Archive for the ‘Sexuality’ Category

Nootka woman wearing typical Pacific Coast headgear

Nootka woman wearing typical Pacific Coast headgear

On March 15, 1806, Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal: “we were visited this afternoon by Delashshelwilt  a Chinnook Chief his wife and six women of his nation which the old baud his wife had brought for market.” No stranger to white traders on the Pacific Coast, the Chinook women had come to Fort Clatsop hoping to profit from the presence of the Corps of Discovery by selling what the men wanted most: sex.

As Lewis and Clark well knew, the men of the Corps of Discovery were not above resorting to the “good officies” of prostitutes to meet their sexual needs. On November 21, 1805, Clark wrote from their camp along the Columbia that

Several Indians and Squars came this evening I beleave for the purpose of gratifying the passions of our men, Those people appear to View 〈horedom〉 Sensuality as a necessary evile, and do not appear to abhore this as Crime in the unmarried females. The young women Sport openly with our men, and appear to receive the approbation of their friends & relations for So doing    maney of the women are handsom. They are all low both men and women.

Clark noted the presence of venereal disease among the natives, a drawback that didn’t seem to discourage the men from enjoying the women’s favors. Clark noted, “we divided Some ribin between the men of our party to bestow on their favourite Lasses, this plan to Save the knives & more valuable articles.”

Chinook woman and child

Chinook woman and child

While Lewis and Clark obviously accepted sexual relations between their men and the natives – and perhaps participated in it themselves – they seemed to balk at out-and-out prostitution. On Christmas Eve 1805, Clark recorded the visit to Fort Clatsop of a Indian named Cuscalah ” who had treated me So politely when I was at the Clâtsops village.” Cuscalah arrived in a canoe with his young brother and two “Squars” and gave the Captains each a gift of a mat and a parcel of roots. When Cuscalah later demanded two files in exchange for the presents, Clark wrote, “as we had no files to part with, we each rturned the present which we had received, which displeased Cuscalah a little.    he then offered a woman to each of us which we also declined axcepting of, which displeased the whole party verry much—    the female part appeared to be highly disgusted at our refuseing to axcept of their favours &c.” Lewis wrote of the Chinooks a few days later, “they do not hold the virtue of their women in high estimation, and will even prostitute their wives and daughters for a fishinghook or a stran of beads.”

Lewis and Clark had good reason to be cautious. Lewis noted on January 27, 1806 that “Goodrich has recovered from the Louis veneri which he contracted from an amorous contact with a Chinnook damsel. I cured him as I did Gibson last winter by the uce of murcury.” Since mercury was not in fact an effective cure for the Louis veneri or “pox” (syphilis), it must be concluded that Lewis and Clark’s men did more than their fair share to spread venereal disease among the native populations of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers.  The presence of other whites on trading ships along the Pacific Coast added to the problem. By the time the “old baud” showed up with her six girls, Lewis would have none of it. He dryly observed, “this was the same party that had communicated the venerial to so many of our party in November last, and of which they have finally recovered. I therefore gave the men a particular charge with rispect to them which they promised me to observe.” To prevent further outbreaks of venereal disease, Lewis ordered his men not to sport with the “tawny damsels.”

Clark's journal drawing of flattened heads of Pacific Coast Indians

Clark's journal drawing showing flattened heads of Pacific Coast Indians

For his own part, Lewis seems to have found it easy to resist the Chinook women. His journal entries reveal that he found the natives of the Pacific Coast singularly unattractive. On March 19, 1806, a few days after the “old baud’s” visit, Lewis wrote clinically about the natives’ appearance:

they are low in statue reather diminutive, and illy shapen; possessing thick broad flat feet, thick ankles, crooked legs wide mouths thick lips, nose moderately large, fleshey, wide at the extremity with large nostrils, black eyes and black coarse hair.    their eyes are sometimes of a dark yellowish brown the puple black. I have observed some high acqualine noses among them but they are extreemly rare.    the nose is generally low between the eyes.—    the most remarkable trait in their physiognomy is the peculiar flatness and width of forehead which they artificially obtain by compressing the head between two boards while in a state of infancy and from which it never afterwards perfectly recovers.

