This biography is from a paper by Carolyn S. Denton 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
Of the "nine young men from Kentucky" in the famous Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery, George Shannon became the most educated, the most accomplished, and even the most colorful. He was the only "professional" of the group and was known in his adult life as Judge Peg-Leg Shannon. Yet history has given him little notice. No thorough biography has been done on his life. Aside from numerous articles, only two children's books which basically recapitulate Shannon's expeditional exploits have been written.1 It could be that because he was the youngest member of the Lewis and Clark group and played only a subservient, though necessary, role during the trip that his name is seldom mentioned in connection with the Expedition.
Was Shannon even one of the men from Kentucky? Various sources say he was born in Washington Co., Pennsylvania. In 1800 his family moved to Belmont Co., Ohio. George was back in Pennsylvania in 1803 when Meriwether Lewis began his journey west from Washington, D.C., through Pittsburgh.2 On August 30, 1803, Lewis wrote the first lines of the official record of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, "Left Pittsburgh this day at 11 o'clock with a party of 11 hands 7 of which are soldiers, a pilot and three young men on trial they having proposed to go with us throughout the voyage." It is assumed that George was one of the three young men, according to Paul Cutright in his History of the Lewis and Clark Journals.3 Charles Clarke states in his biographical roster of The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that Shannon joined Lewis at Maysville, Kentucky on October 19, 1803 as a Private apparently after successful completion of a 7 week trial period.4 Having joined the group en route while it was passing through Kentucky may have been the only reason that George was considered one of the men from Kentucky.
George Shannon's true roots in Kentucky were not firmly established until after the Expedition ended. Shannon residents in Lexington, Kentucky today claim him as a cousin even though the exact genealogical descent has not been established. Though there may have been some family ties in Kentucky, George basically came to Kentucky to get an education at Transylvania University. A recently acquired letter of introduction found at the Filson Club written October 1, 1808 by William Clark states that George Shannon "is going to Lexington to go to school with the view of acquiring some knowledge to fit him for an employment to get his living. He is studious and ambitious and a man of impeacheable [sic] character."5 Yet even Transylvania University has forgotten that George Shannon was once in attendance. There he has been overlooked and overshadowed by the likes of Henry Clay, Stephen Austin, Jefferson Davis, Cassius Clay, Constantine Rafinesque and others, all of whom were his contemporaries. In another place and time his name would have been honored. Though it has been almost 200 years since George returned from the western territories to become a college student at Transylvania University, his early presence has finally come to light, like the discovery of a rare old penny lost in a crack.
It is fitting that George acquired his formal education at Transylvania University. Just as Thomas Jefferson was the champion of the Expedition, he was also a long time friend and supporter of the trans-Allegheny institution, being the governor of Virginia when that state chartered the school in 1780. In a letter to a friend, Jefferson wrote that "we must send our children for education to Kentucky ... I would rather it should be to Kentucky than any other state, because she has more flavor of the old cask than any other."6 George Rogers Clark, a neighbor and friend of Jefferson, was an early trustee of Transylvania and the brother of William Clark. As a member of Clark's Expedition George Shannon could not escape hearing about Transylvania University and being encouraged to continue his education if he indeed was "studious and ambitious."
George was delayed in attending to his education immediately after the conclusion of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. William Clark employed him in the spring of 1807 as an "Indian Conductor" to assist a Mandan Chief on his return from Washington, D.C. to his tribe sixteen hundred miles up the Missouri River. On reaching North Dakota, George Shannon's party was attacked by the Arikara Indians. George received a leg wound in the battle and was unable to obtain medical treatment until the party retraced its course back down the river to St. Charles, Missouri. In October Dr. Barnard G. Farrar, who first practiced medicine in Frankfort, Kentucky, and later received an honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine from Transylvania, found that George's leg was in a state of gangrene and had to amputate the limb above the knee.7 Shannon then spent approximately a year recuperating in an army hospital. He used a wooden peg for the rest of his life, which earned him the nicname "Peg-Leg."8
Once George was able, he accompanied Lewis in exploring saltpeter caves in Missouri for a short time;9 and then made his way to Kentucky, passing through Louisville with a letter of introduction from William Clark for his brother, General Jonathan Clark (mentioned previously). William Clark stated that he would "continue to pay him [Shannon] his salary until ordered to the reverse by the Secretary of War which will enable him to pay his board and schooling." Only sons of wealthy families attended Transylvania during those early days. George was not from a wealthy family. His father had died in an Ohio snowstorm in 1803, leaving a widow and nine children to fend for themselves. Because of his association with the Lewis and Clark Expedition and apparent natural abilities, George Shannon was afforded an excellent opportunity to acquire an education and the necessary social connections to improve his station in life, and ultimately the lives of several of his brothers as well.
