On March 15, 1806, Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal: “we were visited this afternoon by Delashshelwilt a Chinnook Chief his wife and six women of his nation which the old baud his wife had brought for market.” No stranger to white traders on the Pacific Coast, the Chinook women had come to Fort Clatsop hoping to profit from the presence of the Corps of Discovery by selling what the men wanted most: sex.
As Lewis and Clark well knew, the men of the Corps of Discovery were not above resorting to the “good officies” of prostitutes to meet their sexual needs. On November 21, 1805, Clark wrote from their camp along the Columbia that
Several Indians and Squars came this evening I beleave for the purpose of gratifying the passions of our men, Those people appear to View 〈horedom〉 Sensuality as a necessary evile, and do not appear to abhore this as Crime in the unmarried females. The young women Sport openly with our men, and appear to receive the approbation of their friends & relations for So doing maney of the women are handsom. They are all low both men and women.
Clark noted the presence of venereal disease among the natives, a drawback that didn’t seem to discourage the men from enjoying the women’s favors. Clark noted, “we divided Some ribin between the men of our party to bestow on their favourite Lasses, this plan to Save the knives & more valuable articles.”
While Lewis and Clark obviously accepted sexual relations between their men and the natives – and perhaps participated in it themselves – they seemed to balk at out-and-out prostitution. On Christmas Eve 1805, Clark recorded the visit to Fort Clatsop of a Indian named Cuscalah ” who had treated me So politely when I was at the Clâtsops village.” Cuscalah arrived in a canoe with his young brother and two “Squars” and gave the Captains each a gift of a mat and a parcel of roots. When Cuscalah later demanded two files in exchange for the presents, Clark wrote, “as we had no files to part with, we each rturned the present which we had received, which displeased Cuscalah a little. he then offered a woman to each of us which we also declined axcepting of, which displeased the whole party verry much— the female part appeared to be highly disgusted at our refuseing to axcept of their favours &c.” Lewis wrote of the Chinooks a few days later, “they do not hold the virtue of their women in high estimation, and will even prostitute their wives and daughters for a fishinghook or a stran of beads.”
Lewis and Clark had good reason to be cautious. Lewis noted on January 27, 1806 that “Goodrich has recovered from the Louis veneri which he contracted from an amorous contact with a Chinnook damsel. I cured him as I did Gibson last winter by the uce of murcury.” Since mercury was not in fact an effective cure for the Louis veneri or “pox” (syphilis), it must be concluded that Lewis and Clark’s men did more than their fair share to spread venereal disease among the native populations of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. The presence of other whites on trading ships along the Pacific Coast added to the problem. By the time the “old baud” showed up with her six girls, Lewis would have none of it. He dryly observed, “this was the same party that had communicated the venerial to so many of our party in November last, and of which they have finally recovered. I therefore gave the men a particular charge with rispect to them which they promised me to observe.” To prevent further outbreaks of venereal disease, Lewis ordered his men not to sport with the “tawny damsels.”
For his own part, Lewis seems to have found it easy to resist the Chinook women. His journal entries reveal that he found the natives of the Pacific Coast singularly unattractive. On March 19, 1806, a few days after the “old baud’s” visit, Lewis wrote clinically about the natives’ appearance:
they are low in statue reather diminutive, and illy shapen; possessing thick broad flat feet, thick ankles, crooked legs wide mouths thick lips, nose moderately large, fleshey, wide at the extremity with large nostrils, black eyes and black coarse hair. their eyes are sometimes of a dark yellowish brown the puple black. I have observed some high acqualine noses among them but they are extreemly rare. the nose is generally low between the eyes.— the most remarkable trait in their physiognomy is the peculiar flatness and width of forehead which they artificially obtain by compressing the head between two boards while in a state of infancy and from which it never afterwards perfectly recovers.
Lewis also noted the swollen legs of the natives: “the large or apparently swolen legs particularly observable in the women are obtained in a great measure by tying a cord tight around the ankle. their method of squating or resting themselves on their hams which they seem from habit to prefer to siting, no doubt contributes much to this deformity of the legs by preventing free circulation of the blood.”
Finally, Lewis couldn’t resist a swipe at the women’s abbreviated clothing, sagging breasts, and exposed private parts:
The dress of the women consists of a robe, tissue, and sometimes when the weather is uncomonly cold, a vest. their robe is much smaller than that of the men, never reaching lower than the waist nor extending in front sufficiently far to cover the body… when this vest is woarn the breast of the woman is concealed, but without it which is almost always the case, they are exposed, and from the habit of remaining loose and unsuspended grow to great length particularly in aged women in many of whom I have seen the bubby reach as low as the waist. The garment which occupys the waist, and from thence as low as nearly to the knee before and the ham, behind, cannot properly be denominated a peticoat, in the common acceptation of that term; it is a tissue of white cedar bark, bruised or broken into small shreds, which are interwoven in the middle by means of several cords of the same materials, which serve as well for a girdle as to hold in place the shreds of bark which form the tissue, and which shreds confined in the middle hand with their ends pendulous from the waist, the whole being of sufficient thickness when the female stands erect to conceal those parts usually covered from familiar view, but when she stoops or places herself in many other attitudes, this battery of Venus is not altogether impervious to the inquisitive and penetrating eye of the amorite.
In other words, he couldn’t help looking, but he didn’t like what he saw. Lewis temporarily dropped his scientific tone to offer this scathing judgment: “I think the most disgusting sight I have ever beheld is these dirty naked wenches.” Unfortunately, there is no record of what the Chinook women thought about him.
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