Drouillard to find him. Drouillard traveled several miles without seeing Shanon. “We ordered the trumpet sounded and fired several guns but he did not join us this evening. I am fearful he is lost again. this is the same man who was lost from us 15 days as we came up the Missouri…” The next day, Clark sent Reubin Field to find Shannon. Reubin “reported that he had been up the Wisdom River some miles above where it entered the mountains and could find nothing of Shannon.” The party continued up the Jefferson, making seven miles on August 7, and fourteen on August 8. Shannon came in at breakfast on the morning of August 9 with three deer skins.
After the expedition returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806, George Shannon learned his father had died during the first winter of the expedition – having become lost in a blizzard while hunting.
In 1807, Shannon was one of the force under Ensign Nathaniel Pryor which attempted to return the Mandan Chief Sheheke (popularly referred to as “Big White” because of his size and unusually light complexion) to his village after having visited the President in Washington. The party was attacked by the Arikara, who were then at war with the Mandans, and Shannon was shot in the leg. His leg was amputated at St. Charles and he lay for some time near death. In 1813, by an act of Congress, he was pensioned for the loss of his leg.
Shannon was with William Clark in Shelbyville, Kentucky on October28, 1809, when Clark saw the account of Lewis’s death in the Frankfort Argus.
In 1810 Shannon helped Nicholas Biddle edit the Lewis and Clark journals, and undoubtedly clarified some points and added details to their notes. In 1813 he married Miss Ruth Snowden Price of Lexington, Kentucky. Clark offered him an opportunity to go into the fur business with him and others, and suggested that the firm be known as “George Shannon & Company.” Shannon, however, elected to study law at Transylvania University of Kentucky and in Philadelphia.
By 1818 he was practicing law at Lexington, Kentucky. He was elected a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1820 and 1822. He sold his land warrants (awarded by Congress to the men of the expedition) for 320 acres to the Honorable Henry Clay, who later helped him on many occasions. Shannon then practiced law in Missouri and served as a Senator from Missouri before returning again to law. Shannon’s brother, William, was a member of Congress from Ohio.
George Shannon died suddenly in court at Palmyra, Missouri in 1836 at the age of 51, and is buried in that city. His gravesite has not been positively identified.