- Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition
The bicentennial commemorations of the Lewis and Clark expedition were marked by an outpouring of books and ephemera. Not all of it was celebratory; some of it was contentious. The achievement of the Corps of Discovery, impressive as they were, have to be seen against the meaning of the expedition for the Indian peoples who inhabited the territories that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traversed. The Lewis and Clark trail has become historically contested ground. All of this reaction is appropriate, was to be expected, and should be welcomed as the nation continues to reflect on what has become a defining event in its formative history. Less expected, and certainly less welcome to those who prefer their national heroes to lack human failings, is Lowry's slim study of sex, syphilis, and gonorrhea on the expedition, not least his jolting suggestion that Lewis' suicide may have stemmed from syphilis of the brain. Author also of The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War (Mechanicsburg, 1994), Lowry has written what may be the "dirty little book" of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The direct documentary evidence is skimpy and scattered, and some of it requires reading between the lines. Even enhanced by a review of the history of syphilis since 1492 and of the state of knowledge about the disease by the time of the expedition, the book is slim. Yet the evidence makes clear that the members of the Corps of Discovery spent [End Page 297] a lot of time thinking about sex, having sex, and treating the consequences of sex. Lewis and Clark expected their men to engage in sexual intercourse with Native women along the way, anticipated that they would contract venereal disease, and loaded their medical cabinet with items for treating syphilis and gonorrhea.
Venereal disease was already widespread in Indian country, especially in those communities regularly visited by European traders. Lewis and Clark knew the dangers that awaited their contingent of fit young men, but they also knew that two years of abstinence was too much to ask. Expedition members had sex with Indian women early and often. Indian women often were eager to have sex with the men of the expedition, although for reasons that the men could barely fathom. The sexual exploits of Clark's black slave, York, became legendary. Sacagawea, inscribed on the dollar coin as a national heroine, seems almost certainly to have had a gonorrheal infection, contracted most likely from her husband Toussaint Charbonneau. Many, perhaps all, of the men received mercury treatment—the common prescription for syphilis—during the expedition. Lewis and Clark were extremely circumspect about their own sexual activities along the trail, but the stories about babies fathered by Clark in Indian communities and the mystery surrounding Lewis' death are suggestive.
This readable little book provides easy access to an aspect of the expedition that has been generally, and perhaps deliberately, overlooked. In restoring sex and its attendant diseases to the story, Lowry enriches its human tapestry and adds to our appreciation of the encounters and tragedies that Indians and explorers shared.