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Archive for the ‘Frontier legends’ Category

Imagine being lost in an unfamiliar wilderness for sixteen days, without food, shelter, ammunition, or any way to let your companions know where you were. Such was the fate of Private George Shannon, the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Only 18 years old when he joined Lewis & Clark’s party in October 1803, Shannon literally grew up along the trail. In the course of the 2 ½ year journey, he suffered one of the most harrowing ordeals of all the men of the Corps of Discovery– facing the wilderness totally alone.

George Shannon

Artist’s rendering of George Shannon

George Shannon was born in 1785 in Washington County, Pennsylvania, an intelligent young man from a good family. He met Meriwether Lewis in Pittsburgh in 1803, while Lewis was awaiting the completion of the expedition’s keelboat.  Shannon was one of three men Lewis took along from Pittsburgh on a trial basis. He officially signed on at Maysville, Kentucky on October 19, 1803, and is usually considered one of the “nine young men from Kentucky,” although his ties to Kentucky were forged later. Shannon was hired onto the expedition as a hunter, at the rank of private. His salary was $25 per month.

Shannon wintered over at Camp Dubois with the rest of the Corps, and was placed in the first squad under Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor. He seems to have been considered a capable and reliable young man, who rarely caused the captains any trouble.The captains thought enough of Shannon’s abilities that they tapped him to discharge Pryor’s duties should Pryor need to be absent from the squad.

Shannon’s ordeal began on August 26, 1804, when he was detailed to search for two missing pack horses near Spirit Mound in present-day South Dakota. Shannon found the horses quickly and proceeded upriver, believing the rest of the Corps to be ahead of him. In fact, the Corps was actually trailing him. With only a rifle and a handful of ammunition, Shannon wandered alone in the wilderness for the next sixteen days, desperately trying to catch up to his companions.

A skilled hunter, Shannon was able to kill his own food until his ammunition ran out, several days after he went missing. He was forced to abandon one of the pack horses which gave out in the wilderness. Loading his rifle with a hard stick, he managed to bring down one rabbit. Otherwise, he survived by eating grapes, keeping the second pack horse in reserve as a last resort.

Finally, on September 11, 1804, Shannon spied the Corps of Discovery coming up the river. One can only imagine his emotions upon finally being reunited with his fellows. A relieved Captain Clark wrote in his journal:

here the man who left us with the horses 16 days ago and has been a head ever Since joined, us nearly Starved to Death, he had been 12 days without any thing to eate but Grapes & one Rabit, which he Killed by shooting a piece of hard Stick in place of a ball—. This man Supposeing the boat to be a head pushed on as long as he Could, when he became weak and feeble deturmined to lay by and waite for a tradeing boat, which is expected  Keeping one horse for the last resorse,—    thus a man had like to have Starved to death in a land of Plenty for the want of Bulletes or Something to kill his meat.

Private Shannon Lost Map

Children’s map – “Where in the World is Private George Shannon?”

Unfortunately for Shannon, it wasn’t the last time he got lost. On August 6, 1805, he was sent out to hunt near the Three Forks, a dangerous and confusing area inhabited by unfamiliar Indians. It was a stressful day for the Corps, with Clark ailing from a hurt ankle and Private Whitehouse seriously injured from almost being crushed by a canoe. A harried Captain Lewis wrote in his journal that night:

Shannon had been dispatched up the rapid fork this morning to hunt, by Capt Clark before he met with Drewyer or learnt his mistake in the rivers. When he returned he sent Drewyer in surch of him, but he rejoined us this evening and reported that he had been several miles up the river and could find nothing of him.    we had the trumpet sounded and fired several guns but he did not join us this evening. I am fearful he is lost again. this is the same man who was seperated from us 15 days as we came up the Missouri and subsisted 9 days of that time on grapes only.

Lewis sent Reubin Fields in search of Shannon, but Fields returned on August 8 and “reported that he had been up Wisdom river some miles above where it entered the mountain and could find nothing of Shannon.”  But the next day, Lewis happily reported that Shannon had finally rejoined the group.

while we halted here Shannon arrived, and informed us that having missed the party the day on which he set out he had returned the next morning to the place from whence he had set out or furst left them and not finding that he had supposed that they wer above him; that he then set out and marched one day up wisdom river, by which time he was convinced that they were not above him as the river could not be navigated; he then returned to the forks and had pursued us up this river.    he brought the skins of three deer which he had killed which he said were in good order. he had lived very plentifully this trip but looked a good deel worried with his march.

Shannon suffered some minor mishaps during the remainder of the expedition, but was careful not to get lost on the return trip. He returned up the Missouri River in 1807, on an ill-fated fur-trading expedition that had the added goal of returning Mandan chief Sheheke to his village. The party was attacked by the Arikara Indians, and Shannon suffered a bullet wound that broke his leg. By the time the party straggled back down the river, gangrene had set in and Shannon was not expected to live. Shannon’s amputated leg was buried at Fort Bellefontaine on the bank of the Missouri River. The young man survived, but his exploring days were over. He was still only 22.

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

Shannon went on to study law in Lexington, Kentucky. In the spring of 1810, William Clark recruited him to travel to Philadelphia to assist Nicholas Biddle with editing the Lewis and Clark journals. Clark’s letter of introduction stated that Shannon “possesses a sincere and undisguised heart, he is highly spoken of by all his acquaintances and much respected at the Lexington University where he has been for the last two years.”

After his involvement with the Lewis and Clark journals, Shannon returned to Kentucky, married into a prominent Lexington family, fathered seven children, and embarked on a turbulent legal and political career in Kentucky and Missouri that spanned almost three decades. George Shannon died suddenly August 30, 1836 at the age of 51. A St. Louis newspaper reported that his masonic funeral was attended by “a large assemblage of the ladies and gentlemen of the town … to offer their last testimony of respect to the remains of a good man.” He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Massie Mill Cemetery near Palmyra, Missouri.

The compelling story of Shannon’s ordeal in the wilderness continues to resonate with students of the Lewis and Clark expedition, especially young people. Shannon is the subject of several children’s books, second only to the expedition’s dog, Seaman.

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The Lewis & Clark journals provide a fascinating snapshot of the U.S. frontier on the cusp of the 19th century, when the explorers were navigating through a roiling melting pot of attitudes, cultures and nationalities.  This rapidly changing world is perfectly illustrated in Lewis’s journal entry of November 23, 1803. The Corps of Discovery was still en route from Louisville to St. Louis. Clark was under the weather with stomach problems, and Lewis took a break from navigating the difficult and rapid currents of the Mississippi River to pay a visit to a settlement he called “Cape Jeradeau” (more commonly known today as Cape Girardeau, Missouri).

There Lewis encountered the commandant, a striking figure named Louis Lorimier. Born near Montreal in 1748, Lorimier and his father had established an Indian trading post known as “Laramie’s Station” on a branch of the Great Miami River in Ohio. Lorimier was loyal to the British during the Revolution, and even led raiding parties of Indians into Kentucky. Awkwardly, William Clark’s brother George Rogers Clark had burned Laramie’s Station to the ground in 1782, ruining his business and destroying $20,000 worth of goods.

