Lewis & Clark: The hunt for missing private, Moses B. Reed

Time Before Now, August 1804 – President Thomas Jefferson was renominated to serve a second term as president.  Ohio University in Athens became the nation’s first land-grant college,  just six weeks after Ohio’s legislature passed the nation’s first laws restricting the movement of black freedmen.  British  good news and bad news – London’s Drury Lane Theatre burned to the ground while the first railroad locomotive made its appearance in Wales.  And in the “things have been worse” department, U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed Secretary of the Treasury,  Alexander Hamilton, in a duel.  

August 5, 1804

On this day, explorer, Captain William Clark, began to suspect Private Moses B. Reed, had taken a powder. 

Clark’s taking note of the private’s absence in his journal was the first mention of a possible defection from the Corps of Discovery.  Reed  had asked permission to return to the previous camp site to retrieve a knife but had failed to rejoin the expedition in what is now Harrison County, Iowa.  

The following day, Clark was convinced the Private was indeed AWOL in the company of a contract boatman named Joseph Barter, also called La Liberte.   Two days later, four men were dispatched to find the pair.  The search party included Reubin Fields, an expert woodsman, William Bratton, the expedition blacksmith,  Francois Labiche, half Otoe and half French, expert tracker and hunter and skilled in sign language and Canadian George Druillard, also half French and Shawnee, a civilian translator and cartographer. 

Search area for Moses Reed

As one of the Corps’ enlisted, Reed was the real concern.  If he did not surrender without a struggle, the searchers were told,  “Put him to death.”  

Eleven days later and 60 miles upriver from where the hunt began Reed was brought back to face the music. It may have been a birthday surprise for Captain Meriwether Lewis’s 30th birthday.  The returning search party was accompanied by two important Native American leaders, Otoe chief Little Thief  (left) and a Missouri chief, Big Horse, along with nine mounted Otoe.  The chiefs petitioned the captains to help achieve peace between the Otoe and Omaha tribes and to improve trade with both.  

Charges of desertion against Reed were brought August 29; “Deserted & Stold a public Rifle Shot-pouch Powder & Bals.”  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.”  It was rather benign punishment for an offense that could have called for execution.

Nothing much is known of Reed before or after the incident.  He was one of 24 privates, each earning the sum of $5, per month (about $105 today) often  expressing his dislike for life on the trail and a desire to “return to civilization.”   Apparently the boatman Barter was never located and not important enough for further mention.  

Following a dishonorable discharge, Reed was 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.  

Reconstruction of Fort Mandan 

All four members of the search party completed the two and a half year odyssey to the Pacific.  Ruebin Field briefly joined a group of Chouteau fur traders going up the Missouri but returned a year later, wed Mary Myrtle and retired from the frontier to a farm in present day Jefferson County, Kentucky.  Leaving no heirs but Mary, his date of death was listed as 1823 at just 42.  

Private William Bratton had been stricken with a mysterious ailment on the Pacific Coast, which left him unable to walk.  After two months at Camp Chopunnish he underwent a series of sauna-type treatments, oddly similar to the Sister Kinney polio regimen a century and a half later.

 Apparently fully recovered, he  served  as a keelboat freighter before enlisting to fight in the War of 1812.  Marrying at 41, Bratton operated a prosperous farm, Waynesville, Indiana, was elected justice of the peace and fathered eight sons and two daughters.  He died at age 63 in 1841.  Modern medical scientists speculate Bratton was not actually afflicted by a disease but may have suffered from a degenerative disc in his lower back accompanied by arthritis.

Francois Labiche accompanied Lewis and Clark to Washington in 1806 and served as translator for the Mandan and Osage delegation which included the Otoe chief, Little Thief.  Like a number of former  members of the Corps, the father of seven, signed on with the fur trade.  Records in St. Louis  indicate that he was still working in the 1830s, by that time in his 60s.  His name does not appear in the 1840 census, however.

George Druillard returned to the northern Missouri in 1807 with fur trader Manuel Lisa and later joined the Missouri Fur Company.  He continued to improve the maps he had drawn for the expedition, providing the changes to Clark.  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. He had apparently been ritually killed by the Blackfeet or Gros Ventre. 

Reed’s defection was the expedition’s  one and only case of desertion.  Sgt. Joe 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 journey.

Lewis and Clark State Park, 21914 Park LoopOnawa, 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 from 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 odyssey, 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.

© Text Only – 2022 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited