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Joseph and Reubin Field

This biography is from a paper by George H. Yater 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

At the conclusion of the Expedition, in 1806, Meriwether Lewis described the Field brothers as "Two of the most active and enterprising young men who accompanied us. It was their peculiar fate to have been engaged in all the most dangerous and difficult scenes of the voyage, in which they acquitted themselves with much honor."1

They were the sons of Abraham Field, who came to Kentucky from Culpepper County, Virginia, in 1783, and to Jefferson County in 1784.2 Abraham Field had been wounded at the 1774 Battle of Point Pleasant (the point where the Kanawha River joins the Ohio in what is now West Virginia) in Dunmore's War. The name comes from Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia; the enemy were Indians from what is now the state of Ohio. Virginia later recognized this as a Revolutionary War engagement (rather strangely, in my opinion) and awarded Abraham Field a Revolutionary War pension. His wounded shoulder left him rather helpless in his old age, but in the 1780s he gained a reputation as a hunter and was hired by a large landowner near the present site of Okolona along Preston Highway to provide meat for his table.3

In 1790 he purchased a 200-acre farm on Pond Creek in southwestern Jefferson County, not the best of farmland. It was located in what are called the Knobs - a series of low, knobby hills.4 It was at this farm, no doubt, that Joseph and Reubin Field were recruited by William Clark for the Expedition. Though this site cannot be pinpointed precisely, I have reason to believe that it was near the point where the Gene Snyder Freeway today crosses Pond Creek.5 Incidentally, within one-half mile of the Field farm was the farm of Charles Floyd, sometimes cited as the father of Sergeant Charles Floyd of the Expedition, but who undoubtedly was the sergeant's uncle.6

The two Field brothers were members of a family of three other brothers and two sisters. The eldest was Ezekial Field, born October 6, 1773, ten years before the family moved to Kentucky. He is the only one of the Fields for whom we have a birth date. Ezekial Field is important to this story because of one of his business enterprises.7

Bullitt County is immediately south of Jefferson County and in the earliest days of exploration of the Falls of the Ohio region in 1773, salt springs were discovered in the vicinity of the present county line. After settlement, salt-making became a major activity. salt from Bullitt's and Mann's and other licks was in demand all over Kentucky and beyond.8 The Field farm was close to this area and Ezekial was one of the frontier entrepreneurs engaged in producing salt. He was so engaged in 1807 and apparently had been for some time, leasing one-fifth of Bullitt's lick.9 He is likely to have employed some of his brothers in the salt production process. It is suggestive, I submit, that when the Lewis and Clark Expedition set up a salt-making operation on the Pacific coast to replenish its supply for the return journey that Joseph Field was one of the salt makers, along with William Bratton and George Gibson, all William Clark's recruits. Salt making may seem to the uninitiated merely a matter of boiling salt water until only the salt is left, but it is more complex than that. I suggest that Joseph Field was in charge of the salt-making operation and that he gained his knowledge at the salt licks south of Louisville, a fact that would have been well-known to William Clark. Meriwether Lewis noted in his journal of January 5, 1806, that he found the ocean-water salt to be "excellent, fine, strong, & white," indicating the work of an experienced salt maker.

Despite Clark's laudatory later remarks concerning the Field brothers, there was at least one occasion when Rebin Field was reprimanded. During the winter sojourn at Wood River near St. Louis both Clark and Lewis were at times absent perfecting arrangements for the coming spring resumption of the journey. On March 3, 1804, Lewis was forced to issue a stern warning read at parade. He found himself, he said, "mortified and disappointed at the disorderly conduct of Reubin Field in refusing to mount guard when in the due roteen [rotation] of duty he was regularly warned; nor is he less surprised at the want of discretion in those who urged his opposition to the faithful discharge of his duty, particularly Shields [another of the nine young men], whose sense of propryety he had every reason to believe would have induced him rather to have promoted good order..." Field had refused to obey an order of Sergeant Ordway.10

There were other problems at Wood River, too, as Lewis's order makes clear. "The abuse of some of the party in respect with privilege heretofore granted them of going to the country is not less displeasing; to such therefore as have made hunting or other business a pretext to cover their design of visiting a neighboring Whiskey shop, he cannot extend this privilege and directs that four men cannot leave camp for ten days." One of the four was John Colter, another Kentuckian.11

Despite Reubin Field's initial lack of understanding of military discipline and the chain of command, he seemed to have learned quickly after his public reprimand and he and Joseph were exemplary Expedition members.

