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BLOG: An American Love Story~Julia Hancock & William Clark

Tomorrow, my fourth historical novel will launch.

West of Santillane is a story of redeeming forgiveness, stubborn love, and acceptance--all on the early American frontier. In it are the adventuresome characters of both William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, the two explorers who carved their way through the western US, discovering that there was no waterway straight to the Pacific, as Jefferson had hoped. However in their adventure--arguably the greatest adventure in all of American history--they came upon numerous flora and fauna that had never before been documented, recorded the various cultures of Native America, and named rivers and rock formations along the way.

One crystal-clear river in what's now Montana, was named by William Clark: the Judith River--named for a girl he remembered fondly in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia: Judith Julia Hancock.

Read ON, everybody!

An Early American Love Story: Julia Hancock & William Clark

By: Brook Allen

History is chock full of love stories. There are few things that attract reader interest more than a unique romance. And what often amazes me is that even in “the chase”, truth is often stranger than fiction. Such is the case with my current work: West of Santillane, which launches tomorrow, March 8th.

For those who have read my Antonius Trilogy; a detailed story of Marc Antony from boyhood to his last breaths in Cleopatra’s arms, you’re aware that there was a huge romantic element in the last book in that series—Soldier of Fate. However, by the time it had launched in October of 2020, Covid-19 had hit with a vengeance and suddenly I needed something new to write about, without any hope of visiting libraries, museums, or traveling much at all. Whatever I chose as my project would need to be close to home and accessible.

I happen to live in Blue Ridge, Virginia, among the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a historic county called Botetourt—named after an illustrious British governor who once administered in Williamsburg prior to the American Revolution. However, Botetourt County is nowhere near Williamsburg and its quaint colonial charm. Botetourt County is in southwestern Virginia amid the rolling Blue Ridge range. But way back in 1763, it encompassed a mind-boggling swath of land, stretching just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, south and west along the Cumberland Gap, clear to the Mississippi River, then northward, clear into what’s now Wisconsin, heading back to the southeast through what is now Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia.

Just one county covered portions of seven states!   

It's here in Botetourt County where West of Santillane begins, during the first quarter of the United States’ short existence, post-Revolution. Centered on a young woman named Julia Hancock, who winds up marrying William Clark, the famed explorer of the Lewis & Clark Expedition—also known as the Corps of Discovery.

Local lore around Fincastle—Botetourt County’s county seat—tells of Julia’s first meeting with William Clark when she was only a child. Julia and her cousin Harriet took off on one of the Hancock’s horses. Apparently, the horse balked at crossing a small stream, and the girls were flummoxed as to what to do next. Along comes a chivalrous, red-haired gentleman—William Clark himself, assisting the young ladies over the stream and on their way.

It's believed that Julia must have impressed him, even at such an early age, because Clark addressed her father, the illustrious George Hancock, who was himself a hero of the American Revolution. The future explorer expressed interest in marrying into the Hancock family, for his own line boasted a lot of fine names, including his brother, George Rogers Clark, who was a famous general in America’s “Old Northwest” during the American Revolution. However, William Clark had yet to prove himself, and it’s likely that George Hancock expressed that fact.

Clark’s lucky break came when Meriwether Lewis invited him to join in the Corps of Discovery. This was Thomas Jefferson’s dream of exploration, which was to determine whether there was a waterway from the Missouri clear to the Pacific. The two men led a party of about forty-five men and one woman—Sakakawea—wife to one of their interpreters. They were gone from 1803 until their much-celebrated return, in late September of 1806.

In all of those years, William Clark did not forget the youthful Julia. What was it that had captivated him enough to have named a river in Montana after her, when he barely knew her? Was it an imagined lady-like maturity that he expected upon his return? Was it her intelligence, interest in literature, or love for adventure? Though nobody knows for sure, the heroic explorer Clark bee-lined straight to Fincastle to woo Julia while Lewis and his party continued on to Washington City to be officially welcomed home from their expedition and feted by President Jefferson.

Clark remained with the Hancock family for several weeks, and it’s probably during this time, that a real connection formed between him and Julia. She was merely fifteen, against his thirty-six years. However, by all accounts, she was receptive to his courtship. Clark traveled to Washington to finally join Lewis and the others long enough to be hailed a hero, then returned back to the Hancock home known as Santillane, remaining there until the spring of 1807. President Jefferson appointed him as brigadier general over militia in Louisiana Territory and made him Superintendent of Indian Affairs, a post he’d keep for the rest of his life.

