Rugged frontiersman Nathaniel Pryor stands as a giant of early-18th-century Oklahoma history. Tall and physically vigorous, sagacious in judgment under duress, and cool and intrepid in countless incidents of combat and other mortal danger, his life and legacy confirm the existence of the early American trailblazer who embodied those attributes. But Pryor was much more—diplomat, soldier, trader, merchant, explorer, Indian agent, indeed, agent of friendship and peace between the Native and new Americans.
Born in Virginia, his family pioneered west to frontier Kentucky when he was 11. He married Margaret Patton in 1798, but apparently soon lost her to death. He rode west with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1803-04 on their historic surveying expedition for President Jefferson. They promoted him to sergeant and called him “a man of character and ability.” He commanded projects for them encompassing fort construction, canoe repair, river exploration, and horse trading.
Frontiersman in Action
Pryor’s capabilities and fame grew with his assignment to escort Shahaka, a friendly Mandan Indian chief the explorers befriended on their trek, back home to present South Dakota from a trip to meet Jefferson in Washington. Near the Great Bend of the Missouri River, a vengeful force of 650 Arkira and Sioux attacked the party of keelboats and canoes Pryor led. Among their demands was that Pryor turn Shahaka over to them and that 21-year-old merchant genius A. P. Choteau do business with them.
Not inclined to oblige the fierce, weapons-brandishing Indians, Pryor ramrodded hasty fortifications and treated with the Arkira leader. That did not work, and the Natives attacked the traveling party, which numbered less than 100 people, including a number of Mandan women and children.
Pryor left a vivid eyewitness account of the encounter, including these lines:
“(The attackers) first seized the cable of Chouteau’s barge—as his contained merchandise and had no soldiers to defend it. Waving their hands there, the moment they attacked the Barge, they made signals that I might go on—Chouteau hoped he was not to be abandoned in so dangerous a situation—I replied, ‘make them an offer.’…My boat was put off with greater ease than Chouteau’s—he stuck on a sand Bar, thro’ which his men were obliged to drag the barge while exposed to the continual fire of the enemy.”
Three of Choteau’s men fell dead and a half-dozen others wounded, but the rest escaped. Willing to sacrifice his own life for Shahaka’s if necessary, Pryor continued to refuse the pursuing Indians’ demands for the Mandan chief. He led the rest of the party in a dramatic escape back down the Missouri from their tormentors. When the survivors whom Pryor’s actions helped save recounted their tale to government authorities, the U.S. Government set in motion actions that brought the Arkira under control.
After several years’ service in the young American army, Pryor in 1811 was sent by Clark—by now Governor of Missouri Territory—amongst the Winnebago Indians in present Iowa to investigate the level of Native support for Tecumseh’s burgeoning uprising against the United States. In the tense atmosphere permeating the eve of the War of 1812 and the final chapter of U.S.-British contention for control of North America, British agents incited the Winnebagos against Pryor and other white Americans.
The tribe’s murderous rampage left the frontiersman robbed, beaten, and imprisoned. Using his legendary wiles, he escaped out a window as a sympathetic Indian woman distracted his attackers, then fled barefoot to safety across an ice-sheeted Mississippi River in another of his innumerable scrapes with death. This was the first of two incidents at the hands of Natives, however, whose financial losses left Pryor struggling till the end of his life to make ends meet.
He rose to captain’s rank in the War of 1812 and fought at the Battle of New Orleans. Franklin Wharton commanded the U.S. Marines in that climactic 1815 American victory over the elite of Britain’s imperial military, including the Scottish Highlanders. Citing Pryor’s deeds there, Wharton called him “a brave and persevering officer.”
Following the war, Pryor established a trading post near the mouth of the Arkansas River in Arkansas Territory. This proved one of a series of business struggles for him. His many talents lay in other endeavors. The enterprise failed and Pryor’s partner sued him.
