Welcome Sign Facing the Ohio River, Paducah, Kentucky
In 1827 William Clark, who had attained national fame as co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition more than 20 years earlier and had gone on to a successful career as an Indian Agent and governor of the Missouri Territory, obtained title to 37,000 acres in western Kentucky along the Ohio River that had been part of a grant to his late brother, George Rogers Clark, for service in the Revolutionary War. William Clark immediately went about evicting the handful of settlers on the site, which was then called Pekin, and surveying it as a new town which he named Paducah.
Paducah would go on to become one of the most important towns in the region, and over the years a local tradition grew up attributing the town’s name to a “Chief Paduke” of a local tribe. A letter Clark wrote to his son, however, appears to clearly show that this is not correct, and that Clark instead chose the name to honor a tribe he knew as the “Padoucas” (consistent spelling was not one of Clark’s strong points) that had once been large but had been much reduced since European contact. This condition applies to virtually all tribes in the Americas, of course, but the name is definitely not of any tribe in western Kentucky, which was occupied by the Chickasaw until 1819, when Andrew Jackson negotiated the cession of this area, known as the “Jackson Purchase,” opening it up for settlement and speculation by people like Clark.
Plaque Describing the Naming of Paducah, Kentucky
Who then were these Padoucas, and how did Clark know of them? Presumably he learned of them either during the Lewis and Clark expedition or later, when he was serving as a frontier official in Missouri, so the place to look is well to the west of Kentucky. And, indeed, a tribe known as the Padoucas (under various spellings) appears in records from French Louisiana starting with the early explorers of the late seventeenth century and continuing down to Clark’s day. These reports refer to the Padouca as living somewhere to the west of the Mississippi and Missouri valleys, which is to say, on the Great Plains.
The French were not very familiar with the Plains, and most of their information on them came from tribes in the Mississippi and Missouri valleys with whom they were in close contact as trading partners and military allies. They did mount a few expeditions further west in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that provided a bit more information, but these were too few and far between, and their permanent outposts too far away, for them to keep close tabs on developments on the Southern Plains during this period. This fact turns out to be quite important for understanding the identity of the people the French called “Padouca.”
Plaque Describing William Clark's Foundation of Paducah, Kentucky
The Spanish in New Mexico and Texas, on the other hand, were much closer to the Plains, and between their occasional forays onto them and their close diplomatic contacts with various Plains tribes they had much better information than the French about who was out there and what they were doing. As a result, we can track developments on the Southern Plains in the eighteenth century quite clearly through Spanish documents, and as it turns out there was a lot going on out there.
At the time the Spanish entered the Southwest in the sixteenth century, the Plains were occupied by various groups of hunter-gatherers whom the early Spanish explorers called “Querechos.” After the establishment of a permanent colony in New Mexico in 1598, the Spanish began consistently referring to these groups as “Apaches” (the term itself is of obscure origin, perhaps coming from one of the Pueblo languages), with specific politically autonomous subgroups indicated by modifiers such as “Lipan,” “Jicarilla,” and “Faraón.” There were Apaches to the west of New Mexico as well, including the Navajos. Relations among the Spanish, the Pueblos, and these Apaches varied, with the Apaches at times raiding both the Pueblos and the Spanish villages, and at other times allying with one or both of the more settled groups for various purposes. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, some Apache groups joined with the Pueblos to kick out the Spanish, but after the Spanish Reconquest in 1692 Apache raids on both the Pueblos and the Spanish continued intermittently. By the early eighteenth century, however, the Spanish had allied with some of the more distant Apaches on the Plains for mutual protection against the French and their allied Indians in the Missouri Valley.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, this picture had been totally changed by the movement of a new people onto the Southern Plains. These were the Comanches, who had broken off from the closely related Shoshones in the Rocky Mountains and headed out onto the Plains, where they acquired horses and became the most aggressive and successful military power that region had yet seen. They swiftly pushed the Apaches out of the way and became the main power on the Southern Plains, raiding New Mexico with a ferocity unprecedented in earlier times. The threat of Comanche raids kept New Mexico Hispanics from expanding significantly east of the Rio Grande Valley for over a century, and it likely also led the Pueblos to more completely accept Spanish rule in exchange for the level of protection provided by Spanish arms. At first the Spanish attempted to defend their Apache allies on the Plains by fighting the Comanches, but this approach met with limited success and only encouraged increased Comanche attacks on Hispanic and Pueblo settlements, so in the late eighteenth century Governor Juan Bautista de Anza decided to switch sides, sign a peace treaty with the Comanches, and agree to assist them in their wars on the Apaches. This general pattern, of the Spanish allied with the Comanches against the Apaches, endured until the Americans conquered New Mexico in the 1840s.
