Monday, 2 May 2011

Filling in the Gaps in the Corps of Discovery Journals

Numerous works of western fiction have drawn inspiration from the Lewis and Clark journals since their official publication in 1814.  Most, such as Vardis Fisher's Tale of Valor (1960) and Brian Hall's I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company (2003) have attempted to fictionalise what is known about the expedition, relying on the journals to structure the narrative and provide the bones of character development while relating the story of the expedition from the perspective of one or more real life members of the party.  James Alexander Thom's Sign Talker (2000) tells the story from the viewpoint of George Drouillard, the Corps’ half-blood Shawnee interpreter, while Anna Lee Waldo's Sacajawea (1978) and Diane Glancy's Stone Heart (2003) present the story from the point of view of the expedition's only female member.  Others, such as Will Henry's The Gates of the Mountains (1963), present the story from the point of view of a fictional character placed into the heart of the action. Richard S. Wheeler's Eclipse (2002) and Frances Hunter's To the Ends of the Earth (2006) both focus on the years following the expedition's return, and speculate on the mystery surrounding Lewis's premature death in 1809. 
          While a number of novels touch upon the time that the Corps of Discovery spent with the Nez Perce and draw attention to the warm relations that developed, few explore the claim that Clark fathered a child with a Nez Perce woman, or what may have subsequently become of that child[i].  What we know about the Lewis and Clark expedition comes primarily from the journals, and amid the detailed descriptions of previously unknown flora and fauna are a number of references to sexual encounters between the enlisted men and Indian women.  On October 12th, 1804, Clark records:
a curious Cuistom with the Souix as well as the reckeres is to give handsom Squars to those whome they wish to Show Some acknowledgements to—    The Seauix we got Clare of without taking their Squars, they followed us with Squars […] two days. The Rickores we put off dureing the time we were at the Towns but 2 Handsom young Squars were Sent by a man to follow us, they Came up this evening and peresisted in their Civilities. (Moulton)

In the earlier field notes of the same date, Clark writes that guests to whom these ‘civilities’ were made were ‘despised if [the women were] not recved’, but records that ‘we Still procisted in a refusial’ (ibid).  These and similar entries are intriguingly – and perhaps purposely – vague, for while it is apparent that the enlisted men indulged in sexual encounters, there is no clear admission or denial that the Captains did likewise. 
 In Lewis and Clark Among the Indians (1984), the historian James P. Ronda writes extensively about the sexual customs of the northern plains tribes and cites a number of early Euro-American visitors to the region who documented their encounters with willing Arikara women.  During their journey, the expedition found a number of tribes who used sex as both a bartering tool and as a means of showing hospitality, but among the Arikara and neighbouring tribes, ‘women sought sex with Europeans as a way to pass the strength and skill of the outsider to their mates’ (Ronda, 1984:63).  Ambrose (1996) describes seven occasions when Native women were offered to the men of the expedition between May 1804 and the winter of 1805-06 when the party were settled at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River.

Once the Corps returns to the Nez Perce, on their return journey east, however, all discussion of sexual interaction stops.  Jones (2004) finds this highly suspicious, especially as relations between the men and the Nez Perce were so amiable.  He speculates that these were ‘some of their happiest weeks of the journey’ for the men, and is doubtful that Clark, ‘this most agreeable of captains[,] remained celibate’ (Jones, 2004:138-9).  Jones goes on to suggest that the apparent abstinence of the captains may have lapsed at this particular time as a result of their anxiety about recrossing the Bitterroot Mountains which had caused them such difficulty the previous year.  He emphasises that the party were ‘desperate to acquire more horses’ in preparation for the crossing, exchanging ‘everything they could, including buttons cut from their uniforms’ and ‘good relations’ (ibid).
          Nez Perce tribal historian Otis Halfmoon (2001) believes that it was during this six-week period, as the Corps waited for snow to melt in the mountains, that Tzi-Kal-Tza was conceived:  
The old time method of making allies, creating allies with another people...was through intermarriage, and children.  And some of the women slept with Lewis and Clark, and York...We know two children that was left with the Nez Perce people that were created in 1806.  We had a son of Clark, and we also had a son from York... (part 8)

       Halfmoon asserts that Clark’s child[i] was viewed by the Nez Perce as a bridge between the two cultures, and that he inspired the Nez Perce to maintain good relations with the fur trappers who appeared soon after the Corps departed, and with the white settlers who later moved into the region.  Although Tzi-Kal-Tza was not the only child to have resulted from encounters between the Corps of Discovery and Native women, his birth represents a turning point in the history of the Nez Perce tribe.  Within the span of his lifetime, the Nez Perce world changed utterly.

[i] In a footnote to the May 10th, 1806 entry of the journals, Moulton also reports that a baby was conceived from York but that the child ‘did not live to maturity’. 

[i] Zoa L. Swayne’s Do Them No Harm! (2003) and Pat Decker Nipper’s Love on the Lewis and Clark Trail (2004) draw upon the journals and Nez Perce oral tradition, and focus on Clark’s purported relationship with a Nez Perce woman. Linwood Laughy’s The Fifth Generation also mentions the child which was born after the expedition’s departure in 1806.