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George Shannon was born in Pennsylvania in 1787, of Irish-Protestant ancestry. One of the “Nine young men from Kentucky” Captain William Clark enlisted Shannon at Louisville on October 19, 1803, he was a relative of Governor Shannon of Kentucky, and at age 18, was considered mature for his years. Shannon was perhaps the one man on the expedition who either of the captains would have been most likely to meet at home on terms of social equality.

In his early teens, George was sent to live with his mother’s family while he was attending school. This arrangement was to be short lived, for during a visit to Pittsburgh he met Captain Meriwether Lewis, who was awaiting the completion of the keelboat to be used on the western expedition.

Shannon was the youngest member of the expedition. Despite his youth, while training at the Corps Camp Dubois (Illinois) staging area, the captains selected Shannon for the “Expedition through the interior of the Continent of North America...” as one of “those which are to Constitute the Perminent Detachment.” Shannon was to serve in the “1st Squad, under the derection of Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor.” The captains’order, moreover, directed that “Dureing the indisposition of Sergeant Pryor, George Shannon is appointed (protempor) to discharge his the Said Pryor’s duty in his Squad.”

On May 14, 1804, the expedition departed from Camp Dubois. As Captain Clark wrote in his journal: “[S]et out at 4 oClock P.M...and proceeded on under a jentle brease up the Missouri.” the party traveled in their 55 foot long keelboat and two smaller river boats called “pirogues.” Through the long, hot summer the men laboriously worked their way upriver on the first leg of their Pacific bound mission.

Enroute, Shannon, the “tenderfoot” of the expedition, showed a talent for getting lost. On August 26, 1804, the party was nearing modern Yankton, South Dakota. Shannon was detailed to search for the expedition’s two accompanying pack horses, which had strayed during the night. Shannon recaptured the horses, but upon returning to the river, he proceeded up upstream, expecting to join his comrades at one of their night camps.

Shannon, who actually had been ahead of the boats for more than two weeks, finally rejoined the party on September 11. Clark wrote that that Shannon “nearly Starved to Death, he had been 12 [of the 16] days without any thing to eate but Grapes & one Rabit, which he Killed by shooting a piece of hard Stick in place of a ball . . . the man had like to have Starved to death in a land of plenty for the want of Bullitts or something to kill his meat.”

On October 13, 1804, Shannon was selected by the captains to serve on a court martial with nine of his peers, which surely must have been a sobering experience for the young soldier. The court martial was convened for the trial of Private John Newman, charged with “having uttered repeated expressions of a highly criminal and mutinous nature.” Newman was sentenced under “the articles of war, to receive seventy five lashes on his bear back and to be henceforth discarded from the perminent party engaged for North Western discovery.”

Newman would be returned downriver in the spring. Considering the expedition’s then current location, 1,500 miles removed “from the settlements” within the Great Plains of the upper Missouri, the captains permitted Newman to remain over the winter with the party. John Newman would “be deprived of his arms and accoutrements [and] [that] he shall be exposed to such drudgeries as they may think proper to direct from time to time with a view to the general relief of the detachment.”

At the end of October, the explorers reached the Hidatsa and Mandan Indian villages situated near present Bismarck, North Dakota. Here, they built Fort Mandan, their 1804-1805 winter quarters, where they would spend the next five months preparing for the westward continuation of their Pacific bound mission. As the winter waned and the frozen Missouri River commenced to thaw, Shannon was among the men, who on February 28, 1805, were assigned to hewing nearby cottonwood trees into six dugout canoes. The primitive craft would replace the keelboat, which required deeper water than the shallowing river channel that lay ahead. On March 6, Clark wrote in his journal that “one man Shannon Cut his foot with the ads [adz] working at a perogue [dugout].”

On April 7, the keelboat, manned by members of the “extra party” and carrying two dismissed enlisted men, was sent downriver to St. Louis. With it, as Captain Lewis recorded, went “our dispatches to the government, letters to our private friends, and a number of articles to the President of the United States.” Upriver went the two perogues and six dugouts, carrying the now permanent party of 33 and Captain Lewis’s dog, Seaman. Four of the 33 were new additions: One was Private Jean Baptiste LePage, a French Canadian fur trader who was enlisted to replace the dismissed John Newman. The remaining three comprised interpreters French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau, his Shoshone Indian wife, Sacagawea and their 55 day-old son, Jean Baptiste. During the course of the expedition, Clark would nickname the boy “Pomp” for his pompous “little dancing boy” antics.

During the next seventeen months of the explorers’ travels to the Pacific and return, Shannon is mentioned frequently, generally with detachments of men commanded by Captain Clark. During the period August 6-9, 1805, when the party was proceeding up the Jefferson River (the westward extension of the Missouri), the novice explorer became lost again. Clark had assigned him to reconnoiter the Wisdom River, a major tributary of the Jefferson, that at first was thought to be the preferred route to take. Shannon on his own, after hiking nearly 25 miles up the Wisdom, determined that the stream was non-navigable for the canoes, and rejoined the party.

On November 7, 1806, upon reaching tidewater on the Columbia River, Clark wrote: “Great joy in camp we are in View of the Ocean, this great Pacific Octean which we been so long anxious to See.” Joy soon turned to dismay. They actually were 25 miles from the ocean, buffeted by the storm-lashed waves of the river’s broad estuary. Savage winds, rain, hail, and huge waves stranded them in unprotected camps just above the tide, at the base of cliffs, on the north (Washington State) side of the river.

Shannon and Private Alexander Willard, who had been dispatched around “Point Distress,” today’s Point Ellice, had been joined by five Indians, who during the night had stolen the mens’ rifles. Taking advantage of a lull in the storm, the main party rounded Point Distress, and encountered Shannon and Willard. Clark wrote, “[Our] arival was at a timely moment and alarmed the Indians So that they instantly produced the Guns.” On November 18, Shannon -- together with several others accompanied Clark -- hiking 10 miles to the “main ocean.” Clark recorded that the “men appear much Satisfied with their trip beholding with estonishment the high waves dashing against the rocks & this emence ocean.”

Due to the absence of game and exposure to fierce winter storms on the north shore, the party voted on November 24 to determine where the party would winter. An actual “election” was held that included the vote of a woman, Sacagawea, and a black man, York. The explorers favored crossing the river to the south side (Oregon), where Indians had informed them, elk and deer were plentiful. Shannon accompanied Lewis and three others to reconnoiter tidewater inlets, searching for a suitable place to winter. They settled upon an elevated site above the Netul (present Lewis and Clark) River, where they built Fort Clatsop. Here, the explorers spent a wet, dismal winter, consolidating the information recorded, geographic features mapped, and mileage tabulated west bound, together with gaining geographical and ethnological knowledge from local Indians; hunting, making clothing, and preparing for the long return journey that lay ahead.

March 23, 1806, the explorers departed Fort Clatsop, homeward bound. The captains recorded: “Altho’ we have not fared sumptuously this winter and spring at Fort Clatsop, we have lived quite as comfortably as we had any reason to expect.” Eastward, Shannon was honored through creation of a geographic legacy. when a tributary to the Yellowstone River (Montana) was named “Shannon’s Creek” by Captain Clark.


  GM