This biography is from a paper by George H. Yater originally presented at the 1991 annual meeting of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation in Louisville and subsequently published in "Nine Young Men from Kentucky," a May 1992 supplementary publication of We Proceeded On, the official publication of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation
Private William E. Bratton was second-generation Scots-Irish, a native of Augusta County, Virginia, which was also the birthplace of John Colter. Augusta County, a huge county comprising a large part of today's West Virginia, was a frontier area populated largely by Scots-Irish.1
Bratton was born July 27, 1778, at the time when the settlers on Corn Island here at the Falls of the Ohio, were growing their first crop of corn. Charles G. Clarke in his Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition notes that research has not settled the question of which of two brothers was William's father: George Bratton or James Bratton.2
I would suggest that it was George, based on an abstract of some Virginia marriages published in the multi-volume series Marriages of Some Virginia Residents. James Bratton was married in 1774 to a woman with the remarkable name of Rebecca Hogshead. The marriage was in Rockbridge County, immediately south of Augusta County. Two of James and Rebecca's sons were also married in Rockbridge, indicating the family did not leave. George Bratton does not show up in this list. He is the likely father, then, of our adventurer, William.3
The family supposedly migrated to Kentucky about 1790 and presumably to Jefferson County. However, neither George nor William show up in the local public records, although a Charles Bratton does. He may or may not be related.4
Nevertheless, William was here and on October 20, 1803, became a member of the tour to the Pacific. His qualifications obviously pleased both Clark and Lewis. He is described as over six feet tall, square of build, erect, somewhat reserved, and of strictest morals. This latter quality may have been a legacy of his Calvinistic Scots-Irish background.5
While John Shields gets much credit as the Expedition's blacksmith, Bratton, too, was a blacksmith, as well as a gunsmith and hunter. Apparently he was number two man to Shields. They would have worked together, of course, and it may be this close association that led Shields to take such elaborate measures with the steambath to relieve Bratton of his crippling back pain.
Amazingly, Bratton's discharge from the Expedition signed by Meriwether Lewis and dated St. Louis, October 10,1806, was still in existence in 1901 and came to light. During the previous year Olin D. Wheeler, an early researcher into the personnel of the Expedition and editor of the Northern Pacific Railway's annual promotional publication, Wonderland, had devoted the 1990 issue almost exclusively to the Expedition.6
Fortunately, a copy came into the hands of Mrs. Ella Fields of Chillicothe, Missouri. She wrote to Wheeler reporting that she was a daughter of William Bratton and had his discharge in her possession. She was able to provide him with some further details of her father's life, all of which appeared in Wonderland, 1901.7
After his discharge, Bratton returned to Kentucky for a short while, presumably here in Jefferson County, but went back to Missouri and was living in New Madrid, Missouri, at the time of the great earthquake of 1811, often referred to in this part of the nation as the "New Madrid Shakes" and felt as far afield as Louisville, where it caused some damage and great alarm. Wheeler learned that Bratton served in the War of 1812 and was along the Canadian border where he saw the body of Tecumseh after he was killed.
At the age of 41 he married for the first time - on November 25, 1819, to Mary H. Maxwell and they lived for a time at Greenville, Ohio. By 1822 they were in Waynetown, Indiana, and became the parents of eight sons and two daughters. He died on November 11, 1841, aged 63, and is buried in Waynetown's pioneer cemetery. An imposing monument records that he "Went with Lewis and Clark in 1804 to the Rocky Mountains."8