Sex and the Lewis and Clark Expedition

By Brian Bull

It's not your history teacher's Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Sex. Violence. More sex.   More violence.   And even a plethora of sexually-transmitted diseases.  

While the rest of America observes the Corps of Discovery's Bicentennial with scale model keelboats and Sacajawea dolls, a handful of historians and Native Americans are taking note of the seamier aspects of this historical odyssey.    These tales are likely to be drowned out by the steady rumble of 30-million tourists tracking the explorer's trail between Monticello and Puget Sound, but they have persisted for the last two centuries.

And before one thinks it's all a scandalous hoax perpetrated by revisionists, its best to take the stories back to the source: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.  

A journal entry by Captain Clark as written in November, 1805:

An old woman and wife to a chief of the Chinooks came and made a camp near ours.   She brought with her six young squaws I believe, for the purpose of gratifying the passions of the men of our party.....those people appear to view sensuality as a necessary evil, and do not appear to abhor it as a crime in the unmarried state.

The Corps of Discovery's inventory also suggests the men were prepared to do more than share peace medals and trinkets with the natives.   Penis syringes, salves, and other items were taken to treat syphilis and other sexually-transmitted diseases.  

Marcia Poole, assistant director of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City, Iowa, says none of this is surprising.   She says the Corps of Discovery's crew were mostly men in their 20s and 30s.   

"They were young men, they were full of passion!   They had to be full of passion," she says. "People are much more interesting with all of their... imperfections perhaps is one way to put it.   But we're all human beings, and that tells us more about who these people were."  

Brad Tennant, a history professor at Presentation College in Aberdeen, South Dakota, says there was a world of difference in how the Indians and explorers regarded sexual intercourse.  

During the men's stay with the Arikaras and Mandans of present-day North Dakota, a number of encounters were described, or at least implied.     While Lewis and Clark's crew likely saw sex as recreational, the tribes viewed it as an exchange of power and skill, with the shared wife acting as a conduit.

"If a person had intercourse with a woman, then that woman had intercourse with her husband, then the power from one person to the next would be transferred....to pass on that ability to be good hunters, be good providers", says Tennant.   "And here you have this new group of people who are seen as being very special, as having `big medicine'".  

Tennant says natives were particularly intrigued with Clark's slave, York.   His strong physique and dark skin suggested very powerful medicine to them.   One Arikara warrior had York sleep with his wife, standing guard outside the lodge entrance to keep the couple from being interrupted.  

But not all encounters were well-received.   In November of 1804, Sergeant John Ordway had an intimate encounter with an Indian woman without her husband's consent.   When the man came across Ordway and his wife, he stabbed her several times.   Captain Clark immediately ordered the officer to present the man with trinkets, and told the couple to make up.  

During their long winter stay with the Mandan in 1805, Clark would describe the buffalo dance.  

The old men arrange themselves in a circle and after smoke a pipe, which handed them by a young man, dress up for the purpose.   The young men who have their wives back of the circle go to one of the old men with a whining tone and request the old man to take his wife, who presents naked except a robe.   The girl then takes the old man, and leads him to a convenient place for the Business.   We sent a man to this medicine dance last night, they gave him four girls.

An outbreak of venereal disease stunted the intercultural exchanges between the North Dakota tribes and the explorers for a spell.  

After the men re-embarked towards the West in April, 1805, they had more encounters.   The Shoshones were accommodating, but resentful if their women were rejected.   And in the Pacific Northwest, the Clatsop and Chinook used sex as a trade item.   Bartering became so frequent that Lewis warned his crew to hold off because they were running short of necessary provisions.  

But beyond the amorous - and precarious -adventures, the Corps of Discovery may have left some legacies along the trail as well.  

At a remote cemetery on South Dakota's Lower Brule Sioux reservation, tribal member and conservation officer Sheldon Fletcher points to a granite marker.   The grave contains his great-great-great grandfather's final resting place.

"Joseph Lewis DeSmet, born 1805, died 1889, son of Meriwether Lewis of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition," reads Fletcher.   He says while meeting with Teton Sioux Indians near the Bad River in 1804, Lewis may have accidentally arranged a marriage between himself and an Indian woman named Winona.   Fletcher says it's possible something was mistranslated, or the explorer could have been quick to placate to the natives.  

While some have dismissed the story, Fletcher's claim is unusual in that it is supported by documentation.   The Center for Western Studies in Sioux Falls, contains a church registry that repeats Joseph DeSmet's alleged link to Meriwether Lewis.    The 1872 baptismal record was even witnessed and signed by a priest.

Another account from the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho suggests William Clark fathered a son with a chief's daughter, during the return journey from the West Coast.   Tribal elder Otis Halfmoom says after the men left the Pacific territory in 1806, the woman became pregnant and gave birth to a boy with reddish hair and blue eyes.  

"He used to go around saying, `Me, son of Clark.   Me Clark!'" Halfmoon says.   He adds that the man, known as Daytime Smoker among the tribe, was created by Clark and the Nez Perce woman as a symbolic agreement of peace and unity between the tribe and the U.S. Government.   Ironically, Daytime Smoker would die in captivity following the Nez Perce War of 1877.

There are others who do not accept their alleged lineage to the Corps of Discovery.   Harry Charger, an elder and spiritual leader of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, acknowledges that some state historical records claim Meriwether Lewis fathered his great-great-grandfather, Martin Charger.  

"What they're doing is calling us bastards," says Harry Charger,   "and to be a `breed' in those days was a bad thing."

Charger says there's much to debate in history, and nothing will ever be fully resolved. "Course, people will add and delete and argue, and only the Great Essence knows what has happened and what is true."

 


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