Few records concerning students remain in the Transylvania University Archives from its early founding to 1818, the period that George was in attendance. No matriculation books exist from that time and the first printed Catalogue of Students did not appear until 1821. The 1823 Latin catalog does present the first retrospective list of Transylvania graduates from 1802; George is not listed. He may not have received an official diploma from Transylvania University, few did; but the fact that he was a student is verified by one miscellaneous document in the archives,10 and the original manuscript of William Leavy, a fellow student, who stated: "1807-10 George Shannon, Attorney and Judge, died in Missouri." Leavy wrote his Memoirs of Lexington & Vicinity many years after the fact in 187411 and therefore the 1807 date is questionable, particularly since Shannon was wounded in that year. Because of the Filson Club's recent acquisition of the Clark letter of 1808, it can be concluded that George Shannon attended Transylvania University from the fall of 1808 through the spring of 1810. Two original compositions located at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis, which were written by George in 1809 while he attended Transylvania University,12 seem to confirm that George pursued a classical course of instruction in the academic department of the school, rather than being enrolled in the law department as some sources claim. Ironically, it was in the fall of 1809 when George was a student at Transylvania that William Clark stayed the night of October 28 with George and learned of the death of his partner Meriwether Lewis from a local newspaper.13
Many of George Shannon's classmates at Transylvania went on to become prominent citizens of Lexington; some even affected the history of our country by their distinguished careers. They became U.S. congressmen, state legislators, local officials, doctors, lawyers, merchants and ministers. Yet the most famous fellow student of George was Stephen Austin. Austin also left Transylvania in 1810 to eventually become a member of the Missouri legislature, a judge in Arkansas, and then the "Father of Texas." In the Austin Papers edited by Eugene Barker can be found several affectionate letters written to him by his old college friends, including one letter from George himself.14 Robert Todd (Lincoln's father-in-law) wrote Austin in 1810 saying, "I met George Shannon at Shelbyville and stayed a day or so with him."15 Then Austin received a letter dated later that year from Isaac Baker who was still at Transylvania-"Shannon started to Philadelphia the 12th ult."16 Obviously Austin was a friend of Shannon and curious about his activities or these letters would not have referred to him. The interesting point made by the Baker letter is that it established the exact date that George Shannon left Transylvania University - June 12, 1810.
