Archive for the ‘Frontier stories’ 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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Shinin’ Times! by Edward Louis Henry

The fur trade played a pivotal role in the development of the American West. From the 1600s, France and England had competed for the best spots to trap beaver and other fur-bearing animals and ship the pelts home for enormous profits. Certainly the opportunity for America to join in this seemingly inexhaustible fur bonanza was one of the reasons that President Jefferson was eager for Lewis & Clark to stake U.S. claims to the Upper Missouri and the Rocky Mountains.

While I knew this historical background, I’d never given much thought to the young men who actually ventured into the wilderness and lived as mountain men. Who were they? Why did they choose to live such a hard life? How did they learn what to do in time to survive? What would it have actually been like to leave behind everything familiar and live such a free and elemental life?

About the time that our first novel, To the Ends of the Earth, came out, I had the privilege of reading and reviewing Edward Louis Henry’s excellent first novel, The Backbone of the World, on our old and long-gone website, and we later exchanged copies of our second novels. Like us, Ed has battled the indifference of the publishing industry to meaty American historical fiction, and so you can imagine how delighted I was to be contacted by his new publisher with a copy of his third novel, Shinin’ Times!

Shinin’ Times! explores the peak years of the fur trade, from 1828-1833, and continues the story of our picaresque hero Temple Buck, who at the ripe old age of 23 has graduated from wilderness newcomer to grizzled veteran of the Rocky Mountains. Henry writes the book as a first-person “memoir” by Temple, with an authenticity that can easily make you forget you are reading a work of modern fiction. The story begins with Temple returning to St. Louis to “re-up” for another trip up the river, and the sights and smells of the frontier gateway come to life, complete with a trip to William Clark’s farm on the outskirts of town.

Before long, Temple has embarked on his journey into the wilderness in the company of a wry Shawnee chief who happens to be his biological father, and Micah, a former slave turned expert gunsmith. As they join up with old friends at “rendezvous” (the annual fur-trade gathering of buying, selling, and carousing), the international nature of the rough-and-tumble early West comes alive — Americans, Irish, and French rub elbows with Indians of many tribes and dispositions, and in Henry’s skilled hands lovable fictional characters mingle effortlessly with real-life historical characters like Jedediah Smith and William Sublette.

Temple’s world is one of rough and raw beauty. In St. Louis, he finds comfort and pleasure in the arms of the always-randy and dramatic Lucette, a mixed-race madam from New Orleans, but lasting love and the final transition from boyhood to maturity come with Rainbow, a Salish woman who becomes the love of his life. Violence and death are ever-present, and Shinin’ Times! dramatizes countless battles with Indians who attack the fur trappers. The reality of the kill-or-be-killed ethos of the frontier is presented with matter-of-fact starkness, unmarred by either defensiveness or politically correct apologies by the author.

While focusing on Temple and his story, Shinin’ Times! and its predecessors are unlike any novels I have ever read. Henry has done it again, creating a fully realized alternate reality. Ed Henry is a mountain man reenactor as well a writer; perhaps that accounts for his ability to channel historical and cultural details into a total immersion experience, a time machine of the imagination.

I have some minor bones to pick with Henry, including wordiness truly worthy of the 19th century and the overuse of dialect to distinguish among the kaleidoscope of nationalities. But these are minor flaws in what is shaping up as a titanic achievement in historical fiction. A fourth book, Glory Days Gone Under, is planned to take Temple (and us) through the storied final years of this uniquely American saga.  Shinin’ Times! is a fascinating novel, well worth picking up for everyone interested in the early American west.

Purchase Shinin’ Times! and other novels by Edward Louis Henry at Christopher Matthews Publishing.

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When the Mississippi Ran Backwards by Jay Feldman

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards by Jay Feldman

Every time I think I have read the last about James Wilkinson’s depredations during the days of the early republic, I turn over another rock and there he is. Our favorite scoundrel, heavily featured in our novels To the Ends of the Earth and The Fairest Portion of the Globe, had his sticky fingers in every land scheme and empire-building enterprise on the early American frontier. I recently came across another vintage Wilkinson story in a book by Jay Feldman entitled, When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes.

The founding of New Madrid is an interesting story in itself. The settlement was the brainchild of Colonel George Morgan of New Jersey, a merchant, Indian agent, and land speculator who had been thwarted by the U.S. government in his attempts to claim and colonize millions of acres of valuable land in what is now northern West Virginia and Illinois. Frustrated in his attempts to make a killing as a western empresario, Morgan was disgusted with the U.S. government and national allegiances were highly negotiable. When Spain came calling, he bit.

Don Diego de Gardoqui

Don Diego de Gardoqui, Spanish ambassador

In the summer of 1788, Morgan was approached by Spanish ambassador Don Diego de Gardoqui, who had been dispatched to New York by the Spanish king to do what he could to counter America’s westward expansion. As owner of the vast Louisiana Territory, Spain was concerned about the horde of American settlers streaming over the Alleghenies and settling along the east bank of the Mississippi. In hopes of  creating a buffer zone on the sparsely populated Spanish west bank, Gardoqui’s was authorized to offer Americans free land and free trade on the Mississippi in exchange for allegiance to Spain.

