The Blackfeet Indians were a dangerous lot to deal with on the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition. At a tense breakfast in Montana on July 27, 1806, the Field bothers were two soldiers on the team who found that out.
The expedition was on its way home to Missouri after a miserable winter at Fort Clatsop near the Oregon coast.
While Clark and the rest of the party were waiting near what today is Great Falls, Mont., Meriwether Lewis and three others were in northwest Montana on a side exploration of the Marias River, a tributary of the Missouri River that appeared to flow into Canada.
The others were Joseph and Reubin Field — both skilled woodsmen and hunters — and George Drouillard who could interpret with the Indians.
They were looking for a short overland passage linking the Marias to Canada’s Saskatchewan River — long an important trade route in the Canadian fur trade.
If there was such a connection, transporting furs to market on America’s Missouri River system might be easier than the torturous river route then being used from Western Canada to Montreal. It would channel lucrative Canadian fur trade business into American territory.
How far north did the Marias River go?
The border with Canada was still hazy at that time, and President Thomas Jefferson hoped a tributary of the Missouri River would reach the 50th parallel. If it did, the U.S. could claim a more northern boundary than the one determined by the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
The Marias did not reach that far north however, and the hope for a more northern border line was abandoned.
Disappointed at these findings, Lewis named his campsite “Camp Disappointment” and on July 26, packed up and headed back to join Clark and the rest.
Then the worst event of the entire expedition happened:
They saw eight Blackfeet Piegan Indian warriors with 30 horses watching them from a distant hill. They were known to be a hostile band.
“This was a very unpleasant sight,” Lewis wrote in his journal. “However, I resolved to make the best of our situation and to approach them in a friendly manner.”
Both groups drew closer with great caution; their apprehension easing somewhat after Lewis gave them a Jefferson Peace Medal, flag and handkerchief as goodwill presents.
Lewis told them about plans to open trade with Indians in the region, noting he had already talked with tribes west of the Rockies. Historians speculate the Blackfeet did not take kindly to the notion of whites trading with other tribes that were their enemies — especially the Shoshones, Flathead and Nez Perce.
The Blackfeet already had guns. Few of the other tribes did.
The goodwill didn’t last.
They camped together next to the river under three small cottonwood trees, smoked a peace pipe, ate dinner and exchanged information. Ever cautious, Lewis and the men took turns standing guard over their guns and horses while the others slept.
“I fell into a profound sleep,” Lewis wrote, “and did not wake untill the noise of the men and the indians awoke me a little after light in the morning.”
“Damn you, let go of my gun,” George Drouillard shouted while wrestling with an Indian over the weapon. Then Joseph and Reubin chased another Indian running off with a gun. They caught him and Reubin “seized his gun, stabbed the Indian to his heart with a knife…the fellow ran about 15 steps and fell dead.”
Lewis meanwhile raced after two other Blackfeet who were running away with his horses — cornering them in some rocks.
Then one of them turned around and Lewis shot him in the belly. The wounded warrior fired back just missing him. “I felt the wind of his bullet very distinctly,” he wrote.
Both Blackfeet then hid behind the rocks, and Lewis who was without his pouch and couldn’t reload his pistol abandoned the pursuit.
The Lewis group lost some of their horses but selected some good ones from the Indian herd and let the rest go. Lewis lost his horse but liked his Indian replacement better.
Before they departed, they took back the gift handkerchief found in the gear hastily abandoned by the fleeing Blackfeet, but left the medal on the corpse of the dead warrior as a warning.
Back to the Field brothers:
In August 1803, Lewis and Clark recruited nine young men from Kentucky to join their 7,000-mile expedition. The first three were the Field brothers and Charles Floyd, who would be the only member to die on the journey — near Sioux City, Iowa, possibly from a ruptured appendix.
The Field boys were sons of Abraham and Elizabeth Field of Virginia — Abraham a wounded veteran of Dunmore’s War against Shawnee and Mingo Indians in1774.
The family bought a 200-acre farm in Kentucky on Pond Creek in southwestern Jefferson County and raised seven children.
Nearby there were salt mining operations, where according to a Kentucky Historical Society report, “Joseph Field was in charge of the salt-making operation.”
