Accessibility links

Breaking News

Sex Lives of Lewis and Clark Expedition Provides Instructive Angle on Journey - 2004-02-23

Historians across the U.S. are trumpeting the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, a celebration of the famed journey of exploration, from St. Louis to the Puget Sound. Organizers predict up to 30 million tourists may re-trace the trail, snapping pictures and buying commemorative souvenirs. But one aspect of the Lewis and Clark Expedition has been largely ignored: the active sex lives of the men. It's an instructive angle on the story of the Corps of Discovery.

At the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City, Iowa, visitors watch robotic figures of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark mourn the loss of companion Sergeant Floyd.

"You spend months, thinking of everything you could possibly need on an expedition, yet somehow you're still unprepared for moments like this"

But Lewis and Clark were prepared for meeting and consorting with members of the opposite sex. One encounter was recorded by Clark in November 1805: "An old woman and wife to a chief of the Chinooks came and made a camp near ours. She brought with her six young squaws, I believe for the purpose of gratifying the passions of the men of our party. Those people appear to view sensuality as a necessary evil, and do not appear to abhor it as a crime in the unmarried state."

That's why the expedition brought along penis syringes, for treating venereal disease, which occurred often, and also salves and mercury.

Marcia Poole, Assistant Director of the Center, says "they were young men, they were full of passion, they had to be full of passion!" She says while some tourists are shocked upon hearing about the explorer's sex lives, she says it makes for good history. "People are much more interesting with all of their, shall we say, I'm not sure! Their imperfections, perhaps is one way to put it. But we're all human beings, and that tells us more what these people were."

And visitors like Jim Caler and Bryan Hill are sympathetic. "I can see that, I can understand that!," says Mr. Caler. Mr. Hill adds "you send men out to the wilderness for a couple of years, and they're bound to want some fun."

But Brad Tennant, a history professor at Presentation College in Aberdeen, says the spiritual beliefs of the Arikaras and Mandans gave the explorers a chance for some intercultural relations. "If a person had intercourse with a woman, then that woman had intercourse with her husband, then the power from one person to the next would be transferred to pass on that ability to be good hunters, be good providers and here you have this new group of people who are seen as being very special, as having "big medicine."

More sexual encounters happened with the Shoshones, who became resentful if their women were rejected. In the Pacific Northwest, the Clatsop and Chinook Indians used sex for trade, to the point where Lewis warned his men against running out of provisions.

But the Corps of Discovery's unofficial explorations may have left a few legacies along the trail, too.

In a cemetery on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation of South Dakota, Sheldon Fletcher reads his great-great-great grandfather's marker: "Joseph Lewis DeSmet, born 1805, died 1889, son of Meriwether Lewis of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition."

Mr. Fletcher says while meeting with Teton Sioux Indians near the Bad River in 1804, Lewis may have accidentally put himself into a marriage with an Indian woman named Winona. He says a language barrier and the willingness to make peace with the tribe probably led to the arrangement.

Yet the explorer's journals say while the Teton Sioux offered women as hospitality, their offers were rejected, twice. Some call Sheldon Fletcher's story an old wives' tale.

But at the Center for Western Studies in Sioux Falls, researcher Harry Thompson unfolds a musty registry that reinforces his claim. "June 18, 1872. Joseph DeSomet Lewis, baptized at Yankton Agency at age 68. His parents are listed as Captain Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition, mother given as Winona. Signed by officiating priest, Joseph Cook."

But not everyone accepts an alleged lineage to the expedition. In his home on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, Harry Charger sings a prayer song for a sweat lodge ceremony. His great-great-grandfather, Martin Charger, is listed in some records as the son of Meriwether Lewis.

Mr. Charger says the claims were made to liven up history books. "Of course, people will add and delete and argue, and only the Great Essence knows what is true," he says.

At least one tribe used sex to create a more permanent alliance with the expedition. Otis Halfmoon of the Nez Perce says William Clark fathered a reddish-haired, blue-eyed child with a chief's daughter in 1806. "They called him 'Daytime Smoker', he used to brag around, "Me son of Clark, me, Clark."

Mr. Halfmoon says "Daytime Smoker" was seen by the tribe as evidence of peace with the tribe and the Americans, but ironically he died as a prisoner of the U.S. government after the Nez Perce War of 1877.

This is a largely unexplored and under-reported side of American history. But Otis Halfmoon says the Lewis and Clark bicentennial gives Native Americans a forum to share accounts that have been mostly ignored in history books.