By Mary Pierpoint
The oral tradition of passing history on from one generation to another is as old as human kind. Unfortunately today’s concept of history is that all true histories have been written down and only those which have been recorded are the true and accurate histories. This isn’t necessarily so, often the stories of the old oral tradition are far more accurate and certainly give the history being told a much more human face. As the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery left St. Louis in the spring of 1804, written history and oral history would eventually collide. The collision came in the form of questioning whether or not Meriwether Lewis fathered a son with an Indian woman named Ikpsapewin during the expedition.
Oral history that has been passed down for generations does name Meriwether Lewis as the father of Turkey Head (AKA Long House; Zomi; Joseph Lewis DeSmet). An old fur trader named Louis LaPlant muddied the waters even more by saying that the father of Turkey Head was Reuben Lewis, a fur trader. Speculation then came up that possibly Lewis’s brother Reuben could have been Turkey Head’s father, but records cannot, at present, be found that place Reuben Lewis in the area at the time of Turkey Head’s birth in 1805.
The timing of Turkey Head’s birth coincides with the passing of the expedition, but a story that was passed down through Turkey Head’s family could be why many historians have dismissed the story. In an interview with Sunshine Magazine in 1923, Samuel Charger, Grandson of Turkey Head told a reporter that when Turkey Head was about 17 years old he took part in a skirmish with members of the Ree Tribe; he made his escape from the fight without counting coup, which would have been considered to be an honor. Shortly after this he returned home and decided to find his father.
Charger goes on to say that Turkey Head went down the river with some traders and found his father. His father recognized him as his son and Turkey Head also said he had two half sisters who adored him and wanted him to stay. But since he had been raised among the Indian people he only stayed over the winter and returned home in the spring.
This one small story may seem insignificant, but it is the one that has made many dismiss the possibility that Meriwether Lewis could have been Turkey Head’s father. The year Turkey Head went down the river was 1820 and Meriwether Lewis had been dead for over ten years at that time. His brother Reuben had returned to Virginia and wouldn’t marry for another few years, neither brother had any white children.
Perhaps Turkey Head did go down river and was recognized by someone other than the Lewis family, perhaps it was the Chouteau family who had been not only the hosts to Meriwether Lewis, but partners in the fur trading business with his brother Reuben. Turkey Head’s tale to his family could have been just to save face after what he had considered to be a dishonorable act in the battle with the Ree. Something definitely happened when Turkey Head traveled down the river within the next decade he would have employment at Fort Pierre Choteau as a trader under the jurisdiction of Jacob Halsey, Bourgeois of the post. He would also within that time frame come into Mary Sarpy’s (White Woman) life as her step-father.
As this chain of events began unfolding along the Upper Missouri River region, other events were unfolding in St. Louis. Thomas Lestang Sarpy, the great grandson of Madame Marie Therese Bourgeois Choteau and Pierre de Laclede, founders of St. Louis, was born in 1810 to Gregoire Sarpy and Pelagie Labbadie Sarpy.
Thomas Sarpy was full of life and ready to enjoy himself whenever the opportunity presented itself. In 1829, Thomas Sarpy was sent up river to Fort Tecumseh after getting drunk and marrying a prostitute, he was 19 years old at the time. This bit of local gossip from St. Louis followed the young man.
The earliest records found on Thomas after his less that praiseworthy exit from St. Louis, show him as a company clerk at the Oglala post near the mouth of what is now called Rapid Creek in South Dakota. A marriage was arranged for him shortly after his arrival to Woman Ahead of the Clouds, daughter of Chief White Swan of the Minneconjou band of the Teton Sioux. They had a daughter, Thomas named Pelagie, after his mother; and shortly after her birth Woman Ahead of the Clouds died.
With a small baby to take care of, Thomas Sarpy soon remarried, this time to Her Good Ground a daughter of Rotten Body Stinking Ribs (English translation that was probably incorrect), a chief of the Sans Arc Band of Teton Sioux. Her Good Ground gave birth to Mary Sarpy (White Woman) in 1831. But within a year Her Good Ground would find herself a widow with two young girls to raise on her own. Twenty two year old Thomas Lestang Sarpy, the young man who was forced out of St. Louis because he like to drink and have a good time died in an unfortunate accident far from home.
Jacob Halsey, Sarpy’s superior, wrote to notify Pierre Choteau, as the head of the company, to let his family know of the Thomas’ death on January 21, 1832. Following the tradition of her culture, Her Good Ground took her two daughters and returned to her family. But as she went home to mourn and tend to her girls, the wheels of fate were already in motion.
When word of Thomas Sarpy’s death reached St. Louis, the first rule of order was to make sure that his children would be cared for. Although the family did not formally acknowledge the half-Indian daughters Thomas had left behind, they apparently did feel responsible for them. Turkey Head and Her Good Ground found themselves in an arranged marriage very shortly after the death of Thomas Sarpy. Perhaps the extended Chouteau/Sarpy family believed that by having the children raised by a son of their former associate, Meriwether Lewis, they had fulfilled their responsibility to their mixed blood relatives Pelagie and Mary Sarpy.
By 1833 Turkey Head and Her Good Ground had Wowacinye (later known as Martin Charger, half brother to Mary Sarpy) the first of their four children together. But the union was to be fairly short; by 1850 Her Good Ground had left Turkey Head and married a man named John Split. “She was a fickle woman,” a niece once said of her, when asked about the numerous marriages. But fickle or not, Her Good Ground managed to raise her two daughters by Sarpy and Martin Charger and the other children she had and instill them with strength and pride.
By the time Mary Sarpy (White Woman) had become a young woman, she had learned from her mother the art of survival. From her father’s side, there was some monetary gain. Exactly how much or how it came to both she and Pelagie isn’t really known, but it did make her very attractive to a young man that met her, Basil Clement (eventually translated by the American government to Claymore).
Basil was a mixed blood, part French and part Cree from Canada. His parents had come from the area of the Saskatchewan to St. Louis and from there, Basil had made his way back up the Missouri River to what is now South Dakota. Although Mary Sarpy and her connections and money from ‘down the river’, may have been very appealing to Basil, it appears their common backgrounds brought them together. They were originally married by Indian tradition and the marriage was later ‘solemnized’, the union produced nine children.
Basil went on to become a legend as a trapper, interpreter and a mountain man. He was a guide of Jim Bridger’s during his expedition and worked as an interpreter and was well respected by both the Lakota people and the government as well. Basil’s brothers would become immortalized on canvas by the artist Alfred Jacob Miller. But while all this went on, it was Mary Sarpy Claymore that raised their children and a son by Basil’s previous union, and saw to their needs as her husband roamed the west. As with many women of her day, she was relegated to the background as her husband roamed the west and made a name for him on the pages of history.
Had it not been for Mary Sarpy Claymore, Basil and his children would never have had the strength and connections to succeed as they did. For although she was far from St. Louis, her connections to the Sarpy family as well as Basil’s background, brought the pride of both the French and Lakota ancestries to the family.
Basil outlived Mary Sarpy Claymore, missing her strength and sense of pride. When Mary Sarpy Claymore died in 1892, it became up to her children to carry on the strong matriarchal family she had inherited from Madame Chouteau and the ability to live in the white man’s world without giving up their rich Lakota culture. Her children and their children’s children, would hang on to the status and pride their mother had given them and become recognized figures by both the Lakota and the white man, going on to become successful ranchers, educators and would make their own mark in history. Through Mary Sarpy Claymore the family became a strong and successful continuation of the dynasty Madame Chouteau had started so many years before.
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