When the Lewis and Clark expedition hunkered down for the winter of 1805-06 at Fort Clatsop, Ore., Joseph was sent to the coast nearby to set up a salt-collecting operation. Historians George H. Yater and Carolyn S. Denton in an article “Nine Young Men from Kentucky,” suggest he got the job because of his salt experience back home.
When Reubin started his military career, he got off on the wrong foot. He was publicly reprimanded for disobeying orders by Captain Lewis, who read a letter to the troops:
“The Commanding officer feels himself mortifyed and disappointed at the disorderly conduct of Reubin Fields, in refusing to mount guard when in the due roteen of duty he was regularly warned.”
But from that moment on, Reubin became an exemplary soldier.
He was also a crack shot.
At Camp Dubois in Illinois where the expedition started, Clark’s men took on some locals in a shooting match, with the prize a pair of leggings.
The Field brothers were stars of the Corps of Discovery — expedition journals mentioning Joe 316 times and Reubin 145.
After the Corps of Discovery mission ended, both of them were discharged on Oct. 10, 1806, and slipped into the shadows of history — with varying accounts about what happened to them.
Historian James J. Holmberg in his book “Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark” suggests that in 1807, the brothers joined a contingent of trappers led by Augusts-Pierre Chouteau that accompanied a military party authorized by Lewis, and led by Corps of Discovery veteran Nathaniel Pryor.
Their assignment was to escort Mandan Indian Chief Sheheke (AKA Coyote or Big White) from St. Louis back to his tribal village in what would become Dakota Territory, after his meeting with President Jefferson in Washington,
During that journey, they were attacked by 650 Arikara and Sioux warriors on the Missouri River near the mouth of the Grand River in the Dakotas, and Joseph was believed killed there. Details are unknown.
His mortal remains are said to lie in an unknown grave somewhere in Jefferson County, Kentucky.
The year after the battle and his brother’s death, Reubin applied to Clark for a commission as lieutenant in the army. Clark sent the request to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn for approval but the appointment never came through.
Then Reubin married Mary Myrtle — the ceremony being performed by an itinerant frontier minister who may or may not have been a true man of the cloth — as mentioned in his will:
“To wife Mary Field, forever, entire estate; should their marriage performed in Indiana in 1808 by one they thought was a minister of the Gospel named Smith, but later learned may not have been, be considered illegal, then he bequeathed to her as Mary Myrtle, her former name, said estate forever.”
The couple moved to Jefferson County and began farming with the help of four slaves.
Reubin died in 1822.
Meriwether Lewis wrote that Joe and Reubin were “Two of the most active and enterprising young men who accompanied us. It was their peculiar fate to have been engaged in all the most dangerous and difficult scenes of the voyage, in which they uniformly acquitted themselves with much honor.”
Lewis and Clark picked two of Kentucky’s best.
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
• • •
The site where Reubin Field shot and killed a Blackfeet Indian is now called the “Two Medicine River Fight Site.” Both Camp Disappointment and the Fight Site are near present day Cut Bank, Montana.
Lewis and Clark journals…
President Jefferson ordered Lewis and Clarke to keep journals on their expedition. As insurance against a possible loss, the two captains on May 26, 1804, ordered the sergeants to do likewise: “The sergts … are directed each to keep a separate journal from day to day of all passing accurences, and such other observations on the country &c. as shall appear to them worthy of notice.”
Reubin Field’s burial place is unknown, but may have been the Myrtle family cemetery, near Little Bee Lick in Jefferson County, Kentucky.
To make way for a housing tract in the 1950s, all the remains in the Myrtle cemetery were moved first to the nearby Lewis family cemetery, and later moved again, to Bethany Cemetery where somewhere lay Reubin field’s bones.
Sad ending for Meriwether Lewis…
After the Corps of Discovery expedition, Meriwether Lewis received a salary and 1,600 acres of land; was named governor of the Louisiana Territory, and tried to publish the journals that he and Clark wrote during their great journey.
Lewis found returning to civilized eastern life difficult. Prone to dark moods, he began drinking and neglected his duties as governor.
In 1809 at Grinder’s Tavern along the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, Lewis shot himself and finished his suicide attempt with a razor.
Some say it wasn’t suicide, but that he was murdered.
Field brothers images…
No images were found of Joseph and Rueben Field because photography wasn’t invented until 1839 and the brothers were just Army privates and not likely to have had their portraits painted.