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Private William Bratton was enlisted as a member of the expedition by Captain William Clark, October 20, 1803, at Clarksville, Indiana Territory. He was born July 27, 1778, in Augusta County, Virginia, of Irish parentage.

Bratton’s family migrated to Kentucky about 1790, qualifying him as one of the “Nine young men from Kentucky.” Bratton, considered by Clark to be one of “the best young woodsmen & Hunters in this part of the Countrey,” was apprenticed as a blacksmith at an early age. He also became an excellent gunsmith. All of these qualities made him a very useful man in the Corps.

In early August 1804, Bratton was named to a search party assigned with locating Moses Reed and La Liberte, both of whom had deserted the Corps while en route to hold council with the Oto tribe. Bratton and the other members of the search party were successful at bringing Reed back to the Corps, along with nine mounted Oto Indians, including Little Thief and Big Horse, who were intent on making peace.

During the winter of 1804 at Fort Mandan, near modern Bismarck, North Dakota, Bratton’s blacksmithing skills came to good use. In order to trade with the Mandans for corn and dried vegetables, the members of the Corps agreed to repair and sharpen metal objects that the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians had collected from British traders (including hoes, skinning knives, kettles, and firearms). Bratton and Alexander Willard, the two members of the Corps trained in blacksmithing and gunsmithing, were crucial to this effort. They set up a forge and bellows that had, until that time, been little used on the journey.

Bratton was involved in a dangerous animal encounter that occurred on May 11, 1805, in what is now northeastern Montana. While walking along the shore, seeking relief from painful boils, he came into close contact with a grizzly bear. Bratton shot the bear dead center. Though wounded, the powerful bear chased Bratton more than half a mile before he was able to hail other Corps members, who were rowing up river. The party was able to trace the bear’s steps by following a trail of blood, whereupon they killed it, preserving its hide and salvaging its meat for rendering into grease for cooking.

Upon reaching the Pacific in November 1805, Bratton was one of 10 men to accompany Captain William Clark on a trek from their “Station Camp” at the Columbia River’s Chinook Point to Cape Disappointment and northward nine miles along the coastline, in what is now Washington state.

Shortly after Christmas 1805, while the Corps was camped at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia, Bratton, Joseph Field and Gibson were directed to establish a salt works at the nearest suitable coastal area. The salt was used to preserve elk and deer meat and for cooking and table use. The salt works was established at a protected beach site, 15 miles south of the fort. In late February, they completed their work, having produced 20 gallons of salt, 12 gallons of which were packed in two ironbound kegs for use during the return journey.

Bratton’s health began to deteriorate during the Corps’ stay at Fort Clatsop from December 1805 through March 1806. Aside from surviving outbreaks of influenza and the maddening presence of fleas, Bratton suffered extreme lower back pains, which stayed with him for the remainder of the journey home. By the time the Corps reached the Great Falls of the Columbia, near modern The Dalles, Oregon, in April, 1806, Bratton was semi-paralyzed. He was the only member to ride horseback while all the others walked, leading pack horses. When the Corps reached the Nez Perce tribal lands in May 1806, Bratton was treated in a sweat house. There, he received a sweat bath treatment similar to the kind used by most tribes in North America at that time. Inside, water was poured over heated rocks to produce steam, and Bratton was given copious amounts of strong mint tea to drink. Later, he was removed twice from the sweat house to be dunked in cold water. This treatment was most effective in easing Bratton’s suffering. He walked with little pain afterwards.