War Council at Lorimier's Store, by Hal Sherman

War Council at Lorimier’s Store, by Hal Sherman

So it was perhaps just as well that Lewis went alone to visit Louis Lorimier. A few years after George Rogers Clark burned him out, Lorimier had moved to Spanish Louisiana in the 1780′s and obtained a large land grant from the Spanish to establish a settlement for Indians, partly as a defensive buffer against possible American invasion. Lorimier’s district was huge, extending, in Lewis’s words, ” the distance of sixty miles W. from the river as far as the river St. Francis.” Under the Spanish crown, Lorimier was authorized to administer land grants, hold court, take the census, and maintain the militia for Cape Girardeau. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, in spite of being no great friend to the United States, Lorimier continued in much the same role and served as U.S. Indian agent.

Having entirely recovered his losses from the George Rogers Clark incident, Lorimier was now “a man of very considerable property.” Lewis witnessed this firsthand in a wild scene that was going on just as he arrived. He found Commandant Lorimier in the middle of a horse race, in which the prizes were the horses themselves. Lorimier lost four horses valued at $200 but “seemed to bear his loss with much cheerfulness.” But not everyone followed his example.

The Comdt. was busied for some time in settling the disputes which had arrisen in consequence of odds being given among the by betters; this seane reminded me very much of their small raises in Kentucky among the uncivilized backwoodsmen, nor did the subsequent disorder which took place in consequence of the descision of the judges of the rase at all lessen the resembleance; one fellow contrary to the descision of the judges swore he had won & was carrying off not only his own horse but that also of his competitor; but the other being the stoutest of the two dismounted him and took both horses in turn; it is not extrawdinary that these people should be disorderly    they are almost entirely emegrant from the fronteers of Kentuckey & Tennessee, and are the most dessolute and abandoned even among these people; they are men of desperate fortunes, but little to loose either character or property—

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, 1867

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, 1867

Once all disputes were settled, Lewis was able to present his credentials and found himself warmly received by Lorimier. He describe the commandant in vivid terms:

he is a man about 5 F 8 I high, dark skin hair and [e]yes; he is remarkable for having once had a remarkable suit of hair; he was very cheerfull & I took occasion to mention this to him    he informed me that it was on[c]e so long that it touched the grond when he stood errect—nor was it much less remarkable for it’s thickness; this I could readily believe from it’s present appearance, he is about 60 years of age, and yet scarcely a grey hair in his head; which reaches now when cewed (the manner in which he dresses it) nearly as low as his knees, and it is proportionally thick; he appears yet quite active—    this uncommon cue falls dow his back to which it is kept close by means of a leather gerdle confined around his waist—

Like many Canadian traders, Lorimier had taken metis wife, a French-Shawnee woman named Charlotte Bougainville. Lewis was invited home to meet Charlotte and the rest of Lorimier’s family. He found them to be remarkably “decent,” using the adjective three times in the course of one journal entry. “She is a very desent woman and if we may judge from her present appearance has been very handsome when young,” Lewis wrote of Lorimier’s wife. “She dresses after the Shawnee manner with a stroud leggings and mockinsons, differing however from them in her linin which seemed to be drawn beneath her girdle of her stroud, as also a short Jacket with long sleeves over her linin with long sleeves more in the stile of the French Canadian women.”

Lewis meets Lorimier - Mississippi River mural, Cape Girardeau

Lewis meets Lorimier – Mississippi River mural, Cape Girardeau

Lorimier and his wife had seven children. His eldest daughter caught Lewis’s eye: “The daughter is remarkably handsome & dresses in a plain yet fashionable stile or such as is now Common in the Atlantic States among the respectable people of the middle class.    she is an agreeable affible girl, & much the most descent looking feemale I hae seen since I left the settlement in Kentuckey a little below Louisville.”

Invited to stay for supper, Lewis wrote with approval, “The lady of the family presided, and with much circumspection performed the honours of the table: supper being over which was really a comfortable and desent onen I bid the family an afectionate adieu.”   It may have been the last decent meal the Captain would have for a while, at least until he reached St. Louis.

Plaque at Lorimier Cemetery, Cape Girardeau

Plaque at Lorimier Cemetery, Cape Girardeau

In 1806, Lorimier laid out the lots and streets for Cape Girardeau along the wide, flat riverfront. In 1808, the settlement was incorporated as the town of Cape Girardeau. Louis Lorimier, the Father of Cape Girardeau, died in 1812 and is buried in Lorimier Cemetery, on land that he donated to the community he founded. His wife preceded him in death in 1808 and is buried by his side.

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Indian of the Nation of the Shawanoes, by Victor Collot (1796)

How many of us remember what we learned in school about the early Federal period in American history? Probably not much — because little is actually taught about this fascinating period in which the United States was struggling to be born. In many ways, the emerging nation was just a pawn in a wicked game between European powers for control of the North American continent — and manifest destiny was anything but.

Our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (on sale now, click the Buy Our Books tab at the top) centers around one such conspiracy in which both the Spanish and French were using (and being used by) some of the most famous Americans in the West in an attempt to break Kentucky loose from the United States and push the Americans back across the Alleghenies. George Rogers Clark, the brilliant, erratic, embittered hero of the American Revolution and beloved older brother of William Clark, was heavily involved in the French portion of the scheme. Its failure further blasted his reputation and led some in the United States to consider him something of a traitor.

Though the plot of Fairest has as many twists and turns as a John Le Carré novel (or at least it seemed that way when we were working on it and trying to to control the plot), I have to admit it is simplified from the real McCoy. In reality, Clark’s restless spirit could not be contained. Just two years after the failure of the plot described in our novel, he was involved in yet another French conspiracy, this one spearheaded by a military and political officer by the name of Georges Henri Victor Collot.

Tall, dark-haired, and intensely patriotic, Collot was in his 40s when he was recruited to undertake an intelligence mission for France to understand the political climate of the American West. If conditions were right, the French hoped they might learn enough to take possession, by either political or military means, of two key North American cities. Pittsburgh, under American control, and St. Louis, under Spanish control, were the keys to the interior of the continent. Eventually, the French hoped to drive the Spanish out of New Orleans and control the entire continent west of the Atlantic seaboard.

To that end Collot recruited an expert mapmaker, Joseph Warin, and several Canadian voyageurs and American boatmen. He set off down the Ohio River in March 1796 and made extensive notes on the topography, frontier settlements, Indians, and wildlife. Collot professed that geography was his true interest, but in reality he paid special attention to the placement and situation of American and Spanish forts throughout the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. He also stopped in for a chat with George Rogers Clark, to find out if the aging general might still be interested in leading a mercenary mission to storm down the Mississippi and seize New Orleans, as Clark had attempted to do earlier (read all about it in Fairest).

George Rogers Clark on his way to Kaskaskia, by Howard Pyle

What Collot found when he arrived in Clark’s hometown of Louisville resulted in perhaps the most wrenching yet compassionate account of Clark ever written. Later printed in Collot’s book Journey in North America, it is worth relating in full:

We cannot leave Louisville without relating a circumstance which does honor to the American character, and which would not disgrace the annals of the finest days of Rome.

A person of great military talents, and who had acquired considerable reputation in the war which procured independence to America; who had also gained from the natives almost the whole of the immense country which forms now the Western States; the rival, in short, of General Washington; had retired to Louisville after the peace, either from caprice or discontent against the government at that time, in the hope of ending his days tranquilly in the middle of his family, and on the spot which had been the scene of his achievements.

But unhappily, idleness and listlessness, inseparable companions, followed him in his retreat. He who is conversant only with military affairs, who knows nothing of agriculture or commerce, and has no taste for the charms of nature, is soon wearied of still life. Drinking and intoxication became the sole resource of this officer, and he carried this degrading passion to such an excess, that he was often found lying in a state of stupified drunkness in the streets.

