From Lewis and Clark to a cemetery in Indiana

Old Pioneer Cemetery in Waynetown is the final resting place of William Bratton, a member of the historic expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase territory in 1804-06.


William Bratton’s headstone - Old Pioneers Cemetery, Waynetown, Indiana

This bronze plaque and marker were later added to William Bratton’s headstone, explaining that he was a member of the historic Lewis & Clark expedition in 1804-06.(Photo: Kevin Cullen/For the Lafayette Journal & Courier)

WAYNETOWN — Old cemeteries are filled with surprises.

One stone in this particular resting place remembers a baby who died in 1830. Beneath another lies a Civil War sailor. Many cast shadows over the graves of pioneers who worked themselves to death turning forests into corn fields.

But the Old Pioneer Cemetery on U.S. 136, at the eastern edge of town, contains a much bigger surprise. Among its weathered stones is one that marks the grave of William Bratton.

Bratton, who lived from 1778 to 1841, settled near here in 1822. He was more than an early Montgomery County farmer, more than a justice of the peace, more — even — than a War of 1812 veteran.

He was a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that crossed the territory of the then-new Louisiana Purchase in 1804-06. President Thomas Jefferson’s 40-person “Corps of Discovery” spent 28 months and logged 8,000 miles seeing things that no white man had seen before.

The journals speak of adventure, danger and new information about native peoples, animals, plants, waterways, weather, mineral deposits and land forms.

Most of the inscription on Bratton’s headstone has eroded, but the magical words, “With Lewis and Clark to the Rocky Mountains” are still legible.

“Bratton was an active member, and part of the permanent party — the 33 people bound to go clear to the (Pacific) coast. It was a select group; the others went only to North Dakota, then returned,” professor Gary E. Moulton, of the University of Nebraska, said in a 1996 interview.

“His name appears quite often in the journals, often as (a) hunter,” he said. Montana’s Bratton River was named after him.

Forgotten graves of notable Indianapolis people
Bratton was well-suited for the odyssey. Born in Virginia, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith and learned the gunsmith’s trade. Standing more than 6 feet tall, he was among nine young members from Kentucky whom Meriwether Lewis described as “good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods, and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree.”Moulton spent years editing the expedition journals, which total more than 1 million words. The result: a definitive, 12-volume opus.

Bratton joined the corps in 1803 at age 26 as an Army private. He mended kettles, guns and tools, made axes, and shot bighorn sheep, deer, elk and other game. On May 11, 1805, he arrived in camp, breathless, after being chased a half-mile by a wounded grizzly bear. Bratton had shot it through the lungs, but it took two head shots to kill it.

Crossing the Rockies, the starving explorers sometimes had to live on dog meat, horse flesh, a she-wolf and roots.

Bratton was one of five men sent to the Pacific shore to boil water for salt on Dec. 28, 1805. Salt was a precious meat preservative.

Cheering crowds greeted Bratton and his comrades on Sept. 23, 1806, in St. Louis. Most had presumed them dead. They hadn’t been heard from for 17 months. Incredibly, only one man had died — of a burst appendix.

For his service, Bratton received $178.33 and 320 acres in Missouri. He and his wife, Mary, had 10 children, and settled near Waynetown in 1822. According to one old family tale, his thrift was legendary. Once, some men ridiculed him for picking up scattered grains of corn at a corn husking.

“He replied that he had seen the time when he would have been thankful for a few grains of corn,” great-granddaughter Maud Bratton Chesterton wrote in a 1931 reminiscence.

He died Nov. 11, 1841, at age 63.

In 2002 — thanks largely to the work of history buff and historical re-enactor Esther Duncan — a state marker was erected at the cemetery, telling Bratton’s story. The old tombstone was restored, and a plaque was added.

The goal was to “breathe new air into the life of William Bratton,” Duncan said. “It’s about time.”

This was re blogged from an article in the Indy Star newspaper and online at


About Colins Place

Originally from the UK, now living and working amongst the corn and beans in small town Midwest USA
This entry was posted in Hoosier History, Memorial, Re-blog, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to From Lewis and Clark to a cemetery in Indiana

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s