Sign Describing William Clark's Purchase of the Future Site of Paducah, Kentucky
So where do the Padouca enter into this picture? In the Spanish documents, not at all. The term “Padouca” was not used by the Spanish for any of the Plains tribes they encountered. Instead, they spoke exclusively of Apaches and Comanches. Given that the French documents referring to the Padouca place them in the same places as these tribes at the same time, that leaves three possibilities for who the French could have meant by the Padouca:
- The Apaches
- The Comanches
- Both, either by not distinguishing them at all or by referring to one group at some times and the other at other times
With the rise of American ethnography in the late nineteenth century, American anthropologists began to look back at these documents and try to connect them to the ethnographic data on contemporary tribes. They found that many of the tribes from the Plains and surrounding areas used terms similar to “Padouca” to refer to the Comanches, and many simply assumed from this that the French had always used the term to refer to the Comanches as well. This became something of the received wisdom by the early twentieth century, but in 1920 the anthropologist George Bird Grinnell published an article taking another look at the issue taking into account the Spanish and early French sources. From these Grinnell concluded that the term had instead referred to the Apaches, whom the Spanish sources clearly showed were the only tribe that the earliest French sources from the seventeenth century could plausibly have been referring to, since the Comanches didn’t enter the area in strength until well into the eighteenth century. Furthermore, there is one incident narrated by both Spanish and French sources that seems to clinch the case.
In 1720 a Spanish expedition led by Pedro de Villasur was sent out onto the Plains to combat French influence. The expedition included some Jicarilla Apaches as guides. Upon reaching what is now Nebraska, the expedition was attacked and soundly defeated by a group of Pawnees, possibly accompanied by French traders. The important thing about this incident for the Padouca question is that Villasur’s guides are consistently referred to as Apaches in Spanish accounts but as Padoucas in French accounts. Grinnell concludes, quite reasonably, that this shows that at least in the 1720s the “Padoucas” in French sources were Apache.
Mural Showing William Clark Surveying the New Town of Paducah, Kentucky
However, Grinnell’s article doesn’t address the evidence from more recent ethnography, and in a subsequent comment Truman Michelson points out that among the Fox (Mesquakie) tribe the term for “Comanche” is something closely approximating “Padouca.” He declines to discuss Grinnell’s article further, but his tone clearly shows that he considers this information more dispositive than Grinnell’s historical sources. And, indeed, any full solution to the problem must account for the fact that the recent ethnographic data clearly shows that the term was used in the nineteenth century by many tribes for the Comanches.
A solution tying all this evidence together didn’t appear until thirty years later, when Frank Secoy published an article bringing in more evidence, especially from French maps, and considering both the documentary and ethnographic evidence. He concludes from this that both sides were both right and wrong in part. Specifically, Grinnell was right that in the earliest French sources “Padouca” must mean Apache, but Michelson and others were right that later on it meant Comanche for both the French and the tribes in the Mississippi and Missouri Valleys. The switch came in the middle of the eighteenth century when the Comanches took over those parts of the Plains that had formerly been Apache. Since the French only ventured out into that area occasionally, they were not very aware of this process as it was occurring, and later expeditions encountering the Comanches where their maps (put together by cartographers in France grappling with disparate information from French and Spanish sources) showed the “Padoucas” to be naturally assumed that the two groups were the same, not realizing that the expeditions from decades earlier had actually used the term to refer to a different people who had been there at the time but were now elsewhere.
Furthermore, Secoy notes that the etymology of the term itself gives a clue to how its meaning might have changed for the Indians who used it. It seems to come from a verb root common throughout the Siouan language family with the meaning “to pierce.” The rough meaning of “Padouca” in whichever Siouan language the French got it from would then be “piercer,” which Secoy, drawing on his own previous research on warfare on the Plains, links to the use by Plains groups in the early historic period of large piercing lances, which they had adopted during what he calls the “post-horse–pre-gun” period of Plains warfare. That is, since the Plains tribes acquired horses before they acquired guns, there was a period when the key advantage of having a horse was in allowing a warrior to get very close to his enemy very quickly, and a thrusting lance was a very useful weapon in this context that would have made a major impression (so to speak) on the horse-less groups that encountered these groups. Since the first groups like this that the Siouan tribes of the Missouri Valley encountered would have been Apaches, the name “Padouca” or “Piercers” would make sense for them to use and to pass on to the French. Since the Comanches entered the Plains during this same technological period and used the same sorts of lances, however, the name would have made equal sense for them and could have easily been transferred once they showed up in the eighteenth century. Indeed, the new horse-based Plains culture would have made both groups seem pretty alien to the Siouans, and they may even have used “Padouca” to refer to Plains groups in general rather than to specific cultural or political entities. Apaches and Comanches speak unrelated languages, but both are also unrelated to Siouan and represented the furthest east representatives of both their languages families as well, so it’s possible that the Siouans couldn’t easily tell them apart. Secoy notes that the French use of “Padouca,” based on outdated information, for the Comanches could also have influenced Siouan usage.
