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Nathaniel Pryor

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

Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor, who officially joined the Expedition on October 20, 1803, was a first cousin of Sergeant Charles Floyd. His mother was the former Nancy Floyd, sister of Robert and Charles. She had married John Pryor in Virginia where Nathaniel Hale Pryor, the future sergeant, was born in 1772. John and Nancy Pryor had come to Jefferson County, Kentucky, by April 2, 1782, when John voted for delegates to the Virginia General Assembly. We even know for whom he voted, because the quaint custom at that time and for many, many years thereafter was to vote viva voca, by voice, and in the earliest days the vote was recorded in the Minute Book of the County Court.1

On May 17, 1783, John Pryor was awarded 3 shillings and 3 pence for 18 days service as a spy-spying out hostile Indians and/or British. He is shown on the Jefferson County tax list for 1789, but he died soon after, probably early in 1791, because on July 6, 1791, the County Court minutes record that Robert and Nathaniel Pryor, orphans of the late John Pryor, are to be bound out by the overseers of the poor. The two youngsters were bound out to one Obidiah Newman on August 7. Newman doesn't appear in the public records again until his will is probated on August 12, 1816. It is a simple document that leaves his entire estate to his wife, Martha.2

Nathaniel was married on May 17, 1798, to Peggy Patten, daughter of James Patten, a real pioneer who came to the Falls of the Ohio with George Rogers Clark in 1778. James Patton became the first pilot licensed to take boats through the Falls, which could be quite lucrative from the fees paid.3

Record of Nathaniel Pryor's marriage to Peggy Patten, 17 May 1798.
The Filson Historical Society

Peggy must have died early-possibly in childbirth as was so common at that time-because there is no evidence that she was living in 1803 when the Expedition departed Louisville. Her father's will, dated December 28, 1815, does not mention Peggy nor any children of hers. Nor was Peggy buried in the Patten family plot in this city's old Western Cemetery. Her fate remains unknown.4

After the return of the Expedition to St. Louis, Pryor remained in the army and was one of the group detailed in 1807 to return the Mandan Chief Shahaka to his home, an effort that was thwarted by the Arikara Indians. Pryor was a second lieutenant until 1810. One of the recently discovered letters of William Clark to his brother Jonathan, dated June 7, 1808, mentions Pryor. "Since writing you, we have descended [the Ohio River] to the mouth of the Cumberland ... I have just heard that Mr. Pryor & about 20 men with 2 boats is waiting at the Mouth of the Ohio for me." Clark was on his way to St. Louis and apparently was to be accompanied up the Mississippi by Lt. Pryor and a military escort.5

A special mission that Pryor undertook while in military service and at the request of William Clark, by then Indian agent in the Missouri Territory, was a secret mission having to do with the Shawnee Indian Chief Tecumseh and his brother, The Prophet. The exact nature of the mission is unknown, but at that time Tecumseh was attempting to unite the northern and southern tribes for a concerted strike at the whites. The ultimate aim was to drive them back to the east side of the Allegheny Mountains-an impossible goal, but an uprising that could have cost much bloodshed. Tecumseh was killed during the War of 1812 when the Indians allied themselves with the British along the Canadian border.6

After leaving the Army in 1810, Pryor secured an Indian trader's license from William Clark and operated a lead-smelting furnace along the Upper Mississippi at the mouth of the Galena River. On January 1, 1812, Pryor's establishment and that of a fellow trader, George Hunt, was attacked by a party of Winnebagoes who had inadvertently happened to be at Tecumseh's village at Tippecanoe along the Wabash River near present Lafayette, Indiana, on November 7, 1811. That was the very day that the battle of Tippecanoe erupted between General William Henry Harrison's U.S. Army forces and the Shawnees led by The Prophet while Tecumseh was absent. The Winnebagoes, spending the night at Tippecanoe on their way back from Canada to their village in Illinois, were embroiled in the clash and lost twenty-five men. Brooding on this after they returned home, they set out for the Galena mines to seek revenge. Pryor and Hunt were unaware of what had happened and were totally surprised, but both managed to escape. Pryor's escape was aided by a Sac squaw. He crossed the frozen Mississippi on the floating ice to Missouri and eventually found refuge for the winter in a village of French farmers. He returned to St. Louis in the spring of 1812 on a fur trader's boat.7

After that harrowing experience as a civilian it's small wonder that he rejoined the Army in 1813, rising to the rank of captain and participating in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. His regiment was disbanded later that year and he again entered the Indian trade, this time on the Arkansas River. Clark's list of former Expedition members in 1825-28 shows Pryor at Fort Smith. He married, or at least cohabitated, with an Osage woman and was the father of several children, all of whom were given Osage names.8

He became a well-known citizen of the Arkansas Territory and lived until June 1, 1831. The town of Pryor, Oklahoma, where he is buried, was named for him and a monument has been erected to his honor. The Pryor River in Oklahoma also carries his name and the Pryor Mountains in Montana.9



FOOTNOTES

  1. Charles G. Clarke, The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: A Biographical Roster of the Fifty-one Members (Glendale, Calif., Arthur H. Clark Co., 1970), 41-42. Cartlidge, Children and Grandchildren, unpaged. Jefferson County Minute Book A:33-34.

  2. "Journal of the Western Commissioners'' in James A. James, ed., George Rogers Clark Papers, (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1926), 384. Jefferson County Minute Book A:132-134. The 1789 tax list, in the Kentucky State Archives, Frankfort, was printed in the Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society, 22 (September 1924), 219-243. It does not, however, list land holdings. Jefferson County Minute Book 3:96,43.

  3. Jefferson County Marriage Book, 1:30. James Patten gave his consent in writing to his daughter's marriage, indicating she was under the age of 21.

  4. Jefferson County Will Book 2:32, January 8, 1816. "Kentucky Tombstone Inscriptions," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 28 (January 1930), 53.

  5. Donald Jackson, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962), 642-643. William Clark letters, Temple Bodley Collection, The Filson Club, Louisville.

  6. Jackson, Letters, 642-643. Anna M. Cartlidge, "Trouble at Toledo Mort," The Filson Club History Quarterly, 45 (April 1971), 174-185.

  7. Jackson, Letters, 642-643. Cartlidge, "Trouble at Toledo Mort," 183-184.

  8. Jackson, Letters, 638, 643. Clarke, Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 41-42.

  9. Clarke, Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 42.


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