Gardoqui knew of Morgan by reputation, and contacted him to float the idea that Morgan apply for a colony grant in Louisiana. After weighing Gardoqui’s offer, Morgan decided he had nothing to lose. He crafted an application for about two million acres of land in Spanish territory, opposite the mouth of the Ohio River. He promised to recruit a large number of Americans to populate the colony, who would bring with them their families, slaves, livestock, and farm implements. Morgan proposed that he himself would command the new colony, and that freedom of religion and self-government would be a condition of its founding. Most importantly, he would be allowed to profit from the sale of land to any settlers he recruited.

It is perhaps a measure of Gardoqui’s desperation that he endorsed this proposal and assured Morgan that speedy approval from the Spanish king would be forthcoming. On January 3, 1789, Morgan embarked down the Ohio River with his first recruits, seventy men on four flatboats. Both to honor and flatter his Spanish patrons, he decided to name his new colony New Madrid.  Six weeks of perilous river travel later, he reached the Mississippi and beheld the lovely, fertile prairie he intended to build into a personal empire. Confident of success, he began laying out a town and surveying the land he declared to be “superior to every other part of America.”

James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson, scoundrel extraordinaire

Enter James Wilkinson. Wilkinson was already a year or so into his own machinations to align Kentucky with the Spanish crown in exchange for exclusive trading rights in New Orleans. When he got wind of George Morgan’s New Madrid project, he rightly concluded that Morgan was an intolerable threat to his plans. If a Spanish-aligned New Madrid became a trading port for Kentucky by which they could sell their goods bound for foreign ports, his monopoly on trade in New Orleans would be useless.

There was no time to lose. Wilkinson dashed off a letter to Spanish Governor Esteban Miro in New Orleans, claiming that Gardoqui had “hurried into confidential communications with Persons undeserving of trust.” He cast aspersions on the settlers Morgan had recruited, insisting they were “generally Debtors & fugitives from Justice—poor and without priniciple.” In a subsequent letter, he went on to smear George Morgan himself: “This Colonel Morgan … is a man of education and understanding, but a deep speculator. He has been bankrupt twice, and finds himself at the present moment in extreme necessity.” Ironically, he questioned the sincerity of Morgan’s allegiance to Spain and asserted that Morgan was “ruled by motives of the vilest self-interest.” He cautioned that the settlers in New Madrid would not make good Spanish subjects, saying they would undoubtedly retain “their old prejudices and feelings” and would “continue to be Americans as if they were on the banks of the Ohio.”

Self-serving or not, the allegations stuck. When an unsuspecting Morgan arrived in New Orleans in December 1789, he found Governor Miro not at all favorably disposed towards his colony at New Madrid. Miro informed Morgan curtly that he would not, after all, be allowed to sell land in the colony for his own profit. It would be given to settlers for free. Furthermore, while settlers were free to practice their own religion at home, the only public observance of religion allowed would be Roman Catholic. He expressed offense that Morgan had named the settlement New Madrid without the king’s express permission. Finally, he informed Morgan that he was appointing a Spanish commandant to rule New Madrid, instead of Morgan himself.

Esteban Rodríguez Miró

Esteban Rodríguez Miró, Governor-General of Louisiana

Morgan left New Orleans cursing Wilkinson’s name and returned back east, never again to see the colony he founded. He did, however, have the chance to strike his enemy one last glancing blow. In 1806, George Morgan was visited in Pennsylvania by Aaron Burr, who made veiled references to a bizarre scheme to raise a private army to seize Mexico and the Louisiana Territory. Morgan immediately wrote to Thomas Jefferson, warning him about the scheme, and Burr was arrested. The subsequent scandal led to a court-martial for General Wilkinson, in which his alleged involvement in the scheme was publicly discussed. However, both Wilkinson and Burr were acquitted.  George Morgan died in 1810, without ever seeing Wilkinson brought to justice.

As for Morgan’s colony at New Madrid, it soldiered on in spite of the setbacks. Although Morgan’s utopian plan for the layout of the city was quickly discarded, the settlement continued to grow at a respectable pace. When the Treaty of San Lorenzo opened the Mississippi River to U.S. trade in 1795, boats coming down from the Ohio River were required to stop at New Madrid to be inspected and pay duties on their cargo, making New Madrid a key location for trade between the U.S.’s western settlements and the port of New Orleans. By 1791, there were 200 new settlers in New Madrid. By 1803, the town had over 800 residents.

As it turned out, however, what had seemed initially like the perfect location for a town turned into a swampy nightmare. The wild, unpredictable Mississippi often overflowed its banks, tearing away yards of riverbank at high water and taking part of the town with it. Heavy rains turned the flat prairielands of New Madrid into a stagnant swamp, rife with water-borne diseases.  When the U.S. purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, New Madrid lost its strategic position in Mississippi trade.  With both sides of the river now in U.S. hands, New Madrid became just another frontier river town.

