A camel exhibited in Montreal, 1798

A camel exhibited in Montreal, 1798

Clarke, Simon (ca. 1748 – 1832) To the Curious. A Male Camel, from the Deserts of Arabia … [Montreal, 1798]. 7 ½ x 5 ¾ in (190 x 146 mm). Handbill. Very good, mounted on paper. Trimmed tightly along the left margin, where the sheet appears once to have been bound in an album; the top portion of a French language variant constitutes the bottom margin. Label on verso: “B. de LaBruère / Avocat.” Unrecorded.

A superb handbill from the first years of the circus in Canada, with a very interesting backstory. Advertising an exhibition of a camel that was likely part of the ensemble assembled by the great equestrian John Bill Ricketts for his tour of Canada, the broadside offers broad avenues for research through the figure of Simon Clarke.

Although one scholar has rather tiresomely dismissed Simon Clarke as “part of the imperial culture of British occupation in Lower Canada since the end of the French-Indian War” (Harvey, 110), he was no mere functionary. Of uncertain parentage,(*) Clarke was captured by Indians on “the frontiers of New York” as a toddler and lived among the Mohawk as a member of the tribe. That Clarke maintained a strong identification with Native Americans throughout his life is suggested by a note in his 1788 claim for losses as a British loyalist: “He used to carry arms with the Indians sometimes,” and affirmed by his later career.(**)

When he was “about a dozen years old,” he was redeemed as part of a treaty negotiated by Sir William Johnson (ca. 1715–1774), Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies. Citing as his source Jacob Shew [i.e. Chew], "who knew Clark well," one nineteenth-century authority writes:

The supposed orphan had been taken so young that he could give no satisfactory account of either his parentage or birth-place. The sympathy of Sir William was at once enlisted in his behalf, and he took him into his own family. He had him christened by the name of Simon Clark by an Episcopal clergyman, himself standing as his go-father. Clark grew up to be a likely man, and married a very pretty and amiable daughter of Martin Waldruff [or Waldorf]. ... In some manner his god-father settled upon Clark the first farm east of Waldruff’s, and adjoining the hall farm in Johnston [New York], where he resided until the Revolution began. (Simms, I: 262-63)


Simon Clarke’s claim for losses sustained as a British loyalist during the Revolution, 1788

Johnson gave Clarke not only a name and a home but also a career. By 1775 the young man was serving as an interpreter in the Indian Department, which appears to be something akin to the family business. James Thomas Flexner notes that another of Johnson’s Indian wards became an interpreter for the Mohawks in Canajoharie (Flexner, 278).

Clarke continued to serve in the Indian Department when he moved to Canada in 1777 with his wife Ann Eve Waldorf (1760 – 1825) and son. In 1783, they settled in Montreal where they established an inn on St.-Augustin Street near the Récollet Gate, which stood at the western entrance to the walled city. He continued to serve as an “occasional interpreter” for the Indians of Lower Canada. In 1796, Joseph Chew (c. 1725–1798), a secretary of the Indian Department in Montreal, reported to colonial administrator Thomas Aston Coffin (1738–1815) that “the frequent visits of those Indians [Chiefs of the Six Nations] has obliged me to employ Simon Clarke while they are in Town – at whose house they stay, and who has a great deal of trouble with them” (“Indian Affairs,” 448). In June 1799, colonial authorities paid Clarke £33 3s. 4d. for lodging Indian delegates at his inn, which appears to have been a multicultural hub of sorts. His neighbor was John Trim, a former slave and among the staff at the inn was Mary Weldin, a girl of mixed race who apprenticed with Clark from 1789 to about 1800 (cf. Mackey, 159, 274).


A broadside for a performance Ricketts offered in Albany, New York, as he was making his way to Canada (Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library)

Ricketts and his performers stayed with Clarke for at least part of the time during their long sojourn in Montreal, from August 1797 to May 1798. One member of his troupe, the dancer John Durang (1768–1822) recorded that when they arrived, 

We put up at an inn keep by Simon Clark, a New England man, but long in the employ of the British as an interpiter to the Indians and lives near the Recollet Gate within the city wall. (Durang, 67)

Durang found life at the inn chaotic, thanks both to the Indians who congregated there and the soldiers who were garrisoned nearby:

I saw a large assemblage of them [Indians] before Mr. Clark’s door commencing a complete Indian frolic. Clark was obliged to shut his house up and so did the neighbours. … I could not stay any longer in Clark’s house as his yard joined the barrack yard. Every morning they flog’d some of the British soldiers. It became disgusting, and I removed my lodging to a private house…” (Durang, 73-74).

Although Durang took up other quarters, the rest of Rickett’s troupe appears to have stayed with Clarke, and Durang kept in touch with the innkeeper, who clearly was of an entrepreneurial spirit. He would later acquire other properties along McGill Street. When the snows fell Clarke sold the dancer a used sleigh for a “half joe” – a Portuguese gold coin valued at eight dollars. “I painted it up a fresh,” Durang recalled (76).