Lewis also noted the swollen legs of the natives: “the large or apparently swolen legs particularly observable in the women are obtained in a great measure by tying a cord tight around the ankle.    their method of squating or resting themselves on their hams which they seem from habit to prefer to siting,  no doubt contributes much to this deformity of the legs by preventing free circulation of the blood.”

Chinook woman and child, by Paul Kane

Chinook woman and child, by Paul Kane

Finally, Lewis couldn’t resist a swipe at the women’s abbreviated clothing, sagging breasts, and exposed private parts:

The dress of the women consists of a robe, tissue, and sometimes when the weather is uncomonly cold, a vest.    their robe is much smaller than that of the men, never reaching lower than the waist nor extending in front sufficiently far to cover the body…  when this vest is woarn the breast of the woman is concealed, but without it which is almost always the case, they are exposed, and from the habit of remaining loose and unsuspended grow to great length particularly in aged women in many of whom I have seen the bubby reach as low as the waist. The garment which occupys the waist, and from thence as low as nearly to the knee before and the ham, behind, cannot properly be denominated a peticoat, in the common acceptation of that term; it is a tissue of white cedar bark, bruised or broken into small shreds, which are interwoven in the middle by means of several cords of the same materials, which serve as well for a girdle as to hold in place the shreds of bark which form the tissue, and which shreds confined in the middle hand with their ends pendulous from the waist, the whole being of sufficient thickness when the female stands erect to conceal those parts usually covered from familiar view, but when she stoops or places herself in many other attitudes, this battery of Venus is not altogether impervious to the inquisitive and penetrating eye of the amorite.

In other words, he couldn’t help looking, but he didn’t like what he saw. Lewis temporarily dropped his scientific tone to offer this scathing judgment: “I think the most disgusting sight I have ever beheld is these dirty naked wenches.” Unfortunately, there is no record of what the Chinook women thought about him.

More interesting reading:

Love in the Afternoon: Syphilis and the Lewis & Clark Expedition

Lewis and Clark Among the Clatsops


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The fall of 1807 marked one year since Meriwether Lewis returned from the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Appointed by Jefferson to the post of Governor of Upper Louisiana, Lewis had yet to leave for St. Louis to take up his duties. He lingered in the east, romance among the many things crowding his mind. Although he had been entranced by several “bewitching gypsies” in that city, Lewis had yet to find that special someone.

Portrait of a Young Woman, by Jean-Marc Nattier

Portrait of a Young Woman, by Jean-Marc Nattier

“I am now a perfect widower with rispect to love,” Lewis complained to his friend Mahlon Dickerson of Philadelphia. “I feel all that restlessness, that inquietude, that certain indiscribable something common to old bachelors, which I cannot avoid thinking my dear fellow, proceeds, from that void in our hearts, which might, or ought to be better filled. Whence it comes I know not, but certain it is, that I never felt less like a heroe than at the present moment. What may be my next adventure god knows, but on this I am determined, to get a wife.”

That November, Lewis thought he had found the ideal candidate. While visiting the Fincastle, Virginia home of George Hancock (the father of William Clark’s intended, Julia Hancock), Lewis made the acquaintance of lovely 16 year-old Letitia Breckinridge and her sister, Elizabeth. Letitia and Elizabeth were the daughters of prominent Fincastle lawyer and Revolutionary War veteran James Breckenridge, a member of the Virginia legislature and a future Congressman and brigadier general.

Lewis made no secret of the fact that he was smitten with Letitia. His brother Reuben Lewis wrote home that the “accomplished and beautiful” girl was “one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, both as to form and features … I should like to have her as a sister.”

James Breckinridge

James Breckinridge, Letitia's father

Hoping to win the young lady’s affections, Lewis expressed his intention of making a formal call on Letitia with the object of courting her. Unfortunately for Lewis, the girl reacted negatively. She was not interested and seemed to want to flee from Lewis’s “challenge.” Shortly after her meeting with Lewis, Letitia decamped to Richmond with her father. Reuben wrote glumly, “unfortunately for his Excellency [Lewis], she left the neighborhood 2 days after our arrival so that he was disappointed in his design of addressing her.”

Of all Lewis’s abortive affairs of the heart, this one seems particularly to have stung. It is not known why Letitia fled from Lewis’s affections. Undaunted Courage author Stephen Ambrose suggests that perhaps Lewis simply came on too strong, or maybe Letitia was put off by his heavy drinking – though Lewis would hardly have been unique among Virginia gentry in that respect. It may have been all too obvious that Lewis was still struggling with the problems of re-entry into “normal” life following the high adventure and independent command of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Or perhaps Letitia simply had someone else already in mind.

Following his attendance at his co-captain William Clark’s wedding in January 1808, Lewis left for St. Louis to take up his governor’s post. That summer, he heard from another friend, William Preston, that Letitia had married a rich young fellow named Robert Gamble of Richmond. “So be it,” Lewis replied, resigned. “May God be with her and her’s, and the favored angels of heaven guard her bliss both here and hereafter, is the sincere prayer of her very sincere friend, to whom she has left the noble concentration of scratching his head and biting his nails, with ample leasure to reuminate on the chapter of accidents in matters of love and the folly of castle-building.”

Lewis tried to be generous to the winning suitor, Robert Gamble. “Gamble is a good tempered, easy honest fellow,” Lewis conceded wistfully. “I have known him from a boy; both his means and his disposition well fit him for sluming away life with his fair one in the fassionable rounds of a large City. Such is the life she has celected and in it’s pursuit I wish she may meet all the pleasures of which it is susceptable.”

There is no further real mention of romance or courting in Lewis’s letters and papers. The press of business and increasing financial woes may have made courting impractical. Or maybe Lewis simply never found the right person. He was destined to die in 1809, aged 35, a “musty, fusty, rusty old bachelor” to the end.

As for Letitia, her marriage to Robert Gamble appears to have been a successful one. She bore Gamble nine children. Eventually they moved to Tallahassee, Florida. During the Civil War, several of Letitia and Robert Gamble’s sons served as officers in the Confederate Army. Letitia survived the war, dying in Tallahassee in March 1866, aged 75.

John C. Breckinridge in Confederate uniform

John C. Breckinridge in Confederate uniform

If Letitia’s maiden name, Breckinridge, rings a bell, it should. Letitia’s uncle, John Breckinridge, was the progenitor of the famous Breckinridge dynasty of Kentucky, which produced generations of illustrious politicians, military officers, social activists, and diplomats. The most famous member of the Breckinridge clan was John C. Breckinridge, who served as Vice President under James Buchanan and ran unsuccessfully for President in 1860, coming in third to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Although Kentucky decided to remain with the Union upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Breckinridge broke ranks with his state and sided with the Confederacy, serving as a general in many of the major battles in both the western and the eastern theater.

Named Confederate Secretary of War in early 1865, Breckinridge did his best to broker an honorable peace for the Confederacy. Historians owe him a debt, as he was instrumental in saving the Confederate government archives from destruction during the fall of Richmond in April 1865. Fearing he would be put on trial, Breckinridge fled the country after the Confederate surrender, but was granted amnesty and returned to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1869. He died there of cirrhosis in 1875.

John "Bunny" Breckinridge in Plan 9 from Outer Space

John "Bunny" Breckinridge in Plan 9 from Outer Space

If John C. Breckinridge was the most famous member of the Breckinridge clan, the  most infamous member was his great grandson, John Cabell “Bunny” Breckinridge, who appeared as the alien leader  in Ed Wood’s notorious cult film Plan 9 from Outer Space. A flamboyant homosexual and sometime drag queen, Bunny Breckinridge worked as a burlesque performer and actor in Europe before settling in San Francisco in the 1920’s. Openly gay in an era when it was unheard of, Breckinridge later attracted the attention of pulp movie director Ed Wood, who cast him in Plan 9, which would affectionately come to be called “the worst movie ever made.”

