Who doesn’t enjoy a “how we met” story? There is a charming story about how William Clark met his future bride, a year or so before the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
Hancock family legend has it that young Julia “Judy” Hancock, who was about 11 or 12, and her cousin Harriet Kennerly, age 14, were out riding near their handsome family estate, Santillane, in western Virginia. One of their horses became balky, and the girls were having trouble getting home.
Along came a handsome red-headed gentleman — none other than William Clark — who helped the girls get the horse going and escorted them home. Little did the pretty young girls dream that they had both met their future husband.
We’ve written previously about Julia’s father, a tough and very wealthy Revolutionary War veteran (see Buried Sitting Up and a Fed to Boot for more details). Suffice to say that Colonel Hancock’s daughters and nieces were highly sought-after Virginia belles. Though we may recoil with a certain ick factor today, it wouldn’t have been at all unusual if William Clark — then just past 30 years old — had expressed an interest in Julia to her father, in spite of her young age. In those days, women of the gentry class on the frontier were often married off very young in those days after fierce competition from multiple suitors; Clark’s own mother, the redoubtable Ann Rogers Clark, had been a bride at 14.
It appears that Colonel Hancock did not give his permission to Clark to court young Julia right away, but he apparently looked favorably on Clark’s interest in his daughter. In effect, the colonel seems to have made it clear to Clark that if he could establish himself financially (something that he had yet to do due to a multiplicity of family troubles), he would give Clark a chance to court his daughter when she was a bit older. Thus, not the least of William Clark’s incentives for joining Meriwether Lewis on the Expedition would have been the opportunity to secure fame and fortune so that he could have a fighting chance of winning Julia for a wife.
There is evidence that he thought of Julia during the Expedition with the naming of the Judith River in her honor. What is undisputable is that Clark made a beeline for Fincastle County upon his return from the West and began courting Julia. They were married in early 1808, when Julia was 16 and Clark was 37.
By all accounts the marriage was a happy one. The couple lived in St. Louis, which as a frontier village was a far cry from life at Santillane. Nonetheless, Julia — noted for her love of music and Shakespeare — learned to cook and run a household. Clark writes frequently in his letters with tender concern and pride about her life, from her cooking and canning to her pregnancies to her battles with mosquitoes.
By the time she was 28, Julia was the mother of five children, the last of whom, John Julius, had a serious deformity believed to have been spina bifida. She was also gravely ill herself. From Clark’s letters, it is difficult to determine what had happened to shatter Julia’s health. Some of the symptoms Clark describes sound like breast cancer, while others sound more like tuberculosis or some other lung ailment. Julia went home to Virginia and the Hancock family estate (now moved to Fotheringay in Montgomery County) in hopes of recovering. Instead, she died there in the summer of 1820.
Needless to say, Clark was devastated. He was now the father of five orphaned children ranging in age from eleven to two. Again Clark took the traditional path of a man of his place, time, and social station. He looked around for a nice widow woman with whom he could join forces. And that was how he became reacquainted with that other little girl from the long-ago horseback ride.
Like Clark, Harriet had come to know sorrow. She had been married at age 18 to John Radford, an aspiring doctor. In something of a break from tradition, Radford was about Harriet’s age. The two had three childen and appeared poised for a long and happy marriage when Radford met with an unthinkable hazard of pioneer life: he was attacked and killed by a wild hog while traveling through the Kentucky wilderness. Harriet had moved to St. Louis to live with a brother, where she and Clark met again. They were married in late 1821.
Clark seems to have been both a good judge of women and an affable, easy-to-get-along-with man, for again all accounts indicate that he and Harriet had a happy marriage in spite of the trials and sorrows of life, which included some hard blows indeed: Mary Margaret, Clark’s daughter by Julia, died at the age of seven, and Julius died at the age of thirteen. William and Harriet had two sons together. Jefferson was healthy and strong, but Edmund died when only a year old.
Clark and Harriet also had family troubles that seem more humorous now but probably weren’t at the time. Clark’s oldest son, Meriwether Lewis Clark, called Lewis within the family, fell in love with Harriet’s daughter Mary. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn’t mutual, and Mary proceeded with plans to marry Stephen Watts Kearney, a young soldier who would go on to fame as a leading military officer in the Mexican War and on the California frontier. Lewis was a student at West Point when he learned of the planned wedding, and raced to St. Louis in time to burst into the church as the ceremony was underway and proclaim his love for Mary to the entire town. The wedding was rescheduled and doubtless the people of St. Louis had something to talk about for a good long while.
Harriet herself seems to have died rather suddenly on Christmas Day, 1831, at the age of 43. Again surviving letters do not give much clue as to what happened. Clark biographer Landon Jones speculates that infectious disease may have simply carried her away. In any case, Clark, a widower again at age 61 with an eight-year-old son, did not remarry a third time.
A writing note: the age difference between William Clark and Julia, who is a major character in To the Ends of the Earth, posed quite a writing challenge. We finally decided to just explore these characters with as much compassion and insight as we could and let the chips fall where they may. We ended up loving the way this part of the story turned out; it brings a tenderness, humor, and drama to the story that would not otherwise exist.
As we saw it, Julia is still just a kid in many ways. She’s been sheltered all her life, first by her father, then by her husband. She is not accustomed to making decisions on her own. Her life has changed radically in the year and a half between her wedding and the opening of the story. She left her father’s house, got married to an older man with a prominent position in society, moved to the boonies of St. Louis, became mistress of her own household, and had a baby. It wouldn’t be surprising if she sometimes wishes she were back in Virginia, playing with her sisters.
It’s fair to say Julia loves, adores and worships Clark. Clark came along about the time she hit puberty, and she has never dreamed or fantasized about any other man. She’s proud that she was able to give him the son he always wanted. At the same time, Julia is beginning to understand Clark as no one ever has before. This marriage is still new, but Julia is starting to see the vulnerabilities in her husband, beyond the macho exterior to the big, loving heart of the man. In the course of the story, her maturity and her ability to help her husband is tested in ways she could have never imagined.