Downtown Paducah, Kentucky
But what about Clark? Where did he get the term, and what did he mean by it? Secoy discusses the appearances of the term “Padouca” in the records of the various American explorers, including Lewis and Clark, and finds that they are sort of all over the map. He says:
As they traversed the country completely they came into contact with both the colonial French and the Spanish sources of information, which were, of course, still divergent. There were several possible conclusions which could be drawn from such a situation and the American explorers, collectively, arrived at all of them, the differences being caused by the varying specific conditions under which a given explorer obtained his information.
However, when it comes to Lewis and Clark specifically, there is some evidence that the people they identified as “Padoucas” were in fact Apaches, or at least Athapaskan-speakers, despite the fact that their information came mostly from French or Siouan sources. Secoy notes this without explanation, but Grinnell goes into a bit more detail. From a table of tribes that the expedition apparently compiled from information gained at the villages of the Mandans (Siouan-speakers), Grinnell summarizes several entries listing tribes said to speak the Padouca language. The “Padouca” entry is most informative:
Padoucas—English name, French nickname Padoo, Padoucies is their own tongue. Live in villages on heads of Platte and Arkansas, trade with New Mexico; many horses. Yet almost immediately Clark says he could get no definite information about this once powerful nation, and quotes French writers. Speaks of a fork of the Platte bearing the name of the tribe and conjectures that the nation had broken up and become individual small tribes.
It’s not clear how much, if any, of this is quoted rather than paraphrased by Grinnell. Nevertheless, the bit about the Padouca being a “once powerful nation” is presumably the source of the information on them in Clark’s later letter to his son. The fact that Clark couldn’t get much information on them from his current sources and had to rely on (highly outdated) French written sources is one possible reason to think that the group referred to here is Apache rather than Comanche, and other references in the Expedition’s journals to a Padouca-speaking group called the “Cataka” have often been thought to refer to the Na’isha or “Kiowa Apaches,” including by Secoy. Still, if the French by this time were using the term “Padouca” to refer to the Comanches, and Lewis and Clark were getting their information from French informants, why would they call the Apaches “Padoucas”?
Neither Grinnell nor Secoy addresses this question, but I think the answer lies in where Lewis and Clark where when they got this information. Remember, all that stuff about the Comanches pushing out the Apaches and the French inadvertently switching the meaning of the word “Padouca” is about the Southern Plains. Lewis and Clark, however, were traveling across the Northern Plains, following the Missouri River. The Mandan villages where they compiled the list of tribes including the Padoucas were in what is now North Dakota. The Comanches never came close to this part of the Plains, which had a rather different cultural sequence in the historic period. Part of the difference, I suspect, is that the French traders and their Siouan trading partners on the Upper Missouri continued to use the term “Padouca” to refer to Athapaskan groups to the south and southwest, including those who had, unbeknownst to them, recently been displaced by the Comanches from their homelands in what is now eastern Colorado and those that might have still been somewhere on the Northern or Central Plains at this point, north of the Comanches. The former are probably the ones that Clark refers to in the section quoted above, and the lack of information on them is probably due to the fact that any ties they had had to the north had been severed by the Comanche advance without the northern groups necessarily knowing what had happened. The latter would probably include the ancestors of the Na’isha, who may or may not already have been affiliated politically with the Kiowas at this point but probably were somewhere in the Northern Plains. Grinnell notes an account of a Na’isha man who claimed to have been born on the Missouri River northeast of the Black Hills around 1810.
Mural of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Passing the Future Site of Paducah, Kentucky
Thus, I think the most reasonable interpretation of the Padouca question is that the term, meaning “Piercers” in some Siouan language, was used for the Apaches of the Plains by various Siouan-speakers (and others?) living along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in the seventeenth century, and was taken over by French explorers at this time. Later French officials in Louisiana continued to use the term for Plains groups without realizing that the Southern Plains had been taken over by Comanches in the mid-eighteenth century, and subsequent French expeditions applied it to the Comanches rather than the Apaches. At the same time, the more southerly Siouan-speakers shifted the referent of the term as well, perhaps under French influence but not necessarily. Further north, where both the French and the Siouans were too far away from the Comanches to encounter them, the term continued to refer to Plains Athapaskans, both the nearby Na’isha and the more distant Apaches about whom the northerners knew little. Clark learned about the Padoucas from Upper Missouri groups who didn’t know much about them, and supplemented this information with French written sources which were also not very well informed. From this mix he came up with an idea of the Padoucas as a tribe that had once been numerous and powerful but had been decimated by European contact. Perhaps entranced by this romantic idea, when he acquired a bunch of land many years later and decided to build a town on it he decided to name it after this “lost” tribe. And that’s the story of Paducah.
Grinnell, G. (1920). Who Were the Padouca? American Anthropologist, 22 (3), 248-260 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1920.22.3.02a00050
Michelson, T. (1921). Who Were the Padouca? American Anthropologist, 23 (1), 101-101 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1921.23.1.02a00120
Secoy, F. (1951). The Identity of the “Paduca”; An Ethnohistorical Analysis American Anthropologist, 53 (4), 525-542 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1951.53.4.02a00060
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