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The Captain and I

A living portrayal of William Clark, warts and all



Strictly speaking, Lewis and Clark never came through Missoula. Only Lewis did, on the Corps of Discovery’s return trip from the Pacific, just after parting ways with Clark near present-day Lolo to explore a shortcut across the Missoula Valley to the Blackfoot River and onward to the Great Falls. Clark turned south to explore the Bitterroot and the Yellowstone River basin.

“He may never have made it north of Lolo,” says Ritchie Doyle. “In the days they spent there during the early summer of 1806, he may have taken a ride north and been out by the Blue Mountain Recreation Area, but we don’t know. The Bitterroot, on the other hand, has a strong connection with Clark because he went back down that valley. He fathered a child among the Salish in 1805, Peter Clark, who was later baptized by the Jesuit missionaries. The captains never wrote about this in the journals.”

Doyle is a William Clark impersonator, or a “living history portrayal,” as he usually remembers to call himself. Tall, sandy-haired and somewhat shy, he talks about the most intimate details of the explorer’s life with the confidence of a man who knows his story inside and out. He’s on a first-name basis with “William,” and at first he lightheartedly suggests a joint interview with himself and himself as William Clark (“Well, William, what do you have to say about that?”). Watching him lean intently over the table, tracing a forefinger along a paper snake of maps velcroed together at the corners, it’s not hard to imagine him sketching a trout or portaging a boat around a difficult stretch of river.

Already Doyle is lost in the maps. He points to a sketch of a bird’s head on one of the maps Clark made, either in the field or later on in Fort Clatsop on the Oregon coast.

“Here’s the evidence for Fort Clatsop,” he says, “A California condor. They were all the way up in Washington at the time, but not in Montana. Clark drew this on a map he made in Fort Clatsop, because they wrote about the condor in their journals. I thought maybe it was a turkey vulture, which we do have in Montana, but I guess it does look more like a California condor.”

“There are fun things to learn from these maps,” he continues, eyes gauzy with daydreams. “Look at this note here, at a hot springs they visited: ‘Cooked meat in 25 minutes.’ Wow.”

Doyle began giving his living history portrayal of William Clark six years ago at the request of the Montana Committee for the Humanities. In the three years before that, he’d already begun to experiment with the medium by portraying Edward Charles “Teddy Blue” Abbott (1860-1939), a colorful English-born cowpuncher who rode north to Montana from Texas and eventually settled in Fergus County.

“They asked if I might think of another character to portray,” Doyle explains. “And a friend suggested William Clark. I already knew someone was portraying Lewis, and anyway Clark was more appealing to me because he lived a longer life and his involvement with the Indians interested me personally.”

“Perhaps he was also more like me personality-wise,” Doyle muses, “A gregarious, joking fellow who probably liked to sing. I also thought, with the bicentennial coming up, that the MCH would be especially interested in this character.”

When asked what he finds particularly intriguing about acting out this part of American history, the soft-spoken Doyle phrases his answers meticulously.

“It’s a chance to understand the story of how two cultures, Native American and European, collided with, clashed with, encountered each other,” he says evenly. “Some, though few, say that the Lewis and Clark expedition was the beginning of a United States invasion of sovereign Indian territories. Most say the expedition was U.S. expansionism, which is what scholars commonly call it.”

“Here in Montana we have eight or nine different nations of Indians. Seven reservations. I have always been interested in and involved with Native American issues, and I know the invasion still goes on today. This bicentennial is an opportunity for the United States not only to understand the Lewis and Clark story, of getting over the mountains to the Pacific, but also to understand how we—” Doyle breaks off, then backs up.

“To understand both cultures better,” he finishes.

There were, of course, a few tense incidents with Native Americans along the way. An early encounter with Teton Sioux on the lower Missouri nearly turned violent, although the standoff was eventually resolved when a chief intervened and the expedition was able to continue upriver. In June, 1805, while exploring the Marias River near its confluence with the Missouri, a reconnoitering party led by Lewis fired on a group of Blackfeet who were apparently attempting to make off with some of the company’s horses. Two Blackfeet were killed in the skirmish. How does Doyle incorporate unpleasant interactions like these into his presentation? Does he wrestle with the less enlightened attitudes and prejudices that he inherited with his subject?

“I don’t speak to that when I represent Clark,” Doyle says quietly. “I like William Clark, but he’s not my hero. I have a lot of respect for him, but he was a man of his time, and like Lewis and Jefferson he was ignorant, arrogant and naïve regarding the Native Americans. I allow that to spill out during my presentation with certain letters and documents. I don’t want to put Ritchie Doyle into my William Clark presentation. I want it to be accurately William Clark, and I don’t want to do it through rose-colored glasses.”