We were the witnesses of a scene the most humiliating for a man who once inspired sentiments of high veneration, but now excited only those of pity. We returned about seven in the evening from taking a walk in the environs of Louisville, when we perceived, in the midst of the square, a number of persons who were crowding around something that lay extended on the ground, on which a blanket had been thrown, and which a man was about to take up and carry off.

Drawing near to satisfy our curiosity, I asked the man, who appeared to me to be a shoemaker, what was the matter. He turned towards me with a look expressive of sorrow, and said, “Do you not see, sir, that it is that hero, that great man; he has forgotten at the moment the important services which he has rendered us; but it is our duty to remember them; I cover him thus, to preserve him from the contempt of the people.” He had, indeed, as soon as he saw him fall, run out of his shop with a woolen blanket, which he threw over him, and carried him into his house, where we were witnesses of the affectionate care with which he treated him.

 

Map of St. Lewis (St. Louis) by Victor Collot and Joseph Warin (1796)


By this time, Collot had begun to attract attention as a potential spy, with “Mad Anthony” Wayne, commanding general of the United States Army (and a major character in Fairest) issuing orders that he be detained and arrested. Collot was stopped at Fort Massac by Zebulon Pike (father of the explorer) and searched, but managed to talk his way out of the jam, especially since his papers were all written in French which no one at the fort was able to read. He proceeded down river, compiling what was then the most accurate and detailed description and maps of the river systems of the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi. Along the way, Collot had adventures to rival his successors Lewis and Clark, including digging up fossils, being caught in titanic thunderstorms, being chased by bears, and enduring an Indian attack which gravely injured mapmaker Joseph Warin.

For his troubles, Collot was arrested again upon his arrival in New Orleans, this time by the Spanish governor. Warin was also arrested and died of his wounds while awaiting release. Eventually, Collot was allowed to leave. By the time he got back to France, the government had lost interest in his work. He died in 1805, but eventually the importance of his maps and manuscript were recognized. His Journey in North America was published in 1826. Collot’s writing is fascinating and delightfully acerbic. The book may be read in its entirety online thanks to the Wisconsin History Society and is available at their American Journeys site.

For more reading:

The Spanish Conspiracy
The André Michaux Story – Part 1
The Citizen Genet Affair – Part 1

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Washington Irving

Washington Irving

On September 13, 1832, former governor of the Missouri Territory William Clark played host to a distinguished visitor. It was none other than Washington Irving, the famous author who had captivated the country with stories such as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Along with James Fenimore Cooper, Irving was one of the United States’  best-selling authors and one of the few American literary lights to achieve international fame. His visit to St. Louis was a major event.

Besides his short stories, Irving was also known for his satirical essays and histories. His best known work was a send-up of New York history and politics called A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker. A viral marketer before his time, Irving placed a series of missing person notices in New York newspapers prior to the book’s publication, seeking information on “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” an old Dutch historian who had supposedly disappeared from a New York City hotel. One of the notices—claiming to be from the hotel’s proprietor—informed readers that if Mr. Knickerbocker failed to return to pay his bill, he would publish a manuscript Knickerbocker had left behind.

Diedrich Knickerbocker (F.O.C. Darley, 1809)

Diedrich Knickerbocker (F.O.C. Darley, 1809)

Intrigued by the ruse, readers flocked to buy A History of New York as soon as it hit the streets in December 1809, and Irving became an instant celebrity. (The term “Knickerbocker” became an instant slang term for the Dutch residents of old New York, and lives on today, most notably in the team name of the NBA’s New York Knicks.)

Irving had an interesting backstory of his own. The son of a prosperous merchant family, Irving was initially opposed the War of 1812 as inimical to his family’s business interests, but he enlisted in the New York militia following the burning of Washington in August 1814. The war proved to be a disaster for the Irving family, and Washington Irving left for Liverpool, England in 1815 to attempt to salvage the family’s import/export business. He remained in Europe for the next seventeen years, serving in various diplomatic posts. During this time, he built his own literary reputation book by book and, in the eyes of the rest of the world, virtually defined the major themes in early American literature.

Irving was fresh off the boat from Europe when he arrived on William Clark’s doorstep in the fall of 1832. His return had reawakened an earlier interest in his own country, especially the developing frontier, and his trip to St. Louis was part of a larger tour of the west designed to help him reconnect with his American roots.

St. Louis in 1832

St. Louis in 1832

Irving’s account of St. Louis is vivid and delightful. He wrote of an “old rackety gambling house” with the “noise of the cue and the billiard ball from morning to night,” and of “old French women accosting each other in the street.” His stream-of-consciousness journal of his visit with Clark showcases Irving’s observational powers, as well as his gifts for description. It is also the most vivid account existing of Clark’s life in old age – not to mention a priceless glimpse into life in early 19th-century America.

Drive out to Gov. Clarks – cross prairie – flowering and fragrant shrubs – the Gov’s farm – small cottage – orchard bending and breaking with loads of fruit – negroes with tables under trees preparing meal – fine sitting-room in open air – little negroes whispering and laughing – civil negro major-domo who asks to take horses out – invites me to walk in the orchard and spreads table with additional cover – sitting-room – rifle and game bag, etc., in corners – Indian calumet over fireplace – remains fo fire on hearth, showing that morn’g has been cool – lovely day – golden sunshine – transparent atmosphere – pure breeze.

Fine nut trees, peach trees, grape vines, etc., etc., about the house – look out over rich, level plain or prairie – green near at hand – blue line at the horizon – universal chirp and spinning of insects – fertility of country – grove of walnuts in the rear of the house – beehives – der cote – canoe – Gen’l arrives on horseback with dogs – guns. His grand-son on a calico pony hallowing and  laughing – Gen’l on horseback – gun on his shoulder – house dog – bullying setter.

Gov. Clark fine healthy, robust man – tall – about fifty – perhaps more – his hair originally light, now grey – falling on his shoulders – frank – intelligent — his son a cadet of W.P. [West Point] now in the army – aide-de-camp to Gen’l Atkinson.

William Clark by George Catlin, 1830

William Clark by George Catlin, 1830

Irving approved heartily of the menu, and took the time to pick Clark’s brain about the Osage and Pawnee Indians he wanted to visit further up the river. He wrote, “Dinner plentiful – good – but rustic – fried chicken, bacon and grouse, roast beef, baked potatoes, tomatoes, excellent cakes, bread, butter, etc., etc. Gov. C. gives much excellent information concerning Indians.”

Washington Irving’s interview with Clark is the basis of some of what we know about the fate of members of the Corps of Discovery. Around that time, Clark apparently made a list of which of the men were still living and those who had died, which he may have shared with Irving. Among the dead was Clark’s slave York. Irving wrote about what Clark told him about York’s fate.

His slaves – set them free – one he placed at a ferry – another on a farm, giving him land, horses, etc. – a third he gave a large wagon and team of six horses to ply between Nashville and Richmond. They all repented and wanted to come back.

The waggoner was York, the hero of the Missouri expedition and adviser of the Indians. He could not get up early enough in the morn’g – his horses were ill kept – two died – the others grew poor. He sold them and was cheated – entered into service – fared ill. “Damn this freedom,” said York, “I have never had a happy day since I got it.” He determined to go back to his old master – set off for St. Louis but was taken with the cholera in Tennessee and died. Some of the traders think they have met traces of York’s crowd, on the Missouri.

