During the Wild West era, specifically from 1804 to 1806, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on an expedition from present-day Illinois to the West Coast of the USA, traversing the Louisiana Territory, which was purchased from France in 1803. Three years later, on October 11, 1809, Meriwether Lewis died under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind no wife or children. Officially, it was ruled as a suicide. But why did he take his own life?
The suicide occurred during a dispute with his lover, John Pernia. This is how the story of Meriwether Lewis and John Pernia is portrayed in Ben Young’s short film “The Wages of John Pernia.”
In this nearly eight-minute film, Ben Young transforms Meriwether into the tragic hero of a forbidden love story set in the Wild West. It’s worth noting that Ben Young himself is a descendant of Meriwether Lewis.
With a calm narrator’s voice, melancholic classical music in the background, and scenes from old Western films, the film creates the atmosphere of early 19th-century America. The story of Meriwether is conveyed in a letter addressed to John Pernia, often addressing him by his first name. At the beginning, we learn that as a child, Meriwether loved the forests of Virginia, had a dirty sense of humor, and preferred men.
The famous “Lewis and Clark Expedition” is only briefly mentioned in the film. Instead, the film tells the story of how Meriwether and John met in Washington after the globally renowned expedition, and it was an instant connection. John moves with Meriwether to Saint Louis, where he works for him. Even when Meriwether faces financial difficulties and can no longer pay his employees, John stays with him. He accompanies the former explorer during his darkest days and prevents his first suicide attempt. During the second and final attempt, John is said to have been in the same room, arguing with him. This is how Meriwether Lewis’s fate ends. In the anger of a “disgruntled employee and perhaps a bereaved widower,” John demands repayments from the American government totaling over $200, of which he receives $10.
We don’t know if it was as dramatic as Ben Young portrays it in this short film. Although the film is titled “The Wages of John Pernia,” the focus is on Meriwether, possibly because there are not many historical records about John Pernia, and at the time, Meriwether was almost like a superstar due to his expedition.
It’s also important to note that there is no historical evidence to confirm whether this romantic relationship between Meriwether and John really occurred or if it is a creation of Ben Young’s imagination to diversify American history. However, throughout history, there have been many cases where the existence of queer individuals was concealed, and potential documents were destroyed. This knowledge is slowly being reexamined in the 21st century. The fact is that queer individuals have existed and continue to exist in every culture and era. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that Meriwether Lewis and John Pernia were homosexual. Whether this will ever make it into the history books remains uncertain.
Perhaps films like “The Wages of John Pernia” are essential for showing how history might have been.
We conducted a short email interview with director Ben Young:
DOK Spotters: Why did you choose the title “The Wages of John Pernia?”
Ben Young: The wage arrears owed to John Pernia evolved into a sort of fractal metaphor and thematic anchor for the film. There is the notion of literal debt/reparation that resonates into the present of course, but also the sense of a void where the remainder of John and Meriwether’s lives should have been: they both appear to have committed suicide well within their 30s, one shortly after the other.
In keeping with the film’s desire to transcend the condescension of posterity – an all-too-easy default setting from our present position of relative material and moral luxury – I also wanted to evoke the debt we owe to people who, in fitful and flawed little increments, steps forward and back, made the world we live in today.
DOK Spotters: Why did you decide to make the film? Do you have a personal connection to their story?
I narrated the film as I am a descendant of one of Meriwether’s siblings. That descent was not of much interest to me until I discovered the strange circumstances of Meriwether’s death, and his queerness: a ‘pioneer’ icon who embodied the contradictions of his time and place, and who subverts the traditional Old West iconography of macho frontiersmen. The ultimate inspiration for the film was the discovery of John Pernia – a man who bound his life to Meriwether’s, and who in a different way also subverts our expectations of what was possible for a person in his position in early 1800s America. In the historical record, Meriwether is the firmament from which the story of John emerges, and so the film became the story of their relationship.
DOK Spotters: Were there any difficulties (and if so, which) in producing the film since Meriwether and John are not historically documented?
Ben Young: The process was detective work and deduction, garnished with a friendly sense of gossip. Despite the censorship of Meriwether’s journals upon his death – sadly, there is a great deal of vivid, funny, and historically illuminating writing that is lost forever – his life as a private and public figure is well documented. Accounts of John’s life only emerge in small bursts, mostly tied to the aftermath of Meriwether’s suicide. One element that I didn’t include in the film, for example, is that after Meriwether’s death, it appears likely that John took a substantial amount of Meriwether’s personal belongings with him to New Orleans, where John lived for a short time before his own overdose and death.
Hedi & Ida