Large Missouri County named in honor of Lewis & Clark expedition member

In this week's installment of Curtis Eriksmoen's "Did You Know That?" column, readers learn about George Shannon, the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

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Photo by Michael Vosburg, Forum Photo Editor. Artwork by Troy Becker.

FARGO — The youngest member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition gained the respect and admiration of some major figures in early American history. William Clark, the co-leader of the expedition, later offered to make George Shannon a partner in a fur-trading operation. When Shannon declined the offer because he wanted to attend college, Clark then secured funding so that Shannon could attend one of the most prestigious and expensive schools in the nation.

While in college, one of Shannon’s best friends was Stephen Austin, later known as “the father of Texas.” Shannon’s mentor and good friend in the early years of his legal and political career was Henry Clay, one of the most important American politicians during the first 50 years of the 19th century.

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George Shannon
Contributed / Alchetron

After establishing a successful career as a lawyer, judge and politician, Shannon became the inspiration, role model, and mentor for his younger brothers. Wilson Shannon, the youngest brother, was a lawyer who became governor of Ohio, an Ohio congressman, minister to Mexico, and territorial governor of Kansas. Thomas Shannon, another brother, was elected to Congress from Ohio. In 1828, George Shannon moved to Missouri where he served in the legislature and as U.S. attorney for the District of Missouri. In 1841, a new county in Missouri was created and named in his honor.

When the Lewis and Clark Expedition was first at Fort Mandan in what is now North Dakota, the two leaders were visited by two Mandan chiefs on Oct. 20, 1804. The expedition leaders became good friends with one of the chiefs, Sheheke, also known as “Big White.” On the expedition's return visit to Fort Mandan in August 1806, the captains invited Sheheke to return with them to meet President Jefferson and to go on tour to see the advantages of American culture and civilization. The chief agreed to go with them on their return.

After Sheheke’s tour was over, Meriwether Lewis, who was now governor of Louisiana Territory, organized an escort of about 40 U.S. troops under the command of Captain Nathaniel Pryor. Shannon, one of Pryor’s good friends, was part of the escort. Near the present site of Bismarck, a tribe of Arikara Indians attacked the party. Shannon was shot in the leg, and the party retreated with to St. Louis. Because the leg was not properly dressed and Shannon walked on it before it was entirely healed, doctors determined that the leg needed to be amputated. He spent 18 months healing in the army hospital at Fort Bellefontaine, near St. Louis, and used a wooden peg the rest of his life.


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William Clark
Contributed / Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons

With only one fully-functional leg and a fashioned peg stump serving as the other limb, Shannon believed he needed a college education in order to find lucrative employment. William Clark arranged for Shannon to enroll at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Clark’s brother, George Rogers Clark, was an early trustee of the university. TU was a private, prestigious, and very expensive college, and only sons of wealthy families attended Transylvania during those early days. William Clark, who had recently been appointed brigadier general of the militia in the Louisiana Territory, maintained Shannon on the military payroll which enabled him to pay his board and schooling.

Shannon attended TU from the fall of 1808 through the spring of 1810. He was grateful to Clark for providing him with financial assistance and he let his benefactor know that he wanted to become a lawyer. Clark had an idea that would be beneficial to Shannon. He knew that Nicholas Biddle, a prominent Philadelphia attorney, was assigned the task of editing the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and would then publish the material in book form. Clark suggested to Shannon that he could help Biddle understand the information in the journals as well as observe Biddle in dealing with legal issues. In the spring of 1810, Shannon journeyed to Philadelphia and began his association with Biddle.

When the book was completed, Biddle praised the young man’s intelligence and help. Shannon returned to Lexington in 1812 and was appointed messenger for the Kentucky electors, a position he maintained until 1819. On Sept. 19, 1813, Shannon married Ruth Snowden Price, daughter of Samuel Price, a trustee of TU. Another TU trustee was Henry Clay, who was also the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Clay would later serve as U.S. secretary of state and was also a major party candidate for the U.S. presidency on three separate occasions.

Now that Shannon was married and about to start a large family, he began his law practice in Lexington and decided to cash in on some of the benefits of having been a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He had received a land grant for 320 acres but had lost or misplaced the document deeding the grant to him. With the assistance of Clay, he received a new warrant for his 320 acres which was finally approved in 1814. Shannon 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 Clark, Shannon also had his pension increased twice, once in 1814 and again in 1817.

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Henry Clay
Public Domain / WikiCommons

Clay introduced Shannon to his good friend Thomas T. Barr, a successful Lexington attorney, and in 1818, the law firm partnership of Barr & Shannon was formed. Barr had just been elected to the Kentucky Legislature representing Fayette County, where Lexington was located. In 1820, Shannon ran as a candidate of the Relief Party and was elected to Barr’s former seat and was reelected in 1822. Members of the Relief Party later became Democrats. Barr died in 1824, ending his partnership with Shannon. Shannon returned to TU in 1820 to get his law degree and one of his classmates and close friends was Theodore W. Clay, the oldest son of Henry Clay. Both Shannon and T. W. Clay graduated in January 1822.

In 1824, Shannon was appointed as a circuit judge by Kentucky Gov. Joseph Desha. Just 25 days before the state Senate was to vote on Shannon’s confirmation, Desha’s son was charged with robbing and killing a man. The Senate confirmed Shannon’s appointment, and one of the first cases before him was the murder trial of Isaac Desha, son of the governor. Isaac was found guilty and Shannon ruled that Isaac should receive the death sentence.

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. Shannon agreed the evidence raised doubt as to Desha’s guilt, so he set aside the guilty verdict and granted a new trial. Many people criticized Shannon, but at the retrial, Isaac was again found guilty and another judge issued the same sentence. Gov. Desha then granted a pardon to his son.

Even though Shannon possessed a lifetime position, he gave up his judgeship in 1828 and moved to St. Charles, Missouri. In 1829, Shannon was nominated for the position of U.S. attorney for the District of Missouri by President Andrew Jackson, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. In 1832, Shannon ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent, Thomas Hart Benton. Lake Jessie, in Griggs County, North Dakota, is named for Benton’s second oldest daughter, and Benton was a cousin-in-law to Henry Clay, Shannon’s former mentor. Shannon died on Aug. 30, 1836. In 1841, a new county was created in Missouri and named in honor of George Shannon. Shannon County and Texas County are the only two counties in Missouri that cover over 1,000 square miles.


Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at or calling 701-793-8508.
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