In 1819, he opened another post to trade with the southern Osages of Chief Clermont near the burgeoning commercial hub of Three Forks in present northeastern Oklahoma. He married an Osage woman with whom he sired several children, learned the tribe’s language, negotiated for them with the Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Delawares, and other tribes, and gained their respect and trust.
Adventure continued to follow him as he lived among a tribe at war with numerous others more lately arrived in the new Indian Territory. According to historian Grant Foreman, moreover, Clermont’s band contained “all the most unruly young warriors” in the tribe. With no one did war prove more savage for the Osages than the Cherokees. These two proud peoples—both forced to the same country by the U.S. government and public—wreaked a pitiable toll of blood on one another, and one as savage as any ever committed by whites.
Returning from the hunt with the Osage men, Pryor depicted the carnage of yet another intertribal bloodbath: “…and the old men, women, and children were in a defenseless condition. The Cherokees came suddenly upon their encampment; and all who were able fled for their lives. They were pursued for one day and part of another, and every one who was overtaken in the pursuit, fell a sacrifice to the enemy.”
Around this time, Pryor saved the lives of two tribesmen, including Clermont’s violent son Mad Buffalo, by misleading a Cherokee war party while they escaped. This, too, nearly got him killed, by the furious Cherokees, and cost him a second financially-devastating robbery.
Governor Clark, supported by Three Forks resident Sam Houston and famed U.S. Army General Matthew Arbuckle, appointed Pryor as the U.S. government subagent for Clermont’s Osage band. The endorsements of these famous early American pathfinders illumine Pryor’s later accomplishments the last decade of his life in a dangerous Indian Territory.
“He has done more than all the agents employed in the Indian Department in restoring peace between the Indians on this frontier,” wrote Arbuckle, “particularly in restraining Claremore’s (Clermont’s) Band of the Osages, from depredating on the neighboring tribes, as well as on our citizens, which they had been in the habit of doing for a number of years.”
“A braver man never fought under the wings of your Eagles,” Houston wrote President Andrew Jackson. “He has done more to tame and pacificate the dispositions of the Osages to the whites, and surrounding tribes of Indians than all other men; and has done more in promoting the authority of the U. States and compelling the Osages to comply with demands from Colonel Arbuckle than any person could have supposed.”
Yet the Osages had no better friend than Pryor, who, shortly before his death, beseeched his fellow old pathfinder Governor Clark to consider the tribe’s peril with so many new Natives forced into Indian Territory land: “The Game is entirely destroyed and they see that they must now cultivate the soil for a subsistence. They are extremely poor and they feel their inability to do anything for themselves without the assistance of the Govt.”
Pryor also played a key role in securing the famous Union Mission site for Protestant missionaries near Three Forks in present Mayes County. Headed by Pastor Epaphras Chapman, Union Mission included the first school in Oklahoma. Pryor recognized the missionaries’ own hardships and stalwart courage. He provided them news of the frontier from his own many travels and sources.
Most importantly, he persuaded the Osages of their worthiness and garnered the tribe’s support for the mission. This led, amidst a country beset for so long by such blood and sorrow, to the Christian conversion of many members of the battle-hardened tribe.
Pryor died in 1831, revered by many, respected by even more, among numerous factions and tribes, respectively, of the whites and the Indigenous alike. The present Mayes County town of Pryor (Creek) endures as his namesake, as do many distant locations named by Lewis and Clark and others. Perhaps fellow frontiersman Thomas James (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 3) left the best epitaph for this brave, selfless, and humble early Oklahoman, who lost and suffered much in a life of service and high adventure:
“On the reduction of the army after the war (of 1812), he was discharged to make way for some parlor soldier and sunshine patriot, and turned out in his old age upon the ‘world’s wide common.’ I found him here among the Osages, with whom he had taken refuge from his country’s ingratitude, and was living as one of their tribe, where he may yet be, unless death has discharged the debt his country owed him.”
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