The first obligation of the historical novelist is to create a believable alternate universe, a world of the past that people can enter and explore from the perspective of our own times. When we think about entering the world of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, we may think of technology (no electricity, no telegraph, no railroads, no steamboats). We may think of politics (the U.S. was not a world power, the Indians still hunted the buffalo unmolested by white expansion). Or we may think of glaring social differences, such as the existence of slavery or the role of women.
One difference we may not always consider is the difference in psychology that existed on Lewis and Clark’s frontier. Quite simply, a huge percentage of the population spent years living under the constant threat of Indian raids, and many people had witnessed atrocities and even engaged in mortal combat with the Indians. Today we might expect people who experienced such helplessness and horror to be at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is best understood as a persistent anxiety disorder that is caused by severe trauma that threatens you with serious injury or death. People may suffer from PTSD after a natural disaster or being the victim of a crime, but it is most commonly associated with combat veterans.To some degree the affliction is still quite poorly understood, especially why some people suffer from PTSD and others who endured the same events do not. The answer may lie in biochemistry, differences in the brain, or even genetics. The National Institutes of Health estimates 8% of people involved in a traumatic event will develop the disorder, though some experts believe it is significantly higher.
PTSD has been observed in combat veterans going back to the Civil War, though it was called by other names such as combat fatigue, shell shock, and soldier’s heart. So what about the frontier of Lewis & Clark’s time?
Of the two explorers, the most likely to have been intimately familiar with frontier trauma was William Clark. From the time he was 14, Clark grew up on the Kentucky frontier. During the American Revolution, Kentucky was by far the most violent place in America; in fact, some historians believe that from 1776-1794, Kentucky was the most violent place in the world. In a great article (published in the Australian academic journal ERAS, November 2008) called “Soldiers of Settlement: Violence and Psychological Warfare on the Kentucky Frontier, 1775-1783,” Darren Reid writes about the relentless everyday warfare suffered by Kentuckians during the Revolution and early Federal period. Deaths by combat were seven times higher than in any of the 13 rebelling colonies, and many of them came among civilians.
Meriwether Lewis spent several years of his boyhood on the Georgia frontier, and family lore holds that the family had a tense wait for an Indian raid on one occasion, though fortunately no violence actually occurred. Kentucky was different and far worse. Essentially, almost every adult Clark knew had been a part of extreme traumatic violence, either as a victim, perpetrator, witness, or all three. Certainly Clark’s legendary older brother, the great frontier soldier George Rogers Clark, was deeply involved in the relentless warfare, having formulated and carried out numerous daring plans to combat the British and their allies among the Shawnee, Cherokee, Wyandot, and numerous other tribes.
Clark’s own family suffered severe losses during the frontier war. Clark’s brother Dick, age 24, was serving as an assistant to George Rogers when he disappeared while carrying a message near present-day Vincennes, Indiana. His body was never found but he was presumed killed by Indians. Clark’s cousin Joe Rogers was among the many frontiersmen kidnapped by the Shawnee. As memorably recounted in Long Knife by James Alexander Thom, Rogers lived as a captive for several years before troops engaged with the Shawnee at the Battle of Piqua near present-day Cincinnati in 1782. Unrecognizable as his former self, he was gunned down by American forces under the command of George Rogers Clark while trying to run to the American lines. One can only imagine the anguish of Clark recovering the body of his dead cousin.
The Shawnee and their allies were highly organized and militarily savvy, and they were backed by the full power of the British in supplying both arms and advisers to drive the Americans out of Kentucky. Atrocities included torture, mutilation, and kidnapping of children, which resulted in a spiraling war of retaliation and revenge. Even after the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution in 1783, the British did not vacate their frontier forts (though required to do so by the treaty) and continue to arm and back the Indians.
William Clark may have begun to go out on engagements to fight the Indians with George when he was as young as 16. It is certain that he enlisted in the Kentucky militia at the age of 19 and took part in several search-and-destroy missions against the Indians, including burning villages and crops. In at least one of these skirmishes, Indians attempting to flee in canoes were massacred.
At the age of 21, Clark served as a militiaman under our old friend General James Wilkinson, burning Indian villages but being extremely fortunate to miss the battle known as St. Clair’s Defeat. The losses suffered by the U.S. Army and Kentucky militia in the battle were staggering and have been compared by historians to the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Clark would almost certainly have been killed.
In 1792, Clark was commissioned an infantry lieutenant in the regular army, then being rebuilt almost from scratch by General Anthony Wayne. By 1794, he was highly experienced at scouting and escorting supply convoys and had become a skilled leader, woodsman, and riverman. In March of that year, a large pack train under his command was attacked by Indians. Clark built a breastwork of baggage and fought the Indians off. In August, he commanded a group of Chickasaw allies in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, one of the most decisive battles in American history. This excerpt from our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe gives something of the flavor of that day:
The forest exploded. Hidden in the weeds and the trees, the Indians fired. Balls thudded into flesh. Trees splintered and became projectiles, jagged shards of wood spiraling into faces and eyes.
The forest screamed. Soldiers bellowed, officers roared, horses shrieked. Clark bawled so many orders at the Chickasaws he lost his voice, and now couldn’t remember anything he’d said. Guns blasted everywhere.
In his article, Reid explicitly compares the frontier period in Kentucky with the “woodland warfare” experienced by troops in Vietnam, including the factors of guerrilla war, atrocities committed against civilians, and a constant sense that danger was lurking everywhere and could strike at any moment. Added to that was the witnessing of the suffering of women and children when their men were killed in the war — a circumstance that, in the words of one settler, left the families “poor, distressed, & naked, & starved.”
For decades to come, frontiersmen were often characterized as hard-drinking, violent, and anti-social, as well as restless and always ready to move on to the next frontier. It would be interesting to know to what degree PTSD played a role in these aspects of life in the early American West. In any case, dealing with traumatized people would have simply been part of life for William Clark (and later, during his many years on the frontier, Meriwether Lewis). Who knows — it’s even possible PTSD may have played a role in the alcoholism and lack of focus that characterized the post-war years of George Rogers Clark.
Recent studies of the effects of PTSD on the civilian populaces of places like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan show that the populations have much higher levels of mental illness than similar countries where death and horror are not everyday realities. Combat survivors, who generally have no access to mental health care, suffer from violent flashbacks and unexpected rages. There is even a new word in the language of Rwanda: ihahamuka, which means “breathless with frequent fear.”
Without any mental health care records whatsoever, it’s hard to know how one would go about researching the prevalence of PTSD on the frontier. What is certain is that Clark, Lewis, and anyone else navigating the social scene on the frontier would have to be aware that a huge percentage of the soldiers and civilians they encountered had been involved in the carnage — a reality so gruesome that, thankfully, few of us can imagine it today.
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