Clearing the river after the New Madrid earthquakes

The final coup de grace came in 1811 and 1812. As it turned out, New Madrid was situated directly above an active seismic fault zone, three miles deep in the earth. A series of four devastating earthquakes between December 1811 and February 1812 literally shook the town to ruins.

More interesting reading:

The Spanish Conspiracy

An Artist in Treason

William Clark and the New Madrid Earthquakes

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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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George Drouillard

George Drouillard by Michael Haynes

Last week we wrote about Manuel Lisa, the high-living, fur-trading, frontier legend whom Meriwether Lewis famously cussed out in a letter to William Clark. Lewis wasn’t the only member of the Corps of Discovery who would curse Lisa’s name. Another was George Drouillard, the celebrated hunter and scout of the Expedition, who went to work for Lisa and found himself on trial for murder.

During the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-1806, George Drouillard had proved himself to be one of the most essential members of the party. The son of a French-Canadian father and a Shawnee mother, Drouillard spoke Shawnee, French, English, and was an expert at sign language. He was also an excellent hunter and a skilled tracker. A civilian employee rather an a military man, Drouillard won the respect of every man on the expedition. Lewis and Clark’s journals reveal that they both had the highest opinion of “Drewyer.” In a letter asking for additional pay for Drouillard after the expedition, Lewis singled him out as “a man of much merit” and wrote: “It was his fate…to have encountered, on various occasions, with either Captain Clark or myself, all of the most dangerous and trying scenes of the voyage, in which he uniformly acquited himself with honor.”

Like many veterans of the Corps of Discovery, Drouillard headed back into the western wilderness almost immediately after returning home in September 1806. By the spring of 1807, Drouillard was headed up the Missouri River again, this time in the employ of fur trader Manuel Lisa. As a leader, Lisa was no Lewis and Clark. He eschewed their stern but fair discipline in favor of an uncompromising attitude and harsh treatment of his men. Lisa’s hotheaded temperament soon got Drouillard into hot water.

The Fate of the Corps book

The Fate of the Corps by Larry E. Morris

In May of 1807, Lisa’s fur trapping expedition had reached the Osage River in central Missouri when Lisa discovered that a man named Antoine Bissonnet had stolen some blankets and other items and run away. Anxious to assert discipline over his group, Lisa sent Drouillard to find the deserter, ordering him to bring Bissonnet back “dead or alive.”

At Drouillard’s murder trial in September 1808, another member of Lisa’s party recounted what happened next:

Some time after that I heard the report of a gun. About half an hour later Mr. George Drouillard came back and said that he shot ‘Bazine’ [Bissonnet] but he did not die. Mr. Drouillard said he was sorry for it, and he came back to camp to bring some more men with him to take the wounded man to the camp.

Bissonnet had been shot in the back. Furious at the man for deserting, Lisa berated Bissonnet as he lay there bleeding. Lisa finally agreed to let some of the men take Bissonnet back to St. Charles for medical treatment, but the wounded man died on the way. Even in an age when harsh corporal punishment was common, the execution of a deserter without benefit of trial came as a shock. When they returned to St. Louis from the fur expedition, the following year, both Drouillard and Lisa were charged with Bissonnet’s murder.

Drouillard was miserable about what he had done. He confided to his sister:

Thoughtlessness on my part and lack of reflection in this unhappy moment is the only cause of it, and moreover encouraged and urged on by my partner, Manuel Lisa, who we ought to consider in this affair as guilty as myself for without him the thing would never have taken place. The recollection of this unhappy affair throws me very often in the most profound reflections, and certainly I think it has caused a great deal of grief to my family for which I am very sorry and much mortified. That I have not lost the affection of my old friends proves that they did not believe me capable of an action so terrible through malice and bad intent.

The jury evidently agreed. Drouillard’s lawyers argued convincingly that he was “just following orders,” and cited his superior conduct on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Most of the blame was cast on Manuel Lisa. The jury acquitted Drouillard after fifteen minutes. Ironically, the case against Lisa was dropped, and he was never tried.

Three Forks of the Missouri

Three Forks of the Missouri, where Drouillard met his end

Drouillard had spent most of the money he had made on the Lewis and Clark expedition and his fur trapping venture on legal fees. He wrote to his family that he would make another trip up the Missouri with Manuel Lisa’s fur company, to try to make up for his losses. He never returned. Drouillard was killed by the Blackfeet Indians at the Three Forks of the Missouri. His comrades found his body, horribly mutilated. They buried him hastily, in an unmarked grave.

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Colonel George Hancock

Colonel George Hancock

In March 1807, William Clark confided to Meriwether Lewis that he had asked for the hand of young Julia Hancock in marriage. “I have made an attacked most vigorously, we have come to terms, and a delivery is to be made first of January,” Clark wrote proudly. He expressed surprise that his future father-in-law, Colonel George Hancock, had turned out to have anti-Jeffersonian political leanings. Clark wrote that Hancock was “a Fed which I did not know untill the other day. I took him to be a good plain republican.”