If George intended to study law at Transylvania, he may have abandoned the idea when he was recruited by William Clark in the spring of 1810 to travel to Philadelphia to assist Nicholas Biddle with his paraphrase of the Lewis and Clark journals. Clark sent George off with two letters of introduction. The one to Benjamin Smith Barton, a famous botanist, was received August 14, 1810. This places George in the East by late summer.17 The second letter was addressed to Nicholas Biddle and states, as does the other letter, that George "possesses a sincere and undisguised heart, he is highly spoken of by all his acquaintances and much respected at the Lexington University where he has been for the last two years." Clark goes on to say:
It can be ascertained then that while George was helping Biddle compose his narrative of the Expedition with his intimate knowledge of the "language of signs," "Indians of the upper Missouri"19 and "Buffalo Pathes" he may have been reading law. Though Biddle was himself a lawyer as well as a scholar, statesman and financier, there is no indication that George read law in his office.20 Yet his law studies may have been completed by 1812. In a letter to Biddle, George wrote "I am anxious to obtain the place of judge advocate, in this new Army which is to be raised."21 He apparently did not receive the appointment and states in another letter to Biddle "I wrote to you precipitately ... not however, from any diffidence in my abilities to perform the duties of the office, with a proper dignity and correctness, but from a consciousness of my want of the necessary degree of celebrity and standing in society, to justify an expectation of the success of my application."22
George's prospects in Pennsylvania may have been limited and he therefore returned to Lexington, Kentucky in 1812. There he was well connected as he had an association with Henry Clay, who was a member of the Board of Trustees at Transylvania University, and other men of means and status, who had been his classmates. The Kentucky Gazette newspaper carried a notice in 1812 that "Mr. Shannon is appointed messenger for the Kentucky electors."23 In a letter to President James Madison from Hubbard Taylor dated Dec. 6, 1818 it is mentioned that "Mr. George Shannon takes in the votes of the Electors, he is the young man that lost his leg in the Battle with the Indians in taking home the Osage Indian Chife [sic] and was also in the Expedition with Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean, he intends to petition for some compensation, in consequence of his being disabled."24
With steady employment and his education completed, George was able to attend to affairs of the heart. On Sept. 19, 1813 he married Ruth Snowden Price, daughter of Samuel Price.25 Ruth's brother and cousins had been classmates of George at Transylvania, and her father had been a trustee of the university.26 George married into an established Lexington family whose members married well and were associated with the Harts, Russells, Richardsons, and Clays. The Rev. James Blythe, who was acting president of Transylvania University, performed the marriage ceremony. Mr. and Mrs. Shannon eventually had seven children all born in Lexington between 1814 and 1825.
By 1814 George was associating with all the "right" people when he attended a Washington's Birthday celebration with some of the leading citizens of Lexington-"When the company had been collected, they were addressed by George Shannon in an eloquent and pertinent speech, commemorative of the virtues of Washington."27 In June of that year the Kentucky Gazette noted that George declined candidacy for the Kentucky legislature, though no reason was given.28 It was first announced January 2, 1815 in the same paper, and in succeeding years up to 1818, that "George Shannon, Attorney at Law, keeps his office in the house lately occupied by Mrs. Beck ... where he may always be found by those disposed to employ him in the line of his profession."29
George joined the Tammany Society (or Brethren of the Columbia Order) in 1815. The Lexington chapter was formed in 1811 and continued to exist locally until 1820. Members were called the sons of Saint Tammany, and they often marched through the streets of Lexington dressed as Indians in red paint, feathers, bows, tomahawks, and war clubs. The organization certainly must have suited George as he was well acquainted with American Indians from his Expedition experience. Oddly enough it was considered one of the most Democratic and patriotic organizations in the West and its members included many well-known Lexington citizens.30 George was an active member in the society. The Kentucky Gazette carried the following notice in 1815: "The Sons of Tammany ... are requested to be punctual in their attendance at their great Wigwam, at the house of Br. George Shannon ..."31 In May of 1818 he volunteered a toast at a meeting of the Society, "Those who are unfriendly to liberties in other countries, cannot be sincere friends to it in our own." He delivered a long talk on the anniversary of the discovery of America in October of the same year.32 George continued to attend the local Washington's Birthday and 4th of July celebrations throughout the years with such dignitaries as Isaac Shelby, Henry Clay and Leslie Combs. At one event, George made a toast to "Henry Clay, the able and independent advocate of the rights of man."33 He was surely present when President Monroe and General Andrew Jackson visited Lexington in 1819 and "attended the Fourth of July festival at Dunlap's." And very likely he went to the elaborate reception and ball for General LaFayette in Frankfort which was hosted by his sister-in-law, Mrs. Daniel Wiesiger, in 1825.34
Once George Shannon became somewhat established in Lexington, three of his six brothers from Ohio arrived in town. David and Wilson Shannon lived with George while they attended Transylvania University. Both became lawyers and Wilson eventually became a governor of Ohio.35 James, also an attorney, married a daughter of Isaac Shelby, Kentucky's first governor, and practiced law in Lexington for many years.36 Brother Thomas, who never came to Kentucky, became a U.S. congressman, as did Wilson Shannon.37 One wonders how much George, who was the first to venture from his Ohio home, may have influenced his brothers to obtain educations and go into politics.
