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BLOG: Research Heaven--Artifacts in the Clark Family Collection

In the past year, I’ve shared several blog articles on research—research I did on The Antonius Trilogy and a whole piece about how easy it is to fall into research “rabbit holes”. This week, I’m taking you on a virtual visit to the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center in St. Louis. This is where I had my first taste of curator-led research on both artifacts and documents. I will begin by saying that this experience was simply incredible and I left feeling stunned at the end of the day at how much history I’d seen up close and personal. I could feel the nearness of my characters, though they were two-hundred years distant.

Who said research has to be boring? I try to make it as fascinating and mind-blowing for myself as possible. It’s necessary, since we authors have so much of it to do in short amounts of time. When I planned my whirlwind trip to St. Louis, I located a downtown hotel close to the Gateway Arch and once I arrived, I checked in and then went straight to the Arch and visited the museum there. I also amused myself by taking a cruise on the Mississippi River for an hour and a half, where I was able to see and imagine what “Bloody Island” once looked like. (The early 19th century location where duals were fought between gentlemen.) And it didn't hurt that both nights spent in the Gateway to the West offered exquisite dining and great company--an author friend and some cherished cousins.

Bright and early on July 28th, I made my way by metro to the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center. It’s located in a lovely section of western St. Louis and the distinguished neighborhoods in the area were impressive. The research center is located inside a former synagogue and the reading room is in what was once the sanctuary, complete with a stunning dome, plenty of peace, and quiet.

My first meeting was with the curator of artifacts. She showed me to her office, where I was allowed to leave my purse and belongings, then off we went—my cell-phone at the ready for photos. First stop was an important one to me. I finally got to personally view the one surviving likeness of my main character: Julia Hancock Clark. It’s always an adrenaline rush for an author to come face to face with a character. Julia’s portrait dates from around 1820 and was painted by John Wesley Jarvis. Actually viewing the work in detail really helped me. Previously, I thought Julia's eyes were brown, as they'd been so very dark in the photos I'd seen. Instead, they were deep blue, so that was an important detail in my description of her character--now corrected. This photo of it is courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center.

Next, I was taken downstairs into yet another storeroom of artifacts. These several large warehouse-like rooms reminded me of the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the ark has been crated and hidden away in a top-secret storeroom full of other secret items. Really—each storage space was impressive and full of wondrous treasures: old furniture, antique chests, works of art, textiles and clothing . . . I could go on and on. And everything there is a historian's ultimate fantasy, since all items are of museum quality.

Next up on my list was a miniature painting of little Mary Margaret Clark, daughter of Julia and William Clark, the explorer. Mary Margaret was a New Year’s baby in the year 1814, and was probably named after both her aunt and grandmother. But sadly, her life was short—the child dying of a fever, and this portrait was probably done not long before her death.

Throughout the 19th century, a singular tradition caught on, in remembrance of lost and beloved family members. "Hair-art"--usually designed by women in lockets, frames, or other crafts, was designed with a deceased person's hair. This custom was practiced in the early 19th century, but reached its heyday in the Victorian Period.

William Clark tragically became a widower in 1820. It had been a horrible year for him. First he lost his only daughter, Mary Margaret. Then, in August, Julia succumbed to an illness that some believe to have been breast cancer, but remains unidentified. Memorialized for the ages, an engraved pocket-watch styled piece holds beautifully woven patches of both Mary Margaret’s and Julia’s hair on opposite sides. Though it’s unclear as to who the piece belonged to, I assume it was William Clark’s. It’s easy to imagine him carrying the pocket-watch like memento in his overcoat—constantly having a small part of his wife and daughter with him . And again, as an author, it was so enlightening to see the color of Julia's hair, which will help me to better describe her to my readers.

Another of my favorite artifacts was Meriwether Lewis Clark’s baby bonnet. Yes, William and Julia named their first-born son after Clark’s famous partner in the Corps of Discovery. Though it looks much like a christening cap, these little head-pieces were worn by most all children in early American times and were designed to cover hair and ears, but not the forehead. Babies weren't the only ones wearing bonnets during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Adults wore them too--and they were apparently worn for a variety of reasons, including to delineate status, keep one's hair clean and untangled, to protect from the sun and elements, and possibly to discourage bed-bugs or lice infestations.

Naturally, they were often embroidered by mothers, so it’s quite possible that Julia did the needlework on this sample. The bottom photo shows a close-up of the unusual and impressive Dresden lace resembling lattice-work. It was a popular embroidery design in the early 19th century. Details on the bonnet included an embroidered cornucopia with grape leaves--all symbols of fertility. And Julia and William Clark were fertile, for she gave him five children!

I hope you've enjoyed these photos and explanations of some of the research I've been doing to better understand Julia's world as I'll describe it from about 1801 to 1810. It was a world stirring with change, heralding westward expansion in the United States, abolition, and the industrial revolution.

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So, everybody--READ ON!

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Sep 11, 2021

This was fascinating and I enjoyed seeing your discoveries and hearing ho they helped you in your research for writing about Julia. I’m looking forward to another interesting read!


Sep 04, 2021

Thanks for taking us inside your process of bringing history to life for us. You are AWESOME!!

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