If Irving found this account self-serving, he did not note it in his journal, but no matter how unsuccessful York’s draying business was – or how he ultimately died – it is very hard to believe York ever spoke the words Clark attributed to him.

Benjamine Bonneville

Benjamine Bonneville

Irving’s trip out west inspired him to write three American-themed works, including an account of his trip, A Tour of the Prairies (published 1835), which was well-received by the reading public. He was also approached by fur magnate John Jacob Astor to write his biography, which was published as the puff-piece Astoria in 1836. While out west, Irving also met Benjamin Bonneville, explorer of the Oregon trail, and bought Bonneville’s maps and journals for $1000. He later turned these materials into a book, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, in 1837.

After a stint as the U.S. Minister to Spain, Irving concentrated mostly on historical works. He had just completed a five-volume biography, The Life of Washington, when he died at age 76 in 1859.  Although his writing seems somewhat quaint today, Irving helped to define – at least in the eyes of the reading public at home and abroad – a sense of the American identity. His visit with Clark reflects that, and his reputation as one of America’s first literary lions remains intact.

Further reading: The Fate of York

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Location: Great Falls, Montana

Bob Scriver statue of Charlie Russell at the C.M. Russell Museum

The first time we were in Great Falls, we missed the Charlie Russell Museum out of sheer ignorance, and had to spend the whole trip listening to other people talk about how great it was. The desire to see the museum was one of our main reasons for returning for a second visit to Great Falls.

While my expectations were high, I was even more impressed than I expected to be with the size and beauty of this first-rate museum, which showcases the life and work of Charlie Russell (1864-1926), the consummate artist of the American West. Russell arrived in Montana at age 16, the disaffected son of a prosperous St. Louis family. His folks figured a summer out west would cure their boy’s restlessness and get him ready to enter the family business. Instead, Russell immediately fell in love with the people and landscapes of the West. He immersed himself in the life of a working cowboy. A few years later, he also awakened to a desire to draw and paint what he was experiencing.

The museum’s numerous galleries showcase Russell’s work from these early efforts through the flowering of his art and international success. Russell’s career spanned decades, and it’s safe to say that he created a unique and personal body of work that documents a way of life that was already vanishing when he arrived on the scene. Far from mere “cowboy pictures,” the work of Charlie Russell is not only amazingly technically proficient, but full of deep humor, empathy, and pathos.

One of Russell's delightful letters includes a self-portrait of himself on "Red Bird." Russell wrote with a sense of humor rivaling that of Mark Twain.

We spent hours viewing hundreds of Russell’s great story paintings, as well as little sculptures, whimsical illustrations, and his wonderfully humorous letters (what a delight it must have been to be this man’s friend!). We also learned about the critical role his wife Nancy played in his success (no businessman, he). In addition, we viewed the collection of works by O.C. Seltzer, temporary exhibits of the paintings of Blackfeet artist Gary Schildt and sculptor Bob Scriver, and a great collection of firearms.

Best of all, the museum also includes Russell’s small but beautiful home and the log cabin studio in which he worked. His wife had the studio built next door to get him out of the house. His collection of Indian and western artifacts, paints, equipment, and the rustic space where he painted were much the same as he left them when he died.

It is easy to feel very close to Russell here, and a tour of the Russell Museum is easily worth half a day of your vacation, at least — the luxury of a whole day, if you can swing it.

More great reading:

Charlie Russell’s Paintings  of the Corps of Discovery

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As we recounted in Part 1 of this post last week, young George Croghan, the 21-year-old nephew of William Clark, had just hurled defiance in the face of 20-1 odds as the British commander Henry Proctor demanded that he surrender Fort Stephenson on the Sandusky River, August 1, 1813 …

The Battle of Fort Stephenson

In accordance with the etiquette of war, as soon Lieutenant Shipp was back within the walls of the fort, Proctor opened fire with three cannons and two howitzers. He concentrated his fire on the northwest corner of the fort, and Croghan guessed correctly that the assault would come there at dawn. He loaded up Old Betsy with grapeshot, slugs, and broken pottery, put his Kentucky sharpshooters in place, and waited.

Sure enough, Croghan was right. Proctor hurled his men against the little fort without waiting for scaling ladders to throw against the sixteen-foot pickets or even giving the men a chance to sharpen their axes. The dry moat was soon filled with struggling redcoats. The Indians, seeing the folly, retreated to the nearby woods and watched as disgusted spectators as Croghan rained terrible fire down upon the British troops. About 50 British soldiers were dead within minutes; on the American side, one man died, a drunkard who foolishly climbed to the top of the palisade. The attack failed and the British were forced to pull back.

After a fair amount of local skulduggery, Old Betsy was liberated from a government arsenal and returned to Fremont, Ohio, site of the battle of Fort Stephenson, in 1852.

General Harrison was stunned and amazed and the nation electrified by the news of Croghan’s audacious repulse of the huge British force. The War of 1812 was woefully short of good news on the American side, and the youth was hailed as a national hero and promoted to lieutenant colonel. At war’s end, he had been transferred to the southern front where he fought alongside Andrew Jackson at the astonishing Battle of New Orleans, and made a lifelong friend of the irascible master politician.

Back in Louisville, where Croghan had grown up, his family celebrated with joy and astonishment the advent of another national hero in their midst. Old General George Rogers Clark, by then severely disabled and living with Croghan’s mother Lucy at Locust Grove, is said to have muttered proudly, “The little game cock, he shall have my sword.” And for a time it appeared that Croghan’s fame and responsibility might equal that shouldered by his famous uncles. He married Serena Livingston of the famous New York family  and accepted a lucrative postmaster job in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, by the time he was 30, Croghan was well on his way to ending up more like wild Uncle George than steady Uncle William. He had terrible financial problems, Serena apparently grew to dislike him heartily and refused to live with him, and he feuded publicly and constantly with Harrison about their roles in the war (it seems that Harrison never forgave Croghan after the ladies of Chillicothe, Ohio, commemorated the Battle of Fort Stephenson by presenting Croghan with a sword and sending Harrison a petticoat).

When Jackson became president, he appointed Croghan to the post of inspector general of the army, a post he held from 1829 until his death 20 years later. Croghan spent most of his time traveling to various army forts in the West, and his work was often brilliant. He never lost the respect of his fellow military officers or the common soldiers he helped with his reports. But his personal life was increasingly tragic. He drank very, very heavily, and his wife obtained a legal separation from him, apparently to prevent him from selling or pawning her possessions. But Jackson, at least, never wavered in his allegiance to Croghan. When it was suggested that Croghan be court-martialed for drunkenness, Jackson said, “George Croghan shall get drunk every day of his life if he wants to, and by the Eternal, the United States shall pay for the whiskey.”

The 1885 Soldier's Monument in Fremont pays tribute to the men of Croghan's command

In 1846, at the age of 54, Croghan was called to Mexico to join the staff of General Zachary Taylor, who in spite of his “rough and ready” reputation had actually grown up in a fashionable home next door to Croghan’s boyhood home of Locust Grove. While in Mexico, Croghan, like many American soldiers, contracted dysentery; his weight dropped from about 168 pounds to 148. He fought in the Battle of Monterey, where a Tennessee regiment recalled him riding ahead, his gray hair tossing in the wind, and reminding them, “Men of Tennessee, your fathers conquered with Jackson at New Orleans – follow me!” He was never able to shake the illness, and he died in New Orleans in January 8, 1849, the 35th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans.