George Shannon went into partnership with Thomas T. Barr, once a Transylvania University trustee and a member of the Kentucky legislature. The following notice ran in the Kentucky Gazette throughout the year of 1818: "The undersigned have entered into co-partnership under the names and firm of Barr and Shannon, With a view to practice law in the courts of Fayette. Their office will be kept on Limestone ... where they can at all times be consulted, unless when attending said courts. Those who employ them will in all cases obtain the counsel and efforts of both, and may be assured that all business committed to their care will be discharged promptly and punctually."38 Barr had been a board member of the Lexington Public Library and its first secretary for twenty years.39 In 1819 George was also elected to the library's Board of Directors.40 An uncataloged manuscript, obviously a petition to the city to change the location of the library, was recently found at Transylvania. It is the only document thus far discovered in the university archives that contains the signature of George Shannon.41 Thomas Barr died in 1824, ending the partnership of Barr & Shannon.
One piece of business that George settled, though it took him many years to do so, was compensation for his services with the Expedition. He sought to have the land warrant, which had been awarded to him by Congress in 1807, renewed as he had apparently lost the original.42 With the assistance of Henry Clay, he received a new warrant for his 320 acres which was finally approved in 1814. George assigned power of attorney to Clay in 1815 stating that he had sold his land warrant to Clay and that Clay was authorized as his attorney to draw the arrearages of his pension. With the help of Clay and William Clark, George also had his pension increased twice, from $5 a month to $8 in 1814, and then to $12 in 1817.43
George furthered his standing in the community by joining the Masonic Fraternity. He was Past Master of the Murray Lodge, which was Lexington's third lodge. An incident occurred in the summer of 1818 that involved the duel of two doctors, Benjamin Dudley and William Richardson. They were both Transylvania University medical professors and Masons. The whole Masonic Fraternity in Lexington opposed the un-Masonic conduct of the doctors. George Shannon was involved in the proceedings that temporarily suspended the dueling men from the privileges of Masonry.44 The proceedings may have been quite difficult for George as Dr. Richardson was his wife's cousin.
The 1820s were the most interesting and probably the most trying of George Shannon's career. He served three consecutive one year terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1820 to 1823.45 Once he entered public life, his character was questioned on several occasions in the local papers and in handbills.46 Lexington was so infested with gamblers that in 1822 its citizens passed a new ami-gaming law and put offenders in jail.47 George was publicly accused of pleading the statute to avoid payment of a gambling debt that same year while he was running in the state election against Robert Wickliffe. This incident coincided with the infamous Relief War that raged from 1814 to 1829 in Kentucky between the "Old Court" and "New Court." "Dirty politics" came into play and George Shannon was caught in the middle of each controversy.