“I’m worried that a lot of the bicentennial may be rose-colored,” Doyle continues, “Although I’d like to think that we will be genuinely thoughtful and honest about what we have learned. And that’s why I’m glad to be involved, because I’m hoping to keep things honest and pop bubbles that need to be popped.”

And, Doyle adds, there is no shortage of those. He cites an example of one attitude he finds particularly myopic.

“There’s one scholar who compares Lewis and Clark to astronauts going to the moon,” he says ruefully. “Only the astronauts were lucky because they were in contact with Houston but Lewis and Clark were on their own. And I’d like to say that if they really had been on their own, they would never have succeeded. They were going through civilizations of people who had been here for thousands of years. I think it’s a very harmful mistake to say that they were on their own.”

Although his interpretation is flexible enough—and his knowledge of the subject rich enough—to tailor his presentation to the particular interests of almost any audience, Doyle’s standard talk finds Clark in 1825, 20 years after his return to St. Louis, looking back on a life of public service. Now, having already served as superintendent of Indian Affairs for the territory of Upper Louisiana in Jefferson’s cabinet and three terms as territorial governor of Missouri, Doyle’s Clark enjoys a singularly sweeping vantage on the events that shaped a young United States.

“If I’m talking to children, I talk more about the expedition and I don’t become so philosophical and introspective,” Doyle explains. “I talk about Clark’s schooling, about how they didn’t have schools and how his brothers helped educate him. But this program coming up is the one I do most of the time, when I’m presenting a formal program to an audience expecting to see William Clark. I’m able to paint this big picture of an epic part of American history, from the Revolutionary War right up to the age of Andrew Jackson.

“He became, it seems to me, very discouraged about the future of the Indians,” Doyle continues. “And concerned that the Americans were caring too little for their well-being. Some say that the people of Missouri didn’t really like Clark because they thought he was too kind to the Indians, and perhaps that’s why he lost when he ran for governor of Missouri in 1820. He’d been territorial governor for three terms, and he was defeated, terribly, by Alexander McNair. Clark also came from well-established, aristocratic Virginia families, and in St. Louis he may have had manners that were unbecoming to frontier people. For instance, back in Virginia, when gentlemen had voted they would come out of the voting booth and announce publicly who they’d voted for. When Clark did this in St. Louis, people thought it peculiar.”

On the other hand, Doyle’s ongoing research has given him opportunities to connect with Clark, who died of natural causes in 1838, on other levels by learning some of the skills that Clark needed on the expedition. He rattles off a quick half-dozen of them.

“I’ve been learning how to use the Indian sign language,” he says, giving a brief demonstration. “It’s beautiful! I’ve also been learning how to use a sextant and other scientific instruments the expedition brought for navigation and orienteering. I’ve learned how to make fire with flint and steel. I’m learning some of the dances of the day, and I’ve learned to play the pennywhistle, which is similar to the fife. I’m making my own clothes out of leather, and I’m also learning about how they cooked and prepared food. I suppose I could whip up a boudin blanc [a staple of the times when the hunting was good] if I had the right ingredients. I just need some bear’s grease, flour, salt, pepper, buffalo hump, buffalo tongue, some suet and some intestines. And a frying pan and a kettle.”

“I’ve also been trying to figure out how people spoke 200 years ago to get Clark’s accent correct,” he says. “We joke about what a terrible speller he was and how he spelled the words “Sioux Indian” something like 27 different ways in his journals, but he spelled phonetically and some of the words are helping me figure out how he spoke.”

With statewide preparations already underway for the Montana leg of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, Doyle expects to have plenty to do with Clark in the next few years.

“I reckon for this bicentennial, they’re going to need at least 30 William Clarks along the Lewis and Clark Trail, from sea to shining sea, Virginia to Fort Clatsop, to take care of the millions of visitors. As I travel around, people give me information. Not only scholars, but local folks, too. And so I find it important for me to keep a journal, just like the captains did, to note the curiosities.”

One last thing: “I decided to use a Virginia accent,” Doyle says, with a glint of pride. “Though God only knows if there was such a thing 200 years ago, when our country was thinking of making German the official language. But I stuck with it because I believe Clark would have kept it after growing up there for the first 13 years of his life and proud of his Virginia heritage. It’s an accent that he probably didn’t want to wash away in his mouth when he got out to St. Louis.

“I’ve even had people in the audience congratulate me on my fine Virginia accent and ask me where I learned it,” he chuckles. “And I tell them I learned it from ‘The Waltons.’”

Ritchie Doyle presents The Recollections of William Clark: Mapping an American Empire Sunday, Dec. 9 at the New Crystal Theatre. 2 PM. A $5 donation is requested.

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