When they returned to Jefferson County, probably in the fall of 1806, the two brothers slipped back into the obscurity that enveloped them before their great adventure. Sometime in early 1807 they, along with five other Expedition members, put their names to a petition to Congress asking that the land bounties they were to receive be laid off in the Territory of Indiana or Louisiana rather than farther away. The wording is significant: "Many of your petitioners are poor Having abandoned their ordinary pursuits & establishments, at the time they embarked" they would encounter difficulties "in regaining their former situations, or in again betaking themselves [with little to commence with] to those occupations which would afford them the necessaries, if not the comforts of life."12

Joseph's obscurity even extends to the cause of his death, which was apparently not natural and not long after his return. Even the date is uncertain - only that it occurred sometime between June 27 and October 20, 1807. On the former date Joseph and Reubin's parents transferred title to the Pond Creek farm for $500. Then, on October 20, the parents executed another deed to Reubin alone, stating "whereas my son Joseph has departed this life intestate and his property has come to me as his heir-at-law I hereby convey unto the said Reubin Field all my right in the estate of said Joseph."13

Joseph must have met a violent end. William Clark's cash book and journal for the years 1825-1828, now in Chicago's Newberry Library, has on the cover a list in Clark's handwriting of many members of the Expedition and their status and location, presumably in the 1825-1828 period. One name is "P. Cruzate Killed," followed by "J. Fields, do," that is, ditto. So ended the saga of the Pacific coast saltmaker, whose mortal remains lie in an unknown grave somewhere in Jefferson County.14

Reubin Field had obviously impressed Clark on the Expedition. In a letter of November 26, 1807, to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, Clark recommended Reubin for a lieutenancy "if the army should be augmented." Nothing came of this, although the number of lieutenants was increased by sixty.15

The following year Reubin was married, a step Joseph never took. The bride was Mary Myrtle of a numerous Myrtle family in southwestern Jefferson County. But the marriage was in Indiana and it was about this time that Reubin sold the 200-acre family farm on Pond Creek. It would seem that he moved to Clark County as did so many from the Kentucky side of the river at this time. In any event he does not appear in the Jefferson County records again until 1816, when he purchased 50 acres on Little Bee Lick, again in the southwestern part of the county. This land was near the present community of Valley Station. Here he settled down to farming and is not heard from again until his will was admitted for probate on January 14, 1823. The will, dated April 22, 1822, is curious. He leaves the entire estate to his wife. Then he adds: "Should their marriage in Indiana in 1808 by one they thought was a minister of the Gospel named Smith, but later learned may not have been, be considered illegal, then he bequests to her as Mary Myrtle, her former name."16

His burial place is also unknown, but may have been the Myrtle family cemetery, near Little Bee Lick. About 1955 as suburbia reached out to this once-remote area, the cemetery was removed to make way for a housing tract. The disinterred bones were removed to the nearby Lewis family cemetery, but were not permitted to remain for long. A shopping center was built on the site and all remains there were removed to the Bethany Cemetery. That is probably where Reubin's bones lie in an unmarked grave, in the area where he spent almost his entire life, except for his one great adventure on the Tour of Discovery.17


  1. Donald Jackson, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962), 367.

  2. Robert Emmett McDowell Papers, 1:434-435. The Filson Club.

  3. Roy E. Appleman, "Joseph and Reubin Field, Kentucky Frontiersmen of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Their Father, Abraham," Filson Club History Quarterly 49 (January 1975), 8-36.

  4. Jefferson County Deed Book 2:20, August 27, 1790.

  5. Ibid. A. John Speed, living on Pond Creek, sought permission to erect a mill on the creek in 1805 and stated that the site was 1 miles from Abraham Field's farm: Jefferson County Minute Book 7:13, May 8, 1805. The 1858 G.T. Bergman (county surveyor) map of the county shows only one mill on Pond Creek, which was no doubt the site of Speed's mill. The Field farm can thus be located.

  6. John Speed stated that his proposed mill was one-half mile from Charles Floyd's farm.

  7. R.A. Briggs, "The Field Family," typescript in Field family folder, genealogical files, The Filson Club.

  8. Robert Emmett McDowell, "Bullitt's Lick, the Related Saltworks and Settlements," Filson Club History Quarterly, 30 (July 1956), 241-269.

  9. Pope v. Beeler, Decree 47, Bullitt (County) Circuit Court, in R.E. McDowell Papers, 3:100, The Filson Club. Ezekial Field, C.J. Saunders and Evan Moore occupied 3/5 part of Bullitt's Lick for saltmaking in 1807.

  10. Charles G. Clarke, The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: A Biographical Roster of the Fifty-one Members (Glendale, Calif., Arthur H. Clark Co., 1970), 19.

  11. Ibid., 19.

  12. Jackson, Letters, 379.

  13. Appleman, "Joseph and Reubin Field," 23.

  14. Jackson, Letters, 638.

  15. Ibid., 371.

  16. Appleman, "Joseph and Reubin Field," 25, 29-30. Jefferson County Deed Book 8:337, and Book L:426-427, indenture of sale, December 25, 1816; recorded May 31, 1817. Jefferson County Will Book 2:203, January 14, 1823.

  17. R.A. Briggs, "The Myrtle Family," typescript in the Myrtle family folder, genealogical files, The Filson Club.

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