Perhaps Clark shouldn’t have been surprised about Hancock being a Federalist, as Hancock came from one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the country. His father, also named George Hancock, owned large possessions in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Accompanied by a large number of slaves, the elder George Hancock fled South Carolina during the early days of the Revolution, when the British took possession of the seacoast. Ill with gout, the old man faltered and died on the road.

Count Kasimir Pulaski falls at the siege of Savannah, 1779

Count Kasimir Pulaski falls at the siege of Savannah, 1779

Young George Hancock entered the Revolutionary Was as an ensign from Chesterfield County, Va., in 1776, at the age of 22. He served on the staff of Count Kasimir Pulaski and was said to have been one of the officers who caught Pulaski’s body in his arms when the count fell mortally wounded from his horse during the siege of Savannah in October 1779. Captured by the British, Hancock survived the war, went home to Virginia, married a wealthy young lady, and became a successful lawyer. Together he and his wife had five children. One biographical sketch of Hancock says that he “had a splendid presence, being six feet three inches in height, and possessed much of the personal beauty that distinguished his daughters as among the most beautiful women in Virginia.”

Fotheringay in Botetourt County, VA

Fotheringay in Botetourt County, VA

Hancock was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates from 1784 – 1792 and represented Botetourt County as a federalist member of the Third and Fourth United States Congress. He received his title as “colonel” in 1785 by appointment to the Virginia militia. Hancock was also a highly successful planter. He owned at least two beautiful houses on fine estates. One was “Santillane” in Fincastle, where William Clark first met Hancock’s 11-year old daughter Julia, who would later become the first Mrs. Clark. The other home was “Fotheringay” in Botetourt County. Fotheringay took its name from the castle in England where the imprisonment, trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, took place. Fotheringay was also home to a number of slaves, and Hancock was known as a strict slave-master.

Fotheringay and Colonel Hancock are at the center of one of the most bizarre burial stories in Virginia history. According to tradition, following his death in 1820, Hancock was interred in the family tomb on a mountainside at Fotheringay either standing or sitting in a marble chair.

In 1886, a member of a subsequent family who owned the estate, a Miss Anne Beale Edmundson, went into the vault in 1886 in preparation to having it repaired and to investigate whether or not Hancock was, indeed, “buried standing up.” According to a 1935 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, this is what she found: “On the floor a mass of crumbled bones and stones were found. Near the top of the heap was the skull of what she supposed was the last of the earthly remains of Colonel Hancock. At the bottom of the pile were other bones identified as the legs and trunk. The position of the bones and the fact that they were intermingled with the disintegrated stone led to the belief that the body had rested upon some kind of support in a sitting position.”

George Hancock's tomb at Fotheringay

George Hancock's tomb at Fotheringay

In an interview, Miss Edmundson reported:

I can hardly believe he was placed in the vault in a standing position. If that were true, it would have been necessary to support his body with a chain or some other device to prevent it from falling down. When I examined the interior of the vault I found no chain nor other supports which could have been used for this purpose.

The theory as to Colonel Hancock’s burial in a sitting position is further substantiated by the fact that the tomb contains three other bodies, all laid to rest in the usual way. These are his daughter, Julia, who married General William Clark, brother of George Rogers Clark, conqueror of the Northwest Territory; a son, John Strother Hancock, who died at the age of 8, and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Patrick Lockhart, who was the former Mrs. George Strother, mother of Margaret Strother, wife of Colonel Hancock. When I entered the vault I found the bones of all three of these bodies intact in their niches in the walls of the tomb. If Colonel Hancock had not been buried in an unusual way, why didn’t his bones occupy a niche in the wall like the others?

According to tradition, the colonel wished to be buried sitting up so he could look down into the valley (dubbed with the misnomer “Happy Valley”) and make sure his slaves were hard at work. Which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the kind of guy Colonel Hancock was—definitely not a man who would subscribe to a crazy notion like “all men are created equal.”

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James Monroe

James Monroe: No pushover, he

Early America wasn’t for sissies. In the 18th century, even the most distinguished gentlemen who moved in the highest of circles had to be ready to rumble. I recently read that President James Monroe, who carried a bullet in his shoulder throughout his life from the Battle of Trenton, once got into a heated argument with his Secretary of the Treasury, William Crawford, over the issue of government patronage. Crawford—who had once killed a man in a duel—called Monroe “a damned infernal old scoundrel.” Monroe responded by grabbing up a pair of fireplace tongs and brandishing them at Crawford’s head. Fortunately tempers cooled before actual blood was shed.

President's House, Philadelphia

President's House, Philadelphia

One of my favorite anecdotes about George Washington comes from the book Historic Philadelphia, published by the American Philosophical Society. George Washington was at home in the President’s House on Market Street one morning when he heard a scream from downstairs. Charging down half-dressed and half-shaved, he found a tradesman molesting one of his maids. Washington promptly grabbed the man, spun him around, and booted him out the door. With a big, bare, presidential foot.

General George Rogers Clark is a major character in our book The Fairest Portion of the Globe, and his military exploits during the American Revolution are the stuff of legend. Clark was also about as close as a real person can be to a character in a romantic novel. In descriptions of Clark written by his contemporaries, I am always struck by two things. The writer never fails to mention Clark’s intelligence. And, he was evidently an attractive “hunk” of a man.