There is a touching footnote to Croghan’s final resting place. Croghan was buried at Locust Grove in the family cemetery, but in 1906 he was reinterred at Fort Stephenson with “Old Betsy” standing guard over his grave. The story of Croghan’s feats would have been well-known to several generations of schoolboys, and some believe that Davy Crockett’s famous rifle was named for the Fort Stephenson gun.

More great reading: Forgotten Giant: William Henry Harrison, Part 3

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George Croghan. Courtesy of Birchard Public Library of Sandusky County.

One nice thing about Lewis & Clark from the point of view of the historical fiction author is that together they provide two of the most popular types of heroes. For those who like lonesome cowboys, Meriwether Lewis is your man. And for those who prefer multi-generational family sagas, you’ve got William Clark, who cannot be understood separately from his sprawling, heroic, and often tragic family.

The year was 1813. Throughout the spring, the British had besieged commander William Henry Harrison at Fort Meigs (near modern-day Perrysburg), a critical outpost for the American hopes of recapturing Detroit and ending the war. The failure of the siege left the British commander Henry Proctor, known to history as an inept and “by the book” commander, looking for a way to save his spring campaign. He set his sights on Fort Stephenson on the Sandusky River, just 30 miles from Fort Meigs (near modern-day Fremont).

Fort Stephenson might have been small but its mission was critical: it guarded the transfer point between the Sandusky River and Lake Erie; the water route was the only real highway from Pittsburgh to Detroit. The garrison of just 160 U.S. regulars was under the command of Major George Croghan, a debonair 21-year-old with the brooding good looks of young Marlon Brando. Croghan (pronounced Crawn) was the son of Lucy Clark Croghan of Locust Grove and her husband William, himself a distinguished veteran of the American Revolution, and the nephew of William Clark and George Rogers Clark. Before the war, Croghan had studied law at William & Mary, but he enlisted at the beginning of the trouble in 1811, just in time to take part in the Battle of Tippecanoe. Since then the young man had become a seasoned veteran of several campaigns.

Fort Stephenson

When he learned that Proctor was on the march, Croghan swore to “defend this post to the last extremity.” Imagine his surprise then, when he received a message from General Harrison ordering him to blow up the fort and evacuate his command. Harrison had learned that Proctor had taken to the river with 500 British regulars and 700 Indians, while the legendary Shawnee commander Tecumseh was heading Croghan’s way overland with 2000 additional warriors. To Harrison’s shock, Croghan responded to his message not by showing at Fort Seneca as ordered, but by writing back:

Sir, I have just received yours of yesterday, 10 o’clock P.M., ordering me to destroy this place and make good my retreat, which was received too late to be carried into execution. We have determined to maintain this place and by heavens we can.

Harrison had Croghan arrested and brought to Seneca to account for himself, where Croghan proved himself the equal of his fighting uncles, somehow persuading the general that he could take on the British with his one piece of artillery (a Revolutionary-era cannon named “Old Betsy,”), along with modifications to the fort which included a moat, new blockhouses, and a log booby trap. Not quite believing the fort could be held, Harrison agreed to let Croghan try.

Henry Proctor. Tecumseh, never one to be shy with his opinions, called him "a fat animal which slinks away, its tail between its legs."

Meanwhile, Proctor had managed to back himself into a corner, not an easy feat while sporting a 20-1 advantage. His dithering at Fort Meigs had alienated the Indians, who preferred not to waste their time on campaigns that ended in failure. Proctor felt pressured to attack the fort without delay in order to prevent a mass desertion by his Indian allies. On August 1, 1813, as soon as he arrived at the fort, Proctor sent an aide to demand Croghan’s surrender. The war had been characterized by several terrible massacres of American soldiers by Indian troops, and some Indians roughed up Croghan’s representative in full view of the fort to make their point about what would happen if surrender was not immediately forthcoming. Croghan called to his man to return: “Shipp, come in and we will blow them all to hell.”

Coming Monday: The battle and its tragic aftermath

More great reading:

The Clark Brothers as Prisoners of War

Lewis & Clark road trip: Locust Grove

Forgotten Giant: William Henry Harrison, Part 2

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One of the most colorful members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was its oldest member, interpreter and sometime cook Toussaint Charbonneau – better known as “Mr. Sacagawea” and baby-daddy to young Pomp. One of the main things we know about Charbonneau from the Lewis and Clark journals is that he got on Lewis’s nerves. In his final request for pay for Charbonneau at the end of the expedition, Lewis dismissed him as a “man of no peculiar merit.” Clark, however, liked him better and kept up his acquaintance with Charbonneau long after the expedition had ended.

Lewis and Clark at Three Forks, by Edgar Paxton

Lewis and Clark at Three Forks, by Edgar Paxton. Charbonneau is depicted on the far right.

Born in Canada to French parents in 1767, Toussaint Charbonneau was a trapper and trader for the North West Company, a Canadian fur-trading concern. Charbonneau’s first appearance in the historical record – and also the first blemish on his reputation – come from the records of that company. On May 30, 1795, a recorder on one of the North West Company expeditions wrote: “Tousst. Charbonneau was stabbed at the Manitou-a-banc end of the Portage la Prairie, Manitoba in the act of committing a Rape upon her Daughter by an old Saultier woman with a Canoe Awl—a fate he highly deserved for his brutality.”

Charbonneau survived the incident, and by the time Lewis and Clark arrived at the Mandan-Hidatsa villages in the fall of 1804, he was still employed as a trapper and had been living among the Hidatsa for several years, now with two teenage Indian wives. One of these was Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian who had been kidnapped by the Hidatsa around 1800. Charbonneau had bought Sacagawea from the Hidatsa, and she was pregnant with their first child. Hearing that Lewis and Clark were looking to hire interpreters, Charbonneau applied for the job. Clark wrote in his journal:

4th of Novr. a french man by Name Chabonah, who Speaks the Big Belley language visit us, he wished to hire & informed us his 2 Squars were Snake Indians, we engau him to go on with us and take one of his wives to interpet the Snake language The Indians Horses & Dogs live in the Same Lodge with themselves

Sagawea’s first meeting with Lewis and Clark occurred on November 11, when she came with her husband and his other Shoshone wife, Otter Woman, to present some buffalo robes as gifts to the officers. She gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, on February 12, 1805. Despite the fact that she was a new mother, Lewis and Clark had high hopes that Charbonneau, Sacagawea and the baby would accompany them west in the spring. They were especially interested in Sacagawea, who could help them negiotiate with the Shoshone for horses to carry them across the Rocky Mountains.

Sacagawea's First Gift, November 1804 - by Michael Haynes

Sacagawea's First Gift, November 1804 - by Michael Haynes

Toussaint Charbonneau’s engagement with the Corps of Discovery was rocky from the start. On March 12, 1805, Clark noted “our Interpeter Shabonah, detumins on not proceeding with us as an interpeter under the terms mentioned yesterday he will not agree to work let our Situation be what it may not Stand a guard, and if miffed with any man he wishes to return when he pleases, also have the disposial of as much provisions as he Chuses to Carrye.” Clark deemed Charbonneau’s terms “in admissible” and concluded, “we Suffer him to be off the engagement which was only virbal.”

In other words, Charbonneau quit. A few days later, however, he had a change of heart. Clark wrote: “He [Charbonneau] was Sorry for the foolissh part he had acted and if we pleased he would accompany us agreeabley to the terms we had perposed and doe every thing we wished him to doe &c. &c.” It was back on again.