Although Breckinridge was convicted of “sex perversion” and briefly committed to a criminal hospital following the release of the movie in 1959, he continued to live his life openly and unrepentantly, becoming a favorite of other celebrities and young hippies for his unique lifestyle and flamboyant ways. He lived long enough to see Plan 9 become a cult favorite and to see himself portrayed in Tim Burton’s 1994 movie, Ed Wood.  When he passed away in 1996 at age 93, the following quote in his obituary summed up his life: “I was a little bit wild when I was young, darling, but I lived my life grandly.”

More great reading: The Two Wives of William Clark

Postscript: My frequent commenter Shannon Kelly found this portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble in the inventory files of the Smithsonian. It was painted by Cephas Thompson (1775-1856).  Excellent sleuthing, Shannon! Thanks!

Portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble, by Cephas Thompson

Portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble, by Cephas Thompson

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Lest you think that the recent sex scandals involving former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, and North Carolina Senator John Edwards are anything new under the sun, be assured that things were just as down and dirty in the early days of our great republic. Many of the worst accusations centered around the political rivalry of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson—and a scandal-mongering, muckraking journalist named James Callender.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

A Scotsman by birth, James Callender cut his teeth as a pamphleteer in England, publishing satirical attacks on writer Samuel Johnson and pointed commentary on King George III’s policies. Charged with treason, Callender fled to America in 1793. There he set his poison pen to work and made a name for himself as a journalist for the pro-Republican, anti-British press. In 1797, Callender published a series of tracts, History of the United States for the Year 1796, which were complimentary of Thomas Jefferson and Democratic-Republican principles in general. No one paid much attention to the first four tracts, but when issues five and six came out, the whole nation was paying attention. For Callender used his modest pamphlets to expose the scandal concerning Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and one Mrs. Maria Reynolds.

Mrs. Reynolds, was, in all likelihood, a con woman. Her abusive husband made a living by swindling veterans out of their claims to government land and paying them a fraction of their value. Mrs. Reynolds, age 23, sought out Alexander Hamilton in a moment of distress. He wrote later: “With a seeming air of affliction she informed me … that her husband, who had for a long time treated her very cruelly, had lately left her, to live with another woman, and in so destitute a condition … she had taken the liberty to apply to my humanity for assistance.”  Mrs. Reynolds got more than Hamilton’s assistance; she became his mistress. Mrs. Reynold’s husband quickly came back into the picture, and Hamilton found himself the target of a blackmail scheme.

Callender’s tracts revealed the whole shocking story: how Hamilton had paid Reynolds $1000 to crawl back under a rock and allow Hamilton to continue seeing his wife in peace. Eventually, however, Reynolds upped the ante. When Hamilton refused to help him get out of jail on a petty forgery charge, Reynolds tipped off Hamilton’s enemies in Congress to the burgeoning adultery scandal. He provided Hamilton’s enemies with copies of love letters between Hamilton and his wife, and claimed that Hamilton was providing him with inside tips about government securities.

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown (1786)

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown (1786)

Hamilton had managed to keep the lid on the scandal for years, but now James Callender had a hold of it. Enraged, Hamilton accused James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson of leaking the scandalous letters. And he threatened to go public with a bombshell of his own, an old chestnut known as the “Betsey Walker story.”

John Walker had been a good friend and neighbor of Thomas Jefferson’s. During the summer of 1768, Walker left home for four months to help conclude an Indian treaty, asking Jefferson—then a young, single planter and lawyer—to look after his wife Betsey and their infant daughter. Twenty years passed before Betsey Walker cracked and made some kind of confession to her husband. Clearly he didn’t take it seriously, because ten more years passed before Walker wrote a farcical, “Tales of Ribaldry”-style account of what Betsey said happened between her and Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton did not go public with the Betsey Walker story, probably because he simply did not have solid evidence that anything improper had happened. Instead, he decided to go the “I have sinned” route in an attempt to save his public virtue at the expense of his private reputation. In a letter published in the Gazette of the United States, Hamilton confessed to adultery and denied participating in any Treasury speculations. “The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for the purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife…This confession is not made without a blush.”

Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton

Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton: standing by her man

The misery this must have caused Mrs. Hamilton—then in the late stages of pregnancy—can well be imagined, but even more damaging was the fact that no one believed Hamilton’s claim that he did not participate in any illegal activities. Nor did anyone believe Jefferson’s claims that he had not been the one to give the incriminating love letters to James Callender (though in fact, he did not). In any case, the scandal permanently soiled Alexander Hamilton’s reputation, and  may have cost him a chance at the presidency.

Jefferson himself maintained his usual judicious silence. No doubt remembering Hamilton’s embarrassing confession, when the “Betsey Walker story” finally broke into the open in 1805, Jefferson said nothing publicly to refute it. The closest he came to an admission of guilt came in a letter to a member of his cabinet: “You will perceive that I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young and single I offered love to a handsome lady. I acknolege its incorrectness.”  By that time, Callender had turned on Jefferson, and the “Dusky Sally” scandal had eclipsed both Maria Reynolds and Mrs. Walker in the public’s prurient mind.

Further reading: Tall Tom and Dusky Sally

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During the course of their 2 ½ year journey, Lewis and Clark faced an enemy even more implacable than the Teton Sioux, the grizzly bear, and the dreaded mosquito. This was the Louis Veneri—also known as syphilis.

Columbus meeting the Natives

Columbus meeting the Natives - unfortunately, they exchanged more than a handshake

Syphilis was first identified as a disease three centuries earlier, when it burst upon the scene in Europe with sudden and shocking virulence. Its origins were (and still are) controversial. Syphilis exploded during the French invasion of Naples in 1495, decimating the French army and earning it the nickname, “the French disease.” However, the French army was heavily loaded with mercenaries from other European countries, including men who had sailed as part of Christopher Columbus’s crew just a few years earlier. It’s possible these men had become infected with the disease in the New World. The “Old World-New World” controversy rages to this day, with some scientists hypothesizing that syphilis was present in Europe as far back as ancient Greece and others believing it was a New World transplant.

At any rate, the strain of syphilis that hit Europe at the end of the 15th century was much more virulent than the disease is today. Unfortunate victims became covered with pustules from head to knees, suffered flu-like symptoms, and, as the disease began to affect the internal organs and central nervous system, declined and died within a few months. This extreme virulence had moderated by Lewis and Clark’s day, but the disease was recognized as a serious problem that needed careful treatment.

Lewis and Clark obviously anticipated that venereal disease might be a problem on the Upper Missouri River, and that their men would likely have sexual contact with native women. They packed the medicine chest with several drugs to help combat syphilis and gonorrhea, including mercury-laden calomel, copaiba, and mercury ointment. They were not disappointed. William Clark noted on October 12th of 1804 that the Sioux had a “curious custom,” as did the Arikara, which was “to give handsom squars to those whome they wish to Show some acknowledgements to.” Apparently the men of the Corps of Discovery were feeling modest, for Clark notes that they “got clare [clear]” of the Sioux “without taking their squars.” But by October 15, 1804, Clark recorded that the party had arrived at the Camp of the Arikara, and that “Their womin [were] verry fond of caressing our men &c.” By March of 1805 he noted that the men were “Generally helthy except Venerials Complaints which is very Common amongst the natives…and the men Catch it from them.”

Syphilis spirochete

The syphilis spirochete - persistent and potentially deadly

Syphilis is caused by a variety of bacteria called a spirochete, which enters the body during sexual intercourse and penetrates the mucous membranes, infecting the blood or lymph system. It can incubate in the body for weeks or even months before the infected person manifests any symptoms. The first sign is usually a painless skin lesion at the site of the infection (often the genitals), followed by skin rashes, fever and fatigue, and aches and pains. Men and women who had contracted syphilis often had pustules or “pox” on the skin and were said to be “poxed.”

Or Perish in the Attempt by David J. Peck

Or Perish in the Attempt by David J. Peck (2002)

In the Corps of Discovery, as in the previous three centuries, the preferred treatment was mercury. According to David J. Peck in Or Perish in the Attempt, mercury is actually toxic to the bacterial organism that causes syphilis and can be moderately effective in treating syphilitic symptoms. The trouble is, it is also toxic to the patient that carries the disease. Peck suggests that when a man in the Corps complained of having the “Louis Veneri,” Lewis and Clark used mercury ointments applied topically for several weeks, or until the patient began to salivate. Physicians of the day believed that salivation was a sign that the disease was being expelled from the body. We know today that it is a sign of mercury poisoning.

