The Importance of Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor to the Lewis & Clark Expedition

Sergeant Pryor served under Meriwether Lewis, pictured here, as a valued squad leader.
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In 1803, Jefferson authorized an expedition up the Missouri River and overland to the west coast to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory and find a trade route to the Pacific Ocean. This expedition would be a military one, and the leaders, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, designated it as the Corps of Volunteers on an Expedition of North Western Discovery. Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor was an important member of the expedition and a valued soldier.

1 Lewis and Clark Expedition

President Jefferson appointed his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, with the rank of captain to lead the expedition. Lewis chose William Clark to be his co-leader and anticipated that Clark would also be commissioned as a captain. However, Clark was only commissioned as 2nd lieutenant, but Lewis referred to him as “captain” throughout the expedition. The men also addressed Clark as captain, and his commission as lieutenant was kept secret. The Corps left their winter camp near St. Louis in May 1804. They spent the winter of 1804-05 on the Missouri River with the Mandan in modern-day North Dakota. The party reached the Pacific Ocean just before the winter of 1805-06 and returned to St. Louis in 1806.

2 Nathaniel Pryor

Nathaniel Pryor (1772-1831) was born in Virginia, and his family moved to Kentucky in 1783. He married in 1798, but it is believed that he was a widower by 1803, when Clark recruited him to join the expedition, and the United States Army, along with eight of his fellow Kentuckians. This group of nine Clark recruits were known as the “nine young men from Kentucky” and all figured prominently in the success of the expedition. At Camp DuBois, Illinois, over the winter of 1803-04, Clark appointed Pryor as Sergeant of the 1st Squad in charge of six privates. Pryor became an ensign in 1807 and rose to the rank of captain during the War of 1812. He later became involved in the Native American trade with the Osage, and Clark appointed him as sub-agent to the Osage.

3 The Expedition NCOs

Pryor was one of five non-commissioned officers on the expedition. The other four were Sergeants John Ordway, Charles Floyd and Patrick Gass, in addition to Corporal Richard Warfington. Sergeant Floyd, Pryor’s cousin and close companion, was the only member to die on the expedition, and he is buried on a Missouri River bluff top near modern-day Sioux City, Iowa. The primary duty of the NCO was to train and lead the privates in their respective squads. The NCOs were also in charge of dispersing provisions to their squads, a critically important job particularly when food was scarce. In addition to looking after the day to day needs of the privates, NCOs also served as presiding officers of court martial, and Pryor served on two proceedings.

4 The Voyage Home

During the return voyage in 1806 after crossing the Rockies, Lewis and Clark split the expedition into four parties. Sergeant Pryor and three privates were instructed to lead the expedition horses to the Mandan villages. Pryor was also trusted to give a confidential message to the British agent to the Mandan from the North West Company regarding American involvement in the Native American trade. En route, Pryor’s party was raided by the Crow, and the horses were stolen. However, thanks to Pryor’s leadership, he and the three privates safely made it to the Mandan villages where they rejoined the rest of the expedition.

John Peterson published his first article in 1992. Having written extensively on North American archaeology and material culture, he has contributed to various archaeological journals and publications. Peterson has a Bachelor of Arts from Eastern New Mexico University and a Master of Arts from the University of Nebraska, both in anthropology, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in history from Columbia College.