George Rogers Clark Defending the Stockade, by F.C. Yohn

George Rogers Clark Defending the Stockade, by F.C. Yohn

One of the earliest contemporaneous descriptions of George Rogers Clark comes from the journal of Englishman Nicholas Creswell, who encountered the 22-year old Clark on a journey down the Ohio River in 1775. “We took into our company Captain George Clark,” Creswell wrote. “This morning Captn Clark (who I find is an intelligent man) showed me a root that the Indians call pocoon, good for the bite of a rattle snake.” Creswell didn’t get along with some of the Americans, whom he called “red-hot liberty men,” but he noted, “Clark always behaved well while he stayed with us.”

Clark’s dignified, self-controlled conduct seemed to be a striking feature of his personality. Governor John Reynolds of Illinois in particular seems to have had a man-crush on Clark.

Col. Clark himself was nature’s favorite, in his person as well as his mind. He was large and athletic, capable of enduring much—yet formed with such noble symmetry and manly beauty, that he combined much grace and elegance together with great firmness of character. He was grave and dignified in deportment, agreeable and affable with his soldiers when relaxed from duty, but in a crisis, when the fate of a campaign was at stake or the lives of his brave warriors were in danger he became stern and severe. His appearance in these perils indicated without language to his men that every soldier must do his duty.

Father Pierre Gibault

Father Pierre Gibault of Kaskaskia

A six-foot redhead with rugged good looks, Clark personified an early American type made famous by Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: the tough, resourceful frontier gentleman. That sometimes meant a little bit of backwoods flash. A Kentucky contemporary said of Clark, “His appearance, well calculated to attract attention, was rendered particularly agreeable by the manliness of his deportment and the intelligence of his conversation.” Clark’s own accounts of his Illinois campaign reveal a frank, dignified, unpretentious character. However, he also knew how to use shock and awe. When Clark and his men captured Kaskaskia in June of 1778, a delegation of terrified townspeople, led by the village priest Father Pierre Gibault, came to learn how Clark intended to deal with them. Clark left this account in his memoir:

After some time the priest got permission to wait on me. He came, with five or six elderly gentlemen with him. However shocked they already were from their situation, the addition was obvious and great when they entered the room where I was sitting with other officers [all making] a dirty, savage appearance. As we had left our clothes at the river, we were almost naked, and torn by the bushes and briars. They were shocked, and it was some time before they could venture to take seats, and longer before they would speak.

The townspeople begged for permission to gather at the church, which Clark permitted. The next day, with everyone still terrified and expecting to be imprisoned or executed at any moment, a cleaned-up Clark was at pains to assure them that no one was going to be hurt and that the Virginians were “not savages and plunderers as they conceived.” Henry Hamilton disagreed, calling Clark and his men “unprincipled motley Banditti” after Clark forced him to surrender Fort Sackville.

Hamilton surrenders Fort Sackville, 1779

Clark and his "unprincipled motley Banditti" take Ft. Sackville, 1779

My all-time favorite description of George Rogers Clark comes from a brief but incredibly descriptive memoir on a fascinating genealogical site, written by a woman named Lucy Clark Moorman. What a writer she was! In a 1786 letter to Thomas Moorman of Albemarle County, Virginia, she gives us this indelible picture of the immortal “Hannibal of the West.”

We have seen Rogers Clark but once in 10 years, he migrated from about Lynch’s Crossing, I think about 1775 to Fincastle on the Ohio River, but he was back to see us a year afterwards when he came to see the Governor of Virginia about defense of that part of the state. Rogers made several trips back into the state since then and it is not always to see how the Indians were doing.

He always came unexpectedly and since he needed no daylight to see where he was going, he always moved at night. Sister Mary says George often visits them, but since he is an owl and disdains even moonlight, he travels on dark nights. When he comes home he stretches his long legs on the settee and entertains the boys with his histories of savagery in the country.

Rogers has sifted the ways and doings of most folk in this part of the dominion and knows every oaf who favors the King’s party. We were always afraid that no good would come of his talking before the boys. Zachariah and Bolling always had a spell of tinkering with old saw blades to make a cutlass after he was gone.

We often kept a dip burning in the window and some soup on the stove to cheer the poor fellows that were prowling about at night. I am glad to help them but when our boys go with them on some desperate foray, I am always afraid of trouble. …

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Manuel Luis Gayoso de Lemos y Amorín

Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, Governor of Natchez

One of the most interesting and intriguing figures in early America was Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, the Spanish governor of the Natchez district during the time period covered in our book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe. Gayoso was not only a shrewd and able public administrator—which makes him stand out in any era—but a figure of larger-than-life proportions, with a life full of romance, adventure, and tragedy.

Manuel Luis Gayoso de Lemos y Amorín was born on May 30, 1747, at Oporto, a charming coastal town in Portugal known for its world famous wine. His father was a Spanish consul in the Portuguese port and his mother was a native of Oporto. Gayoso may have been educated at Westminster College in England; he was said to have the accent and manners of the British. On July 7, 1771, he entered the Spanish army as a cadet in the Lisbon Regiment.