Lewis recorded the incidences of venereal disease he found among the natives along their journey, along with the natives’ own remedies to cure the malady. He penned this journal entry at Fort Clatsop on January 27, 1806:

Goodrich has recovered from the Louis veneri which he contracted from an amorous contact with a Chinnook damsel. I cured him as I did Gibson last winter by the uce of murcury. I cannot learn that the Indians have any simples which are sovereign specifics in the cure of this disease; and indeed I doubt very much wheter any of them have any means of effecting a perfect cure.    when once this disorder is contracted by them it continues with them during life; but always ends in decipitude, death, or premature old age; tho’ from the uce of certain simples together with their diet, they support this disorder with but little inconvenience for many years, and even enjoy a tolerable share of health; particularly so among the Chippeways who I believe to be better skilled in the uce of those simples than any nation of Savages in North America. The Chippeways use a decoction of the root of the Lobelia, and that of a species of sumac common to the Atlantic states and to this country near and on the Western side of the Rocky Mountains.    this is the smallest species of the sumac, readily distinguished by it’s winged rib, or common footstalk, which supports it’s oppositely pinnate leaves.    these decoctions are drank freely and without limitation.    the same decoctions are used in cases of the gonnaerea and are effecatious and sovereign.    notwithstanding that this disorder dose exist among the Indians on the Columbia yet it is witnessed in but fiew individuals, at least the males who are always sufficiently exposed to the observations or inspection of the phisician.    in my whole rout down this river I did not see more than two or three with the gonnaerea and about double that number with the pox.—

Lewis and Clark did realize the terrible progression of the disease if left untreated, thus they took it seriously. Mercury was freely given, though apparently not in lethal does. In 2002, archeologists were able to pinpoint the location of Travelers Rest, Lewis and Clark’s campsite of September 1805 and June-July 1806, because of the mercury deposits found in the soil there.

Traveler's Rest State Park, Montana

Traveler's Rest State Park, Montana

Syphilis is still a dangerous disease today, but can be effectively cured with penicillin and other antibiotics. Syphilis was at the center of the  most notorious biomedical health study ever conducted in the United States, in which the U.S. Public Health service withheld penicillin from a group of infected African-American sharecroppers in Tuskegee, Alabama for decades, in order to study the long term progression of untreated syphilis.

There has been some speculation, notably by epidemiologist Reinhardt Ravenholt, that Meriwether Lewis himself may have acquired syphilis during his journey to the Pacific, and that this disease led to Lewis’s mental illness and eventual suicide. Other historians disagree, believing Lewis’s physical illness and depression could have resulted from malaria or other causes. You can read Dr. Ravenholt’s article here.

Trail’s End for Meriwether Lewis

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In recent years, as gays have come out of the closet and into the mainstream of American life, there’s been a big effort by gays to “out” famous Americans of the past. It’s easy to understand why. Gays want people to understand that they’ve made important contributions to American life. And outside of the arts, most of those contributions were made by people who had to hide their homosexuality.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

In his recent biography of Alexander Hamilton, for example, Ron Chernow unearthed long-suppressed love letters between Hamilton and his boyfriend, John Laurens, when they were young men during the Revolution. Later in his life, Hamilton was married and had affairs with both men and women. Chernow’s great biography is not prurient at all, but does show how Hamilton’s constant risk-taking in his sex life was part and parcel of his character, and came to jeopardize everything else he’d worked so hard to achieve.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Of more dubious value was C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, which makes a lot out of Honest Abe’s close friendship with Joshua Speed, with whom he shared a bed in his circuit rider days; his stormy marriage to Mary Todd; and his fondness for bawdy jokes. Tripp’s book fails to convince because it pulls Lincoln’s actions out of any historical context. Same-sex bed sharing was common on the frontier in those days; so were intense romantic friendships. In those days, sex was almost never talked about, and many people in polite society didn’t even know that gays existed. This actually freed people to have close friendships in a way that we have not had since sex began to come out into the open (around the time of the Depression). Besides, in later years Lincoln often publicly introduced Speed as the man he used to sleep with, which he hardly would have done if he were worried about any scandal.