            The Ricketts circus left spent the summer of 1798 in Quebec City, returning to Montreal in October. As Durang relates, their tour of Canada ended with a terrible mishap:

We stop’d and performed two weeks at Montreal on our return. … On the last night’s performance the roof of the circus was crowded and would not be drove off. Hutchins the groom fired a gun loaded with peas among them and put out an eye of a young man. The master suet [sued] Ricketts, and made him pay eight hundred dollars damage. … This affair detained us some days and attended a good deel of trouble to Mr. Ricketts. (Durang, 88)

Simon Clarke began exhibiting this camel in November 1798, only a few weeks after Ricketts's departure. While there is no record of Ricketts exhibiting exotic fauna, his shows presented extravagant spectacles set in Egypt, Persia, and ancient Greece, so it seems likely. Was the camel a parting gift, or did Ricketts sell it to raise some quick cash to offset his legal bills? Another possibility – the most likely, we think – is that Ricketts or a member of his company simply lodged the camel with Clarke, using his inn as the site for the exhibition. Lending credence to this possibility is the fact that the language of the broadside advertisement followed well-established conventions among professional showmen, who regularly marketed their menageries with invitations “To the Curious” (cf. Benes). In fact, the text of Clarke's broadside so closely parallels the language of an advertisement from 1789 that it seems likely that the camel exhibited in Montreal was one of a pair that had toured the United States a decade earlier.


A broadside advertising an exhibition of a brace of camels in New Haven, 1789 (AAS).

            The present broadside – a unique survival – was likely printed by Edward Edwards, publisher of the Montreal Gazette, and duplicates an advertisement that ran intermittently in the Gazette from 12 Nov 1798 to 18 Feb 1799. The newspaper ad ran in both French and English, and one can see by the lower margin of the present example that the broadside was printed bilingually as well, possibly bisected for separate distribution to Francophones and Anglophones.


Simon Clarke’s advertisement in the Montreal Gazette, 10 December 1798. Note that the need for a smaller cut than appeared in the broadside required that the camel be redrawn.

The broadside bears the label on the verso of Pierre Bourcher de LaBruère (1837–1917), a lawyer, journalist, politician and antiquarian who ended his long and distinguished career as superintendent of the public schools of Montreal from 1895 to 1916 (DCB/DBC). A fascinating relic of popular entertainments in eighteenth-century North America. No other copies recorded.


(*) There is some confusion in the historical and genealogical sources between our Simon Clarke and another of the same name, including Simon Clarke (1758 – 1799), a private soldier under Captain Boyer in His Majesty’s 26th Regiment of Foot.

(**) Depending on one's preferences for drawing ethnic boundaries, one might claim Clarke as the first American Indian showman.

Works Cited

  • Montreal Gazette
  • Benes, Peter, “To the Curious: bird and animal exhibitions in New England, 1716-1825,” in New England’s Creatures, 1400-1900, ed. Peter Benes (Boston: Boston University, 1995), 147-63.
  • Coldham, Peter Wilson. American migrations, 1765-1799: the lives, times, and families of colonial Americans who remained loyal to the British crown before, during, and after the revolutionary war, as related in their own words and through their correspondence. Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000
  • DCB/DBC = Dictionary of Canadian biography / Dictionnaire biographique du Canada, s.v. “Boucher de la Bruère, Pierre.” http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/boucher_de_la_bruere_pierre_14E.html
  • Durang, John, The memoir of John Durang, American actor 1785-1816, ed. Alan S. Downer. Pittsburgh: University Press, 1966.
  • Flexner, James Thomas. Mohawk Baronet: a biography of Sir William Johnson. Syracuse University Press, 1959.
  • Harvey, Douglas S., The theatre of empire: frontier performances in America, 1750–1860. Routledge, 2010.
  • “Indian Affairs,” Historical collections … Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society. Lansing: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1912, vol. 20 [1892], pp. 300-701.
  • Mackey, Frank. Done with slavery: the Black fact in Montreal, 1760-1840. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2010.
  • Mizelle, Brett. “Contested exhibitions: the debate over proper animal sights in post-revolutionary America,” Worldviews 9 (2005): 219-35.
  • Moy, James S. “Entertainments at John B. Ricketts’s circus,” Educational theater journal 30 (1978) 186-202
  • -----. “The first circus in eastern Canada,” Theatre research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada, 1 (1980): 12–23.
  • Simms, J. R. The frontiersmen of New York: showing customs of the Indians, vicissitudes of the pioneer White settlers, and border strife in two wars. Albany, N.Y.: G.C. Riggs, 1882-83.

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    A camel exhibited in Montreal, 1798