As key members of the expedition’s communications team, the Charbonneau family was in close contact with the captains throughout the expedition, often sharing the same tent. Clark in particular became fond of the family, particularly of Charbonneau’s wife “Janey” (Clark’s nickname for Sacagawea) and her baby “Pomp.” Clark even offered to educate the boy at his own expense, a promise he later made good on. On August 14, 1805, Clark notes that he rebuked Charbonneau “for Strikeing his woman at their Dinner.” While he did not put up with any mistreatment of Sacagawea, in general Clark seems to have not only tolerated Charbonneau, but actually liked him.

Charbonneau and Sacagawea with William Clark

Charbonneau and Sacagawea with William Clark

For Lewis, however, it was a different story. Lewis was not all that impressed with Charbonneau’s skill as an interpreter – he could speak Hidatsa imperfectly and English not at all – and even less impressed with his wilderness prowess. On April 13, 1805, Charbonneau’s lack of skill as a waterman went on display. Lewis wrote: “A suddon squall of wind struck us and turned the perogue so much on the side as to allarm Sharbono who was steering at the time, in this state of alarm he threw the perogue with her side to the wind, when the spritsail gibing was as near overseting the perogue as it was possible to have missed. the wind however abating for an instant I ordered Drewyer to the helm and the sails to be taken in, which was instant executed and the perogue being steered before the wind was agin plased in a state of security. this accedent was very near costing us dearly.”

Only a month later, an even worse potential disaster occurred on Charbonneau’s watch. Lewis and Clark were both walking on shore, and Charbonneau was again at the helm of the white pirogue, in which were stored the expedition’s papers, instruments, books, medicines, and most of their trade goods. Lewis recounted with “trepidation and horror” what happened next:

It happened unfortunately for us this evening that Charbono was at the helm of this Perogue, in stead of Drewyer, who had previously steered her; Charbono cannot swim and is perhaps the most timid waterman in the world; perhaps it was equally unluckey that Capt. C. and myself were both on shore at that moment, a circumstance which rarely happened; and tho’ we were on the shore opposite to the perogue, were too far distant to be heard or to do more than remain spectators of her fate… surfice it to say, that the Perogue was under sail when a sudon squawl of wind struck her obliquely, and turned her considerably, the steersman allarmed, in stead of puting her before the wind, lufted her up into it, the wind was so violent that it drew the brace of the squarsail out of the hand of the man who was attending it, and instantly upset the perogue and would have turned her completely topsaturva, had it not have been from the resistance mad by the oarning against the water; in this situation Capt. C and myself both fired our guns to attract the attention if possible of the crew and ordered the halyards to be cut and the sail hawled in, but they did not hear us; such was their confusion and consternation at this moment, that they suffered the perogue to lye on her side for half a minute before they took the sail in, the perogue then wrighted but had filled within an inch of the gunwals; Charbono still crying to his god for mercy, had not yet recollected the rudder, nor could the repeated orders of the Bowsman, Cruzat, bring him to his recollection untill he threatend to shoot him instantly if he did not take hold of the rudder and do his duty, the waves by this time were runing very high, but the fortitude resolution and good conduct of Cruzat saved her.

Replicas of the white and red pirogue on the Missouri River in Omaha, Nebraska

Replicas of the white and red pirogue on the Missouri River in Omaha, Nebraska

Still shaken by the near disaster, Lewis recalled his own mad impulse to jump in the water in a life-sacrificing attempt to save the pirogue. “I should have paid the forfit of my life for the madness of my project,” he wrote. “But this had the perogue been lost, I should have valued but little.”

Charbonneau’s stock with Lewis had fallen considerably, and not even his skill at making boudin blanc could restore the Captain’s faith in him. Despite the critical role Charbonneau played in the chain of interpretation once they reached the Shoshone, Lewis became further incensed with Charbonneau in August 1805 as the Corps of Discovery was preparing to trek on horseback into the Rocky Mountains. Charbonneau learned that the Shoshone were planning to decamp down the Missouri, a calamity that would have left Lewis, his party, and his baggage stranded in the mountains without a guide. Lewis wrote:

Artist's depiction of Toussaint Charbonneau

Artist's depiction of Toussaint Charbonneau, Lewis and Clark Murals Series

Our hunters joined us at noon with three deer the greater part of which I gave the indians. sometime after we had halted, Charbono mentioned to me with apparent unconcern that he expected to meet all the Indians from the camp on the Columbia tomorrow on their way to the Missouri. allarmed at this information I asked why he expected to meet them. he then informed me that the 1st Cheif had dispatched some of his young men this morning to this camp requesting the Indians to meet them tomorrow and that himself and those with him would go on with them down the Missouri, and consequently leave me and my baggage on the mountain or thereabouts. I was out of patience with the folly of Charbono who had not sufficient sagacity to see the consequencies which would inevitably flow from such a movement of the indians, and altho’ he had been in possession of this information since early in the morning when it had been communicated to him by his Indian woman yet he never mentioned it untill the after noon. I could not forbear speaking to him with some degree of asperity on this occasion.

From then on, at times when Lewis and Clark were separated, the Charbonneaus almost inevitably remained with Clark.

When the Corps arrived back at the Mandan-Hidatsa villages in August 1806, Charbonneau was given a voucher in the sum of $500.33, his payment for his interpreter duties. (Sacagawea received nothing.) The Charbonneaus remained there until the late fall of 1809, when they boarded a Missouri Fur Company barge and traveled to St. Louis. There Charbonneau cashed in his voucher and accepted his land warrant, another reward granted to all the men on the expedition.

The Fate of the Corps book

The Fate of the Corps by Larry E. Morris

However, farming did not agree with Charbonneau. He sold his land to Clark for $100 in 1811 and resumed his job as a fur trapper, this time with the Missouri Fur Company. Leaving his son Jean Baptiste in Clarks’ care, Charbonneau was stationed at Fort Manuel in present-day South Dakota when Sacagawea died in December 1812, leaving behind a young daughter, Lisette. William Clark became legal guardian to both Jean Baptiste and Lisette by order of a St. Louis orphan’s court in August 1813. Lisette did not survive childhood.

As for Charbonneau, he lived on until around 1840, continuing to scratch out a living as a trapper, trader, cook, and interpreter for the government. Charbonneau was at Fort Clark near the Mandan-Hidatsa villages in 1837 when a smallpox epidemic struck, killing his Indian wife at the time and decimating the native population. He later took another wife, a 14 year-old Assiniboine girl. It is not known exactly when or under what circumstances Charbonneau died. His estate of $320 was settled in 1843 by his son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.

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Napi, the creator god of the Blackfoot Indians

The exact origins of American Indians have always been somewhat controversial. Most of us grew up with the theory that the ancestors of Native Americans migrated across the Bering Strait about 12,000 years ago. Recent archeological evidence, however, indicates that people may have lived in the Americas much longer. Most Native American tribes have origin myths that defy conventional science; as a Nez Perce park ranger told me once, “Those other tribes may have come across the Bering Strait, but we were always here.”