The entire state of Kentucky was suffering from a deep depression as a result of the War of 1812. Many state-chartered banks of Kentucky were ruined and forced to call in outstanding loans and mortgages. In response, the legislature passed a series of laws designed to aid the debtor class, and eventually repealed the statutes that created the then existing Court of Appeals and installed a new court. A bitter fight ensued between the "Old Court," or Anti-Relief party, and the "New Court" called the Relief party. The Anti-Relief party was successful in this political struggle and eventually evolved into the "Whigs." The New Court party positioned itself with Jackson and became Democrats.48
George Shannon strongly allied himself with the Relief party when he first ran for the state legislature in the election of 1820. That year he published a letter in the Kentucky Gazette "To the People of Fayette" stating that in his opinion "a just and equitable property law so constructed as amply to secure to creditors their rights, without entirely sacrificing the property of debtors, is absolutely demanded by the present condition of our country. Such a law, I believe, can be framed; and if you shall deem it expedient to repose so much confidence in me, as to select me, as one of your representatives in the next legislature, it is my intention to advocate the passage of such a law."49 George won his house seat that year, the same year that the Relief party gained control of both the executive and legislative departments of the state government. Soon after he assumed his office he publicly stated he would oppose any amendment which would hurt small land owners and proposed a resolution that gave relief to debtors.50 In the archives of Transylvania University is an 1822 pamphlet entitled The Speech of George Shannon, Esq. On the Resolution for the Removal of Judge Clark from Office on Account of his Decision in the Bourbon Circuit Court Against the Constitutionality of the Endorsement and Replevin Laws which attacks Judge James Clark's alleged disregard of constitutional liberty.51
Though the 1823 legislature failed to gain the necessary two-thirds votes to remove Clark as Circuit Judge, he nevertheless resigned in 1824 and it was George Shannon, his political foe, who was nominated to take his place. The nomination was announced in The Kentucky Reporter and then heatedly debated on the Senate floor before he was actually appointed by Governor Joseph Desha, a strong supporter of the Relief party.52 The controversy concerning George's appointment was a carry-over from the campaign of 1823 in which he attempted to run for a fourth term in the legislature. Several broadsides by and about George Shannon appeared that year concerning accusations made against him of attempting to obtain a loan from the Commonwealth Bank with the intention of avoiding payment by pleading that the bank's charter was unconstitutional. One such broadside has as its heading: "Who is George Shannon? What are his private and moral virtues, and what is his public and political character?" It gives reasons why the electorate should not support him in the next election,53 which he lost by only 60 votes.54
The most spectacular event of George Shannon's life in Kentucky centered around a murder. Just 25 days prior to the Senate's approval of George's nomination as a judge by Governor Desha, the governor's son killed and robbed a man.55 He was arrested and brought to trial January 18, 1825. As a result of a change of venue, the case was heard in Harrison County where John Trimble was the Circuit Judge. However, as Trimble had just been appointed judge to the Court of Appeals, he in turn selected George Shannon to try the case. George refused to preside at first but eventually was persuaded by Trimble to do so the very morning that the trial was to begin. He rode on horseback from Lexington to Cynthiana that very day, opened court at 8 p.m. and adjourned over until the next day. The entire case was heard in one morning session and the verdict found young Desha guilty, fixing the punishment at death. The counsel for the defense immediately filed a motion for a new trial on the grounds that the jury had been tampered with and that the verdict was not in accordance with the evidence. George himself thought the evidence raised a doubt as to Desha's guilt. He then set aside the guilty verdict and granted a new trial.56
As a result, George was vehemently accused by the press of the state of partiality because of his political association with the governor. According to a Frankfort newspaper, George was burned in effigy in both Harrison and Bourbon counties.57 A year later the Desha case was heard again and brought in the same verdict and punishment rendered in George Shannon's court. George did not preside in the second trial. Amos Kendall, in a letter to Henry Clay, mentioned that the office of Judge was vacant in the Harrison County District after the first trial and stated "Nor can it be presumed, that any other Judge will sit in the case after the treatment received by judge [sic] Shannon."58
George Shannon's circuit judgeship was a life-time appointment dependent on good behavior and he did not run for the legislature thereafter, particularly since his political bent was no longer popular in the state. The election of 1826 resulted in a victory for the Old Court which was supported by the Anti-Relief "lawyer's party." Though George was one of the few lawyers who was of the "people's party" that supported the New Court for debtors' relief, once he became a judge he was non-partisan enough that he sent cases on appeal to both courts. By 1829 the court struggle in Kentucky was decided. Governor Desha was forced to compromise before he left office in 1828. It was one of Judge Shannon's own cases, known as Hildreth's Heirs vs. Mclntire's Devisee, that finally ended, officially, recognition of the New Court's judicial efforts when it went to the Appeals Court in 1829. The principal question presented for decision was whether or not the lower court erred in obeying the mandate of the judges of the New Court. It was found that Shannon's circuit court had indeed erred in its judgment and was reversed. Since then, none of the decisions of the New Court has ever been cited as authority in Kentucky.59 George fortunately had left the state before learning that one of his own decisions had been the "kiss of death" for his party.
