William Clark

views updated May 23 2018

William Clark

The American explorer and soldier William Clark (1770-1838) was second in command of what has been called the American national epic of exploration, the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, which traveled from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.

William Clark was born on Aug. 1, 1770, in Caroline County, Va. He joined militia companies fighting local tribes in the Ohio country in 1789 and 3 years later won a lieutenant's commission in the U.S. infantry. He was on the Native American and Spanish frontier of the United States and served in Mad Anthony Wayne's successful campaign, terminated by the victory of Fallen Timbers (1794) over the Native Americans.

Clark resigned his commission in 1796, became a civilian, and tried to straighten out the chaotic financial condition of his famous brother, a hero of the Revolution, George Rogers Clark. However, when Meriwether Lewis offered him a role in what would be known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, he leaped at the opportunity.

In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson had chosen his White House secretary, Capt. Meriwether Lewis, to lead a corps of discovery up the Big Muddy (or Missouri) River and across the Rockies to the Pacific via the Columbia River. He gave Lewis complete freedom to choose his second in command. Without hesitation the Virginian picked his old Army buddy William Clark. When the Army failed to give Clark the promotion he deserved, Lewis ignored the "brass" and addressed Clark as captain, treating him as a virtual co-commander of the expedition.

It was Clark who led the fleet of boats upriver on May 14, 1804, while Lewis was detained in St. Louis by diplomatic and administrative matters. The two officers led their men up the Missouri to the Mandan Indian country of North Dakota, where they wintered before continuing in the spring of 1805. With great difficulty they shifted from canoes to horses and back to canoes as they crossed the unknown Rockies and followed the Columbia River to the sea. Clark was sharing leadership with Lewis in one of the most successful partnerships in the history of the nation.

After wintering at Ft. Clatsop on the Oregon coast, Lewis decided to split the party on its return to Missouri. He sent Clark to explore the Yellowstone River while he reconnoitered the Marias River. Although Lewis never yielded his command to Clark (except when accidentally wounded and incapacitated during a hunting expedition), Clark's wilderness and leadership skills contributed to the success of the corps of discovery. While Lewis was more brilliant and intellectual, Clark got along better with the men and was a fine map maker. Both men kept diaries, although spelling was not one of Clark's strong points.

Safe in St. Louis in September 1806, Clark resigned his commission to become brigadier general of militia and superintendent of Indian affairs for Louisiana Territory (later Missouri Territory) under the new governor, Meriwether Lewis. Clark was governor himself from 1813 to 1821, then became an unwilling—and unsuccessful—candidate for governor of the new state of Missouri. He devoted much of his time during the War of 1812 to Native American affairs and kept Missouri Territory almost unharmed by British-inspired Native American raids. He continued in Indian diplomacy after the conflict and by his good sense was able to avert trouble with the Indians, who came to trust him more than any other white man.

Clark died in St. Louis on Sept. 1, 1838. Highly respected as an administrator, soldier, and explorer, for a half century he had served his country well, particularly in keeping the peace on the Native American frontier.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Clark, although one has long been in preparation. The best sources are those on Meriwether Lewis, including John Bakeless, Lewis and Clark: Partners in Discovery (1947), and Richard Dillon, Meriwether Lewis (1965). An interesting retracing of Lewis and Clark's exploration is Calvin Tomkins, The Lewis and Clark Trail (1965). A one-volume abridgment of The Journals of Lewis and Clark was edited by Bernard DeVoto (1953).

Additional Sources

Ambrose, Stephen E., Undaunted courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the opening of the American West, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Bakeless, John Edwin, Lewis and Clark: partners in discovery, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1996. □

William Clark

views updated May 21 2018

William Clark


American Explorer

William Clark is best known as co-leader of the Corps of Discovery, leadership he shared with Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809). In this role Clark helped explore the Louisiana Purchase and western territories stretching to the Pacific Ocean, becoming in the process one of the greatest American explorers.

Born in 1770 in the state of Virginia, Clark's family soon moved to Kentucky. Clark was the younger brother of General George Rogers Clark, a Revolutionary War hero and a friend of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Clark joined the United States Army in 1790 and first met Lewis in 1795 when both were assigned to the same rifle company for six months. Prior to their meeting, Clark fought in the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

Though they spent only a short time together, Lewis and Clark developed a great respect for one another that lasted despite infrequent contact over the next several years. Resigning his commission because of ill health and responsibility for his family's business, Clark moved to Indiana, where he lived until contacted by Lewis in 1803 and asked to help lead the expedition.

In many ways, Clark complemented Lewis's abilities. While both were skilled woodsmen, Clark was an accomplished surveyor, an excellent mapmaker, and a talented waterman—all skills that would be needed for their expedition. Like Lewis, Clark was a born leader. Unlike Lewis, however, Clark kept a regular journal, though without the eye for detail or the literary flair that Lewis exhibited in his entries.

All evidence indicates that Clark shared leadership of the expedition equally with Lewis, though documents show that Lewis had the higher military rank throughout. At times, especially on the return journey, the men split up, each taking part of the expedition in separate directions in order to explore as much as possible. It appears as though Clark worked with Lewis's full confidence and did a superb job of leading his part of the expedition.

After their return from their journey, Clark was recommended for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, a recommendation rejected by Congress because of Clark's lack of seniority. However, Congress did approve naming him Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Louisiana Territory, a post to which he was assigned in 1807. A few years later, Clark courted and married Julia Hancock, and in 1809 fathered a son whom he named after his friend Meriwether Lewis.

In spite of his accomplishments with the Corps of Discovery, Clark's leadership and political skills were so impressive that, for nearly a century, they overshadowed his role as part of the Lewis and Clark expedition. In fact, a massive history of the Jefferson administration written towards the end of the nineteenth century made scant mention of the Corps of Discovery at all. Part of the reason for this relative lack of attention may have been the stigma associated with Lewis's suicide in 1809. The full reason, however, is not fully known. In any event, the early part of the twentieth century saw a fuller realization of the role played by both Lewis and Clark in exploring and opening the American West, led in part by Theodore Roosevelt's enthusiasm for their journals and journey.

Clark died in 1838 at age 68. He left a legacy of accomplishments as an explorer, leader, and political appointee. His undisputed skills as a woodsman, waterman, and soldier further round out his reputation as a remarkable man who made a deep and lasting impression on his nation.


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