At the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark went west, the great minds of the day had already begun to ponder the origins of the Native Americans and grapple with the idea that they had originated elsewhere in the distant past. Some even believed the Indians to be the so-called “Lost Tribe of Israel.” When Lewis & Clark were assigned to collect Indian vocabularies, the intention, as Jefferson later wrote, was “to publish the whole, and leave the world to search for affinities between these and the languages of Europe and Asia.” In April 1805, Captain Lewis sent back a total of 14 Indian vocabularies he had taken in the Great Plains, and over the course of the journey through the Rockies and to the Pacific Ocean, he recorded nine more.

It’s important to remember that before Lewis & Clark headed into the west, no one knew quite what they would encounter. That was the whole point of the exercise after all. So to modern eyes, some of the speculation that preceded their journey seems ludicrous today. Live mammoths wandering around the Great Plains? Not exactly. A giant mountain made of pure salt? (No, but Utah’s got a lake that fills the bill). Blue-eyed, Welsh-speaking Indians? You don’t say, Mr. Jefferson.

Boy sits in a traditional Welsh coracle, 1865

Since the 1500s, shortly after the discovery of the New World, Welsh patriots had promoted the story that a Welsh prince named Madoc had discovered America in 1170, some three centuries before Christopher Columbus shouted Land ho. Supposedly, Madoc landed somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Mobile, Alabama. Eventually, he and his men made their way up the Missouri River where their fair-skinned descendants lived on. Even today, there are still adherents running around claiming to have proof that this or that tribe–usually the Mandans of North Dakota–are descended from the Welsh.

After all, the Mandans were light-skinned and sometimes fair-haired, and they lived in large walled towns. Obviously Welsh, right? But proof via a linguistic connection proved disappointing. In 1796, the Spanish sponsored an expedition up the Missouri in order to bolster their claims to Louisiana (an incident that we enjoyed dramatizing in our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe). One of the leaders of the expedition, John Evans, was Welsh and spoke the language; he discovered no link between Mandan and Welsh.

Lewis and Clark wintered among the Mandans a decade later and documented their customs thoroughly. Like Evans, they did not believe their friends to be of Welsh descent, though Clark did later tell artist George Catlin that he would find the Mandans to be “a strange people and half white.” Though Clark probably meant that the Mandans lived a settled and highly sophisticated existence, Catlin seems to have taken him seriously. In the 1830s, when Catlin visited the Mandans and created his famous portraits and landscapes, he became convinced of their Welsh heritage, probably the last observer of any repute to promote the theory.

Mandan Bull Boats and Lodges, by George Catlin (1832). Catlin thought the boats very similar to the traditional Welsh vessels.

It’s unknown whether Jefferson, Lewis, or Clark took the Welsh Indian speculation seriously, but what is certain is that some of their men did. Consider these journal entries from September 1805, when the Corps of Discovery encountered the Salish (Flathead) Indians near modern-day Missoula, Montana:

These natives are well dressed, decent looking Indians, light complexioned. They are dressed in mountain sheep leather, deer & buffalo robes &c. They have the most curious language of any we have seen before. They talk as though they lisped or have a burr on their tongue. We suppose that they are the Welch Indians if there is any such from the language. – Sergeant John Ordway, September 4, 1805

Our officers took down some of their language, found it very troublesome speaking to them as all they say to them has to go through six languages, and hard to make them understand. These natives have the strangest language of any we have ever yet seen. They appear to us as though they had an impediment in their speech or brogue on their tongue. We think perhaps that they are the Welch Indians, &c. They are the likeliest and most honest we have seen and are very friendly to us. – Sergeant John Ordway, September 5, 1805

We take these savages to be the Welch Indians if there be any such from the language. So Capt. Lewis took down the names of everything in their language in order that it may be found out whether they are or whether they sprung or originated first from the Welch or not. – Private Joseph Whitehouse, September 6, 1805

With all due respect to any die-hard fans out there, the Welsh Indian theory eventually died out due to being utter nonsense. No historical basis for Madoc or his journey has ever been found, and no linguistic or cultural similiarities bear up to scrutiny. As for the light-complexion of the Mandans, even Catlin admitted that no more than 20% of villagers were fair — no more than the variation in complexion to be found in any ethnic group, from Viennese to Vietnamese.

More reading: Mandan is not Welsh (from Language Geek)

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William Henry Harrison, the poor man's friend

Somewhat unjustly, William Henry Harrison is remembered by history for two things: that he died only one month after being sworn in as president, and that he ran the first modern campaign for that office, complete with the mindless slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”

Most military heroes who ride their exploits into higher office do so not long after the war that made them famous. After all, people have short memories and new idols come along every day. Yet Harrison had to wait a whopping thirty years after Tippecanoe before his successful campaign and doomed presidency. What happened? What took so long?

William Hull at Fort Detroit, by David Geister

As we saw in the last post, Harrison’s “victory” at Tippecanoe in 1811 propelled him to fame and popularity in the western United States, which was thirsting for a war with Great Britain that would extinguish the British and Indian threat to westward expansion. So when war did arrive the following year, Harrison was appointed commander-in-chief for the Army of the Northwest. His first task was to round up enough troops to rush to the aid of Detroit, a small but critical garrison on the Great Lakes that had been surrendered to British forces in August without a shot (the fort’s commander, William Hull, was court-martialed and sentenced to death for his failure, a sentence that was later commuted).

Now age 40, Harrison was no Hull. He was aggressive, decisive, and extremely popular with his men. As one Kentuckian wrote, “Harrison, with a look, can awe and convince.” Although short of food, clothing, equipment, weapons, and ammunition, he left Cincinnati in September 1812 with 3000 men and immediately began to lay waste to the countryside, burning Indian villages, destroying crops, and desecrating graveyards. Harrison’s troops made no distinction between tribes at war with the United States and those who had attempted to remain neutral.

But these early successes were fleeting. With short rations and a long supply line, morale began to break down in spite of Harrison’s actorly abilities. And as the troops reached Michigan, they found themselves mired in frigid winter rains. By the time he reached a planned base at the Upper Sandusky, Harrison had lost a thousand horses (worth over $6 million in today’s dollars) and tons of abandoned supplies. Forced to act as beasts of burden in place of the horses, men were suffering from exhaustion and frostbite.

The Battle of Frenchtown, better known as the River Raisin Massacre

In January 1813 came one of the worst disasters in the history of the United States military, and Harrison, though only 65 miles away, was powerless to prevent it. Harrison’s second-in-command, a kindly and sedentary Revolutionary War veteran named James Winchester, had suffered bruised feelings over being placed in a subordinate position to the younger political general. Now he saw an opportunity to redeem his reputation by attacking the British and Indians at Frenchtown south of Detroit. Harrison immediately recognized the folly of Winchester’s idea and personally attempted to ride to stop him; when his horse fell through the ice in a frozen swamp, he forged on on foot through the night.

But it was too late. After initial success in chasing British forces across the River Raisin, Winchester’s forces found themselves trapped in a nightmarish counterattack. The Battle of the River Raisin was one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the United States Army. Seven hundred men were taken prisoner. Two hundred men were killed or wounded, with the wounded men then tomahawked or set on fire by the Indian victors, who warned the civilian survivors that anyone who touched the “Harrison men” would meet the same fate. Only 33 escaped to tell the tale. The sight of the frozen corpses scattered around Frenchtown was searing and unforgettable, and any hopes of an early, easy victory in the West were doomed.

