Why Clark Carried an Umbrella

William Clark (Detail)

Red-headed gentleman

by Charles Willson Peale

Independence National Historic Park

Clark family lore maintains that red hair was introduced into the Clark blood line by the red-headed Scottish wife of the John Clark who emigrated to Virginia in the late seventeenth century.

Meriwether Lewis (Detail)

dark-haried gentleman

by Charles Willson Peale (1807)

Independence National Historic Park

Charles Willson Peale's reputation as a portraitist was built on the lifelike qualities of his paintings, and his portrait of William Clark, painted in 1807, clearly portrays him as a redhead. Although Peale apparently did not show any freckles on Clark's face, he certainly gave him a different complexion than he saw in Lewis's visage.

A Matter of Melanins?

During the Napoleonic wars some British officers carried umbrellas into battle, but the practice was unauthorized, and it reaped ridicule from French critics. The instrument might have been a standard part of every officer's kit in the U.S. Army in 1804,2 but there is no evidence whatsoever that Lewis took one on the expedition. In any case, there may have been one good personal reason why Clark carried his.

Beneath our skins we're all supposed to be pretty much alike, but at the epidermal level there are some conspicuous differences that we owe to melanin (MEL-a-nin; from the Greek word melan, meaning black). Melanin is a natural pigment (from Latin, pigmentum, from pignare, to paint) that gives color to our skin, hair, and the irises of our eyes. It protects the dermis-the layer containing nerve endings, sweat and oil glands, and blood and lymph vessels—from being damaged by ultraviolet solar radiation. There are two types, eumelanin (from Greek eu-, dark), which produces dark skin, dark eyes, and black or brunette hair, and the lighter phaeomelanin (pheo-, from Greek phaios, dusky), which is responsible for fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blond and red haired individuals. During the evolution of human biology, people native to equatorial climates developed comparatively high concentrations of eumelanin, while those native to more temperate zones, such as the continent of Europe, had more phaeomelanin than eumelanin.3

Red hair is rare in the tropical latitudes where eumelanin is highly concentrated in native peoples, and is similarly uncommon in Asia. The population of Scotland is said to contain the highest proportion of redheads—13%, or about four times as many as in the United States. Red-haired persons, whose systems are deficient in eumelanins, often have rather pale skin that inclines more toward sunburn than suntan, and often develops freckles.

The understanding of melanins and their roles arose only during the latter decades of the 20th century. Clark's generation knew only that fair-skinned people were native to northern latitudes.4 Nevertheless, from very early in the history of the human race, ordinary experience and observation must have made it clear that red—as well as blond-haired individuals—need to take special precautions to prevent over-exposure to direct sunlight.

All this strongly suggests that Clark had prudently brought along an umbrella for protection from "the great heats" of the sun. During the journey down the Ohio and up the Mississippi and Missouri to Fort Mandan he may have found sufficient shelter beneath the canopy or in the cabin of the barge. Here, on the utterly treeless plains around the falls of the Missouri, however, his umbrella would have been important to his health and efficiency. The sky was clear on part or all of each of 24 of the first 29 days in June 1805, and afternoon temperatures peaked moderately in the upper seventies on June 26-28, so it was not the heat but the UV radiation that would have made Clark suffer.5

There is no way to explain why Clark's umbrella is mentioned on only one date in all of the journals, except that it was as insignificant as any of the other personal items he may have carried, but he considered its loss unfortunate. On the day he lost it he was on a mission, as Lewis reported on that date, "to supply the deficiency of some notes and remarks which he had made as he first ascended the river but which he had unfortunately lost." Clark may have taken his umbrella along for his slave, York, to hold over him while he wrote in his notebook, at least to protect his eyes from the glare of the sun off the paper.

Read more:

  1. Umbrella: Signs and Symbols
  2. Manufacture of Umbrellas
  3. Crusoe's Umbrella

1. William E. Foley, Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 2.

2. Robert J. Moore, Jr., and Michael Haynes, Tailor Made, Trail Worn: Army Life, Clothing & Weapons of the Corps of Discovery (Helena, Montana: Farcountry Press, 2003), 74.

3. Medline Plus, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002256.htm; PubMed, National Library of Medicine, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ (accessed 1/04)

4. Owen's Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (London, 1756), s.v. "skin."

5. The average high temperature at the city of Great Falls during the month of June from 1893 to 2003 was 75.4° Fahrenheit.

6. As reports that reached the East from Fort Mandan revealed, the men "speak in the highest terms of the humanity, and uncommon pains and attention of both the Captains & towards the whole of them." Boston Courier, July 18, 1805.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities