Sgt. Pryor – one of Lewis & Clark’s nine young men from Kentucky

Time Before Now – June 1831Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans was serving as the nation’s seventh president.  Edgar Allan Poe, (right) master of the macabre, was removed from West Point after engineering his own court marshal for dereliction of duty.  Future Confederate, Robert E. Lee wed Mary Custus, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and Joseph Henry invented the electromagnetic doorbell.  Henry would serve as the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846.

June 10, 1831

On this day one of Lewis and Clark’s most trusted sergeants died in present day Oklahoma, having survived the rigors of the nearly 8,000 miles to the Pacific a quarter century earlier. 

Nathaniel Hale Pryor, born in Amherst County, Virginia, was raised in Kentucky, the son of John Pryor and Nancy Floyd.  He was a first cousin to fellow sergeant Charles Floyd. (Left)  The only member of the Corps of Discovery to die on the expedition,  medical historians believe the 22-year-old Floyd died of a ruptured appendix, a  condition that would have been fatal even in Philadelphia or New York at the time.   

 As one of the expedition’s “nine young men from Kentucky” Pryor was 31 when the Corps set out in 1803.  He was apparently known to Captain William Clark through his marriage to Peggy Patton in 1798.   The Patton family had migrated to Ohio with Clark’s father, George Rogers Clark, two decades earlier.

Only single men were selected for the Corps and history is silent on the fate of Pryor’s wife. No record of Peggy Patton exists past her marriage; whether they divorced or more likely,  Peggy had died.  

A bit of a jack-of-all trades, blessed with common sense and “good character,”  Pryor served as the expedition’s military administrator.  He was a talented negotiator with the indigenous tribes and had some practical carpentry skills, as well. (Left, detail of Pryor’s portrait  painted by Mike Wimmer in 2003)

The Sergeant had both memorable adventures and misadventures on the way West.  Early in the voyage he failed to return from a hunting foray in present-day Cape Gerardeau County, Missouri.  Missing for two days he hailed the party’s keelboat from the river bank on November 24, 1803. The  Lewis and Clark journals provide no further details or how he became lost.

By the return trip, however, Pryor was more adept at finding his way in the wilderness.  On July 3, 1806,  the expedition split into three groups to explore the area around the Yellowstone River.  Clark, with the main party  headed for the Yellowstone then canoe down the Yellowstone to the Missouri.  Pryor and three others were to herd a remade of some 50 horses overland to meet them at Fort Mandan.  

Mandan bull boats

But in mid-July members of the Crow tribe made off with the horses.  Left afoot, the resourceful Pryor and his men fashioned Mandan-type bull boats from sticks and buffalo hides.  They  managed to reunite with Clark on the Missouri August 8.

Pryor remained in the Army upon their return.   But his misadventures on the frontier were far from over.  Mandan chief Sheheka (White Coyote) (left) had accompanied the Corps from present day North Dakota back to St. Louis, eventually visiting Washington D.C.

The task of escorting the chief back to the Mandans on the upper Missouri fell to Pryor.  But the party was attacked by the Arikara, traditional nemeses of the Mandan, forcing a return to St. Louis.  It would take nearly two more years before Sheheka would finally complete the journey home.

Mustering out of the Army in 1810, Pryor received a trader’s license from his former mentor, Captain William Clark, then governor of the Missouri Territory.   He was nearly killed in yet another attack, this time by the Winnebago at his lead-smelting furnace on the Galena River.  After a harrowing escape across a frozen river he took refuge for the winter with French farmers in the area.   

Apparently finding civilian life more dangerous than the military, he re-enlisted  in the Army in time to fight in the famous the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.  

His second discharge in hand, however, he settled in the Three Forks area of the Arkansas River in order to trade with the Claremore band of Osage.  Married to an Osage woman and respected was well-liked by his wife’s people.  Pryor was the perfect choice to be named acting Osage sub-agent by Governor Clark.  His position was made permanent just months before he died at the age of 59.  

Buried in northeast Mayes County, Oklahoma, in a town that bears his name, a cause of death was never recorded.  A memorial marker recognizing him as a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was dedicated  on July 4, 1982. 

The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Camp River Dubois, One Lewis and Clark Trail, Hartford, Illinois is 14,000 square feet of exhibits and artifacts detailing the preparations for the expedition in the winter of 1803-1804.  Visitors can actually walk through a replica of the 55-foot keel boat  (left) used by the Corps of Discovery. 

The center is the first stop on the expedition’s trek to the Pacific. Admission is free and the center is open 10 to 5,Thursday through Saturday, closed Wednesday through Sunday.  For more information go to or call (618) 251-5811.  For information on the National Park Service’s Lewis and Clark Historic Trail, go to nps.cog/lecl, call (402) 661-1804 or write 601 Riverfront Dr., Omaha, Nebraska.  

© 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.