The Siege of Fort Meigs

Harrison was sick about what happened at the River Raisin, and for the rest of the war, it made him a cautious commander. That spring, Harrison and 1200 men settled in for a long British siege at Fort Meigs (present-day Perrysburg, Ohio). The truth was that Harrison could not afford another disastrous adventure with the Indians. A defeat at Fort Meigs would not only open the Ohio country for an Indian war such as hadn’t been seen since Fallen Timbers, it would destroy the frantic American effort to build a naval force on Lake Erie to defeat the British and seize control of the Great Lakes.

Harrison constructed a set of earthworks at the fort that enabled the men to spend most of their time underground, to the great frustration of his long-time nemesis, Tecumseh, who wanted the general to come out and fight like a man. Though Harrison held the line (resulting in the great victory by Commodore Oliver Perry in September 1813 that led to the recovery of Detroit), the campaign was marked by another massacre of impetuous Kentucky troops who recklessly engaged the Indians against Harrison’s orders.

The Battle of the Thames

Harrison’s last hurrah in the war came shortly after Perry’s great victory. Like Fallen Timbers, the Battle of the Thames is a much-neglected turning point in American history. Once Harrison received word of Perry’s victory (“We have met the enemy and he is ours”) he marched on Detroit. Disgusted with his British allies and alarmed at the realization that the Indians were about to be abandoned to the Americans, Tecumseh did everything he could to slow the British retreat into Canada and force a showdown.

It came near Moraviantown in Ontario. Spurred on by cries of “Remember the River Raisin,” Harrison’s 3500 troops fell upon the enemy (about 800 British and 500 Indian). The demoralized British folded quickly, but hand-to-hand combat with the Indians was fierce. In the end, though, the outcome was decisive. Detroit was recaptured and the Americans reestablished control over the entire Northwest frontier. Tecumseh was killed, and with him the last spark of Indian resistance in the territory was crushed. Harrison is said to have been sickened by the desecration of Tecumseh’s corpse.

Surprisingly enough — probably most surprising of all to Harrison — the victory did not lead to the White House or anything like it, for a long, long time. In fact, within months, Harrison was forced to resign as major-general, the result of a falling-out with Secretary of War John Armstrong, who hated Harrison, nit-picked his decisions relentlessly, and encouraged outrageous and false rumors that Harrison had not behaved courageously during the battle. As his biographer Robert Owens writes, Harrison was extremely bitter about the resignation: “His was the burning rage of the aristocrat whose honor had been repeatedly and wantonly slighted. It was probably best for Armstrong that the general did not believe in dueling.”

William Henry Harrison, by James Reid Lambdin

He did, however, believe in self-preservation, thus avoiding the stunning fall from grace that afflicted George Rogers Clark and engulfed Meriwether Lewis at the end of his life. However, being out of the limelight allowed others to step in — most notably, Andrew Jackson, whose smashing victory at the Battle of New Orleans filled Americans with wild pride at the close of the war.

Readjustment to ordinary political life could not have been easy for Harrison. Between 1816-1828 — years that coincided with the rise and domination of Andrew Jackson in national politics — he ran for and held various offices, while running his estate in North Bend, Ohio, near Cincinnati. He served in the U.S. House and the Ohio state senate, ran unsuccessfully for governor of Ohio, and in 1824 was elected to the United States Senate. In 1828, President John Quincy Adams appointed him United States minister to Columbia, a post that required an arduous journey of many weeks to Bogota, then one of the most remote capitols in the world.

Harrison had been in Bogota about six months when he received shocking news. He was being recalled by the new president, who was none other than Andrew Jackson. Historians note that the recall was protested not only by numerous allies of Harrison’s, but by Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. But Jackson was adamant that no appointee of the hated Adams was going to represent him in South America — much less a military man and potential rival. Postmaster general William T. Barry recalled telling Jackson that if he had seen Harrison at the Battle of the Thames, he would leave him where he was. Jackson replied with satisfaction, “I reckon you may be right, but thank God I didn’t see him there.”

Jackson refused to send a naval vessel to bring Harrison back to the United States, and the general spent a good nine months making his way back home. By now 56 years old, he returned home to Cincinnati and, it seemed, permanent retirement. After all, he was obviously persona non grata to the Jackson administration. But Harrison had a few more tricks up his sleeve.

Harrison as a simple farmer in a campaign broadside

In 1836, Jackson was leaving office, and the Whig party turned to Harrison as a leading candidate to replace him. The complicated politics of the campaign are too tedious to relate here, but suffice to say that the thin, wiry 63-year-old rose to the challenge like an old boxer to the bell. Departing entirely from the convention of the day, Harrison barnstormed the country, speaking everywhere, even hosting an enormous party of the grounds of the Tippecanoe battlefield itself. He literally pioneered modern campaigning, blanketing battleground states with newspaper advertisements calling himself “The People’s Candidate” and “Farmer Harrison.”

It was a little too late before the Whigs realized what they had in Harrison. They split up their support among the regions of the country, and delivered the election to Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Van Buren. But Harrison carried Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Vermont, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. He was clearly the front-runner for 1840, especially after the economic collapse of 1837 more or less strangled Van Buren’s presidency in the cradle.

Harrison and Tyler banner from 1840

John Quincy Adams would later call the campaign of 1840 “the Harrison whirlwind.” American life, especially in the west where Harrison had spent his entire adult life, was still a hard and often bitter existence, especially in this time of economic hardship. Harrison, that Reagan-esque actorly figure, had prepared his whole life for what the people needed. They needed glee clubs. They needed brass bands. They needed parades and buttons and badges and lanterns and shouting and banners and barbeques. They needed TIPPECANOE AND TYLER TOO.

With so much at stake, the campaign of 1840 was one of the most bitterly partisan in American history. The Democrats made a tremendous blunder (one not atypical for the party even today), when they attacked Harrison by staying that if he were given a pension and a jug of hard cider, he would be content to stay home in North Bend in his log cabin. Since most people in the country either lived in a log cabin or had grown up in one, the Harrison forces gleefully pounced on the error, blanketing the countryside with images of a humble log cabin with a coonskin nailed to the wall and a barrel of hard cider being served up by old General Harrison hisself.

Harrison — scion of Berkeley, son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence — was now a man of the people, assailing Van Buren (son of a tavern keeper and the only president to speak English as a second language) as an extravagant wastrel who spent the people’s hard-earned shekels on French china, fancy curtains, and fresh roses delivered daily to the White House. Or as one number from the campaign song book had it, “Van-Van-Van, Van is a used up man!”

1840 Harrison ribbon

The country had never seen anything like it. At the battlefield at Tippecanoe, some 60,000 people gathered. Routinely around the country, Harrison rallies drew 10,000 to 12,000 attendees, whether the general could attend or not. At Dayton, Harrison addressed an estimated “ten acres” of spectators. On a procession from Cincinnati to old Fort Meigs, he addressed 35,000 people. These numbers are the more astounding considering the population of the United States was then only 17 million (as opposed to 308 million today).

Harrison won by a landslide. Everyone knows what happened next. By the time he made it to his inauguration, Harrison was completely worn out. He spoke that day bareheaded in the snow. His feet got wet. Now 68  years old, he caught a cold. His doctors swung into action, bleeding him, blistering him, feeding him calomel and laudanum, ipacac, castor oil, even “seneca” (pure Pennsylvania petroleum). They rubbed him with mercury. It is little wonder that after a month of such treatment, the old man expired on April 4, 1841.

With his death, Harrison passed into history as a punchline, his achievements destined to be forgotten by the country he served for 50 years. We really enjoyed learning about Harrison for The Fairest Portion of the Globe. This amazing character is truly one of the forgotten giants of American history.

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