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The Mystery of Teresa de Leyba
Posted: 02 October 2008 09:03 AM   [ Ignore ]
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The National Park Service brochure at the George Rogers Clark historical site in Vincennes probably says it best: that Clark lived his life like a swashbuckling character in a romantic novel, rather than like someone you would ever encounter in real life. By all accounts, the young Revolutionary War hero was tall, rugged, and very physically attractive. It seems a certainty that women would have fallen at his feet.

Yet Clark never married. Ruined by his wartime service and in debt for thousands of dollars, he had nothing to offer to a society woman of his own station. The only portraits of him done from life show him as a bitter, decrepit elderly man ravaged by alcohol and ill health, a mere shadow of the Viking god he once was.

According to Clark’s family, George carried a lifelong torch for a woman he met in his prime. He once told a niece “if I had been properly treated, you would have had an elegant aunt whom I would have loved very much.” Who was the mysterious woman and whatever happened to her? Did Clark ever love again?

In 1778, Clark had cultivated a close personal relationship and military alliance with Fernando de Leyba, the highest ranking Spanish official in the West. De Leyba was based in St. Louis, and he was apparently the guardian of his teenage sister, Teresa. The legend persists that Clark (who was only 26 at the time) and Teresa fell in love. Some letters from Clark’s friends hint that the relationship was intense and passionate. However, no direct evidence, such as letters between the two of them, has ever come to light.

Perhaps it just seems right. Clark was such a charismatic figure that often the men he worked with, such as Father Pierre Gibault and the trader Francis Vigo seem almost infatuated with him. How could such a man have failed to have a powerful love? And at the time, Fernando de Leyba would have had every reason to encourage a romance between his sister and Colonel Clark. Not only were he and Clark friends and allies against the British, but Clark was the scion of a prominent Virginia family, and likely to win large land grants as a result of his exploits in the West.

Tragically, Clark was ruined, and a marriage between him and Teresa was never to be. Again, indirect evidence suggests that Teresa waited for him for some time, living in New Orleans and hoping that George’s fortunes would somehow turn around. Romantically, she is supposed to have entered a convent rather than marry another.

Disappointingly, the story of George Rogers Clark and Teresa de Leyba is based on fairly flimsy historical evidence. Teresa left little documentary evidence of her life behind. Some historians have suggested that she was too young to have been a love interest for Clark, that she never lived in the New World, or that she didn’t exist at all.

Fortunately, historical novelists aren’t prevented from speculating. James Alexander Thom’s book Long Knife centers around the ill-starred love of George and Teresa. In our upcoming book, George Rogers Clark is a major character. In 2006, we had the privilege of meeting Clark historian Jim Holmberg, who told us the intriguing tale of a possible latter-day romance in Clark’s life. It is this later love on which we have chosen to expand in our book.

The Fairest Portion of the Globe finds George a middle-aged man, still fighting his demons and trying to recapture his faded glory. His romance with Teresa is almost 20 years in the past. Unable to marry a belle, Clark has entered into a long-term relationship with Marianne, a mulatto woman his own age who lives across the river from Louisville. Here’s a teaser from our work in progress:

Marianne came back with the tea. He set his jaw and dragged himself erect and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, blowing with pain. The sweet, clean smell of ginger warmed the air as she sat down and poured the tea into two coarse earthenware mugs. She moved close to him on the bed, the curve of her behind touching his, and arranged the quilt around both of their shoulders.

He closed his eyes and sipped the tea. God knew their friendship wasn’t respectable; after all, he was The Sword of Kentucky, not to mention a gentleman and a Clark. Once, he had dreamed of winning a woman the way he’d won the Northwest, an all-out conquest of a high-blooded lady of such shattering pedigree that their coupling would unleash thunder and lightning and beget a race of children to rival the gods of Mount Olympus ...

“What you laughin’ about, sugar?” Marianne asked.

George laid his hand on the back of her head so he could feel the softness of her twists of hair between his fingers. “I was just thinkin’ how lucky I am that you put up with me.”

“Well, you put up with me,” she said.

They sat, enjoying the steam from the tea and the feel of each other’s skin. After a while Marianne said, “You know something, George? There ain’t a night when I don’t look at that big river and hope this be one of the nights when you come across and see me.”

“There ain’t a night when I don’t think about it, too.”

“So, George, I been wonderin’ ... when you go throw the Spanish out of Louisiana, are you ever comin’ back?”

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Liz Clare
co-author, To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis and Clark
Winner of the 2007 Violet Crown Award for Fiction
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