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BLOG: Research Heaven, Pt. 2--Documents pertaining to William and Julia Clark

Updated: Sep 28

For those of you patiently awaiting my next book on Julia Hancock Clark, I do have some news. I completed my first draft two weeks ago, and it will go to edit in March. So I have a lot more drafting left to do, but I’ve always considered that the fun part! Now it’s a matter of fleshing out the characters, giving the historical details further perusal, adding more research that I’ve done since writing different sections, expanding dialogue, and adding or omitting material.

Over the past several months, I’ve blogged on research that I’ve done for the Antonius Trilogy and now for my new project. My latest research topic was the first of two on the incredible experience I had while visiting St. Louis and viewing artifacts from the Clark Family Collection at the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center. If you didn't get to read it, just scroll down on my blog page--it's there waiting for you.

This week, I’d like to present some of the fantastic documents I read there, studied, and even held in my hands. As you look over these photos, you may be surprised that I’m not wearing rubber gloves. Archivist Molly Kodner did when handling William Clark’s elk-skin journal, which is as much an artifact as it is a priceless historical document. However, I was told that when it comes to antique documents, rubber gloves can cause some people to accidentally tear or ruffle pages more easily since it can inhibit one's sense of touch. Therefore, I handled these documents as carefully as I could—bare-handed.

First of all, the opportunity to visit and be led by an archivist through the viewing of historical documents is an honor, a privilege, and something never to be taken for granted. I was literally touching American history, and every second, I was conscious of that. I cannot thank the documents archivist Molly Kodner enough for her kindness and generosity in allowing me access to this collection, because it’s nothing short of phenomenal.

The Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center is located inside a former Jewish synagogue (see above). The decoration and detail inside the research library is breathtakingly rich. There’s a feeling of peace and order within. Before entering, researchers are asked to place their belongings in a locker—certainly understandable. No ink-pens are allowed, but there are pencils provided for one’s convenience. Cell-phones are welcome, and I was taking photos like crazy! Molly had placed all of the documents I’d requested on a table for me to look through. And for the next three hours, I sat in research heaven—barely conscious that all that time had passed when Molly politely came over to inquire if I was finished. Tempus fugit!

The very first item she shared with me has to be one of the most intriguing documents in the collection. When traveling overland to the Pacific with the Corps of Discovery, William Clark encased his field-journal within the hide of an elk. It’s known as the “elk-skin journal”, and it contains some of the first, rough-hewn cartography and sketches of lands west of the Missouri River, containing material dated from Sept. 11, 1805, to Dec. 31, 1805. It’s rather impressive that Clark was able to cram as much between these covers as he did, because it’s not a large volume, by any means. I asked Molly to put her hand down next to it to give my photograph a sense of its scale. This document/artifact is the only field-journal from the expedition to have survived.

And here I’ll add that Molly Kodner is herself a superb historian. In the next few months, I’ll be sharing some of her own research on Clark’s elk-skin journal, for nobody could possibly share its history more than the lady who handles it for researchers and students on school field-trips.

While I watched, Molly used a metal tool called a spatula to turn the delicate elk-skin journal’s pages for me to view. One of the highlights was a sketch of a map that Lewis and Clark made from their conversations with their Native American hosts to guide them to the Columbia River. (below, far left) When the Corps arrived on the Pacific Coast, they had to choose a site upon which to build their encampment, as they would spend the winter of 1805-06 there. Two separate spots were of interest, and they decided to take a vote. Remarkably, the elk-skin journal has the record of the process and Clark recorded each member of the Corps’ vote. (below, center) Two members of the expedition in particular stand out, as they were both given the right to vote: Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman and Clark’s slave, York. If you enlarge the print, you'll see York's name along with "Janey"--Sacagawea's nickname on the top right of the right-hand page. The campsite they elected was named Fort Clatsop, after a native tribe inhabiting the coast. And on the back of the elk-skin journal—scribed upon the actual hide itself—is a crude drawing of the arrangement of the Corps’ quarters they built at Fort Clatsop on what is now the Washington coast. (below, far right)

When William Clark began copying his Corps of Discovery journals into a neater product for future publishing, he favored plush red Moroccan journals, similar to the one below. The research center has four of these journals in its possession and historians believe they may have been copied in the field, straight from the captains' well-seasoned (and probably dilapidated) field journals!

Julia Clark must have liked the red Moroccan journals, too, for she used at least one to record household inventories. I asked, and Molly confirmed that we may assume the handwriting within this journal to have belonged to Julia, herself. Below are photos arrayed in a slide show, so just click on the arrows. (Photo #1 is one of the red Moroccan journals belonging to Julia. Photo #2 is the inside cover which I thought was particularly attractive. Photo #3 is one of Julia's household inventories.)

On my visit, I discovered that William Clark had a graceful, showy signature. (see top photo) But his hand-writing was only one intriguing aspect of his mail. (And his spelling was CRAZY!) Webster's Dictionary wouldn't be published for years, and since I'm speaking to an educated audience-- try reading some of his letters or journal entries, and you'll see what I mean!

Back in the early 19th century, letters were neatly folded INTO envelopes to be posted, once they were sealed in wax. This letter, addressed to William Clark from Meriwether Lewis still has some of the red wax seal sticking to the paper. I found it incredible that I was holding in my hand an actual letter sent from Lewis to Clark!!!

Also, note that Lewis sent it from Washington City—the early American name for what is now Washington DC. And the address indicates that Clark was staying in Fincastle, Virginia at the Hancocks (at Santillane), courting Julia. Look at the top right corner of the envelope and you'll see Meriwether Lewis's name in his own hand.

I’d like to share two final photos that my friends in Botetourt County, Virginia (where I live) will find especially interesting. In the photo below, I’m holding what is known as “Clark’s response to the people of Fincastle”—a document written by Clark when he spoke at a celebration honoring his return from the Pacific, while he resided at Santillane—home to the Hancock family. This gathering was held in Fincastle, which is still our County seat—probably in the location of today’s courthouse, though in 1806, the Fincastle courthouse was nothing more than a large log-lodge. A local Revolutionary War hero—Patrick Lockhart—spoke at the event, praising the entire Corps of Discovery for their courage, aplomb, and perseverance. Clark followed Lockhart’s words with the speech I’m holding. On the right, is a closer shot of the document itself.

When one is fascinated the way I am with history, research is never boring. History itself is vibrant and when you’re as close to it as I was on July 28th in St. Louis, assisted and guided by experienced professionals, Julia Clark’s world came alive for me, and for a few brief hours, I touched it and even held it in my hands. I only hope my own novel will present the same time-travel experience for my many readers as I enjoyed on that day. This author was so humbled by this entire experience.

Read on, everybody!

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