Before leaving for his new responsibilities in St. Louis, he proposed to Julia. Theirs would be a year-long separation over hundreds of miles of wilderness. It needs to be stated that it took iron-like courage for a young lady like Julia to willingly relocate to St. Louis from Virginia, leaving her family and friends behind. During this period in American History, St. Louis was nothing but a rough fur-trading village on the Mississippi River, full of gin-sotted sailors, uncouth beaver-trappers, and Native Americans who were becoming more and more surly against their intruding White neighbors.

It had to be love that led her to accept Clark’s proposal.

When William Clark returned to marry Julia, it was at Santillane where they wed on January 5th, 1808. She was sixteen years old, but had already planned her future, received a complete volume of Shakespeare from Meriwether Lewis and stunning jewelry from President Jefferson. She was coming into her own. And when she arrived in St. Louis, she was also pregnant with her first child.

I adore the portrait of Julia that is accompanies a phenomenal collection of Clark Family artifacts and documents at the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center in St. Louis. Not only did I have opportunity to view these beautiful paintings (photos of the portrait), but some more of Julia’s jewelry, some of her hand-written inventory (photo of her writing), and the sweet Dresden lace baby-cap (photo) she must have made for her first child, born just a year after her wedding.

Sadly, Julia Hancock Clark lived but a short life, dying in 1820 at the age of 28 at her father’s Fotheringay estate in what is now Elliston, Virginia. She is buried there in a mausoleum built by her father for himself and immediate family members. The mausoleum still stands, though it’s in poor condition.

Julia left behind four strapping sons and one daughter—Mary Margaret Clark, who died a year after Julia. *See photo at left.

At the time of Julia’s death, William Clark had served as Governor of Missouri Territory for seven years, along with continued responsibilities in Indian Affairs. Her death devastated him, but something rather unexpected and ironic occurred. Julia’s cousin Harriet Kennerly Radford, lost her husband in a hunting accident prior to Julia’s death. She had children herself, and Clark had his. A year or so following Julia’s passing, Clark and Harriet married—a union that I believe Julia would have been happy to bless. And the irony of it all is that Harriet had been with Julia that day atop that horse when William Clark came upon the two girls.

If all of that Virginia lore and family story-telling is true, he met both of his wives on the same day—and on the same horse!

*For further reading:

            Crotty, Gene, The Visits of Lewis & Clark to Fincastle, Virginia, The History Museum and Historical Society of Western Virginia, 2003.

Foley, William E., Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark, University of Missouri Press, 2004.

Holmberg, James J. (editor), Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathon Clark, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2002.

Kelly, Brian C., Best Little Stories from Virginia, Cumberland House (Nashville, Tennessee), 2003.

Kennerly, William Clark as told to Elizabeth Russell, Persimmon Hill: A Narrative of Old St. Louis and the Far West, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1948.

Kessler, Dorothy S., Lewis & Clark: The Fincastle Connection, Historic Fincastle, Inc., 1995.

Stoner, Robert Douthat, A Seed-Bed of the Republic: Early Botetourt, Kingsport Press (Kingsport, Tennessee), 1962.


West of Santillane

Desperate to escape a mundane future as a Virginia planter’s wife, Julia Hancock seizes her chance for adventure when she wins the heart of American hero William Clark.

Though her husband is the famed explorer, Julia embarks on her own thrilling and perilous journey of self-discovery.

With her gaze ever westward, Julia possesses a hunger for knowledge and a passion for helping others. She falls in love with Will’s strength and generous manner, but, like her parents, he is a slave owner, and Julia harbors strong opinions against slavery. Still, her love for Will wins out, though he remains unaware of her beliefs.

Julia finds St. Louis to be a rough town with few of the luxuries to which she is accustomed, harboring scandalous politicians and miscreants of all types. As her husband and his best friend, Meriwether Lewis, work to establish an American government and plan to publish their highly anticipated memoirs, Julia struggles to assume the roles of both wife and mother. She is also drawn into the plight of an Indian family desperate to return to their own lands and becomes an advocate for Will’s enslaved.

When political rivals cause trouble, Julia’s clandestine aid to the Indians and enslaved of St. Louis draws unwanted attention, placing her at odds with her husband. Danger cloaks itself in far too many ways, leading her to embrace the courage to save herself and others through a challenge of forgiveness that will either restore the love she shares with Will or end it forever.


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To purchase a print copy, please consider using my favorite indie bookstore, BOOK NO FURTHER.

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