Saturday, August 01, 2015

The Clark in Lewis and Clark

William Clark was the youngest of six sons, and the only one too young to participate in the American Revolutionary War. But he along with Meriwether Lewis and a small group of enlisted men and sergeants would explore the unknown world -- the uncharted territory -- west of the Mississippi. After their extraordinary travel, Lewis and Clark became territorial governors, negotiating with Indians to prepare for the inevitable white settlement of the lightly populated and bountiful land.

The best comparison is Neil Armstrong landing on the moon and establishing a moon base. Except he would have to deal with a scattered number of moonmen.

Born August 1, 1770, in Caroline County, Virginia, Clark was the ninth of 10 children. His oldest brother -- by 18 years -- was George Rodgers Clark, the Washington of the West. The older Clark had settled in Kentucky. During the Revolutionary War, the British used Indian allies to attack the white settlers. The Continental Congress told the Kentuckians they were on their own. The Kentuckians lobbied Virginai Governor Patrick Henry to create a Kentucky County, Virginia, and then to appoint George Clark, 24, as commander of the Kentucky County militia. George Clark owned considerable property and covered much of teh group's expenses. Governor Henry also gave them 500 pounds of gunpowder. Dan'l Boone was among the men in George Clark's command.

On July 4, 1778, they won the westernmost battle in what is now Kaskaskia, Illinois, which after the Mississippi River shifted in 1881 is now an island that has an Illinois area code but a Missouri zip code. It also has 14 people, making if the smallest incorporated town in America. Back in 1778, it had about 2,000 Indians and Frenchmen. The captured Vincennes, Indiana, as well but the British won it back. In a daring raid that winter, George Clark and his men marched through snow and re-took Vincennes in February 1779. Virginia used the victory to lay claim to all of the Northwest Territory. Governor Thomas Jefferson promoted George Clark to brigadier general.

But sadly, General Clark never received much besides a title and the gunpowder from Virginia. He financed his militia and never collected reimbursement from the state of Virginia or Congress. He also took to the bottle. He wound up losing everything and suffered a debilitating stroke in 1809. His brother-in-law, Major William Croghan, a planter at Locust Grove, Kentucky, near Louisville, took him in. Virginia gave him a small soldier's pension for his services. General Clark died after a second stroke on February 13, 1818.

His younger brother, William Clark, fared better. At 19, William Clark joined the army to fight the Northwest Indians under the command of Mad Anthony Wayne, who was anything but insane. While the British ceded the territory west of the Alleghenies in the Revolutionary War, the Crown encouraged Indians to resist, even to the point of arming them. Two previous generals had tried to fight the Indians and wound up losing. President Washington, who saw Wayne's brilliance in the Revolutionary War, sent in Wayne, who set up a lengthy boot camp in Pennsylvania to train his men for woodland fighting. Once satisfied they knew how to fight, Wayne led the into battle and victory.

William Clark distinguished himself in the Battle of Fallen Timbers near Toledo, Ohio, on August 20, 1794, the battle which ended the war. He led the riflemen who pushed back the Indians and their Canadian allies.With the war over, Wayne dispatched Clark to New Madrid, Missouri, where he worked as a quartermaster. He resigned on July 4, 1796, but seven years later, an old Army buddy named Meriweather Lewis asked Clark to join his expedition.

President Jefferson had just made the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon -- settling up debts from the Revolutionary War -- and sent Lewis to check out the property. France really did not own most of the land it ceded. No one did. But the deal gave the United States a bona fide claim to the area. Lewis and Clark explored the territory drawing maps of an uncharted territory. They made it as far north and west as the Oregon territory, and explored the Yellowstone area. Each man kept a journal. Clark was a good cartographer. They identified 300 species of plants and animals as the expedition traveled 8,000 miles in its three-year mission.

Lewis and Clark were not only explorers but diplomats as well, making initial contact with various Indian nations. Lewis and Clark hired French fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, as interpretors and guides. Along the way, she gave birth to Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Clark developed a fondness for the baby.

The return of Lewis and Clark in 1806 made the entire party national heroes. Jefferson appointed Lewis governor of Upper Louisiana and Clark worked with him. The work involve much diplomacy with the Indians. In 1813, President Madison appointed Clark territorial governor of Missouri, a job he held until its statehood in 1820, after he lost an election to Alexander McNair, a successful businessman and frontiersman whose wife, Marguerite Suzanne de Reihle de Regal, was the daughter of a French marquis.

Clark also had married Julia Hancock, with whom he had five children, the first being Meriwether Lewis Clark. After her death in 1820, he married her cousin, Harriet Kennerly Radford, and had three more children. Clark also took in Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, whose parents abandoned him as they attempted various ventures, including farming. Clark saw that Charbonneau received the formal education that Clark lacked. While he was well-read and he kept journals, Clark lacked confidence in his grammar and writing skills. It is said he spelled Sioux 27 different ways in his journals.

In 1822, President Monroe appointed Clark superintendent of Indian Affairs. While he tried to be fair to Indians, he believed in assimilation and supported the forced marches of various tribes from the South to new homes west of the Mississippi under Democratic Presidents Jackson and Van Buren. These Trails of Tears stain his record.

But unlike his critics today, Clark knew Indians and knew their way of life before the white man. He knew Indians as friends and family. When he died on September 1, 1838, Clark left behind a nation far better prepared to fulfill its destiny as a free nation that stretches from ocean to ocean.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.


  1. Oregon Territory, indeed! Pacific Ocean and mouth of The Mighty Columbia River, to be more specific. Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, with museums on both sides of TMCR), one with a replica of their winter quarters. Visit on a rainy winter day for a better appreciation of their misery (it ain't a Motel 6, for sure).

    Another good'un, Don.

  2. Don - If you haven't read Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose, get thee to Amazon to purchase a copy or to your local library to check out a copy. It is worth the read and is one of the reasons I have made my Missouri River road trips over the last few years. Of course, growing up in the St. Louis metro region, I learned a lot about Lewis and Clark and visited the Gateway Arch and the Jefferson National Expansion museum underneath it. There is now a statue of Lewis, Clark, and Lewis's dog on the riverfront that often gets covered when the river floods.