Lewis & Clark expedition – the hunt for Private Moses Reed

August 5, 1804

On this day, Captain William Clark began to suspect a member of the Corps of Discovery, Private Moses B. Reed , had left the expedition and wasn’t coming back. 

It was the first mention of the possible defection.  Clark (left) commented in his journal entry that Reed had not returned to the camp in present-day Harrison County, Iowa.  He had asked permission to return to the expedition’s previous camp site to retrieve a knife.

The following day, Clark was convinced the Private was indeed AWOL and in the company of a contract boatman named Joseph Barter, or La Liberte.   On August 7, four men were dispatched to find the pair.  The search party included Reubin Fields, an expert woodsman, William Bratton, the expedition’s blacksmith, Francois Labiche, half Oto and half French skilled in sign language and George Druillard, also half French and Shawnee, the Corps’s civilian translator. 

Search area for Moses Reed

As a member of the permanent Corps Reed, not the boatman Barter,  was the real concern.  If he did not surrender without a struggle, the searchers were told, “Put him to death.”  

Reed was brought back on August 18, some 60 miles upriver from where the hunt began.  It wasCaptain Lewis’s 30th birthday and an unexpectedly eventful day.  The  the returning searchers were accompanied by nine mounted Otos including two important Native American leaders, Oto chief Little Thief (left) and a Missouri chief, Big Horse.  The chiefs were hoping to enlist Lewis and Clark in a peace effort between the Otos and the Omahas and to improve trade with the tribes.

 The following year, Little Thief was part of a delegation to Washington D.C., meeting with President Thomas Jefferson in an effort to improve trade relations for his people.    

 Charges against Reed were brought August 29; “Deserted & Stold a public Rifle Shot-pouch Powder & Bals.”  The unfortunate private was sentenced to “run the gauntlet four time through the Party & that each man with 9 swichies should punish him and for him not to be considered in future as one of the party.”

Nothing much is recorded of Reed before or after the incident other than  he disliked life on the trail.  One of 24 privates earning $5 per month (about $105 today) he had frequently expressed a desire to “return to civilization.”  Apparently the boatman Barter was never located and not important enough for further mention.  

Reed was dishonorably discharged and eventually sent back to St. Louis on a keelboat, most likely from Fort Mandan, North Dakota.  Expedition journals record that on April 7, 1805, a keel boat and six canoes with “6 soldiers, 2 frenchmen and one Indian” headed down river under the command of Corp. Richard Warfington.  

The four members of the search party all completed the two and a half year oddessy to the Pacific.  Little is known of Ruebin Field following the expedition, his date of death listed as 1823 at just 42. 

Private Bratton served in the War of 1812 and died at age 63 in 1841.  Francois Labiche made the trip to Washington with Lewis and Clark in October of 1806 and served as translator for the Mandan and Osage who accompanied them. 

Druillard returned to the upper Missouri in 1807 with fur trader Manuel Lisa and later joined the Missouri Fur Company.  In 1810, he failed to return while trapping beaver in the Three Forks region.  His mutilated remains were eventually located and buried in an unmarked grave. It was believed he had been ritually killed by the Blackfeet or Gros Ventre. 

Reed’s defection was the expedition’s  one and only case of desertion.  Sgt. Charles Floyd, (left) who died near present-day Sioux City, Iowa, was the only other original members of the Corps of Discovery not to complete the 7,600-mile journey.

Lewis and Clark State Park, Onawa, Iowa, is located on the Missouri River where the Corps of Discovery camped on August 10, 1804, awaiting  news on the search for defector Moses Reed.  Just five miles form Onawa, it is easily accessible with a day-use lodge, shelters, picnic area, boat ramp, modern RV campsites and recreational facilities on the 250-acre Blue Lake.  The park’s keelboat display features a full-scale replica of the expedition’s  keelboat as well as five other boats used in the cross country odyessy, all constructed by Butch Bouvier, L&C Replicas. 

The display is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 to 4 from April 15 to October 1 and over the winter months by appointment with park staff.  Each June the park hosts the Lewis and Clark Festival featuring 1804 re-enactors, historic presentations and blue grass music. For festival information go to onawachamber.com.  For more information on the park go to iowadnr.com/Find a Park, call (712) 423-2829, e-mail Lewis_and_Clark@dnr.iowa.gov or write Lewis and Clark State Park, 21914 Park Loop, Onawa  IA 51040.

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