First off, I want to thank Sarah for reviewing our book and inviting us to do a guest post on this terrific blog. We’re honored to be among the historical fiction authors spotlighted on Reading the Past!
Like many readers of this blog, our mom was the one who got us started reading historical fiction. She loved multi-generational family sagas, and her favorite characters were fiery, tempestuous heroines who lived life on an epic scale, complete with pulse-pounding romance and lots and lots of suffering. Frances Eleanor Clark, the lead female character of our new book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe, could have stepped straight from the pages of one of Mom’s dog-eared old sagas. In our book, we meet Fanny during her tortured first marriage. In her later life, the real-life Fanny packed enough adventure and tragedy into her 52 years to star in a rip-roaring novel of her own.
Fanny was the youngest of ten children—six boys and four girls—born to John and Ann Clark. Born in Virginia in 1773, the little black-eyed beauty was close to her brother William, just three years older, who became the famous “Clark” of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. As might be expected, the lives of Fanny’s brothers are much better documented than those of Fanny and her sisters. Most of what we know of Fanny’s life comes from fascinating family stories, some of which are contradictory.
Fanny was just a child when the family was engulfed by the shocking consequences of the Revolutionary War. Three of Fanny’s brothers were held as prisoners of war on British hell ships. All of them survived the ordeal, but one came home only to cough his lungs out from tuberculosis. Another brother disappeared on a scouting run in the western wilderness and was never found.
Even the great battlefield victories of Fanny’s older brother George Rogers Clark, a bona-fide hero in the Revolution, were soon overshadowed by the ingratitude with which he was treated by the nation he helped to save. Fanny was 11 when the Clarks pulled up stakes and moved west to the new settlement of Louisville, Kentucky. George had founded the town, and the Clarks soon vaulted into the ranks of the frontier elite. But all too publicly, George’s life started to fall apart. Bankrupted by his wartime debts, George was desperate to regain the pride and success that he had once known. It was in George’s cause that Fanny would be propelled into her first great crisis.
A willowy, sensitive beauty, Fanny was a prize among the Louisville belles. She fell in love with a young Army officer named Charles Thruston, but when Thruston failed to write during a trip back to the east, young Fanny became convinced he had forgotten her. And that was when James O’Fallon made his move.
Burly and well over six feet, O’Fallon was an Irish physician and rabble-rouser who had arrived in the United States just before the Revolution. During the war, he served as a senior surgeon for the Continental Army and broke Tories’ skulls in his spare time. After the war, O’Fallon took the lead in one of the many land schemes that shaped the destiny of the early frontier. He proposed to found an Irish Catholic colony in Spain’s Yazoo Country (present-day Mississippi), alternately fawning, cajoling, and threatening the Spanish with a hostile takeover of the Yazoo land by a horde of Kentucky wild men—led by one General George Rogers Clark.
How O’Fallon and George met is not known; the turbulent doctor may have helped Clark deal with the alcoholism which was beginning to afflict his life. Even after the Yazoo scheme collapsed, George was convinced that together, he and O’Fallon could get an adventure going in the wild west that would restore his fortunes. Somehow, he and O’Fallon persuaded Fanny and her parents that it would be a good idea to cement the partnership by marrying 17-year-old Fanny off to the 42-year-old “divine physical.”
Unfortunately for Fanny, O’Fallon’s bold and aggressive manner, which at first seemed so exciting and attractive, masked the fact that he was nothing but a con man and a bully. Following the pattern of a classic abuser, he first isolated Fanny from her family, then began to he beat her every time she “stepped out of line.” Like many battered wives, Fanny concealed the abuse from George, William, and her parents, not wanting to ruin her brother’s chances for a comeback. But as it so often does, the abuse worsened. While pregnant with her second child, Fanny suffered a mental breakdown in which she heard tormenting voices telling her to kill herself. There was no longer any way to conceal the truth from her family.
There are rumors—perhaps true, perhaps not—of an epic fistfight between George Rogers Clark and his abusive brother-in-law. The next time the historical record speaks of the not-so-good doctor, is the courts were settling his estate. O’Fallon’s fate and resting place is unknown, but it is impossible not to wonder if he may have met Fanny’s brothers on a dark night on an isolated country lane.