Some gay historians have also turned their attention to Meriwether Lewis. Unfortunately, very little of Lewis’s personal correspondence has come to light, so the case for Lewis being gay has to be based largely on conjecture and circumstantial evidence. Lewis had certain traits that we think of today as being stereotypically gay. When he worked as Thomas Jefferson’s secretary, he was a well-known dandy who wore all the latest fashions in clothes and hair style — what we might call today a “metrosexual.” Not only that, he was high-strung, temperamental, and loquacious. And one day on the Expedition, when the Corps of Discovery was pulverized by a hail storm, Captain Lewis gathered up some of the hail stones and made punch.

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis in tippet he received from Cameahwait -- you be the judge.

It’s easy to make fun of this mighty thin gruel. More substantively, Lewis was never married and was notably unsuccessful with women. When he came back from the Expedition, he wrote that he was “determined to get a wife.” But despite being well-built, nice-looking, and a genuine American hero, Lewis repeatedly struck out. Something about his personality sent women screaming in the other direction. After one particularly brutal dumping, in which Lewis went to the woman’s house only to find she had left town in the middle of the night, he wrote glumly, “I never felt less like a hero.” At age 35, he felt doomed to remain a “musty, fusty, rusty old bachelor.”

Lewis’s letters and his Expedition journals reveal a man profoundly uncomfortable with sex. When writing about women back home in Virginia, Lewis writes not of specific girls, but of “fair ones” and “celestial creatures.” When writing about Indian women, Lewis seems positively repulsed, especially by the naked Clatsop women on the Pacific Coast, who exposed their “bubbies” and “battery of Venus” for the world to see.

There’s a great discussion of Lewis’s writings on sex and women in Clay Jenkinson’s monograph The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Completely Metamorphosed in the West. Jenkinson doesn’t think that Lewis was gay, but he does think that Lewis, like his mentor Thomas Jefferson, had some serious issues that prevented him from finding love and being happy with a woman. Others aren’t so sure. Brian Hall based his successful historical novel, I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company, on the premise that Lewis was gay and had unrequited love for Clark. Lewis’s suicide provides the capstone to all the conjecture. Many gays have experienced the haunting loneliness that comes with the certain knowledge of social ostracism if their proclivities became known. What better explanation of Lewis’s tragic death do you need?

Well, maybe. It’s certainly possible that Lewis was gay. Lots of people with his personality type and problems are. But there are also a lot of straight men who wear nice clothes, are squirmy around open displays of nudity, and can’t get a girlfriend. Maybe he came on too strong. Maybe no woman could measure up to his mother. Maybe stories about his drinking and carousing got around.

Or maybe Lewis was just clueless. After all, this is the man who wrote when Sacagawea told the story of how she was kidnapped as a young girl, “I cannot discover that she shews any immotion of sorrow in recollecting this even, or of joy in being restored to her native country; if she has enough to eat and a few trinkets to wear I believe she would be perfectly content anywhere.” To say the least, these aren’t the words every woman longs to hear.

Pierre L'Enfant panel in U.S. Capitol

Pierre L'Enfant showing Washington the plans for the capital city

If Lewis was gay, his enemies didn’t pick up on it. In the Hamilton biography, Chernow provides examples of times when Hamilton’s detractors wrote snidely that Hamilton “pranced” or otherwise acted “effeminate” or “womanish.” A great website about Pierre L’Enfant, the architect of Washington, D.C., talks about the way George Washington and others reacted with alarm to his homosexuality. It seems impossible that Lewis’s enemies, especially the gossipy and destructive Frederick Bates, would have failed to comment if they found anything gay about Lewis’s behavior.

Unless more papers are found that might shed some light on this topic, all we can do is wonder about this piece of the very complex puzzle that was Meriwether Lewis.