Gayoso was handsome, good with languages, and naturally friendly and diplomatic. He rose quickly in the ranks, earning promotion to sub-lieutenant in 1772, sub-lieutenant of grenadiers in 1779, and lieutenant in 1781. For more than a year in 1781 and 1782, Gayoso served on the Spanish warship La España. The ship boasted 64 cannons and cruised around the Iberian peninsula, looking out for British warships (Spain had entered the Revolution on the side of France, and against England). During the Siege of Gibraltar, Gayoso had a chance to see some of the Spanish commanders in action. Spain and France were defeated by the superior British navy, but with impeccable timing, Gayoso secured another diplomatic assignment.

Aboard a Spanish ship

Aboard a Spanish ship

Gayoso’s excellent performance as a diplomatic assistant gained him promotion to lieutenant colonel in 1786. During this time, he met and wooed a beautiful Lisbon belle, Theresa Margarita Hopman y Pereira. Theresa was planning their wedding when he received the unexpected news that he was being considered for an assignment in America—namely, governor of the Natchez District, a huge extent of territory in West Florida that stretched from Point Coupee in the south to the mouth of the Yazoo River in the north, with the Mississippi River forming its western border. It was a sparsely populated, heavily disputed territory that had already been the focus of a considerable amount of intrigue since Spain had won it from the British during the Revolution. It also had lots of bears, and the temperature got up to 107 in the summer. Who could refuse?

Spanish Louisiana

Spanish Louisiana, 1762-1800 (courtesy Discovering Lewis & Clark site)

Gayoso married Theresa in 1787 and was delayed setting off by the birth of their first child, Manuel Gayoso Hopman, in 1788. Accompanied by his wife and two servants, the new governor finally set out in September 1788. They reached Havana in December and remained there for several weeks. In February 1789, Gayoso left Havana with his wife, small son and new infant daughter, on their way to New Orleans. A violent storm blew the ship off course, and for nine days they were in danger of sinking. They put in at the Yucatan and lingered there for a month before they eventually got another ship and arrived in New Orleans in April 1789, where Gayoso met with his new boss, Governor General Esteban Miró of Louisiana, and got briefed on his duties in Natchez.

Tragically, the trip had been too much for Theresa Gayoso. Weak from her recent childbirth and seized with fever, she died shortly after they got to Natchez. One of Gayoso’s first duties was to bury her there. Their infant daughter, likewise, did not survive long in the New World.

The Jolly Flatboatmen by Caleb Bingham

The Jolly Flatboatmen by Caleb Bingham (1857)

Natchez was a rough, lawless frontier settlement when Gayoso arrived in 1789. There were about twenty houses, most of them rough framed affairs, sparsely furnished. Kentuckians and other westerners descended the Mississippi with flatboats of goods to sell, unloaded their cargoes, then raised hell in the taverns. Often they stole a horse to get back home, via the Natchez Trace. Stolen goods frequently changed hands in the taverns for the price of a few drinks. Counterfeiting was big business, and slaves were common targets for thievery. Gayoso himself was ripped off by an American traveler to whom he extended hospitality, losing two slaves, a shotgun, carbine, bridles, and two saddles. (The thief was caught and returned for trial.)

Gayoso sought to lower the high rate of homicide in his frontier district by banning knives and pistols, but outlaws with a penchant for stabbing circumvented the law by fashioning effective stilettos of hardened wood. As governor, Gayoso was the chief magistrate and possessed the power to adjudicate disputes and arrange settlements. In Natchez Saturday was court day, and Gayoso spent virtually the entire day hearing complaints of various types and rendering his decisions. He was as tough on miscreants as his authority allowed, petitioning Miró unsuccessfully for the funds to build a jail. Gayoso had considerable power over the church in his district. Because the governors were considered the Spanish King’s representatives the new world, they had the power to create new bishoprics, dioceses, parishes, and other church posts. Gayoso was tolerant of various religious sects in Natchez, but he didn’t take any guff off the priests and didn’t hesitate to let them know who was boss.

Francisco Luis Héctor de Carondelet

Francisco Luis Héctor de Carondelet, Governor-General of Louisiana

Miró left the governorship of Louisiana in 1791 and returned to Spain. Gayoso had hoped to replace him, but was disappointed when Francisco Luis Hector de Carondelet was appointed in his place. Despite initial reason for tension, the two men seemed to have had an effective working relationship. When Carondelet arrived in 1791, he was appalled at the state of Spain’s defenses on the lower Mississippi. Together, Gayoso and Carondelet set about a long-term program to beef up Spain’s military defenses. At Gayoso’s urging, Carondelet created the Squadron of the Mississippi, which came to include six galleys, four galiots, one bombardier, and six cannon launches. In 1795, the crew members numbered over 300. The larger galleys boasted an 18-pounder cannon and eight to ten swivel guns. They were used for reconnaissance expeditions up and down the Mississippi.

Gayoso also recommended to Carondelet construction of additional forts in the Mississippi Valley. They beefed up defenses in Nogales, Natchez, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. Gayoso beat the Americans to Chickasaw Bluffs through painstaking negotiations with the Chickasaws, who finally consented to let Spain build a small military post there. Gayoso was supported by a majority of the ships in the Spanish squadron when he established a new military post at Chickasaw Bluffs in 1795.

The new fortifications aside, Gayoso believed that the primary defense of Louisiana lay not in expensive permanent forts, but in the willingness of Natchez settlers to defend their homes and plantations. Louisiana had a regular battalion of infantry—at least on paper (in fact, the battalion was never at full strength despite recruiting efforts in Mexico and emptying out all the jails in the Spanish empire). Gayoso persuaded Carondelet to organize a real militia, though Carondelet was mistrustful of the French settlers in Natchez and was reluctant to give them too much leeway. Gayoso persevered, and by the fall of 1793, he had organized two companies of infantry, two of cavalry, and one of artillery for Natchez.

Gayoso’s mansion, “Concord,” was the social and political center of Natchez. A lady who remembered the mansion as a young girl gave this description:

The very first sight of the house, seen through a long vista of noble trees, as you enter the gate, forms a splendid picture. About half way from the gate is a large pond surrounded by gnarled old cedars, after which the road branches into two, on each side of an extensive sloping lawn, and the end of the delightful drive brings us to the house itself.

Built of brick with walls fully two feet thick, there is an air of massiveness and solidity about this grand old house that gives promise of centuries of useful existence before it shall succumb to the leveling hand of time.

On the ground floor a broad gallery paved with brick completely circles the house, and lofty pillars reaching to the roof support another broad gallery upon which all the second story rooms open. These pillars are about four feet in diameter, made of brick covered with mortar, which gives them the appearance of stone. Two winding flights of stairs, one on each side of the entrance, made of the purest white marble, lead from the ground to the upper gallery, where they meet in  a solid slab of snow white marble about six feet wide and ten feet long … A vestibule paved with alternate squares of black and white marble, after the houses of Pompeii, leads through the richly carved front door into a broad hall extending the full length of the house.

Concord mansion, Natchez

Gayoso's home, Concord, in Natchez. This beautiful mansion burned in 1901.

Gayoso filled his mansion with ornate furniture imported from Spain and Santo Domingo, spent wildly and entertained lavishly. A friend described Gayoso during this time as “of high stature, and stoutly built,” and added, “he was fond of horses, of good cheer and madeira.” He owned matched bay horses, and a black and a roan. In 1799, he ordered a special “elastic jacket, which is very convenient apparel for a corpulent person to ride on horse back.”

To his beautiful home, Gayoso brought his second wife, an American beauty named Elizabeth Watts, in April 1792. Unfortunately, Elizabeth contracted a fever and died within three months of their marriage. A curious legend sprang up that the grief-stricken governor kept his dead wife in a tub filled with embalming fluid on the second story of Concord.

Bishop Luis Ignacio Maria de Peñalver y Cárdenas

Bishop Luis Ignacio Maria de Peñalver y Cárdenas of New Orleans

Several years passed before Gayoso began courting the younger sister of his second wife, Margaret Cyrilla Watts. However, the road to matrimony was far from smooth. When Gayoso sailed north to New Madrid in 1795 (where he happened to run into young William Clark), ugly rumors circulated to the effect that he was keeping a mistress there, had built a house for her, and intended to marry her. Governor Carondelet heard the rumors and was disturbed enough to write to Gayoso, reminding him that it was common knowledge that he had “lived as a husband” to Margaret Watts in Natchez and that if he didn’t behave himself, he was going to get in trouble with the Bishop of New Orleans.

Gayoso finally requested a royal license to marry Margaret in early 1796. Carondelet forwarded the paperwork through the captain-general of Cuba to the secretary of war. Official permission was not forthcoming until March 1797, by which time Margaret was noticeably pregnant. Concerned about their status, Gayoso asked Carondelet to grant interim permission, which he declined to do.

On July 14, 1797, Margaret gave birth to a healthy son, whom they named Fernando. When the Gayosos went to New Orleans later that year, an interesting religious ceremony took place, in which the Bishop baptized young Fernando and married his parents.

Gayoso died of yellow fever in Louisiana in 1799. Unkind gossips claimed that hard drinking with a visiting American general—by the name of James Wilkinson—was a contributing factor. American politician Andrew Ellicott wrote this description of Gayoso after his death:

He was educated in Great Britain, and retained in a considerable degree the manners, and customs, of that nation until his death, especially in his style of living. In his conversation he was easy and affable, and his politeness was of that superior cast, which showed it to be the effect of early habit, rather than an accomplishment merely intended to render him agreeable. His passions were naturally so strong, and his temper so remarkably quick, that they sometimes hurried him into difficulties, from which he was not easily extricated. He was fond of show and parade, which he indulged to the great injury of his fortune, and not a little to his reputation as a paymaster. This fondness for parade showed itself in all his transactions, but in nothing more than the ordinary business of his government, to which, method and system, were too generally sacrificed. In his domestic character, he merited imitation: he was a tender husband, an affectionate parent, and a good master.