Now a 20-year-old widow with two children, Fanny did not stay on the market for long. Her Army officer, Charles Thruston, had been distraught ever since Fanny had married O’Fallon. He was now free to make up for his mistake in not writing. He and Fanny were married in 1793. Fanny and Charles loved each other, but the marriage was not without its heartbreaks. For whatever reason, Thruston did not want to raise the O’Fallon boys, John and Benjamin.
Her estrangement from her older sons must have been painful for all concerned; it appears to have caused some permanent family bitterness. Charles did not relent even after Fanny’s parents died, nor after she bore him son Charles and daughter Ann.
In 1800, Fanny became a widow again under shocking circumstances. Charles had butted heads with a young family slave named Luke. Chronically in trouble, Luke ran away to avoid being punished for his latest infraction, stealing a leg of lamb. When Charles tracked him down to his hiding place in a corn shock, Luke snapped, springing out and stabbing his master to death. Luke was soon hanged for his crime.
Devastated, Fanny turned back to her brothers for help and companionship. She moved out to Point of Rocks, a rustic cabin on the Indiana side of the Falls of the Ohio, where George and William were living to avoid George’s creditors. For all three of the siblings, life must have seemed a long way from the days of fox hunts in Virginia, wartime glory against the British, or dances as the “black-eyed beauty of Louisville.” But Fanny was reunited with her older sons at last. The little family group remained close until 1803, when William left for the opportunity of a lifetime, exploring the West with his old Army friend, Captain Meriwether Lewis.
(It should be noted that William did not forget Fanny while he was away. Not only did he collect natural history specimens for her, but he named a beautiful island in the Columbia River “Fanny’s Island” (today’s Crims Island) and the nearby flood plain “Fanny’s Bottom.” No word on whether Fanny clubbed her brother over the head with the sheephorn over this honor.)
William was still away on the Expedition in 1805, when 32-year-old Fanny married for the last time. Dennis Fitzhugh, a cousin of the Clark family, was five years younger than Fanny and co-owned a dry-goods store called Fitzhugh & Rose. Fanny and Dennis lived above the store at 5th and Main in downtown Louisville. Fanny had two more children with Dennis, a boy named Clark and a girl named Lucy.
In 1809, Fanny’s beloved brother George, now a frail shadow of the dashing hero he once was, fell in his cabin at Point of Rocks and severely burned his leg. He was brought to Fanny and Dennis’s house for treatment, and there his leg was amputated, without anesthesia, while a military band played outside in the street. Fanny’s daughter Ann recalled how her mother paced outside her brother’s room in agony as the operation took place. In spite of the fact that George had grown notoriously grouchy, drunken, and hard to get along with, Fanny volunteered to take him into her home and was heartbroken when the family decided that another sister with a large fine home could make a better place for the old general.
Dennis died in a cholera epidemic that swept through Louisville in 1822. By then almost 50, Fanny moved to St. Louis to live near her daughter Ann and brother William. If she found any peace, it was brief. Fanny died in 1825 at the age of 52.
Details on the illustrations above (in order):
1 - No portraits of Fanny Clark are known to exist. We were inspired by this unknown woman by an anonymous artist of the period. From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
2 - The Falls of the Ohio River at Louisville. The falls were submerged when the river was dammed in the 1920s.
3 - This horn from a bighorn sheep was collected by explorer William Clark and given to Fanny as a gift. Today it resides in the Filson Museum in Louisville, the only verified animal specimen from the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
Thanks very much, Frances, for an entertaining and educational post! I appreciate the opportunity to learn more about Fanny; she was a heroine who'd clearly been through a lot in her short life, and I couldn't help but root for her.
The authors will be happy to respond to any questions left in the comments. Also, they've graciously offered to provide a giveaway for blog readers. Up for grabs is a copy of The Fairest Portion of the Globe, to be awarded to a randomly selected reader. To enter, leave a comment on this blog post in response to the question: Who is your favorite female character from your country's history? Please provide your email address as well.
Deadline is Thursday, March 11th. Good luck to all entrants!