More interesting reading:

Sex in the 1790s (From Bob Arnebeck’s website about early Washington, D.C., which covers many topics, not just those about sex. Check out The General and the Plan and be prepared to spend the afternoon!)

Was Lincoln Gay?

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According to Indian oral tradition, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left behind more than memories from their 1803-1806 expedition.

Women of the Nez Perce or Nimiipuu. Mural detail courtesy of Weippe Discovery Center.

Women of the Nez Perce or Nimiipuu. Mural detail courtesy of Weippe Discovery Center.

Anyone who reads the Lewis & Clark journals acquires a fondness for Hohastillpilp (Red Grizzly Bear), a wise and likeable Nez Perce elder who drew maps for the Corps of Discovery and otherwise helped them out during their stay in present-day Idaho. The Nez Perce say that William Clark had an affair with Hohastillpilp’s daughter during the spring of 1806. Clark and the expedition moved on in June, but the daughter gave birth to a son named Hal-lah-too-kit, or Daytime Smoker.

Daytime Smoker (Halaftooki)

Daytime Smoker (Halaftooki)

There’s no evidence that Clark and Daytime Smoker ever met. Daytime Smoker was said to be proud of his lineage, and he lived to a ripe old age. When a man in his 70s, Daytime Smoker participated in Chief Joseph’s famous breakout from the reservation and flight for freedom. He died in Oklahoma during the period in which the Nez Perce were in exile from their native land.

Oral tradition also holds that Meriwether Lewis and a Teton Sioux woman named Ikpsapewin (Winona) conceived a child. The boy, known both as Turkey Head and as Joseph Lewis DeSmet, lived until the age of 84. His baptismal record, which was written when he was an elderly man, lists Lewis as his father. Turkey Head seems to have been regarded as somewhat less reliable than Daytime Smoker — after having let down some of his comrades in a battle as a young man, he disappeared for a while. When he returned home, he claimed to have gone to St. Louis to meet his real father. Since Meriwether Lewis had been dead for some years when this incident occurred, it tends to cast some doubts on Turkey Head’s claims.

According to other traditions, Lewis fathered a man named Martin Charger when among the Sioux, and Clark fathered a man called Peter Clark during the Corps’ stay with the Salish.

In the absence of DNA evidence, there’s no simple way to prove or disprove paternity. It’s always possible that these gentlemen simply thought it sounded better to say they were the sons of the expedition leaders than other relatively obscure members of the Corps. One thing that is for sure is that the Corps of Discovery came prepared for sexual relations with Indian women. Remember, this was long before Victorian times. Sexual attitudes of the early 1800s were very frank and considerably more earthy than many of us are comfortable with even today. Lewis and Clark knew that the men of the Corps would want to have sex, and they brought along treatments for venereal disease and write openly about the matter in the journals.

Mink (Mandan Indian woman), by George Catlin

Mink (Mandan Indian woman), by George Catlin

The Indians also had very different attitudes from what we might be used to as early 21st-century Americans. Sexual fidelity was not a big deal among the Indians. In fact, sexual relations with visitors were encouraged, both as part of good hospitality and also in some cases to acquire the “medicine” or power the visitors seemed to possess. While there is some evidence that the liasions didn’t always work out harmoniously (a jealous husband threatened to kill John Ordway at the Mandan villages), there’s nothing to suggest that the romps in the hay were anything but consensual and enjoyable for all concerned.

Some historians, including Gary Moulton, think that as the commanders, Lewis and Clark didn’t have sex with the Indian women, but I find this hard to believe. Why wouldn’t they? While they might not want to boast about it in the journals or back in polite society in Virginia, they would hardly have met with any disapprobation among the men or the Indians.

As the journals show, the captains certainly record instances of having unwanted attentions pressed on them by overzealous women, and of trying to ban prostitution during the winter at Fort Clatsop. But Lewis was only 30 years old in 1804, and Clark was 34. I believe that Lewis and Clark were professionals who always put safety, discipline, and their mission above everything else. That said, it stretches credibility to think they kept their buckskins buttoned up the whole time.

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