Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had embarked on their epic journey to the Pacific two years earlier. The 33 members of the Corps of Discovery had experienced many adventures and narrowly escaped disaster on several occasions, but they had lost only one man (Sergeant Floyd, a probable victim of appendicitis) and suffered relatively few serious injuries. Now, at last, they were returning home; St. Louis was scarcely a month away.
A few weeks earlier, Lewis and Clark had divided the party in order to explore additional new territory. The two groups were supposed to reunite at the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. Lewis, traveling with nine men, hurried down the Missouri, eager to be reunited with Clark and the main body of the expedition. However, he periodically had to take time to stop and hunt for game to feed the hardworking men.
On the morning of this day in 1806, Lewis spotted some elk on a bar in the river thickly overgrown with willows. He put to shore and set out to hunt accompanied by Private Cruzatte. Spotting an elk, Lewis was just about to fire his rifle when he was hit in the buttocks by a bullet. The blow spun him around and slashed a three-inch gash in his hip. Knowing that Cruzatte was blind in one eye and nearsighted in the other, Lewis immediately assumed the private had mistaken him for an elk. “Damn you,” Lewis cried. “You have shot me.”
When Cruzatte did not respond, Lewis feared Indians might have attacked him. Rushing back to the boat, he rallied the men and sent them off to save Cruzatte. Twenty minutes later, the men returned with Cruzatte. They had seen no Indians, and Cruzatte denied having shot Lewis and claimed he had not heard his shouts.
For the rest of his days, Cruzatte insisted he had not shot his captain. Lewis, however, had the offending bullet: A .54 caliber slug from a modern U.S. Army rifle. Lewis was shot by a gun identical to the one carried by Cruzatte, and one unlikely to be in the hands of any Indian. The near-sighted Cruzatte probably mistook the leather-clad Lewis for an elk, though it is unlikely the private’s guilt will ever be proven with absolute certainty.
His wound was not serious, but Lewis spent the next several days lying faced down in the bottom of a canoe as the party proceeded down river. The following day, they caught up with Clark. By the time they reached St. Louis on September 23, Lewis’ wound had healed and the excitement of homecoming overshadowed the event.