It is not known why George Shannon gave up his judgeship and moved to Missouri in 1828, though several reasons can be surmised. Most likely he didn't have much of a political future in Kentucky when his party and avowed stance concerning the court issues inevitably fell out of favor with the general public, especially after Governor Desha left office in that year. His character and morals had been criticized for years in the press whenever he ran for public office, and he had not fared well financially. When he began his partnership with Barr in 1818 he owned two slaves and one cow, and had ten whites in his household with assets totaling $700. In 1822 he owned his own home, six slaves, one horse, and three cows with only eight whites living together and $2,480 in assets. That was his best year. By 1827 he was living on the edge of town with nine whites in the household, two blacks under age of eighteen, two horses and one cow with only $460 in assets. The 1828 Fayette County Tax Assessment records show that the Bank of the United States owned the Shannon residence with twenty-one acres. Did he actually default on a loan as he was accused of considering in 1822? In any event, the political climate was more favorable in Missouri, land easy to obtain, and many Kentuckians had already settled there. In fact, George's sister-in-law and husband, Isabella and William Samuel, had already moved to Hannibal, Missouri.60
Eventually the Shannons settled in St. Charles, Missouri, the very town where Lewis and Clark rendezvoused with their men, and made final preparations for their Expedition in May of 1804. George was nominated a United States Attorney for the District of Missouri in 1830 by President Jackson. His appointment was confirmed by the Senate after secret hearings concerning a protest presented by his predecessor. George was nominated for a new term in 1834 but for some unexplained reason his nomination was withdrawn.61 For a short time he occupied a seat in the State Senate, and later became a candidate for U.S. Senator in 1832 running against Thomas Hart Benton. Just prior to his death, he was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives.62
George Shannon died suddenly August 30, 1836 in Palmyra, Missouri at the age of 49. He had travelled to Palmyra to try a murder case. His obituary appeared in several newspapers including a short notice in Lexington's Observer and Reporter. A St. Louis newspaper carried the details of his death and Masonic funeral in Palmyra, which was attended by "a large assemblage of the ladies and gentlemen of the town ... to offer their last testimony of respect to the remains of a good man." The members of the Bar of both Palmyra and St. Charles wore crepe upon their left arms for 30 days and published such resolutions in his honor, as "Resolved, that to the genius, learning and eloquence which rendered him a shining member of the legal possession, he added those social qualities which rendered him a pleasant and agreeable companion."63 In the end, his early travels to the western territories with Lewis and Clark were overlooked by those who out-lived him. He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Massie Mill Cemetery one mile north of Palmyra.64
William Clark once stated that George Shannon was "one of the most active and useful men we had."65 Clark even named a stream in his honor when descending the Yellowstone in 1806, though today it is known as Sand Creek.66 The state of Missouri named a county after him just a year after his death.67 In the last several years some of George's direct descendants have contacted Transylvania University in search of clues about him. Family lore suggests that he was an alcoholic (an 1823 handbill accused him of being seen "in his cups"). Could it be that the hilarious stories of George's drinking escapades described by W.V.N. Bay in his Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar of Missouri are true? Bay wrote that someone once proposed to George "that if either would do a particular act, and the other should fail to follow suit, the delinquent should treat the crowd. Thereupon Shannon took off his wooden leg and threw it into the fire; and as the other was not disposed to thus jeopardize a sound limb, he was forced to foot the bill."68 Such a story certainly humanizes the character of George Shannon. All men have their weaknesses. On the Expedition George was not well versed in woodcraft, but he made up for it in Meriwether Lewis' estimation with his great courage, perseverance and loyalty.69 Those very attributes served George Shannon well while he lived through difficult times in Kentucky.