Coming next week: Gayoso, Wilkinson, and the Spanish Conspiracy

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Location: 45 miles northeast of Great Falls

Welcome to historic Fort Benton

Fort Benton, the nearest town to the great Lewis & Clark Decision Point site, is well worth a morning or afternoon in itself. This is truly a town of the Great Plains, nestled along the Missouri River amidst low rolling hills covered in dry yellow grass. Outside of the town, there’s nary a tree in sight.

Old Shep by Bob Scriver (1992). The Grand Union hotel is in the background.

We arrived about lunchtime and found a great spot for a picnic along the banks of the Missouri. Fort Benton has landscaped their riverfront with picnic tables and several statues and historical displays. The most adorable is a statue of a dog named Old Shep. Shep was a border collie who belonged to an old sheepherder. In 1936, his master became gravely ill and was brought to the hospital at Fort Benton, where he died. Old Shep waited outside the hospital and the funeral home, then followed the coffin to the train station and watched sadly while his beloved friend was shipped back east to be returned to his family for burial.

Old Shep was adopted by the station master and became a fixture of the town, sleeping under the platform, greeting every arriving visitor, and giving a wagging sendoff to every train departing the town. His was the kind of sentimental story tailor-made for Depression-era journalists, and the dog’s supposed vigil for his departed master became the subject of articles in the national press. When the aging dog slipped on the tracks in 1942 and was dispatched to the next world by an incoming train, Fort Benton held a funeral for him and buried him on a bluff overlooking the train station.

Explorers at the Marias by Bob Scriver, at the Fort Benton riverfront

After lunch we had a great relaxing stroll along the river. The view of the Missouri River here is beautiful — straight out of Ken Burns. There are a number of fun and amusing things to see and photograph along the riverfront, from the wonderful Lewis and Clark statue by Bob Scriver to a replica keelboat that was used in the movie The Big Sky. Many historical markers tell the story of Fort Benton’s heyday in the 1870s and 1880s, a truly roaring era in which this now-sleepy town was one of the nation’s major inland ports.

Fort Benton got its start in 1846 as an outpost of the American Fur Trading Company and was named for Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Though no one knew it at the time, it would actually be the last fur-trading fort built on the Upper Missouri River.  A few years later, the army mounted the first major explorations of the region since Lewis & Clark, focused on finding good routes for future railroads. As part of these explorations, a 24-year-old West Point engineer, Lieutenant John Mullan, was tasked with surveying and building the first wagon road through the Rocky Mountains. Commanding a work crew of over 200 civilians and soldiers, Mullan managed to carve out a 25-foot-wide road from Fort Benton in the east to Walla Walla, Washington in the west.  The Mullan Road was completed in 1860.

Fort Benton during the boom

The gold rush of the 1860s would be the making of Fort Benton. The location happened to be the further point on the Missouri which was navigable by steamboats. The gold strikes at Grasshopper Creek, Alder Creek, and Last Chance Gulch fired the imaginations of Americans just recovering from the devastation of the Civil War, and the word went out: “All trails lead out of Fort Benton.” Prospectors hoping to strike it rich poured into the town by the thousands, each stopping long enough to partake of the saloons, dance halls, and brothels that sprang up to fleece them out of a little of their stake. Tiny Fort Benton became known as the “wildest block in the west.” As many as ten steamboats a day were unloading cargo and wagons and taking gold back to St. Louis.  

Indians at "Fort Whoop-Up," a whiskey trading post near Lethbridge, Alberta

At one point, more than half the cargo arriving at Fort Benton was whiskey. Until 1869, the Alberta territory in Canada had been controlled by the Hudson’s Bay fur company. With the fur trade at an end, the company had turned it over to the Canadian government, leaving it a lawless no-man’s land. Traders from Fort Benton hacked out a road known as the “Whoop Up Trail” that led well into Alberta and Saskatchewan, and set up more than 40 whiskey outposts to trade firewater to the Blackfoot Indians in exchange for buffalo hides. In 1873, the Canadian government created a special police force (which became the legendary Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or “mounties”) to shut down the Whoop-Up Trail.

The amazing boom times at Fort Benton came to a sudden, shattering end in 1883. That year, the Northern Pacific Railroad was completed to Helena, and the Canadian Pacific was completed to Calgary. There was no more reason for anyone to come to Fort Benton anymore. The beautiful Grand Union hotel went belly-up, and most of the people left. But Fort Benton survives, a small town serving the surrounding ranches and providing a fun place to spend time for the history-minded traveler, too. The people we met were very nice and friendly, eager to share their town’s history, and curious to learn about visitors and what brings them to their neck of the woods.

We were lucky enough to spend one night at the historic Grand Union hotel. This hotel is like a museum in itself, full of fascinating historic photographs of past times in Fort Benton. The beautiful restoration makes a stay here like going back in time. This hotel, and Fort Benton itself, has a checkered past and a warm, welcoming present. Montana is famous for its integrity and pride of place; look no further than Fort Benton for a good example.

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