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.
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.
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.
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.
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